“OK, everyone stop picturing Samson’s upsetting sex life,” I told them. “I need some time to think. Samson, I would really appreciate it if you stepped up patrols, starting now. Keep it quiet; just gradually increase the number of runners and the frequency. Nobody goes out without at least two partners.”

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Samson phased on his way out the door and set up a summoning howl.

“I could swear I asked him to keep it quiet,” I grumbled, leaning back against Nick.

“Samson was never one for subtlety,” Mo said, bringing me a bowl of my mom’s chicken noodle soup. “How can I help?”

“The soup’s a good start,” I told her.

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Mo leveled that bizarrely calm gaze at me. “You know what I mean.”

As Cooper warned her that any violent acts on her part would be over his cold, dead body, I wondered whether Mo had always been so cool under pressure or if living through so much of our pack drama had given her such strong nerves. Still, I told her, “This isn’t your fight.”

She huffed, “Oh, right, Cooper and I will just trot on home and let you handle this. Because if Clay’s pack runs you off, they’ll just stop at the valley, right? They won’t come after me or my family be cause we’re connected to you. They won’t be threatened by the presence of a strong male wolf in their territory. The same wolf who, you know, killed their dad. They’ll just ignore my family, my baby, except for the obligatory ‘new neighbor’ Bundt cake they’ll be bringing over.”

“Damn it, Mo, stop making sense.” I muttered around a mouthful of soup. “No, no, I can’t let you get involved. The best thing for you to do would be to take the baby to Grundy and stay there until the coast is clear. Or better yet, go to Washington. Go visit your parents.”

Cooper snorted.

Mo was aghast. “First of all, Samson’s wanting to date Alicia makes more sense than me going to visit my parents. Second, this is it for you, Mags. This is the defining moment in your leadership of the pack. And it’s your chance to change things. You can’t keep the dead-liners out of pack business anymore. Or us humans, for that matter. You’re our family. This is our home, too. What are we supposed to do? Send you off into a fight with this bunch of wackos, sit on our hands, and wonder whether you’re coming home or not? It’s not fair, Maggie. I can help. Nick can, too. You can’t exclude us anymore.”

“So, what, you’re going to stand on the battlefield with a fire extinguisher?”

“Helped me kick your ass,” she retorted.

“You didn’t kick my ass, you just bruised it a little.”

Mo smirked, winked at Nick, and dragged Cooper into the kitchen with Mom. I leaned my aching temple against Nick’s shoulder and rolled my options over in my head. I’d charged into fights before, but I’d never led. And I’d never been so frightened—but not for myself. Every face in the pack hovered at the edge of my brain, the feeling of responsibility, of obligation, dragging me under rushing black water. I would never be strong enough. I would never be fast enough to protect all of them. Some of us probably wouldn’t survive this, and knowing that made me want to throw up.

Sometimes being a leader really sucked.

16

Leave the Gun, Take the Cannoli

ONCE MY FACE HEALED up to something that didn’t resemble a recalled eggplant, I called a pack meeting and instructed members to bring all of their family members—even the dead-liners. After I convinced them that I was not kidding and they went back home to retrieve said dead-liners, I laid everything on the line for those who hadn’t been invited to pack meetings until now, every weird coincidence and hinky feeling I’d had since Clay had moved into the valley. And when I dropped the bomb about Clay and Alicia’s dubious family connections, two of my uncles literally wolfed out and chose to destroy a couch to express their anger.

The reaction was a sort of venting by proxy for the other pack members, and by the time Uncle Jay and Uncle Rob were trying to digest spring coils, my relatives looked a little bored.

“Does this happen at every pack meeting?” Mo asked Evie. Having never attended a pack meeting before, Evie shrugged.

Nick was grinning like an idiot. “This is the coolest thing I have ever seen!”

I buried my face in my hands for a second and contemplated chlorinating my gene pool before wedging myself between the furry idiots and shaking them by the napes of their necks until they phased back to human.

“Sit,” I told them both as they shuffled back to their seats and looked as sheepish as two wolves could. “So, do we have that out of our systems?”

Rob and Jay refused to meet my gaze. I outlined what I considered to be a pretty damn reasonable plan. Able-bodied adults, wolf and dead-liner alike, would stay in the valley. My mom and the older aunties would take the kids, even self-proclaimed badass teenagers, and split them between Cooper’s and Nick’s places for the next few days.

“And then we go to the mattresses, right?” Jay said, his white teeth gleaming. Evie rolled her eyes. For Jay, all situations related somehow to The Godfather.

“And then we try to talk to them,” I countered.

Jay’s face fell into a contemplative frown. “I did not expect that.”

“But they killed Billie!” Uncle Rob protested.

“We don’t know that,” I snapped. “It’s a possibility. But from what Dr. Moder said, Billie could have tripped and hit her head. Which is sort of my point. If we rush into this, rush into judgment, rush into action, we’re going to find ourselves even more vulnerable and screwed up than we were after Cooper left, and we all know how that turned out. Sorry, Cooper.”

Cooper shrugged.

I added, “What if we say, ‘Fuck it, we’re going to kill them all’? Say we chase them down, and we find that their pack is twice the size of ours. Or that they’ve set some trap that we’ve walked right into? What happens then? We’re dead.”

“Never took you for a coward, Maggie.” Jay snorted and then turned white after the look I gave him.

“OK, fine, we go after them with both barrels. We’ll lose a couple of our pack and take down a few of theirs. And in a few years, their kids are going to show up and what? Fight our kids for what we did? We’re going to leave our kids to make this same choice? What would you want them to do?”

Rob, whose little girl was two and as wolfen as kids could be at that age, shrank down in his seat at the thought.

“I’m not saying we won’t end up fighting them anyway, but we at least have to try to figure out what’s going on in their heads.”

“So, we talk to them?” Rob said, as if it was the first time he was hearing the concept.

“Yes.”

“And if that doesn’t work?” Jay prompted.

“Then we go to the mattresses.” I sighed.

ONE OF THE uncles must have tipped Uncle Frank off about the coming “invasion.” Lee called to volunteer his packmates, but I told him to stay home and keep safe. Sure, the extra bodies would have been handy, but we were less likely to get Clay’s pack’s respect if we ran tattling to another pack for backup. Plus, the situation was likely to escalate too quickly if Lee was around, posturing and growling.

Lee was pretty smug about the whole “Clay’s a traitor” thing. He went on and on about how you “just didn’t know who you could trust these days” and how Uncle Frank had never liked Clay anyway.

But we actually had a conversation that didn’t end in my threatening him, which I took as progress. Until a few seconds later, when he started making noises about taking me out for a movie as soon as the snow cleared, you know, if we survived the inter-pack war thing. And then he followed that charming invitation up with “Who knows what could happen when you and I are in a dark room?” And I threw up in my mouth a little bit.

“Lee, I’m mated now,” I said in a clipped, businesslike tone, remembering that Uncle Frank hadn’t been around for the “big announcement” about Nick. And I doubted that any of my packmates wanted to call Uncle Frank and listen to the bitch-storm that would follow if they told him about my formal mating to a human. “I would appreciate it if you didn’t make comments like that. And by appreciate, I mean I will restrain myself from shoving your head up your own ass.”

“What do you mean, mated?” Lee shouted. “But Clay—why wasn’t I told?”

“You weren’t told because it was none of your business.”

“But if it’s not Clay, who is it?” he demanded. “It’s not that human, is it?”

“I’m hanging up now, Lee.”

“With the human!” Lee shrieked petulantly as I set the phone down on the cradle.

“And this is why I haven’t let Mom send out the wedding invitations yet,” I grumbled.

THE NIGHT BEFORE Clay’s “deadline” was hectic. I’d underestimated the amount of persuasion, strong-arming, and, finally, begging it would take to get the aunties out of the valley. None of them wanted to miss the fight. None of them wanted to be left, as Mo said, sitting on her hands, wondering if we would come home. And my mom was the ringleader of the rebellion.

“I don’t understand why you’re asking this of me,” Mom growled as I shoved her inside Mo’s truck, where Eva was blowing bubbles in her own spit.

“Mom, look at Mo.” I nodded. “You think it’s easy for her to pack her daughter into her car seat and watch Eva blow bye-bye bubbles, not knowing how this is all going to turn out? But at least she’s handling it with some dignity.”

“That’s because you didn’t hear the argument she and Cooper had earlier. I’ve never heard Mo cuss that way before. I thought she’d blister paint. I think you’re a bad influence on her.”

I was really sorry I’d missed that. Cooper and Mo had several blow-ups over Mo’s decision to stay at his side. Cooper tried to appeal to her motherly instinct and the possibility that Eva could be left without either parent. Mo countered that that was far less likely to happen if she was covering Cooper’s back. And around and around they went, until Cooper was blue in the face and Mo was threatening him with a large frying pan if he tried to force her into the truck. It didn’t stop him from trying. And now he had a pan-shaped bruise on his back. We considered it a draw.

I sighed. “Mom, if you get into the truck right now and we all survive this thing, I will let you plan the wedding, from bottom to top, without any arguments.”

“That’s not funny.”

“I’ll even let you do that stupid white-dove-release thing.”

Her eyes narrowed at me. “Well played, Margaret.”

After a little more prodding, Mom finally got into the truck and led the caravan of kids and aunts out of the valley. I looked around at the clenched, determined expressions on the parents’ faces as they waved good-bye to their departing children. And I felt a little twinge of emptiness.

Mo snickered and slipped her arm around my shoulders. “You know, for the alpha—”

“Don’t say it,” I warned her.

“Not that many people listen to you.”

“You can be such a bitch sometimes,” I told her.

She smiled sweetly at me. “I’m becoming more and more like you every day.”

Behind her, Cooper shuddered.

I MANAGED TO talk everyone into a sundown curfew. The larger, younger of us were running alternating patrols along the border to watch for an early ambush. I did a door-to-door check to make sure everyone was tucked away safely for now. As I slumped toward Mom’s house, exhausted to my bones, Rob and Jay kept yelling lines from 300 at my back, which made me think they weren’t taking the whole Gandhi approach very seriously. It felt like lights-out at a particularly violent summer camp.

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