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The Uber app reported that my ride was still several miles out and my stomach ached with the enforced distance from pack. So I sank down onto the curb and succumbed to that most lupine of yearnings—the necessity of calling home.
“Ember.” The voice of my father—who wasn’t biologically related but who was very much my alpha—crept over me like the scent of a newly mown meadow. Shoulders that had hunched up around my ears for the last eighteen hours drifted gradually downward and I eyed the cupcake bin strapped to the top of my suitcase with renewed longing.
Not yet, I chided myself. Hearing Wolfie say my name might have made me feel at home, but I hadn’t actually reached a safe harbor. Which meant it wasn’t time for my much-anticipated treat. Not quite yet.
“Dad,” I answered instead, trying to sound like a capable twenty-five-year-old woman rather than like a scared little girl. Despite my fanged alter-ego, this was the first time I’d left Haven under my own volition. No wonder I felt as jumpy as a newborn colt.
And my father must have sensed the worry imbuing that lone word. Because he dove right into the heart of the issue with all the single-mindedness of a born wolf. “Trouble?” he asked.
“Nothing I can’t handle.” My tone was firm but I knew Wolfie heard the lie in my voice as easily as I’d picked out the pride and affection in his. So I strove to make the next sentence true by recalling the way the scent of fur had faded almost as soon as it entered my nostrils. “I’m fine,” I added, focusing on the fact that the trouble really was gone. I had handled the potential problem. So my initial words weren’t really a falsehood after all.
And the evasion seemed to work. Unfortunately, my father moved on to a question that was much harder to sidestep. “Are you eating your cupcake yet?” Wolfie asked next, his deep rumble the lupine equivalent of a relaxing purr.
This time I hesitated, unwilling to fudge a question so tightly tied to a beloved childhood ritual. Because Dad had been baking gift cupcakes ever since I’d reached my teens, using the unique pastries to celebrate hurdles overcome and milestones achieved. In today’s case, the pastry Wolfie had concocted with his own two hands—unlike the more numerous ones I’d made myself—was tucked away deep within my suitcase, a single-serving bin hiding what was bound to be a work of art.
I hadn’t even seen my present yet. Was saving that particular boost for the moment when I was finally able to let down my guard and relax into my bed tonight. I wanted to eat the gift with care while feeling the pack bond encircle me just like my father’s arms had done so many times before. I wanted to use Dad’s cupcake to remember I was loved.
So, in the end, I didn’t even attempt a lie as I answered my father’s second question of the evening. “Not yet,” I admitted. Then, remembering my supposed independence and the very real distance separating me from my home pack, I added: “But you can go to sleep anyway. I have this covered.”
Wolfie hummed acknowledgement of my honesty, but that didn’t mean he was willing to let me off the hook just yet. “If you’re not eating, then I’m not sleeping,” my father murmured, his words warming my belly far more than a mere morsel of chocolate might have done.
But then the silence between us turned brittle, and I sighed, knowing which often-repeated conversation was coming next. “You don’t have to say it,” I interjected, cutting my father off at the pass. “This might be a wild-goose chase and Derek might not want to be found. If my brother really intended to get to know me, he would have come to visit in person rather than sending cryptic messages that resulted in me crossing territory lines. That all makes just as much sense as it did the first time you said it…but I’m willing to take the chance. I can’t leave my brother dangling if he’s really in trouble.”
“I know,” Dad rumbled, his voice just as warm now as it had been a moment earlier. He didn’t correct my semantics, either. Didn’t mention that Derek was only a half-brother or that our shared mom had chosen to abandon me at birth. Instead, Dad’s next words proved that my adopted father, at least, would always be on my side even if he disapproved of my current actions. “That wasn’t what I was going to say at all.”
The phone went silent as my father paused, and I closed my eyes to better sense his presence. Despite the hundreds of miles that separated us, merely breathing in tandem revitalized exhausted muscles and soothed traveling jitters. I would have gladly sat there all night, soaking up Wolfie’s strength and reveling in the connection of pack.
But I had places to go. Brothers to meet. Alphas to charm. So, at last, I prodded my father back onto track. “Dad?”
Immediately, Wolfie’s deep rumble filled my ears once again. “No matter what happens, Buttercup, I’ll be here to back you up. You can always come home.”
A human twenty-something would have responded with an agitated eye roll. There were even some shifters who might have felt stifled by an adopted parent’s clear obsession with their continued well-being.
But I wasn’t one of the latter. For me, family was everything. As such, I had every intention of finding the half-brother I’d never before met, making sure he wasn’t in trouble, then high-tailing it back the way I’d come as quickly and carefully as possible.
Unfortunately, now wasn’t the time to bask in familial reassurances. Because the scent of fur had returned, filling the air more strongly than ever. And this time, it was all I could do to swallow down a lupine growl.
“I’ve gotta go,” I said instead, disconnecting the call without waiting for a reply and slipping my phone into a pants pocket for safekeeping. Then clambering to my feet, I stared out into the darkness in search of a wolf.
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