Authors: Annabeth Leong
The wolf on his back snarled, then pulled up short, sharp teeth just grazing his flesh. Then it was Juli covering his body, naked as he was, tugging him free of the outcropping. He would have relaxed into her arms, except that she settled her forearm under his neck and held him as if he were a hostage. His leg ached where she’d bitten him. He flexed experimentally, but didn’t think she’d inflicted permanent damage.
“Juli,” he muttered, “can we please go somewhere private? I need to talk to you.”
She hissed her response into his ear. “I’ve had it with privacy, Neil. You’re not going to be able to pretend this never happened. We won’t even have to tell anyone I defeated you—they all saw it.”
He winced as she threw back his words from the night before. Juli shifted her grip and stood them both up on the outcropping. Her chest heaved, pushing her breasts against his back. Even here and now, Neil could hardly think straight through his desire for her.
“I need a Council decision,” Juli called down to the assembled wolves. “Since the challenger shifted out of wolf form before the challenge was complete, I’m not sure how I’m supposed to resolve this.”
Neil could not resist making another attempt to get her attention. “Juli, can I take you to coffee tomorrow?”
She responded by squeezing her forearm tighter under his throat.
Below them, Heather Compton’s human form rose again from among the assembled wolves. She studied Juli and Neil with a frank, speculative gaze that made Neil shift uncomfortably. “Ending the challenge without cause is a grave violation,” Heather intoned. “In the cherished tradition of the full-moon challenge, both sides require protection to prevent spurious and needlessly damaging contests. Regulation 10a states that—”
Neil snarled aloud, the urge to return to wolf form striking powerfully now he knew Juli would not speak to him. Heather started and glared, then gestured to two hulking wolves that had to be the shifted versions of her usual sidekicks.
The wolves ran up the cliff—with as much trouble as he’d had, Neil noted with some bitter satisfaction—and took up positions to either side of Juli and Neil, baring their teeth and digging in their forelegs. Neil shivered, the message coming through quite clearly.
“As I was saying,” Heather continued, “regulation 10a states that any challenge, once begun, must be carried out to its natural conclusion, so as not to leave any doubts about dominance in the eyes of the pack.”
Despite the low growls of the shifted investigators, Neil again could not restrain himself. “What if the challenge wasn’t being conducted properly?”
Wrong protest. Heather’s eyes flashed more dangerously than ever. “Do you question my ability to moderate according to protocol?”
Neil took as deep a breath as Juli’s forearm allowed. “I’ve never fought a challenge like this before,” he said, working to keep his voice sounding confident rather than petulant. “Strength to strength, I would defeat her. No challenge I’ve ever seen took place under trick conditions.”
A mocking smile fluttered over Heather’s face. “Juli Gunby’s style of challenge might be unusual, but it is not unprecedented, and it is certainly not illegal. Had you waited mere seconds longer before shifting out of wolf form, her victory would have been clearly established before all.”
Heather’s response seemed to satisfy Juli that the verdict would go in her favor. She loosened her grip on Neil and stepped back, and he had to restrain a whimper of disappointment as her body withdrew from his. Neil glanced back at her, but her face had closed to him. He held himself tall and stared down at the crowd, trying to stay cool despite the erection that had begun to stir when he felt Juli’s skin against his own. He’d let the emotions that swirled around mating go to his head. He’d let himself get distracted by the need to talk over what had happened between them. But he’d been a beta long enough to know how to prop up an alpha. He knew what was expected of him. Even if Juli never spoke to him again, he knew that in his heart she would always be his mate. He needed to do the right thing by her.
“I apologize for disrupting protocol,” Neil said. “I’ll be happy to shift back so that the alpha can complete the final assertion of dominance.”
Heather folded her arms across her chest. “It’s not that simple, I’m afraid. The consequences for withdrawing from the fight are much more severe than the consequences of merely losing a challenge. Alphas, as I said, must be protected from those who would wound, then flee.” He hated the drama of the pause she gave then, but not as much as he hated what she said next. “Any challenger from within the pack who refuses to engage with the alpha according to agreed-upon terms must suffer expulsion from the pack.”
Cold pierced Neil’s heart. All he’d ever done had been for the sake of this pack. He’d sacrificed life, love, and career for it. If he had to leave it, he might as well die. He hadn’t even begun to think of the implications of losing Juli for good.
Before he could gather his thoughts enough to respond, Juli stepped in front of him, sweeping him behind her with a motherly, protective gesture. “Wait! I would welcome him to continue as a member of the pack. I’m not afraid of causing confusion or exposing myself to future threats. He’s given many years of faithful service to this pack. He deserves better.”
Heather clucked her tongue and shook her head. “This isn’t the sort of matter that falls to the jurisdiction of a single alpha. The Werewolf Council’s word is law in all matters that affect the packs as a whole. This isn’t a matter of your instinct as to what is right, or of your obvious feelings for this man.” The investigator sneered as she spoke. “Neil Statham will be taken into custody now and briefed on his rights. In short form, he will leave the Missoula pack before the next moon. If no other Council pack will have him, then his full-moon exemption privileges will be revoked. If he proves unable to restrain his shift, lycanthropy suppressants will be prescribed. That is all.” She turned on her heel, shifting back to wolf form as she did.
Neil stared after her in horror. Juli touched his arm with her fingertips, her face a mirror of his expression, with guilt added in. “Neil, I never meant for this to—”
“Sh,” he told her. “You didn’t know.”
“If I had talked to you like you wanted...”
“If.” That word summed up everything he felt for her then. He might have tried to say a little more, to explain what he’d been thinking last night, except that one of Heather’s sidekicks nipped at his heels, and he understood he had to follow her now. He tried to take comfort in Juli’s concern for him, but as the Lewistown investigators herded him away from the challenge site, all he could think about was what he and Juli had done in this place just the night before, and how it broke his heart that it would never happen again.
Juli fought to move in the opposite direction of the crowds making their way out of Ogren Park. She headed toward the dugouts. Of course, Neil might not want to see her when she got there, but she needed to deal with one problem at a time.
She stumbled as she worked her way between the seats. In all the years she’d known Neil, she’d never actually been to a game before. Never before had she seen the way he could explode from seeming idleness to lightning-fast action, his cleats skidding in the diamond’s dirt. That night, Juli had discovered the strength of his arm and the clear pleasure on his face when he ran onto the field.
It had been good to watch him when she had an excuse to just stare. The rhythm of his walk alone made her body ache for him. She’d spent a lot of time recently wondering if she could live without him. It felt like wondering whether she could give up an arm. Since the night they’d mated, Neil felt like a part of her. Even the brief separation she’d endured so far had tested her focus and patience. She could not bear to think about years stretching out before her, empty of her true love and bonded mate.
It had taken several mornings drinking coffee at Sarah Edmond’s table to come up with a plan. Now that she had one, she was almost afraid to try it, convinced that Neil would not agree.
Stadium lights nearly obscured the waning moon, despite its still-round brightness. In the press of people, she felt lost, each individual scent mingling into a powerful mass that made it impossible for Juli to pick out any single thread.
A stadium official equipped with a walkie-talkie caught her eye. He gestured and pointed. “You coming down for Launch a Ball, miss?”
Juli shook her head, but approached him. “I’m here to visit a player.” When the official raised a dubious eyebrow, she kept talking. “Um, my boyfriend. Neil Statham. I didn’t tell him I was coming. I wanted to surprise him.” Juli felt foolish.
“Neil Statham, eh? You might actually be telling the truth. He’s getting a little old for most of the girls looking to hook up with players.”
Juli opened her mouth, then closed it again. She decided she didn’t want to know any of the details of Minor League baseball groupies. “Can you take me to him? Or at least tell him I’m here?”
He spoke briefly into the walkie-talkie, then nodded at her. “Go on that way, miss. The guy down there will let him know to watch out for you.”
She gulped and moved in the direction he pointed. Juli craned her neck, hoping to catch sight or scent of Neil. She hitched her purse up her shoulder. Full moon was still so recent that it felt strange to wear only a human skin. Every time she thought of Neil her body threatened to burst into fur. She wondered when she would ever get control of herself again.
Juli wound her way past a few groups still cleaning up picnics they’d brought to the game, then found herself approaching a press of men wearing the Ospreys’ blue-billed ball caps.
A tall, slim man looked Juli up and down and let out a low whistle. “When Statham decides to play, he doesn’t play around.”
Juli started, cocking her head. She wasn’t used to men looking at or talking about her that way. The beast within her wanted to give him an education on what “not playing around” really meant, but she restrained the urge. She cleared her throat. “Is Neil here?”
Neil emerged before the other man had a chance to answer, shoving his way through the laughing group and avoiding their attempts to high-five him. “Juli,” he said, her name heavy with meaning when it passed through his lips. “What are you doing here?”
One of his teammates nudged him. “Statham, you’ve got game, but you have to learn how to play. Don’t stare at her. Take her to see Ollie.” The man winked meaningfully.
Juli narrowed her eyes. “Who’s Ollie?”
Neil made it the last of the way to her side and took her elbow. “He’s the mascot. And don’t look at me like that. He’s a real osprey who lives in the outfield. But... he might also be a euphemism.”
She laughed in spite of herself. Her body leaned toward Neil’s as if pulled by gravity. She wanted to touch him and so much more. She wanted to be free to be his mate, without so much political complication. “Maybe we should go visit him.” She took a deep breath. “I want to talk to you.”
He squinted and stared out toward the outfield. Her heart pounded in her chest. Since the night of the challenge, she’d lived in fear of this moment, when Neil might tell her he’d had enough. Finally, Neil nodded, and it seemed to Juli that the world started moving again. “Yeah, I guess we’d better get away from these jokers.” He tipped his hat in the direction of his teammates and led her toward the outfield. Catcalls accompanied them as they went.
Away from the press of bodies, the night felt cooler. They walked together silently, until Neil took her hand. “I didn’t think you would come.”
“How could I not?”
He shrugged. “The two of us don’t make a lot of sense, do we?”
“I know one way we make sense,” Juli said. Neil raised an eyebrow at her invitation, and she dropped it, feeling awkward again. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what to say.”
He sighed. “I’m going to be okay, I think. I called the Diamondbacks, and they’re happy, actually. They’ve asked a few times if I want to move up in the Minors, and if I ever want to do that, I can’t wait until I get much older.”
Juli swallowed, the pain of losing him even more real now she knew he had a plan. “Where would they send you?”
“They want some time to review my stats, but they were talking about Mobile, or even Reno.”
“What does that mean, other than those places being far away as all hell?”
Neil sighed, dropped her hand, and turned toward her. They stood in the shadows of the outfield bleachers, and she couldn’t read his face. “I’ve spent my career so far making peanuts playing the lowest level of Minor League ball, because I wouldn’t leave Missoula. These guys on my team are right out of high school, Juli.” He grimaced a little. “That’s why they don’t know how to talk to a woman. I’m in my mid-twenties, and I work part-time at a convenience store so I can afford to eat. Darrow didn’t even charge me rent. It’s embarrassing.” He rubbed the back of his hand across his eyes and looked up toward the stadium lights. “The Mobile BayBears pay something a lot more like a real salary, and the Reno Aces—that’s just a step away from the Majors. Maybe it’s time to get my own life. Take lycanthropy suppressants, whatever the Council wants me to do.” His eyes slid down to hers, and she could not mistake the heat they contained. “All I know is I’m tired of giving up everything that means anything to me.”
Juli bit her lip. Neil deserved to reap the fruits of his hard work in some way. The conversation she’d come to have would disrupt things for him yet again. Still, Mobile, Alabama, might as well be on the other side of the world. She couldn’t let him go without a fight—not after everything that had passed between them since her father died.
“Neil, if I asked you to, would you stay?”
Disbelief broke over his face. “What kind of question is that, Juli? You know I can’t. Those Lewistown goons escorted me away from the challenge site like I was a criminal.”
“You’re my mate,” she whispered. “I can’t forget that, and I can’t pretend it never happened.”
Neil winced. “I wish I could pretend I never said that. It was dumb, and I didn’t mean it at all.” He lifted one hand to her cheek. “I don’t want to leave you, Juli. I don’t know how I’m going to keep breathing. This just isn’t something I’m choosing.”