“It’s a wolf.” Ellen ran her finger along the intricately detailed illustration of the fearsome creature on the page of the book. “Like your father. And, soon, your mother. Like you. Only bigger. You’re still a pup.” And the slight weight and baby-smell of the small boy in her arms was pure heaven. “Wolf,” she repeated, adding a playful growl.
Oscar’s little hand rested on the page, unperturbed by the rather menacing-looking animal on the page. Instead, he burrowed closer to her chest, growled softly, and patted the book.
“I’m going to skip ahead on this one, I think. Your parents would not be pleased with me.” Reading about the grisly man-eating French werewolf was both horrifying and fascinating. But, no matter how insensitive this pack thought she was, even she wouldn’t read the tale of the Beast of Gévaudan to a sleepy toddler, wolf-pup or not. Oscar would have plenty of time to learn all about the legends and folklore surrounding what they were when he was older. Much older.
After the pack had eliminated the all too real monster hunting them.
“There are no monsters here.” She buried her nose against the top of his head and breathed deep. Here, there was peace and safety and the promise of a future for them all.
Oscar cooed, patting the page.
“Wolf.” She nodded. “Your pack would take care of that one, don’t you worry. Besides, one day you’ll be as big and strong as your father and able to protect the pack all on your own,” she whispered, his pale curls brushing her nose.
He stared up at her, the pure sweetness of his grin tempting thoughts and feelings best left locked away.
Pack member or not, this boy had taken root in a corner of her heart. “You are adorable,” she murmured, tickling his side until his giggle filled the room. She was laughing, too, allowing herself a moment’s pleasure. But the less than subtle throat clearing from the doorway told her they were no longer alone.
Hollis. Of course.
“You’re lurking now?” She wasn’t surprised. Not really. Hollis, in all his copper-haired, steely-eyed formality, was never far behind her. Following his Alpha’s orders, no doubt.
“I thought you were reading him a bedtime story?” His voice was low.
“I am,” she bit back. “Go away.”
Hollis leaned against the doorframe, arms crossed over his wide chest, curls falling onto his forehead. “What are you reading?”
“A book.” A book he would hardly approve of. “About wolves.”
“Exactly.” She was a proponent of embracing the inner wolf. The earlier Oscar and his wolf bonded, the stronger that bond would be, and the stronger he and his wolf would be. Growling was a fun place to start. Especially for a wolf-pup. “We were almost done, weren’t we?”
Oscar yawned, rubbing his eyes with chubby fists.
It was impossible not to smile. “See. Did his parents send you to check up on us? Or are you being you?” Hollis was immune to her insults. It was one of the more maddening things about him. Still, she’d keep trying. “Nosy. Bossy, condescending, judgmental and—”
“Is that my folklore book?” He pointed at the book.
“I can see it, Ellen,” he countered.
“He likes the pictures.” Which was true. So did she.
“Which aren’t child-friendly.” It was a statement, with a hint of exasperation. The way he always spoke.
“We’re not looking at those,” she pointed out, holding up the book for him.
“Forget the pictures.” He pushed off the doorframe and crossed over to her, taking the book and sitting on the footstool. “You think historical serial killers make for a good bedtime story?”
“I don’t.” Oscar rolled over, going limp with sleep in her arms, sidetracking her rising temper. “We were talking about the wolf picture. Only,” she whispered.
Oscar’s growl was sleepy.
Earning a smile from Hollis.
“You dream of being a big wolf, Oscar,” she whispered in his ear. “A big, proud wolf, running through the mountains with your mother and your father and your mighty pack. Run and run and howl at the moon.” She tucked him close.
“Got him?” Hollis asked.
She glared. Of course she had him. And his slight, solid weight was all that was keeping her grounded. The air was alive with energy. Electrifying. Agitating. The impending full moon and the call to hunt singing in her veins. But instinct, and her wolf, told her this was where they were needed. Here, protecting Oscar, no matter what was happening beyond the walls of her temporary home-prison. Instead of carrying him to his crib, she rocked him a little longer.
Hollis sat quietly, his attention wandering to the low-burning fire in the grate.
The longer he sat, still and quiet, the harder it was to ignore him. He was an odd man, favoring his intellect over his instinct and arguing against the very existence of his wolf. Which was one of the reasons he bothered her so. To choose to be an outcast in his own pack, an honorable and fierce pack—one to be proud of. And to refuse the gifts that lived inside of him? It was wrong.
“What?” His gaze met hers. “You’re staring.”
“I’m thinking about what a fool you are.” She closed her eyes, resting her head against the chair. “Did you need something? Or are you here purely to irritate me?”
He sighed but didn’t answer. She got a lot of sighs from him. This time, it felt different. Tense. Uneasy. Hollis was rarely uneasy. For all his ridiculousness over denying who and what he was, his intellect was staggering. His ability to sift through and filter only pertinent information, no matter the circumstances or stakes, was something she admired. Not that she’d ever admit as much.
“Something is about to happen.” It wasn’t a question.
Eyes opened, she studied him. “That’s a very broad statement.”
His grin was reluctant but disarming. He didn’t smile often. He didn’t emote, really. Making even the slightest expression was rewarding. Not that she was going to dwell on his devilish grin. “Can you be more specific?”
The shake of his head was quick. “Just a feeling.”
“Your wolf?” She wasn’t about to let him off the hook. “He’s trying to warn you. Listen. It must be important.”
That earned her an eye roll. “Or it could be that I think this expedition into the city is a mistake. Too many things could go wrong.”
Ellen agreed. This pack was fearsome, but young. Finn, their Alpha, had yet to truly assume dominance over this pack. He’d have to in order to defeat their enemy. And, like it or not, defeating the Others was the only option. They were led by a wolf twisted beyond salvation. Cyrus. He instilled fear into the Others, doling out brute punishment with just enough praise to keep the pack hopeful of earning his approval. Pointless, she knew. But surprisingly successful. The pack was fanatically devoted to their Alpha. They would never yield, never listen to reason, or accept that the world beyond their warped, cold pack still contained good.
Oscar’s soft groan pulled at her heart. This little one was good. Pure, sweet, and innocent. He knew only the love of his parents and his pack. As it should be.
“Then tell your Alpha. Finn listens to you all. If you protest, maybe he will delay.” She stood, carefully carrying Oscar to his crib. Oscar was asleep. In the next room, Jessa, his very tired, very pregnant mother was asleep. As was, Finn, his very worried Alpha father.
But one look at the braced line of Hollis’s shoulders, the tightness in his jaw, told her neither of them would be sleeping tonight.
Of course, she would go there. His wolf. Always his wolf.
This wasn’t about that. In ten years, there had been no sign of his fucking wolf. Now, out of the blue, the thing’s going to pop up in his head with some SOS about impending doom? Why now? Why ever? No, it didn’t make sense.
“Stop glaring at me.” Ellen slammed a hand on her hip and glared right back.
She was better at it than he was. With her dark eyes and expressive features, she gave meaning to the term “if looks could kill.”
“I’m not.” He ran a hand through his hair, agitated.
“Liar.” She rolled her neck and stretched, pulling her tank top tight across the abundant breasts he did his best not to get sidetracked by. Her lack of bras and consistently small shirts didn’t help. At all. “You came here, remember?”
For reasons he didn’t understand. Since lunch, he’d been gripped with a queasy uneasiness that only increased as the day went on. Now, his nerves were strung tight and he had a piercing throb behind his right eye. And a dull roar in his ears.
“I wanted to check on Oscar.” Which was bullshit. Oscar was fine. He was with Ellen. She was probably the most capable and lethal wolf under this roof. Considering how many wolves were currently under the roof, that said a lot. Not because she was the strongest, but because she was the most experienced. They had only been living this dual life for a decade. Ellen… Well, he had no idea how long she’d been a wolf. And she was is in no hurry to share information with a pack that wasn’t her own. She was only here to help Jessa through her pregnancy and delivery, a fact she repeated whenever the opportunity presented itself. Once the baby was here and Jessa was out of danger, she was gone.
“Liar,” she repeated, softer this time. “What is it? You’re more brooding and insufferable than usual.”
She simultaneously insulted and worried over him. That was Ellen. A paradox. Fascinating. Amusing. Protective. Aggressive. And infuriating. Still, he couldn’t imagine the hole she’d leave when she finally left the pack. He’d hoped, in time, she’d find a place here. But the woman was incredibly stubborn. So stubborn that attempting to explain his urgent, yet, intangible anxiety would only result in another pro-wolf lecture, which was the last thing he wanted to hear. “Maybe it’s just a headache.”
Her mismatched eyes narrowed. “You foolish man.”
“You already said that.” He shrugged. “You can do better. I know you can.”
She smiled, quick and genuine and mind-numbing.
But staring at her like an openmouthed idiot didn’t go over well.
The glare was back. “I’m leaving.” She brushed past him, hostility rolling off her lithe form.
He followed. “Why?”
She glanced back, the same question in her eyes.
“I thought we could look over Jessa’s delivery plan.” The idea had only just occurred to him.
“Again?” She shook her head. “We have been over this. Again and again. At this point, she could probably deliver the child on her own.”
“Finn is worried.” Which was the understatement of the century. Jessa was Finn’s world. The bond between them was so strong Hollis worried about the effect losing her might have on his best friend. And his Alpha. While Hollis’s heart murmur altered the infection, which allowed his friends to become wolves, he was still bound by the unwavering loyalty to the pack—and Finn’s rule as the leader of their pack.
Ellen stopped walking, closed her eyes, and drew a deep breath. “Jessa is strong. Finn is her mate. Their bond will protect her—and their child. You must trust in—”
“Don’t say it.” They’d developed a mutual respect for each other but, when it came to the wolves and the infection, they would never see eye to eye. Things like destiny and fate were excuses for giving up on finding actual causes.
“Magic?” She started walking down the hallway again. “It’s here, all around you. Everyday. Yet you refuse to see it for what it is.”
“You can’t see something that doesn’t exist,” he said in a whisper. Arguing with Ellen, as diverting as it was, wasn’t high on his priority list tonight. Hell, he still wasn’t sure why he was following her around, only that he was.
“I’m a wolf. I can hear you a mile away.” She glanced over her shoulder again but didn’t slow. “If you refuse to use your own senses, you can read about it in one of those books you have in your office.”
He didn’t have to read about it to know it. His senses were just as accelerated. Smell. Hearing. Strength. If he didn’t know that shifting was impossible for him, he might have considered the possibility that, deep inside, he had a wolf. “Speaking of books. Where is the one you were reading to Oscar?”
Once they reached the common room and kitchen, she headed straight for the refrigerator. “It’s in his room.” She peered around the door. “I’d leave it. Unless you want to deal with a screaming toddler, his angry father, and hormonal mother. Anders has been baking again.” Her immediate delight at the plate of cookies was disarming. She continued to surprise him, even after spending months with him and his pack. “Milk.” She placed the carton on the marble counter. “It’s a wonder you’re not all fat.”
He didn’t argue. They all dealt with free time in their own ways. Anders cooked comfort food in large quantities.
“Delicious.” She groaned around a mouthful of oatmeal raisin cookie. “Want one?”
He reached for a cookie and knocked a picture over. She caught it before it hit the floor, her gaze lingering. “What a motley crew you are.” But there was a wistfulness. As far as he knew, she had no pack, no family, or anyone who cared about her. Which made him wonder all over again why she was so eager to leave them.
She placed the picture back in place. “You need a new picture. Olivia isn’t in this. And the new baby will be here soon enough.”
“With any luck, the pack will stop growing for a while.” He ignored her glare. “Besides, group photos aren’t high on the priority list.”
“Take time to record your history, Hollis. You know how important such things are.” They disagreed on many things—from curing the infection that made them into wolves to the value of science versus superstition. But on this, leaving a record, they agreed. “You’re tense. More so than usual. If such a thing is possible. You need to find something to occupy your time.”
Besides trailing her like a lost puppy? Yes, he did. Something, anything, that would stop whatever the fuck was gnawing at his insides and keeping his nerves on edge.
“Target practice?” she asked, taking a long swig of milk from the carton.
He devoured two of the freshly baked cookies on the counter and took the milk jug she offered. “Knives?” Her affinity with knives was another mystery. Why would a woman capable of turning into a near-perfect killing machine need to be skilled with such weaponry? And saying Ellen was skilled with a knife didn’t adequately describe just how graceful, and lethal, she was with a blade.
“Maybe you’ll learn a thing or two.” She was smiling, goading him. Something else she loved to do. “At the very least, I’ll get your mind off whatever is troubling you.”
He paused. Doubtful.
“If you don’t want to bleed, you’ll pay attention.” Her smile wavered enough for him to see she was—in her way—offering to help. “My wolf wants to hunt. Tonight, you’re the prey.”