“Where’s your sidekick?”
Emma flipped me the bird, leveling a glower in my direction.
Clutching my chest, I gasped. “My Lleuad, you wound me…” Pouting, I sank to my knees, affecting weakness at the Alpha female’s harsh treatment.
Her glare wasn’t as painful as the stinging slap upside my head, delivered by her mate. My best friend, Gabe, walked past me, joining his female. He curved his arm around her in a gesture that was as much about claiming as it was comfort. Settled to his liking, Gabe regarded me with a bored gaze.
“James, I’ve told you to stop pissing Em off. I take no responsibility for her actions when you’ve pushed her too far.” Gabe’s words were so familiar I probably could have mouthed them with him. But even though he spoke the truth, there was no heat behind the warning.
Standing back up with an easy grace that came as much from my strict training regimen as it did from being a wolf shifter, I took in the Alpha couple in front of me.
They were well suited. Gabe; tall, ripped and slightly scruffy in that I-forgot-to-shave kind of way. Women always commented that his eyes were his best feature. As a guy, I refused to speculate on these things.
Now Emma, on the other hand, I was quite happy to evaluate. Medium height and toned from all the training we’d done together, she would be easy to overlook at first glance.
She had a quiet attractiveness to her features. Longish brown hair, striking amber eyes, it wasn’t until you spent some time with her that you began to observe the solid steel core that kept her sane through some pretty horrific times. Her classic, yet understated looks, gave her the ability to fade into the background.
Until she opened her mouth.
Which was often and with little forethought.
“James, why are you such a dick? Was there a defining event in your life that caused this transformation? Or were you born this way and just over-developed your dickishness along the way?”
Gabe chuckled at Emma’s words, but I let them roll past me. There was no animosity between us, though most of our conversations devolved into sarcasm and mud-slinging.
“Dickishness? Is that even a word?” I asked.
“Well you are the embodiment of it,” she answered dryly.
“And you’re still obsessed with my ‘embodiment’,” I responded with a wink and a lear. “Careful darling, he’s right there.” At my exaggerated head nod in his direction, Gabe rolled his eyes and looked past me, taking in the view from his back porch.
Snuggled in the large swing that was a staple piece of furniture on the deck, Emma had been staring broodingly out at the forest that bordered the backyard. Considering everything she’d been through in the last nine months - the only time she could remember, incidentally - it wasn’t uncommon to come across her staring into space, lost in her own head.
Of course, as the pack second, Gabe’s best friend, and confidant of the woman in question, I took it as my duty to lift my Lleuad’s spirits and distract her from her pain in the only way I knew how.
By needling the hell out of her.
Mind you, my question hadn’t been completely selfless. Sure, I’d worded it in a way that was guaranteed to get a response, but I was also trying to determine everyone’s whereabouts.
As his Second, I answered only to Gabe and was responsible for pack security. Normally, this meant making sure the area was secured during our full-moon meetings, or checking for electronic surveillance devices in areas where pack business was regularly discussed. Paranoid? Probably. But still better than the truth about Lycans leaking out to the general public through carelessness and the ensuing torch-toting-mob-panic that would ensue.
Humans might glorify werewolves in literature and movies, but they were not ready to know that we walked amongst them.
“Did you want something, James, or are you just here to bug Em?” Gabe was well aware of the motivation behind my teasing, and I read the grateful subtext he wouldn’t acknowledge in front of Emma.
“Yes, actually. I asked where Meryl was and the Alpha female here rudely flipped me off.”
It was Emma’s turn to roll her eyes. “You did not. You asked where my sidekick was. Displaying your dick-ness.”
Gabe winced. “Can we please stop using that word in relation to James? Because I’m getting a mental image here that’s disturbing and wrong.”
Laughing, I shook my head. “Man, after all these years, you really still feel bad about not measuring up?”
With a dark look, Gabe scowled. “Firstly, we were six. A lot has changed since then. Secondly, let’s just stop talking about dicks.”
“Okay, honey,” Emma said soothingly, patting her mate on his leg. “No more dicks today. We just need James to try and be a normal human being.” At my cocked eyebrow, Emma huffed. “Fine, as normal as you can get when you can also shift into a wolf.”
Regally accepting her amendment, I crossed my arms and rested my ass against the porch railing.
“For the record, I think my question was perfectly normal.”
“Your inquiry might have been. Your wording was not.”
Heaving a put-upon sigh, I tilted my head. “Well I would’ve asked where your lapdog was, but that’s insulting to all shifters. So really, it could’ve been worse.”
“Only wolf shifters,” Gabe corrected absently as he continued to focus on the trees.
Late autumn was in full swing and though there was plenty of red foliage and bare branches, there were enough evergreens in the mix to mean you couldn’t see too far beyond the tree line. But since our attack three months before on the facility that had held Emma, Gabe and I had been on heightened alert, waiting for retaliation. In fact, the only reason I stood with my back so casually to the open was that I knew Gabe would cover me.
“Wait a minute.” Emma straightened, pushing away from Gabe so she could angle to see his face. “What do you mean ‘only wolf shifters’? There are different kinds of shifters?” Emma’s incredulity reminded me how little she really knew about the world she was now enmeshed in.
“Oh yeah,” I said, happy to share my knowledge. “Mostly your apex predators. You know, bears, wolves, lions. I think there’s even some ’gators down in the swamps. Hell, next town over there’s a wombat shifter.”
Emma looked skeptical. “You’re kidding.”
“Nope,” I said, placing my hand on my heart. “Australian guy. Name’s Bob. Sells tires. Nice guy.”
“No,” Emma denied, used to my teasing and not believing a word I said.
“It’s true,” Gabe agreed, turning his attention to his mate. “Bob Henry. Australian Aboriginal. He came over here with his girlfriend about five years ago. Apparently, wombats are a spiritual animal for his people.”
“Huh.” Emma still looked unconvinced but dropped the subject for the moment. Turning her attention back to me, she gave me the evil eye. “Why do you want to know where Meryl is?”
Because Meryl’s with Laura and that’s who I really want to locate. Not that I said that out loud. Emma didn’t need to know that. Hell, Gabe didn’t even need to know I was looking for his sister. Because I had no legitimate reason to be looking for Laura, other than a nagging need to know she was okay. But I’d been dealing with that sensation since I was eight years old, so it was like an old companion.
Lost in my own thoughts, my attention was brought back to the pair when Emma shivered. It was cool, bordering on downright cold. But as Emma was currently wearing two sweatshirts, a blanket and had Gabe squeezed up to her side, I doubted the temperature was what had made her shake.
“What’s wrong?” Gabe asked, tightening his arm around Emma.
“I don’t know,” she grimaced, shaking her head. “Something’s off. I can’t explain it. I have this bad feeling, but I can’t put my finger on it. It’s probably nothing.”
Normally, I would’ve accepted her words at face value, but two things stopped me. One, Emma had a unique and powerful psychic bond to the pack and each member, which in theory could let her know if someone was in trouble. Two, the alarmed expression on Gabe’s face.
“I’ve got the same feeling. Something’s not right.” Gabe speared me with a glance. “Find Laura and Meryl. Make sure they’re safe and get them back here. Now. Then start the phone tree. Check everyone in the pack - shifters and non-shifters. I want everyone accounted for.”
Before he’d even started talking, my posture had snapped to attention and I was making plans to do exactly as Gabe had demanded. I took no more than two steps toward the glass sliding doors that led into the open plan dining room/kitchen when movement in the room caught my eye.
Meryl, bloody and disheveled, all but fell through the swinging door that separated the kitchen from the rest of the house, catching herself on the doorframe at the last second.
Not even registering that I’d sprinted to the door, I threw it open and within a heartbeat, was at the girls side, catching her as her legs gave out.
“Meryl,” Emma cried, only a moment behind me, pushing me over so she could nudge the blood-soaked hair from the young girl’s face, bringing to light a vicious cut that ran from her hairline down to her cheek.
Blinking, Meryl struggled to focus bloodshot eyes on Emma. Even from where I was, I could see her pupils, unequal in size, a sure indicator of a concussion. Meryl had been in a fight and it was doubtful she’d come off the winner.
“She’s gone,” Meryl croaked, swaying and blinking, struggling to pass on her message. Seeming to realize where she was, Meryl looked first at Emma, then Gabe. Finally tilting her head, she focused on me, just for a second, just long enough that her hand shot out, grabbing my arm in a painful grip. But not as painful as her next words.
“They took her. They took Laura!”