Addison Howler stood at the edge of the clearing wishing she could bolt through the trees and book it back to the parking lot before the scenting ceremony could start.
She could do it. She could be out of here and stripping off her clothes and shifting before anyone even noticed she’d gone. She’d run like the wind, flee all the stupid social expectations of the mating ritual, all the expectations of her family and their friends. Take to the wild and never look back. She took a step back from the crowd, her heartbeat speeding with anticipation.
But before she could actually make good on her desire, she caught sight of her mother waving furiously at her from across the grass.
“Addison!” The loud hiss of her mom’s whisper made the miraculous journey from over forty feet away. Much as Addison hated to admit it, the woman had skills. “Come over here and stand next to me.”
A wave of depression slowed Addison’s pulse to a crawl.
Damn. She wasn’t going anywhere.
Shoulders bowed, she walked over, her hopes for the evening disappearing as she closed the gap between them. As usual, her mother wasn’t talking to any of the other women. Instead, Stella was doing what Stella always did, her small petite frame nearly disappearing as she nervously bit her nails and hovered in her husband’s wide shadow as he loudly discussed pack politics with his cronies.
“Mom, I was about to go say hi to Trish. I haven’t seen much of her since she took the physical therapist job up at Snowflake Lodge.” A tiny lie. She swore she would have said hi, as she ran past her best friend on her way to freedom.
Her mother’s forehead wrinkled and she darted a fast look up at Addison’s stepfather. “I’m sure Trish will come over and say hi to you later. Right now, your father has someone he wants to introduce you to.”
Addison stiffened. “Stepfather,” she corrected her mother. This was the fifth scenting ceremony George had dragged her to, muttering dire predictions if she didn’t catch herself a mate—and soon.
“Now, Addison, don’t be ungrateful. George is my mate. He didn’t have to take us both in when he took me as his mate, but he did.”
Addison, don’t be ungrateful. Addison, if you could just hold your tongue. Addison, quit sassing your father, he’s been so good to you, letting you stay under his roof this long.
Grrr. It made Addison furious.
You’d never know it now to look at her mousy mother with her faded hair pulled back in a ponytail, taking out her nerves on her poor fingernails, but once upon a time Stella had been a wild wolf. She’d partied hard and ended up an unmarried mother at twenty. Very unusual for the wolf packs, but it happened. And when six years later, she and George had sniffed each other at a ceremony, he’d married Stella, and taken on Addison for his own.
Sort of. Oh, yeah, he called himself her dad, made a big stink about it if she forgot, but she’d always wondered what it would have been like if her real father had stuck around. Would he have encouraged her to find a mate she loved instead of shoving her at every Tom, Bill, and Barry who had any political connections at all? And you had to admit, George had a talent for picking jerks. Every single single wolf George liked was an alpha asshole with a capital A.
No way. Not for her. Not if she had anything to say about it. Which of course, she didn’t. It was all up to her stupid hormones and her nose. If they chose one of George’s Alpha Asshole’s, she’d be screwed by her own body. All she could do was show up at every single scenting ceremony and pray that no one smelled good. And so far, she’d been lucky. But there was always a chance that her body’s urge to mate, ticking away like a time bomb, would betray her.
Addison sighed and looked at George. Despite Stella’s urgent summons, he wasn’t showing any signs of interest in her at all, just chatting away with his buddy.
“Hey mom. I don’t want to bother George. He seems busy. Maybe it will be okay if I go say hi to Trish.” She edged away from her mother. Just as she was about to turn and head across the clearing, her stepfather stopped talking and looked at her, pinning her feet to the ground with one hard stare.
“There she is.” He reached out and grabbed her by the arm, squeezing it tightly in a warning as he pulled her forward. George might look out of shape, his paunch exaggerated by his too-tight Polo shirt and khaki pants, but under the extra flab was a grip of steel. “Stanton Clawbender, meet my, um…daughter, Addison.”
Step-daughter, Addison said inside her head. But she smiled brightly up at the older gentleman with gray hair and glasses who was eying her up and down. Oh God. Please don’t be the next one. Please don’t make me stand out in the center of everyone and sniff the butt of someone old enough to be my grandfather.
“She’s um, well, rather more than you said, George.” Stanton’s eyes traveled down her face stopping at her generous cleavage and staring. “Nice to meet you Addison.” Then he leaned in, his avid face heading straight for her chest.
Addison flushed and panicked.
It wasn’t the official ceremony, but he looked like he was going to take a whiff. She didn’t need to get any closer, she could smellhim from here, and he didn’t smell even close to right. She didn’t know what the right wolf would smell like, but it wouldn’t be Ben Gay, tobacco, and tweed—of that she was sure.
Before he could stick his face between her boobs, Addison stuck out her hand, and cut him off. “Hi there.”
Stanton Clawbender’s eyes widened in surprise and he took her hand and shook it.
Her stepfather’s thick eyebrows descended over his eyes and he glowered at her. “This is Stanton Clawbender, Julian’s father. Do you remember me talking to you about Julian Clawbender?”
“Oh, yes, of course,” she lied. “Nice to meet you Mr. Clawbender.”
She didn’t remember George talking about Julian. If he’d talked about the Clawbenders, she wouldn’t have heard. She’d tuned his incessant yammering out during the three hour car ride to this pack’s territory as soon as he’d started in on why she had to get a move on and find a mate. How she was too fat, too stubborn, and getting too old, to expect any of the good wolves to be attracted to her. Even now the thought of his criticism got her steamed.
The night went downhill after that. Addison was forced to let the odious Julian sniff her, throat to tail, and it was just as bad as she’d thought it would be. It wasn’t that wolves didn’t sniff each other on a regular basis. Heck, with the sensitive noses shifters had, even in human form, you could smell all kinds of things. Things like anxiety, fear, lust. But it was the fact that from the disdainful arch of Julian Clawbender’s eyebrow and the way his lip curled when he’d seen her ass, she’d felt cheap. Like a piece of meat that had been shopped around from pack to pack, and now she was being put on clearance.
By the time everything was over and they were headed back to the car, she’d built up a head of steam. She’d thought Stanton was a lech, but Julian had been worse.
He’d taken one look at her generous curves and taken a step back. “My, you are a…um… healthy girl.”
God, why couldn’t she find a man who liked her the way she was. A man who appreciated her full body and sassy attitude. A man like Aric Wolfe. She glanced across the field at the hip group of people in the center of real pack politics. Now that was a man who wanted curves. Aric was stuck like glue to his new mate, almost inhaling her, and she was a full-bodied beauty. They’d been mated for nearly a year, and still he couldn’t keep his eyes and mouth off of her, kissing her, trailing his face along the curve of her neck, breathing in deeply and getting that suddenly sexy look that made Addison’s own mouth go dry.
Dreaming over how happy the Wolfe’s looked as a couple, she had to remind herself how much she didn’t want a mate. What were the odds she’d end up with someone like Aric, someone who wanted her? No, with her luck she’d end up with someone like Julian, who was only sniffing her booty out of politeness to his dad, and some kind of hope for a political alliance that would cross packs. Or worse, someone like George.
As they left the ceremony and got into the car, Addison vowed that she wasn’t going to say anything about how horrible Julian had made her feel. No, she really wasn’t. For her mom’s sake she was going to hold in her temper even though the entire evening—from her stepfather’s high-handedness to arrogant Julian sniffing her ass—had her boiling.
But as soon as they were in the car, George blew a gasket. “It’s bad enough, young lady, that you roll your eyes at me, but to do it in the middle of the scenting ceremony and at a prestigious young man like Julian, that is outrageous.”
“You know what’s outrageous?” Addison’s anger poured out in a hot steaming flood. “This idea that I have no purpose, other than being mated. It sucks! I’ve gone to college, I have a career.” She was a virtual assistant, and while it took a while to get clients, she had regulars who paid her and she knew she’d be able to make a go of it.
“What good is that?” His upper lip curled. “You need to be making contacts for your pack, for your family. You need to be having babies and making sure that the Howler name is continued.”
“Even if I were mated, the pups would have his name. Everyone knows that.” She made eye contact with him in the mirror and rolled her eyes, just to piss George off. She couldn’t help it. She’d tried, really she had, but he was such a jerk. And that mouth of hers, that she tried so hard to control, didn’t stop. And it felt good, just to let out all the frustration of living with her stepfather and having to tip-toe around him. “Clawbender—what kind of a name is that? It’s as bad as Wigglyclaw.” Addison made a face. “I’m done.”
Her mom sucked in a gasp.
Addison smothered the guilt. She’d started and this time, she wasn’t stopping. “I’ve been to every pack scenting ceremony within the state. And some a few states over. There isn’t a mate out there for me, and I’m fine with it. More than fine with it, if it means I have to marry some asshole like Julian Clawbender.”
“How dare you!” George spit the words out, tiny drops of saliva spraying across the car. His face was bright red in the headlights of other vehicles pulling out of the parking lot. “You ungrateful b—”
“George, please.” Stella’s voice shook. She was curled into a ball in the front passenger seat, her eyes wide and scared in the stripes of lights moving across the car interior. “I can’t take this. Please, stop fighting. Please.”
“She’s your daughter. You deal with it.” He started the car and drove them home, the tension inside the car building with every mile.
Once they got home, Addison flung herself out of the car, and into the house.
“Addison, wait. Just stay and talk with me.”
She ignored her mother’s pleas and George’s huffy outrage and headed up to her room. She didn’t need this. She didn’t want this. All she wanted to do was be an adult and living here she was squashed into the role of child. And a rebellious child, at that.
There was a knock on the door. “Addison?”
She sighed. It would be so nice to sit and pout and ignore her mom. But she really was an adult, so she opened the door, blocking it with her body. “Just give me a few minutes, Mom. I need to calm down.”
Her mom’s face twisted with anxiety. “If you’ll just give him a chance. He’s worried about you.”
“Worried that I’ll end up like you.” As soon as she heard her mom’s indrawn breath she knew she’d gone too far. “I’m sorry.”
But it was too late. Stella’s eyes brimmed with tears and she backed away. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”
Addison closed the door and locked it, feeling like she’d just kicked a puppy. Then she went and opened the window and looked out into the night, blinking back tears of frustration.
Why couldn’t it be like she’d seen in other packs, like the Wolfe family. All those handsome men with their beautiful mates. They didn’t care if they carried around extra pounds, or if the women had minds and claws of their own. In fact, they seemed to like it. They even seemed proud of it.
But life wasn’t always like that, was it?
She’d seen what happened firsthand when the mating ceremony led people to mate who were unsuited. Just look at her parents.
Her mom was a shadow of the fun go-lucky girl she’d once been, and her stepdad? Well? For the first time she wondered—would George be different if he’d married someone else. If her parents had been in love, instead of in lust, would it have lasted beyond the sex? Would he have seen his stepdaughter differently?
Maybe love for her mom would have been love for her too, instead of this constant criticism.
She swallowed down the lump in her throat.
Well, it hadn’t happened that way. Her parents had mated, and disastrous nights like tonight were the result. But to be fair, it wasn’t all them. If she wanted to be treated like an adult, she needed to act like an adult.
She lifted her head and wiped away the last of her tears.
Well no more. She was going to change her life. Starting now. She had an invitation for the weekend to go to the ski resort Trish’s brother, Lincoln Hunter, owned. And even better, Trish had also invited Eve and Gabby—friends that she and Trish had met at college. Human friends. Friends that George hated and weren’t welcome at the Howler house.
Humans were much more independent. They didn’t have to worry about pack and finding a mate through chemistry. They got to date and have fun and regular lives. She loved hanging out with the girls and drinking wine and hearing about the ups and downs of finding a partner the human way. It was better than a chick-flick, although, they watched plenty of those while they drank their wine and devoured their favorite desserts at girl’s night.
She couldn’t wait to go up to the town of Snowflake and the lodge. When she was there she was going to ask everyone’s help in figuring out her first steps to getting an apartment on her own, and finally getting some independence. She squashed the worry about what it would be like to live away from the pack, away from her family. Even though they weren’t perfect, they were hers. And living in the human world? Well, that was scary. Good thing she had friends. They’d help her.
She’d lived here long enough, trying to be a buffer between her mom and George. She’d pushed down her own feelings, but it just wasn’t working. Her mom was miserable. And George? Well, he was an asshole. He wanted her out of the house, she could tell, he just wanted her to mate to the right guy so he could use her to further his connections.
Feeling more positive, she took a big breath of the cool night air and let the freedom of the night rush over her. Everyone would be better off when she was where she wanted to be. Unmated and living on her own.