“BRONWYN ALESSIA ST. VINCENT CLARE!”
Four names, five words, one pissed-off werewolf. The math in this particular equation never came out in my favor.
“Callum,” I said, feigning surprise at his sudden appearance in my workshop. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
His eyes narrowed slightly. On a human, the same motion would have conveyed sharp irritation, but on Callum’s face, the expression was mild, until and unless you looked for the power behind the gaze and caught a glint of the wolf staring back.
Growing up the way I did, you learn a few things, so I knew the dangers involved in standing my ground and the ones that came with letting it go. My right hip twinged just above the band of my low-rise jeans, and my fingers played along the edges of the scar that lived there. The Mark tied me to Callum and the rest of the pack, and it served as an ever-present reminder that they were bound to protect me as one of their own. It also drove me into a hierarchy I’d never subscribed to. That and the whisper of the rest of the pack at the gates of my mind—closed for business, thank you very much—spurred me into choosing the lesser of two evils in my interaction with the aforementioned pissed-off werewolf.
Calmly, I brought my eyes to Callum’s. The power coming off him made it an effort, even for me. After a few precious seconds of meeting his gaze, I flicked my eyes to the side. Protocol would have had me looking down, but I was about as far from submissive as you could get. I also wasn’t a Were, and Callum wasn’t my alpha, so despite the constant pull of the pack at my psyche, there was nothing in Emily Post’s Guide to Werewolf Etiquette to say that I absolutely had to submit.
Callum responded to my subtle, pointed defiance with a roll of his amber-colored eyes, but he had the good grace to abstain from pressing me into the wall or down to my knees the way he might have if not for that pesky humanity of mine. Instead, he brought one suntanned hand up to his jaw and ran it roughly over the five o’clock shadow on his chin in a way that made me think he was mentally counting to ten. The action—and the frustration that drove it—reminded me that even if he wasn’t my alpha, Callum was my legal guardian, the executor of my estate, and the closest thing I had to a brother, uncle, or mentor, all rolled into one. Despite my best efforts as a small child to convince Callum that he was not (and I quote) the boss of me, he technically was. As alpha, he took pack business seriously, and had I not had four names of my own to choose from, I could have easily gone by “P.B.”—Pack Business of the first and highest order.
The Mark on my hip wasn’t just for show.
“Bryn.” Callum’s voice, even-toned with not even a hint of a growl, brought me back to the present. I was somewhat relieved that the situation had been downgraded in his mind from meriting all four names to just one. Better still that he stuck with Bryn, which I vastly preferred to Bronwyn.
“Bryn.” Slightly sharper this time, but mostly exasperated, Callum’s voice forced me to focus.
“Sorry,” I said. “Mind bunnies.”
Callum nodded curtly and waited for me to address the reason for his presence in my workshop. This was supposed to be my sanctuary, a tiny slice of pack territory that belonged to only me, myself, and I. It wasn’t much more than a standalone garage turned second-rate art studio, but I didn’t much appreciate the invasion, or the way Callum kept his eyes on mine, confident that I’d eventually tell him exactly what he wanted to know. Experience told me that he was probably right. Callum could outwait anyone, and though he was only a few inches taller than me, and the muscles in his granite jaw were relaxed, the power behind his eyes was always palpable in his stare.
“I really don’t know why you’re here,” I told him, selecting my words carefully. Most Weres could smell a lie, and Callum, the alpha of alphas in our corner of the world, would have known immediately if I’d offered up an excuse that wasn’t technically true. Luckily for me, I didn’t know precisely what it was that I’d done to merit a visit from our pack’s leader. There were any number of possibilities, none of which I wanted to openly admit to on the off chance that there was something I’d done that he hadn’t found out about yet.
“You have no idea why I might want to talk to you?” Callum asked, his voice never losing its calm, cool tone.
That was a trickier question to answer without crossing the border from half-truths into lies, but I’d had years of practice. This I could handle. “I really don’t have an idea why you’d want to talk to me.”
Technically, I didn’t have an idea; I had several.
Callum measured my response. I wasn’t stupid enough to believe that he bought what he was hearing (and smelling), but I knew him well enough to hope that he might not want to play this game all afternoon. He was the one who’d taught me to play it in the first place, but at the moment, he really didn’t seem to be in the mood for a “surviving pack life” tutorial on obfuscation.
With a much-aggrieved sigh, Callum opted out of forcing me to speak, and instead, he itemized my transgressions for me. “Motorcycle. Algebra. Curfew.” Callum never used four words where one would do—unless, of course, he was calling me by my full name, a trick that he must have picked up from watching television, since he’d been born in a time and place where middle names weren’t standard fare. The rest of our pack took their cue from him. Of all of us, I was the only one with a middle name, let alone two …
“Right,” I said, valiantly fighting the mind bunnies, which had a vicious tendency to multiply at inconvenient times. “I let a boy from town give me a ride on his motorcycle, my algebra teacher’s a sadistic imbecile, and I’m a bad, bad girl who doesn’t believe in curfews. Can I go now?”
For a split second, I thought I’d pushed him too far. I imagined his wolf instincts overtaking his human ones, changing Callum into something harder and primal. Unless he actually Shifted, he’d keep his human appearance, but I knew better than anyone that smooth skin, sandy hair, and slightly upturned lips meant nothing. Wolves in sheepskin had nothing on werewolves masquerading as men; shape-shifters were dangerous when their beasts were loose on the inside but contained on the surface. As wolves, they were hunters. In human form, they could be deadly.
Come out, come out, wherever you are, little one. No sense hiding from the Big Bad Wolf. I’ll always find you in the end. …