Authors: Annabeth Leong
Not The Leader Of The Pack
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Not The Leader Of The Pack
Copyright © 2013 Annabeth Leong
Cover Artist: Victoria Miller
Editor: Sally Mander
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced electronically or in print without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in reviews.
Light from the cross on the side of the central tower of St. Patrick Hospital popped out against a dark sky, but washed out where it blended with the parking lot’s harsh illumination. Juli Gunby had followed that light for the last 10 minutes, navigating to the hospital by landmark when her fading knowledge of Missoula’s roadways had failed her.
She pulled her beat-up Ford truck into a space at the edge of the parking lot and sighed. Too crooked to let be. Three more tries revealed she couldn’t do any better right then.
A slow, deep breath didn’t do much to calm her. St. Patrick’s bright entrance appeared welcoming, but her gaze settled on a wizened old woman on a bench beside it, sobbing her heart out. Juli didn’t want to face what waited in ICU. When she’d taken work with the Werewolf Council in Lewistown, a five-hour drive away, she thought she had plenty of time to work out her issues with her father. She hadn’t been prepared for that time to get cut short.
The Ford’s steering wheel cracked. Juli jumped and cursed. Her steering-wheel cover hung half-slashed, a victim of the deadly claws she’d allowed to sprout from her hand. Of course, this situation upset her, but she had no excuse for letting her attention wander badly enough that she shifted subconsciously. She willed away her overwhelming emotion, watching her fingers. Patches of red fur erupted stubbornly from the backs of her hands, her body insisting on taking her in the wrong direction.
Juli squeezed her eyes shut and used an old trick she’d learned as a teenager. Multiplication tables. By the time she reached the sixes, she felt better, but she went all the way up to 12 to be safe.
She relaxed the muscles of her hand. The steering-wheel cover fell to the floor by her feet, along with a dusting of freshly shed fur. Her father had taught her never to go out in mixed company in this condition, but she didn’t see what choice she had. She could sit in St. Patrick’s parking lot for the next 20 years, and she still wouldn’t feel calm about the idea of seeing him in the ICU.
Juli wished it were winter—at least she’d have a bulky jacket that could conceal any lapses of control. She’d come as soon as she heard, still wearing shorts, a tank top, hiking boots, and enough bug spray to discourage an entire colony of ants. She considered changing into something from the overnight bag she’d hastily packed, but considering her state while getting ready, there might not even be a coherent outfit in there. Besides, much as she didn’t like the possibility of showing off an outbreak of fur, an inadvertent arm shift like the one she’d just suffered could shred long sleeves, and that wasn’t easy to explain either.
She’d have to go in as she was, and she had to stop stalling.
Juli shouldered her purse and made her way through the parking lot and hospital entryways. Most of the time, she liked her size. Tall and broad-shouldered, nothing delicate about her, she could command attention and respect from almost anyone. That night, she wanted to shrink about a foot. Everyone who passed seemed to know how long it had been since her last visit home. She perceived accusation in so many eyes.
The door to the ICU loomed ahead. A multitude of notices posted on and around it inundated her with specific instructions. No food or drink. No cell phones. No visits by groups larger than four. No entry without notifying the nurses’ station.
The restrictions brought home the severity of her father’s condition. He would never let someone else dictate so many things if he were well.
“You made it,” a familiar voice said behind her. Deep, masculine, and a little amused, it matched its owner perfectly. Juli blushed, remembering all her past embarrassing reactions to the man with the single most perfect torso in all of Montana. She turned once she’d mentally prepared as much as she could. Neil Statham, her father’s protégé, dressed in jeans and an old Missoula Ospreys jersey. Apparently, he still played pro ball. She would speak to him in a normal tone for once or die trying.
Juli greeted him with a little nod, not trusting her voice. To her horror, instead of stammering, she burst into tears.
He froze, then reached out for her. “I’m sorry, Juli.” No way could she handle being gathered against that chest. She dodged and held up a hand. A fur-covered hand.
Neil’s eyebrows shot up. A split second later, he burst into action, picking her up and carrying her to an empty waiting room nearby. She didn’t protest or struggle. Juli knew how dangerous it would be for a human to catch her hairy.
Once inside the room, he released her, closed the door behind them, then leaned his back against it. A television in the corner of the ceiling yammered about cleaning products. Wallpaper that had once been cheerful had aged into a pale pink muddle. “Why don’t you take a minute to collect yourself? The supervising doctor is one of us, but there are about a dozen human nurses in the intensive care unit, not to mention the other patients and visitors. We can’t have you waving furry parts around. Do you need me to call for a dose of lycanthropy suppressant?”
“I’m not a child. I don’t need suppressant.” She stomped her foot and immediately regretted it. A werewolf needed to constantly and carefully manage emotions. Lycanthropy suppressants were for the sick, the young, or the mentally ill. Fully functional members of werewolf society were expected to control themselves without the help of medication. She could not humiliate herself by failing to do so here and now, in a building full of cameras, when her job with the Werewolf Council held her to a higher standard. She would not lose control in front of Neil; he already thought of her as a dumb kid. She sighed. “It’s been a long drive.”
“I’ll bet.” He crossed his arms over his chest, his eyes boring into hers. He was only an inch taller than Juli, but Neil knew how to use it. He seemed to tower above her. “You should have come sooner, when he called the first time. Then this wouldn’t be so surprising to you.”
Exasperated, Juli threw up her hands. “He didn’t tell me he was sick. He just called and asked when I’d be coming home. I told him I was busy at work. That shouldn’t be a crime.”
“You know how he is. He’d never have admitted that he needed you. He’s been asking for you for days, but he still wouldn’t call you.”
She squeezed her eyes shut. His words wrapped around her heart. “I’m glad you decided to do it for him. I do appreciate it.” Juli would have put a hand on his arm to make the point, but thought better of it at the last second. They’d already touched each other more than she could handle. She backed away and sank into one of the waiting room’s sagging chairs.
“I didn’t think you’d come,” Neil said. Her head snapped up at his tone. He sounded like he’d missed her. She covered her disbelief with irritation.
“I said I would.”
“You also said you’d visit.”
Juli sighed. She’d nipped their moment of tenderness in the bud, all right. “Neil, we can fight later.” She rubbed her knuckles against her temples. “I just drove five hours to see my sick father. Can I go to him, please? A lot of this is between me and him, anyway.”
“I’ve gotten used to fighting his battles.” That statement meant more than Neil’s casual expression suggested. Juli filed the intuition away for later. She couldn’t think about a lot of things just yet.
“Well, if a man can’t fight with his own daughter, I don’t know what he can do. Why don’t you take me in so he can chew me out himself? He’ll like that.”
The look of sorrow that passed over Neil’s face started Juli’s guts churning. Joking about Darrow Gunby’s famous temper should have earned a smile, not a eulogy. Juli needed to know how bad this thing was, right now.
She stood and squared off against Neil. “Step aside. You’re going to have to trust me to control myself like an adult. Believe me, I am very conscious of my responsibilities in this situation.”
“Juli, wait.” That softening came over his face again, the look that made it seem as if he cared about her. His pale brown eyes searched her for something, and his throat moved. Juli resisted giving in to the sentimentality of the moment. After leaving town so she didn’t have to wonder about his feelings anymore, she didn’t plan to start.
“No, Neil. You let me see my Daddy now.” Her firm tone broke the standoff.
“Take deep breaths,” he said, taking her arm and leading her back to the imposing ICU door. He picked up a telephone receiver beside it. “Two for Darrow Gunby.” A moment later, the nurses’ station buzzed them in.
Neil led Juli through a maze of equipment and strange beeping noises and into a curtained room. He seemed about to stop her again, but she didn’t want to hear anything else from him until she saw her father. Sweeping the curtain aside, she plunged into the room then stood before her father’s bed panting as if she’d just come up from underwater.
Darrow Gunby blinked at the intrusion, his blue eyes unfocused. Juli struggled with her shock at the tubing that ran between him and a plethora of machines. Somewhere under that oxygen mask, she might recognize her father’s face, but for the moment he seemed utterly alien. His legs twitched rhythmically under the blankets.
Neil took up a place beside her, his hands folded in front of him and his head down. Not acknowledging him, Juli continued her attempt to make some sense of the reduced version of her father that now lay before her.
She groped for familiar details. The same big hands. The same lined forehead. The same pure white hair. However, these small victories didn’t help much in the face of all that had changed. The body that had once been vigorous and muscular had withered and wrinkled like an old man’s. His eyes fixed on her, but without their customary acuity.
A strangled sound slipped out from under all those tubes. Emotion squeezed Juli’s chest like a vise, and the wolf inside her wanted to break out of her body’s constriction and run for days. Tears stung her eyes. “I’ll be right back, Daddy,” she managed to say. “Just a second.”
She grabbed Neil’s arm and propelled him outside the curtain, ignoring his startled grunt. Just outside her father’s room, she whirled and laid into her father’s second. “Why the hell didn’t you tell me what was going on? How long has he been like this?”
Neil blinked and answered slowly, as if she were a child. “I told you he was in ICU and that you needed to come immediately.”
Fur would sprout from her face pretty soon if she didn’t control herself. Juli counted to ten, then fifty. “He’s withered, Neil. He didn’t get this way in a few days. I need the truth, please.”
Neil’s neck flushed and his wide nostrils flared. “This was his third heart attack in a year,” he admitted.
“And you didn’t think I needed to know that?”
“He didn’t want anyone to know.”
“You take orders much too well,” Juli said. Wasn’t that the truth. Her thoughts flashed to the night before she’d gone away to college, when he’d rejected her because it wasn’t technically legal for the pack beta to be involved with the alpha’s daughter. A patch of fur tickled her leg and she focused on breathing deeply again. She turned her back to him and covered her face with her hands. Tears she hadn’t noticed wet her fingers. She knew she would leave a fine layer of fur behind on the tiled floor.
An ICU nurse across the room creased her forehead in sympathy, and shame rushed through Juli. She’d thought her struggles controlling her emotions had been a teenage problem, since they’d virtually disappeared once she’d moved to Idaho for college. Apparently, her emotions were a Missoula problem, or maybe something to do with Neil and her father.
Neil’s fingers brushed her shoulder, and it was all she could do not to shift and pounce on him. The low growl that rose unbidden from her throat would tell him all he needed to know about her emotional state. He snatched his hand back as if she’d bitten him. She took a few more breaths and faced him again, grasping for her rational mind.