HEART OF STONE
I ran through the trees, moving as quickly and quietly as I could. Small twigs and branches I couldn’t see in the dark whipped across my face, leaving scratches that stung mercilessly.
Behind me, sirens blared and bright lights swept across my path, searching for targets. I thought of the snipers on the walls of the compound and my back itched. I expected to hear shots and feel an impact at any second. I ran faster.
I chanted swear words in my head as I ducked under branches and dodged the searchlights. Where the hell is Arkady?
I had little time to worry about my partner’s fate. Dark figures moved in the trees to my right, heading in my direction. I veered left, hoping to find cover and a chance to regroup while I came up with a strategy for avoiding capture.
I stole a glance at my watch. Only a little over an hour until sunrise. Dawn meant safety and hopefully escape. I’d survived this long—surely I could make it just one more hour.
A twig snapped behind me. I dropped to my stomach in the mud and held perfectly still as stealthy footsteps passed less than ten feet away. I held my breath as they went by, my heart pounding in my ears.
I waited until my pursuer was out of earshot before I belly-crawled through the mud to hide behind a downed tree and catch my breath.
If Arkady was still out here, she’d be headed in the same direction I was going, hoping to either meet up with me or reach a secure position to wait it out until our rescue arrived. I heard shouting back in the direction of the compound, but I couldn’t tell what they said. If those shouts meant she’d been captured…well, I’d have to deal with that later. Either way, I couldn’t stay where I was. I needed to keep moving.
I listened hard but heard only the usual chorus of nighttime insects, rustling leaves, and branches creaking in the wind. I moved to a crouch and peeked over the top of the tree trunk.
I rose and grimaced at the mud covering the front of my long-sleeved black tee, borrowed BDU pants, and combat boots. I’d actually thought I looked fairly badass and had a little bit of Arkady-style swagger, but that was before we’d tripped some kind of perimeter alarm near the compound, given away our position, and had to split up to avoid capture. And before I’d had to crawl through the mud.
I swung my legs one at a time over the downed tree and continued heading east. As an earth mage, my affinity to the land meant my internal compass was stronger than most. Heavy cloud cover meant lack of moonlight with which to see or navigate, but I knew which way was east. With any luck, I’d make it to the rendezvous, find Arkady waiting there, and get the hell out of Dodge.
Just as I thought that, the earth literally fell out from under me.
One second my boots were on firm if muddy ground, and the next I was falling. It happened so quickly I didn’t have a chance to do more than gasp.
My body landed in what felt like rope webbing. That broke my fall, but then the webbing gave way. I fell about four more feet and landed face-down in—of course—more mud. The impact knocked the wind out of me and left me stunned, unsure of what had just happened or where I’d ended up.
I raised my head, spat out a mouthful of mud and leaves, and found myself in a pit about the size of two graves, six feet wide by ten feet long and ten feet deep.
And I was not alone.
Arkady Woodall, my new best friend and the person I wanted to kill most in the world right now, grinned at me and picked leaves out of her hair. She sat with her back against the side of the pit, and she—almost unbelievably—was covered with more mud than I was. “Hey, Alice. Are you having fun?”
“Am I having fun?” I hissed, pushing myself up on all fours with a grimace. I spat out something slimy I didn’t look at too closely. “I have mud in my boots, mud in my bra, and mud in my…never mind. No, I am not having fun!”
She laughed. “Liar.”
I flipped her off and pushed muddy hair back from my face. “When I said I’d do a girls’ weekend with you, this is definitely not what I thought we’d be doing. A two-day intensive survival camp? Really?”
She rolled her eyes and pulled a twig out of her hair. “What did you think we’d be doing, champagne brunch, mani/pedis, and seaweed wraps? You know me well enough to know I wasn’t taking us for a spa weekend. And hey, look at this.” She wiped some of the mud off her face and held up her hand. “People pay hundreds of dollars for mud treatments at spas, and it was included here at no extra cost.”
“This mud smells like something died in it, Arkady.”
“That probably makes it even better for your skin.”
I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, so I made a sound that was a little of both. “I’m so tired. And cold. And thirsty. And I smell like… God, I don’t even want to know what I smell like.” I looked up at the top of the pit. “How long are they going to leave us in here?”
“They’ll come get us at dawn.”
I groaned. I was getting perilously close to whining. “That’s almost an hour from now! Why not just come get us? We lost. We surrender. We’re dead. Why make us suffer more?”
“You signed off on the rules, same as me.” She settled in more comfortably. “Just think of it as more time for us to bond.”
“I think I’ve already bonded with you as much as I want to for one weekend. We bunked together last night and we had to use the communal showers in the locker room, remember?”
“Oh, yeah.” She grinned again. “That was fun. It’s like being at summer camp, right?”
I’d never been to a summer camp. Activities like that weren’t an option when you were a prisoner of your grandfather’s crime syndicate from ages four through twenty-four. I’d rarely gone beyond the walls of his compound for months at a time, much less spent weeks away at camp, doing whatever it was non-mage kids got to do at such places.
“Yeah, just like summer camp,” I said after a moment. “So, how many times have you made it to the extraction point without getting caught?”
“Out of how many attempts?”
She rested her forearms on her knees. “I’ve lost count. They change it up every time—different traps, different patrol routes, different objectives. It’s never the same challenge twice. That’s why I like it. If I could beat it, I wouldn’t get better. I’m here to improve my skills, not to win.”
“I don’t see why the two should be mutually exclusive,” I grumbled. “Or why we have to stay in this pit until sunrise.”
“They’ll actually probably come get us sooner than that. The last time, it was only about twenty minutes before they got me out.”
“The last time? How many times have you fallen into one of these?”
She frowned at me. “That’s not the point, Alice.”
“So, a couple of times.”
“Four times,” she muttered.
Arkady made a pfffft sound. “Hey, you think this is bad, you should try getting caught in a snare and dangling upside down ten feet off the ground by one ankle. Then you really want them to come get you quickly.”
“I don’t remember that from the orientation.”
“Yeah, they discontinued that one. Something about too much risk of head injury and the insurance company was going to cancel their coverage.”
“Insurance companies are such killjoys,” I said dryly. “Head trauma, spine injuries, blah blah blah.”
“No kidding.” She looked completely at ease sitting in a mud pit in the deep woods. “So, how are things between you and Sean since you guys got back from the Bahamas?”
“It’s been good,” I said, smiling despite how cold and gross and miserable I felt. “Really good. This two-day getaway with you is the longest we’ve gone without seeing each other since we got back.” And I missed him more than I’d ever admit to anyone. I’d had a hard time falling asleep last night without him next to me, even as exhausted as I’d been after nearly twenty hours of running around trying to evade capture by the camp’s employees.
“You two thinking about maybe moving in together?”
I shook my head. “We haven’t talked about it.”
Sean had hinted once or twice about the possibility, but I’d ducked the conversation. I saw no way for him to move into my home, which was much smaller than his, and the thought of members of his pack coming and going from my house all the time, invading my space, made me almost break out in hives.
At the same time, I couldn’t just move in with him; my basement was a heavily warded fortress that had taken nearly five years to create, and giving that up didn’t seem like an option. Particularly not when recent events made it likely I might be found by my grandfather and I’d need all the protection I could get.
Arkady distracted me with another question. “And things with the pack? Better?”
My smile faded. “About the same.”
“Is Sean’s beta still giving you trouble?”
I shrugged. “I’ve only seen Jack once since we got back. We crossed paths outside Maclin Security one day when I met Sean for lunch, and he just ignored me. I’ve heard he pretends I don’t exist and doesn’t say anything if the subject comes up in conversation with other pack members. It’s pretty obvious he and his wife Delia still strongly disapprove of Sean and me being together, but Sean warned him to keep his opinions of me to himself, so that’s probably why he hasn’t been bad-mouthing me.”
“But the rest of the pack likes you, right?”
“Most of them. There are some others who also think Sean should date a shifter, but none of them are as angry about it as Jack and Delia.” I made a face. “And Caleb.”
“Caleb’s the kid who got bitten a couple of months ago and is having a hard time controlling himself?”
“Yeah. He moved in with Jack and Delia so they could keep an eye on him, and they’re just three little Alice-hating peas in a pod. I’ll be seeing them all later today. There’s a birthday party for one of the pack and everyone’s getting together to celebrate.” I decided to change the subject. “And how are things between you and Matthias?”
She waggled her hand in a so-so gesture. “Okay, I guess. I’m still hurting over Fortune. Matthias is being gentlemanly about it.”
Arkady’s lover Fortune had been an enforcer for Charles Vaughan of the Vampire Court. He’d been killed about a month ago during an attempt on Charles’s life. She’d been instrumental in the death of the man who killed him and that had helped, but it would take her some time to heal.
I was glad to hear that Matthias, who was also a Court enforcer, was patient and supportive. It didn’t surprise me, though. The man practically worshiped the ground beneath her combat boots.
“So you two haven’t…?” I asked.
She gave me a wry smile. “We’ve fooled around some, but I’m still not at a point where it feels like the right time. It’s not that I feel like I’d be betraying Fortune, but…” She shrugged.
“It’s okay. I get it. Matthias can wait until you’re ready.”
She grinned. “Damn right he can. I’m worth waiting for.”
Footsteps crunched on the ground above us. I looked up to see four well-muscled men standing at the edge of the pit. Their haircuts and the way they stood said former Army. Two of them had paintball rifles slung over their shoulders. They were either the snipers or part of the patrols who’d hunted us for the better part of two days. I couldn’t help but glare balefully from where I sat at the bottom of the pit.
“Hey, Joe,” Arkady said casually, as if we’d just run into some old friends in a bar. She draped her arms over her knees. “How’s it hangin’?”
“Still lower than my ex’s new husband.” The man in the center of the group regarded us with his hands on his hips. “You ready to get out of there?”
“Nah.” She settled back against the wall of the pit. “We were right in the middle of some serious girl talk. Could you give us another ten, fifteen minutes?”
“Shut up, Arkady. Yes, we are ready to get out of here.” I lurched to my feet on tired legs and almost fell over when my boots sank into the mud. “Do you have a ladder?”
The end of a rope dropped into the pit beside me. I stared at it, a little nonplussed.
Grinning, Arkady got to her feet. “You’re getting soft, Joe. A rope? Last time I had to scramble up the dirt wall while you yelled insults.”
Joe gripped the other end of the rope with both hands. His biceps strained the fabric of his T-shirt. “Your new friend doesn’t look strong enough to get out of there without help.” He flicked the rope at me. “Let’s go, princess. Grab the rope and I’ll haul you up.”
My eyes narrowed. “Hey, Arkady? You want to get out of this pit without their help?”
She put her hands on her hips and studied me. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking G.I. Joe Junior up there can kiss my ass.” I crouched, stuck my hands into the mud, and started spooling earth magic. “You ready to go for a ride?”
She didn’t ask for an explanation, just planted her feet shoulder-width apart and braced herself. “Okay, let’s blow this popsicle stand.”
“What’cha doing, princess?” Joe called. “Grab the rope. We got stuff to do.”
“I’ll show you princess,” I muttered and pushed earth magic into the ground.
The earth trembled beneath us. The men stumbled back from the edge of the pit, cursing as the rumbling grew in volume.
In a burst of bright green earth magic, the ground heaved us up as though we were surfers riding a wave made of dirt instead of water. Arkady whooped and laughed as we shot upward in a spray of mud, rotten leaves, and twigs. The wave deposited us on the ground next to the pit and dumped a hundred gallons of smelly mud on Joe and the others, covering them from head to toe in muck. They stared at us, dumbfounded, blinking like muddy owls.
“Oops,” I said insincerely, as the magic faded and the ground went still.
Arkady brushed leaves off her shoulder and gave Joe her biggest smile. “Guess we didn’t need your help after all.”
She turned to me and gestured at the lights of the compound. “Matthias is due to pick us up in forty minutes. Let’s hit the showers and get the hell out of here.”
And so we did.
* * *
“Woman, how much longer are you going to be in the shower?” Sean asked from the bathroom doorway. “It’s been almost thirty minutes. Aren’t you clean yet?”
“I may never be clean again,” I muttered as I rinsed shampoo out of my hair. I turned and scrubbed my face in the spray. “I’ll be out in a minute.”
The shower door opened and closed and warm arms wrapped around my middle. I turned and found myself staring at the world’s most perfect chest and the world’s most perfect…everything else. Yum.
Sean smiled mischievously. “Fancy meeting you here,” he said, kissing the tip of my nose. He inhaled and frowned. “How on earth do you still smell like mud after all this scrubbing?”
“I don’t know!” I wailed. “I’ve washed everything at least twice!”
“Everything?” He raised an eyebrow and slid his hands down to my hips. “I’d better double-check. You may have missed a few spots.”
I wound my arms around his neck and pulled him down for a kiss. “I missed this,” I murmured, resting my forehead against his chest so I could inhale his familiar scent that always reminded me of a forest in spring.
I sensed him smiling. “You missed what? My shower?”
“I definitely missed your shower,” I said wryly. “The ones at the camp were awful. But no, I meant that I missed being here with you.”
“And I definitely missed you.” He lowered his head and nuzzled my neck, pressing light kisses along my shoulder. “The bed’s been cold and lonely these past two nights.”
“You didn’t let Rogue sleep on the bed with you?”
He chuckled. “He’s a great dog, but he’s no substitute for you, Miss Magic. And no, I didn’t. You spoil him too much. Rogue has his own bed.”
He nudged me back against the shower wall. “My Alice,” he murmured, his lips against my ear. I shivered despite the spray of hot water. “Are you sure you didn’t cast a spell on me to make me this crazy about you?”
“Most mage spells don’t work on shifters,” I reminded him. My voice sounded breathless because his hands were roaming.
“You didn’t answer the question,” he teased, giving me that almost-boyish grin that made the corners of his eyes crinkle.
“You’re right, I didn’t.” I winked. “I guess you’ll never know for sure whether I did or not.”
He did something with his fingers that made my legs turn to rubber. He caught me and lifted me up, pinning me against the wall.
“We don’t have time,” I protested weakly. “We have to be at Cole and Karen’s house by—” I gasped and closed my eyes. “Oh.”
“You were saying?” he growled, moving me slightly to get a better angle. “We’ll get there when we get there.”
I bit his shoulder to stifle a moan and tried to push on his chest. “Sean, wait…they’ll know why we’re late. They’ll smell us.”
“Good for them.” His eyes glowed softly. “If you want to stop, say stop. Otherwise, let me show you how much I missed you.”
Damn it, maybe a stronger woman than I could have resisted those golden eyes and the way the water ran over his arms and chest, still tan from our Bahamas trip, but I just couldn’t help myself.
Maybe he’d spelled me. I looked into that smoldering gaze and decided that if he had spelled me, I didn’t mind at all.
“How much did you miss me?” I asked.
He kissed me hard and then he showed me.
* * *
We were fashionably late arriving at Karen and Cole’s house for the birthday brunch, not because of how thoroughly Sean had answered the question of how much he’d missed me, but because I hadn’t been able to find the gauzy scarf that went with my dress. I’d turned Sean’s closet upside-down looking for it and finally given up, opting to wear the dress anyway without the scarf.
“I hate to be late,” I complained as Sean parked his truck in the yard next to a half-dozen other vehicles. “Everyone else is here, even Patrick, and he’s late to everything.”
He chuckled as we got out. “I’m sorry we couldn’t find your scarf. I can’t figure out where it went.”
“I’ll probably find it when we get home, in whatever random place I put it.” I sighed.
He took my hand as we headed up the sidewalk and kissed me on my neck near my shoulder. “You’re beautiful without it. A scarf would just make it harder for me to kiss you whenever I want to.”
“You’re the worst.” I bumped his hip with mine. “I’d have thought you’d gotten enough kisses for today.”
He scoffed. “You know me better than that.”
The front door opened and the sound of loud voices and laughter drifted out. Nan Lowell smiled as we reached the front porch. “There you two are. We thought we were going to have to send out a search party.” The older woman hugged each of us tightly and stepped aside so we could enter the house.
Nan looked to be in her late forties, though werewolves aged more slowly than humans, so she was likely a decade or two older than that. She and her two adult children, Felicia and David, had joined Sean’s pack after the alpha of their former pack killed her husband.
This was only the second time I’d been to an event where the whole pack—or most of it, anyway—was present. Sean must have sensed or smelled my trepidation. He squeezed my hand and a trace of golden shifter magic spiraled through my arm. My shoulders relaxed, both from his touch and the calming effect of his magic.
We’d discovered his ability to ease my fears quite by accident, when our flight back from the Bahamas encountered particularly bad turbulence. I didn’t enjoy flying at the best of times, and that leg of our trip was rough because of bad weather. The moment Sean took my hand I’d drawn on his strength and calm as if by instinct and it felt like someone took their hand and swept my fear away. We were both so stunned by this new level of our connection that we’d spent the rest of the flight simply holding hands.
I’d recently begun to suspect I had shifter blood, possibly from my biological father, whose existence I’d discovered when a magic mirror showed me a forgotten memory of my parents discussing him. I only knew his name was Daniel and he’d left my grandfather’s cabal without knowing my mother was pregnant. My dad had raised and loved me as his own and nothing would ever, ever replace him, but the thought that my biological father might be out there somewhere was an exciting and terrifying prospect that I’d been thinking about constantly for several weeks.
If I did have some shifter blood, that might explain a number of things, from my connection to Sean to my ability to use shifter magic, at least in a limited way. It was taking me some time to process these new revelations about myself.
When we stepped into the doorway of the living room, conversation ceased and everyone turned to greet Sean. “Hello, everyone,” he said. “I’m glad to see you didn’t wait for us to start the party.”
Karen, our hostess and one of the most submissive wolves in the pack, was the first to approach me for a hug. She had short dark hair, green eyes, and an infectious smile. “Come on in, Alice,” she said warmly. “I absolutely love your dress.”
“Thank you. I love yours too. You look fantastic in yellow.”
“What can I get you two to drink?” Cole, Karen’s human husband, asked us.
We both requested coffee. With our cups in hand, we made the rounds, saying hello to everyone.
Our first stop was Ben Cooper, Sean’s third and the guest of honor. Sean clapped the younger man on the shoulder. “Happy birthday, Ben. Thirty looks good on you.”
Casey, Ben’s red-haired human girlfriend, who I adored, tucked her hand in his and grinned. “We have some news,” she said and extended her left hand. A diamond ring sparkled on her finger.
I let out an uncharacteristically girly squeal as Sean gave Ben a hug. “You crafty bastard,” he said with a smile. “Is that where you two ran off to Friday night instead of joining us for the poker game?”
“Yep,” Casey confirmed. “He took me to dinner and then up to the restaurant’s roof to propose. There were roses and candles. It was perfect.”
I hugged her. “I am so happy for you both. Congratulations.”
After Ben, we said hi to John and his human husband Brandon, then Nan’s daughter Felicia and son David. Karen’s brother Patrick was out in the backyard playing soccer with John and Brandon’s kids. Eddie and his mate Thea, the only other couple in the pack, were visiting family out of state.
In the backyard, sitting at a table on the deck, we found Sean’s beta Jack Hastings, his wife Delia, and Caleb Jennings. Jack was blond and muscular and much taller than his brunette wife. His face bore four faint scars that slashed diagonally from temple to chin, a visible reminder of our conflict.
Jack, Delia, and Caleb rose when we stepped outside. Jack raised his cup of coffee in greeting. “Good morning, Sean.” After a beat, he added, “Alice.”
“Hi, Jack,” I said. “Delia.”
She glanced at me. “Alice.” Her tone was perfectly polite. Her nostrils flared and her eyes narrowed.
I raised my eyebrow as if to say, Yep, that’s why we were late. She looked away.
Caleb, as always, wore a black T-shirt, jeans, and sneakers. “Hey, Sean,” the young werewolf said. He set his glass of iced tea on the table and shook Sean’s hand.
Jack took a swig of coffee. “Just so you know, I assigned someone else to work tonight on that security system installation at the bank. I told Ben to enjoy some more time with Casey. He’d just be distracted anyway.”
Sean chuckled. “They’re great together. She’s perfect for him. I’m happy for them both.”
“They certainly got engaged quickly,” Delia said, still in that carefully neutral tone. “They’ve only been dating what, a few months?”
“When you know, you know,” Sean said, squeezing my hand. “And you’re one to talk, Delia; you and Jack became mates after three weeks of knowing each other. Or was it two?”
“That was different,” she argued. “Jack and I are both shifters. Casey’s human.”
“Humans have good instincts too,” Sean pointed out. He grew serious. “Be supportive of them. Unless either one of them gives us a reason to be concerned, this is wonderful news for our entire pack.”
“Of course,” she murmured, her eyes on the table.
Jack glanced behind us. “I think Karen might have some news for us as well.”
Karen and Cole stepped out onto the deck. Her cheeks were a little pink. “We do,” she said.
Cole couldn’t hold back a grin. “We weren’t going to say anything because we didn’t want to steal Ben and Casey’s thunder, but Ben said they didn’t mind.”
Sean’s smile was even bigger than Cole’s. He clearly suspected what the big news might be. “Let’s hear it,” he said.
“I’m pregnant,” Karen said.
A cheer went up from nearly everyone inside and outside the house. There was another round of congratulations, hugs, and toasts. The brunch had turned into quite a party.
The only members of the group who didn’t seem quite as excited about all the big news were Jack, Delia, and Caleb. The latter’s lack of enthusiasm didn’t surprise me; Caleb only seemed to have one expression, and that was a scowl. He’d been bitten while out running and Sean had taken him into the pack, hoping to help him adjust, but he was angry, bitter, and confrontational.
Delia and Jack acted pleased with Karen’s news, but I didn’t have to be a shifter to sense their hearts weren’t in it. I caught them exchanging glances several times when they thought no one was looking. I had a theory as to why.
When Sean and I got a moment to ourselves in the kitchen during brunch, I voiced my thoughts. “I think Jack and Delia don’t like all the humans who are joining this pack,” I said softly, mindful of werewolf hearing. Everyone else was out in the backyard, but I didn’t want to be overheard. “Karen’s pregnant, but the baby’s father is human, Casey’s human, I’m human. The shifter-to-human ratio is changing rapidly around here.”
Sean sighed and dropped his empty plate into the trash. “I don’t disagree with you, but let’s wait to talk about it until later.”
His head tilted. I realized the voices in the backyard had gone silent. We headed for the open patio door.
A blonde woman stood in the yard in an expensive-looking designer sundress, sunglasses, and high-heeled sandals. Her hair was perfectly arranged in one of those updos that always looked so sophisticated on other women but made me look like I’d just not bothered to brush my hair.
Her face lit up when she spotted Sean. She pushed her sunglasses onto the top of her head and smiled. “Hello, Sean.”
Sean’s irritation sizzled on my skin and a muscle moved in his jaw. The pack cleared a path for him as he headed for the steps. “What are you doing here, Lily?”
Lily? As in Lily Anderson, the female shifter from another pack Jack had hoped would be Sean’s mate?
Unfazed by his cold greeting, her smile remained bright. “I heard you all were having a get-together and thought I’d drop by and see how you were. It’s been ages.” She reached out as if intending to give him a hug.
Sean blocked her hands and pushed them aside. “How did you hear about the party?”
“Oh, you know how these things travel through the shifter grapevine,” she said cheerfully. She glanced up to the deck. “Happy birthday, Ben!”
“Thanks,” he replied, taking a step closer to me.
Her gaze moved to my face. “Well, this must be Alice. I’ve heard so much about you.”
Sean turned and smiled at me. “Yes, this is Alice, my consort.”
Lily’s smile vanished. “So I’ve heard,” she said shortly. She turned her attention back to Sean. “Can I have a word with you?”
“We don’t have anything to discuss,” he stated. “I’m not sure what prompted you to crash the party, but—”
“I think you should hear me out.” Her expression was dark. “I’d rather we talk in private, but if you want to do this in front of the entire pack, that’s your choice.”
Sean’s shoulders were rigid with tension. “Two minutes.” He glanced back at me. I smiled to show him that I had nothing to worry about. Let her talk; I knew where things stood.
He smiled back, but it disappeared when he turned to Lily. “Let’s walk to your car so you can leave when we’re done talking.”
They headed off across the yard and disappeared around the corner of the house.
About a month ago, Sean had almost died after a cuff that turned out to be an ancient shifter relic attached itself to his arm. It was one of a pair designed to be worn by the alpha and his mate. Without the second cuff, the broken spellwork was killing him. I’d obtained the second cuff in time to save him, but Jack had been searching for it too. His intention was to give it to Lily, who was the daughter of an alpha from a nearby pack, binding them together for life and cutting me out of the picture. He very much wanted Sean’s mate to be a werewolf, not a human, and had gone to great lengths to try and keep us apart.
While Sean was trapped by the cuffs and held in a cage in Jack and Delia’s basement, I’d unintentionally contacted his wolf through their pack bonds in my sleep. When Jack attacked me, defending against what he saw as an attack on the pack, I’d slashed his face in self-defense, not realizing it was anything more than a dream. Though werewolves’ healing ability meant they rarely had scars, wounds created with magic were the hardest to heal.
Ben touched my arm. “You good?”
“I’m fine,” I assured him.
I realized the pack had closed ranks around me, with the exception of Jack, Delia, and Caleb, who’d stayed at their table. Ben had taken the spot to my right, as Jack would have stood beside Sean.
Karen joined me at the railing and handed me a glass of iced tea. “I can’t believe she came here. The nerve of some people. Now I smell her in my yard.” She growled quietly and wrinkled her nose.
“So now I’ve met the famous Lily.” I kept my tone light. “I liked her shoes.”
“They were pretty great,” she admitted. “You sure you’re okay?”
“Of course.” I winked. “Sean told me long ago that he prefers brunettes anyway.”
The others moved away, talking quietly. Some went back into the house while Patrick, David, and Felicia joined the kids in the yard to continue the soccer game that had been interrupted by brunch and Lily’s arrival.
Karen and I chatted for a bit about her due date, seven months from now, and her secret hope that she might be having twins, which ran in Cole’s family. True to their word, Ben and Casey seemed even happier to share their big day with Karen and Cole, and the atmosphere on the deck was joyful despite Lily’s unexpected appearance.
Finally, Sean reappeared around the corner of the house, his eyes bright gold and jaw set. Whatever Lily had said to him, he was angry about it. When he saw me, though, he smiled.
Karen excused herself to go back inside as he met me at the railing.
“What was—” I began.
He picked me up and kissed me hard, causing catcalls and shouts of “Get a room!” from the younger members of the pack.
Finally, he put me back on my feet. “We’ll talk about it later,” he assured me. “Nothing to worry about.” The last seemed directed at everyone, not just me.
I took his hand and squeezed it. “Okay. What do you want to do now? Go inside or stay out here and enjoy the weather?”
Sean lowered his head and brushed my ear with his lips. “I’d like to go home and pick up where we left off.”
“Let’s not be rude,” I admonished him with a smile. “We need to socialize.”
He lifted my hand to his lips and kissed it. “Alice, the social butterfly,” he teased. His eyes glowed softly. “I love you.”
The conversation around us quieted. I realized this was the first time he’d said those words in front of an audience and the first time the pack had heard them. I wondered if it was spontaneous or to make a point in the wake of Lily’s unexpected appearance, or maybe a little of both.
He entwined our fingers and tugged me toward the patio door. “Let’s go inside and talk to Ben and Casey about possible wedding dates,” he said. “A pack wedding is a very big event—almost as big as a birth. It’s a great day for the Tomb Mountain Pack.” Another round of cheers from those outside.
We headed into the house. Just before we stepped inside, I caught Delia’s eye. In the moment before she looked away, I saw raw, unadulterated hatred. Then it disappeared and her expression was impassive once more. Beside her, Jack watched me too, but he looked thoughtful rather than angry.
There were wonderful changes on the horizon for the pack, for sure, but there was trouble too. A month ago, Malcolm had overheard a conversation between Jack and Delia in which Jack had said that if his plan to bind Sean and Lily together failed, they would have to find another way to deal with me. I’d been on guard ever since, but so far they’d both been perfectly polite around me whenever we crossed paths. Delia’s expression was a clear indicator that her feelings about me hadn’t changed; if anything, she was more resentful than before. For right now, though, I chose to focus on the good and save worrying about the bad for later.
I might have known that decision would bite me right on the ass.