ADRIAN WAS no stranger to putting on a good show. He was so good at swallowing his emotions and smiling that he doubted anyone realized how miserable he’d been for the last hour. From the moment he’d walked into the boardroom for a videoconference with the Portland office and seen the streamers hanging from the ceiling, he’d pasted a smile on his face and glad-handed every employee who’d come by to wish him well. Pretended his birthday was something worth celebrating rather than a reminder that eight years ago today should have been the happiest day of his life and instead had been the worst.
The promised videoconference hadn’t been a lie. Only instead of seeing the quarterly budget projections he’d been expecting on the big screen, he’d been greeted by his family singing “Happy Birthday.” The one saving grace was that the embarrassment had been limited to those family members who worked for the company—his cousins and aunts and uncles hadn’t been dragged into the farce.
By the time the cake had been served and the conversation had dwindled, only Adrian and the Indianapolis marketing manager, Kurt, were left in the confetti-littered room. All in all it was a much more sedate party than his family would have thrown him back home, but it was still a painful reminder of a day he’d rather forget. Not that forgetting was possible. He lived with the consequences every day, and even though he’d made his peace with the way things were, he still struggled with feelings of isolation and loneliness, even when surrounded by his family.
His Pack—if a werewolf who wasn’t actually a werewolf could have a Pack.
“Sorry about all this,” Kurt said, gesturing at the mess around them. “You hadn’t said anything about it being your birthday, so I figured you were going for low-key, but Sandra insisted, and you know how that goes.”
Adrian snorted at the understatement. Kurt didn’t know that the woman he was talking about was not only the CEO of Rothschild Architects but also the Pacific Northwest’s Alpha werewolf. Her no-nonsense attitude and ruthless ambition were good for a lot more than pressuring their Indianapolis office into throwing her son a surprise birthday party. She was also the head of the West Coast Werewolf Tribunal and one of the scariest Alphas out there when it came to enforcing the code that kept their kind hidden and safe.
So yes, Adrian knew exactly how persistent the CEO could be when she wanted something. His mother was a force to be reckoned with, and he should have known ducking out of town over his birthday wouldn’t grant him a reprieve from celebrations.
“I’m well aware.”
“I lobbied to leave it at the cake,” Kurt continued, seeming oblivious to Adrian’s brittle mood. “But then the box of decorations showed up yesterday. I figured we’d better just go with it, no matter how over-the-top it seemed.”
The streamers had definitely been over-the-top. Adrian scowled as dangling crepe paper whispered over his skin, the sensation sending an eerie shiver down his spine. He’d been on edge all day today, more so than he usually was on his birthday, and that was saying a lot. Maybe spending the day away from his Pack hadn’t been a good idea after all.
Adrian took a breath and tried to let go of some of the tension hunching his shoulders. None of this was Kurt’s fault, and he didn’t deserve to be the scapegoat for Adrian’s annoyance with his mother.
“Don’t worry about it,” he said, trying his hardest to soften his words. He poured his frustration into snatching the streamers from the ceiling, crumpling them in his fist. “I’ll get the rest of it. You go on and head out for the night. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Adrian had to admire his mother’s ingenuity even as he was digging confetti out of the carpet pile. He’d saved himself the usual hullabaloo at home by scheduling this trip over his birthday, but instead of suffering through the usual to-do with the Pack, he’d substituted fresh humiliation in front of strangers. At least none of them were werewolves. It was easier to hide his exasperation and sadness from humans than it was from werewolf noses.
Not for the first time, he wondered if the way his family went overboard for his birthday was to compensate for their own guilt and sadness at his inability to shift. Not that it was their fault. A quirk of genetics is what the doctors his mother’d called in had said. All five of them.
Adrian ran a hand through his hair, recoiling in disgust when his fingers unearthed Silly String he’d missed on his last pass through. The head of human resources had been a little too enthusiastic in her celebrating, apparently. The fragile calm he’d managed to find shattered, and he pulled it from his hair with angry swipes, taking more than a few strands of hair with it.
He brushed the mess into the trash can, wrinkling his nose. Was that what he had to look forward to? Losing his hair? His knees already creaked when he got out of bed in the morning, an he’d swear he’d seen hair on his back when he looked in the mirror after his shower this morning. The men in his family had always tended toward hairiness, but that had skipped him. At the ripe old age of twenty-seven, he was the most baby-faced member of the Pack, even though he had two younger brothers.
The video screen on the wall flashed, catching his attention. He hesitated, wondering exactly how much shit he’d be in if he ignored it. A lot, probably. His family was already angry at him for leaving over his birthday; it was probably best not to poke the bear—or wolf, as it were—with something as petty as rejecting a call.
He leaned over to the center of the table and hit the Accept button. His sister Eliza’s face filled the screen.
“Thanks a lot for the heads-up about the party,” he said, saluting Kurt with the wastebasket he’d been collecting streamers and confetti in.
“That’s not on me, kid,” she said with a smirk. “Mom didn’t tell anyone here until we’d already gathered for the meeting. Though in hindsight, it was odd she only invited members of the Pack to a quarterly budget meeting.”
Rothschild Architects employed a good portion of the werewolves who lived in Portland, and they’d all been there for the party. Even so, Weres were only a small percentage of the firm’s employees. With offices in three states, Rothschild had a lot more humans on the payroll than werewolves. His mother was a big proponent of hiding in plain sight.
“Bullshit,” Adrian muttered. “Mom doesn’t so much as sneeze these days without having you there to watch.”
Eliza was his mother’s second-in-command. Many Alphas ruled their Packs well into their golden years, but recently his mother had been preparing Eliza to take over as Alpha so she could focus more on her work with the Werewolf Tribunal.
“Whoa, take it down a notch,” Eliza said. “Or else I’m not going to do my duty as a loving big sister and pass on a warning about what Mom has planned for tomorrow night.”
He grimaced and rolled his shoulders to try to dispel some of the tension that had settled there. Eliza was right. He was overreacting. Adrian had been spoiling for a fight all day for absolutely no reason.
“Now, do you want to know what Mom has planned or not?”
“Doesn’t matter. My flight’s been delayed,” he said.
Eliza rolled her eyes. “Don’t tell me now. I have to be able to be surprised when you call breathlessly tomorrow with that excuse.”
Adrian laughed, his first real smile all day cracking his face. “No, really. They already texted about it. I’m on a later flight tomorrow. I won’t make it back until after midnight, so whatever Mom is planning is going to have to wait.”
“I don’t like the idea of you flying tomorrow at all,” Eliza said, scrunching up her nose. “But a late flight? Are you sure about that?”
He hated flying. Everyone in the Pack did. While he might not be a werewolf physically, he’d been raised as one, and he’d inherited all their quirks. A hatred of crowded spaces was one of them.
“I can handle a full moon, Liz,” Adrian said, scowling at the screen.
“I know you can, dipshit, but that doesn’t mean you should.”
In truth he’d forgotten there was a full moon tomorrow night. That explained some of his restlessness. Werewolves weren’t slaves to the moon to the extent popular culture portrayed them to be, but it did have some pull over them. He might not sprout fur and claws, but he’d always been sensitive to it. Spending hours stuck in a tin can was not his idea of fun on the best of days, but Eliza was right—flying during a full moon would be a nightmare. All Adrian risked exposing was his bitchy side, but he still didn’t relish the thought of being stuck on a plane with that going on.
“I’ll be fine.” The protest sounded weak even to him. Luckily, Eliza picked up on it.
“I don’t like to pull rank, but I’m going to do it here. You’re not flying tomorrow, Adrian. Change your flight and come home after the moon. Spending a day in a hotel room isn’t ideal, but it’s a hell of a lot better than being cooped up on a plane.”
Relief shot through him. Biology might not compel him to follow her directions like it would a normal member of the Pack, but custom did. That and a sense of self-preservation—both because he didn’t want to be on the plane and because he was afraid of what kind of revenge his sister would enact if he disobeyed. She wasn’t as ruthless as their mother, but she was more creative.
“You’re so bossy,” he teased. “You’ll explain to Mom?”
“God. Figures you’d stick me with the hard job.” Eliza sniffed. “Consider it your birthday present.”
Adrian laughed and shook his head, dislodging another piece of Silly String. “One, I’m doing this on a direct order from you, baby Alpha. And two, you never buy me a birthday present anyway.”
Eliza growled, her eyes flashing at the teasing insult. As the oldest child of the Alpha, it was assumed she would inherit the title, but it hadn’t been a given. Not until she’d demonstrated the necessary personality—bitchiness, bossiness, and a stubborn streak you could drive a car through—starting at around age three.
“It’s Alpha-elect now,” she said. “We had the ceremony last night.”
Adrian swallowed hard. They’d conducted official Pack business without him? Jesus. And his mother said his problems were all in his head. Clearly not, if they were actually holding ceremonies in his absence now.
“Thanks for the invitation,” he snapped, then instantly regretted it. It wouldn’t have been her call. That was all on his mother.
Eliza’s face fell. “I’m sorry. I wanted you there, but….”
She didn’t have to fill in the blank for him. There was no reason for a human member of a werewolf Pack to be at a ceremony. He didn’t share the biological bond with them the other adult werewolves did. He’d have been a spectator, nothing else.
“Sure,” he said, looking away to gather himself. It stung more than it should, especially since he skipped Pack meetings by his own choice more often than not. What was the point, after all? He was human. “Congratulations.”
“Thanks,” she said quietly. “I’ll talk to Mom about your flight. Stay safe. And happy birthday.”
“Yeah, yeah,” he said, waving off the unwanted sentiment with a sigh. “See you in a few days.”