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Summer listened to the gravel pop and crunch under the tires of Chuck’s Gray Man beater as they drove down the pack’s long driveway. She stared out into the veritable jungle ensnared in the beater’s headlights, but her mind lingered on a single moment, years ago.
When Chuck pulled onto the rural highway, she finally snapped back into the present. She didn’t speak only shifted to watch the road ahead and occasionally Chuck from the corner of her eye.
Both of his hands gripped the wheel. It was more than the assured grip of a confident driver, he clung to the wheel, knuckles going pale in under the half moon’s light.
When the intense quiet was finally too much, Summer spoke.
“What was it like being an Army medic?”
Chuck rocked back slightly, clearly surprised by the question. “Nerve racking. I wasn’t supposed to be in direct combat, but I was assigned to an infantry unit. If they were in combat, I was right there with them. Only I carried a medical bag, not a gun.”
She watched his jaw tighten and knew the pain that tensed the corners of his eyes.
“How many people did you save?”
“I lost a lot of men.”
“That’s not what I asked,” she told him quietly.
“Twenty-three,” he told her after a brief silence. “Not as many as I should have.”
“That’s more than most people can claim in their life. Why did you leave the Army?”
“That war was over,” he said simply.
“Chuck, we’ve been fighting constantly for almost twenty years.”
“Desert Storm was over in days. The ground invasion was, anyway.”
Summer watched the road and tried to process what he said. If she remembered her High School history classes, Desert Storm had ended in 1991, which meant that he had left the Army almost six years before she had been born. He would have had to have been at least eighteen to enlist, plus training time, and time on the ground in Iraq, which made him almost thirty years older than her. She glanced at him. He didn’t look older than thirty, let alone fifty-five or more. She squinted at him. He had said, ‘That war,’ which made her think.
“Chuck,” she asked slowly, “was that your first war?”
“Vietnam. Like I said, I enlisted straight out of High School. I stayed in for a while during the bureaucratic shit show that was in between Vietnam and Desert Storm. Then, well, being an incubus caught up to me.”
“How fucking old are you, Chuck?”
“Seventy this April,” he told her with a dryly amused tone.
Summer made a choked noise. “Seventy? What are you, Aragorn, the Dúnedain? Blessed with long life?” Her tone was incredulous.
Chuck turned his eyes from the road and looked at her levelly. “For the record, Aragon was eighty. I’m only seventy and I’m an incubus, not one of the Dúnedain.”
“Fine,” she said in a huff. “What have you done for the last thirty years?”
“Well, it was tough to be in the military in the seventies and eighties when you attracted anyone who was even remotely attracted to men.”
Even in profile, Summer could see his frown.
“My control over myself wasn’t as good. The Army, hell, the United States in general, wasn’t as open to that as it is now.” Chuck gave a one shoulder shrug. “But I knew a little about medicine, and patching people up in dire situations, so I became an EMT. I liked saving lives rather than ruining them.”
“It ended much the same way my time in the Army did. I enjoyed the work, but I realized that the stress of life and death situations eroded my control over my power, I had to leave. I needed less stressful work. Or, at least, work that was stressful away from people.”
“So, you became a Hunter?”
“It’s mostly solitary work. I can avoid people and their entanglements when I want to. And it pays well.”
“So, if you want to avoid entanglements, why are you helping me and my pack?”
There was a long silence. Ill paved county highway hummed under the beater’s tires.
“Chuck.” Summer’s usually light voice was laden with meaning.
“No. Not right now.”
Summer watched his hands tighten slightly on the steering wheel. He took in a deep breath, letting it out slowly.
“No, Summer, not right now.” Before she could start bellowing at him in the tiny car, he rushed on. “I will tell you. I swear to it.” A faint pulse thrummed through the car. Not as strong as she had felt when she had promised to answer his questions, but similar in feel. “Is that enough?”
Summer frowned and thought a moment. “Will not knowing the answer bring me harm?”
“No,” he said quickly. “It–” he stopped himself. “No.”
Summer’s mouth compressed into a line, but she nodded. “Ok.”
A tense silence stretched along the pavement as the beater hummed along. Summer almost itched to ask him more but held it in.
“You’re really bad at talking to werewolves, you know,” she finally blurted out.
“And you’re really bad at talking to crowds. What of it?” he said harshly.
Summer’s jaw dropped at his heated response and she stared at him across the dark interior.
“I told you before, they aren’t killers. You talked to them like they were Army or something. Weapons. Ammo. Overlapping lines of fire, for goodness sake!” she fumed.
“Well, I don’t usually talk to werewolves because they’re usually trying to rip my throat out. Or gnaw my arm off. I expect them to act like wolves.”
“I told you, born werewolves aren’t like that. You’re thinking of ridiculous studies on caged wolves. Real wolves, free wolves,” she amended, “don’t kill for fun or hunt for sport. They aren’t violent to one another. Bitten werewolf packs are no different. They hunt and kill what they need to eat, but nothing more. My pack takes it a step further, they don’t even kill unless–”
Summer’s words cut off abruptly and she swallowed hard. She’d hit a very raw nerve twice in less than an hour and had no desire to push on it further. Pain and frustration roiled in her. She stared out the window into the soothing darkness.
Miles hummed by under the beater’s tires. The well rutted country road jostled them occasionally, but the beater was well maintained and its suspension smoothed the ride as much as possible. Summer let the monotony of it wash over her.
“I’m sorry, Summer,” Chuck finally said.
Summer drew her gaze back to the interior, taking in his dimly illuminated profile. His nose was straight, if a little long, but offset but a strong, masculine jaw. Exactly the kind of look she liked. Damn it.
“For what happened between you and your family,” he said quietly. Summer followed the sweep of his jaw as he spoke. “And for saying you were bad at speaking in public.”
Summer watching his mouth tug into a smile and realized she was staring. “I’m sorry for snapping at you,” she told him, tearing her eyes away and looking back out the window.
“It’s ok, family is hard.”
“Pack,” she corrected him absently.
“Family,” he said firmly.
Summer dragged her eyes back from the gritty window and looked at him.
“Look, I get that you don’t understand real pack dynamics, but they’re my pack, not my family. Not since my family died. Or,” her voice dropped to a whisper, “I was pushed out.”
“No, Summer, you don’t understand, this is absolutely all about your family.”
The beater hit another bump and Summer grabbed for the vinyl strap over the window. “Chuck!” Summer clenched her jaw and let another half mile of pavement stretch behind them. “My family is dead. My pack shoved me out. I have no family,” she spit.
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you, they aren’t all dead. Your–”
Whatever Chuck had been about to say was cut short by the shrill ring of Summer’s phone.
“Summer,” she said curtly. “What?”
There was a heavy pause. Summer, focused on the call, couldn’t see Chuck’s jaw working as he held back his comment.
“When? We just left! Ok, we’ll head right back!” Summer punched the phone off. “Turn around! Go back!”
“What Summer? What’s happened?” Chuck asked as he slowed to turn.
“The pack has been attacked. They took Auntie Rose,” Summer grit out, the sharp turn pressing her into the passenger door.
“Who?” Chuck asked, but he already knew.
Her eyes locked with his for a brief moment. Fear and pain pinching the corners of her eyes.
“The feral pack.”
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