Excerpt from Pack and Coven, releasing 2/12 from Carina Press
Chapter 1 (approximately 10 pages)
“Sorry, sweetie, we’re out of porterhouses.” Harry’s gray-haired waitress slid a stemmed water glass onto the table in front of him and flipped her receipt book to the next page.
Out of porterhouses? How could Miss Sandie’s Tea Room run out of steaks when he was the only customer who ordered them?
Harry stared at the frilly, blue-checkered menu as if another werewolf-friendly item were going to appear among the scones and scotch eggs. Miss Sandie’s was his customary lunch spot, but he’d rather fire up the grill himself than settle for a fruit plate.
Which was saying a lot. Harry hadn’t gotten a culinary gene, just a furry one.
“Are you sure, Annette? Did Sandie order T-bones?” He sniffed the air but couldn’t detect much beyond the fresh flowers on his table and apple-pie odor that saturated the dining room. He didn’t have the greatest nose in wolfdom, but it wasn’t as dull as a human’s.
“Your friends from earlier cleaned us out.” Annette slipped into the chair across from him, clearly intent on a chat. The café wasn’t busy at this hour. “Sandie doesn’t mind keeping you in steaks, Harry, but this isn’t a greasy spoon.”
“Which friends?” He peered around the pastry cabinet next to his chair, but a table of female diners blocked his view of the café.
“Your lady friends.” Annette smoothed a wrinkle out of the tablecloth. “I use the term lady loosely, you understand. No ladies I know behave like that.”
He didn’t like the sound of that. Harry had a number of lady friends, and none would give Annette a sour face. Or order steak at a tea room. He liked his women sweet, talented in the kitchen and one hundred percent human. He also liked them roughly his own age, which left Miss Sandie and her staff out of the running. Too bad. Miss Sandie in particular had a great sense of humor, an open mind, a big heart, and was one of the best cooks he’d ever known.
The question was, why would Annette connect some random, steak-eating women to him? “My friends, huh. Did they mention me by name or something?”
Annette tapped her pen on her receipt book. “They said they knew you. They looked familiar, but I haven’t met every single person in town.”
“Maybe they weren’t from around here.” Millington, West Virginia, wasn’t big, but it was close enough to Wheeling that they did get tourist traffic. It was possible some of the independent shifters he’d known in New York City were visiting.
“Could be.” She leaned toward him. “I certainly don’t know anyone in Millington who thinks dog collars make good fashion accessories.”
“Not even pink ones?”
Annette rolled her eyes, so Harry changed the subject. He’d been in Wheeling all morning buying supplies for his garage, and he was starving. “What are the specials today?”
“Same as every Thursday, kiddo,” Annette teased, but she told him anyway.
While she talked, Harry cursed inwardly. These “friends” sounded like local pack members. He frequented the tea room and befriended humans as part of his strategy of pack avoidance. If the pack invaded his sanctuary, he’d be severely put out. It had taken years to cultivate Sandie and her staff, trading discounted automotive repairs for steaks cooked the way he liked them, friendly faces and the occasional heated bunco session.
This was his place. His. Why did they have to ruin it? Couldn’t they just leave him alone?
He could just hear the alpha female, Bianca’s, coaxing tones—Bert agreed to accept you, Harry. Wolves aren’t made to live by themselves, Harry. Join the pack, Harry.
The pack could kiss his hairy butt. Contrary to popular werewolf belief, shifters could be as human as the next human if they wanted. Pack life was a choice, not a necessity.
A choice Harry didn’t plan to make.
“Earth to Harry.” Annette tapped his menu with her pen. “What do you want for lunch?”
“Ham-and-cheese croissant—heavy on the cheese, heavier on the ham—a side of scrambled eggs with that tomato sauce, a plate of scones, a selection of marmalades and a strawberry-and-walnut salad. Oh, and fruit tea.”
“Hungry boy.” Annette stuck her pen in her upswept hairdo. “You remind me of Junior.”
“He doing okay at school?”
“He was home at Christmas. He looked thin.”
“I’m sure you remedied that.” Harry handed over the menu and winked. Annette ran a close second to Sandie as his favorite person in Millington, and that was saying something, because Sandie was his favorite person outside Millington too. “If any of my so-called friends come back, tell them you’re out of steak and save the porterhouse for me.”
The bell above the door tinkled a merry tune. She rose and slipped her receipt book in her apron pocket. “Why don’t you tell them yourselves?”
“What do you mean?” He swiveled in his chair and watched local pack members Bianca, Violet and Susan stroll through the front door. Their spike-heeled boots and skintight clothes were as out of place in Miss Sandie’s Tea Room as Annette and Sandie would have been in a biker bar.
Bianca’s chin lifted as she scented the air, and her gaze fell unerringly on Harry. “There you are.”
He did his best to conceal his flinch and regretted the fact he’d already given Annette the menu because he couldn’t duck behind it.
“I’ll get your tea,” Annette said before she left. “If your friends order anything, let them know that around here we tip the wait staff.”
The three shifters swaggered through the tea room, attracting a good deal of attention. The ladies at the next table bent their heads together, whispering. Thanks to his sharper-than-human ears, Harry could hear them.
“Those are the ones I was telling you about,” the blonde said. Her name was Donna Manns, and Harry had gone out with her years ago. “They’re dating that lowlife Bert Macabee whose gang got caught robbing the Webster place.”
Hold on, this was news. The pack alpha had gotten his ass arrested? Donna was married to a cop now. She’d know what she was talking about.
“All three were dating him at the same time?” one of the ladies gasped, horror and delight in her voice. “Did they know about each other?”
“Apparently,” Donna said with relish. “The one with black hair, Bianca Macabee, she’s married to him. Those people down the river are like a cult. My husband says they’re nudists or survivalists or something. I guess they do things different. Well, they can’t break the law. Macabee’s going to be sent to prison.”
Harry cleared his throat. When the ladies turned, he nodded politely. Bianca liked to pick fights. If the news were true, she’d be especially belligerent right now. The ladies realized Bianca had closed in, so they hushed—the better to hear whatever she planned to say to Harry.
“Harry,” Bianca said, lingering over the Rs. “We’ve been looking for you all day.”
Bianca might be a wolf, but when she talked—at least when she was in a good mood—she purred. She didn’t sound belligerent. Donna must be wrong about Bert, or Bianca wouldn’t be smiling. The pack had a good lawyer.
“I just got back from a purchasing trip,” he answered, relaxing a little. “I’m having lunch.”
“They have excellent steaks,” Bianca remarked. “I may have to bring my friends here.”
Harry didn’t want the pack haunting Miss Sandie’s. Moreover, he didn’t want Sandie and the others associating him with the shifters. Not that humans knew about shifters, but the local pack had a bad reputation in these parts. They maintained a few lucrative businesses—bar, bike shop, convenience store—but they liked to bully the humans.
And, apparently, rob them.
“They don’t usually have steaks,” Harry lied. “What can I do for you? Is your truck giving you trouble?”
“Now, Harry, there’s no need to be all business. We’ve known each other for years.”
Yeah, years of him distancing himself from pack politics. He and the local group had coexisted in uneasy accord after Bert satisfied himself Harry wasn’t going to make a play for the territory.
That didn’t stop other pack members—mostly women—from imploring him to join. They’d get in big trouble if they slept with a wolf outside the pack, and for whatever reason women regarded Harry as desirable.
A burden he valiantly bore.
Bianca slid into the chair across from him while Violet and Susan hovered behind her. The lace-topped table only seated two. Over Bianca’s shoulder, Harry saw Annette peek through the round window of the kitchen door. She probably wouldn’t come back out while Bianca and company were here.
So much for his tasty beverage. Damn, he was thirsty too.
He did have water. He sighed and crunched ice, wishing it were Sandie’s fruit tea. “Why are you looking for me?”
“You know what we want.” Under the table, Bianca’s boot nudged his calf, inching upward. Her black hair was pulled into a sleek tail, and her dark eyes were made darker by makeup. “We want you to come to our party.”
Pack wolves hosted annual ceremonies to renew bonds. Their annual was next month, but he’d rather gnaw his own foot off than show up for a party like that. Snacks or no snacks.
“I sent my regrets.” Harry crossed his legs under the table, kicking her boot aside. “I have plans that night.”
“Doing what, playing bunco with the grannies?” Violet asked with a snide laugh.
Bianca chuckled a moment but then snapped her fingers, silencing the other female. “How many times have you missed our party? I won’t take no for an answer.”
Independents frequently left the vicinity during annual ceremonies to avoid being sucked in. Harry was no exception.
“Sorry. I’ll be out of town.” He kicked her foot away again, and his knee banged the underside of the table. Silverware rattled. The eavesdropping ladies at the next table jumped in their seats.
“Right, your yearly vacation. Since you’re so predictable, we switched the date for you. The party’s tonight.” Bianca smiled, her teeth straight, white and not at all canine.
“Tonight?” She had to be lying. Bonding ceremonies took weeks to plan. You couldn’t just whip one up because you felt like it. “It’s not the full moon.”
“Full enough.” She studied him. “I thought you didn’t care about lunar cycles.”
“I don’t, but I know you do.”
The Millington wolves were classic conservatives in the larger world of shifters. They lived in packs ruled by an alpha male and female and preferred a home base as close to the edge of civilization as possible. Ceremonies were tied to cycles of the moon. It had been proven by shifter scientists that werewolves were no more connected to the moon than any other primate, but conservatives regarded that factoid like certain human groups regarded evolution.
Shifters had some unique biological constraints. Moon madness wasn’t one of them. The moon controlled the tides, yes, but howling at it was optional.
Bianca thunked her elbows on the table. “Harry,” she said, in a different voice, one that almost seemed rational. “You may have heard. Things have changed.”
Was she talking about Bert? Harry played dumb. “I haven’t heard anything.”
“Don’t lie to me.” She jerked her head toward the eavesdroppers. “What Blondie said is true. Bert and a few others are headed to the pen. There’s no way our lawyer can get him off this time, and we already made the party plans. You know what that means.”
Packs required two alphas to function. With Bert out of the territory and in prison, he wouldn’t be able to serve as a fulcrum. He’d also be cut off from his shifter nature unless there was a pack in the pen he could join.
Harry doubted it. Most shifters weren’t stupid enough to get nabbed by human law enforcement.
But Bert’s arrest meant the Millington pack was under the gun. With the pack bond ceremony initiated weeks ago, they had to go through with the rest or the bond would dissolve and leave them permanently toothless. And they couldn’t have a pack ceremony without two alphas.
Harry had no idea what unlucky shifter was about to get a boost in pack hierarchy, but he could hardly be more of a sleaze than Bert.
“Sorry about Bert. I know you were married to him a long time.” In most packs, the male and female alphas were partners legally too.
“Gosh, thanks. We had no idea he was into that stuff.” Bianca smiled. “We’re so upset.”
Why did he not believe her? “I’m sure you’ll have enough people at the party without me.”
“That’s just it.” She adjusted the silverware in front of her before continuing. “We can’t have it without you. You’re the guest of honor.”
Silence reigned as Harry stared at Bianca in horror. To his surprise, what with her being an actual pack alpha, she looked away first.
“You’re joking,” he said flatly. Every wolf in Millington, hell, probably on the continent, knew Harry didn’t want to follow a leader—or be one.
“I’m not.” Bianca looked as serious as he’d ever seen her, and the woman had a microscopic sense of humor. “I’m begging. You know what we’ve got to choose from, and they haven’t got…what you’ve got.”
“It’s called brains.” Harry’s voice was more of a growl than intended. “All sorts of people have them.”
When he’d moved to the area and discovered the pack was conservative, he’d considered returning to the city, but he was tired of concrete and skyscrapers. Even liberals liked to run free on occasion, and that was hard to do in New York.
“I’ll ask you nicely,” she began, before he cut her off.
“I’m not coming.” If he had to, he’d drive to the closest airport after lunch and book a flight for Vegas. Without their alpha, pack wolves couldn’t leave their territories for extended periods of time. Two days, max. They certainly couldn’t stray long enough to track him as far as Nevada, and Millington was short on alphas at the moment.
“I wish you hadn’t said that.” Bianca vibrated with an intensity that let him know how grim his situation was. Harry had no doubt about her meaning. Because he wasn’t part of a pack, he was no match for pack wolves physically.
Mentally, he hoped, was another story.
“This is a free country, Bianca. Join the century. You can’t make people do whatever you want.” Good God, he hated conservative wolves. They thought they could ignore anything that conflicted with pack law, including free will. No way in hairy hell was he going to join the Millington pack, much less be its alpha.
“Can I not?” Her eyes flashed pale blue with anger, with the onset of her alpha strength.
Harry shrugged, fury building in his own chest. Other packs had pressured him to join, but nobody had threatened to shanghai him. He just wanted to fix cars, eat steaks and make love to pretty women. Why couldn’t they accept he was different?
“I guess we have until tonight to change your mind,” Bianca said.
“Find another guest of honor.” If they weren’t a bunch of damn crooks, they wouldn’t have this problem. Harry’s sympathy was nonexistent, and he was angry enough that Bianca’s alpha side didn’t influence him.
“You’re the one we want. We voted.”
While the touch of democracy in the pack surprised him, it didn’t sway him.
“Import somebody.” A wolf had to carry the alpha gene in order to serve, but that didn’t mean candidates were so impossible to find that any pack would have to resort to him. There were plenty of alpha wannabes willing to jump ship. They were probably panting at the gates if news of Bert’s arrest had circulated.
As long it wasn’t one of the degenerates from the pack where Harry had been born, Bianca could hardly do worse than Bert Macabee.
She shook her head. “I’m not interested. The current crop is all idiots.”
“Like Bert isn’t.” Harry tried not to growl. Not a good time for his primitive side to claw its way to the surface. Humans dealt with testosterone too, but when they got pissed, they didn’t sprout fur and fangs. “Make a few calls up north. You can’t throw a stick up there without hitting some guy who, uh, likes to party. You don’t want me.”
“Yes, we do,” Bianca insisted.
“Why?” He might have the right DNA, but there was nothing else right about him.
Her lips tightened. “We voted.”
“As a United States citizen, I have a vote too. It’s no. If you don’t mind, I prefer to eat alone,” he lied. Wolves could handle many things alone, but they rarely preferred it.
“We’ve got time. We’ll wait.”
Harry had several choices. He could make a break for it, but he’d never escape the pack under his own steam. Fighting was also out. They’d wipe the floor with him. Plus, he didn’t want to subject the people in the tea room to a wolf-style throwdown.
Failing that—and it would fail—he could involve the police. They might not issue a restraining order against three hot chicks who wanted him to party, but Harry could contrive to get himself thrown in jail. Punch a cop or something. He didn’t particularly want a criminal record, so he’d save that as his last resort.
For independents like Harry, human laws and shifter wits were their only recourse if they squabbled with a pack. It happened. Packs existed everywhere, under various guises. Some packs were worse than others when it came to trampling a wolf’s right to independence, and there was no appeals committee. The packs couldn’t cooperate long enough to agree on anything except Humans Must Not Find Out. Revealing the secret was the only thing a wolf would be punished for by the shifter world at large.
They certainly weren’t punished for abusing those who were weaker, not if their alphas ignored it. Or did it themselves. Packs worked together to cover up their secrets…by any means necessary.
Harry’s best choice seemed to be humoring Bianca long enough to locate a small vehicle with a large engine. Maybe that Porsche he’d almost finished. If he remained in pack territory, they could find him as easily as Bianca had today.
Discretion, valor, cowardice—who cared as long as it worked and nobody got hurt?
“So are we settled?” Her tone had a tinge of sympathy. “You had to know you couldn’t avoid our party forever.”
“I don’t see why not,” he answered in a low voice he knew she could still hear. “There’s no rule that says everyone has to come to these parties.”
“There should be. It would save time.”
Packers and indies rarely saw the appeal of the other’s lifestyle. Too bad packers were the majority. Too bad indies had nowhere to go that was free of some pack’s influence. “You’re disturbing the other diners. I’ll be at my shop by three. Meet me there.”
“I don’t think so.”
He contemplated his empty glass and wondered how long he’d last if he got into a spoon-and-doily fight with three adult pack members. Ten, fifteen seconds. Twenty if he upended the table and they yelled at him for spilling food on their boots. How the hell was he going to get out of this?
He raised his hands, palms up. “What’s the matter? You don’t trust me?”
“Would you trust me if the situations were reversed?”
A small hand belonging to a small woman landed on his shoulder. He recognized the scent—his friend Sandie. Where had she come from?
“Are you harassing one of my customers, Mrs. Macabee?”
His rescuer was five feet tall and old as the hills, but her intervention flooded Harry with reassurance. It was one thing for packers to strut around in black leather, ride through town on choppers, harass people in tea rooms, vandalize public property, evade taxes and traffic in stolen goods. Humans did those things too.
Humans were less inclined to drag grown men out of tea rooms because they wanted to “party.” Bianca’s strategy had just become conspicuous.
“I’m extending a polite invitation,” she said to Sandie in a sharper voice than her normal purr. Unless Harry was mistaken, anger had constricted her vocal cords with the beginning of a shift. The trick was not allowing it to go further than that. “Don’t get your drawers in a wad.”
Hot-tempered Violet looked equally angry. He didn’t see any sprouts of hair, which was good. Susan seemed as impassive as always.
“Let the poor man eat.” Sandie plonked a heavy plate on the table. Steam rose from the eggs in fragrant clouds, and he had not one but two big, fat croissants full of ham. “If he says he’ll meet you at three, he’ll meet you at three. Not a minute sooner.”
Harry hid a smirk. The person he trusted most in this world had his back. And his eggs. It might not cow Bianca, but it sure gave him a laugh.
Too bad Bianca wasn’t impressed. “I don’t think you know who you’re talking to, old woman.”
Harry quit grinning. Bianca wouldn’t dare wolf out, but hearing the threat in her voice directed at Sandie angered him in a different way. Nobody bullied his friends without going through him. Which he knew Bianca would be happy to do.
Sandie, though, wasn’t impressed either. She had an answer for everything, which was especially handy if your internet was down.
“I don’t think you know who you’re talking to, dear.” She wriggled her fingers in the steam rising from the eggs. Though she had age spots, her fingers were straight and agile. Parsley sprinkled from her hand onto Harry’s food. “This is my restaurant. If you don’t leave my customers alone, I’ll call the police.”
Then she dusted her hands dismissively, flicking parsley onto Bianca’s side of the small table.
Pressure built in Harry’s ears as if he were driving up a mountain in a fast car. When Sandie bumped his arm with her hip, his ears popped.
Bianca pointed at him with a daggerlike fingernail. “If you aren’t waiting for me at three, I’ll find you. My friends are keeping an eye out, watching the roads to make sure you get to the party tonight.”
Which meant she’d assigned sentries to shut down the territory.
“I’m not going anywhere.” Damn. His best plan of escape, shredded like a bag of cheese. Had she gone as far as a regional lockdown? Resentment churned inside him, twisting his nerve endings until he was afraid his hair might stand on end.
To Harry, there was no worse fate than joining a pack. Not one.
“If I can’t find you…” Her voice trailed off ominously as she rose, and the women sauntered out the door. They’d doubtless lie in wait, unwilling to give him a chance to slip through their fingers. He could only linger for so long before his own behavior became conspicuous.
Sandie clucked her tongue. “Girls today, I swan. They have no manners.”
“I have to agree,” said Donna from the next table. “That’s pure low-class. A girl shouldn’t have to chase a man to catch him.”
Sandie smiled at the woman. “I can recall a few times you might have chased Timothy.”
She’d chased Harry too. He kept his mouth zipped shut.
“That was different.” Donna flushed, and the other two women at the table laughed. “Oh, hush, all of you!”
As the lunch companions began arguing what constituted chasing, Sandie returned her attention to Harry. “If you want to leave out the back, that’s fine with me.”
Her hand patted his hair, combing through it as if he had tangles, which he didn’t because it was too short. Sandie wasn’t huggy, and he appreciated the gesture. Some of his anxiety eased. As a shifter, he liked a lot of contact, particularly from people in his inner circle.
“Thanks.” She never let customers in her kitchen, something about recipe espionage. “I’m sorry they barged in here like that. I don’t know them well. I just work on their vehicles. I have zero interest in their party.”
For a moment Sandie didn’t answer. It would suck rocks if she cold-shouldered him because of Bianca. Not that Sandie was judgmental, but it would bother him if she thought poorly of him. In addition to that, the grannies, as Violet had called them, were his primary social network. No werewolf, not even indies, handled complete isolation without consequences.
And, really, he adored the grannies. He watched his language for the grannies. The day he’d slipped into Miss Sandie’s Tea Room eight years ago had been like coming to a home he hadn’t known he had. Sandie had plunked herself down at his table to ask how he liked his sandwich, and that had been that. He’d been a goner. His relationship with her and her friends was more fulfilling than the indies he’d palled around with in New York. Tastier too. He’d never been happier and less inclined to travel—which didn’t mean he wanted the option of travel taken away by a pack bond.
Once a wolf bonded with a pack, he or she was stuck as a packer, usually for life.
And pack life wouldn’t include, couldn’t include, Sandie and the grannies.
Finally she patted his shoulder and sighed. “I’ve been telling you to find a nice girl and settle down, haven’t I? Then ones like that won’t hunt you down.”
Harry reached out and snugged the old lady to his side. He knew she had a larger personal space than he did, but sometimes he couldn’t help himself. “How could I? You’re the only woman I want.”
“Nonsense.” She smacked his hand away, but when he glanced at her face, she was blushing. She had bright blue eyes, a snippy nose and hair like white cotton candy. She must have been remarkably pretty in her day. “I’m old enough to be your grandmother.”
“Haven’t you heard of May-December romances?” he teased. He loved her scent—cake and fruit tea.
“Player.” She extracted herself from his grasp. “Are we still on for tonight?”
“I may have to miss this week.” Several of them drove to the closest town with a theater once a month for popcorn and cinema. Or cinema criticism, which is what it turned into.
“If you change your mind,” Sandie said, “I can pick you up at seven.”
“I’ll let you know.” Harry was pretty sure he could find a way out of Bianca’s trap, but it wasn’t something he could discuss with Sandie. He suddenly wished he could, wished he could tell her everything so she could help him fix it.
But no. She was human, he was shifter, and they could only take a friendship so far.
She watched him for a minute as if she were reading his mind. “Is something the matter?”
“Nah. I’m just too popular for my own good.” He shoved food into his mouth to end the conversation. If he couldn’t figure this thing with Bianca out, what was he going to tell Sandie?
Instead he said, “Good eggs.”
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, Mr. Popular.”
“Mmf,” he responded, not watching when she left.
No reason to think about goodbyes until he considered his situation from all angles. The pack’s traditional ways were confining. Prehistoric. Bert hadn’t encouraged male alphas of any stripe to hang around. He didn’t want a challenge. Harry had been an exception. Now Bert was gone, and if the pack couldn’t find somebody fast they were in trouble.
Not Harry’s problem. After seeing his mother humiliated and abused during his pack upbringing, he’d vowed never to be a packer. He fulfilled his shifter drive for interaction in other ways. Like tea rooms. And bunco. And movie night, dammit.
In fact, he had no idea why anyone would choose pack over independence. Why commit to one group, one set of faces, one geographic location, when there was a whole world to see and billions of people in it? He wasn’t a mutant—he liked a stable home base—but he could travel. Only last summer, he, Sandie, Annette and her husband, Pete, had rented a condo at the beach for two weeks and helped a conservation group flag sea-turtle nests. Packers couldn’t do that unless they lived at the beach already.
His inclinations, his will, were the only things he had to heed. Pack bonds compelled you to obey your alphas. No way was Harry tying himself to that kind of existence. He’d promised his mother before she’d died, and he’d promised himself.
He just wasn’t sure how to avoid it this time without getting himself tossed in jail.
© 2011 Jody Wallace
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