Holding her breath, Cindy eased open the oven door and peeked inside. Then let the door drop with a thud when she saw what was waiting for her. It was her second attempt at making the apple bread recipe, and the second failure.
Grabbing the potholders that matched her pretty lemon-printed apron, she pulled the loaf pan out of the oven and set it on the counter. The “loaf” looked like an incredibly soggy pile of brown…well, it looked highly unappetizing.
Ah well, it was time to declare the recipe a failure. The question was, should she inform the company that had sent it to her—asking her to feature it on her blog—that she wasn’t going to be able to accommodate them, or post the recipe, showing pictures of the failed results, asking her readers to do their own tests and report back with outcome? Decisions, decisions.
She was glad she’d tried the recipe now, in her familiar oven. If it had failed in her new oven, once she moved, she’d have wondered if the appliance was to blame.
Grabbing her camera, she took several shots of the mess, just in case. She wasn’t against posting failures, sometimes they were appreciated by her readers, but she preferred to be able to end the post with success, or be able to identify what she thought was wrong with the recipe. Well, she’d give it some thought, but had the pictures recorded if she needed them.
Leaving the pan to cool before she attempted cleaning it out, she hung up her apron and went to her office. While the kitchen looked spotless and beautiful, in her ever-so-humble opinion, the office looked like a disaster, with moving boxes piled high and her desk empty of everything except the computer and printer. The bookshelves were all packed up, and she’d decided to work on the linen closet next. She put the camera on the empty bookshelf and grabbed the tape gun and large marker.
When the phone in her pocket rang with her mother’s ringtone, she tried not to grimace. And failed. She plucked her earbuds out of her pocket and plugged them in before pressing the button to accept the call. No way was this going to be a short conversation.
“Cynthia, how come I had to hear from your aunt Laura that you’ve rented your house out?”
“I told you I decided to rent it out instead of selling it.”
“Yes, but not that you’d found someone.”
“It’s a nice house in a good location, especially for another pack member. I told you I didn’t think it would take long to find someone.”
Her mother ignored that reminder. “I’m still not convinced this is a good idea.”
“Flying to see you in Texas won’t be much different if I’m coming from Arizona than when I come from St. Louis.”
“I know, it’s not that. But what can Myra be thinking, leaving her pack? They love her, and I thought she loved being alpha of St. Louis. An alpha can’t just up and leave her pack on a whim, it’s not natural.”
“If her mate had been anyone else, certainly another alpha, one of them would have had to leave their pack, and you wouldn’t have thought anything of it.”
“I don’t think I trust this Adam character,” Dana said, switching tacks.
Cindy bit her tongue, figuratively, and counted to five. “You haven’t even met him.”
“It’s not right that he’s been in hiding all these years. What does he have to hide? A strong alpha, a good one, should have been part of a pack.”
“Mom. You know he was turned against his will. Why would he then jump right into pack life with a bunch of werewolves, after being viciously attacked by them?”
“That rogue pack was not normal and you know it.” The indignation in her mother’s voice was clear and had Cindy rolling her eyes as she taped the bottom of a box closed and flipped it over. She took it to the linen closet and studied the contents.
“I do know it. It was crazy and I still can’t believe it happened, but it did. But he had no way of knowing that, so why would you be surprised that he stayed away from anything werewolf until he found out otherwise?”
“If he’s smart, it shouldn’t have taken him so long.”
Cindy sighed. “Mom, when you heard that Zach out in Mountain View had found his mate the same way, finding Hillary, who’d been avoiding wolves since she was attacked by those same crazy people, you didn’t mistrust her. You were sympathetic and worried about her.”
“It’s not the same.”
“Why? I think you’re being sexist.”
Her mother sputtered, but Cindy thought she was on to something. “You hold Adam to a different standard than you did Hillary. If Myra hadn’t decided to leave St. Louis, Adam would be coming here to be my alpha anyway. So what’s the difference if I choose to go to Arizona, and they are too, and so they’re my alphas there instead of here?” She was genuinely confused about her mother’s problem.
Dana sighed. “It’s time you came back home to Texas. There’s no reason to move to another state again.”
“Ah.” She put the box down and flopped onto the couch. That was so not happening. Ever. And she was shocked her mother wanted it to happen.
“It’s embarrassing that you make like our pack’s not good enough for you.”
Cindy tried, in vain, to formulate a response to that ridiculous statement, but her mother forged on.
“You know that Brenda wouldn’t be a problem if you came back home, right? Whatever issues you girls had in the past, I’m sure you could—”
“Mom,” Cindy interrupted. “It’s not about Brenda. I like the idea of helping to build a new pack from scratch. I don’t know that I’ll ever go back to Texas.”
When she’d moved eighteen years ago, it hadn’t been because of her old boss, Brenda, though she supposed her mom would see it that way. Her first job out of college hadn’t gone well, mostly because she’d lost respect for her boss, who happened to be the fourth in her pack’s hierarchy. The respect issue had been about Brenda’s business decisions, but she couldn’t deny that it carried over into her respect of the woman as a pack leader.
The hierarchy was the pack leadership, with the pack alpha at the top—two, if they were mated—and then the first, second, third and fourth, down from there. The ranking was based purely on power, with each wolf or mated pair taking different responsibilities in the running of the pack. If Cindy had chosen to stay, it would have been a bit of effort to not let that lack of respect show amongst the pack, but she could have done it.
“Really, I didn’t leave because of Brenda. I told you, once I started looking for another job, I realized that the whole country was available to me, and I liked the idea of trying out somewhere new.” She had, in fact, told her parents that several times.
“You didn’t even keep the job in St. Louis for very long before quitting,” Dana said, as if that meant the choice to move there had been a mistake.
“No, because the blog took off in a way I never could have foreseen. It gave me an interesting challenge for a long time, but now it runs so smoothly, I think changing things up again will be good for me. Call it my midlife crises if you want.”
“Cynthia, you’re only forty-one.”
“The perfect age to try something new. It’s not like there’s a risk to it, Mom. My job is very stable and successful and I can do it from anywhere in the country. Heck, I could go to Europe if I wanted to.”
“You need to stop gallivanting around and find your mate.”
Cindy sighed, but not audibly. How in the world her mother could sound insulted over this conversation was beyond Cindy. And wasn’t gallivanting around going to make her more likely to find her mate than staying home, where she already knew her mate wasn’t?
Having no idea how to respond, she just waited.
“It’s not too late to have children, you know.”
This time, she let the sigh be audible. “I don’t have a whole lot of control with the whole finding-my-mate thing, Mom. You can’t blame me for that one. And traveling around, meeting more packs, that will help with my chances, don’t you think?”
Werewolves knew pretty quickly when they’d met their mates. They could have relationships before that, but they usually didn’t last long, as both parties knew it wasn’t the real thing. She’d enjoyed several relationships, but none longer than eight months. And it was very rare for a werewolf to get pregnant from anyone other than their mate, so even her mother couldn’t blame her for not producing grandchildren.
“That’s true.” Apparently this was a new idea to her mom, because Dana’s voice brightened at the idea. “You said you were going to help Myra interview some of the wolves who wanted to join the new pack?”
“That’s right.” Myra, her best friend for sixteen years, was her current alpha. She’d been the one to shut down the Mesa Pack when Hillary had mated Zach, and it had been discovered that there was a rogue pack doing horrific things out in Arizona. It had been Myra’s job as the National President, elected to serve a one-year term as the head werewolf in the United States, to determine the fates of every member of both packs. She’d had to condemn to death the wolves who had been actively involved in abducting, attacking and murdering people in the supposed effort to turn them into werewolves. Since that wasn’t how werewolves were turned, it wasn’t a surprise to any sane wolf that the process hadn’t worked most of the time, and only two people had survived—Hillary and Adam—several years apart.
Cindy couldn’t imagine sentencing anyone to death, but then again, her friend was the alpha for a reason. Personally, Cindy was happy to be a typical werewolf, not part of the hierarchy, let alone an alpha. The idea of choosing who would die versus who would be sent to other packs seriously made her nauseous. But Myra had handled it, finding homes for those who weren’t to die, working with the pack alphas across the country to determine the best situation for every one of the wolves.
Then she’d gone on a search for Adam, knowing only that a single wolf besides Hillary had survived being attacked by the rogue pack, and wanting to find him and ensure that he was living a safe and healthy life.
Cindy would never forget the moment her best friend discovered that the man was her mate. She shivered at the thought of that level of emotion ever going through her. Although maybe it wouldn’t be as extreme, since alphas were generally hit by the magic of the mate bond more strongly than the average wolf.
“You’ll come visit when we get settled,” she invited. Her parents had only visited St. Louis once in all the years she’d been there, so she felt fairly safe in issuing the invitation. “We’re just going to rent for a while, make sure the area we choose is a good selection for the whole pack. There are a lot of things to consider, and we may not find the right town the first go.”
“All right, I guess that will do. I’ll let you get to your packing and tell your father you said hello.”
“Thanks, Mom. And give my love to Bill, Juanita, and the kids when you see them.” Her brother and his wife were frequent visitors to her parents’ house, a fact that amazed her. She swore it was like she and her brother had completely different parents. For sure, they had completely different relationships with them.
She hung up and switched the phone to music, then went at the linen closet with renewed vigor. Maybe she couldn’t articulate exactly why this move felt like the right thing, but she was certain that it was. She’d been very seriously considering the idea even before she’d mentioned it to Myra and discovered that her best friend was thinking the same thing. That had just solidified it for them both, and nothing since had led her to question the decision.
Meeting Adam, shortly after he and Myra had mated, made it clear how right the decision had been. She’d instantly felt comfortable with him, and looked forward to him being her alpha and to helping him understand that he was meant to be a leader of wolves, not a loner.
After the linen closet, she tackled the guest bathroom. She had some friends coming over tomorrow to help with the kitchen and move the boxes into the container she’d rented, one that would be transported to their destination when she was ready. In the meantime, they just needed to explore a couple of cities and make a decision on where to begin.
* * *
Jonas groaned when the phone rang with his mother’s ringtone. He loved his mother, but she refused to acknowledge that his current job as a bartender, almost always covering the closing shift, should influence what time she decided to chat. The fact that he was in a time zone three hours behind hers also seemed to make little impact.
He accepted the call and brought the phone to his ear, flinging his other arm over his eyes. He kept meaning to get better drapes, but…well, who really wanted to go drapery shopping? Not him.
“Jonas, is it really necessary to grumble at me like that when I call?”
“Only when you call at seven-thirty, and I didn’t go to bed until three.”
“It’s ridiculous that you have a job that keeps you out until three in the morning. But it’s hardly my fault.”
He wasn’t going to go there. While his parents weren’t actively against his move to a slower-paced life three years ago, neither were they impressed with his decision to take a job they considered beneath him. They seemed to have missed that the whole point in selling his business as a high-end recruiter in New York City was to try life at a more relaxed pace.
Joining the Mountain View pack, in Idaho, had been the right choice. And the job at the pack’s bar—one they worked to keep wolf only, no humans—was perfect. He had little to no stress and enjoyed interacting with his fellow pack members. It had been a great way to get to know them better. Though they were a friendly enough bunch, they didn’t get a lot of new members who weren’t mates, so his wandering in and becoming part of the group had been greatly helped by accepting the job as bartender.
Since he had chosen not to respond, his mother apparently decided to move on.
“Your father and I are thinking of moving.”
“What?” They’d been in their house since before he’d been born. “Is there a problem or something? You know if you need help…”
Her voice softened at his offer. “No problem, it’s just like you said, time to consider a new pace in life. We’ve been in the city forever but it’s not such a great place to retire, we’re thinking.”
“Wait. You’re not just moving houses, but out of the city? Where are you thinking?”
“What?” This time it was more of a shout than a question. He dropped his arm from his face and sat up so fast, his head swam a bit. His parents had always lived in New York. Their parents had always lived in New York. They’d acted like he was crazy when he’d said he was leaving.
“We think the dry air would be good for your father’s arthritis. Besides, it’s exciting, this new pack. Myra Talmidge was out your way, did you meet her? What did you think?”
He blinked at the unexpected change of direction that he should have seen coming. “No, I didn’t meet her. I did meet her mate, Adam. Played a game of pool with him but he was starting a bit of a mating frenzy, from being separated from Myra, so I don’t suppose it’s a good experience to judge him on. Still, I’d say he’s probably a good guy. No experience being alpha, but it’s in him, no question. He’s strong.”
“That’s good to know. We emailed Myra and we’ll see what happens. I’m sure she’ll want some experienced elders in her pack.” Her voice was a bit uncertain.
“I think you’re probably right, Mom, I just want to make sure it’s the right decision for you. You’ve never talked about leaving New York.”
“We are getting older, you know. And while I still think it’s a bit ridiculous that you retired at your age, at our age it’s acceptable.”
He let the dig go, not interested in rehashing a decision that had already been made, and had turned out to be an excellent one, in his opinion.
“We want to try it out, while we’re young enough to enjoy the change. Plus, if we decide we hate living somewhere without snow, we can always come back.”
“True. Listen, Myra’s become good friends with Zach and Larry. Why don’t you let me get in touch with her, have a chat, see what they’re thinking with all this.”
“Honey, I don’t think you should call your alpha that name.”
He just laughed. “You’ll have to meet her sometime, Mom. In the meantime, let me have a chat with Myra or Adam, or both of them, and feel things out a bit.”
“That would be nice, Jonas. Thank you.”
“You bet. I’ll let you know what I find out.”
He disconnected and let the idea simmer a bit. It actually wasn’t a bad one. In their early seventies, it was true his parents should start thinking about where they wanted to live out their retirement, and somewhere without the bother of snow would be good. Although there were always younger pack members ready to make a buck shoveling out the elders’ driveways, his parents liked their independence, and he could see how they might appreciate not having to rely on others for tasks they’d handled their whole lives.
Rolling off the bed, he scratched and stretched and reached for the sweatpants hanging off the end of the mattress, pulling them on. There was no way he was getting back to sleep, so he might as well roll with it. Besides, he had the day off.
He quickly poached a couple of eggs and decided to head out to the pack house, see who was around for a run. If he was lucky, since it was the weekend, one of his alphas would be there and he could ask their opinion on the matter. If not, he’d track them down later and take the time to let the idea work in his brain.
The pack house was alive with the wolves who lived there as well as several other pack members like himself, who were interested in a group run. Zach, in wolf form, was playing with a group of adolescents on the grass, and Jonas had to smile at their antics. He went into the house and found a spot for his clothes, then made the shift. He ran into Stephen, their second, on his way off the porch, and they raced into the woods together. The other man beat him in the long run, but it was a good chase.
He enjoyed this adopted pack, had made several friends, but he did need to start considering a permanent situation. He liked his job, but he’d taken it on as a favor to fill a vacant slot. Was it what he wanted to do for the foreseeable future? Maybe, maybe not. He was renting a small apartment that he’d found when he’d first hit town three years ago, and had intended to stay in only shortly, while he got a feel for the place. Inertia had kept him there, but maybe he should consider finding a more permanent home.
Not entirely sure how he’d gone from contemplating his parents’ future to his own, he took a short nap in the sun with several of his packmates, at home with the group, and yet suddenly not certain he was really home.