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Summer spent the next few days recovering from shifting under a waxing gibbous moon and fending on calls from her Aunties and Uncles.
“No, Auntie Saffron, I’m staying down here for the moon,” she said in a weary voice on the third day. “As I told Auntie Dittany yesterday, I know it’s the Fourth of July, but the humans will all be either liquored up, too focused on fireworks, or both. They won’t notice if I run the beach those three nights.”
She leaned on her kitchen counter, a pint of ice cream melting forgotten on the counter, and bonked the spoon in her hand against her forehead as a substitute for running her head into the wall.
The conversation was the same every month. They wanted her to come home to run, she deflected, they got angry, she cut them off, and refused to answer texts or calls until after the full moon.
Summer walked the length of her townhouse with the phone to her ear. Normally, she would have plugged her headphones in and walked with the phone in her pocket, but nerves from her kidnapping made her tense and hyperaware of sounds in her townhouse.
She knew Chuck would be back, she owed him an answer, and whatever he claimed he was or wasn’t, she knew the bargain they struck was not normal. She had expected him to come back the next day. She had dragged herself out of bed once an hour to slouch against her back door and smell for any hint of him on the salty sea breeze, but only got the smells of brine and overripe fish.
When a week and the full moon had gone by without him contacting her, she was edgy and jumpy. She had run alone for the three nights of the full moon and startled at every snapping twig; afraid it was him. At home, she had stopped lighting the candles that blocked out the smells of living close to humanity.
When two weeks passed without contact, her nerves had frayed, and she had given up. Which, of course, meant that when Chuck showed up again on the Thursday before the new moon, he scared the hell out of her.
Summer was sorting between the keys to her townhouse, car, and office trying to find the townhouse key as she stepped out of her compact SUV.
“I have my third question, if you’re ready?”
Chuck’s voice was smooth, yet it jolted her out of her Thursday funk. Summer half jumped with one foot on the ground and one still in the SUV, resulting in her banging her head on the doorframe.
“Chuck!” she shrieked into the fading daylight. She righted herself and whirled to face him. “I’d ask what you want, but I clearly know,” she ground out.
Chuck gave her a boyish grin and the effect that smile had on her gave her a second jolt. At her startled look, he went on. “I am not at your place of business and I am not inside your home, I believe this is fair game.”
Summer ground her teeth. “Fine, this is within the bounds of our previous agreement. What’s the question?” She looked at him, taking in the things she had missed before. His eyes were the same deep blue she remembered and his five-o’clock shadow still stood out sharply against pale skin, but now she realized how large he was. Not only tall, standing head and shoulders over her, but broad, the muscles of his shoulders standing out against his t-shirt. Summer swallow hard, part fear and part something else. Something she’d rather ignore. Something she was very on guard against because the men was an incubus.
“No preamble? No inviting me in for supper? A quiet cup of tea?” he asked with mock hopefulness.
“No,” she said flatly, refusing to rise to the bait or react to that smile. “What is your question?” She leaned against her vehicle and crossed her arms, unwilling to show any body language that might indicate she would ever invite him into her home. Or bed. What? she thought to herself.
She gave his cocky little smile a single glance and cut off that line of thought. He may be attractive, but she didn’t trust a millimeter of his perfectly white smile.
Under her implacable stare, his smile withered. “Fine,” he said and stood up straight, looming over her as he abandoned the causally slouchy posture he had adopted. “How do I eradicate an established feral pack?”
Summer’s eyes bulged in surprise that he would ask her that so openly. “That’s going to take more than a minute to answer and I’m not about to answer it in my driveway where anyone can hear,” she hissed.
“So, invite me in?” he asked and gave her another charming smile.
Her jaw worked furiously until she could head her teeth grinding audibly. “For the purpose of answering this single question, you may follow me and enter my home. After that, you’re out. And,” she stressed, “you must observe the Laws of Hospitality.”
“Very well, provided you abide by the rules of the Host, I will follow the etiquette of a Guest. I shall offer that I will not be a threat or burden during my stay.” All hints of charm and levity were gone from his voice, replaced with a kind of somber formality.
Summer nodded once. “Follow me. Please,” she said as a quiet afterword. She led him inside her modest townhome.
He gave only the slightest hesitation at the door frame before stepping in lightly.
“Sit, please,” she said and pointed at a high bar stool, pulled up to a kitchen island, surrounded by plants. Summer set her bag down and fumbled briefly through the kitchen, muttering almost inaudibly about unanticipated guests. Finally, she set a loaf of sliced sandwich bread, a stick of butter, butter knife, and a shaker of salt before him. “Bread and salt. Gimme a sec, I’ll open some wine.”
Chuck gave a little nod. “So,” he started, “how do I eradicate an established feral pack?”
“No, wine first,” Summer said and splashed a bold red into two glasses. “You may be a demon, but I won’t be accused of being a spiteful host.”
She ignored the slight narrowing of his eyes and slid one of the glasses to him. Before he could comment, she turned back to her small pantry. Rummaging around produced a small box of chocolates, two apples, and a packet of beef jerky.
Summer gave him an apologetic look. “I don’t have much company and usually get take out.”
Chuck gave her a small smile and slathered the bread with butter. He gave it a light sprinkle of salt and bit into it with a wink. “The hospitality of your house is generous,” he said formally and without a hint of mocking. Before she could respond further, he took a sip of the wine.
Summer exhaled slightly. “I offer hospitality to the mundane and divine alike,” she said in a formal reply. “Meager though it is,” she muttered under her breath. She was more disappointed in herself than him and cringed to think what her Aunties would say of her version of hospitality.
“To end a feral pack, you must capture the Alpha,” she with a hint of scorn, “or better kill him. The problem is that the dumbass ferals will then think you’re their new Alpha and they will follow you. You’ve gotta either kill them all or spend your remaining days squashing their deadly stupidity until someone else challenges you and kills you for the spot.”
Chuck nodded, almost as if he’d expected the answer.
Summer eyed him warily. “Why?”
He slathered more butter on his bread and made a show of sprinkling salt over it before biting down. “There is a feral pack moving this way. I intend to halt them before they can disturb the area,” he said around the salted bread.
Fear lanced through her. “Where? Where are they now?”
He looked at her and quirked a well-groomed eyebrow, still chewing his bread.
“Twenty-five or so miles outside of Baker, Florida.”
Summer inhaled sharply.
“They’re headed towards your pack, Summer.”
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