illustration by Jeff Ward

Pack Dynamics

Stephanie Burgis

I'm pleased to present the first of what I hope will be a long running series of stories that will explore and expand upon our vision of humanity. I've greatly enjoyed the process of discovering stories by talented and innovative writers who are unafraid to examine possible futures and challenge assumptions as to what it means to be human. "Pack Dynamics" by Stephanie Burgis launches this collaborative process of discovery by taking a deeper look at power dynamics, and how we are too often constrained by tradition. The journey Burgis takes us on is exactly the sort of experience I hope Persistent Visions will bring to our readers, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

It took Annie only two dates to figure out that Gary Boran was a werewolf. Maybe that should have been a reason for canceling the third date, but honestly, she’d been in Pittsburgh for nearly a year by then, and she’d had an awful lot of bad dates.

Gary’s dates, so far, hadn’t been bad ones. And, on the plus side, she’d always liked animals. So she watched thoughtfully from across the restaurant table as he devoured his third (rare) steak of the evening, she made a mental note to check out a book on wolf behavior from the library where she worked . . . and, when he gave her a brief but enthusiastic kiss on the doorstep of her townhouse at the end of the evening (with a little too much tongue, but she could work with that), she made a decision.

“Come on in,” she said, and opened the door.

His eyes lit up with an odd, golden gleam that she found surprisingly charming. His tongue almost, but not quite, hung out of his mouth in a panting grin.

She’d always thought it might be fun to do some dog training.

Luckily, her townhouse was in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood, just up the hill from Frick Park, where Gary’s pack held their monthly runs and howl-ins. Cohabiting with a werewolf turned out to be surprisingly easy, once she’d read up enough to figure out what she was in for. Gary’s move-in was a cinch with his whole pack helping out, although she did have to buy out the entire meat section from the local Giant Eagle to supply the barbecue they hosted afterwards. Since she’d read the online relationship forums, too, she tried to keep her eye-rolling to a minimum whenever Gary had to take off in the middle of a movie to pick up his alphas’ laundry or run some other dumb errand they’d invented just to prove that they still had him on their leash.

After their first month together, she knew to buy an extra pack of disposable razors and a stronger vacuum cleaner, too . . . and hoped her landlord wouldn’t notice the fur that stubbornly clung anyway to her officially-pets-free carpet.

All in all, everything was going pretty well until her mother came to visit.

“Well?” her mother said, on their drive home from the airport. She arched one perfectly-plucked eyebrow. “When do you plan on introducing me to his alphas, then?”

“I beg your pardon?” Annie’s hands gave a quick, involuntary squeeze on the wheel. “If you mean his parents, they don’t live in town, so—”

“Don’t be intentionally dense, Annabel.” Lila sighed. “If you think I haven’t guessed your new boyfriend’s little secret by now, after all the hints you’ve dropped, you can’t think I do my job very well.” Lila had been working at a government-funded research laboratory related to disease control for over twenty years. She’d never shared any details of the experiments that she supervised, but Annie knew that she was rising steadily higher and higher behind the scenes.

She narrowed her eyes now, making a light sweat break out on Annie’s skin. “I assume you are using extra protection, just in case? The spread of the lupine virus is usually oral, but any accidental blood transfer in intimate circumstances could potentially—”

“Mother!” Annie’s hands ached where she was gripping the wheel. “Thank you, but we’re using plenty of protection. I know how to do my research, just like you.”

“Hmm.” Lila shrugged. “Well, if you’re certain you’re being careful enough . . . ”

“I am,” Annie said, through gritted teeth.

“Good.” Lila smiled and tipped down the passenger-side mirror to adjust her smoothly-coiffed blonde hair. “In that case, we may as well proceed as usual. You may not be aware of this, since you never did manage to find any boyfriends back in high school, but the usual social rule is that both sets of parents ought to meet when a relationship grows serious . . . and I believe alphas take the status of parents to werewolves, in terms of pack hierarchy. Is that correct—according to your research?”

Slumping lower in her seat, Annie didn’t even try to think up a reply. After twenty-five years of life as Lila’s only child, she knew a lost cause when she met one.

“Don’t worry,” Gary said, as they dressed for dinner together in their bedroom two nights later. “Dirk and Shawna have to play politics all the time, negotiating with every other pack in the city. They’re not going to blink an eye at your mom.” He leaned over to sniff her neck, giving her nape a quick, mischievous lick. “Besides, she’s not that scary.”

“That’s what you think.” Annie squirmed away to fasten her necklace, a thin string of pearls that Lila had given her when she’d graduated with her MLS last year. (“Well, you’re not likely to be able to buy your own pearls on a librarian’s salary, are you, darling?”) “Just wait until she starts asking Dirk and Shawna all sorts of completely intrusive, TMI werewolf-health questions. I wouldn’t be surprised if she asked them to fill out a ten-page scientific questionnaire about all the private details of the change.”

“So what?” Gary shrugged and looped a sedate blue tie around his neck for the first time in months. He’d abandoned neckties, with loud relief, after their famously successful third date. “They know how to say no if she tries to push. And anyway, turnabout’s fair play, right? Why do you think they came along to help when I moved in?”

“Sorry?” Annie’s fingers went still on the clasp of her necklace. “Your whole pack came—”

“But Dirk and Shawna are alphas, Annie.” Gary rolled his eyes at her. “You think they normally volunteer to haul around boxes with the rest of us? No, they were there to check you out. They wanted to make sure you weren’t a danger to the pack.”

Annie frowned as she finished with her necklace. “And if they’d thought I was a danger?”

Gary snorted. “Yeah, right.” Peering into the mirror, he yanked at his tie, trying to fix the lopsided knot. “They gave me the all-clear to stay about half an hour after they got here. Honestly, I told them they were nuts to even bother with the inspection. You’re a librarian, right? It took them about five minutes to decide you were harmless.”

“‘Harmless,’” Annie repeated flatly. “That’s what they called me? When you discussed me with them?

“Yeah, that’s . . . ” Gary’s eyes met hers in the mirror. “I mean . . . ” He blinked rapidly. “Can we go back a couple of minutes? Maybe you could forget the way I phrased that?”

“Uh-uh.” Annie narrowed her eyes at him. “That’s the problem with librarians—we have excellent archival skills. My job might make me a harmless wuss, according to muscle-bound werewolves . . . but I never, ever forget any details.”

Gary’s shoulders sagged. If he’d been in wolf form, she was certain his tail would have tucked itself behind his legs.

Lila would have punished him all night, just as she’d always punished Annie for verbal infractions, by turning into a polished icicle for the rest of the evening. Annie couldn’t help it, though; she took pity. “Here.” She turned him around and took hold of his crumpled tie, brushing off a rogue speck of dust from his shoulder on the way. “Let me fix this before you ruin it.”

They were both immaculately dressed when the doorbell rang, two minutes later, but that wasn’t enough to stop Annie’s stomach from giving a sickening lurch as she heard the purposeful click of Lila’s heels downstairs.

“Damn it, they’re early!” She lurched for the bedroom door, dragging Gary behind her.

She wasn’t fast enough. By the time they reached the top of the stairs, she could hear voices mingling at the front of the house. They reached the hallway to find Dirk and Shawna standing just inside, chatting with Lila by the cluttered coat-stand.

“Darling. There you are.” Lila raised one eyebrow. “I would have invited your guests into the front room while we waited for you two to appear, but . . . ” She coughed lightly. “I wasn’t sure you’d want me to, since you didn’t have a chance to clean it first.”

“I did—” Annie began. Then she swallowed the rest of her protest, feeling Gary’s reassuring touch on the small of her back.

Forcing a smile, she turned to Gary’s alphas, careful not to look either of them directly in the eye. It was the most important caution Gary had given her, the first time she’d met them: they would take any direct eye contact as a challenge. And as much as they might irritate her—especially when they’d just yanked Gary out of bed in the middle of the night to mow their lawn or deliver a message—Annie wasn’t stupid. She knew she couldn’t challenge an alpha werewolf. “Dirk. Shawna. It’s so nice to see you.”

“Nice to be here.” Dirk’s broad shoulders bumped against the coat rack in the narrow hallway, but his smile was jovial beneath his thick, pepper-and-salt mustache. Unlike Gary, he hadn’t worn a tie, but his tweed jacket and faded business shirt made him as dressed up as she’d ever seen him. “It’s always nice to meet more Pack family. Lila, here, has been telling us this is her first time in the Burgh.”

“The first time apart from work conferences, anyway,” Lila said. “But you know how those go. Everyone packed into one building all weekend—you never get to see the real city, only the hotel restaurant and bar.”

Annie doubted that any of the three werewolves in her hallway had spent a full weekend indoors in all their lives, but Dirk nodded in amiable agreement, and Shawna made a sympathetic humming sound.

“Gary and Annie will certainly have to make sure to show you around while you’re here.” Smoothing a casually possessive hand over Gary’s arm, Shawna smiled warmly at Annie. “Are we having dinner here tonight, or are we going out?”

“I thought maybe we could do Italian?” Annie said. “There’s a new Neapolitan place up on Murray, just a few blocks away, that we could try.”

“The reviews have been great,” Gary added, reaching for Annie’s coat on the coat rack.

Lila gave a tinkling laugh. “And my daughter’s always happy to avoid cooking, as you can see.”

Annie gritted her teeth.

Dirk said, “Italian sure does sound good to me, especially since . . . .” He gave Gary a firm look. “We won’t be paying, will we?”

“Of course not,” Gary murmured, lowering his head in submission.

“And it’s a nice night for a walk.” Shawna tilted her head to scent the air with obvious pleasure, her long, gray-streaked black hair falling in thick waves around her face and showcasing her impressive diamond earrings. “Lila, why don’t you walk with me? I want to hear all about what you do.”

“There,” Gary whispered as the others walked out through the front door. He slipped the coat around Annie’s shoulders and snuck a kiss behind her ear. “I told you they could handle her.”

“Mmm.” Annie sighed.

But as they all settled around a restaurant table, ten minutes later, she had to admit that things were going better than she’d expected. The moment they’d stepped inside the small, dimly-lit restaurant, all three werewolves had inhaled the scents from the kitchen with visible pleasure. Even Lila had given the real silver candlesticks on their table a look of approval and clicked firmly into hostess mode, smooth and charming.

It might have been nice for Annie to think of herself as the hostess, for once, in a dinner that she’d arranged in her own neighborhood . . . but after a lifetime with Lila, she was only too used to being relegated to the background. Anyway, everyone else seemed to be having a good time. Dirk had kicked back in his seat, taking off his tweed jacket and rolling up his sleeves over his muscled forearms, while Shawna traded stories with Lila about their favorite shops in Chicago and New York.

“You see?” Gary whispered into Annie’s ear. His warm breath brushed against the side of her neck.

She tipped her head against his shoulder for just a moment, while her mother wasn’t looking.

“Only two more hours,” she whispered back.

When the waiter arrived to take their orders, he looked between Lila and Shawna, hesitating.

Shawna smiled, her teeth looking oddly sharp in the flickering light of the twin candles that stood on the table. “Please, Lila, why don’t you go first.”

“Well, if you’re sure.” Without a pause, Lila handed the waiter her menu. “I’ll have the Spigola al Cartoccio, very light on the olive oil, please.”

“Yes, ma’am.” The waiter started to turn to Gary, who sat beside her.

Dirk spoke before the other man could ask for Gary’s order. “We’ll have three double-orders of the pork sausage, thanks.” He gestured to himself, Shawna, and Gary.

Annie frowned. “But—”

Gary’s foot landed firmly on hers. She closed her mouth.

The waiter turned to her. “And you, ma’am?”

“Ah . . . gnocchi. Please.” As Shawna and Dirk passed on their menus, she took the opportunity to hiss in Gary’s ear: “You don’t like pork.”

He shrugged, his expression relaxed and one hand laid lightly on her thigh underneath the table. “Shh. It doesn’t matter.”

“Are you absolutely certain you want to order the gnocchi, Annie?” Lila looked her daughter up and down. “You know, eating all that potato, when you have such a sedentary job . . . ”

“It’ll be fine,” Annie muttered. Her cheeks heated as she felt Shawna’s amused, assessing gaze on her.

“We’ll just have to get Annie out on a run with the pack,” Dirk said easily, once the waiter had moved away. “We have picnics every summer in Frick Park, you know, and partners are always invited. We usually play some pickup football, do some races . . . ”

“It’s a great way to get exercise and work off the calories,” Shawna added brightly. “And you know, a lot of the pack girlfriends have started doing aerobics on full-moon nights. I’m sure they’d be thrilled to have you join them—it wouldn’t matter if you started off a little out of shape. They’d have you bouncing around in no time!”

“Great!” Annie said through gritted teeth.

She could feel Gary shaking beside her with the force of his suppressed laughter.

“Well, if anyone ever managed to get my daughter exercising, instead of keeping her nose buried in books, that would be—oh, good!” Lila’s expression brightened as a second waiter headed toward them, carrying the bottle of wine that she’d ordered for the table. “Please, let me pour for everyone.” She stood up, taking the bottle from the waiter and gathering up all the glasses from the table. “I’d like to take a moment to celebrate my daughter’s new connections.”

“New family,” Dirk said firmly.

“That’s right.” Shawna gave Annie a kind, only slightly dismissive smile, as Lila huddled over the wine in the shadows at the end of the table, pouring out each glass with obvious care. “We want all of our pack member’s partners to feel they’re a valued part of our pack family.”

 . . . Even if they really aren’t? Annie finished silently. But she didn’t need any nudging from Gary this time to keep her thoughts to herself. She only smiled, without replying, and took the full glass that her mother handed her.

“To new directions,” Lila said.

“To new directions,” they all chorused obediently, and drank.

The wine was a rich, dark red, and it brushed down the back of Annie’s throat with a trail of velvet warmth. She wasn’t surprised that it was delicious—Lila had always been a wine snob. But she was startled by the sudden shiver that Gary gave beside her, and by the winces she glimpsed on his alphas’ faces as they swallowed their own wine.

“Mmm.” Lila gave a pleased purr as she finished her first sip. “Do drink up, everyone. You don’t want to insult my taste, you know.” She gave a light, trilling laugh, but there was a warning look in her eye.

It set caution stirring at the back of Annie’s mind. As the werewolves around her lifted their glasses once again, she frowned.

“Annabel?” Lila raised her eyebrows at her. “Don’t you like your wine?”

“I do,” Annie said truthfully. But even as she took another sip, she watched her mother with a wary eye.

There was something about the way Lila watched the others drink—a buried light of excitement, carefully hidden behind her cool façade—that sent warning bells ringing.

“Here. Let me refill your glasses.” This time, Lila reached out with the bottle, rather than gathering the glasses to her.

“That really isn’t necessary.” Shawna’s smile was tight as she watched the wine rise up in her glass again.

Dirk sighed as he politely offered up his glass to Lila.

Gary started to lift his own glass, then stopped as Annie pinched his leg hard. “Ah . . . no, thanks?” He flashed Annie a questioning look.

Annie only gave an infinitesimal shrug, unable to think of any rational reason behind her reluctance. But as she watched the bottle move away, leaving Gary’s glass untouched, she felt some of the tension in her chest relax.

“Never mind.” Lila’s smile was bright as she refilled her own glass. “Cheers!”

Dirk took a sip . . . and raised his eyebrows. “Actually, this is better than I’d thought.”

Shawna took a tiny, testing sip and blinked. “You’re right.”

“Oh, this type of wine really grows on you,” Lila said, her voice creamy with satisfaction.

Annie’s hand clenched around her empty wine glass. She met Lila’s eyes across the table.

“Good lord, you look dreadful, dear.” Lila rose, setting down her glass. “Why don’t we both visit the ladies’ room? You can freshen up before the main course.”

“And we can talk a little Pack business while you’re gone,” Shawna said. “We wouldn’t want to bore you two with it.”

“Oh, I seriously doubt we’d be bored,” said Lila. “It’s been a great frustration to scientists all over the world, you know, how little you all want to talk to outsiders. It’s especially difficult to get any alphas to talk.”

Annie winced. Time for the scientific questionnaire? “We’ll leave you to it,” she said to the werewolves, and started across the dimly-lit room, maneuvering around the scattered tables without waiting for her mother.

Then the realization hit, like a boulder thudding into her diaphragm. She stopped stock-still just in front of the bathroom door, almost doubling over in horror. Oh, no. No, no, no.

Lila wouldn’t have really done that . . . would she?

Lila took Annie’s arm in a firm grip and pulled her into the bathroom, where a vase of carnations and peonies stood on the marble counter between the sinks. “Really, dear. You can’t just stand around gaping, especially if you want to find a better partner. It’s enormously unattractive.”

“Another partner?” Annie pulled free, doing a quick check that the stalls behind them were empty. She caught a flash of her own reflection in the mirror, her cheeks deadly pale against the pink slash of her lipstick. “Mother, what did you put in their drinks?

Lila gave two rapid blinks. “I can’t imagine what you’re talking about.” She leaned toward the mirror, smoothing her blonde up-do.

“Their first glasses of wine tasted different from ours,” said Annie. “And you’re expecting me to be on the look-out for a better partner soon.” She gripped the closest sink, her legs nearly giving way. “How could you do this to me?”

“Oh, for heaven’s sake. You’re twenty-five, not fifteen, Annabel. The time for dating inappropriate boys and throwing tantrums is long past.”

Annie’s hands tightened around the sink until her muscles burned. “Gary’s my partner, Mother. We’re not just dating. We live together!”

Lila sniffed. “And you should be grateful to me for helping you out of that mess. You’d never have had the courage to leave him on your own, would you? You’ve never managed to stand up to anyone in your life.”

Annie looked at her mother next to her in the mirror, cool and perfect and untouchable as always. Annie’s own cheeks had gone from chalk-white to bright red as she’d flushed with anger, and her darker blonde hair was falling out of its pins, straggling in sloppy waves around her face. Next to her mother, she looked messy and emotional and out of control, just as she had in every confrontation she’d ever attempted, back before she’d given up on even trying to fight.

Lila said, “All you have to do is stay quiet for the rest of dinner, which should be easy enough for you. I have an ambulance all ready to do the pick-up from your house the moment that I text them. And there won’t be any trouble from your little group of animals—the dose I put into their wineglasses should prevent them from resisting or going furry for at least a week.” She sighed. “You don’t need to look so tragic, Annabel. You’re the one who finally found us a way into the werewolf community. You’re helping us to do a great deed for science. Why, you might even end up partially responsible for the discovery of a real antidote to the virus.”

“Through experimentation?” Annie asked. “I didn’t know you could legally kidnap U.S. citizens for your research nowadays.”

“It’s hardly ‘kidnapping.’” Lila snorted. “They’re animals. The moment the lupine disease veers out of control, we have every right to step in to protect the rest of the community, just as we would with rabid dogs. And since you and I can offer up personal testimony that those three lost control and tried to attack us when we went back to your house tonight . . . ” She shrugged. “I don’t see any legal issues worth worrying about. But I do see an impressive promotion coming my way in the near future.”

She reached into her purse and pulled out her lipstick, leaning toward the mirror to carefully touch it up. “Anyway,” she murmured around the lipstick, “you saw the way his pack functioned back there at the dinner table. Your Gary can’t even order a meal for himself. Do you really want a man like that, completely under his alphas’ thumb?”

Annie looked at her mother. Then she looked at herself, reflected in the mirror. “You’re right,” she said softly. “Who would want a partner who was that submissive?”

“Exactly.” Lila smiled and blotted her lips on a tissue she drew out from her elegant leather purse. She dropped the tissue into a nearby trash can and started for one of the stalls.

“Wait.” Annie fought to keep her face blank as she reached out her hand. “I’ll hold your purse for you. I don’t need to do anything more here anyway.”

“All right.” Passing it over, Lila gave Annie a quick pat on the shoulder. “Really, darling, it’ll all be for the best. You’ll see.”

“You’re right,” Annie said. Her heartbeat was a rapid, driving pulse behind her skin as she closed her hands over the leather straps of her mother’s purse. “I will.”

She’d read about pack dynamics, back when she’d first started dating Gary. She’d just never applied them to her own family before.

By the time the group started home after dinner, almost everyone was weaving on their feet. Gary leaned heavily against Annie, his arm looped around her waist. “Sorry,” he murmured, as his big feet tripped against hers for the second time. “I dunno know what’s wrong with me . . . I didn’t have that much wine . . . ”

“Shh,” she said gently. “I think my mom needs help.”

Lila was staggering on her high heels as they walked up the long, tree-lined hill that led from downtown Squirrel Hill to Annie’s townhouse. When her right heel caught in a crack in the sidewalk, she stumbled and her purse slipped off her shoulder, heading for the ground.

“Here, Mother.” Annie caught it just in time. “I think I’d better send that text for you.”

“Riiiight,” Lila slurred. “Text Andrew. Good daughter. So useful, always does what I tell her . . . ”

“Not anymore,” Annie said quietly, as she pulled the phone out of her mother’s purse.

Dirk and Shawna were leaning against each other, propelling themselves forward with brute determination. Even they looked relieved when Annie’s townhouse finally came into view.

“If you don’t mind . . . ” Dirk’s genial, ‘company’ smile had turned into a grimace. “Just a minute or two on the sofa before we get moving.”

“I don’t think much of your choice of restaurant, Annie.” Shawna walked carefully up the front steps, hanging onto Dirk’s arm. “Any food that leaves all of us feeling this rotten afterward . . . ”

“All but you,” Gary said to Annie, grinning dopily at her on his way through the door. “You’re perfect, just like always. My perfect girlfriend.”

Annie caught him before he could crash into the coatrack.

“Wait a minute.” Shawna blinked, obviously trying to focus. A dangerous, yellow gleam entered her eyes as she kicked the front door shut behind her. “He’s right. Why aren’t you feeling like hell, too?”

“Because she didn’t drink the wine,” Lila mumbled. “Oh, God, I have to lie down.” She headed through the door into the living room. A moment later, Annie heard a thump, and the protesting creak of the couch’s ancient springs.

“Come on,” she said, and pulled Gary with her to the living room door.

The atmosphere had shifted behind her. When Dirk and Shawna prowled in after her, their bleary eyes shone full yellow. Menace hung in the air.

“So, Annie,” Dirk said. “Tell us about that wine. You put something in it?”

“No,” Annie said calmly, as she helped Gary into the armchair by the window. “I put something in the sea bass.”

“Wait a minute. That’s not right.” Lila’s head lifted just an inch off the couch, where she was lying sprawled with her high-heeled feet propped on the far end. “I had the sea bass.”

“Mm-hmm.” Annie was still carrying Lila’s purse, so when her mother’s phone beeped, she pulled it out to read the text. “Your ride will be here in less than five minutes, Mother.”

“No, I . . . that isn’t . . . No!” Lila shook her head, pushing herself up into a sitting position. Her hair, for the first time Annie could remember, was mussed where she had rubbed it against the couch pillows. “That’s not what I wanted!”

“I know.” Annie looked at her mother. “But you’re not my alpha anymore. I’m ready to grow up and form my own pack.”

“Back up, everyone, right now.” Rage vibrated in Shawna’s voice, even as she propped herself with visible effort against an overflowing bookcase. “Who drugged us?

“That was my mother,” Annie said, as Lila slid back down onto the couch. “She was going to have you taken away for scientific experimentation. For an antidote.”

A low growl rumbled through Dirk’s chest. Shawna’s lips curled back to reveal her snarl.

“I knew there was something about you,” she hissed. “You were only pretending to be a submissive. I told Dirk you were faking it, but nooo, he said you were harmless. Harmless!

“I can’t shift.” Dirk’s face contorted with effort. “The drugs. They’re keeping me from shifting.”

Gary said, uncertainly, “Annie?”

She put one hand on his shoulder. She stood tall and she looked his alphas directly in the eyes, one after the other, without flinching.

“Guess what?” she said. “What happened to you tonight is not my fault. But I’m taking this opportunity anyway. I might be a librarian, but that doesn’t mean I’m harmless. It means I’m really, really good at research.” Her hand tightened around Gary’s muscled shoulder, absorbing his animal warmth as she focused on Shawna’s yellow, furious glare. “Here’s the thing: wolf packs really are family, in the wild. They’re made up of an alpha pair with their cubs. But eventually, those cubs grow up. And sometimes, they get sick of following orders.

“In a real wolf pack, any mature adult can split off to form their own pack. That’s all I want for me and Gary. But I’m willing to challenge you for dominance and take your pack instead, if that’s what it takes to get him free of you.”

Shawna’s growl shook the books in the bookcase behind her, sending three of them toppling to the ground.

Dirk only snorted. “Is that a joke? You don’t work out. You can’t even go wolf. If you think you can take us on in a fight . . . ”

“I know I can tonight,” Annie said. “Because right now, you can’t make the change either—and in less than one minute, an ambulance is due to arrive, with staff specially trained to deal with werewolves. With my mother heavily tranquilized, I’m the one they’ll look to for orders. So.” She raised her eyebrows. “Which orders do you want me to give them? To take my mother to their private hospital until she recovers . . . or to send you both there instead, the way she originally planned?”

Shawna lunged forward, claws sprouting from her fingertips.

She fell only two steps away from the wall. Dirk sagged forward a moment later, falling to his knees.

“It won’t work,” Shawna spat, as she fought to push herself upright. “Gary will never choose to split off to your so-called pack. He would never betray his family.”

“Maybe not,” Annie said. “But for once, that’ll be up to him, not to you.” She looked down at her boyfriend. “Gary?”

Gary’s thick brown hair was rumpled, his tie was crooked, and a frown creased his face as he looked from Annie to his alphas and back again with bleary, gold-tipped eyes.

“I’m not going anywhere,” he mumbled.

Annie’s breath caught painfully in her chest.

Then he tucked his head against her side as he closed his eyes. “I’m staying with her,” he finished. “Just right.”

Annie let out her breath. “Another piece of research,” she offered, as her mother let out an undignified snore from the couch. “Wolves mate for life. And everyone has to leave home, eventually.”

The doorbell rang.

“Well?” Annie said.

Dirk growled. Shawna snarled.

Then the two werewolf alphas lowered their heads to the floor and turned to present their throats in submission.

Annie had always known that she would be good at dog-training.

That night, as she slipped into bed beside Gary, she carried two new library books with her. Gary was already snoring on his own pillow. When she nestled into the curve of one out-flung arm, he made a happy, wordless noise in the back of his throat and turned on his side, nuzzling her hair in his sleep. For the first time in days, their house was blissfully empty of visitors.

For the first time since they’d met, they only belonged to each other.

Making herself comfortable against Gary’s warmth, Annie picked up the two books she’d brought with her into bed. One was the most recent edition of Doctor Spock’s Baby and Childcare; the other, by the famous Monks of New Skete, was The Art of Raising a Puppy.

It was time to start building a pack of their own. And this time, Annie was planning to be an alpha.

• • •