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The rumble of patched asphalt under the beater’s tires hummed through its frayed and worn cabin once more. Summer’s head rested against one hand with her elbow propped up by the faded, desiccated vinyl of the door. She scrunched her nose as she caught a whiff of blood, still lingering on her borrowed tank top.
“Why do you keep calling me ‘Pack Mistress’?” Summer finally asked.
Chuck’s hand flexed briefly on the wheel before he answered. “It’s what you are,” he said simply.
Summer picker her head up from where it rested on her hand and looked at him.
“Give me your hand,” he told her, taking one of his off the steering wheel and holding it out.
Summer looked at him a moment longer, hesitating. Finally, she placed hers lighting atop his.
Chuck clasped her hand lightly. “This,” he said, rubbing a thumb across the back of her hand, “there is more power in this one hand than your whole group of Elders.”
A shiver ran through Summer, searing heat and a shiver of cold all at once. “No. The Elder’s have run the Asteraceae Pack for decades. Since it was started, really. They founded the pack like this on purpose. They balance the needs of all rather than letting one individual dominate. As a group, they hold sway over the entire pack.”
But even as she spoke the words, Summer realized she doubted what she said. It was said by rote. Words said so many times they lost all meaning; they were only sounds falling from her mouth.
“The Elders say they lead. They’ve told you they lead. And that’s enough for you to keep following them. But they aren’t natural leaders and packs aren’t meant to be run by committee. You,” he squeezed her hand, “you, Summer, are a natural leader. You showed it tonight.”
Summer pulled her hand back slowly. “I’m not.”
“You are. You radiate power—confidence and control ooze out of you. I had researched you enough to guess you would have power, but I didn’t see it until tonight. Just before you went back into the shed. It shows in every step you take, that power. And I’m not the only one who feels it.”
Summer shook her head. “I’m an office worker. A nuisance to my pack who’s only good for one thing.” Summer’s mouth pinched into a narrow line and her brows furrowed.
“Maybe they tell you that. Maybe they’ve told you often enough that you believe it. But it took only five minutes for you to sway almost your entire pack away from the Elders to your side. You didn’t even have a side when you started. You spoke it into being.”
Summer set her hands in her lap. “But,” she hesitated, “now what?”
Chuck gave a shrug. “What do you want from them?” He eased the beater around a turn and the lights of Summer’s town came into view.
“Nothing,” she said quickly. Her shoulders slumped and she looked out the window at the growing number of streetlights.
“I want them to accept me for me. Accept that I love them, but I’m not one hundred percent like them. I don’t know why. I can’t explain why I can’t just settle in one of the cabins, get an outdoor job, and spend my time whittling and raising pups. It’s just–” she stopped. Summer shook her head. “It’s just not me.”
Chuck nodded, eyes on the deserted suburban landscape.
Summer rubbed her hand where Chuck had drawn his thumb across it. “Tomorrow. What do we do tomorrow?”
“Oh. Topic shift, ok.” Chuck gave a half smile. “You go in to talk, find out where your Aunt is, and I kill everyone who isn’t you or your Aunt?”
“It’s simple,” he said without even a trace of remorse.
“I was thinking we could do what I told the pack I would do: meet at the dock at sundown. Talk to,” she hesitated only a moment before going on, “the Alpha to determine his goals and find a mutually agreeable solution.”
“For someone who is so often accused of doing violence, you seem to be seeking a remarkably restrained, diplomatic solution.”
Summer’s eye narrowed. “I don’t want them harming Auntie Rose. I need to know what he’s after before I’ll be able to get her back.”
“Fine, no guns a blazin’ then. But I will go with you. If you go alone, it will not end well.” He pulled into the driveway of Summer’s townhouse. The beater’s engine shut down with a purr, the only hint that the engine was not original to the frame.
“You think I can’t handle one werewolf?” Summer unbuckled her seatbelt and put a hand on the door latch.
“I doubt it will be one werewolf and I think sending you alone to meet your violent father whom you’ve never met sounds like a terrible idea!”
“Fine,” Summer huffed and opened the door.
Chuck popped out of the driver’s side, meeting her at the front of the car. “So, I’ll pick you up a half hour before sundown?”
“Yeah, it’s a date,” she said. Summer’s face flamed under the townhouse’s security light. “I mean, yes. Fine. A half hour before sunset.”
“Weird first date, Summer,” Chuck told her with a wry grin as she fumbled for her keys.
“Second,” she shot back with a half grin. “This was a weird first date!”
Chuck raised one eyebrow and his lips turned up in an amused grin. “Do I get a good night kiss then?”
Summer looked back at him, seeing his boyish grin in the dim glow of her front porch light. “Oh hell, why not?”
She stood on her tiptoes and placed a hand on his neck, gently pulling him down to close the gap between their heights. She pressed a light kiss to his lips.
Perfect for a mock first date, until Chuck caught her waist and pushed her lightly against the wall. Something hungry and primal bloomed in her then. She half growled and deepened the kiss, her fingers twining in his hair and body arching into him as she pulled herself up to kiss him. The kiss picked up speed, one of Chuck’s hand squeezing her waist as the other drifted upwards. Summer writhed against him.
Chuck gasped and pushed back. “No, Summer. Not like this.”
Summer stepped back. In the span of one rapid breath, she caught his eyes in the dim porch light. They were no longer the deep blue she’d become used to seeing, but bright reflective silver. It hit her like thunder from an unexpected storm that his boyish face was a lie; at almost seventy years old, he was more than twice her age and the more dangerous predator of the two of them.
Still, something in her wanted to curse the fates, drag him inside, and keep him until they needed to leave for the parlay. She took a half step forward.
Clearly reading her face, Chuck held up a hand to her shoulder, lightly stopping her.
“No, Summer,” Chuck said and he shook his head. “It would be good. Amazing, I’m sure. But you’ll need your energy tomorrow. If we–” he stopped and looked over her shoulder, unable to meet her eyes. “Look, I want it. God damn, do I want to take you inside right now, push you up against a wall, and take this to a satisfying conclusion. But,” he shook his head, “I’d feed from you. I can’t help it. It’s just what happens when, well, when I do what I want to do right now. It’s the whole incubus thing.” He ran a frustrated hand through his dark hair. “And you need you be alert, awake, and full of energy tomorrow. I can’t in good conscious take that from you.”
He met her gaze again, eyes back to a deep blue.
Summer nodded. “Tomorrow then,” she told him quietly and went inside, shutting and locking the door without looking back.
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