Authors: Annabeth Leong
Neil approached Juli, his face impossible to read by the dim light of the moon. She continued to hold out her fingers, bracing herself for the possibility that he would slap them aside or otherwise insult her.
Instead, he dropped to all fours before her without hesitation and sniffed Juli’s fingertips. Cold drops of water beaded on his nose, but Juli didn’t care. She nearly choked with emotion as he allowed her to mark him by drawing her fingernails lightly over the skin to either side of his throat. Then he licked at the back of her hand and a different sensation flooded her body. She wanted to fling herself into the mud at his side and lick him right back.
Neil finished the traditional observance, then sat back on his heels. A smile dawned over Juli’s face. She didn’t know what had changed his mind, but he’d come to recognize her and brought the entire pack with him. “Neil,” she began, but before she could say anything else, he held up a hand.
“Let the others come in first. This needs to be done properly.” He rolled gracefully to his feet and took a place along the perimeter of the circle. The Lewistown officials made way for Sarah Edmond next. The older woman repeated Neil’s actions without hesitation. Juli could not have said whether the awe that filled her chest as the ceremony continued came from the pack’s recognition or from the knowledge that Neil had led them here.
When all twenty-three members of the pack had paid respects and gone to stand with the Lewistown officials along the edges of the circle, Juli resumed her seated position on the flat rock at its center. She didn’t know why they hadn’t come in time for the official ceremony, but she didn’t need to make an issue of that. They had come, and now that they had accepted each other as pack and alpha, Juli could get about the business of serving them as befitted a good leader.
To start, she knew to give credit where credit was due. She smiled at Neil and motioned him forward. But her pleased, magnanimous mood slipped when he stopped out of range of personal conversation and turned to face away from her. Whatever he had to say, he planned to say it to the pack, not to her.
“Let it be known that I challenge Juli Gunby for the position of pack alpha, and request the contest be held on the night of the full moon, two days from now, at a mutually agreed location.”
Juli’s jaw slackened. Plenty of times during the investigation, she’d goaded Neil to challenge her this way if he didn’t like the idea of her as alpha. It was better for the pack that he’d finally decided to fight her through this tradition, rather than through an appeal to the Council. Now that the moment had come, however, it felt like the bottom had dropped out of her stomach.
She’d been happy to talk tough to Neil, but staring at his broad back while he spoke the formal, ancient words of his challenge, she remembered just how big he was as a wolf. In human form, she nearly matched him, but when Juli shifted, she changed into a surprisingly small, ruddy little thing, almost as though she took after her father as a human, but her lithe, petite mother as a werewolf. Her father had made her fight him in play on full-moon nights more than once, but Juli had never fought a true, fully shifted battle. Neil had successfully defended her father from challenges from all directions for years. She possessed no resources for this, and no helpful experience.
She’d been so caught up battling with him and thinking about her father’s wishes that she’d forgotten to consider her own skills, and her own ability to deal with challenges that might arise. On some level, Juli supposed, she’d always believed Neil would come around. How could he not, after what happened between them that night in Dragon Hollow? With Neil at her side as beta, she would have been confident in facing any challenge that could be brought, by Jesse Hoak or otherwise. Against Neil, without Neil’s support—it made her feel more lost than she wanted to admit.
Still, when Neil turned back to Juli and it was her turn to speak ritual words, she had no choice but to accept. Honor demanded it. She could not refuse or wriggle away mere moments after swearing to bear the first responsibility for the defense of the pack.
She and Neil stepped closer and closer until they stood toe to toe. Her breath heaved and her body came alive as her nerves twitched with the memory of his touch. She needed to focus on the challenge at hand, on the prospect of fighting him, but her skin burned for an entirely different reason, hot and sensitive in response to his proximity.
Juli wanted to collapse against his chest, to breathe his breath, but she could not. She would not prove herself as weak as he considered her to be. Lifting her chin, she looked up into Neil’s pale brown eyes. “We will meet again at the full moon, in two days’ time,” she promised, speaking to the pack at large as much as to the man before her.
A faint smile ghosted over his face. “We’ll meet at home tomorrow night at eight, then go out to scout locations,” he said. Juli heard nothing else that night.
Neil sat in the living room waiting for Juli. He could still smell that witch from Lewistown all over the upholstery. He hoped that whatever happened, Juli wouldn’t go back there. If Heather Compton served as an example of the consummate product of the Werewolf Council’s policies, Juli would be wise to stay far away.
He heard her truck pull up outside the house, then smelled the woman herself a moment later. Sarah Edmond’s words banged around within him. All that talk of mating and instinct had gotten into his blood, it seemed. His inner wolf surged to the surface the moment he even thought of Juli’s name lately, and her scent caused even more of a reaction.
She came closer and opened the door, and it hit him full out. He could not close himself off from his awareness of Juli. Fur rose from his skin, and the wild parts of him demanded release. Neil took a deep breath and tried to coexist with it. What if Sarah Edmond had been right? If all this were natural? The idea gave him relief. He felt strangely relaxed as Juli entered the room, despite his total and undeniable arousal.
Juli gave a short, stiff nod by way of greeting. She stayed near the doorway, as if afraid to get closer to him. He wondered if she could feel him the way he could her. Her body sang to his. He vibrated with it.
“How was your day?” Neil asked, his face heating when his voice cracked into a growl.
Her forehead creased in concern. “Are you doing okay, Neil?”
He knew what she meant. She wanted to know how well he would control himself. He couldn’t speak for the urges spilling out of him, but he could answer the truly important question. “I’m not going to shift and fight you until the proper time tomorrow night, Juli. The rest is... personal.”
She nodded, wincing with sympathy. “It’s still coming over me at odd moments. I guess a lot of it has to do with my father, but some of it...” She trailed off and avoided his eyes. “I think some of it’s about something else.”
He recalled Sarah Edmond’s claim that two werewolves about to mate normally experienced this effect, and wondered if the old woman had spoken to Juli the same way she had to him.
A shake of his head failed to clear his mind. If he didn’t get his mind off mating, he’d never be able to get in the truck with her, let alone make it through scouting for challenge locations. “How’s the job search going?”
“Great. Dr. LaMont recommended an office that can use me.”
“That was nice of him.”
“He said he’d do the same for any member of the pack.”
With that, all that hung between them rose to the surface again. “So you’re really not going back to Lewistown,” Neil said. Wild hope pumped through his heart, disrupting his equilibrium again.
“I’m not going to lose, Neil.” Juli’s voice came out quiet, but extremely determined.
He blinked, uncertain of how to ask more about her intentions without offending her again and making things worse between them. To cover his confusion, Neil hauled himself to his feet. “My truck or yours?”
“No offense, but I think mine’s a little more reliable.”
He winced, but nodded. As soon as he followed her out to her truck, he realized what a terrible mistake he’d made letting her choose. He hadn’t been in her truck before, and so he hadn’t realized how much every piece of it would smell like her. The earthy scent of her embraced him as he took his seat, warm and inviting and guaranteed to drive him absolutely mad. He rolled his window down as soon as she started the car and prayed he could hold on to his sanity.
“Where to?” Juli asked.
“Let’s start at the head of the Kim Williams trail.”
“Isn’t that paved?”
“It gets wilder when you get farther out. They’ve seen mountain lions out there.”
She smirked. “I guess that’s badass enough for us then.”
A heavy silence rose between them as she drove. Finally, Juli cleared her throat. “Neil, I’m glad you decided to challenge me the traditional way.”
“If the Lewistown investigators had quoted one more regulation at me, they’d have had to force-feed me lycanthropy suppressants. Nothing short of that would have stopped the shift.”
She grinned, then admitted, “I was right there with you.”
Surprised, he peered at her. “I assumed you were used to it, after working with them and all.”
She shrugged. Her eyes remained fixed on the road, making it too easy for him to stare at the curve of her neck and slope of her jaw, both strong and graceful. “Forensics is different. You have to be precise, but it’s for a clear reason. There’s a way that getting your lab work done right is like sinking your teeth into something just the right way. It doesn’t feel like the life is being regulated out of you.”
“How did you talk to any of them?”
Her voice turned sheepish. “I really didn’t. Let me put it this way. People will notice my lab bench is open, and my landlord is going to need to find someone else to pay rent for the apartment I was living in. Other than that, there isn’t anyone who’s even going to notice I’ve moved back home.”
Juli shrugged. “It was.”
“Why didn’t you come home sooner?”
“Do we have to keep going over this?”
“Yes, because I still don’t understand.”
She rubbed the corner of her eye. “I felt like I didn’t have a place here. Sure, Daddy called and asked me to visit, but I wasn’t sure what he wanted with me. Were we going to clean something together? He was an awesome dad when I was a little girl, really fun, and always taking me with him on errands. He made me feel important, like I was the sidekick to all of his alpha stuff. And he always had time to stop for a hot dog. Then, after my mother got political and left, he sort of fell apart for a while. I guess he needed a sidekick who could actually help him lead the pack, and that wasn’t his little girl.” She glanced over at Neil quickly, but it happened too fast for him to catch her eye. “You really helped him, Neil, and I was happy about that. I just didn’t know where to stand anymore, once you were always at his side.”
A pang burst through Neil. Darrow Gunby had been a mentor, but he’d never intended to gain a father figure at someone else’s expense. “Juli, I didn’t—”
“I’m not finished.” She took a deep breath. “There was also you. After you said you weren’t interested in me... I couldn’t see how I would ever move on if you were there in front of me every day. I had to get away, or I’d have embarrassed myself moping and mooning.”
“When you never spoke to me again, I assumed whatever you felt about me hadn’t lasted very long.”
She gave a little laugh. “Don’t I wish.”
Neil’s entire body came alive. “You’re saying you still have feelings.”
“I thought I made my feelings pretty clear at Dragon Hollow. Both times.”
“Juli—” He wanted to ask her to pull over. Right then, he didn’t care if he shifted the moment he touched her. He needed her far too much to wait for any reason.
“You’re challenging me tomorrow. Remember? I think these questions should probably wait until we see how that works out. Otherwise, we’ll just fight about it some more.”
She sounded cool, but he saw the rapid rise and fall of her chest. If she felt the way he did, Neil wondered how she could resist at all. Her fingers drummed on her steering wheel. The sexually charged silence between them obviously made her uncomfortable.
“Let’s focus on finding where to hold this challenge, Neil. Please.”
“Of course. We’ll do that first.”
“No, not first. That’s what we’re doing tonight. Nothing else. I can’t handle another incident where you remind me how you feel.”
The bitter tone of her voice pulled him up short. Had he ever made it clear how he felt about her, even to himself? In Neil’s mind, Juli inspired an alluring sequence of desires and fantasies. Plenty were sexual, but he sometimes imagined how it would be to spend his life with her, the way Will Edmond had done with Sarah.
“I hope my feelings about you are clear, Juli.”
“They’re clear, all right. You want to mate with me so long as I know I’m in second place. I’m not really sure why you want me for that when you could have plenty of Ospreys fans or another woman from the pack. Maybe because you miss my father?”
Neil stared at her. He couldn’t understand where she’d gotten that impression of him. “This has nothing to do with Darrow, Juli, other than that I used to worry he wouldn’t approve if he knew how I felt about you.” He folded his arms over his chest, feeling too defensive to open up about any of his more romantic thoughts. “This isn’t about wanting you in second place, either.”
“Why not, Neil? If you really don’t care which of us ends up on top, then let’s mate tomorrow instead of fighting.”
Neil’s jaw dropped. Juli sure knew how to raise the stakes on a conversation.
“I see you’re hesitating,” Juli said. “Maybe that’s because your feelings about me aren’t clear, not even to you.”
“You’re just baiting me, Juli. If I said we should mate tomorrow, you’d balk just as much.”
She did pull the car over then, veering into the shoulder with a screech. Cars zipped by alongside, but Juli shut down the engine and turned to Neil. “I can’t believe I’m doing this again. Every time you reject me, I swear to myself that I’m not putting myself out there for you anymore. I’m tired of getting hurt, Neil. But you’re acting like you still don’t get it, so I’m going to do this one more time.” She rubbed a hand over her face. The brilliant blue of her eyes shone through even when shaded by her fingertips. “I have been in love with you since I was fifteen. I don’t know what the hell I’m thinking sometimes, if it’s some crazy reaction I have to the amazing way you smell, but I’ve never been able to get it to go away. I—”