Adam peered down at me. His feral, golden eyes held my gaze. Only a few bits of darkness lingered in the bright depths, like bitter chocolate melting in butter. Icy rain dripped from his forehead onto my face, causing me to blink.
The gold was worrisome, I thought muzzily, wiping my cheek with a clumsy hand. I should pay attention to the dangerous gold in his eyes.
"Pretty," I said.
Someone stifled a laugh, but it wasn't Adam. His frown deepened.
I had just been . . . well, I couldn't remember exactly, but it had definitely not been lying on the wet ground, icy rain-or possibly very wet snow-sluicing down on my face as I stared up into Adam's wild eyes. I reached up with a hand that didn't want to obey and closed my fist on the collar of his shirt.
Though my brain still wasn't tracking quite right, it didn't take much thought to make a connection between the splendid headache that seemed to be centered around my temple and my position on the ground. Something must have hit me hard. I figured I'd be-cold water dripped on my cheek-right as rain in just a minute, but judging by Adam's expression, it might not be soon enough to prevent an explosion.
That could be bad. Worse than if Adam merely lost out to his wolf. His usual wolf. The flash memory of the twisted version of a David Cronenberg-inspired movie werewolf worrying at my throat with huge, already bloodstained teeth served to wake me more effectively than the cold water splashing my face from the skies above us had.
I sucked in a breath with a sudden surge of adrenaline that seemed to extinguish the last few dark bits of humanity in Adam's eyes even as it left me thinking more clearly. Neither he nor I knew if the vicious monster the witch Elizaveta had cursed him to become when she died was gone or merely biding its time.
Adam had warned the pack about the possibility that he could turn into something more dangerous, a monster that he couldn't always control. But in true werewolf fashion, they seemed to look upon it as a new superpower Adam had achieved rather than the terrifying threat it was. They hadn't witnessed it firsthand.
After the full moon had come and only Adam's usual wolf form had answered that call, Adam had been relieved. His temper, already easily roused, had continued to be on an even-shorter-than-usual fuse, but I thought that could be attributed to the unusual strain of the past few months. And yet . . .
I examined my mate's face for a hint of the monster and saw . . . Adam. He carried the experiences of this past year, and despite the werewolf-bestowed youth, his eyes looked older. There was a tightness to his features due to the bite of Elizaveta's curse and the various horrors of the past few months. He still had the confident air that was so much a part of him, but now it looked as though it was riding a war-weary soldier.
I tugged a little harder on the collar of his shirt.
He blinked and a ring of darkness solidified around the outside of his irises. Reassured, I tugged hard enough to choke him, ignoring the soreness this spawned in the newly healed muscle of my right arm where an assassin had shot me shortly before Adam's monster had eaten her.
I couldn't have pulled Adam down to me if he hadn't wanted to come. He was a werewolf and I wasn't. I could have levered myself to him, but I didn't have to make the effort. He bent down and brushed my lips lightly, with a wry tilt of one eyebrow that told me he knew what I was up to but he was willing to play my game.
He sat all the way down on the ground, ignoring the slushy mud, and hauled me into his lap. It was like sitting on a furnace. My whole body softened into him, into his warmth and the rich smell of home. For a half second there was another scent, a more rank scent-or maybe that was just my imagination, because when I inhaled again, I smelled only Adam.
I leaned my head into his shoulder, which was as hard as stone. That wasn't just because he was tense with anger; he was just in that kind of shape. What little softness there had been was worn away, leaving only muscle and bone behind. There was no give to him, but if I'd wanted soft, I would have had to look for someone who wasn't the Alpha of a werewolf pack. Someone who wasn't Adam.
When my temple touched his collarbone, I hissed, and he went rigid. I'd almost forgotten. This had all begun when something had hit me in the temple and dropped me.
"Was it Bonarata?" I asked. That didn't seem right. The Lord of Night, vampire ruler of all he could survey, was in Italy. But we'd killed all the witches, hadn't we? Even Elizaveta was dead. And the fae-ish smoke dragon was gone to wherever fae-ish smoke dragons go.
There were a few more smothered laughs. If there were enemies around, there wouldn't have been people laughing-and Adam wouldn't have sat down on the ground.
Someone said, in a whisper that was not quite quiet enough, "Dang, she's going to have another black eye." Honey, I thought. She usually had better sense.
Adam tightened his arms and growled, a sound that no completely human throat could have made. He was very and continually unhappy about the damage I took as his mate-a position more usually filled by a human, who would have been kept out of events whenever possible, or a werewolf, who could hold her own. I wasn't either of those things; I was a coyote shapeshifter, a member of the pack in my own right, with all the privileges and the duties that entailed. I didn't let them-or Adam-coddle me. It wouldn't have been good for any of us, no matter how hard it was on him.
"Hey, boss," said Warren's casual voice, the one he used when he thought he wasn't talking to a rational being.
I glanced over to see that the tall, lanky cowboy had taken a deliberately relaxed stance about ten feet away. It would have been more convincing if his eyes hadn't been showing a hint of gold. A couple of yards behind him, the pack hovered in a mud-spattered, silent aggregate.
Adam looked, too.
Under the impact of Adam's attention, the pack backed away. Warren turned his head so he wasn't even looking in our direction.
But his voice was still calm and steady as he continued, "You sure you should be moving her around? Mary Jo should maybe see if she has a concussion."
Mary Jo was a firefighter, and she had EMT training.
Again, Adam didn't answer, and the tension grew. Which was exactly the opposite effect our outing to the pumpkin patch was supposed to engender.
Our pack, the Columbia Basin Pack, was unaffiliated with any other werewolves, the only one on the North or South American continent that did not belong to Bran Cornick, the Marrok. His goal was the survival of the werewolves, and he was ruthless in that pursuit-which was why weĠd ended up on our own.
A wise pack, bereft of the Marrok's protection, needed to keep its collective head down if it wanted to survive. Unfortunately, that wasn't an option for us.
It wouldn't be vanity to say there wasn't another pack as well-known as ours anywhere, at least in the eyes of the mundane world. Adam, our Alpha, my mate, was recognizable on any street corner in the US. That had begun as an accident of his contacts in the military, his willingness to talk to news agencies, and the good looks that had been the bane of his life long before he'd become a werewolf.
But it was my fault that the whole pack suffered along with him.
A few years ago, the worst thing most of the people (and other sentient beings) living in the Tri-Cities of Washington State had to worry about on an epic scale was the possibility of one of the Hanford nuclear waste tanks-filled with the caustic sludge by-products of the early, experimental years of nuclear science-leaking its goop into the Columbia River. Or possibly exploding.
There were nearly two hundred of the aging tanks, some holding as much as a million gallons. Each tank contained a unique mix of very bad radioactive soup, and worse, due to the secretive nature of nuclear weapons development, no one really knew exactly what was in any of them.
There really were scarier things than monsters.
The Tri-Cities, in addition to being right next to a Superfund cleanup site, were about an hour's drive from the Ronald Wilson Reagan Fae Reservation, which the fae had turned into their own seat of power in their (mostly) cold war with the US government.
Because it suited them and because I claimed the Tri-Cities to be under our pack's protection (it was a stupid heat-of-the-moment thing), the fae let it be known that they acknowledged and respected the Columbia Basin Pack's right to protect our territory and the people, mundane and supernatural alike, who lived within it. We had signed a bargain with them that we would do that-and, more significantly, they would not harm anyone under our protection.
We hadn't had a choice, and neither, I am pretty sure, had they. But bargains with the fae, even when both parties entered into the agreement with the best of intentions, tended to end badly, which was why the Marrok had cut us loose.
No one wanted a war between the fae and the werewolves. If our pack stood alone, whatever happened between us and the fae-or the vampires, other werewolf packs, ancient gods, or demons-werewolfkind would not be forced into that conflict. Our pack's demise would not start a war between the supernatural world and the human, so long as we stood alone.
Or so everyone hoped.
The bargain with the fae made the Tri-Cities a neutral zone where humans could rub shoulder to shoulder with the magical world because they were protected. We had suddenly become a point of interest in national, international, and supernatural politics-and there were consequences.
Weaker supernatural beings flocked to a place of (perceived) safety, causing, among other things, a housing shortage. Hotels were booked solid and the Airbnb market went through the roof, because there was now a "safe" place to go see fae mingling with regular folks.
More quietly, predators came here, too, creatures who did not think they had to worry about a mere pack of werewolves interfering in their plundering of the rich hunting ground the Tri-Cities had become. We'd killed two of those predators in the past week alone.
Our pack was fierce. Adam was awe-inspiringly awesome. We had support from the fae-though admittedly that was nearly as dangerous as it was useful. The local vampire seethe helped us for their own reasons. Our pack, all twenty-six of us, bore the brunt of protecting our territory, and because we were not affiliated with the Marrok, we weren't going to get any more wolves very easily.
Adam had responded to the situation by turning us into a finely tuned fighting unit. Some of that meant training in fighting techniques. Some of it meant becoming a more tightly knit pack.
Which was why Adam had rented a giant pumpkin patch and corn maze on a Tuesday night in October so that our pack could play together.
Who knew that a pumpkin patch could be dangerous?