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Chuck had stood before bigger crowds. He had stood before more hostile crowds. The crowd that consisted of all the male relatives of a certain debutant came to mind. But, while Gabriella’s brothers and cousins had been formidable, he was certain they didn’t carry the threat of personally tearing his throat out. Despite Summer’s reassurances, he wasn’t convinced that this crowd of spry, and occasionally fuzzy, retirees couldn’t knock him into the timber flooring and spill his demon blood back into the earth.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m sure you’re wondering why I gathered you all here today,” Summer told the crowd then laughed nervously. “Just kidding, Aunties and Uncles. I’ve just always wanted to say that.”
Chuck glared daggers at Summer’s lithe form, but she was focused on the small crowd in the Pack House.
“Look, this is Chuck. Yes, he’s an incubus. No, I’m not under his control or sleeping with him.”
There was a generally negative murmur in the crowd and Chuck tried not to grimace. The woman was terrible at talking to crowds and had no idea how fast she was losing her audience.
“Chuck says we’ve got ferals headed this way. Not one or two this time, but a whole pack.”
Chuck stepped up, subtly pushing Summer behind him. Trying not to relish the feel of her well toned arm as he touched it. “Yes, I’ve been tracking a pack of feral werewolves since they crossed Longview, Texas and all the way across to the Panhandle. It’s more than a few feral individuals. This is a pack-like structure, with a clearly defined leader who is pushing them towards a goal.
“I’m sure you’ve noticed the minor incursions along the borders of your territory this last week. Those were just the scouts. They’ve been testing your reflexes and defenses. They want to know how you would react to a larger incursion.”
Chuck took in a breath, reading the room. Summer stood beside him, watching warily. Their conversation in the car had been carefully tailored to show the potential impact of the feral pack but not enough to scare her into paralyzed inaction. He’d been careful to hide certain details he thought would engage her on an emotional level and her reaction to his speech made him glad he had.
“This pack is different than others I’ve encountered. Its not five or six poor bastards spiraling off their last traces of humanity. This is a well organized pack of almost twenty with a strong and charismatic leader if my sources are to be believed. They are unusual. There is little of the infighting that usually tears feral packs apart as they descend into madness. Their leader has something that is helping him hold on to his humanity and he’s able to keep those around him at least a little sane.”
“What do they want?” asked a creaky voice from the middle of the group.
“Your territory,” Chuck told them bluntly.
“But why?” Mullein asked.
Chuck shook his head. “I’m not sure.”
Summer, probably now hyperaware of his facial expressions since her Auntie called her feelings out, caught something in the way he said it and frowned.
“We don’t have prime hunting ground. We aren’t near a metropolitan area. This isn’t exactly a garden spot,” Summer told him. A few of the Elders frowned, but the handful of other adult werewolves nodded.
“I know and I’m not completely sure,” Chuck answered.
“Regardless,” Chuck told them, avoiding Summer’s eye, “you need to organize defenses. I want to help you set up a guard rotations, overlapping lines of fire, and a cache of weapons.”
He knew by the shuffling of feet and hands tightening on canes as he spoke the words it was the wrong angle. A wave a quiet head shakes and quiet, but angry mutters followed his statement. The group clumped into small knots of folks, turning away from Chuck and Summer, and whispering to themselves.
“Summer, they won’t do it,” he told her quietly. He had leaned in to whisper in her ear and enjoyed how she straightened slightly as his breath whispered across her ear.
“I know,” she replied just as quietly, taking a half step closer until that well toned arm almost touched his sleeve. “I tried to tell you. They aren’t the ravaging beasts you think they are. Or,” she amended, “that you’re used to seeing.”
“They won’t kill. Not until they’ve been attacked first.” Summer shook her head. “Even when confronted by a feral on the verge of killing one of them, they always try to calm them and talk them down first.”
“Does that ever work?” When Summer remained silent, Chuck shook his head and stepped closer. “Convince them,” he whispered. He was so close he could smell the hint of fear that coiled around her. “This is your family, Summer.”
Summer’s expression was a mixture of regret and sadness as she looked up at him, hazel eyes seeking something in him. She was so close now that he could feel the warmth of her skin. He wanted to drink it in, bask in. Even the human side of him desperately wanted to know if a finger run along her arm would feel the soft smoothness of her skin or the firm strength in her arms.
“They are who they are. There’s no changing that any more than there is stopping what’s about to happen.”
Chuck closed his eyes in frustration. “This is your family, Summer,” he stressed.
“This is my pack,” she told him. “I love them, but there are reasons why I left. And how they treat ferals is one of them. This won’t convince them, Chuck.”
At the sound of a throat clearing Chuck stepped back, acutely aware of how close he stood to Summer.
“Young man, we appreciate the information you have given us, but you mistake us. We are peaceful people and cannot do as you ask.”
The creaking ancient voice came from the old woman who had thumped into the pack house imperiously on her walker. Auntie Rose, he thought.
“You are not familiar with our pack. You do the world a service, we will admit,” the elderly woman said, inclining her proud head slightly, “but have grown too accustomed to the way of feral beasts. We are not like them.” The crone’s hands tightened on her walker are her gaze shifted to Summer. “But you,” her creaking voice hardened, “know better. Your family raised you better. Too long away has given you strange ideas.” The sound of her walker being thumped onto the hardwood planks resonated through the cabin.
“Please–” Chuck started, but was cut off.
“No.” Her firm denial came like the creaking of a willow in a gale. “We don’t condone this sort of violence,” her hard gaze shifted briefly back to Summer, “and we must ask you to leave.”
Chuck opened his mouth, but at Summer’s insistent tug on his sleeve, shut his mouth and nodded mutely.
They stepped off the small wooden pallet that served as a dais and into the small crowd. Chuck watched Summer touch a few outstretched hands, nod pleasant, but strained goodbyes, and give a few quiet hugs. Chuck left the cabin without a word and without letting anyone catch his gaze.
No one reached out to Chuck.
No one attempted to catch his gaze.
In a way, he was pleased. His normal magnetism would have drawn a few in, even in a crowd this small. But his attempts at self-control, at overcoming his own nature, had been paying off over the last few years. And too, Summer’s Aunt Dittany had been right, a fully committed incubus would have found difficulty influencing a supernatural entity as strong as a werewolf. One who denied his nature at every turn had no chance of swaying her.
His lips quirked up into a brief smile. Summer responded because she genuinely found him attractive.
Summer, cheeks flushed and eyes liquid in the reflected light of the cabin joined him on the gravel path outside the cabin. They walked wordlessly, feet crunching on the gravel path and the singing of cicadas the only sound until they reached Chuck’s beater. Summer reached for the passenger door, but Chuck caught her hand.
“Let go,” she told him, jerking her hand in his.
“Summer,” he started to speak. He opened his mouth again, words formed in his mind, but nothing came out.
Summer tugged at his hand again, an insistent tug, but not hard enough to break away. Chuck had gone hand to hand with feral werewolves in human shape and had no doubts she could rip even his arm off if she was so inclined.
“What do you feel for them?” Chuck asked quietly.
“My pack.” There was a tiny but telling pause. “I love them. They raised me but-” she hesitated.
In the dim light, he saw her eyes dart back towards the pack house. The dim light coming down the gravel path caught and reflected in her eyes.
“As you can see, we disagree. I’ve never been bothered that much when the Elders had to put down a feral. I understood the necessity. I knew it was for the safety of the pack, but they wrestled with it every time.”
Summer paused and looked down at his hand, still gripping hers.
“They would leave a feral tied up for hours. Days, once. Debating the necessity. Questioning if they could be turned back.” Her face hardened in the dim light and she looked back up at him. “No one comes back. Keeping a feral alive like that only prolongs the misery for everyone, especially if they’re wounded.”
The dim light reflected in her eyes once again.
A wolf’s eyes.
A predator’s eyes.
Chuck shivered despite the sultry summer air. The very human part of him recognized a predator and somewhere deep in his brain, a quiet and ancient instinct told him to run when a predator this strong was this close. It told him to run when a predator this close could look at him like that.
Summer twisted her wrist and broke his grasp. She turned to him fully. “Do you want to know why I left? Why I really left?” she asked.
Her stare held pain and regret was etched in the tense lines of her body. Summer’s brows furrowed and her eyes shifted over his shoulder, staring down something he couldn’t see.
Chuck swallowed hard. He knew they would get to the truth eventually. Now he just wanted to hear it from her mouth. “Why, Summer?”
“I killed one of them,” she said bluntly. “He’d been sniffing around the pack for days. They caught him one night, but he’d been injured in the fight.” Her voice had a hollow quality to it, as if she was divorcing herself from the things she was saying. “His leg had an open fracture, infection was setting in, and you could see the fever on his skin. Uncle Mullein had given him basic first aid, but I knew he could have done more. He was just waiting. Letting that damn feral suffer because Mullein, just like the rest of us, knew they would have to kill him eventually.”
She took a deep breath and met his eyes unflinchingly.
“So, I slunk into the shed quietly and shot him in the back of the head. Put him out of his misery rather than letting him sit for days longer while they wrung their hands and clutched their pucka shell necklaces.”
“I know,” he told her.
The rigid tension that had held her body vanished in a blink. Summer’s shoulder slumped and her reflective predator’s eyes looked away. “Yeah, I kind of figured you did. You know everything else about me, don’t you?”
“I don’t know your favorite color,” he said quietly.
She stared at him.
“For what it’s worth, I’m sorry. Family is,” he sighed, “hard.”
“I don’t have a family. I have a pack. My family is dead.”
Chuck’s mouth firmed into a thin line and he frowned. “Summer, I–”
“Turquoise,” she blurted out. “My favorite color is turquoise.”
Chuck opened his mouth but closed it again, drawing in a sharp breath through his nose. “Thank you. I’ll file that away.” He was astounded by how hard she could run from truth, even a truth a painful as family.
“I guess I’ll take you back home. We’ll brainstorm another way to stop them.”
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