Would you like a FREE prequel to my upcoming Rune Wolf series? Then grab your copy of Paws & Claus now, or keep reading the beginning below:
“What you’re doing,” Maya complained as she nudged at my lupine nose with a jingle-bell-tipped boot, “is ten times worse than the single guy who sleeps in a twin bed and doesn’t understand how that broadcasts his disinterest in a serious relationship.”
A sisterly lecture. Precisely how every Solstice-eve day should start. I came up onto four paws then stretched into full downward dog with a wide yawn.
“You’re not even going to shift in order to hold this conversation?”
Our one-year age difference shouldn’t have mattered now that we were both pushing thirty. Still, this was the day our pack would come together for our first winter celebration under a new alpha—me, unfortunately. Having my only quiet moment intruded upon provoked an entirely juvenile urge to frustrate my sister back.
Until, that is, I recalled what Maya was going through and immediately corrected my mistake. Turning my back and shifting into humanity, chilly air instantly pebbled my skin into goosebumps. Then, as I did up the buttons on the flannel shirt I’d pulled on over jeans, I apologized. “Sorry. I wasn’t thinking. You need to talk? Let’s talk?”
Behind me, Maya’s voice turned as brittle as the ice we seldom saw here in southern Arizona. “I don’t want to talk about…that.”
Enough with the buttons. I turned around and drew my sister into a hug even though her shoulders immediately went rigid and the holly pinned to her sweater jabbed through my shirt and into my skin. “What do you want to talk about then?” I murmured into her hair.
“You. This.” Maya’s voice was muffled by my shoulder. Dampness soaked through the shirt I’d so recently donned, but that was the only evidence of her crying as she continued to nag. “Carting a dog bed around to a different house every night is stupid. It has to stop.”
She clearly preferred argument over consolation. So I obliged her. “We did it as pups.”
“Because our alpha was trying to force us out by refusing to grant us a human bedroom!”
“And I’m trying to hold the pack together. Being near the alpha is a comfort.” Plus, I could only spend so much two-legged time around pack mates before my brain started buzzing with introvert overload. Letting my wolf take over for a little while helped.
“Being near the alpha would be more of a comfort if the alpha actually took care of his own needs first,” Maya rebutted. If we’d been ten and eleven, she probably would have blown her nose on my shirt to spite me. I almost wished she had.
Instead, she pulled out of my arms, eyes redder than they’d been a minute ago. And she laid down the law as only a big sister could. “Put on the holiday sweater I bought for you. Consider doing something nice for yourself. And no more sleeping around.”
Of course, the five-year-old daughter of the home I’d opted to spend the night in overheard Maya’s last words. “What’s sleeping around, Mommy?” Isabella asked as we lingered over the breakfast table, the bees in my head just barely starting to wake up and churn my thoughts into what, by midday, would become a frenzy. Meanwhile, the sweater Maya had left scratched my skin as much as it had my eyeballs when I made the mistake of glancing in a mirror.
I’d needed those lost ten minutes of solitude in order to pretend to love the holidays. Still I couldn’t resist cracking a grin as the little girl’s mother spat out her coffee all over the kitchen table now.
“Who said anything about sleeping around?”
“Maya,” Isabella tattled. “She told Orion to stop it.”
And…that was my cue to deflect before making my escape. “Where are you going to hang your stocking?” I asked Isabella. The overexcited child turned sparkling eyes on her parents, I picked up my dog bed, stepped out into the morning light…
…And deflated. This wasn’t a pack central fit for holidays.
At my command, we’d retreated into cliff-side dwellings after losing our old alpha months ago. The goal was to ensure that our weakest pack members—like Isabella—weren’t easy to track down if another clan decided our transitional status turned us into easy pickings.
To that end, our strongest fighters and I spent time every day making our old residences appear lived in. We severely limited traffic to our canyon location so the narrow track leading here would look untrafficked. There were no spur-of-the-moment hunts and definitely no howling, and I chewed out pack mates who so much as used flashlights outside after dark.
We were safe here. Our kids were safe here. Safety was worth rules and rock-wall-view claustrophobia.
So why were three unfamiliar vehicles racing up the canyon floor toward the heart of our clan’s den? Why was wind swirling around them the way it did when desert magic wanted to send me a warning I couldn’t miss?
Because the worst had happened. All of our stealth measures had failed and it was time to face the expected invasion.
I dropped the dog bed, donned my fur, and leapt toward the not-really-staircase descending the cliff face far faster than I would have approved for any other pack mates. No wonder Maya met me at the bottom, already grousing.
“What happened to your sweater?”
I whapped her with my tail. There was a time to be my big sister and a time to be my second. Now was the latter.
The intensity of my concern whipped her around to face the oncoming danger and her voice turned sharp. “Got it. Assembling the troops now.”
Then she scrambled back up the same stairs I’d recently come down while I sprinted toward the closest vehicle. It looked like a tank from my lupine perspective, but the view from the cliff-side terrace promised it was actually a civilian Hummer. Still quite capable of swerving toward me and squashing me pancake flat. Also quite capable of carrying at least a dozen wolves, which didn’t even take into account the capacity of the vehicles behind.
But the Hummer didn’t speed up and it didn’t aim for me. Instead, it screeched to a halt, brake noises suggesting the others were stopping also. Then a woman unfolded herself from the driver’s seat, a woman who was entirely human even though she reeked of werewolf. I’d seen her picture once but it took me a moment to place her.
“We’re here to beg sanctuary,” said the second of the only nearby alpha I considered a friend.