Serena stood up and looked at the full complement of thirteen women that made up the official Windy Gap Pack Council. “Thank you for welcoming me to your pack, and to Windy Gap. I’m thrilled to be here in the Colorado Rockies and, once I get my breath back, I know I’m going to love it here.”
Smiles flashed across the women’s faces. There was a variety of ages present—from early forties up to a few very senior elders. Twelve wolf shifters and one spelltalker in all: the requisite twelve, plus one representative from the shamans’ circle—the thirteenth member. The extra non-shifter was supposed to keep the council in balance. Although, after growing up in the shadow of the Smokey Top Pack Council and not being a physical shifter herself, Serena knew better.
The shifters ran the council and the shamans’ circle representative was regulated to merely being a small voice for a long-neglected group of their people. Dormants, the ones who carried at least one gene, but didn’t show it, they had it even worse. That’s why it was so important to her to make sure she did a good job for all of their people—those with physical wolves and those without.
She shook hands and tried to remember names until there were only three people left. Esther, spelltalker and the thirteenth member—took her hand in her chubby one and gave it a firm squeeze.
“We’re so pleased to have you here, Serena.” Her dimples flashed in her round cheeks as she gave Serena yet another happy smile. Soft gray curls, short round shape, Esther looked like everyone’s dream grandma. Serena bet she baked a mean batch of oatmeal cookies. With raisins, of course. “I’ve heard great things about you from your shamans’ circle back in Maine. We’re so pleased to have a dreamwalker therapist of your caliber on our staff.” The diminutive gray-haired lady pulled Serena into a hug, and after a surprised few seconds, Serena hugged back. “Really glad you took the job.” Esther let Serena go and stepped toward the door. “Now, I’ll leave you with Nancy and Vince to get settled in.” She bustled after the rest of the council members.
Serena watched her go, a little bemused by the woman’s attention. Yes, the job had been a draw. But she’d had another reason, a very powerful reason, to leave her pack and come clear across the country to Colorado. She’d had only one night to get to know Sam Wulfric and, if she were to consider taking him as a mate, she needed to know for sure that he was the one. Inside, her wolf rose, pushing her to leave these stuffy rooms and find Sam. She might not be sure if Sam was her true mate, but her wolf didn’t care. He was an alpha shifter, and that made him good breeding material.
She shook off the memories of kissing Sam last month and turned around. Her new boss, Nancy Stalker, stood up from where she’d been sitting at the back of the small council room. Esther’s total opposite, if there ever was one. Where Esther was soft and round, Nancy was lean and mean. If Serena had to put an age to her, she’d guess close she was staring sixty hard in the face. But on second thought, Nancy might be actually a little younger. The dry winds of the Rocky Mountains hadn’t treated her skin well and her scowl seemed permanently etched into her face.
Vince Ethelwulf, shamans’ circle assistant and one of the few people she knew from her interview a month ago, hovered behind Nancy. His gray eyes were worried behind his black glasses and his lips twitched briefly up into a nervous smile.
“I guess being the daughter of a council member has its perks.” Nancy’s own forced smile didn’t reach her eyes as she gathered her purse, phone, and notes from the table in front of her. “But don’t forget, you’re a dreamwalker and you answer directly to me.”
“Of course, Ms. Stalker.”
Nancy hadn’t even been on the interview team last month in Denver, just the two council reps and the head of the shamans’ circle. This was Serena’s first time meeting her. And, clearly, it wasn’t going well.
Nancy drew closer and dropped her fake smile. She took off her 1950s-style reading glasses and let them fall to her chest, dangling by their silver neck chain. “I didn’t hire you, Miss Lowell, and I certainly don’t care if you have to run home to mama and daddy with your tail between your legs.”
Serena didn’t even get the chance to respond.
Nancy nodded at Vince, who still hadn’t moved from his seat in the back of the council chamber. “Vince? Make sure she gets settled in.” She pushed past Serena toward the door. “I’ll see you Monday, Miss Lowell. Don’t be late.” And she left the council chamber without giving Serena one last glance.
Serena’s legs were shaking. She sank into one of the plastic audience chairs set up around the perimeter of the informal council room. “Wow, that was some first day.”
Vince came over. He ran a hand through what was left of his thinning dark hair and shook his head. “If she’d been at the interviews last month, she would have hired you too. You know how it is. Everyone here has to fight for pack status, even those of us who don’t go furry.”
His support made her feel better. He’d done that at her interview too, his slightly too-close-set eyes sending her reassuring looks when the questions had been hot and heavy. She was hopeful that now she was here they’d be good friends. And after seeing what kind of a boss Nancy was going to be, she needed every friend she could get.
“Yeah, dreamwalkers, spelltalkers, dormants—we all have to band together sometimes, don’t we?”
In the complex secretive world of the packs, shifters were dominant. She wasn’t sure if that was because a long time ago the physically stronger wolf shifters were the protectors, so they took the leadership role. Or maybe the dreamwalkers and spelltalkers had simply walked away from it, being content with their own lives. What she did know was that now that the world was changing and modern technology was a threat to the outside world’s pack existence, people who could walk around the real world and blend in were becoming more and more necessary to pack security. And having a wolf on the dreamscape or having magical skills were easily hidden on a city street, while a full-grown wolf, was not.
Vince nodded, his heavy black glasses sliding down his nose again. He pushed them back. “Can I show you to your cabin?”
“Thanks.” It was nice to know she had one friend here. Well, maybe two—Esther had seemed friendly.
As her mother had said when she’d driven her to the airport, “It only takes one or two allies to make an alliance, Serena.” Her mother should know. She’d clawed and bitten her way from being an outsider to achieving pack supremacy as the Smokey Top council leader. One enemy down, one ally up.
“Ready?” Vince was waiting at the door to the council room, his keys already in hand to lock up behind her.
“Be right there.” She gathered her purse and headed for the door. She was here now, in Windy Gap. No parents with pack status to back her up anymore. No one but herself to succeed or fail. Her spirits rose. Nancy Stalker might think she’d gotten here on her parents’ shoulders, but she knew she’d achieved everything she’d done on her own. Coming out here to Colorado was her way of proving to the world she didn’t need her parents’ reputation or the rest of the family to be a success. She was someone on her own, physical wolf or not.
Vince retrieved her suitcases from the storage room, and they walked out of the main ranch house and down the wide porch stairs to an open-top Jeep. Kids and wolves played tag in a grassy area just past the drive. She could see all the way down the wide, sheep-dotted valley below where the working parts of the ranch were spread out and connected by a gravel road. There was an openness here she’d never felt in Maine, a feeling of space and air and freedom. She looked back over her shoulder at the house. “I’ve never seen a log house so big.”
“It’s the biggest log structure on the property.” Pride rang in Vince’s voice. “That’s the shamans’ circle.” He pointed over a low rise at the collection of smaller buildings that housed both the spelltalkers’ offices and dreamwalker headquarters, as well as a circular wooden palisade for the shamans’ official ceremonies. “You can walk from your cabin down in about thirty minutes, but you’ll get a car assigned to you on Monday so you can make home visits and get groceries and things.”
Starting to get excited, now that the meet and greet with the council was over, Serena craned her head at the building where she’d be starting work on Monday. It was a cute stucco building, with a smaller porch and stairs leading down to the parking lot it shared with the rest of the shamans’ circle. Dreamwalkers and spelltalkers together made up the branch of the pack that governed the social side of things, while traditionally shifters and dormants handled the enforcer side. And the council—she couldn’t forget the lopsided, shifter-based council.
They drove through the valley and up the side of the mountain, through the pine woods—so different from the pines at home, and yet strangely the same. Everything here was drier, a little more spread out. There was more grass and less tangled brush. And no blueberries—she was going to miss all the fresh blueberries, that was for sure. The drive to the area of the compound where the pack had a row of small single cabins for visitors and guests only took about fifteen minutes, but because of the expanse of trees and the steep slope of the mountain, it seemed much farther away.
“You’ll be staying here.” Vince pointed past a row of bright-green trees that Serena thought might be aspen to where she could just see the corner of a dark-brown cabin. “They’re a little old, but really nice. And once you get a feel for the area you’ll be looking for your own place anyway.”
“How many pack members stay here, at the ranch?” They’d driven away from all signs of people, leaving the main compound, kids, wolves, and sheep behind, not to mention the council. It might be nice to be up here away from the chaos of the pack.
“We have about two hundred.”
“Wow, that’s a lot.”
“Most of them are in the family housing on the other side of the hill from the main compound. There are some single apartments in the ranch house. Some of the elders who don’t have family stay there, or singles who need temporary housing. And of course, we have a bunk house for some of the ranch hands.”
“I still think that’s funny. Out in Maine, we’re fishermen and lumberjacks. Wolves herding sheep for a living is so old-school.”
Vince smiled at her. “We’re an old-fashioned pack. We still don’t have any men on our council, and as you can see”—his face grew hard—“only one non-shifter pack member too.”
Serena did a double take at the bitterness in his voice. “But none of the packs have men on the council yet.”
Vince’s gray eyes were stormy behind his glasses. “That’s because they’ve stacked the council with physical shifters. It’s crazy. Only physical shifters have to worry about the wolf taking over.”
“Now, Vince, that’s not true. My wolf pushes me around, even though I can’t shift here on this plane.” She thought back to the driving desire her wolf had lately, to settle down and take a mate. Even now in the back of her mind, her wolf was evaluating Vince as a potential breeding partner.
Serena squelched that idea. He wasn’t her type. They had other irons in the fire, she reminded her wolf. The beast settled down, thinking of what they had in mind.
“But what about spelltalkers and dormants?” Vince was almost shaking in his anger. “They don’t even have wolves at all. They each deserve at least one representative. Spelltalkers have to share with dreamwalkers and dormants get screwed.”
“Can you see any council allowing a dormant on?” Serena shook her head. “One step at a time, Vince. We’re an old society—it’s only in the last hundred years that we’ve stopped having mating fights to the death.” She looked around at the rows of cabins they were approaching. Sun shone on the rooftops and bright-yellow sunflowers bobbed in front of each one, helping to cancel out the dark-brown logs and small windows. “Wow, each of these is so cute. Now, which one is mine?”
Vince seemed to shake off his anger at the pack’s traditions. “You have the one on the very end.” He pointed to a cabin a little set off from the rest.
The little cabin huddled under the large, overhanging branches of several pine trees. It was built of dark, heavy logs and isolated from the rest of the row with its back lost in the shadow of the woods. The low roof and awnings gave the small windows the secretive look of half-closed eyes.
“Behind you is the entrance to the woods and a choice of running trails. There aren’t a lot of visitors right now and most of the rest of the pack who stay here live down the hill. It’s the one with the most privacy. I picked it for you myself. I hope you like it.”
There was a need to please lift in his voice that told her his inner wolf might be more beta than alpha. She did her best to look pleased at Vince’s choice, but she wished he’d picked one of the sunny cabins instead of this one.
Suddenly, she missed her cozy little place back in Maine she’d shared with two of her pack-mates, with the sunny, white clapboard siding and the cheerful red flowers in pots by the door. She’d never lived alone before, and this definitely wasn’t her idea of her first place. But Vince was looking at her with such hope in his eyes that she swallowed back the complaints and smiled. “Thanks, Vince. I’m sure it’s perfect.”
She followed Vince to the little cabin. Its sunflowers were thinner than those of the other cabins in the row, and they drooped, looking as if they searched and searched but never had a chance of finding the sun. A cloud passed overhead leaving the cabin looking even darker and more isolated than before.
She gave a little shiver.
Maybe she’d made the wrong decision to come here. Her boss Nancy didn’t want her, that’s for sure. And while she thought she’d made a connection with Sam Wulfric, one night of kissing wasn’t enough to chase a mate clear across the country.
Or was it?
An hour later she finally got Vince out of the cabin. He’d insisted on showing her everything, including where the water shut-off valve was and what she would need to do if the pilot on the water heater went out.
It was much later than she wanted, and she was already antsy to get outside the dark cabin and into what was left of the sunny afternoon. At least it was still summer and she had daylight left to burn. She stripped off her jewelry, ran a brush through her long hair, and changed into shorts and a t-shirt.
She double-checked the locks on all the tiny windows and the back door, which for some reason led directly into the bedroom instead of into the open living space too small to really be called a great room. The cabin was just as dark and claustrophobic as she’d thought it would be from the outside, but that didn’t matter. She hadn’t come here for the free lodging; she’d come here for the mountains. And Sam. Time to get out and see what her new home had to offer.
The sun was high in the clear, blue, Rocky Mountain sky and once she was out of the cabin, her mood lifted with it. She followed the small dirt path Vince had pointed out and started her exploration into the woods. She hiked along the trail at a snail’s pace, making her way into the forest of pine, spruce, and aspen, with a few scrubby bushes thrown in for good measure.
No blueberries—and it was definitely drier here than in Maine—but the feel of the mountains was the same as the wild land of her pack, and the dappled sunlight coming through the trees was enough like home to make her smile.
Her mind wandered to Sam.
She’d flown out to Denver last month for the interview, at Windy Gap’s Denver extension. It was close to the foothills and had some acreage, but nothing like the open pastures surrounded by mountains here in the high country. It was there she’d met Sam. Tall, rugged, and definitely a full shifter, Sam was a volunteer pack enforcer and he’d come down with the council members and Vince as security.
He’d been charming and fun and had come on to her like a train. And after a few glasses of wine, she’d let go—and so had her wolf. Just thinking about his kisses made her warm inside. She’d taken the job. And now, she couldn’t wait to see him again to see if he was just as sexy sober as he’d been when she’d had a few drinks. It was a crazy thing to do, come clear across the country for a man, but the job had been perfect. And, even if she and Sam turned out to be just one of those crazy nights, the opportunity to get out from her parents’ shadow made it all worth it.
She hiked around a bend in the trail, and the trees opened up to a small, sunny meadow. Standing in the tall grass was a gray wolf with brown highlights. He saw her and shifted into a naked man.
Her heart jumped. It was Sam. She’d been thinking about him, daydreaming about him, and now she had the opportunity to see if what they’d had that one night was real. She stared at him for what seemed like five minutes, but was probably only seconds, while her heart skipped in her chest and logic fought with desire.
He’d cut his hair almost brutally short. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that. It gave him a leaner, almost military look, accented by his enforcer tattoo of a WG topped with three stars on his shoulder. She couldn’t spot his other tattoo, and for a moment she wondered if she’d been confused, but his bright blue eyes sparkled in the sunlight and a wicked grin crept over his face. Her thighs began to shake.
Suddenly—missing tattoos, responsibilities, her crappy day—it all disappeared in a fierce rush of need.
She stepped off the path and into the grass. This was meant to be. She’d started the ball rolling, taking big risks with her life, moving, getting a new job. Now she was about to take another. She was going to sleep with Sam Wulfric.