MAN, I’M weird.
Jazz Vanessen snorted at the thought. Exactly how weird could a guy be sitting in a huge room full of werewolves? But his skin kept crawling, as if some Sith lord was plotting his doom, and he wanted to scratch his arms and the back of his neck. He wriggled in his seat. No matter how he squirmed, he couldn’t get rid of the idea that somebody was watching him. Somebody who wasn’t a pissed-off member of the Marketo or Harker Packs, because they were definitely staring.
Next to him in the line of straight-backed chairs, his mom gave him a glance.
Focus! He smiled at her and forced his eyes on Merced Marketo, alpha of the Marketo Pack, who was holding court at the front of the room, but no matter how much he gazed, the ants in snow boots kept crawling up his neck. He shivered.
His mom hissed, “Jazz!”
He mouthed, “Sorry.”
Merced was saying, “We’re proud of our record of peace and the strength of the Harker/Marketo pack alliance that has helped to maintain that condition for three stable years.”
Somebody from the back of the room yelled, “So what? How about the future? What happens to us next year?”
Jazz’s superalpha sense of smell swamped him with scents of anger and resentment all around.
Another voice grumbled, “Yeah. Is some out-of-state pack gonna come in and take us out?”
Around Jazz, other wolves grumbled, stared at their hands, bounced their legs, and gave the Vanessen Pack glares that were evil AF.
Merced held up a hand. “Our future will be as strong and peaceful as our last three years. Don’t worry. Your pack leaders are on the job. We’ve got plans.”
Jazz shivered again and took a quick look over his shoulder. Between the smells clogging up his head and the creepy chills running up his back, he wanted to run out of the pack meeting. His mother sighed.
Somebody in the hall yelled, “What are your plans?”
Merced swallowed but smiled. “We’ll be sharing them soon. A whole plan for the future.”
A new voice, super aggressive, from a guy a couple of rows up, snarled, “We’re getting tired of the bullshit, Merced. We want to know what’s happening or….”
His voice drifted off. Nobody wanted to say the scary words—no alpha. No successor. There was no superwolf willing to lead the packs into the next generation. While the current alphas weren’t old, they should have appointed some new blood who were chewing off their paws to be the next leaders. They didn’t have them. Nada. Nobody. And for some reason, it had become a bigger deal than Jazz would have expected. Wolves tended to live for today by nature, but the packs had become a hell of a lot more than restless. They were angry.
Who did those furries blame for their fate?
The male who’d spoken turned and stared straight back at Jazz and his pack. Oh hell yeah. They hate us, but they want us to bail them out. No contradiction in that. Assholes.
Still, the dude had a point. Marketo and Harker didn’t have any alphas right now… because the alphas they’d had before had all left their packs and joined Vanessen. Except for Jazz, an orphan werewolf, who’d been adopted by the Vanessen family. But there was one teeny problem. The Vanessens–Jazz’s mom, Elizabeth, and his grandfather, Casper–were human, and humans weren’t supposed to know anything about werewolves. Except they did because Jazz’s adopted brother had shifted in front of them in an effort to save the man he loved, and the only way to keep them all from being killed by angry werewolves was to declare themselves a pack.
Stretched out on either side of Jazz were his adopted brothers, his adopted father, his brothers’ husbands, and their other pack members. They were the only young, alpha-class weres in Connecticut, and they were either married to other males or to humans or both, defying the two cardinal werewolf laws—there was no such thing as a gay werewolf and never reveal werewolf existence to humans, under penalty of death.
So why were they sitting here being recognized as a pack instead of dead in a ditch for defying the law? Easy. The alphas were too strong and Casper Vanessen was way too rich for the other packs to take out. But that didn’t mean the other pack members had to like them.
Jazz changed buttcheeks again and scratched at his neck.
Merced Marketo smiled like someone was holding a gun to his head. He waved an arm. “There’s lots of food. Let’s all get to it.”
Good move, Marketo. When they’re about to attack you, throw them some meat.
Most of the wolves in the room, especially the young ones, jumped to their feet and performed a full-frontal attack on the table in the next room where huge piles of roast beef, ham, and turkey sent out aromas even a second-class wolf pup could pick up on. Jazz, who could smell mouse droppings in the next state, had to suck saliva back into his mouth at the enticing scents.
His mom turned. Man, he hated it when she looked like that. “You’re not usually rude.”
“Sorry, Mom. I feel weird, crawly. I apologize.”
She raised an eyebrow. “I’d say apologize to Merced, but I think he has his hands full as it is.”
“Ya think?” They shared a wry grin.
She put her hand on his forehead. “You feeling okay?” He loved it when she did that since it was such a mother thing, but he also wanted to laugh since werewolves’ body heat ran several degrees above humans and her checking his temperature was pretty silly.
“Yeah, fine. Just antsy.”
“Pack meetings aren’t a favorite for any of us, but we need to be a part of the community.” She didn’t add that it kept them all safe, but those were the facts. Renegade werewolves, no matter how powerful, were targets. “You hungry?”
“Always. Maybe we can fatten me up.”
She gazed into his eyes like she could force the sense of worth she held for him straight into his heart. “You’re gorgeous. You don’t need to be any fatter for that to be true.”
He whispered, “Look around. See any other werewolves so skinny they ought to be accompanying Dorothy to ask the wizard for a brain?”
She laughed, and he gave in and laughed too.
Man she was pretty, from her golden hair all the way to her solid gold heart. How did I get so lucky? “Want me to get you some food? Keep you away from the marauding hordes?”
“That’d be great. I’ll be with Damon and Pop-Pop.” She nodded toward her husband, Damon Thane, the werewolf who’d seduced her years before and come back to get her because he could never forget her. Beside him stood the mighty, though mighty small in this room full of giants, Casper Vanessen, Jazz’s Pop-Pop. Pop-Pop not only ran a huge, multinational financial investment company with controlling shares in businesses around the world, but also had become, kind of by accident, the alpha of the weirdass Vanessen Pack.
Jazz walked away from his family toward the mass of bodies around the serving table, and the vibe got instantly chill. Some pack members glanced at him suspiciously out of the corners of their eyes, and more just plain stared—not in what you’d call a friendly-like manner. He got in the line, and the couple ahead of him stepped closer to the wolves in front of them. Hell, I should crowd them, just for fun. But it was too much trouble to be a dick on purpose.
Suddenly the shiver snaked its way up his back again, and he snapped a look over his shoulder. What the hell’s going on? Aside from the whole hate-on-him thing from the other wolves, nothing seemed different. He tried to look like he didn’t care, which was kind of true.
Nobody wanted to stand behind him, so there was a big gap. Suddenly a cute female stepped into the space. “Hi. I’m Posy.”
He couldn’t help laughing. She had red hair, a curvy body, and false eyelashes three inches long. “I’m Jazz.”
“You’re one of those Vanessens, right?”
It was like there was a fill-in-the-blank between “those” and “Vanessens” where you could put in words like strange or creepy. “I guess I am.” He’d quit smiling.
“Is it true all your males are, like, gay?”
He felt the crease between his eyebrows and didn’t try to hide it. But she didn’t seem put off. “We’re not, like, gay, we are gay, and not all, but most.”
He nodded once. “We keep it 100, lady.”
“But I thought….”
He stared at her.
She wrinkled her turned-up nose. “So much for gospel, right? I mean, there’ve gotta, like, be gay werewolves, since you’re, like, standing in front of me, right?” She laughed at her own joke. “I never knew anybody who was gay before.”
“Surprise.” He shuddered, harder this time, and glanced around but again saw nothing out of the ordinary.
“Well, I don’t care if you only like boys. You’re it, baby, no matter what anybody says.”
Suddenly Radsy, Bill Radser, a young male stepped out from a group of guys lurking near the windows shoving meat in their mouths and laughing like fools. He clamped a hand on her shoulder. “Get away from that freak, Posy. I never said you could talk to him.”
She jerked her shoulder away. “You don’t tell me what to do, asshole. I’ll talk to who I want.”
He reached for her again, and Jazz snapped out a hand and grabbed his wrist. “Leave her alone.” He actually startled himself, since he spent so much time hiding his strength from humans at school. But this was a werewolf—an asshole werewolf. No need to hide.
Radsy stared at Jazz’s hand, bared his teeth, and growled.
Jazz’s wolf stirred, and his hackles rose. Not a good thing in the middle of that room. If he shifted, he’d break about a million pack laws. Instead of going wolfy, he increased the pressure on the were’s arm. Radsy’s eyes got wider. Jazz’s grip got tighter. Radsy’s teeth bared, only this time in pain, not anger. A couple of the dude’s squad stepped forward, but they stopped almost immediately. It was easy to see why. Jazz’s brother, Winter, had just walked over to the food line. Two hundred and fifty pounds of superwolf. No one messed with Winter.
Jazz stared back at the asshole. “I don’t want to hurt you.”
Radsy gritted his teeth and said, “Yeah. She’s right. I can’t tell her what to do.”
“Keep your hands to yourself.” Jazz nodded and let go, ignoring the finger marks on the guy’s wrist.
Posy stepped closer. “Thanks, honey.”
“Sure.” Made another enemy. He walked the few steps closer to the table, looked up, and heard his own gasp.
Suddenly, every nerve in his arms and legs flamed with more fire than when he shifted, and he felt like the outline of his whole body was wavering in and out of focus. Sparks flashed in front of his eyes, his stomach turned, and his field of vision went white. In front of him, beyond the table near the back windows of the big building, stood a male. Huge and dark but almost transparent, like a ghost or a spirit—an evil, malevolent spirit—or… Sweet gods, I’m losing it. All the crap is real. I’m sick in the head. There are no ghosts. I’m crazy. I’m…. The bright white light behind his eyes rolled out from him like waves on some intergalactic sea, sounding into the universe.
The outline of the male wavered. The lights in Jazz’s brain went out, and in the sudden, terrifying blackness, the last thing he heard was Radsy laughing.
Then Jazz pitched forward into the dark.
IN THE woods behind the wolf pack meeting hall, Nardo shook himself. What just happened? Did someone see me? No, impossible. Not here.
There’d been some kind of altercation between silly young males fighting over a female. One of them must have gotten hurt. That’s all.
He turned and walked toward his car. His foot, usually so sure, twisted on a root and he staggered, falling to one knee. Damn!
Stupid werewolf fights didn’t usually make him dizzy.
A FEW miles away, the young man raised his head. “What was that?” His whole spine vibrated.
The woman, his mentor and aunt, said, “No idea, but it was powerful, I’d say. Not far away.” She frowned, perhaps a bit more emphatically than he’d have expected. I wonder why? “We’ll have to keep an eye out.”
He glanced at her as she drove. Eye out? Isn’t she planning to tell the Magicouncil? His nerves continued to quiver, but she drove and said nothing more.
Maybe he needed to keep an eye on her.
JAZZ BLINKED. Bright sun almost blinded him, but he saw his mother’s beautiful face staring at him. She looked super compassionate. Damn. He closed his eye. “Tell me I didn’t pass out in the middle of a pack meeting.”
“I always taught you not to lie. I have to be a role model.”
He flipped on his side and covered his head with his hands. “Jeez, Mom.”
“Before we deal with your humiliation, Jazz, tell me how you feel. The doctor examined you last night. We thought you were unconscious, but he said you were actually asleep. He couldn’t find anything wrong with you. I think he’s looking into narcolepsy.”
“Excessive daytime sleepiness.”
“Come on!” He sat up, his skinny chest bare above his floppy sleep pants. “I’m fine.” He pressed the heels of his hands into his eye sockets. “I can’t believe I did that.”
“You did that.” She didn’t sound like she was laughing. “Look at me.”
He dropped his hands.
“Young werewolves don’t pass out for nothing. If this was before your first shift, it would be understandable, but that was years ago. Has this happened before?”
Had it? “No.”
He exhaled. “Not exactly.”
“What?” Her hand gripped his leg.
“A couple times, I’ve gotten kind of lightheaded. No big deal.”
She stared at his face, frowning. “The doctor says you’re growing so tall, so fast, your weight can’t keep up, and it’s affecting your blood sugar levels.”
He leaped to his feet and paced. “Oh come on, Mom. All werewolves my age are tall, but they’re huge. Big and muscular. I can’t seem to gain a pound. I’m weird. A damned freak. Who the hell were my parents? Some kind of werewolf rejects?” He threw his arms out and had to take a deep breath to keep from getting dizzy. Oh hell. He gripped the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger.
His mom stood too. “You’re an alpha-class werewolf with great power, Jazz. Your parents had to be powerful.” Her serious expression softened. “And you’re a fine, honest, lovable person. They probably had something to do with that too.”
He closed the space between them, reached down, though she was a tall woman, and hugged her. “If I’ve got any of those qualities, it’s all thanks to you.”
She hugged him back hard. “I hope I’ve been a good influence.” She looked up and held his chin. “Seriously, how’re you feeling?”
“Good.” That was almost true.
“You up for your picnic?” She smiled. “I can call Dave and tell him you’re not feeling well.”
Governor Mendes’s Picnic! Damn, I forgot. “You better not. Carla might come over here with a gun.”
His mom laughed. “You’ve got an hour. Why don’t you come down for breakfast, then see how you feel after some food? If you’re okay, you can get dressed and head over to the river.”
She walked by him, gave his arm a squeeze, and left him alone. With a flop, he perched on the edge of the bed for a second. What the hell happened to me? The fuzzy image of the dark male flashed in his mind, and he jumped. Did I have a vision? He’d like to forget the whole thing, but it wasn’t the first time something crazy had happened to him.
He pursed his lips and blew.
His phone dinged on the nightstand where his mom must have put it. She’d even plugged it into the charger. Most excellent mom. He glanced at his texts.
You better be almost ready. Can’t face this crap without you. C.
He laughed. If he’d had any thoughts about not facing a mass of humanity, it just got shot. He tapped the keys.
TBH, JOMO on this one, but I’m there with you, bb.
The answer came fast. We’ll suffer together. Come early. It hasn’t started and I’m already over.
Jazz stood and hurried to his bathroom. Carla was fam, his best friend. Not to be taken lightly.
A quick shower and shave—don’t even get him started on his lack of body hair for a werewolf—some deodorant and toothpaste applied in the right locations and he stood at the mirror, assessing the damage—namely, his hair. He couldn’t have Winter’s frosty short cut or Cole’s flowing silver mane, or his brother Lindsey’s platinum halo. Nope. Jazz’s brown hair with gold streaks did whatever it wanted, in more directions than a road sign. If he tried to slick it down, he came off like that kid Alfalfa in some ancient comedy series he saw on TV once—flat and geeky. So he squeezed some product on his hands, ran it through the mess, and let it express itself.
In his closet, he picked out his least dorkified jeans and a cotton sweater in a gold color that looked okay with his weird gold eyes. He tied his sneaks, grabbed a windbreaker, walked into the wide sunlit hall past the suite occupied by Lindsey and Seth, then Winter and Matt’s rooms, and finally, the suite set aside for Cole and Paris when they chose to leave their isolated home in the woods. In the opposite wing of the huge estate, Pop-Pop had his suite, including offices where he, Lindsey, and Damon worked sometimes, Jazz’s mom and Damon occupied the next set of rooms, with Jason, father of Matt, Winter’s husband, in the room beyond. The idea of so many adults living together was odd to humans, but to wolves it felt natural. Jazz loved it.
He padded down the wide staircase toward the breakfast room. As he got close, he heard his mom’s voice. “Jazz seems worried about who his birth parents are.”
Jazz paused. Not exactly to listen—well, yeah, to listen.
“Every time something happens that makes him feel different, he focuses on the reason for it and figures his birth parents must be responsible,” she continued.
Lindsey said, “I don’t blame him. Before I knew about Damon, I imagined horrible things about who my father must have been. And let’s face it. Jazz is different from—” He stopped, and the breakfast room got quiet.
What happened? Oh right. The alphas in the room could smell him coming.