Beams of sunlight raked through the clouds, offering a tentative promise of the end of four straight days of torrential downpours. Owen parked across the street and down a couple of houses from the Alpha’s place. Christina Tate, the house’s owner, glanced out her window. He raised his hand in greeting, then nodded to his truck. Though Mrs. Tate was one of the oldest wolves in the pack, and a natural submissive, Owen had no problem asking for her permission to leave his vehicle parked in front of her house—it was polite.
Mason Clayborne’s driveway was full and three more cars occupied spaces right in front of his place. A meeting of the Willow Bend council—Mason’s council—meant everyone who could be there had already arrived. Mrs. Tate gave him a benevolent smile and nodded. She retreated from window, probably to watch one of her shows or to work on some project for one of her fifteen grandchildren.
Hers remained a huge family within the pack structure, something he knew gave Mrs. Tate enormous pride and joy. Had it been earlier in the day, he wouldn’t have been surprised to see the youngest of her grandpups out running and playing on her massive lawn.
Ryan Huston, the pack attorney and their current Alpha’s father-in-law, pulled in to park right behind Owen. His spotless, dark blue Lexus made a powerful counterpoint to Owen’s muddy, beat-up Ford. The attorney must’ve taken the time to change into the jeans and t-shirt he was currently wearing before the meeting, as he normally favored overpriced three thousand dollar suits.
“Hey, Owen.” The wolf nodded to him and slid an envelope into Mrs. Tate’s mailbox. No doubt a gift of some kind. Mrs. Tate’s mate passed away more than twenty years before, and they liked to make sure she was getting on okay.
It was the mark of a strong pack—children who played in the streets without fear, widows and widowers who were cared for, and dominants having conversations instead of pissing matches. Task accomplished, Ryan paused to stretch out his hand. Owen met his gaze and held it for a few seconds longer than necessary. Their wolves didn’t have a problem with each other, nor were the men particularly unsettled about their places in the pack.
Old habits, however, died hard. Grinning at the thought, Owen shook Ryan’s hand once before nodding toward Mason’s. “I thought I’d be the last to arrive.”
“I just got back from the city and wanted a shower first.” A reasonable choice from a reasonable, if very crafty, wolf.
The front door opened the moment they hit the steps. Alexis danced outside and threw her arms around her father. He caught the Alpha’s mate in his arms and lifted her. “Hi, Daddy!” she said.
“Hello, little girl.” Ryan’s demeanor gentled and his voice softened. He pressed a kiss to her temple. After setting her down, he gave her a once over. “You’re dressed up.”
“Going shopping with Vivian and Claudia, and I’m late.” She gave her father a kiss on the cheek and waved to Owen. “Go on in, make yourselves comfortable. We brought fried chicken, loads of mashed potatoes, veggies, and there’s even ice cream for dessert.” With that she headed down the sidewalk and leapt over the gate with the smoothness of a natural born wolf—a vast improvement that spoke volumes for how much Alexis had adjusted since being turned. But the Alpha’s mate was not going to wander from Willow Bend alone without protection; it flew in the face of every instinct Owen possessed.
“Don’t worry,” A.J. Buckley said from inside the doorway. Owen’s wolf went predator still inside him. A.J. was pack and a friendly, but their wolves still had a few issues to settle. “Linc and Ty are going with them.” The line of tension in Ryan’s posture eased a fraction and Owen relaxed. “She’s walking over to my place and—” As if on cue, Linc met Alexis on the sidewalk and fell into step with her. “They were going to pick her up, but Melissa is sleeping and she didn’t think she’d go if the baby woke up.”
Not even a year old, and the baby ruled her parents. As though reminded, Ryan surged forward, into the house, only pausing long enough to clap A.J. on the shoulder. Owen followed at a more sedate pace, his wolf in his eyes.
Not six months before, they’d come to blows over A.J.’s intention to pursue his mate into the woods. Owen’s orders had included keeping A.J. and Vivian contained to the guest cabin on the Carlyle property. They’d fought to a near standstill—an impressive achievement for a wolf as battered as A.J. had been at the time. Even now, neither felt the need to look away. Strength of personality and dominance did not always equal physical strength, but A.J. had recovered in the intervening months and his chest, shoulders, and arms had thickened.
He’d be a hell of a good fight now.
As if reading the direction of his thoughts, A.J. grinned slowly. “Later.” Offer accepted. “Mason wants to get started.”
“Sounds good.” He allowed A.J. to lead, but Owen scanned the street before shutting the front door. He’d been a Hunter since he’d left high school. Trained by his father, he’d grown up on the fringes of pack life and made his peace with it. He didn’t want a position of power or the responsibility of contact, preferring to stay on the edge, ever watchful, and keep them all safe.
Hunters like Owen ensured the children could play safely in the streets and that widows like Mrs. Tate enjoyed their golden years without fear of invasion, attack—or worse, discovery. A number of familiar scents alerted him to the presence of the other council members.
Mason stood in the center of the living room, his daughter in his arms. The baby had been asleep, huh? Yes, she was sound asleep with her head cushioned on her father’s bare chest. Having the baby present at the meeting wasn’t that unusual. Normally surly tempers cooled in the presence of the young, and level heads—and voices—prevailed.
Ryan stood near Mason and the two conversed in low tones. Ryan’s hand on his granddaughter’s back emphasized the family ties between them. A.J. took a spot against one wall, arms folded. The wolf had spent years in a human prison and, shortly after his return, Mason elevated him to second in the pack.
A clever move on the part of the relatively new Alpha. Like Mason, A.J. carried the Alpha potential in his demeanor and personal strength. Few wolves could have survived the isolation and crippling effects of enforced captivity. Not only had A.J. survived, but he’d come out whole on the other side.
His mate Vivian brought a uniqueness to the pack and it’d only been three months since her first turn.
Mason and A.J. had a great deal in common. Each brought outside perspective to Willow Bend, as well as formerly human mates who’d recently joined their pack. Young blood, Mrs. Tate called them both. Young blood to bring fresh life.
Owen crossed the room to drop down on one knee next to Felicia Carlyle’s chair. The elegant older wolf, with her snow white hair and kind eyes, gave him a gentle smile. Felicia Carlyle had once been Felicia Chase, sister to Owen’s grandfather.
“Hello, darling boy.” She smiled and accepted his kiss before stroking her hand over his head in welcome. He permitted few to touch him, bowed to far less. Felicia, however, could have whatever she wanted. With a quick smile, he rose and took a place behind her chair.
Settling, he met Mason’s gaze, held it for the space of two heartbeats, then lowered his in deference. From the day he’d returned to the pack, Mason Clayborne earned Owen’s loyalty with two simple, yet utterly inarguable, acts. First he’d challenged Toman and defeated the Alpha. Though Mason had been tempted to offer the man mercy, Toman made the choice to continue the fight, forcing Mason to kill him. That could have been the end of it, but Mason had gone to Felicia and helped keep her with them.
Surrounded by the pack and with the strength of the new Alpha to lean on—strength Mason had freely shared—Felicia Carlyle lived. Grief had left its mark on her, but she’d begun to thrive as the pack looked after her and relied on her in turns.
The only others present were Emma Halifax, the pack’s healer, Virgil Buckley, A.J.’s father and a vehicle mechanic and Vance, a relaxed beta male who served as administrator for the local schools.
“Good, everyone is here.” Mason nodded to the sideboard, a nonverbal invitation for others to eat. Though the food smelled good, Owen decided to wait. He was the only Hunter present, therefore responsible for protecting every single person in the room, particularly their most vulnerable. Passing his daughter over to Ryan, Mason stroked a finger across her hair. “We have a few things to discuss tonight, including a request from Hudson River.”
The last caught the attention of every wolf present. The five packs of North America respected each other’s borders, avoided more than the most tacit of skirmishes, and mostly kept to themselves unless under severe duress. One notable exception had been the death of Delta Crescent’s Alpha several years before. The old man had won and held the respect of not only his pack, but also the Enforcers and the other Alphas. In a rare demonstration, representatives from all the packs had attended his funeral. Later, they remained to witness the battle for dominance between his top lieutenants. A battle Mason had participated in, but not as contender for the title, rather as a supporter for Serafina Andre, the Alpha who won. Owen had gone along with his father to witness and represent Willow Bend.
“We’ll get to that last item.” Mason continued speaking, seemingly unperturbed by their silence. “I’ve also heard the rumors of a disagreement brewing between the other packs, but not one that will touch us yet. For now, we will watch and we’ll be aware. Ryan, I may need you to go to Sutter Butte and Delta Crescent next month.” Ryan’s skill at legal maneuverings and diplomacy made him the obvious choice for a mission requiring finesse and intelligence.
The attorney nodded and continued to sway in place, rocking his granddaughter. No one brought up the Yukon pack. The less they dealt with them, the better.
“That said, go ahead and give me your reports.” Rather than waiting for them to begin, Mason loaded a plate with food and carried it to Felicia. He made the rounds to Emma, Virgil, and Vance. The need to care for his pack seemed as strong in Mason as his need to defend it. These qualities made him a good leader, one worthy of being followed.
“We’ve got a youth problem,” Vance began without preamble. “About a dozen young dominant males, all vying to be Alpha of the youth groups. Your last visit settled them some, but it’s beginning again. Summer is close, schools will shut down, and we’re going to have fights.”
“Owen, how many Hunters do we have?” Though he likely knew the answer, Mason included Owen in the conversation by asking.
“Forty active.” Owen knew every single one by name. “Another thirty or so retired.” Including my father. Hunters worked until age or infirmity dictated they give way to the younger generation, though they were hardly useless to the pack. Retired Hunters served within the community, guarding the schools, patrolling the streets, and generally offering a soothing presence to the populace.
Younger Hunters existed on the fringe and borders, discouraging and repelling potential invaders.
“See who is willing to take on an apprentice or two. We’ll place a dozen of the most obvious troublemakers first. We’ll give them a job, and they can start learning to be productive. If we have any other Hunters willing, we can make an offer for additional volunteers.”
A solid plan. Owen nodded. “My father will definitely take one or two. He knows how to handle hard-headed boys.” Laughter greeted his statement. “I’d rather they stay with the retired.” While it would be safer for the boys, limiting who they were partnered with wouldn’t do them any favors.
“Fair enough.” Mason made himself a plate. “You’ll take care of it.” It hadn’t been a question, but Owen gave his ascent regardless. He was the lead among the Hunters, the most dominant, and so the task was his. “Virgil, how about you?”
“Spirits are up, so is the confidence level. A.J.’s homecoming has done a great deal to comfort the anxious. We still have a few naysayers. Gerald will be the last you sway, but he’s a farmer and very set in his ways. He and Toman were friends for years.”
“Gerald is harmless,” Felicia said, her soft voice carrying across the room. “He’s an old man and, yes, set in his ways. You just keep doing what you’re doing, Mason. You’ll prove it to him and he will accept it. Whether he agrees or not, however, he won’t challenge you.”
No one said anything as Mason seemed to contemplate Felicia’s words. Finally, he said, “If he isn’t stirring up problems, he’s entitled to his opinions and earned the right to express them.” While not a comfortable position to assume, it was the kind of decision that earned him their loyalty. He put the pack before his personal comfort and likely would in all matters that didn’t involve his wife or daughter—exactly as he should.
Emma spoke next. “We have no major issues within the pack. A few pregnancies, two broken legs that will take some looking after, but I don’t want the boys to rush off and do anything stupid. Overall, very quiet.”
“And Vivian?” Mason glanced at his second, then the healer.
“She’s perfectly fine,” Emma said, a smile in her voice. “We were correct. She has no brain anomalies and she’s adjusting even faster to pack life than Alexis.” They didn’t turn humans every day, so two newly turned wolves in less than a year kept their healer busier than normal.
For his part, A.J. looked content. “I told you so.”
“Yes, you did.” Mason chuckled. “Never hurts to ask. So, this brings me to a question, Emma. Can you spare Gillian, or would you be interested in a trip yourself?”
Surprise creased the older wolf’s face and rippled through murmurs from the wolves in the room. “A trip?”
“Brett Dalton, Alpha of Hudson River, called me this morning.” With that statement, Mason had their undivided attention. Owen narrowed his gaze, studying his Alpha’s body language and scent.
Concern tightened the corners of Mason’s eyes, and his shoulders set in a hard line. “They’ve suffered some losses over the last several months. One or two in separate incidences, nothing to tie them together, and no real pattern that aroused suspicion, except for his healer. Three days ago, Brett found his healer dead.”
No one moved, save for Emma. “What happened?”
“Natural causes, Brett hopes.”
“But?” Owen asked. Alphas didn’t reach out to other Alphas every day, and the death of a healer hurt a pack. Even if it was due to natural causes, it created an injury that didn’t heal easily.
“But he isn’t sure, and he found records in the healer’s home for each of the deaths in the last eighteen months.”
“How many?” Emma continued to focus on Mason.
“Fourteen. With the death of his healer, Brett makes the count fifteen. They have no apprentices, and only one child with the potential. He’s asked me for a favor, and I am considering granting it.”
Ice slithered through Owen. Emma was a vital, healthy wolf, but sending their healer beyond their territory didn’t sit well with him. Nor did…
“He wants to know if Gillian or I can go,” Emma said. It wasn’t a question.
Owen curled his fingers into his palms. He knew no reaction would show on his face and, with the tension levels in the room already on the rise, whatever the others picked up would be seen as natural concern. Gillian was a doll, a perfect wolf in every way. Kind and guileless to a fault, she would rip off her own arms to help a stranger.
Another pack would tear her apart.
Neither choice sat well with him.
“Yes, but I won’t order it.” Mason folded his arms, his attention on Emma. “I have Brett’s blood oath to protect whomever I send. You’ll have his guards, and they will care for you as if you were their own.”
“You trust him?” Ryan asked, his gaze measured and assessing.
“I spent a few months in Hudson River when I left here. Brett gave me a place and he didn’t mind a Lone Wolf staying until I got my feet under me. He helped me get my first job and found someone to teach me some trade skills. The only reason I left Hudson River was because he couldn’t have an unbound dominant of my strength in his territory—it was causing issues. But he gave me money and a fresh start. He didn’t owe me any of those things.”
A good Alpha didn’t need an excuse for kindness. Mason didn’t say it aloud, but Owen heard the words. Dalton had shown Mason a courtesy he could never imagine being repaid, one that earned him no special privileges and one, Owen would bet, he wasn’t calling in now.
Instead, the reason Mason considered his request was his relationship with the other Alpha.
“That said, I won’t force anyone, Emma. It has to be your choice. I won’t ask Gillian unless you think she’s ready.”
Owen’s relief at that statement was short-lived because the healer said, “She is. She has been for months. Her title of journeyman is more a courtesy than anything else. I think this might be a good experience, but I worry about sending her into danger.”
“Agreed,” Mason said. “But Brett is aware. He won’t let Gillian out of his sight. If you have no objections, I’ll talk to her tomorrow.”
“The hell you will.” Owen’s words slammed into the silence with the ring of challenge, and the tension in the room altered perceptibly. Mason swung around to face him, and Owen met his gaze and held it.
Over his dead body would he let Mason send Gillian away from Willow Bend.