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“How could you leave her?”
“We need you.”
“You should have stopped it!”
Summer’s thumb stabbed the delete button.
“When are you coming home?”
“Did you bring her body back?”
“The memorial will be Saturday at noon. I guess you’re welcome.”
“Summer, we need you.”
“There were another two incursions tonight. One wolf, one… not? The wolf was dead. We suspect the other was your — friend — killing the wolf.”
“Summer, come home. We need you, Pack Mistress.”
Summer deleted the last voicemail, stabbing an angry thumb at her phone as she stalked along the knee-high weeds by her car.
Over the last few days, she had systematically followed any leads and clues she had about where the feral pack was hiding. As someone who never trained as a private investigator, that mostly subsisted of checking Google Maps around Baker, Florida and seeking likely hole up sites. Her only clues were that it was a larger than average feral pack, meaning twenty or more feral werewolves, and with that many ferals in a single area, it had better be a damn big area. More than two ferals in a square mile meant fights. More than five meant bloodshed. More than ten and she might as well be looking for a giant crater in the ground from where the group detonated.
The day after Rose’s murder, Summer had sat at Pepper’s Cantina in Shalimar, listening to patrons talk about farms and missing livestock before heading to the corner of Range Roads 681 and 235 outside the local military bases. She had transformed and run through the woods, mostly certain she was on a military base, or at least it’s well wooded range as she tried to scent the pack.
Her efforts were fruitless and she returned empty handed and weary. Her weariness was compounded when, upon her return, she found a small Styrofoam container at her front door with a single orange rose tucked neatly under the twine that held the cooler closed. Opening it, she found two thickly cut steak tenderloins. There was no note, but she suspected she knew the giver. She put the meat in her fridge and vowed to ignore it as long as she could without ruining such a nice cut. Summer fell asleep frustrated and exhausted that night, waking equally as exhausted on Monday morning.
“Emma, I’d like to take a sick day,” Summer told her boss over the phone.
“My god, Summer, are you ok?” her boss’s shocked voice came back early on Monday morning.
“Yeah, I’m sure it’s just a cold. I’ll be back in a few days,” she assured Emma. She adored working for Emma and felt bad for lying.
“Are you sure? I mean, I have your doctor’s excusal, per the union,” her voice dropped. “Stating your menses are very bad and might need up to three days a month. Oh girl, I understand and empathize. Plus, union rules and all that allow it. But I’m so glad you’ve never taken more than a day. And other than your day per month, you’ve never, ever, been sick. In six years!” Her boss’s voice dropped again as she prattled on. “Do you know how rare that is? Honestly, it makes you one of my most reliable employees.”
“Uhm, I guess I didn’t know.” Summer rubbed the pain between her eyebrows as Emma continued.
“Summer, you’ve never once tried to scam a system that could have allowed you to take double the sick days you take. You take the time you need, honey. I’ll make the paperwork look right. I’m sorry, but you sound like hell on the phone. You are approved for a week of sick leave. Feel better soon!”
Summer had spent that night shifted and spent the evening scrounging the area around Krul Lake in Black River State Forest, not to be confused with Blackwater River State Park, slightly south. She caught whiffs of werewolves in the area, but nothing new.
When she returned, tired and frustrated, a second foam cooler sat on her doorstep, this time topped with one red, one orange, and one pink rose. Sighing, Summer turned to search the dark paring lot. She sniffed the gentle bay breeze but couldn’t smell more than a lingering trace of Chuck. She scooped the box up and stumbled exhaustedly through her door. She set the three new roses in the vase with yesterday’s rose, frowning at the even number, and returned to the box. This one held two tomahawk cut steaks, long protruding bones almost pushing a hole in the foam. Summer rewrapped the meat and tucked it next to the two from last night.
She knew they had to be gifts from Chuck. Gifts of apology, perhaps? Two steaks seemed to indicate he hoped to be invited to dine with her, but the stab of rage and sorrow that hit her when she thought of him said it was unlikely. Summer eyed the bay out her back door. There was the barest hint of light on the far horizon. She pulled the butcher paper holding yesterday’s steak out along with a container full of leftover mashed potatoes. A few minutes later, she was curled up on her couch eating old potatoes with the tenderloins as she watched the sun begin to color the sky.
The rest of the week was spent scouring the one hundred miles around Baker, Florida, sleeping and eating between non-full moon shifts. Every day it was the same: leave at dusk, return tired and frustrated, find the increasingly extravagant gifts of meat and flowers, cook the previous day’s gift, and fall into an exhausted sleep as dawn broke the far horizon.
Summer hadn’t lied to Chuck when she shifted almost a lunar month ago; when she said that she could shift even when it wasn’t a full moon. But she had never elaborated on what it cost her. She burned extra calories, making her both exceptionally hungry and superlatively tired. The Waffle House a block from her townhouse had her late afternoon breakfast order memorized now: pecan waffle, three eggs over medium, biscuit, two strips of bacon, and hash browns that were smothered, chunked, and capped. By Friday, she knew her favorite waitress’s name and cellphone number, needing only to text “I’m awake” for the kind soul to start her order. Or maybe it was an almost ten dollar tip on a twelve dollar order that enticed to woman. Either way, Summer thanked her profusely as she slapped down a twenty and took the stack of Styrofoam boxes that were her only meals other than what Chuck provided.
Summer crammed laden hash brown into her mouth as she walked. A car honked at her from the corner gas station and she shot the bird to the driver with one greasy finger.
“Oh, I can just imagine the headline now,” she told herself. “’Florida Woman enjoys meth and hash browns!’ with this picture.” Her mouth quirked up at her own joke and she walked briskly to her townhouse. Her nose wrinkled as she unlocked her townhouse door. Sighing heavily, she walked in long enough to deposit the now lightened boxes on her kitchen island and wash her hands. She sighed again and walked to her front door.
“What do you want, Chuck?” she called out into the bright Saturday morning.
Chuck seemed to materialize from where he had been staking her out behind a clump of trees. He walked to her, his gate tight as if he were expecting her to attack him.
“I want to apologize. I feel like I should.” Chuck’s voice was tight and he didn’t meet her eyes; instead, he chose to stare at her chin.
“Not out here, get inside,” she held the door open.
Chuck didn’t quite scurry inside, but if he’d been a pup, his tail would have been tucked between his legs. Once inside, Summer was almost amused that a man almost a foot taller than her could cower.
“So, what are you apologizing for, Chuck? Clearly spending weeks, if not months, stalking me so you could later kidnap and possibly murder me? Knowing critical information about my family and my background then failing to tell me? Failing to help me save my Auntie?”
“Yes, all of it. I’m sorry.”
She stared him down.
“I know this is the worst way to say this, but look at it from my perspective. I didn’t know you. You were an assignment. I did what I always do: research a target. But the more I did, the more conflicted I became. By the time I abducted you, I was already conflicted and almost certain I couldn’t kill you. I knew enough about your family that I needed to tell you what was coming, but I didn’t know how. What would I do, come up to you out of the blue and say, ‘Hi, you don’t know me, but I’ve been stalking you for months and your father really is alive and about to murder the rest of your family’?”
A strangled laugh burst out of Summer. “No.”
“I,” he hesitated, “I needed to take you. So, I could hedge the truth later. Tell people I had taken you and let my reputation fill in the blanks. As far as they would be concerned, you’re a gonner.” He shook his head. “And I did try to tell you. I did tell you your father was alive, but things went so completely off script, I never could tell you the rest.”
Summer nodded once, but her jaw was clenched tight and she didn’t speak.
“I’m so sorry, Summer.” Chuck shook his head. “There wasn’t time.”
“I don’t trust you.” Summer’s voice was quiet, devoid of emotion.
“I don’t expect you to.”
“Where do we go from here?”
“I still need you. You aren’t wrong. I can’t teach the pack how to defend themselves. I have no idea what they need.”
“We build trust. Slowly,” he said and raised his hands, palms out when she glared at him. “I show you that I care about you and can be trusted to provide for you,” Chuck told her, finally meeting her eyes.
“The steaks?” she asked quietly.
“An apology. A courting gift,” he said and shrugged.
“A what?” Summer spluttered.
“I, uh, want to court you?” Chuck ran a pale hand through his soft brown hair. “I don’t know. I know how to court a human woman. I’m less sure about a werewolf. If you were a human woman, I would woo you with jewelry, wine, and flowers. But I didn’t think you’d react well to silver necklaces or wear gold earrings through a shift. I guess I tried to think of what a woman and a wolf would both want. Steaks seemed like a good choice. And after I realized the only meals you ate this week were what I brought and that abomination,” he said and pointed at the empty Waffle House containers, “I’m glad I did.”
Summer shifted slightly, embarrassed. “It’s close,” she mumbled. Taking a deep breath, she composed herself. “Thank you for the meals and the flowers. They’re lovely.”
Chuck gave her a hopeful smile, but she held up a hand.
“But meat and flowers don’t buy my trust. You have to earn it back. I don’t know what I can trust from you. You’re almost worse than the fae. I know that every word has to be true with the fae, even if it’s not always the whole truth. From you?” She shook her head. “I don’t even know if what little you do tell me is true.”
“It is. I am,” Chuck paused, thinking, “similarly bound. I can’t lie, not an outright lie.”
“But you can bend the truth and clearly leave things out,” Summer huffed and crossed her arms over her chest.
Summer watched the flow of expressions across Chuck’s face. She could almost see the internal debate. Admit he’d been holding things back? Admit that he could lie? Admit he had ulterior motives?
“Yes,” he said simply.
Summer looked at him. A silence stretched, taunt and brittle, between them.
“It’s not the answer you want, I know,” he told her when the silence had stretched too long. “But, it’s the truth. And if I’m going to rebuild your trust in me, I should start with honesty,” he looked down, “even when I know it’s not what you want to hear.”
Summer eyed him.
“For what it’s worth, it still leaves me more honest than the average human.”
“I want the whole truth when we talk now.”
Summer looked up at him. “Tell me about the ferals. My Pack needs me.”
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