“Would it worry you if you were?” A dry response.
“I thought you might have a secret ritual you were about to do or something.”
“Like dance na**d around the fire?” Inés raised an eyebrow. “I bet.”
Dimple flashing, Sam leaned his back against the log, one arm hooked companionably over Adria’s knee. “Fine, I’m staying until someone kicks me out.”
Now that he’d pointed it out, Adria realized Sam was the only soldier of lower rank here. And since Inés had specifically invited him … Hmm. She glanced at the other woman in silent question. Inés winked. Adria bit back a smile, the contentment inside her nothing she’d expected to feel after that brutal encounter with Riaz.
Her hand tightened on the coffee cup, her skin tingling from the heat. No, she said silently when her mind tried to claw her back to a carnal madness that had come perilously close to stripping her of her self-respect. Taking a deep breath, she narrowed her attention to the gentle warmth inside of her, and to the people responsible for her emotional equilibrium.
These were her peers, the packmates she’d be working most closely with over the coming months and years, and though they were relative strangers yet, she liked their energy as a group. Temperate and stable for the most part, senior soldiers were the workhorses of the pack, people you could count on to get a task done.
Inés, she thought, had the potential to become a close friend—the fleet-of-foot woman had a snarky sense of humor that made Adria’s own wolf chuckle.
Right on the heels of that thought, Inés said, “Me and Simran”—she nodded at where the more reticent soldier sat talking to Brody about something—“have a bad movie night once a month. You should come.”
Her wolf stretched out, back bowed. “Thanks.”
“Am I invited to this movie night,” Sam interrupted to say, “or were you planning to ignore me sitting right here?”
“The ignore one,” Inés answered, quick as a shot.
“My heart is broken.”
“I bleed for you.”
“It wasn’t my best effort.”
Elias stood and clapped his hands, cutting off the pithy dialogue. Once he had everyone’s attention, he said, “It’s time for the secret ceremony,” with a straight face.
SAM SNICKERED … AND sobered when he realized everyone was staring at him, not a giggle to be heard. “Um, sorry.”
Adria was trying so hard not to burst out laughing, she had to fake a coughing fit. Several people seemed to have been struck with the same affliction—though Inés managed to keep it together, slapping Adria helpfully on the back. “Must be the pollen in the air,” she murmured in faux concern.
Adria would’ve kicked the other woman if Sam hadn’t been sitting in front of her.
“As I was saying,” Elias continued, a rare strand of silver glinting in the rich brown of his hair, “it’s time for the ceremony. But since we appear to have an intruder, we’ll have to deal with him first.”
Sam rose to his feet, dusting off his jeans. “Look, hey, I can book if you guys—”
Elias raised a hand for silence, moving to stand in front of Sam.
“Sam Baker,” he said, his face solemn, “according to those witnesses who weren’t unconscious at the time, you ran onto the field of battle time and time again to rescue injured packmates, though you’d been hit with a bullet yourself.”
“It was what any one of us would’ve done.” Sam’s words were quiet, the playful soldier replaced by the courageous man who’d fought with all his heart, even when surrounded by blood and agony and an enemy devoid of mercy.
“Yes,” Elias said, reaching out to pin something on Sam’s stone gray shirt, “and we’re proud to call you one of our own.”
Adria saw the instant it hit Sam. His fingers trembled as he touched the regal form of the small silver wolf on his shirt collar. None of the senior soldiers wore the pins in daily life, but each one did so tonight—her top too light to hold it, Adria had attached hers to a thin silver bracelet on her left wrist. That tiny badge was a source of enormous pride, not being simply an indication of promotion from soldier to senior, but of acceptance within the rank.
Slapping a still-stunned Sam on the back, Elias raised his glass, “To Sam!”
“To Sam!” Adria cried with the rest of the group, and right then, she knew she’d make it. Maybe her unhealthy and untenable attraction to Riaz showed no signs of abating, the clawing need tearing at her gut, but she was more than the primal urges of her body. She was part of this strong, loyal group, a woman who had built a new life, new friendships from the cold ashes of the old.
No man was ever again going to drive her to question her own worth.
Her wolf’s body thrummed with defiant, determined pride. And when the newest senior soldier in the den threw back his head and celebrated with wild abandon, she lent her voice to his song alongside those of her packmates.
THE bristles on Hawke’s jaw caught on Sienna’s hair. She’d watched him shave before the ceremony, but it was now on the edge of dawn and they were finally in bed, his arm holding her to his chest. Enjoying the intimacy of talking with him as much as she’d enjoyed dancing in his arms until the sky shimmered with the first pearly kiss of morning, she glanced up when he shifted to fold one of his arms behind his head.
Eyes of wolf blue met her own. “Your friends snuck off to do some mischief.” An alpha’s amusement. “I expected you to join them since you’re the head troublemaker.”