Jane walked into the restaurant a little late. She’d called her father before she left for the meeting, to get a refresher course on dealing with werewolves. Especially alpha werewolves.
“Babygirl, I don’t know if you’re crazy or stupid. How did you get wound up with Joseph?” Her father’s voice had been exasperated, and had held that daddy tone as well. Like she’d accepted a date from the man instead of a simple meeting on neutral territory to talk. About an unknown subject. When the pack leader had sounded like he was ready to draw blood. Okay, it wasn’t the smartest thing she’d ever done.
“Daddy, he called me and said he needed my help with something. The rest of the supes know what I’m capable of, you made sure of that when you had me help you track down that rabid dog four years ago. The one that had quit attacking cattle and started in on people, remember? So I assume it’s something that I can help him with.” Jane sighed. Her father walked a very thin line between letting her live her own life and being protective enough to satisfy his own fatherly urges.
“I know, Babygirl, I’m sorry. I just don’t like the idea of you meeting with a werewolf without me there. Can you call him back and postpone until I can make it?”
“Sure!” Jane said sarcastically, “But you’d better bring the fifty cal and some silver if I do. He was pretty growly when he called. You know better than that, Daddy. He’s already stressed to the max to be growling on the phone with me.” Joseph was one of the rare alphas who prided himself on being able to retain his humanity in either shape, and he made sure his wolves were entirely human in public. It was one of the reasons Jane hadn’t refused the meeting outright. In Joseph’s pack, they weren’t discovered because they didn’t make mistakes, unlike others she’d heard about, where clever cover-ups kept their existence secret.
“I know, I know.” Her father sighed. “Well, you know the basics, which should get you through a public meeting. Joseph will accept quite a bit from you that he wouldn’t from me, because you haven’t been around them that much.”
“Plus he respects you a lot so that will give me some extra protection, I know.” Jane’s father was Elliot Marx, retired cop and well-trained empath. He wrote murder mysteries now, with a supernatural twist of course. The supe community allowed him to put the “weird” stuff in because he wrote in as much misinformation as true. The books were huge hits, in both the mundane and the supe worlds.
“Well, the only advice I can give you beyond what you already know is to take a shower first. You’ve just come from the barn and you smell like horse, which is a prey animal. If he’s stressed out, it might be enough to push him further than I’m comfortable with. Even if he’s entirely in control, it would be polite to wash off the manure smell before dining with someone with a sensitive nose.”
“I don’t have time, Daddy, but I’ll wash as much of it as I can off with a washcloth.” Jane cursed the swamp in Speck’s stall that had made her run later than she’d planned.
“Well, that’s better than nothing. Be careful, Babygirl. And try not to push his buttons today.”
“I am not stupid enough to push buttons on a stressed out werewolf, Daddy. Not anymore, anyway.” Jane flushed red. Several years ago her father had been required to take her to a conclave, a meeting of the various types of extraordinary people in the area. He forgot that the wolves would be there, and hadn’t given her etiquette lessons before hand. As a result she’d unwittingly insulted several wolves and had to be rescued by the pack leader’s second.
“Good luck, Babygirl.”
So, Jane was a little late, having scrubbed down at the sink in her apartment and run water through her hair. She looked around the restaurant, searching for Joseph. This wasn’t a place she regularly frequented, although she’d eaten here before. It was truly neutral territory, which was the reason she’d chosen it. It certainly hadn’t been for the décor, which was a cross between southwestern and a fifties diner. Not the best combination she’d ever seen.
The food was mediocre, but there was no helping that. All the best restaurants in the area were frequented by pack members. Werewolves had high metabolisms, and were fairly picky about their food. At least in their two legged forms.
Jane finally spotted Joseph, in a booth near the back. He’d taken the side facing the entrance, and her back prickled as she thought about sitting with her back to the door. One of the benefits, if you could call it that, of having an ex-cop for a father was that she’d been steeped in what he called “situational awareness” since she was knee high to a grasshopper. Her twenty first birthday present had been the fee for her concealed weapons permit.
Jane considered for a moment asking Joseph to switch sides, or simply sitting beside him. Unfortunately, asking him to move probably wouldn’t get her anywhere, and sitting beside him- while it might facilitate a private conversation- would put off entirely the wrong impression.
Sighing, Jane crossed the room and sat across from the alpha werewolf.
Joseph’s nostrils flared, and Jane knew he was scenting her nerves, and probably the horses she’d been around in class. He didn’t smile.
“Sorry I’m late, Specks made a swamp out of his stall and I had to strip it. It took me a little longer than I expected.” Politeness was always a good idea, and apologizing for being late didn’t put her back in the dominance category. Their server appeared and took Jane’s drink order, and Joseph waited for her to leave before answering.
“And you stopped by your apartment.” Joseph raised an eyebrow. Jane closed her eyes for a moment and let his voice wash over her. The man did have a nice voice. He could give Vin Deisel a run for his money on that front. Of course, he could give him a run for his money on everything else, too. The pack leader was an extremely handsome man, standing six feet and two hundred and twenty five pounds of pure muscle. His honey brown hair was a little longer than he normally wore it, hanging over his collar in the back and developing a bit of a wave. His eyes were a startling emerald green in his tanned face. Jane had never figured out exactly what kind of ethnic background Joseph had, but whatever it was it blessed him with a perfect tan no matter what time of year it was.
After a moment, Jane brought herself back to business. “Well, I figured it would be impolite to show up reeking of ammonia and manure.” She tucked her hair behind an ear and picked up her menu.
“Believe me, I appreciate it, but I was referring to the smell of gun oil.” Joseph had dropped the eyebrow and now stared at her intently.
Crap, he thinks I brought the gun because of him. Jane raised her eyes and returned his stare.
“You know my father. Do you really think I’d leave the house unarmed in days like these?” Joseph sucked in a shocked and insulted breath, but before he could explode Jane blew out an exasperated sound and snagged a newspaper off the next table. She shoved it under his nose. “The rapes, Joseph. College students. All across the state. One here.” She spoke curtly, punctuating her words by shaking the paper under his nose, frustrated beyond all sense of manners.
Jane watched as understanding registered in Joseph’s eyes, and he reined himself in. She sighed, thinking about the serial rapist that had been hopping his way around the state, hitting college campuses. The rapes weren’t all on campus, but every one of the victims was a college student. The poor girl who’d been attacked from the Lamar Community campus had had to spend a week in the hospital.
“Really, Joseph, it’s not all about you all the time.” Jane couldn’t resist poking the big man a little bit. She smiled at him to make the needling into a joke, hoping that it would relax him a bit. No dice, he just stared at her.
“I apologize for jumping to conclusions. I’m a little,” he paused, “preoccupied, lately, and I haven’t been able to follow the news closely.”
Jane gulped. If he hadn’t been able to follow the news, he must have been busy indeed.
“No harm done. I don’t really expect to run into that guy, but I’m not taking any chances.” Jane leaned back in the booth and looked at the menu again.
“I’m surprised you’re worried at all, with your protections.” Joseph wasn’t referring to her Firestar, the small nine millimeter pistol she carried concealed in the small of her back. Elliot Marx was a highly respected man in the area, and many of the local supes owed him favors from his law enforcement career. Plus, Jane’s dual talents, talking to animals and strong empathy both, made her something of a curiosity to the supes, so she’d met many of them at a young age. Apparently she’d been cute, since she’d gained “aunts” and “uncles” by the score. Her parents said that it was because she hadn’t learned sarcasm until puberty.
“I’m sure anyone familiar with the community here would hesitate, but I don’t think this guy is our kind.”
“Oh?” Joseph was good at getting information out of people, but in this case he didn’t need to use any tactics. Jane wanted the pack leader to be aware of the situation. Sometimes bad men in the world just disappeared, and no one in the mundane world knew why. Or how. Jane was sort of glad of that second part.
“There’s no sign that he’s got anything more than a serious mental problem. I checked out the site of the one here and I didn’t get any flavor of supe in the echoes.” Jane shuddered at the memory. Even days later, the remnants of the emotions at that place had been enough to make her vomit behind a Dumpster. She had deliberately allowed the “echoes” to fade for nearly a week before she went there, and she hadn’t expected them to be so strong. She’d foolishly dropped her shields completely, thinking she’d have to read deeply. She wouldn’t make that mistake again. Even the memory was enough to test her control, but she clamped down and kept her emotions in check.
“Ah. The pack will be aware.” Joseph finally looked down at the menu, dismissing the matter from his mind. Jane bristled a bit at his dismissal.
Joseph.” Her voice was hard, insistent.
“Yes?” He glanced up and raised a questioning eyebrow.
“The girl, the one here. I went to see her.” Joseph still looked at her blandly.
“I couldn’t get past the lobby. She’s so emotionally damaged that she’s projecting hard enough to bring me to my knees through full shields.” Finally a reaction, Joseph’s eyebrows shot up and his emerald gaze was suddenly piercing again.
“And he’s not…” Joseph waved a hand between them. Jane almost laughed at the pack leader, the highest ranking werewolf in the area, lumping her in a group with himself.
“I don’t think so. But if the other girls are like the one here, he’s a hell of a manipulator. This goes beyond just physical violation; he broke that poor girl’s mind. She’ll never be the same.” A little tingle of apprehension ran up Jane’s spine. She couldn’t imagine going through something like that. Elliot had taught his only daughter a lot about protecting herself, but Jane knew that things didn’t always work the way you planned them.
Joseph’s eyes narrowed. His nostrils flared, and he looked like he wanted to call a hunt right then and there. That wasn’t what Jane had intended, she’d just wanted the pack to be watching for him to show up in their territory again. But, an alpha’s need to protect is strong, and Joseph had a certain sense of responsibility for all of the people, supes or not, in his territory. He routinely donated to local charities, and sometimes showed up at the homes of impoverished families with a deer that he had “just happened” to find on his land, killed by coyotes of course, and discovered before the meat could spoil.
“I will check the place myself and see if I can get a scent.” His voice was low, not quite a growl but close, and the anger radiating off of the alpha was enough to make Jane suck in a breath and check her shields. Joseph’s anger washed across her skin, pinpricks of rage biting at her.
“Um. Ok.” Jane cleared her throat. “I’d appreciate that.”
Joseph finally seemed to notice her discomfort, and visibly pulled himself together. “My apologies, again. Apparently I’m not up to my usual standard of control.”
“I noticed,” Jane commented breathlessly. “I’ll be all right in a second.” A couple deep breaths later and the angry ants marching down her arms had stopped. She nodded to Joseph, who had waited politely until she was calmed to continue. Jane suspected he’d used that time to calm himself, as well.
“I seem to be spending a lot of time apologizing to you today,” he said in a wry tone. “Let’s order, and then I’ll tell you why I asked you to meet me.” Joseph laid his menu down and caught the eye of a server. It was easy for him, with his innate dominance every person in a room kept a weather eye on him, even the normals. It wasn’t fear, but an instinctual response to being in the same space as a personality that dominant. Men like Joseph could sit at the head of a boardroom table, or at a corner table in a bar and still get that same attention.
Once their orders were placed they talked of commonplace things until their food was delivered. Jane sipped at her coffee and answered politely when Joseph inquired after her studies, and asked him in return how his business was going. Joseph owned a hunting ranch. His employees raised pheasants in pens, and then released them into an area of Joseph’s property for the city people who just had to bag a bird to hunt. Joseph, of course, had nothing to do with the day to day operations. Jane had heard that the last time he’d decided to inspect the pens, a quarter of the birds had literally been scared to death.
Finally, their food arrived, and Joseph cleared his throat. “I don’t know how much you actually know about wolves,” He looked at Jane inquiringly. He kept his voice low to keep it from carrying over the hum of conversations at other tables, and Jane did the same.
“Enough now not to go around insulting pack members at conclaves.” Jane grinned. Joseph had been the second that had rescued her all those years ago. He hadn’t been that much older than she was, but he’d had an alpha personality even then. When the old pack leader had died two years ago- in a wreck, of all things- there hadn’t even been a fight to settle who the new leader was. Joseph had simply stepped into the position and taken over. The rest of the pack accepted him because he’d proven himself as the old leader’s second, and because none of the grumblers were alpha enough to gainsay him.
Joseph smiled faintly in return, snorting a little. “Well I would hope so. More to the point, sometimes a person will lose control of their wolf, and do something that they wouldn’t if they were in control.”
Jane nodded. “That’s usually when someone gets turned accidentally, isn’t it?”
“Yes, that’s usually when we wind up with a new pack member.” Joseph sighed, “We had an incident last week.”
Jane thought for a moment, trying to remember anything that might qualify as a werewolf “incident.”
“Um, the lady in the canyons? That was one of yours? I didn’t think you guys normally ranged that far south. I figured it really was a cougar, like they said in the paper.” Jane knew she was babbling, but it bought her time to piece the story together and see if it fit. There had been a woman found near death in the canyons in the southern part of the county, after an exhaustive search when her trail horse had been found wandering and hysterical near the trailer.
"It was one of mine. She claims she lost control, but she’s one of the most controlled wolves I have.” Joseph rubbed his eyes with one hand, sighing. For the first time, Jane noticed the circles under his eyes, and wondered what in the world could run down the nearly inexhaustible pack leader.
“But,” Jane said, “If it was one of yours then…” She trailed off, thinking with horror of becoming a werewolf. She’d never be able to ride again. Horses went into a panic around the wolves, whether they were in their human shapes or not. Even the bravest, most steadfast of the hoof-kin had a deep rooted instinctual terror of weres. Jane started, realizing that all animals had that automatic fear. They’d never talk to her again. She shuddered. Talking to animals had been an integral part of her life for as long as she could remember. She had even had a horse babysitter. She couldn’t imagine life without being able to talk to her friends.
“The woman died this morning.” Joseph’s words held something of relief in them along with the regret. Well, Jane could understand that, sort of. If the woman had lived, he would have had a major cover up to do, along with a new wolf to keep in check until she gained enough control to follow the rules.
“Well, what do you need my help for then?” Jane’s brows drew together in a frown of confusion.
“I don’t think it was an accident.” Joseph dropped that bomb and paused while the waitress refilled their drinks. It gave Jane time to think. There was only one thing that the man could need that couldn’t be done better by others.
“You want me to talk to the horse.” Jane’s voice was flat, and she met Joseph’s eyes with her own angry gaze. A challenge, but she didn’t care at this point. “You want me to make that poor animal relive an experience that was so terrifying that I read in the newspaper they had to bring out a tranq gun before he would let anyone near him. Even then, the article said that he bit one of the rescue workers, and kicked two more.”
Joseph returned her stare and began to leak a little of the other-worldly power that made him alpha. If she’d been one of his pack, it would have been enough to make her back down and start spouting yes sirs. As it was, it whispered over her skin like a hot wind, raising goosebumps, and pressed on her mind, trying to bend her to his will.
“Oh cut the crap Joseph. I’m not one of your wolves. You asked me for help. If you want it you’ll have to give me a damn good reason to terrify an innocent animal, not cow me under sheer power.” Jane held his eyes, anger flaring in her own. A growl crawled out of his throat, low enough that it wouldn’t be heard at the next table. “I’m serious, Joseph Jones. I will not torture that creature without a very good reason, so either give it to me, or I’m out of here.” She waited only a moment, and began to slide out of the booth when he didn’t answer.
“Wait.” Joseph’s tone still held the wolf’s growl, but there was less of it. Jane hesitated. “The pack is calling for me to discipline Serina.”
Suddenly Jane understood, a little. Pack discipline was strict. It had to be, or the secrecy that protected them from bounty hunters with silver bullets would be a mere dream. The entirety of pack life was politics, knowing who to suck up to and who you could push around. Joseph was a controversial leader because he didn’t allow the more dominant members of his pack to simply beat on the submissive members. He ruled with an iron fist, but he was fair and took care of his own. He even let the pack have a voice in some of the decisions.
If pack discipline was involved then Jane might be better off not knowing. That kind of thing tended to be bloody. You couldn’t imprison a werewolf, not for long. And when they got out, they would be extremely pissed off at whoever had put them in a cage in the first place. No, in the pack you either got the crap knocked out of you, or if the transgression was serious enough, you were simply killed. But she was still hesitant. She told Joseph so.
“Prey animals have strong memories of danger or pain. That’s why a horse that’s been hurt by something will refuse to go anywhere near whatever it was again, even if it’s a lifetime later. If I bring this up to that horse he’s going to be utterly terrified, and I doubt I’ll be able to get anything useful out of him. It might even break his mind entirely.”
“I understand, and I'm sorry but the pack is calling her death. If you can’t help me somehow, I’ll have to kill Serina. I don’t want to do that, not without some kind of proof.” Joseph’s matter of fact tone was spoiled by the worry in it. She could tell that he didn’t want to have to kill the woman.
Jane remembered Serina from conclaves. She hadn’t liked the woman, who felt that as a wolf she was superior to any other creature. She wasn’t shy about letting a person know it, either. But that was no reason to let her be summarily executed if she wasn’t guilty.
“Crap. Ok, I’ll try. I’m not promising anything, but I’ll try. Do you know where the horse is?” Jane cringed inwardly at letting herself be drawn into this whole mess, but wrote the address Joseph recited on a napkin anyway.
“By the way, my dad wanted me to ask you how you’re doing on cattle.” When Elliot had been a rookie cop he’d been set to looking for the pack of coyotes responsible for a string of disappearing livestock. When he’d found out that it was the wolves, looking to the ranchers’ herds for prey to avoid wiping out the wildlife and drawing attention to themselves that way, he’d negotiated a treaty with the old pack leader. Elliot acted as an agent of the pack leader in buying livestock for the pack, and the pack left everyone else’s herds alone. After reporting to his superiors that he’d shot the “culprit” coyotes, the matter had been officially dropped, and Elliot had supplied the pack with prey ever since.
“Thank your father for me, and tell him we’re fine for now, but we might need more steers in a month or so. And please tell him that my employees report that the bull he sent over is doing his job with great enthusiasm. In a couple of years we won’t need him to buy cattle, our breeding herd will be large enough to supply our needs.” Joseph’s voice held a touch of pride, the idea of breeding their own cattle rather than constantly buying them had been his, and he’d worked hard to see it come to fruition.
Joseph thanked her and left, taking the bill with him. Jane stayed at the table, sipping her coffee and staring off into space.
“Honey, if you don’t want him, I’ll take him!” Jane looked up at the young woman who had served them. The girl exuded the kind of bubbly personality that made a person think waitress rather than the politically correct server.
“Your hunky friend there. I don’t think I’d get very far with him, but I’d sure give it a shot!” She stuck her hands in her apron pockets and sighed in the direction of the cash register.
“You’re welcome to try, uh,” Jane glanced at the nametag displayed on the left breast of the hideous green uniform shirt, “Susan. We’re just acquaintances.” Jane thought to herself that watching Joseph evade the advances of this entirely mundane woman would be highly entertaining.
“Oh, honey, you could have him any time you snapped your fingers. He’s chasing your tail like a coyote after a rabbit.” Susan the waitress put exasperated hands on her hips. “If you can’t see that then I feel sorry for you, girl.”
Jane choked on her coffee, both at the woman’s assertion and the way she’d expressed it. “I don’t think so.”
“He couldn’t take those gorgeous eyes off of you, honey. If I was you, I’d jump on that in a hurry! At the very least I bet he’d be a lot of fun for one night.” With that sage advice, Susan winked and walked away, leaving Jane with her jaw on the table.
Suddenly, Jane started chuckling. She finally realized what their conversation must have looked like. With lots of eye contact, leaning towards each other to speak quietly, a couple of shared jokes, they must have looked like they were flirting. She couldn’t exactly explain to the waitress that they’d been quietly engaged in a subtle dance of dominance, while discussing a murder committed by a creature that was supposed to exist only in the fantasy aisle at the bookstore.
Finally Jane gathered her keys and slid out of the booth, still chuckling to herself as she walked out of the restaurant. As she got into her car she burst out laughing again.
“Joseph chasing my tail. Now that’s a good one!” Jane shook her head and backed out of her parking spot. She didn’t stop chuckling until she remembered that she still had to speak to a traumatized horse about the most terrifying experience of its life.