It was a damn near perfect day. Work was slow, but it always was in the dead of summer. Callie spent a quiet hour doodling a cupcake asking for birthday cake money and taped it to the tip jar. It kind of worked. The regulars who filtered in and out were people she’d known her entire life. They were not fooled that she was spending her tips on cake, but left her cash and happy birthdays anyway. Add the handful of mid-week hikers who stopped in and were charmed, and she closed out with enough cash to buy her first legal drink, maybe two.
She had claimed birthday girl privileges to get control of the radio all day, and she was closing by herself, the music up loud, singing along, and doing a shuffling dance while she wiped down the steam wands on the espresso machine. She’d flipped the sign but hadn’t locked the door, and a quiet laugh almost made her jump out of her skin.
“Jesus. Fuck. Goddammit, Sam!” She threw her wet, coffee-ground-flecked rag at her best friend.
He caught it neatly and grinned at her, the jerk, all white teeth behind his full beard and dust-streaked face. He must have been out doing trail maintenance all day. He was covered in dirt from the top of his forestry services hat, down his shirt, to the hem of his standard-issue olive-khaki shorts, and over his muscled calves to his thick wool socks peeking out from his heavy work boots. He was her best friend, but she was still allowed to appreciate that he managed to make that uniform look hot. It was impossible not to notice.
“Stay off my floor with those boots, dude, or I’ll make you mop it.” She straightened to her full height, still several inches shorter than Sam’s six feet, and put her hands on her hips, trying to look fierce.
He raised his hands in surrender and didn’t move from the welcome mat. “Yes, ma’am.” He leaned his butt against the door. She’d have to wipe down the glass again.
“Can you toss me my rag?”
He dangled it from between the tips of his thumb and forefinger. “This one? The one you threw at a potential paying customer? What would Melissa say if she knew you were yelling obscenities while the door was unlocked?”
He tossed it back to her and it landed with a wet plop on the counter after she completely missed catching it. “She’s your aunt, why don’t you ask her?” Callie turned around and dunked the cloth back into the bucket of warm water. The faster she finished the closing chores, the sooner she could get out of there and start celebrating.
“What’s the plan, birthday girl?”
“Finish up here, go home, shower and head out. And you’re going to the store, of course.”
Even though, according to her birth certificate, Callie had officially been twenty-one for going on eight hours, everyone knew the clerk at the liquor store held a peculiar interpretation of the law that wouldn’t let anyone buy alcohol until the day after their twenty-first birthday. Wayne did not believe in “on or before this date,” only “before.”
“Where do you want to start? Nachos? World Café? Jay’s? The Tavern? We could go to the Public Room.” For a small town, they had an awful lot of bars. Blame it on the après ski crowd.
“Let’s go to Nachos. Five-dollar margaritas are about my speed right now.”
“Like you’re paying for drinks tonight.”
“I’m not letting anyone buy me ten-dollar drinks. Unless they’re huge. Like scorpion bowl huge.”
“And since you can’t get one of those in Pullman, I’ll meet you at Nachos in an hour?”
She flicked her eyes to the clock. She could make it work. She wouldn’t have time to do anything with her hair or makeup, but it wasn’t like it mattered. She’d known Sam and everyone else in town since kindergarten. Not a one of them would notice or care if she showed up in her underwear. Or they would, but only to make fun of her. Such was life tagging along with Sam and his cousins. She was used to it.
“Sounds like a plan. Now get out so I can finish up.”
Sam left with a clatter of the bells on the door and Callie locked up behind him. No more distractions. She turned up the stereo and finished her chores. When everything in the place had been emptied, wiped down and otherwise cleaned, she counted out the drawer and tucked the money in the safe, left a note for her boss to call the ice guy because they were running low, turned out the lights and left for the next two days. She’d traded working on her birthday proper for two days off in a row, planning ahead for the sure-to-be-epic hangover.
At her apartment, she dropped her shorts and black T-shirt and rushed through a shower, scrubbing the smell of stale coffee off her skin and out of her hair. She wound her wet hair into a bun at the crown of her head, threw on a pair of denim cut-offs and a loose white tank, slipped into her flip-flops, stuffed her wallet and the day’s tips in her pocket, and was out the door to meet Sam exactly an hour after she left the shop.
* * *
Sam was tired when he came off the mountain. Beating back the encroaching forest from the trail network had a way of doing that. Tired was good. Tired meant the restlessness, the need to run, was calmed for another day. They were taught that early. Get tired, get physically exhausted, and the changes would be easier to manage, predict, control. There was no need to be a slave to the magic in their blood, but fuck, if it didn’t feel good to run sometimes.
He dragged himself up the stairs to his room and sat down to unlace his boots. Every time he blinked, he saw Callie wiping down the steam wand, stroking it up and down, with a slight twist at the tip, while she swayed her hips in time with the radio. He scrubbed his hands over his face. Callie Anders wasn’t for him. His father had a way of reminding him of that what felt like once a day. Best friend or no, some secrets he would always have to keep from her, for the good and the safety of them both. Sam would be paired off eventually with someone from their world in the name of alliance or power, and the best he could hope for was that he didn’t actively loathe whoever she was when the day came.
Loathing was a strong possibility when every one of his senses pointed at Callie and whispered mine whenever they were in the same room. Even in his aunt’s shop, with the smell of stale coffee and muffins thick in the air, he could pick out Callie’s distinctive scent. The minty eucalyptus shampoo she used, the slightly salty smell of the sweat that made the red-blond hair at the nape of her neck curl into wispy spirals, and under everything else, the indefinable, warm, animal smell of her. He’d never been more simultaneously relieved and pained than the day in high school when she had gotten over the trend of covering herself with country apple-scented body spray and he got his first real whiff of her without the synthetic fruit.
She’s not for you, MacTire. Never was, never will be. She thought of him like a brother. She always had. That wasn’t changing. Couldn’t change. Not unless she could. And even then, he still had obligations to his family. It was never going to happen.
He’d stripped out of his filthy uniform and tossed it into a corner of his room when his cousin Bren barged in. It was hardly the first time Bren had seen him naked, and it wouldn’t be the last. A love of privacy and personal boundaries didn’t fly in a pack. Still, he wasn’t a fan of the way Bren’s eyes trailed to his half-hard dick. He covered himself with a hand, but not quickly enough. He hadn’t been able to shake the mental image of Callie stroking the steam wand while she waved her ass back and forth like a fucking red flag.
Bren snorted. “You going to take care of that before you meet Callie? I think she might figure out that you’ve had a crush on her since you were seven if you show up for her birthday dinner with a stiffie.”
He shot Bren a filthy look. “Fuck off, Kealy.” His cousin’s intrusion had already done the work of deflating his cock like a pin in a balloon.
“Doing my job.” Bren sprawled across Sam’s bed. He was never sure if Bren was joking or if his father had honestly tasked him to run interference between Sam and Callie. “What time are we meeting her?”
“We?” Sam wasn’t planning on letting the whole pack tag along for this. They’d come back to the house later and hang out by the fire pit, sure, but he wanted to celebrate with her first, be the one to buy her first legal drink.
“Dude, look at yourself, you can’t be alone with her. Besides, she’s my friend, too.”
“I’m taking a shower.” Sam turned at the door to his room. Bren was right, he shouldn’t be alone with her. Not when he was feeling restless all over again, despite the day’s physical labor. “Get everyone ready to go in a half hour. And send Colin to the liquor store.”
* * *
Callie walked into the tiny restaurant that passed for Mexican food in their neck of the woods to find Sam, his brother and their cousins holding down a table with a pitcher of margaritas and a glass waiting for her. They immediately erupted into a spectacularly off-key version of the birthday song, like they were putting effort into being awful. She clapped her hands over her ears and cringed while yelling at them to spare her and everyone else their pathetic attempts to sing, but on the inside warm fuzzies washed through her. So she was a convenient excuse for them to come out and get drunk on a Sunday night; they still came out. And Sam made it happen.
Sam had showered and traded his baseball hat, uniform and boots for a black V-neck T-shirt and faded blue shorts, both looser-fitting than his government-issued olive drab. He still looked every inch the former varsity athlete who hiked and cut trails for a living. The tattoo on his biceps peeked out from under his sleeve when he stood up to wrap her in a hug at the end of the song. He’d never explained the meaning of the vaguely Celtic design, only said it was a family thing with an air that never invited more questions.
Tucked against his broad chest, Callie took a deep breath. They’d been friends since she was in kindergarten. He thought of her like the little sister he’d never had. She’d spent her entire childhood rampaging through the woods with Sam, Ryan, and their pack of cousins, always tagging along. But she couldn’t deny that he smelled good. Not thoughts she needed to be having about someone who thought of her like a sister.
Sam released her and sat her at the head of their table. As he filled her glass from the pitcher, the waitress made a fuss of checking her ID and wishing her a happy birthday. She clinked glasses with everyone and drank down the margarita in a handful of swallows and slapped the table for a refill. The night was just getting started.
After a couple of rounds, they shambled up the road to the guys’ house. There was little about the place to recommend it aside from the fire pit out back. The house itself had been a bachelor pad for generations of seasonal work crews and twentysomething guys and had the mystery stains on the carpeting and the scuffed and peeling linoleum to show for it. Most of the time, Callie avoided going inside at all. They had gotten their acts together at least about not leaving food sitting on the counter after Bren came face-to-snout one night with a fat rat that had been making itself at home in their kitchen.
Colin had filled the fridge and Bren got the fire going while the rest of the gang settled into the mishmash of weather-beaten Adirondacks and rusty lawn chairs, the kind that burned your skin on sunny days and might take a chunk of your finger anytime you tried to fold them. Callie helped set up a makeshift bar on the picnic table off to one side of the fire before she plopped into a chair with a plastic cup of cheap handle vodka and discount cranberry juice.
She was tipsy, on her way to drunk, in spite of the burrito Sam had insisted she eat. On any other night, she would have cut herself off, but she’d only have one twenty-first birthday and she didn’t have to work for the next two days and she’d known these people her entire life. She had nothing to worry about with them. And Sam would throw around his big-brotherly weight if anyone gave her a hard time.
People drifted in and out of the yard and she lost track of how many happy birthday toasts she’d drunk. Things started to get hazy when Ryan started passing around a bottle of spiced rum and they were all taking swigs straight from the bottle. She stumbled up the steps to go to the bathroom and felt Sam’s gaze follow her. He hadn’t had much to drink at Nachos and had switched to nursing a beer when they got back to the house. It made her insides feel warm. He wasn’t hovering, wasn’t trying to tell her what to do, but he was watching out for her. Like her best friend. Like a big brother.
She looked up as she washed her hands and her face was doing that thing where it looked like a funhouse mirror and she didn’t recognize herself. She poked her nose. Totally numb. I should probably stop. But when she sat back down, the bottle had come around to her chair and she took another swig. Ryan high-fived her and she stood up to take a sloppy bow, almost tipping the bottle and herself straight into the fire.
Large hands pried the bottle out of her fingers and leaned her against him. Sam’s hands. Leaning on Sam. “Ooookay, Callie. I think maybe you’re done.” He put his hands on her shoulders and shuffled her over to the picnic table. “Sit. I’m going to get you some water.”
She grinned up at him and nodded; her head felt like a bowling ball on the end of a pipe cleaner. She put her elbows on her knees and tried to prop her chin in her hands, but she slipped forward until she was bent in half with her hands brushing through the grass at her feet. It felt nice. It was the last thing she remembered.
* * *
Sam found Callie slumped over and nearly passed out when he returned with water, and forced her to sit up. She didn’t want to. She tried to wrench her arms out of his grip but he was stronger and far more sober than she was. He hoped some part of her recognized that she was very, very drunk and he had done the right thing to pull her away from the fire and try to get some water in her. If she did, it didn’t keep her from struggling to fold forward again.
“No. Was comfy,” she whined.
“Cal, you need to drink some water.”
“Pfft. I’m fine.”
“Uh-huh. Says the girl who almost tipped a bottle of rum into the fire.”
Her eyes went round. “Whoops.” Apparently even this drunk she could understand why that was a bad thing.
“Come on, drink some water, then I think it might be time to go home.”
“What? No.” She screwed her face into a glare and if he wasn’t worried about her, it would have been cute. “Don’t tell me what to do, Sam. You’re not actually my brother.”
He winced at her slurred words. It was good to hear her say it, even if it took tequila and rum and God only knew what else she’d been drinking for the words to come out loud. “No, I’m not. But you’re my best friend and you’re wasted. I’m cutting you off and taking you home.”
She wobbled to her feet. “Fine. I’m going home. You don’t want me here anymore.”
She’d gone from whiny and almost passed out to angry in the blink of an eye. Callie wasn’t usually mean or dramatic when she drank, but maybe that last swig of rum got to her. He’d also never seen her this drunk. She was usually the responsible one, not edging too far past tipsy before she cut herself off and sent herself home for water and bed. She tried to make a grand exit, but tripped over her flip-flops and almost toppled over.
Sam rushed to her side and tried to help her but she kicked off her sandals and trundled barefoot toward the porch. He picked up her shoes and watched her shamble down the driveway. He wasn’t even sure he should let her go home at all. He wanted to pick her up and take her inside where he would be able to keep a watch on her all night. What would he do if she went back to her place only to choke on her own vomit when she passed out? No. He couldn’t let her be alone.
“Callie, wait up.”
She was moving faster than he would have thought possible. She had made it to the end of their driveway and was in the middle of the crosswalk on Main Street when she turned around and stumbled. Sam would never be sure if he started running because she was about to fall in the middle of the street, or if he ran because he heard the rumble of a truck’s engine moving way too fast through town.
It happened in slow motion. A black pickup, no headlights on, barreling down the street. He must have yelled, he heard his voice in his head. Heard tires squeal, the sickening crunch of impact, and the sound of a truck peeling out, fleeing the accident. Then flickering scenes. Callie’s body on the ground. The feel of his knees hitting pavement. Her broken, bleeding body in his lap, the sound of her heart frantically struggling to beat, the gurgle of her lung, filling with blood where her rib had punctured the fragile flesh. She was dying in his arms.
Feet running up behind him. Bren’s hand on his shoulder.
Sam pushed him away, the need to shift rising in him, driven by fear and desperation. He couldn’t lose her.
“Sam, no. I’m calling an ambulance.”
“She won’t last that long.” Her pulse was getting weaker, her breaths more ragged and shallow.
“Think about what you’re doing. She wouldn’t want this.”
“She wouldn’t want to die.”
“She wouldn’t want you to give up your life for her, either.”
Sam made a keening sound in the back of his throat. Her blood pressure was dropping as her body started to shut down. He could make them understand. Make her understand. But she had to be alive for him to have the chance. He’d accept the consequences—censure, exile, containment. Whatever they would do to punish him would be nothing compared to the pain of losing her.
“I can’t let her go, Bren.” He clutched her limp body and listened to the blood and fluid pooling in her lung and her belly while her heart raced against her tumbling blood pressure.
“I know.” Bren put a hand on Sam’s shoulder. “We need to get her out of the road.”
Gingerly, they scooped her up and brought her into the shadow of the maple trees that surrounded the school fields where they’d spent their childhoods playing tag and throwing snowballs at recess. Sam let go, gave rein to his fear and let the wolf rise.