Howling on Hold
Sometimes it’s harder to teach a young dog new tricks.
That’s why werewolves embark on a Howling: a three-year rite of passage in which they’re sent to a group residence to wrestle with their wolfy instincts and assimilate into the Wider World. But Tanner Araya’s Howling is almost over, and he could be called back to his remote pack at any moment. His twenty-first birthday might be his last chance to act on his strongest instinct and finally kiss Chase Denney.
Chase is RA at the Howling residence affectionately dubbed “the Doghouse,” and he takes his job seriously. So seriously that when he realized he was developing feelings for a resident, he forced himself to keep Tanner at a distance. But now that Tanner’s twenty-one, he’s not Chase’s charge any longer. They could be friends or—if Chase is lucky—something more. At least until they both return to their home packs for good, as tradition demands.
It would take a miracle for them to get together—especially when the other Doghouse werewolves insist on “helping.”
Warning: Many Frisbees are harmed in this story, forgiveness is not always easier than permission, and the five-second rule does not apply.
Reader discretion advised. This title contains the following sensitive themes:
Emotional abuse (manipulation) from a parental figure
Violence / Gun violence
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish. Click on a label to reveal its content.
Tanner had been staring at his bedroom window in Howling Residence Seven since midnight, waiting for the first day of twenty-one to feel different than the last day of twenty. But as dawn filtered through his blinds, he was still the same not-tall-enough, not-social-enough, not-alpha-enough werewolf that he’d been before he’d crossed that invisible threshold from junior to senior, from provisional pack member to full adult.
Guess it was too much to hope for a magical transformation, some ping that would turn me into a stronger, wiser, more worthy version of me.
A thump outside his closed door drew his attention away from the slow creep of light across the carpet. Whispers, giggles, another thump, a hissed warning. He sighed, turned onto his back, and laced his fingers across his belly.
“You might as well come in, everyone. I know you’re there.”
The door burst open, and the other juniors at Residence Seven—nicknamed the Doghouse—tumbled into the room. They were led, of course, by Jordan, who, at eighteen, was the youngest of them.
“See?” Jordan bounded across the carpet, shaggy brown hair flopping, and leaped onto the foot of Tanner’s bed. Tanner moved his legs just in time. “I told you guys it was okay. It’s his birthday. He doesn’t want to sleep all day!”
Dakota, tall and lanky, locs framing his amiable brown face, flipped Tanner’s desk chair around and straddled it, leaning his arms along its back. “Some people like to sleep in, pup. Ever think of that?”
Jordan scoffed, settling himself on the bed cross-legged, his back against the wall. “Old people, maybe.”
His arms full of—gods help me—wrapped gifts, Gage entered more sedately, although he was grinning as he deposited the packages on top of Tanner. Hector followed, tongue poking out of the side of his mouth in concentration as he balanced a cake in his hands.
“Cake?” Tanner struggled to sit up, gifts sliding off his chest onto the floor. “It can’t be nine in the morning yet. Maybe not even eight.”
Jordan bounced on the mattress. “So?”
As Gage cleared a stack of Tanner’s books off the desk so Hector could slide the cake onto it, Tanner noticed Chase hanging back in the doorway, watching them all with an indulgent smile.
Chase Denney, their RA. Chase Denney, the perfect alpha-in-training. Chase Denney, who still sees me as a kid.
True, weres developed at a slightly slower rate than humans, but it still rankled, imagining that Chase thought Tanner was no more mature than Jordan. At least I don’t dig up the backyard and try to hide the evidence like Jordan does. But Jordan wasn’t even halfway through his first year. Tanner was a third-year resident, with the end of his Howling in sight.
The thought sent a chill down his spine. He drew his knees up and wrapped his arms around them. I don’t want to go back.
When he’d first arrived, his eventual departure was so far in the future that it was easy to pretend it wouldn’t happen. Technically, he had another six months before the three-year residence allowance was up. But in reality, once weres turned twenty-one and passed their assimilation exams, they weren’t bound by the regulations mandating strict supervision and education. Tanner had passed every test with honors. I should have thrown them somehow. Made it look like I still needed the structure and support of the instructors.
But their instructors were supes too, and fooling them was no easy task. Besides, Tanner loved his classes with Dr. MacLeod, their druid professor. Not doing his best, seeing disappointment in Dr. MacLeod’s eyes . . . Well, Tanner couldn’t face that.
Hand-to-hand combat lessons with Mal Kendrick, their fae instructor, were another matter. Tanner and Hector both had problems there—Tanner because he was smaller than all the other guys, and Hector because he didn’t see the point of so much physical exertion. But Mal had laughed, clapped them both on the shoulder, and told them they didn’t need to be enforcers. They only needed to be able to ward off an attack without going wolfy, in case the assailants were human. So Tanner had unfortunately passed those exams too.
Bottom line, nothing was keeping him here other than his desire to stay. As long as he flew under the radar, didn’t cause a ruckus, and didn’t give anyone a reason to report him and remind his uncle that he wasn’t required to stay, maybe he could delay his return until May.
And maybe sometime during those months he’d be able to convince Chase he wasn’t a kid anymore. And then what? Chase wouldn’t be an RA forever. His service requirement was almost over. He’d be returning to his own pack at about the same time Tanner would. Maybe if I do really well, I can apply to be an RA for my own service.
Even if he managed that, Chase would still be gone. But at least I wouldn’t be stuck out in the back of beyond in Imnaha, with no future but a dead-end mill job.
Jordan nudged Tanner’s knees with his foot. “Dude. Come on. Presents! Don’t you want to see what we got you?”
Tanner blinked. “Um. Sure.”
Jordan rolled to his knees and leaned over the edge of the bed, butt in the air. He rummaged among the fallen gifts and retrieved a clumsily wrapped package with its bow askew. It looked like a collapsing layer cake. “Here.” He plopped it onto Tanner’s lap, causing the paper to rip a bit. “Open mine first.”
Gage and Hector settled onto the floor next to the bed, Hector licking what looked like a glob of chocolate frosting off one finger. Chase stayed by the door, his messenger bag slung over his shoulder as if he were on his way out. Not joining in our reindeer games. Tanner’s stomach knotted, and not just at the prospect of cake for breakfast. But with Jordan wiggling on the bed, causing it to bounce, eager brown eyes on Tanner’s face, Tanner tried to at least pretend at some enthusiasm.
Tanner turned the package over and eased the tape off the bottom.
Jordan punched the mattress. “Come on! Rip it open! It’s not like you have to save the paper for prosperity.”
“Posterity,” Dakota said. “Nobody could use it again anyway, Jordan. Not after you’ve mangled it.”
Jordan shot Dakota a glare. “Hey. I’ll have you know that’s a stellar wrapping job. You try and wrap six Frisb—” He clapped both hands over his mouth.
Dakota lifted an eyebrow, his grin wide and white. “Gee, Tanner, I wonder what Jordan’s gift could be?”
Tanner laughed and ripped the paper, much to Jordan’s wriggling delight. “Wow. Six Frisbees. That’s—”
“What you want, Jordan,” Gage said. “But Tanner hasn’t been put on toy report three times in the last month.”
Jordan pouted. “Those were accidents. Anybody could have—”
“It’s okay, Jordan.” Tanner put the stack of Frisbees on the floor. “Thank you. It’s a great present.”
Jordan beamed at him. “I know, right? You need extras. Everybody needs extras.”
Tanner leaned over and picked up an improbably thin package, longer than he was tall, with a lump at one end.
“That’s from me,” Gage said. He brushed his sun-streaked hair off his high forehead, but it only flopped forward again, the sides parting over his rather protuberant ears. “Although there’s something included that’s not in the package.”
“Why not?” Jordan said. “Half the fun is in opening the present.”
“Sure, Jordan.” Hector bounced a balled-up piece of wrapping paper off Jordan’s forehead with pinpoint accuracy. “That’s because for you, the paper is another toy.”
Jordan froze, his hand halfway to the paper ball. “You guys just don’t get the point.”
Tanner carefully removed the paper from Gage’s gift. “A fishing pole?”
Gage scooted across the carpet on his butt until he was next to the bed. “It’s the same as my favorite offshore rod. Graphite-fiberglass hybrid. Cork handle. Aluminum oxide glides.”
Jordan flicked the end of the rod with a finger. “What does he need this for?”
“Fishing, of course.” Gage smiled up at Tanner. “The extra part of the gift is that I’ll take you out on one of our pack’s boats and teach you how to use it anytime you want.”
“Thanks, Gage.” Tanner’s voice was a little rough. It wasn’t only Chase who’d become part of his life. The other guys in the house had become his friends too. “I’d like that.”
“Why?” Jordan sounded genuinely perplexed.
“You know what they say.” Gage grinned at Jordan. “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day . . .”
Jordan snorted. “Yeah, but give a wolf a fish and he’ll bury it in the backyard.”
“You bury everything in the backyard,” Hector said, leaning his elbows on his knees. “But you have to admit, Gage, he’s got a point.”
Gage poked Hector’s calf. “Dude. I’m telling you, you’ve gotta try salmon.”
Jordan wrinkled his nose. “Coastal wolves are weird.”
Hector handed Tanner a small, slightly grubby envelope. The Dorito-dust fingerprint on the flap meant Hector had probably sealed it at the end of one of his marathon coding sessions. “This is from me.”
Jordan flopped over and flung his arms out. “Puh-leeeze don’t tell me you got him a gift card.”
“Jordan.” Chase’s calm voice held a gentle reprimand. “We’ve talked about respecting other people’s choices.”
Jordan hung his head. “Sorry, Hector.”
Tanner opened the envelope and drew out a piece of paper—similarly decorated with Dorito dust—that had obviously been torn out of a spiral notebook. When he unfolded it, he saw that Hector had scrawled a URL on it. “Um . . . thanks?”
Hector knee-walked over to the bedside. “Go there to download the game bits. It’s only a prototype, probably not a legit gift, since I’m hoping you’ll give me feedback. You’re good at that.”
Tanner met Hector’s dark eyes, and they shared a look—misfit to misfit. Like Tanner, Hector was an anomaly: he wanted to be a video game developer, not work on his pack’s farm. A little warmth loosened the ball of tension in Tanner’s belly. At least somebody values my opinion. “Thanks. Really.”
“Wait. It’s a game that’s not even finished?” Jordan reached for the paper, but Hector batted his hand away. “What fun is that?”
“Jordan,” Chase warned again.
Jordan whined low in this throat. “I keep forgetting.”
“It’s an awesome gift, Hector. I mean it.”
Hector’s warm brown skin didn’t reveal a blush the way Tanner’s did—thanks to his Irish mother’s genes—but Tanner’s thermal vision detected the wash of blood to Hector’s cheeks. “Happy birthday, man.”
Only two gifts remained—a long, flat box and another envelope. Tanner told the butterflies in his belly to settle down, but he couldn’t help it. One of those gifts had to be from Chase. And I’ll treasure it forever. Even if it was nothing more than a card. Because it would prove—or at least hint—that Tanner was occasionally in Chase’s thoughts.
Gods, I’m pathetic.
He picked up the envelope, which was completely clean. “That’s from me,” Dakota said, relaxed as usual. Nothing ever riled Dakota.
Then the box is from Chase. Something other than a card. Tanner’s mood rocketed, and he eased open the flap with a grin at Jordan, who groaned. The card inside was blank.
Jordan plucked it out of Tanner’s hand, turning it upside down and right side up. “What’s this?”
Tanner snatched it back. “This is mine. Remember Chase’s lecture about boundaries? The one he has to repeat each time you dog Mal’s every move?”
Jordan’s eyebrows bunched in a frown, pink staining his cheeks. “Yeah, but Mal’s fae and you’re were. Neither one of you are human.”
“It still counts, Jordan,” Chase said. “You’re supposed to be applying the lessons to your whole life, not just when humans can see you. That’s what control is all about.”
“Whatever,” Jordan muttered.
Dakota grinned at Tanner. “It’s a rain check for a lift pass. I figure we can take a weekend off sometime this winter, after we all get back from break, and I’ll take you to my pack’s resort and teach you to ski.”
“Ski?” Gage said. “Not snowboard?”
Dakota nudged Gage with a foot. “His choice, surfer dude.”
“Yay!” Jordan bounced up, his earlier shame forgotten. “Road trip!”
Dakota chuckled. “Dude. The present’s for Tanner. Not you.”
Jordan drooped, his big brown eyes wide with the hint of unshed tears. “You mean we’re not invited?”
Dakota maintained a straight face for maybe ten seconds before he burst out laughing. “That sad-puppy face isn’t gonna work on everyone, you know. But yeah. I meant for all of us to go.” He nodded at Chase in the doorway. “Chase too. My mom wants to meet all of you, and my dad’ll cook.” He grinned at Gage. “No seafood though.”
Gage snorted. “No imagination, more like.”
Tanner lifted the last package. It was wrapped in paper decorated with mistletoe and holly and had a snowman gift tag on it.
Tanner kept his smile from vanishing, although it probably slipped noticeably. Not from Chase. He cleared his throat, tapping the gift tag. “Christmas isn’t until next month.”
Hector shrugged. “Last year’s supply. You know how Dr. MacLeod is always on us—”
“Reduce! Reuse! Recycle!” the guys all chorused.
“Heh. Right.” Tanner unwrapped the gift slowly, ignoring Jordan nearly vibrating with anticipation, then lifted the lid. Inside lay a pocket knife with a polished wooden handle, a little longer than Tanner’s palm. “Wow, Hector. This is beautiful. But you didn’t have to give me two things.”
Hector dug a finger into the carpet. “Well, the other one’s not all that great.”
“It is.” Tanner leaned forward. “Really it is.”
“I wanted to give you something practical too. This’ll come in handy since you’ll be heading back to your pack soon. The knife’s like the one my dad gave me. A little bigger than a Swiss Army. It’s great for cutting vines in the field. I know Wallowa isn’t the same as Umatilla. Your economy is lumber products, not produce, but what the hey, you know?”
“It’s great.” Tanner batted Jordan’s hand as he reached for the knife. “And it is not a toy.”
“I was only going to look at it,” Jordan mumbled. Tanner relented and handed it to him. To give Jordan credit, he handled it with proper respect before returning it.
Tanner looked around at his housemates—his friends—carefully not glancing at Chase. “Thanks, everyone. This has been one of the best birthdays ever.”
Jordan bounced on the mattress so hard he nearly ejected Tanner onto the floor. “What are you talking about? It’s barely started. There’s cake! And tonight—your twenty-oner party at”—he leaned forward, his voice dropping to a whisper—“the Bullpen.”
“Wait. What?” Tanner had no desire to prove his legal adulthood by getting smashed at Portland’s legendary shifter bar. “I don’t—”
“Come on,” Jordan wheedled. “Nobody else turns twenty-one for at least another year. This is our chance to see inside the place.” He wiggled closer. “They have fight pens in the sub-basement. Did you know? My cousin told me all about it.”
“Even if we go to the Bullpen,” Chase said as he walked over from the door, “which is entirely Tanner’s decision, since it’s his birthday, you will not get any closer to the fight pens than the men’s restroom, Jordan. Are we clear?”
“I said, are we clear?”
Jordan plopped back down on his butt. “Crystal.” He hung his head and muttered, “Spoilsport.”
Chase lifted the flap of his messenger bag and pulled out a small square box. He held it out. “This is for you too.”
As Tanner took the box, his gaze snagged on his frayed cuff. Oh gods. I’ve probably got epic bed hair and morning breath, not to mention I’m wearing a sleep T-shirt that’d seen better days when it belonged to my jerk-face cousin Finn. “Th-thanks.” He accepted it with appropriate reverence because Chase.
This time, not even Jordan’s barely contained excitement could make Tanner move quickly, because this was to be savored. Chase had chosen it for him. Wrapped it. Given it to him with his own hands. The moment would have been better if they’d been alone—then Tanner could have opted for the kind of thank-you he’d been dreaming of since the first time he’d seen Chase. The moment would be better if I didn’t look like last season’s scarecrow’s backcountry cousin’s dog.
But it was still a gift from Chase, something Tanner would keep forever, even if it was a box of werewolf-safe chocolates. He’d let them crust over with white bloom before he’d eat a single one. Okay, maybe he’d eat them all except one and keep that one in a glass case forever. Don’t be an idiot. The box is too small for chocolates. Unless it was one of those super-fancy truffles that came one to a box.
Chase tucked his hands into his pockets. “It was delivered for you a couple of days ago with instructions that I was to give it to you on your birthday.”
Tanner’s stomach plummeted. Not from Chase. But that crash of disappointment wasn’t the only reason he wanted to hide under the bed. Or maybe under the house. Because the card tucked under the ribbon was inscribed in his uncle’s careful handwriting. “D-delivered?”
Chase’s brows drew together in a tiny crease. Probably detecting my incipient panic attack. Chase was too good at reading him. Reading them all, really. It’s what made him such a good RA. “FedEx.”
“Oh.” Tanner smoothed the hairs on the back of his neck that had risen at the thought that one of the pack enforcers—or worse, his cousin—might have actually been here, where he’d always felt safe. He glanced at the other guys, who were all watching him expectantly.
Tanner took a deep breath and yanked the ribbon off, then tore the paper savagely enough to meet Jordan’s strict gift-opening standards. The velvet box inside could only hold one thing.
He flipped the top open with his thumbs, and sure enough, his father’s signet—the crest of the Wallowa pack alpha—winked gold at him from its nest of satin.
“Duuude,” Jordan breathed. “Did someone just propose to you?”
Tanner’s choked laugh was buried in the guffaws from the other guys. “Hardly.”
“Do yourself a favor, Jordan,” Dakota said, wiping tears of hilarity from his eyes. “When you’re ready to propose to someone, don’t do it via FedEx. Not if you want ’em to say yes.”
Jordan flopped back against the wall, his arms crossed. “Maybe the person was shy. Maybe they wanted to find out for sure before they got turned down in person, like in those flash mob proposals that go wrong.”
“In that case,” Chase said, his gray eyes glinting in amusement, “I expect they’d arrange a private proposal. However, it’s not likely they’d pop the question in front of everyone except themselves.”
“I guess.” Jordan sat forward, angling his head for a better view of the ring. “So what is it, T?”
“My dad’s signet.” Tanner tried to close the box, but Jordan snatched it out of his hands, despite a warning growl from Chase. “The pack leader’s crest. It’s a replacement, actually. The old one got ruined. Got caught on the machinery at the mill and nearly took Dad’s finger off with it. When he died and my uncle took over as alpha-regent, Uncle Patrick put it in a safety-deposit box.” Tanner swallowed against a lump in his throat. “Waiting for me to come of age.”
“Wow.” Jordan’s eyes were the size of saucers. “That’s so cool. We don’t have anything like that in our pack.”
Dakota lifted an eyebrow and held out an open palm. “May I?” Tanner nodded, so Dakota took the box from Jordan. He lifted the signet carefully and held it in a dusty sunbeam, studying its etched wolf’s head backed by the silhouette of a fir tree. “Did your father actually wear it? I’d think it would be a liability if he had to shift quickly.”
Tanner shrugged. “I don’t really remember much about him. He and my mom died when I was four.” Subtle whining from all of the guys, even Chase, greeted Tanner’s statement, causing his eyes to prickle. “But my uncle said something about it being shift-enabled.”
“That accounts for it,” Chase murmured.
Tanner, ever sensitive to any word out of Chase’s mouth, looked up. “Accounts for what?”
“The magic detectors in the house security system pinged with a low-level maintenance spell when I brought it inside.”
Dakota passed the ring back to Tanner. “You know no artifact can confer pack leadership, don’t you? Not even these days, when challenge-by-combat is outlawed.”
“Yeah, I realize it’s only a symbol. But my uncle, my cousin, and I are the only ones with alpha potential, and my pack is traditional. Really traditional. The pack alpha mantle passes from father to son and I’m the last of the line, so it’s expected.”
Gage coughed into his hand, but it sounded like Bullshit. Which Tanner had to agree with. If only I belonged to a more progressive pack. He’d heard that some of them actually held elections, for Remus’s sake, and passed the leadership around. Not the Wallowa pack. Never the Wallowa pack.
Jordan nudged Tanner’s knee. “Aren’t you going to put it on?”
Tanner shuddered. “No.” He set it aside, resisting the urge to fling it out the window. He’d mastered his instincts to bury things, either valuables or threats, early in his first year at the house, but he’d be happy to dig a very deep hole—maybe to the center of the earth—and drop this in if it meant he could escape his destiny.
Sadly, Dakota was right. The signet didn’t make him the pack alpha. The mantle would fall on his shoulders at 11:52 tonight, the time of his birth, when he was officially twenty-one. He drew a pattern in his blanket with one finger.
“Dude,” Jordan mock-whispered.
Tanner jerked his head up to find Chase smiling down at him, a flattish rectangular package in his hands. “This is from me.”
Tanner stared at Chase for a moment. He did get me a present.
“Tanner,” Jordan whined. “Are you going to open the present or not?”
Tanner jerked out of his fugue. “Yeah. Yeah, of course.”
He folded the paper back. It wasn’t chocolates. It was a book. A hardcover book—Wolves in Legend and Lore—the very book Tanner had mooned over when Chase took them all to Powell’s City of Books for an assimilation outing last week. It was written by a folklorist not much older than Tanner and had only been released that very day. Tanner had picked it up, but before he could buy it, he’d caught Jordan—who was recovering from a flea infestation he’d picked up from some injudicious, er, wallowing—taking off one shoe as though he were about to scratch behind his ear with his foot. So Tanner quickly returned the book to the display table and dragged Jordan to the restroom to douse him with Dr. MacLeod’s druid anti-itch potion.
That night, Tanner had bored the other juniors silly, enthusing about the book. “A serious, scholarly treatment of werewolf history. With contemporary first-person anecdotes. Can you believe it?”
“Contemporary?” Hector asked around a mouthful of pizza. “Doesn’t that mean, like, now?”
“Not in this case. It means the person telling the story lived at the same time as the wolf. Eye-witness accounts. You’ve gotta admit it’s cool. Our people. Our history.”
“But I thought you said all the research was from Europe,” Gage said. “That means they’re not quite our people, are they?”
“It’s as close as we’re likely to get unless the North American packs get better at information sharing. I’m definitely buying that book on our next trip.” Tanner glared at Jordan. “Assuming Jordan keeps clear of the squirrel scat at his next shift.”
“Hey!” Jordan stopped scratching his neck long enough to return Tanner’s glare. “That could have happened to anybody.”
Chase chuckled and passed Tanner a bowl of popcorn. “I think the druid flea bath will be a sufficient deterrent.”
The other guys had drifted off to bed, leaving Tanner with Chase. The two of them had talked into the night about werewolf traditions and politics and the dearth of historical data on supe populations in general. It was the longest one-on-one time he’d ever had with Chase.
Tanner hadn’t made it back to the bookstore. But Chase obviously had. And he’d cared enough to remember.
“This is . . . Wow. I don’t know what to—” He looked up to find Chase smiling down at him. Was that fondness in his gaze? More than fondness? “Thank you.”
“Happy birthday,” Chase murmured, his rich voice resonating in Tanner’s bones.
“Is it time for cake yet?” Jordan asked, bouncing off the bed to land on his feet next to the desk. He lifted one hand, but before he could swipe a finger through the frosting, Hector grabbed him around the chest and towed him backward out of the room. “Hey!”
Chase chuckled as Gage and Dakota ambled out in their wake. “The last time I checked, there were waffles happening in the kitchen, but with both Jordan and Hector heading that way, you might want to hurry, or you’ll miss out.”
“That’s okay.” Tanner glanced sidelong at the signet box. “I’m not that hungry. And if I feel a bit peckish?” He gestured to his desk. “There’s cake.”
Chase gripped Tanner’s shoulder, his palm warm through Tanner’s T-shirt. “Seriously, though. I know the twenty-oner party at the Bullpen is kind of a Doghouse tradition, but if you don’t want to face it, we don’t have to go. After all, you and I are the only ones who are of legal drinking age, and the preventative spells at the Bullpen are proof against the most sophisticated fake ID, even assuming any of the guys could get one past me.”
Tanner was still mesmerized by the pressure of Chase’s hand. “I’m, um, not technically twenty-one until almost midnight. Maybe I shouldn’t drink either.”
“The spells are tuned to the date, not the time, so you’re good.” Chase’s eyebrows pinched again. “If you’re really sure you want to.”
Tanner pulled himself together. “No. I don’t mind. Besides, if I bailed on another rite of passage, I’d sink even lower in Jordan’s esteem.”
“Well, we can’t have that!” After a final squeeze, Chase let go and walked to the door. “I’ve got a meeting with the Assimilation Board this morning.” He patted his messenger bag. “I’ll file your exam results with them, and you’ll be officially released from the necessity of supervised shifts.”
“Hey, it’s my job.” Chase’s smile held a trace of melancholy, unless Tanner was projecting his own feelings. As usual. “And Tanner? If anyone deserves a happy birthday, it’s you. I hope you get whatever you want.”
Chase closed the door gently behind himself, and Tanner sighed. “Unfortunately,” he murmured as he climbed out of bed, “what I want is you.”
The Bullpen was always crowded, and tonight was no exception. Standing at the doorway, Chase scanned the place for a table big enough to seat all of them. There. Beyond the horseshoe-shaped bar that thrust like a tongue into the enormous room, a party was vacating a six-top.
“Gage, grab that table, will you?”
“Sure.” Gage wound his way through the crowd and plopped down at the table, smiling up at a server who was collecting empties and wiping the top down.
Chase rounded up the rest of the guys and herded them toward their goal. Tanner. Hector. Dakota. Jor— Where was Jordan? He whipped his head around and caught the youngest junior staring in fascination at the taut ass of a passing supe—fox shifter or kitsune by the scent.
“Jordan!” Chase snapped, infusing his voice with alpha authority. “No butt sniffing!”
Jordan straightened up, practically spinning in place. “I wasn’t!” But his eyes slid sideways to track the guy’s ass, and a low whine vibrated in his throat.
“You so were,” Hector muttered.
“Yeah, like you don’t want to do the same.” Jordan scuffed his trainers along the scarred wooden floor as he headed toward the table.
“The whole point of your Howling years is to overcome those urges,” Dakota said, in a fair approximation of Chase’s lecture mode. “We are not slaves to our animal nature. We can learn to function in the Wider World without endangering ourselves or others.” He plopped into a chair next to Gage. “Or violating the Secrecy Pact.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jordan muttered. He patted the chair next to his. “Tanner! Here! Sit next to me!”
Chase’s heart sank a little when Tanner complied. Wait . . . What? Did I just go there? Tanner was undeniably cute—that nearly-black hair, the dark eyes, the cheekbones—gods, the cheekbones. But he was one of Chase’s charges. Chase couldn’t take advantage of his position as RA to hit on him.
But I’m not his RA anymore . . . technically.
Yes, Tanner was still a Doghouse resident, but as a full adult under pack law, he wasn’t subject to Chase’s tutelage anymore. More like a tenant in a building I manage.
He snorted to himself—splitting hairs much?—and resolutely chose the seat farthest from Tanner—and temptation. But he couldn’t help fantasizing a little bit about how their relationship might change in the coming months now that they were peers.
Jordan sat up tall in his chair, gazing around the bar with shining eyes and an eager grin—as opposed to Tanner, who huddled in his seat, a forlorn half smile on his full lips. “This is so cool!” Jordan crowed. “Everyone in here is a shifter?”
“Not everyone. Fae in the house.” Dakota nodded in the direction of the bar. “Mal’s over there, talking to”—his eyes widened—“whoa, the drummer from Hunter’s Moon. Epic!”
Jordan’s head whipped around. “Mal? Mal’s here?” He planted his palms on the table and half rose. “Should we go say hello? We should go say hello. He’d want us to say hello, wouldn’t he?”
“Sit down, Jordan.” Dakota gripped Jordan’s shoulder and pushed him back onto his chair. “Because Dr. MacLeod is here too. You really want to draw his attention? You dug three more holes in the backyard after he warned you about interrupting the ground cover lifecycle.”
“Oh. Um . . .” Jordan slid down in his chair until his chin barely topped the table. “You won’t mention anything to him, will you, Dakota? Please? I’ll fill the holes in again before our next lesson with him. I promise.”
“Weeellll . . . I don’t know . . .” Dakota drew the words out until Jordan was practically vibrating.
“Don’t torture the pup, D,” Gage said. “Tonight’s about— Hector, did you just pick that pretzel up off the floor?”
Hector froze midcrunch. “Maybe?” he mumbled around a mouthful of crumbs.
Gage shook his head. “Honestly. You coders take your junk food way too seriously.”
“At least it’s not fish,” Jordan said, struggling to sit up again. “Hey, we should order some nachos. Or cheesy fries. Or nachos.”
“Don’t forget Tanner’s beer.” Dakota flashed a thumbs-up at Tanner. “This is his twenty-oner party after all.”
Tanner seemed to shrink even more, and Chase regretted not digging a little deeper into Tanner’s opinion about this trip. “Tanner, if you’d rather go back to the house and have a quieter celebration, we can—”
“Did I hear someone’s having a twenty-oner party tonight?” A group of unfamiliar weres stopped next to the table. Chase immediately bristled, his jaw aching as his canines threatened to descend at the challenge to his authority.
But the weres—most of whom wore OSU hoodies—didn’t appear to be much older than Chase himself: twentysomethings, which meant they were probably freshly out of their service commitment years, especially if they’d been cleared to attend a university.
Jordan, naturally, perked right up—or rather perked up even more—at a new set of people to meet. “Yeah! It’s Tanner’s birthday, so we came up here to celebrate. Are you guys celebrating?”
One of the unknown weres laughed and clapped Jordan’s shoulder. “We are, but not a birthday. The Beavs won the game today!”
The group hooted once, then broke into the OSU fight song.
Wonderful. Tanner wasn’t the kind of guy who was comfortable around strangers, probably because his own pack was so small. Chase wondered briefly if he should ask Mal or Dr. MacLeod for help separating the interlopers from his charges. He glanced sidelong at the bar and thought he glimpsed a pale, slender man talking to Dr. MacLeod, but when he turned to look more carefully, the spot next to Dr. MacLeod was empty.
No. This is my responsibility. Butmaybe I should take the opportunity to order food and drinks. He glanced at the OSU weres, who had snagged chairs from around the room and joined their group, much to Jordan’s delight and Tanner’s noticeable dismay. Chase sighed. Apparently he’d be feeding the OSU were population as well as his own packlet.
Chase caught a flash of dark blond hair out of the corner of his eye, as if somebody had taken the empty spot at the bar, but when he turned, it was still empty. Chase shook his head. The noise and chaos of the bar was seriously messing with his sensory input.
The OSU weres had brought their beers with them to the table, including a pitcher. They’d also attracted the attention of a harassed server, who’d set clean, empty glasses in front of the Doghouse guys. The shaggy redhead who seemed to be their ringleader started to fill the glass in front of Gage, but Chase blocked the glass’s mouth with his hand.
The redhead had good reflexes—he barely slopped a splash onto Chase’s hand before he tipped the pitcher up. “Dude. What the hells?”
“The only two of us who are twenty-one are me and Tanner.”
The guy blinked, his amber eyes wide with alarm. “Shit. Thanks, man. The last thing we need tonight is to invoke the underage drinking spell. That’d get us banned from here for two full moons, which would be a tragedy.”
“Right.” Chase stood up. “I’ll go order some food and soda for everyone, shall I?”
The redhead grinned. “Awesome. We’ll take care of the beer for you and the birthday boy. Am I right?” His compatriots hollered in assent, and he filled Tanner’s glass to the brim. “I’m Magnus, by the way.”
Chase shot Tanner what he hoped was an encouraging smile as Magnus introduced the rest of his crew, then he made his way to the bar. He managed to order a pitcher of Coke and one of Dr Pepper (Gage’s soda of choice). When he ordered nachos and cheesy fries, the bartender glanced over Chase’s shoulder.
“A baker’s dozen weres? You’ll need at least five orders of each.”
Chase sighed for what felt like the seventeenth time that night. Why did I agree to this again? He’d wanted Tanner to have every possible experience a young were should expect once they came of age, but maybe he should have asked Tanner what he wanted to experience. After all, there were some “universal” were rites of passage that weren’t particularly pleasant. Chase suspected Tanner had been exposed to far too many of those. The Wallowa pack was not only small, it was also isolated and, rumor had it, so conservative as to be almost petrified.
The bartender set the pitchers of soda on the bar in front of Chase. “The food’ll be out soon. We’ll bring it to the table for you.”
Chase managed to carry the pitchers back to the table without spilling and set them down. “Coke and Dr Pepper.” Jordan and Hector reached for the Coke pitcher at the same time. Hector won.
“Hey!” Jordan scowled at Hector, who hummed as he filled the glass in front of him.
Hector brandished the pitcher. “Anyone else want Coke?” He pretended to ignore Jordan’s wildly waving hand, but then he shot a sheepish grin at Chase and slid the full glass across to Jordan.
After the pitchers were passed around—and Jordan’s glass was refilled because he’d guzzled the first one—Chase raised his own glass, a dark amber ale, courtesy of OSU’s finest. “A toast. To Tanner. Happy birthday, and welcome to the ranks of adult weres.”
Tanner smiled and ducked his chin. Chase’s thermal vision detected the heat rushing up Tanner’s neck, accompanied by pink warming his cheeks. “Th-thanks, everyone. Cheers.”
They all drank—Jordan and Hector both emptied their glasses this time—as the server arrived to deliver the food.
“Nachos!” Jordan crowed, but Dakota snatched the basket out of his reach.
Tanner looked like he wanted to disappear under his chair. “No, really. It’s okay. Everyone dig in.” He raised his glass and took a minuscule sip. “I’m fine with this for now.”
Chase frowned—he’d noticed before that Tanner didn’t eat in front of strangers. Why didn’t I remember that before I ordered a truckload of bar snacks? “Tanner, if you’d rather—”
Tanner caught Chase’s eye and gave his head a tiny shake. Okay, then. He doesn’t want to make a scene.
The food disappeared as if one of Faerie’s brownie cleanup crews had hit it with a SpellOVac. Chase was debating whether he should order more when Jordan’s jaw sagged, his eyes threatening to bug out of his skull. “Dudes,” he breathed, his voice nearly inaudible under the noise of raucous conversation. “Mal and Dr. MacLeod are kissing!”
Almost as one, all the heads at the table turned to face the bar. Sure enough, Mal and Dr. MacLeod were engaging in a little PDA, apparently unconcerned by the goggling crowds. Chase leaned forward. “Don’t stare, guys. You know they’re partners. They’ve been living together since the Faerie Convergence last year.”
“Yeah, but I’ve never seen them do that before.” While everyone else had returned their attention to their drinks—except Hector, who lifted the parchment lining the nacho baskets in case any chip had escaped the initial massacre—Jordan kept staring at the two men at the bar.
Chase focused his attention on Tanner, whose beer hadn’t appreciably diminished.
“Holy crap, guys!” Jordan half stood, his voice rising above the nearby chatter. “That’s a ring. Did they just— Holy crap, holy crap, hoooly crap! They’re engaged!”
Chase glanced over his shoulder in time to see Mal and Dr. MacLeod lock lips in a kiss guaranteed to send every unmated adult were up in flames. He felt himself responding, his cock rising in his pants, and tore his gaze away, only to meet Tanner’s eyes across the table.
Tanner’s eyes blazed with the gold of arousal, his stare full of unmistakable intent.
Trapped like a dragonfly in that amber regard, Chase’s mouth went dry, and his cock hit full extension. He shoved his chair back from the table in a screech of wood. “Excuse me. I’ve got to . . .”
He met Magnus’s knowing—and surprisingly sympathetic—gaze. “I’ve got this,” Magnus said, then slapped the table, drawing everyone’s attention—except Tanner’s. “Hey, guys. Let’s introduce the pups to our favorite drinking game in honor of the birthday boy!”
As Chase stumbled through the crowd toward the restroom, the OSU weres began howling to the theme from Gilligan’s Island. Gods. I don’t want to know.
But what Chase really didn’t want to face was how poorly buried his own desires were. He was an adult, damn it. He was months away from the end of his service commitment, less than a year away from his own matriculation in the pre-law program at Lewis & Clark, where he’d start the long, unwelcome slog toward becoming a litigation attorney—his pack’s version of an enforcer.
Yet judging by his cock, currently being strangled by the seam of his jeans, he had no more emotional control than Jordan in a room full of Frisbees.
He pushed open the heavy door of the restroom. A couple of men stood at the urinals, but the middle stall was open. He stumbled inside and fumbled the latch, leaning against the door as he freed his cock from its denim tourniquet. But as he breathed a sigh of semirelief, he realized the restroom might not have been the best recovery zone, because the sounds rising from the stalls on either side of him—grunts, moans, the slap of flesh against flesh, flesh against tile—weren’t exactly conducive to, er, deflation.
Chase squeezed his eyes shut, pressing his palms against the cold metal door, and thought about torts. Intellectual property law. Civil litigation. The amorous sounds of both couples—or rather one couple and one thruple—fought the normal dick-shriveling response Chase always had to anything related to his destined career.
As he breathed in—through his mouth, because the scent of sex was nearly overwhelming to his were nose—gradually law won out over lust.
It was a near thing, though. And with Tanner still waiting at the table outside . . .
Gods, I’ve been so careful. The perfect RA. Or as perfect as he could manage. Because living in the house with young weres struggling to tame their natures, to fit into the Wider World, to embrace their individuality when so much of pack tradition urged conformity, had been a dream come true. If he had his own wish, he’d stay there forever, his calon—the extra organ every supe possessed—beating in time with his heart whenever one of his charges graduated from the program and returned to their pack, secure in their own identity.
But Tanner had been a challenge to him from the very first day. Chase, a very newly minted RA, had taken one look at Tanner—gods, those cheekbones—and known he needed to lock his instincts down tight.
Although Tanner’s understated beauty was remarkable, it wasn’t his looks that undid Chase in the end. No, that had been the pain lurking behind the hope in Tanner’s eyes as he’d stepped inside the Doghouse. He’d taken a breath, straightened his shoulders like he was shedding a weight, and smiled as if, against his worst fears, he’d awoken in Wonderland.
That smile, directed at Chase, had cut him off right below his heart. Over the last three years, Chase had fought against that smile, reminding himself that he had responsibilities, and they did not include taking an innocent were to bed, no matter how much he wanted to.
But maybe, just maybe, things are about to change.