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"That was . . . thoughtful." She tried to get a grip on her extreme trepidation. The woman was on their side. She was practically family. Hell, as of their morning mating, she was Lara's mother-in-law.
She and Derik really were made for each other . . . he can't stay here without wanting a piece of Dad, and people end up terrified of his wife . . . Humans are so frail, she's probably killed several without meaning to. She's never killed Pack. We're a little better at landing on our feet. Or her power-her sorcery?-understands at all levels that the Pack is no threat to her. The opposite of a threat, in fact. Maybe all this time they've been waiting . . . we've all been waiting . . .
"I'm grateful your family was watching our home." She went to him, took his hands, looked up at him. His ear had healed, as hers had. It made her want to draw blood again, and do other things, too, but she forced herself to focus. "I'm grateful your family will be in our lives now. I want your father here-I'm next-gen alpha, he'll have no issue with my status. And of course he couldn't come without his mate. Your mother; our cubs' grandmother. You're all welcome here."
"That almost sounds like a speech," he said, giving her a soft kiss.
"It's not a speech, I think-I didn't practice. It's just what I felt. All kinds of things I knew without knowing I knew are coming out. You know, other Pack leaders really should have written a manual or a book on this stuff, would that be too much? Don't laugh, I'm serious!"
"I'm not laughing at you," he lied, and kissed her again. "A how-to, by Lara Wyndham-Gardner, it'll be just what our cub needs. But not for fifty years at least."
She kissed him back and felt his urgency, dropped her fingers to his jeans and traced his thickening length. But quick as thought, she jerked her hands away when she heard her brother's pounding footsteps.
"We weren't-" she began, but stopped when he darted into the room.
"Somebody had the same thought we did. About the next dead pet being human. And that maybe we'd catch on to their timeline and post a watch." There wasn't a trace of a smile on her brother's face, which got Lara's attention more than anything he could have said. "Better come see."
"Don't tell me."
"There's a dead human on the kitchen stoop."
"I have had enough!"
Lara stood over the body, that of a man she guessed was her father's age, face down on the stoop. It was nearing the dinner hour, so the kitchen was bustling with several people a few feet away with too much to do and too little time to do it. No one had needed to go out on the step (Packers didn't smoke) so no one knew there was a corpse waiting for-what? The first course?
"Yuck," was her brother's comment. "What's the opposite of an amuse-buche?"
"I'm serious, no more old TV for you."
"Back off, skank. You're not the boss of me. Except I just remembered you are."
"Skank?" Jack, she could see, was having trouble following them. She and Sean did have their own language, the language of bitter sarcasm. Not only did it come out more when they were under stress, they were fluent in it.
"It's an old-timey word for woman, like dame or broad," Sean explained. "It can be affectionate or not, depending on usage. And the user. And the skank in question, I guess-Oh, shit!" Sean scrambled back and nearly fell into the bushes on either side of the sidewalk and kitchen steps. Lara would have laughed-she was the family klutz, not him-if she hadn't been so startled. She'd barely started to look around when Jack stepped up, hauled Sean out of the bush by the back of his neck like a mother cat with a kitten, and thrust the smaller man behind him.
"Wow," Sean said from behind Jack, who was almost looming over the scene. Lara noticed Jack was standing very straight, unconsciously trying to make himself look bigger. If he'd been on four feet and furred, he'd be fluffing out his fur and his hackles would be up. "I feel so treasured and safe. My hero!"
"Sorry," Jack muttered, blushing red so quickly Lara worried he was headed for an aneurysm. "I-don't know why I did that."
Lara did. Beta males looked after the cubs-and the younger siblings. There were no cubs to look after yet. But something had scared Sean and instinct had kicked in, and Jack had acted without analyzing.
"If there wasn't a dead body here, I'd kiss you," Lara vowed, earning a snort of disgust from her brother and a look of surprised pleasure from her mate.
"Ah, thank you, Lara."
"There isn't a dead body, you dim skank."
She bent over the body. "Hey!" She could have sworn-
"Yeah. He's alive. That's what freaked me out. What does it say about me that I was less traumatized when I thought he was dead?" Sean peeked around Jack's shoulder. "See? He's breathing. He was so still before, and, um, a little stinky, so I-"
"This is good," Lara said firmly. She climbed the step, popped open the screen door, and called for Kara to come. Then she shut the door, turned, and knelt by the "body" and touched his shoulder. "A dead human who isn't dead is a terrific improvement . . . Sir? Are you all right?"
"Yeah, are you comfortable on the cement steps all sprawled out like that? Can we get you a lemonade?"
"Shut up, Sean." Lara sighed.
"Ow," the body moaned, stirring. When he moved, Lara got a stronger whiff. Yeesh. She completely understood Sean's error. The man stank, which hadn't surprised her when she thought he was a corpse. He didn't need a shower; he hadn't soiled himself. He smelled like . . . like death and poison poured into the same bag of skin. "Stupid chemo-Wha' happen?"
Lara helped the man sit up. He'd gotten a nasty scrape on his cheek when he'd fallen, and his forehead was trickling blood. Sean was hanging back, still spooked, and not just by the smell. Jack, by contrast, was crowding, his knee touching her shoulder as she knelt beside the bod-the man. "What happened to you?"
"I-You!" The man, bald except for a few gray wisps decorating the skin above his ears and the back of his neck, jerked away from her touch; he looked up and saw Sean and recoiled. "And you!"
"Wait." Sean snapped his fingers, blue eyes narrowing. "I know you. The beady eyes, the furtive expression, the catcher's-mitt-sized hands perfect for snapping bra straps-Geoff's dad!"
"What?" Jack and Lara said at once.
"You leave my boy out of this!" The man was struggling to stand but was so weak and smelly he was making no progress. It was like watching a dazed turtle on its back struggling to turn over. "He's not part of this!"
"Jeff's dad?" Jack asked. "Is that what you said?"
"Not Jeff, Geoff. Okay . . . Lara, you know how Dad has two stories about us he uses as prime examples of our basic personality types, and how he uses them as examples or points of discussion ad nauseam and we were sick to death of both of them before puberty?"
"Well, for my story, the day on the beach-"
"Jeff, Geoff, and Ryan!" Lara looked at the man with new interest. "Huh. What are you doing here?"
"I think your emphasis is wrong; I think it's what are you doing here?"
"Wait," Geoff's dad said, squinting up at them. "How do you even know my boy's friends?"
"Family lore; it's boring, never mind. Yeah, this is his dad, I recognize the-that's why you smell!" He turned back to Lara. "Geoff's uncle and grandpa died of cancer when we were in middle school. He's got it, too! He smells like cancer and chemo!" He actually hopped a little in the joy and relief of solving the puzzle. "Yay!"
Her brother flinched back from her and she was sorry to see it-and glad. Because she loved him and would die for him or kill for him, yes, of course, one of those things that went without saying even though people said them, but at the end of the day, she was his leader and some things were unacceptable. She knew he hadn't meant what he'd said, or how it had come across. She also knew reparation was owed, regardless of the man's motives.
Sean turned at once to Geoff's dad, who was staring up at him. "I'm so sorry. I didn't mean it like that; I was worried about what's been happening around here and was glad I recognized you, not glad you've got cancer. I'm so sorry. You-you don't have long, do you?"
"No, I do not," Geoff's dad said with touching dignity. "Which is why I'm here. You and your weird dog-people-werewolf-guys have to get out of here and my friend's gonna make sure you do."
"Friend?" Sean blinked and looked around, as if expecting to see someone crouched in the business.
"Is the friend a weird dog-people-werewolf-guy?"
"Well, of course," Geoff's dad replied as if the question-and answer-were stupidly simple.
"Which means you've been scattering dead fish and bats around."
"Yeah, Len said he couldn't do it or you'd all know, but it'd take you a while to figure it was me. Even if you caught my scent, with the chemo and all, you might not know what you were smelling."
"Wait, I'm lost," Jack said, spreading his hands. "Who's Len?"
This time Sean and Lara were both happy to have figured it out, and said in delighted unison, "The new kitchen guy!"
"Aw, shit," Lenny said from behind them.
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