COOPER waited until the dancing had gentled, and he and Riaz were sitting having a couple of quiet beers, before saying, “She’s gone.”
“You’re looking for the tall senior soldier with those amazing eyes. Adria, I think.” Cooper shifted the upturned wooden crate he was using as a seat, settling it more securely. “She slipped away with Sam a few minutes ago.”
Riaz’s hand clenched on the bottle. He wanted to deny his raw compulsion toward Adria, but Coop knew him too well, would call him on it. “Enjoying the night?”
“Not even a question.” Dark eyes watched him with relentless patience. “You going to talk about it, or do I have to remind you I’m bigger and stronger?”
“In your dreams.”
Coop tipped back the bottle he held, his throat muscles moving. When he lowered it, he shook his head. “Something’s wrong with you, man. I should’ve picked it up earlier, but Grace scrambled my brains.”
Riaz looked out at where a lushly curved woman with ebony curls and skin like cream was dancing with Alexei, her smile shy. Big, bad Cooper’s mate was a sweet submissive, but she was managing to handle the male lieutenants—all of whom considered it their right to dance with her. “I can see how,” Riaz said, having claimed a dance earlier. “She’s something else, Coop.”
“I know.” The other man’s expression shifted from brutally tender to hard-ass the instant he returned his attention to Riaz. “Adria, she messing with your head?”
“Fuck, man,” Riaz said, finishing off his beer and dangling the bottle between his fingers, “let it go. It’s a night to enjoy yourself.”
Cooper raised an eyebrow. “Who screwed my head on straight when I was courting Grace? I woke you up at two thirty in the fricking morning twice and you didn’t tell me to shut the hell up. So talk—or we’ll be here all night.”
Riaz knew he could stonewall the other lieutenant. He also knew Coop wouldn’t stop battering at that wall until it gave. But he refused to taint the happiness of the other man’s mating with the bitter taste of his pain. “It’s a mess, and it’s a mess I might not ever be ready to talk about.” He held the near black of the other man’s eyes, let him see his resolve. “So I’m asking you to drop it.”
A long silence before Coop got up and grabbed them two more beers, moving with a predatory grace that was unusual given his size—and that made him a hunter no one ever heard coming. “You’re a stubborn ass**le.”
Snorting, Cooper leaned forward with his forearms braced on his thighs. “Fine. I won’t push—for now.” Open warning. “I see you going downhill, I will come down on you like a ton of bricks. I will not let you go it alone, lone-wolf style.”
“I came home,” Riaz growled. “Not exactly lone-wolfing it.”
“I call bullshit.” Cooper held his gaze, his wolf apparent in the ring of yellow that now encircled his irises. “You f**king pick up the phone when things get too dark, or I swear to God, I will tie you up and ship you to my territory.”
Riaz’s claws slid out. “I’m not a juvenile, so back off.”
“No, you’re my hardheaded idiot of a friend.” He glanced up. “Grace is coming over, so let me just say this—the pack needs you whole and stable. Keep that in mind before you let whatever it is that’s messing with your head swallow you up.”
SLIDING her fingers around the cup of coffee Inés handed her, Adria took a seat around the laz-fire one of the other senior soldiers had set up far enough away from the main party that no one would stumble upon them by accident. It was a few minutes after midnight, and not a single SnowDancer was even close to ready for the celebration to end. Even the pups were trying valiantly to keep their eyes open—no one had the heart to send them off to bed, so they’d been snuggled into sleeping bags around the Pack Circle, watched over by elders who preferred to rest their bones.
“I didn’t realize you were doing this,” she said to Inés, not wanting to step on any toes since she hadn’t officially been invited. Sam was the one who’d brought her along.
Inés shook her head. “It wasn’t planned. Elias has some good news to give, decided tonight was the right night for it. He mentioned it to Simran, who mentioned it to me, I mentioned it to Sam, told him to grab you—”
“—and presto.” Adria grinned. This kind of thing had happened in Matthias’s sector, too, different parts of the pack breaking off to have their own informal gatherings during the course of a larger event. “Good idea to ask everyone to bring along some food from the Circle.”
Several purloined plates of cookies, cakes, and sandwiches, along with a bowl of corn chips with a side of guacamole, were being passed around, as was the thermos of coffee. Someone had also brought in beers and champagne for those who had already finished their assigned shifts on watch. Adria had one coming up, so she’d stick to coffee.
“That was Eli,” Inés said, stretching out her legs as they sat side by side on a fallen log. “He thinks of everything.”
“And the good news?” Adria asked.
Inés had just opened her mouth to reply when Sam, who’d gone to grab a sandwich, reappeared at Adria’s side without food, a concerned look on his face. “Inés, am I crashing a party for the senior soldiers?”