(Did you miss the first scenes? Click here to start at the beginning.)
When the stranger emerged from the shadows at last, an inexperienced human would have found him inconsequential. His lupine belly nearly scraped the pavement and each step was placed more cautiously than the last, producing the impression of an abused and tentative stray dog.
But, to a shifter, the threat was obvious. This wolf wasn’t skittishly searching for a handout. He was exercising the careful moderation of a practiced hunter. And, as the only living being within eye shot, I was definitely the one who’d been earmarked as prey.
Opening my mouth, I rolled a great gulp of air across my taste buds in an effort to analyze the stranger’s threat level. He wasn’t particularly dominant—I could smell that much from a distance. But despite his lack of alpha oomph, the male was crouched in readiness to spring while his teeth were plenty long enough to take down an average human.
Luckily, I was neither average nor human.
“I’m Ember Wilder-Young,” I said loudly, taking one long step forward as the stranger paused at the edge of the slim circle of illumination provided by the streetlight above my head. A werewolf shouldn’t have needed excessive volume to pick out words across the distance that separated us. But I opted to raise my voice anyway, mimicking the firm yet gentle dominance my father had embodied for my entire life. “I’ve got a ride coming and your alpha’s expecting me. So there’s no need to wait around. I’m good.”
I seemed to be telling everyone that I was good today…and no one was willing to take my assertion at face value either. Like Wolfie, this shifter snorted out a huff of air that called my sanity into question. But then he lifted his muzzle and inhaled deeply through his moist, black nose.
I could see the moment the stranger caught my scent. The breeze, such as it was, had been blowing in the opposite direction from the beginning or this wolf would have gathered all salient details before even stepping out of the shadows. Now he froze, head cocked to one side as he tried to figure out how a woman like me came to be in a place like this.
“You smell like rich, irresistible chocolate to any red-blooded shifter male,” one of my cousins had told me the day before. “You’re nuts to leave pack lands unprotected.”
Other family members had chimed in with similar admonitions, trying to keep me at home where I was safe. But I had reasons to be here and I definitely wasn’t going to let the first starry-eyed shifter with more libido than sense send me scurrying back to Haven with my tail between my legs.
So I stood my ground as the wolf drifted closer, his eyes gleaming and the first hint of slobber trailing across pink gums. Yuck. Apparently even the mention of an absent alpha wasn’t enough to get me off the hook this time around. Time to come up with a plan B.
Let me, my wolf murmured underneath my skin. She wanted to speak with my tongue, to order the less dominant wolf to stand down. The compulsion would have worked, too…and yet I hesitated, shifting nervously from foot to foot rather than reaching for our most obvious line of defense.
Because I’d learned the hard way that bending a weaker wolf around my little finger with a simple verbal command wasn’t as painless as it appeared from the dominant side. Instead, being controlled by a stronger shifter was akin to listening to nails scrape across a blackboard while watching someone vomit out great big gobs of stinky stomach contents…all while dangling upside down over a deep abyss that ended in a trough of voracious alligators. There was no long-term damage associated with the compulsion, but the ordeal itself was certainly unpleasant in the moment.
So, yes, I could bark this growling shifter into line…but should I? What if my initial impression had been wrong and the male wasn’t busy stalking women who’d made the unfortunate mistake of walking alone at night? What if I was merely on edge from my recent trip and this male intended to remind me not to traipse through someone else’s territory without permission?
When in doubt, don’t, I decided, opting against forcing my opponent to back down the easy way. Instead, I stood a little taller and gazed directly into the wolf’s greenish eyes. “You really don’t want to mess with me,” I promised too quietly for a human to hear.
Then, relaxing my hold over my own inner beast, I allowed the stranger to see a hint of the animal hidden beneath my human skin.
She might have been smaller than my opponent’s animal, but my wolf was no lightweight. Instead, she was twice as dominant as our aggressor, twice as able to stand up for herself in either a physical or verbal battle. As intimidation tactics went, showing a glimpse of her behind my eyes was akin to a war-like nation threatening to drop an atomic bomb.
And, sure enough, plan C worked like a charm. Drool dried up in an instant as the shifter swiveled without a sound. Then he was heading back into the shadows from which he’d come, not a single yip of protest reaching my ears.
There was nothing like a stronger force to make a budding bully back down.
“And my Uber’s almost here too,” I noted, glancing down at my phone. I’ll admit my voice was a little smug as I watched headlights flicker across the wall behind me. Already, I was thinking three steps in advance, counting my remaining cupcakes as I imagined doling them out to each person I’d need to charm before I could lay my head on a pillow and drift into rejuvenating sleep.
One for the Uber driver, one for the Greenbriar pack leader, one for my eventual host. Luckily, I had precisely three cupcakes left…not counting my own treat smashed between clean undies and a work blouse, that is. Perfect.
Which is when I picked up a sound from the direction in which the wolf had fled. A wolf’s growl. A woman’s gasp.
Meanwhile, the air around me filled with the sharp scent of overwhelming fear. Perhaps I shouldn’t have given that wolf so much benefit of the doubt after all….