Authors: Jess Haines
I quite suddenly had to roll down the window a crack to get some air.
Chaz continued in a lighter tone, apparently oblivious to my discomfort as he returned his attention to the road. “The main difference is that even if we’re not necessarily related by blood, we are all family and rely on each other for survival.”
“Does that mean I should be worried?”
“Nah. It’s true we’ve never had someone along on one of these trips who wasn’t immediate family or going to be turned into one of us. So they might be a little nervous, but they all know who you are, and I can pretty much guarantee the whole pack will be on their best behavior. Seth and a couple of his friends might give you a little trouble, but everyone else is easygoing once you get to know them. Just talk to them and treat them like you do anyone else, and everything should be just fine.”
“Okay. Who’s Seth?”
“Seth is Ricky and Armina’s kid. He’s a bit of a dick. Hits on anything in a skirt. If he touches you, I’ll kill him.”
I shot a look at him.
“That was a joke, Shia.”
A blush lit up my cheeks. “Sorry. I can’t always tell.”
His smile widened, making me feel even sillier for jumping to conclusions. “It’s okay. I know we’ve got a rep. That’s part of why I want you to come out and see what we’re like when we’re not trying to hide ourselves from the public eye. I doubt we’re anything like what you thought.”
“Me too,” I said, looking again at the brochure in my hands. Whatever else, the place was rustic, scenic, and out in the middle of nowhere. At least if I embarrassed myself, there wouldn’t be a bunch of cops or reporters looking to catch it on camera or video this time.
Just a whole lot of werewolves to spread the word back to the Other community what a spaz I am.
Hunter, New York, was one of the coolest ski resort towns I’d ever seen. Well, the only one I’d ever seen. It was full of tiny businesses and big houses sprawled over a handful of streets and cradled in the shadows of the Catskill Mountains. Many of the stores were closed, some shuttered up tight, waiting for ski season to start. There were few streetlights, mostly on the main street in town. A handful of people were out picking up groceries or chatting with friends despite the chill in the clear mountain air. There weren’t many restaurants, but we made note of them in case we got a hankering for takeout later.
We were staying somewhere deeper in the mountains, a few miles outside the town proper. We pulled off the main road and followed a side street for a little while and then turned onto a tiny, rutted dirt track. I hadn’t spotted it until we were right on top of it. The path was wide enough that it was unmistakably a road, but one that didn’t seem well traveled or maintained. The hardy little Jeep bounced over the numerous potholes, shocks squealing in protest, with the occasional low-hanging branch grazing the car.
Chaz made an offhand remark about a car behind us that had followed us all the way up here. Despite the dark, the driver was using dim fog lights to get through the trees. Possibly whoever it was did not want us to know they were tailing us, but it could also have been another Were with good night vision. I didn’t pay it too much mind; more of my attention was on the creepy, dark road ahead of us.
Those grasping branches in the dark gave me the willies. The tree limbs were so thickly intertwined overhead that the moonlight peeping through didn’t help much in illuminating our way. Chaz had to let go of my hand to wrangle the steering wheel and keep us on track. Beyond the windows, I saw nothing but pitch-black, the only light coming from the headlights swaying and shivering over the heavy growth of trees and brush. He reassured me a couple of times that he could see perfectly well and that we were going the right way. I trusted his eyes better than my own, but I still clung to my seat hoping it would be over soon.
After what felt like an eternity of jostling and low scraping sounds, we pulled into a clearing so well-lit that it momentarily blinded me. I squinted against the glare, lifting my hand up to shade my eyes as I surveyed the open ground.
We’d pulled into a parking lot in front of a large timber lodge. Like the track, the lot was nothing but packed dirt. Someone had taken the time to lay treated lumber to define the edges and give some clue as to where to park. Forty or so other cars were scattered across the lot; Chaz and I must have been straggling behind the rest of the pack. We got out, and I shivered in the biting cold wind that rustled the trees around us. Pulling my light track jacket closed did nothing to ease the chill.
The lodge itself was impressive; a huge double-door entrance was lit with flickering gas lamps on either side, giving dim illumination to well-tended hedges that lined the front of the building and the carved wooden sign that read: WELCOME TO PINE CONE LODGE. The shutters had been folded back from the expansive windows, lights blazing and people moving around behind most of them. Wood smoke was heavy in the air, mixing with the clean scents of freshly turned earth, birch sap, and pine. An owl hooted somewhere off in the distance. The mountains thrust up around us, the place held in the cusp of a thickly wooded valley.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, hefting my purse up on my shoulder and helping Chaz pull luggage out of the trunk. “I haven’t been up in the mountains for a while. This is great!”
“Yeah, I just wish the track led up to the actual cabins. It’s going to be a pain to lug this stuff out there.”
A glance over my shoulder didn’t show anyone pulling into the lot behind us. Whoever had followed us down the track must have turned off onto some other path. Or didn’t want us to know we’d been followed.
Shrugging off my lingering paranoia, I took Chaz’s duffel while he hefted my suitcase off the ground. A few people were hanging around outside, some of them smoking and chatting, others rummaging in their cars. I looked around when a couple of them started clapping, trying to figure out what they were applauding. There weren’t many doing it; some had wandered off looking disgusted. It took me a moment to figure out that they were clapping for
“What the hell are they doing?” I hissed the question under my breath, leaning in close to Chaz so that any Others in the crowd, with their supersensitive hearing, wouldn’t overhear me.
Chaz gave them a grin and a wave, speaking to me out of the corner of his mouth. “They’re glad you’re here. A bunch of them didn’t think you’d come. Just smile back at them or something, be polite.”
Feeling inordinately cheesy, I did, and the people gave a few last hoots and hollers before running ahead into the lodge, presumably to spread the news that we’d arrived. One of them, a guy with an alarming array of piercings and tattoos, stayed behind to hold the door for us.
We hurried inside, taking in the expansive interior. Aside from the stone fireplace, blazing cheerful warmth from a roaring fire, everything was done in wood accents. The furniture all looked to be hand-carved. There were rugs and cushions in earthy tones, browns and greens. The windows on either side of the fireplace across the room overlooked the valley spotted with lights from smaller cabins outside.
There were a few people sitting around the fire, chatting over beers and glancing up with friendly waves as we walked in. I forced a smile when two of them saluted me with their drinks, and focused my attention on the ancient looking geezer who levered himself to his feet, shuffling over with a wide grin creasing his tanned, leathery face. Despite his age, solid muscle pulled his shirt taut over his shoulders and arms, and thick tufts of hair were visible above the collar and cuffs of his shirt.
The coiled energy of Were radiated off him in a way that had the hairs on the back of my neck standing at attention. Chaz didn’t seem to be affected. He returned the guy’s smile, setting the bags down to accept the offered handshake.
“Welcome, welcome! Are you part of the Sunstriker party?”
“Yes, sir. I’m Chaz Hallbrook, and this is Shia. You’re Mr. Cassidy, right?”
“Just call me Bruce.” He shook Chaz’s hand in a hearty shake then turned to me, inclining his head. “Young lady, you look like you and your boy here could use a hot meal and a stiff drink. Let me get George to show you out to your cabin so you can freshen up. Dinner was already served, but we’ve still got plenty of food, so just come right on back up here when you’re ready.”
I smiled, shaking his hand when he offered it. His palm was as rough and calloused as sandpaper. “That sounds wonderful. Thank you.”
“Oh, anytime,” he said, turning away to shout toward a hallway to our left. “George!”
We waited a minute, the silence broken by the snaps and crackles coming from the fireplace, and the low murmur of conversation.
I jumped at the thunderous shout.
“WHAT?! I’m busy!” came back.
I heard what sounded suspiciously like a muffled curse in reply. A large, barrel-chested man soon came into view. He was wearing a pair of loose jeans and little else. His skin was stained with what looked like soot and grease; a large wrench was slung over one shoulder. Though I didn’t mean to stare, I wasn’t quite able to stop myself. George’s voice was deep and ponderous, tinged with minor irritation.
“Pops, I told you I was working on the backup generator. Can’t Daisy do it?”
“She’s serving at the bar. Just show them down to number twelve, would you?”
George shook his head, sweat-stringy locks swaying around his thick jaw, a cryptic smile curving his lips as he looked us over. He dwarfed Chaz by a few inches and maybe a hundred pounds, most of which looked to be muscle. “Ah, sure. Do you need help with the bags?”
“Nah, we got it,” Chaz said, sliding his arm around my waist.
George grabbed a key from behind the reception desk. He moved with a lumbering kind of grace that put me in mind of a large predator, one that was deceptively slow until provoked.
“Come on, I’ll show you guys back.”
Chaz’s grip tightened on me as we followed George’s lead. He led us across the lobby and through a hall, past a dining area with an enormous bar, where a bunch of guys on stools watched football on the big screen TV with rapt attention. Other people were scattered at round tables throughout the room, relaxing and talking or brooding over cold beers. A couple of girls gave me, then Chaz, an odd look I couldn’t read, before starting up a chattering storm of whispers. The disparity in attitudes between various Sunstrikers toward me was getting to be a bit much, and I was grateful once the people in that room were out of sight.
We walked through a set of double doors as large as the ones at the entrance that led into a little meadow in the back of the building. The strong scent of herbs—rosemary, basil, peppermint, and lemongrass—clued me in that at least part of this area was a garden. I could also hear the faint rush of running water from somewhere up ahead of us. After the warmth of the lodge, it was freezing out here.
“Watch your step. We had rain a couple days ago, and the path to the bridge is still a bit muddy.”
I was glad I’d remembered to wear hiking boots instead of my usual sneakers, but even with the extra traction I was slipping and sliding a little in the mud. Chaz tried to help me, but he wasn’t faring much better. By the time we reached the small wooden bridge that arched over a creek separating the cabins from the lodge, we were laughing and leaning on each other to get safely to the other side. A hand-carved sign on the other side of the creek, leaning at an angle in the mud, showed which fork to take for which cabin numbers.
The cabins were far enough apart for privacy, with heavy pines and cedars, thick with concealing foliage, separating the buildings. It was hard to tell by the landscaping if the trees had been planted or grew that way naturally since the log cabins faded into the foliage like a natural part of the scenery. The solar-powered lanterns in the ground helped light the path without being intrusive or detracting from the raw beauty of the place. The soft glow only made it more inviting and romantic.
George unlocked the cabin with the number twelve etched into the wooden door. He flicked the light on and handed the key over to Chaz, gesturing back toward the lodge. “If you need anything, just give us a ring up there. You’ll find extra blankets in the closet and a few dry goods and coffee in the kitchen. Breakfast is served in the dining hall six-thirty through ten-thirty; lunch is at noon; and dinner is served from five-thirty until my mom decides to kick you out and close the kitchen. She’ll be up late tonight since so many of you came in, but I wouldn’t trust her to hang around for more than another hour.”
“Great! Thanks, George,” I said, giving him a warm smile.
“Anytime, pretty lady.” He winked. “Just call if you need anything.”
Chaz rolled his eyes and carried everything inside. I followed him in, George closing the door behind me.
The place was cozy, just as inviting on the inside as it appeared from the outside. The furniture here matched the furniture in the lodge; the frames were all done in wood and the cushions and blankets in earth tones. The fireplace had soot stains but had been cleared of old ashes. New wood was laid out and a box of matches set on the mantel. The breakfast nook had a couple of modern amenities like a refrigerator and a coffeemaker. A round table was set next to the window with bleached white birch chairs around it, and a large bed with a mound of pillows and thick quilts was tucked in the corner across from the hearth.