Six days later…
Hunkered down in a thick coat, I did my best not to trip while we walked through the woods. The meeting spot for the pack sat far off the road, just in case. It took a half an hour of walking—or in my case stumbling—to get there. Up hill. Both ways. Okay, I wasn’t exactly feeling good about the plan. Nerves ate at my stomach.
Matthew bounded through the bushes on my left, swung around a small tree, and wrapped an arm around my shoulders. His smile made the orange-red of the sunset seem even brighter. He’d been overjoyed about the trip. He even packed a backpack full of snacks and wine for me. I’d requested the wine. On the off chance something went wrong, I wanted the opportunity to drink away bad memories.
Lips brushed my temple. Matt leaned against my side to avoid a tree branch in our path. He was much better at navigating the woods than I.
“We’re almost there.”
My heart jumped into my throat. I stopped dead in my tracks, swaying from the sudden change in heart rate. Looking back, I wondered how lost I’d get trying to find the car on my own. Matt stepped into view. Concern pinched his brows down.
“You okay, honey?
“This is really happening.” Stupid, but I needed to hear it aloud.
He pulled me into a hug. The strong beat of his heart thumped against my ear. I tried to force my heart into that same steady rhythm. After a moment, I didn’t feel like running away… as much.
“Yes, this is happening. I won’t force you. We have enough time for me to walk you back.”
A couple passed by arm in arm. They smiled and laughed as they jumped over a dead branch together. All so normal. If I didn’t know one of them would turn into a wolf within the next two hours, it’d be like hiking at a state park.
Matt rubbed my back. His cheek lay on the top of my head. Each time he breathed, a little bit of my hair tickled my face. I scratched my nose. Suddenly a tissue flapped in front of my face.
“What’s that for?”
The tissue bobbed in the air. “You’re not crying?”
A made an exasperated noise. We’d gotten to this point. The place where I’d been such a spazz about everything that he thought I’d break down at a moment’s notice. I batted the white square away and stepped back to look up at his green eyes.
“We better keep going.”
Grinning, he tucked me under his arm. We managed to make it to the clearing without any more freak-outs. Though I nearly twisted my ankle trying to step around a puddle. Next time, hiking boots.
If we made it to a next time.
Alex and Sheila Culver broke off from a group of pack members seated around a small campfire. His eyes glowed in the red-orange sunlight. Her hair… well, I assumed one of her parents might have been a were-porcupine. Sheila came up to my shoulder, but that didn’t diminish the aura of power around her.
“So far so good. Some of us thought you wouldn’t make it out of the car.” She shook my hand. “Come meet the others. They won’t bite… yet.”
“Sheila,” Alex warned.
Matt laughed and hugged the smaller woman. “Let her get it out of her system. We haven’t brought in a new pack member in months. Some good-natured ribbing might help Annie relax a little.”
Sheila grinned and wrapped an arm around mine. We walked over to the fire. I hoped like hell she couldn’t feel the trembling that started in my legs and worked its way up until it felt like my eyeballs vibrated in my skull.
“Breathe, Annie,” she whispered. “They will be your family. Family doesn’t judge. They will tease you, torment you, but it is done with nothing but love.”
“I think I’m going to throw up.”
She drew up short. Hazel eyes narrowed. “Oh no you don’t. These are new boots.”
Something nudged the back of my legs. I looked behind me. Alex gently urged me into the camp chair. “All you need to do for the next hour and a half is sit there and breathe. We’re not forcing you to do anything, Annie. We discussed this on the phone.”
“I know. I know.” Elbows propped against my knees, I cradled my head and prayed I didn’t make an ass of myself.
Matthew crouched in front of me. He leaned down to meet my eyes and smiled. “No one here will hurt you. Should I open the wine?”
“Oh god, please.” I tried to ignore the desperation in my voice.
He opened the wine and poured a glass. The others gathered around the fire wisely waited for the wine to go down the hatch before they came up to introduce themselves. I admitted to myself, I’d expected a bunch of biker gang rejects. Most of them held steady corporate jobs. A handful embraced a more rural life, working on farms or as forest rangers. Guess it made it easier to track rogue weres and anti-were hunters if they were the first to go out after a full moon to search the woods.
A few others trickled in before moonrise. By the time we caught the first glimpse of silvery light through the trees, my body tingled from a little too much wine but at least I’d stopped panicking.
Alex called everyone over to the trees. The human pack members stopped at the tree line. Everyone else stepped back into the coverage of underbrush and disrobed. Except Matt. He stayed where I could watch him. Being tipsy, his shift prep became a very odd strip tease. Thank goodness I didn’t have any cash or I’d have thrown it as his feet when his pants came off. Like we needed me to be any more embarrassing.
“Matt, you shift first. She needs to see you do it. We’d overwhelm her if we all shifted together.”
“Alright.” Matt smiled. My heart stuttered. “Ready, baby?”
No way could I speak coherently, wine or no. I licked my lips and nodded.
He kicked his boxers off and covered himself with his hands. My pulse kicked up a notch when the muscles in his arms and legs began to ripple beneath the skin. Matt winced. When his eyes opened they were gold. He let out a hard breath and dropped to the ground. Loud cracks echoed through the clearing. The muscles on his shoulders jumped and changed shape. That seemed to jump-start the transformation. His arms and legs morphed. I couldn’t see his face. Matt’s head hung down. Heavy breaths pushed the leaves under him in all directions.
A growl trickled through the air. I took a step back. My foot hit a branch and I fell with a yelp. I looked up. A gigantic grey wolf loomed over me. We stared at each other for a minute, neither of us daring to move. He broke the standoff, picking up the branch I’d tripped over and setting it out of my way.
I got up on my knees. We were eye level and I searched those golden depths for any sign of my Matt. The wolf winked. A cold, wet nose nudged my hand up on to his head. Coarse fur ran between my fingers. He tilted his head, forcing me to rub one of his ears. A soft whimper came from a mouth full of teeth the size of my fingers.
“You’re impossible, even with fur.”
Matt wagged his tail and licked my cheek. I gave another scratch behind his ear. The only reason I didn’t faint was because my ass landed on the ground. Hey, sometimes we have to be honest with ourselves. If I’d met his furry form standing, I’d be out cold.
Sheila wrapped an arm around my shoulders and helped me to my feet. She nodded to her husband. He gave me an approving look before disappearing behind a tall bush. Minutes later, the grove filled with wolves. I sat in the camp chair beside the fire, letting each of them come up so I could meet their furry forms.
A wolf—I assumed Alex—let out a loud, long howl. The others joined in, filling the forest with their voices. As a pack they took off into the forest. They’d be out there a few hours hunting and romping. I planned to get cozy with the last of the wine.
I survived meeting a pack of werewolves. That earned me the right to get good and drunk.