Responding with that adorable growling sound he loved, Sienna pushed herself back until his chair pressed against the wall, her legs kicked out in front of her. “She then made me sit through a discipline session with two of the younger teens—it was like a bad rerun of my life. Later, she took me to a meeting where the senior maternal dominants all worked around a quilt. I can hardly sew enough to complete emergency repairs in the field!”
Hmm… “Did she invite you back?”
A grumpy nod.
Delight had him hooking his foot under the chair and rolling her back toward him. “Ask me the name of the reigning champ of trouble in the den before you came along?”
Sienna’s continued black mood was apparent in her muttered, “Who?”
That got her attention. “Nell?”
“Yes. And she held the title for ten years. So”—he leaned down with his hands braced on the arms of her chair—“I’d say it’s definite that she was impressed by that raid.”
Biting down on her lower lip, his mate said, “The quilting meeting?” in a small voice.
“It’s where the maternals get most of their business done. And they don’t invite just anyone.”
“Oh.” Sienna rubbed a hand over her face. “To be honest, the meeting was painless in comparison to the time I spent with Nell—I felt like I was being raked over the coals.”
“How did you respond?”
“I treated her with the respect due to her as one of the most senior people in the den.” Lashes down, back up. “Though I did get a little irritated when she pushed too hard—and I might have pointed out that I’m an adult female now and not particularly interested in rehashing my past exploits. That’s when she took me to the quilting.”
“Good,” he said, claiming a hard kiss before rising to his full height once again. “If you’d let her walk all over you, you’d never have been invited to the meeting.” Slender Nell might appear young and almost fragile, but the leader of the maternals had a spine of titanium, and appreciated the same in others. “The fact you can’t sew is irrelevant—they bloody well give me a needle and thread when I attend.”
Sienna spit out a startled laugh, the stars returning to her eyes. “What do you do?”
“Remind them I’m alpha.” The wolf snarled. “Then I sit and I listen.” Because the maternals were the backbone of the pack, the ones who made them family, gave them heart.
“I made myself useful cutting pieces for the quilt,” Sienna said, “but mostly I listened, too.” A long, shuddering release of breath. “So … it wasn’t a disaster?” Hesitant, quiet, a request for reassurance.
It f**king killed him each time she exposed the depth of her trust in him, this woman who, as a scared, lonely child, had been taught not to trust anyone. “Not even close,” he said, crooking a finger. “I’d call it an unmitigated success.”
Rising, Sienna pressed her body to his, her fists tucked against his chest. Cuddling her close, he rubbed his jaw against her temple. “You’re doing beautifully.” He knew she was walking this road not simply for herself, but for him, for SnowDancer, so the pack would know they could have faith in the strength of their alpha couple.
Pride and love vied for space inside him, collided in a powerful punch of emotion. “Come on,” he said, running his hands down her back. “Let’s sneak into our quarters for an early dinner.” He wanted to touch her, pet her, adore her, hold her.
CAUGHT up on work the next day, and with her and Drew’s next climbing tutorial not until later, Adria found herself a sunny seat on a giant boulder in the White Zone just before lunch. She wanted to sit and fiddle with a small computronic engine part the mechanics had discarded as too much trouble to fix. It was, but she liked the challenge. She was almost sure she’d figured out a partial workaround when she caught a scent that was now embedded in her very skin.
Her wolf rose, padding to the surface of her mind, and she dropped the hand holding the part to her thigh to focus on him, this lone wolf who was becoming her own … though he would never be hers. His stride was confident, a man sure of his strength. But he wasn’t unbending, was capable of a tenderness that threatened to make her fall so deep, she’d never recover.
Reaching her, he glanced at the engine piece, angled his head in a silent question.
“It’s a hobby,” she said, sliding the piece and her miniature tool set into a pocket of her buff-colored cargos, feeling oddly shy. As if this were their first date and he’d caught her playing like a child. “A puzzle to solve.”
Placing the brown paper bag in his hand on the boulder, he reached into his own pocket to pull out a small, polished wooden carving of a leopard mid-prowl. “My hobby,” he said, standing the leopard on her palm. “It’s not finished.”
Astonished and charmed, she ran her finger along the back of the incredibly lifelike animal. “When do you do this?” She was fascinated. “I’ve never seen you.”
“Here and there, when I’m thinking.”
“Can I have it?”
A glint of gold in the pale brown, the wolf’s delight. “When it’s done.” Plucking it from her fingers, he slipped it back into his pocket. “Show me what you were doing with the part.”
Retrieving it, she explained, while he stood between her parted knees, one of his hands on her thigh, his hair shining blue-black in the sunlight. It was a subtle intimacy, and it wrapped her in silken chains—she had to concentrate to get the words out, wasn’t sure she breathed until he said, “That looks like fun,” in an intrigued tone. “I want to take one apart with you.”