“Where are we going?” Toby asked once he’d finished regaling them about Eli and Sam’s plans.
“To see Sascha.”
“Great!” Toby scrambled excitedly into the backseat of the SUV when they reached the garage. Though he was a great kid, Hawke’s wolf worried about his good behavior. The boy had never once been in trouble—and that was completely unheard of for a pup his age. Hawke was concerned Toby was afraid of acting out, for fear the people he loved would leave him—as his mother had when she suicided.
He’d spoken about it to Judd and Walker, as well as Sienna, and they were all keeping a quiet eye on the boy. However, Sascha—who spent regular time with Toby, teaching him how to handle his empathic abilities—had told Hawke not to worry. “He’s very centered and happy. If I’m a normal case as far as empaths are concerned, you’ll have more trouble with him around fourteen to sixteen.
“I didn’t consciously understand it then of course, but my abilities went hypersensitive about that time. I used to swing from anger to joy to frustration within the space of a few minutes.” The cardinal had given him a wry smile. “If I hadn’t been so afraid of being rehabilitated, I’d have been hell to handle.”
Toby, Hawke thought, didn’t have to fear that he’d be punished for having emotions by being sentenced to the psychic brainwipe, didn’t have to worry that his personality would be erased in an act of brutality. And when adolescent angst hit, whether or not it was exacerbated by his empathic abilities, he’d have the necessary support, love, and discipline to come out of it stronger on the other side.
Now, listening to the boy chatter to Sienna, Hawke’s wolf stretched in contentment. He had a family of his own again, he thought, the realization still so new that it was a kick to the gut each time. As alpha, everyone in SnowDancer was part of his family, but it wasn’t the same as having people who were his.
“Toby,” he said during a lull in the conversation, “are you dating yet?”
Toby’s face went bright red in the rearview mirror. “Um, er, no.”
Hawke had guessed as much from what he’d seen at the mating ceremony, but the kid was heading toward thirteen. He’d obviously noticed the opposite sex, even if he wasn’t ready to take the next step. “But you know some of the older kids who are, right?”
“Uh-huh.” Toby leaned forward, stretching his safety belt. “In my soccer team mostly.”
“Any of them talk about the leopard girls?”
Sienna laughed. “Oh no.”
“Oh yes.” He glanced at Toby in the rearview mirror again. “Toby?”
“Um, yeah.” A quiet hesitation. “I don’t want to get anyone in trouble.”
“Don’t worry, you won’t.” He’d had a chat with the over-eighteens about inter-pack flirting, so they knew what was expected of them as far as acceptable behavior. However, if the younger age groups were starting to socialize, both packs needed a more concrete policy. “I think definite rules would help everyone.”
Toby’s nod was hard enough that Hawke caught it in his peripheral vision. “No one’s dating or anything,” the boy said, “but I think some of them want to—except they’re kind of scared.”
“Go on,” Hawke said.
“They think that maybe they’ll do something wrong and the leopards will get mad and it’ll hurt the alliance. It’s not just the boys.”
No more dodging the bullet, Hawke realized, they had to formulateinter-pack guidelines and quickly—because while DarkRiver and SnowDancer were both predatory packs, there were subtle differences between them that adults appreciated, but that could land the young from both sides in hot water unless they knew to follow a few basic rules. “Thanks, Toby.” He’d suggest a working group made up of maternal females from both SnowDancer and DarkRiver when he brought up the subject with Lucas.
A tug along the mating bond.
Wolf pricking its ears, he glanced at Sienna. “You called?”
“There’s at least one seriously developing relationship in the over-eighteens.”
“I wouldn’t be able to show my face to my friends if I told you.”
Another message along the mating bond, this one with a nuanced depth of emotion. His wolf, unused to defiance, blinked, shook his head. And he realized his mate was reminding him that he wasn’t her alpha, never would be. Gritting his teeth, he snarled. “I hate that rule.” Not the truth, but at times like this, it sure as heck irritated him.
“That’s why we need it.” Sienna leaned across to nip affectionately at his jaw.
From behind them, Toby said, “I like being around you guys. You’re happy deep inside even when you fight.”
Wolf and man in satisfied agreement with Toby, Hawke tangled his hand with Sienna’s, lifting it to his lips and snapping his teeth. Her startled yelp made Toby laugh.
SEVERAL hours after her breakdown by the waterfall, with the sky turning a post-sunset smoky gray, Adria finally walked into the den. Her throat was so raw her voice sounded akin to a croak when she entered the infirmary. “I need to look and sound human for a meeting at eight.”
Lara’s perceptive gaze saw too much, but the healer didn’t ask prying questions. “Open.” A cool spray hit the back of Adria’s throat. “That’ll take care of the voice.”
Adria stroked her fingers over her neck. “Already feels better.”