Copyright © 2012 Vivian Arend
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
Chase stood aside to allow the morning sunlight to fall onto the front porch of his log cabin and highlight his handiwork. He attached another piece of duct tape to the rocking-chair arm, circling three times to tighten the sticky material around the wrist he’d strategically placed along the broad armrest. He repeated his actions on the left side before kneeling to secure the young man’s ankles, one to each side of the sturdy extended rockers.
Another strand of tape around Jones’s naked torso pinned the wolf shifter against the chair back. For extra measure, Chase tore off two more long pieces and pressed them in an X across the shifter’s hairy chest.
Finally satisfied, Chase sat in the Adirondack chair next to the rocker and sighed contently.
“You know, if you’d asked, I would have been happy to let you stay.” Chase tipped the mouth of his beer bottle toward the silent figure beside him. “It’s not that difficult a job, opening your trap and asking permission. Sometimes that’s called conversation.”
A long slow drink followed. Chase gazed to his left over the tall pine trees crowding the base of the remote wilderness lake as he sipped the cold amber liquid. “Beautiful, isn’t it, Jones? I can’t think of another place I’d prefer to be. I’m mighty proud of what I’ve built here.”
“Why, yes, Chase, you’re right. This is a fine home you’ve got.” Chase raised his voice, matching the higher tones of the arctic wolf shifter as best he could. “And, Chase, I’d sure appreciate getting to stay here while you’re gone. I promise to take care of things.”
The rocking chair creaked as Jones moaned, his head lolling from the left to the right, mouth gaping open. Chase watched for a sign the young man was coming around. A low snore escaped instead, and Chase shook his head.
“Boy, you don’t know how good you got it. I should have tied you to the boat and sent you floating into the middle of the lake. I’m going soft in my old age.”
He adjusted his chair to face fully toward the water, ignoring the incapacitated wolf on his right. It was a glorious late June day, and hell if he would allow Jones to mess with the tranquility of the moment. Chase drank slowly, enjoying his view. Summer had officially arrived in the high Yukon, which meant there were only a few pockets of snow left in the shadowy places under the thicker sections of forest. The sun was hot enough the new green grasses were edging toward drying already, the limited growing season of the north a rush of forward motion hurtling toward death.
It was the most serene and idyllic of settings, if he ignored the hairy beast beside him trussed up like a chicken.
Serene, and lonely. Appropriate for most of the men who lived in these parts. Men like him.
Chase laughed as his thoughts followed a familiar path. He could have set his watch on it. Seemed every year this time he tended toward a bout of philosophical musings. He chewed on his bottom lip for a while and debated going fishing. He really should head out again, but until he had dealt with the disaster on two legs next to him, his hunting would have to wait.
Quiet. Nothing disturbed the air but the light creak of the rockers against the wooden deck boards and the wind playing with the pines. He was used to silence. Didn’t mean he loved it, but it fit the setting.
Nearly an hour later he woke from a catnap, an extra loud gurgle echoing from the wolf at his side.
“Hello, the house.”
There was another thing that was clockwork reliable this time of year. Chase rose smoothly to his feet and stepped to the railing, leaning his flannel-clad elbows on the sturdy log crossbar as he stared across the meadow at the old-timer approaching on an even older horse. A rattle carried across the distance, the beast’s easy gait jostling the miner’s gold pans and his solid tin coffee pot together like leaves on a wind-blown tree.
Chase waited until his company drew closer before he spoke. He wasn’t sure how well Delton’s hearing had held up over the past year, and there was no need to rub in the fact the man was getting older. Heck, they were all getting older.
“New saddle,” Chase noted.
Delton nodded. “Wilson quit. Passed it on to me.”
Silence returned as Delton pulled his horse up and laid the reins over the mare’s neck. She was already tugging lazily at the long grass as he slid off her back, hitting the ground without a lot of give in his knees.
Chase hid his wince.
Delton untied a sachet from the saddlebags and tossed it over his shoulder, pausing to pat his horse’s withers before approaching the wide porch staircase.
He was at the top of the stoop before his gaze fell on the shiny-striped man propped up like a freaky Christmas tree. Delton didn’t stop, just shook his head a little and made for the door.
“I take it the boy’s been a pain in the behind.”
“You might say that.”
Chase followed his friend into the cool of the cabin. The old cougar’s low cussing nicely echoed his own thoughts as he glanced at the damage inside his usually pristine home.
Delton wandered to the kitchen, shoving garbage out of the way with his feet. Bags and boxes crackled underfoot, shards of broken dishes snapping like shotgun blasts.
“You looking for something specific, old man?”
His friend dragged the broom from behind the fridge and hoisted it for a moment. “Didn’t think you’d mind if I did a little work.”
It was so like Delton—so like all the men that Chase cared for. Crap happened. You moved on.
He nodded and turned to grab a garbage bag, stuffing it with the items broken beyond repair like the plates and shredded cushions. Mentally making a list of all the things he’d need to replace as he cleaned methodically alongside Delton.
The place looked a whole lot better within a short time, and Chase sighed. “You know, you’ve gone and ruined my plans to make Jones clean up the mess in his wolf form.”
“Must have been in his wolf while he caused some of the damage.” Delton pointed to the scratched edges of the couch where the raw wood showed in deep gouges. Claws marks marred the corner, like a cat on a scratching post.
“Jones is usually half in his wolf form. The boy’s mostly feral—brain just doesn’t switch all the way back to human anymore.”
And now Chase felt a little bad about having taped the kid to the chair. Wasn’t really unexpected Jones had gone insane in the cabin. Although, he hadn’t asked to be allowed access in the first place. At the least a little pain might drive home that message of basic politeness.
Delton paused his sweeping, his grey beard sticking up wildly, the perfect image of an out-of-control Grizzly Adams. “You were gone for a few days?”
“Grabbing information from the Miller boys. I plan on heading north soon to track down everyone else who hasn’t been in contact during the past couple months. If I can find folks quick enough, I could be in Whitehorse by the third and home by the eighth.”
Five days in civilization. It was enough—and the only reason he’d go was he had to. No one else in those parts could handle the trip, and there had to be some contact with the outside world, if only to deal with banking and food orders.
Delton nodded. “I brought you my list. You’re a good man, Chase Johnson.”
He shrugged. “I’m the only person available. That doesn’t make me good, just makes me the one who can do it.”
“We ain’t gonna argue about this.” Delton leaned the broom to the side and motioned toward the kitchen. “I suppose it’s too much to assume you’ve got anything edible in there after Jones took the place apart.”
He hadn’t even looked. Chase had returned from his trip into the bush and found the tore-apart house and an unconscious wolf shifter half in, half out his front door. “If he’s ruined everything in there, I have supplies hidden in the shed. Can I make you supper?”
Delton’s gap-toothed grin lit his grizzled and lined face. “You find me some grub, and I’ll do the cooking.”
Chase’s stomach grumbled at the thought of something other than raw game he’d been eating while shifted. “You cook, and I’ll care for your horse.”
Two hours later Chase wondered if he’d explode if he ate one more biscuit. Also on the pondering list, would the wolf duct-taped out front ever stop snoring at the extreme decibel level and wake up? And three, what promises could he make to convince Delton to move in on a regular basis as chef because, man, the old-timer could cook.
Delton topped up their coffee cups and groaned in satisfaction. “Your stash of supplies is mighty fine. I could stay here and look after things for you while you’re gone. I’m getting tired of my bean and rabbit rations.”
Having a house sitter was the solution to a number of problems. Chase nodded. “I’d appreciate that. And Jones—well, I guess he can stay around if you’re willing to babysit, but I’ve got two requests.”
“Name them.” The cougar scratched his belly and yawned, pushing back the empty plates stacked in front of him.
“He’s got to do chores every day in human form. No shifting and bringing in game for the table, or some such excuse.”
Delton nodded. “I’ll try to explain to the boy, but it’s not easy when they’ve already got that touch of the wild in them. What else?”
The grin stretching his cheeks felt good. “Don’t release him. Force him to get out of that chair on his own.”
“Damn, you’re a mean one at times, Chase Johnson.”
Chase shrugged. “He’s got claws and teeth.”
“He’s gonna have a lot less hair by the time he gets free.” Delton shuddered. “Gonna be like peeling off a Band-Aid. Or them fancy ladies who rip the fur off their privates.”
Chase choked on his coffee. “You know about that?”
One bushy brow rose in the air, and Chase snorted at the old man’s expression. It wasn’t as if shifters were shy about sex, but he hadn’t imagined well-groomed women were high on Delton’s experience list.
The cougar shook a finger in the air. “Oh Lordy, I’ve seen more and done more than you’ll do in your entire life. Bright lights of Dawson in her heyday—that was an education and a half for a young man.”
The old-timer was still chuckling as Chase stood and grabbed the small bag he used for his annual trip. He loaded it with paper and a few writing instruments before draping the handle around his neck, checking to be sure the strap was set wide enough not to choke him once he shifted.
“You heading out already?” Delton asked.
“No use in waiting if you’re going to stick around. Sorry for leaving you with the rest of the cleanup.” To be honest, he couldn’t bear to have to throw anything else away. It would hurt less to simply have the destruction gone when he got back.
Delton waved a hand at him, then braced himself on his knees to push to vertical, bones creaking as he stood. “Least I can do to enjoy a roof over my head for a bit. Good hunting, Chase, and don’t worry about anything here. I’ve got you covered.”
Chase stepped outside. The sun was lower, but the sky remained full bright. There was tons of time to get into the bush. He stripped off his clothes and tucked them into the carrying sack, leaving his shoes behind to the side of the door.
A loud snore reverberated off the log walls, and he strode over to stare at Jones. The wolf shifter’s head hung back now, tongue dangling as he rattled the windows with his snoring. He was just a youngster, really.
Didn’t mean he couldn’t learn.
Chase tore one final strip off the roll of duct tape and careful applied it across both Jones’s bushy eyebrows. The shifter wiggled under his touch before settling back into a deep sleep.
It might be evil, but it was just. “That’s for shredding my Gramma’s quilt.”
Chase strolled into the sunshine to take one last look around. Through the cabin windows, Delton was visible wandering back and forth as he cleaned. Jones rocked slowly in the breeze, light glinting off the silver tape. The trees and the clouds and everything seemed so damn peaceful.
Nothing was exactly as it appeared, now was it? Chase mused.
He shifted, body changing into his wild side. Always took a moment to fine-tune his thinking—waiting for the animal to fully form. He stretched, the big paws before him indenting the ground with the weight of his cougar. So, it was the cat’s turn to hunt. He wiggled to adjust the sachet against his chest, then padded his way to the trailhead.
“No.” Shelley Bradley pulled the stethoscope from her sister’s fingers, tugging to get her to release it. “I’m busy.”
Caroline gave her an evil grin. “I’m busy, busy, dreadfully busy—”
Oh God, no. Shelley slapped a hand over Caroline’s mouth. “If you start singing VeggieTales, I will be forced to make you watch repeats of The Muppet Show.”
Caroline’s nose wrinkled, her lower face still covered by Shelley’s hand.
“Can I let you go? Will you promise to be a good girl and sit quietly while I finish?” Shelley knew her tone of voice would get a reaction if nothing else did. Sure enough, Caroline rolled her eyes back in her head until only the whites showed.
Shelley released her, and they both fell apart with an attack of giggles, Shelley to finish unpacking the box that rested on the shiny metal examining table, her sister to lean against the doorframe that led to the waiting-room area.
“The parts of the clinic you’ve got completed look great.” Caroline gestured around, including Shelley in the sweep. “You look great. Gack, you and your damn wolf genes. Put on a few pounds once in a while.”
The only thing her wolf genes seemed to be good for. “It’s not my fault. I don’t even exercise.”
Caroline mock glared. “Yeah, well, don’t brag.”
Shelley smothered her grin. This was the reason she’d come back. Getting her veterinarian training in the south, and the six-month mentorship in Calgary that followed for shifter specialization had been an exciting mental challenge. She’d missed the emotional ties of family though and, as always, the love and acceptance her sister gave was absolute and mind-bogglingly sweet. It felt so good to be back in the same room as her. Same town. But not the same situation as years ago.
Time to head down a new path. Shelley took a deep breath, and crossed all her fingers and toes that returning to Whitehorse would work.
Her sister wandered away a few steps, picking items off the shelf and checking them over. “You heard from Kent lately?”
Another rock-solid family member, although a little harder to track down than Caroline. Their younger brother was constantly on the go. “Other than the weekly email update from last Saturday, no.”
“He’s too busy seducing half of Ottawa to spend much time online.”
Shelley shook her head. “No wonder Mom and Dad followed him out there. They’re attempting to keep an eye on a moving target. That boy got all the party genes that missed me.”
“Don’t sell yourself short,” Caroline scolded. “You’re a ton of fun.”
Her instant and involuntary snort of disbelief was so intense it hurt. Shelley gave her sister the look.
“Really,” Caroline insisted. “I mean it. In fact, I want you to come out tonight with me. Please?”
Drat. She’d been dreading this topic coming up, and Caroline had gone there way faster than expected. Why was it so hard for her sister to understand? “Honey, I might have moved back to Whitehorse. That doesn’t mean I’m going to dive into pack activities.”
“It’s not a pack event—it’s the whole city. Music, games…come on. You’re going to miss Canada Day celebrations just to avoid seeing pack?”
Damn right. She’d do more than miss a party to avoid some of the cold-blooded jerks who’d made her life miserable when she was young. “I’m here because Whitehorse needs a new vet who can confidentially deal with shifters. I love the Territory, and I want to be close to you. The pack as an official entity can go stuff itself as far as I’m concerned. So, yes, avoidance is a fine option.”
The concern on Caroline’s face deepened. “You know you can’t hide from them forever.”
“I don’t intend to.” Shelley closed the door on the supply cupboard and took apart the shipping box for recycling. “I’m going to be acting as a kind of doctor to them, for heaven’s sake. How is that avoidance? Plus, I already contacted the Takhini Alpha and—”
“When?” Caroline snapped upright. “I’m his secretary. How the heck did you get to him without me knowing?”
Interesting reaction. Shelley stopped her unpacking to observe her sister more carefully. Caroline’s near-panicked response seemed out of place. “There’s something you’re not telling me.”
Caroline blinked. “No. I’m just surprised. Usually I have his entire agenda memorized. And he didn’t say anything about you calling.”
Because she hadn’t called. She’d gotten a human kid to drop off a note. That alone should have gotten his curiosity up enough to agree to wait. “It’s fine. He knows there’s a new wolf in town, and that I’ll get together with him at some convenient time.”
Like…never, but that was beside the point.
Caroline pushed the party invitation again, but Shelley ignored her, methodically placing supplies on the shelves. Her older sister had never seemed to learn the word no. While her determined assaults could be frustrating at times, like now when Shelley was on the wrong end of one, her never give up spirit was also inspiring. Fully human, Caroline managed to hold her own amidst the wolf pack of Whitehorse in a way that Shelley admired.
Wished that she could imitate, to be frank. And planned to imitate.
The rest of the family had left the north looking for more accepting packs. Shelley had left for the longest time as well, but Whitehorse was where she wanted to live.
This time it was going to be on her terms. That was the bottom line. Pack or no pack, this was going to be home.
Caroline sighed, stopped her rambling and slipped into the main area. “Fine. I’ll change the topic since you’re being all Sphinx-like. You hired someone for the front desk?”
Shelley joined her, admiring the tall glass windows that let in the July sunshine. “Not yet. I’m still waiting for a few permits to finish clearing. I’m not going to be able to officially open until mid-August, so there’s no rush. There’s a bit more work to be done in here, like the flooring, and I haven’t completed the surgery area in the back. I also want more shelving, and to finish the boarding and exercise yard. That kind of thing.”
“I can get someone—”
“No.” Seemed as if she was saying that word a lot, but it was necessary. “Caro, I’m doing great. I know you want to help, but I don’t need a big sister fixing things for me and making things easier. There’s tons of time to get the shop ready, and I want to do the work myself. What I want for us is to spend time together. To enjoy life.”
The glint in Caroline’s eyes warned Shelley she’d made a mistake. “Awesome. Then you’re going to come over for supper before the celebration? We can enjoy each other’s company a little before dealing with the crowds. There’s no fireworks, not with how light it is in the evening, but the music they have planned should be great.”
Shoot. Walked into that one. “Oh, Caroline…”
Her sister batted her lashes. “I’ll make your favourites.”
The dinner invite was tempting, and there were positive points to meeting the pack in a public setting, but tonight was too soon. Caroline would be surrounded by wolves, and Shelley wasn’t ready for that yet. “No supper, but…” she raised a hand to stop Caroline’s protests, “…fine, I will come to the Canada Day party. If you’re willing to sit off to the side and avoid pack.”
Caroline’s instant smile lit her eyes. “We can totally do that. They’re all hanging at the Rotary Peace Park. We can sit beside the SS Klondike paddlewheeler and listen to the band from there. The reflections off the Yukon River will be pretty. Deal?”
It was a start. A start to finding her place in the north, which in itself was huge, since she’d never fit in before. “Deal.”
A soft brush against her ankles was followed by a loud insistent purr as Enigma demanded to be picked up. She hoisted the tiny black creature and settled him in her arms for a cuddle.
Caroline gasped, the sound breaking apart into laughter. “Oh my God, Shelley, you have a cat?”
She nodded as Enigma opened his mouth and meowed. “He’s a rescue. Loves to be scratched right—”
“You’ve got to be kidding. A cat. Shell—owning a pet is strange enough, but a cat?”
“You got some weird biases for a human who grew up in a shifter home.” Shelley buried her face in Enigma’s soft fur and breathed deeply. “He’s been nothing but giving to me. Far more than your typical feline. We get along fine.”
Caroline rearranged her face into a semiserious mode with some effort. “Love me, love my cat? Fine, Shelley, he is rather gorgeous.”
She brushed a hand down Enigma’s back, and the feline rewarded her with a rumbling purr.
Shelley smiled as she passed the small ball of fur over to her sister.
It was a start.