I looked up at the sky and frowned. It was clear and blue and perfect, but I didn’t trust it. There was a wind picking up and it smelled damp, making me think we would get rain tonight. That was the last thing we needed. I breathed in deeply, hoping my wolf heightened senses would pick up a hint that my human nose hadn’t.
I sighed and shook my head. Quickly, I shifted back, letting my wolf’s body uncurl upward into my human form. I’d been away from the group for too long. Pulling on my clothes, I slung my pack over my shoulder and headed back down the narrow mountain trail.
When the group came in sight, I let my eyes wander over the slow-moving group of rich city slickers trailing up the path behind me and rolled my eyes. These guys were having enough problems as it was – rain would probably send half of them squealing back home to L.A. or Chicago or wherever.
“You all right?” Matt Strand, my business partner, and the closest thing I had to a pack, came to stand beside me. He was supposed to be bringing up the rear, making sure no one got lost. But I knew without asking that he hadn’t been able to handle the boredom and needed to come up for a quick breather. We both arrived from opposite ends of the country. Two young, untried alphas who had come to Colorado looking for the pack we didn’t have back home. After years of working in eco-tourism together, we’d banded together and started our company, Zenith Guides. After all that time, we knew each other well, so a lot of things went unspoken between us.
“Does it smell like rain to you?” I asked him.
He sniffed, his long nose flaring ridiculously and making me smile. “No,” he said at last. “It smells like over-thinking to me.”
I rolled my eyes. “Get outta here,” I said. “Aren’t you supposed to be making sure we don’t lose any stragglers?”
His turn to roll his eyes. “Just because you don’t like it, Jake, doesn’t mean it’s not true,” he replied, heading back to the end of the line.
I sighed. Matt was right. I always had been a worrier. Luckily, when I worked with Matt, we balanced each other out. He was super relaxed and always open to trying new ideas - whereas I had to analyze everything (sometimes too much) before I did it.
But, the truth was, we’d had a rough year this year and the last thing I wanted was to have to cancel this trip because of bad weather. We couldn’t afford to lose that money. I glanced back up at the sky, but it was still perfectly blue. We were nearly to the top of Green Mountain and you could see the city of Boulder spreading out below us in rows of tiny white houses and grey streets. I raised my eyes, looked out at the distant, glimmering horizon, and took a deep breath. It’s going to be fine, I told myself.
“Only one more bend, and we’ll be at the summit,” I called back to the group, hoping it would inspire them pick up the pace. We’d done this six-day summit trip many times over the last three years, and usually we got experienced hikers. But this group was a bit of a dud. None of them had much experience. Thought, I had to admint, at least they were enthusiastic.
Well, most of them. There was this one guy, Gabriel Front - the group’s only omega - not that I think omegas are inherently whiny or anything, I’m just saying - who had barely said two words to anyone and only offered up monosyllables when anyone bothered to approach him. He was supposed to have come with another guy, but he hadn’t shown up and Gabriel (not Gabe, he’d made it very clear) hadn’t said why. He was handsome, in a rich, city kind of way. When I’d first seen his large, dark blue eyes, I won’t lie: I felt my body respond. But then he started talking and my body quickly realized its mistake. Sure, Gabriel was around my age or maybe a little older, in his early thirties. But he was about as fit as my 97 year-old granny and clearly suffering with every step. And today was only the first day of the trip. Luckily, he was booked into a spa back in Boulder for the night.
As we rounded the bend and came up onto the summit of Green Mountain, the group broke into excited oohs and ahs – as soon as they got their breath back, anyway. This group kept up one stereotype at least: like 90% of our clients, they were rich and had all the usual over-sized, matte-black photography equipment. And, as with every group, whenever we reached a summit, they brought all of it out to take pictures, mostly of themselves rather than the view.
“Hey,” Matt came up next to me again, surveying the scene. Like me, he was barely out of breath.
“You were right. Everything is fine,” I said, smiling at him.
He chuckled. “I’m always right.”
I rolled my eyes. That wasn’t even worth a response.
He grinned, punching me on the arm. “Just relax, okay? Everything’s going to be fine. Oh, except, I forgot. Gabriel is still a little ways down the path. Can you go check on him? I promised the Lopez’s I would give them a little talk on the local geology once we got the summit.”
“Why didn’t you start with that??” I asked. “You know we can’t leave clients on their own.”
“Remember what I said about relaxing?” Matt replied as he walked away.
I ground my teeth. How could I relax when Matt was letting useless idiots like Gabriel Front wander around on their own? Still grumbling to myself, I headed back down the path to find Gabriel.
He wasn’t that far behind us and looked no worse for the wear, thankfully. His dark hair was pushed off his forehead, sticking up in sweaty spikes and two bright red patches had bloomed on his otherwise pale skin. He’d been focussing on the path, watching every step his feet took. Then he looked up when he heard me coming, his dark blue eyes narrowing.
“I’m fine,” he said gruffly before I’d even had the chance to open my mouth. “I told Matt to go on ahead of me.”
I shrugged, coming down to meet him anyway. “I know you’re fine,” I said. “But there’s safety in numbers.”
He raised his chin haughtily and said again, “I’m fine. You don’t have to come down here and babysit me. I’m sure you have better things to do.”
I sighed. What the hell had crawled up this guy’s ass and died? Jesus, I’ve never had such a rude client in my life. “I’m not babysitting you,” I said, forcing myself to keep my temper. “And I don’t actually.”
“Don’t what?” he asked. In his confusion, he forgot to be angry and his expression cleared, revealing long, full lips that, for the first time since we’d met, weren’t pinched or puckered. It isn’t fair to make someone so beautiful such an asshole.
I chuckled. “I don’t have anything better to do. For the next six days, you guys are my life.”
“Lucky us,” Gabriel replied dryly.
I tried not to take his tone personally but, frankly, all I wanted was to give the guy a good slap. How old are you, anyway? Five? Stop fucking sulking. It was your choice to come on this trip. Out loud all I said was, “Seriously, though. You are. Lucky, I mean. I’m probably the best-looking guide in Boulder.”
It was a joke, but Gabriel didn’t look impressed. He just raised one long, perfectly-shaped eyebrow and kept walking. I sighed. I might not have been the best-looking guide in Boulder (though, I was up there, even if I did say so myself), but I was certainly one of the most charming. Usually I didn’t have trouble winning over cranky clients. But it was almost like Gabriel didn’t like me personally. I mean, he was always a pain, but at least with Matt he wasn’t out and out rude.
He walked past me, and I watched him go, frowning at his Eddie Bauer-clad ass as it stumbled up the trail to the summit. Why were the hot ones always so goddamn high maintenance?