The girl swallowed, flushing under the lush coffee of her skin, and her words, when they came out, were hesitant. “I’m not strong like you.”
And that, Indigo thought, was even more of a problem than the control issues of the dominant males. “You listen to me,” she said, cupping the girl’s cheek, able to feel the soft down of youth against her callused palm, “we soldiers are the brawn, the muscle. It’s the maternal females like you who are the heart of the pack. You’re the glue that holds us together. Far as I’m concerned, you’re the strongest part of SnowDancer.”
Silvia blinked those long, silky lashes, leaning her cheek a little into Indigo’s touch. “I . . . my mom said . . . but it’s nice to hear it from you.”
Smiling, Indigo hugged her, and they walked over to join the rest of the group. Twelve kids between the ages of thirteen and seventeen. All simply needing a little bit of extra attention to get them back on the right track. “Everyone ready?”
A sea of nods.
“I thought Drew was coming,” said a slender young male with a thick mop of pale brown hair and a voice that was far too deep for his scrawny body. It’d be perfect when Brace grew into those shoulders, but right now, he tended to flush whenever he spoke up.
“He can catch up.” Okay, so maybe she wasn’t over the snippy. “Follow me.”
She set a steady pace—not so easy that they got bored, not so hard that they couldn’t keep up—taking them up into an unusual part of the mountains, one of such exquisite beauty it could make the heart stop, but an area even the pack rarely visited because it was more difficult to get to than so many other gorgeous spots. However, right now, it had the benefit of being almost entirely clear of snow, while comparable areas in the southern section of the Sierra remained packed with the white stuff.
They stopped for snacks around midmorning. No sign of Drew.
If he left her alone all weekend, she’d strip his hide. “Come on,” she said, hoping her inner snarl didn’t show. “We’re not even halfway yet.”
Pained groans, but she knew they were faking. She’d felt their exhilaration as they tested their bodies, as they loosened up enough to speak to her, ask her questions. So she upped the speed, knowing they could take it, that they’d be proud of it. But they were still exhausted when they walked over the edge of a hill and to the spot where she intended to break for lunch . . . to find the plateau set with a huge picnic blanket holding fruit, drinks, sandwiches, cake, and, of course, potato chips.
But it wasn’t only food waiting for them.
Drew bent at the waist, a checkered tea towel folded dramatically over his arm. “Welcome to my kitchen.”
Indigo clenched her stomach muscles against the shock of seeing him face-to-face after having mentally eviscerated him for most of the journey. The juveniles had no such qualms. Cheering, they descended upon the feast as if every single one of them hadn’t gorged on trail bars and dried fruit a bare couple of hours ago.
Drew skirted the plundering horde and walked across to join her. “I set up a blanket for you over there. Thought you could do with a break.”
Her wolf was more than suspicious of his solicitude after the recent awkwardness between them. Or maybe, she thought with a silent growl, this was all part of his “let’s just pretend it never happened” policy. “This is why you abandoned me with twelve teenagers?” She folded her arms, refusing to give in to the urge to fix the wind-tousled mess of his hair. That was something she might have done before. When he’d been a trusted friend.
Reaching up, Drew flicked his ear. “Big ears.”
Glancing over his shoulder, she saw their charges were involved in the food, but he had a point. So she didn’t argue when he urged her to follow him down the slope a little and onto a small shelf of land out of sight and downwind of the others.
The picnic blanket waiting there was smaller, striped with blue and white, and lying in a dappled patch of sunlight. A collapsible picnic basket sat a little to the side, while the blanket itself was set with small platters holding plump berries, sliced chicken, fluffy bread, what looked like a fresh salad, and two bottles of water that sparkled in the sun.
Indigo’s wolf liked the idea of food, but neither it nor she was about to let Drew off the hook. “I’m waiting for an answer.”
“I knew you could handle the juveniles”—easy words with no apparent undertone—“and I figured I’d better run up here and check the trail in case of possible rock slides from the storm. Far as I know, no one’s been up here since.”
Damn, she should’ve thought of that. “You should’ve told me.”
“I left a message on your phone.”
Scowling, Indigo pulled her cell phone out of her pocket. Double damn. “I forgot to charge it.” Still angry—though it was irrational and had nothing whatsoever to do with his actions today—she finally shrugged off her pack and took a seat on the blanket.
Drew sat in silence as she made herself a sandwich, then he made one for himself. The air up here was crisp, fresh, and somehow freeing. She felt her shoulders loosen up, her emotions turn mellow in spite of her vivid, almost uncomfortable awareness of the male wolf sitting on the other side of the picnic basket. When he reached for the basket, she was curious enough to glance over. “What else have you got?”
A smile that lit up his eyes to a blinding shade, making her suck in a startled breath. She wasn’t obstinate without reason—she could admit Drew had a way about him. He’d always used it to make her smile before. But she wasn’t ready to be charmed today.