Sissy Connors, PhD, checked her GPS, adjusted her backpack, and continued her trek into the mountains. Common sense told her there must have been an easier way, but none of the trails on the USGS map seemed to go exactly where she needed to travel. She was an experienced hiker—her doctorate was in botany and her field study trips sent her to the edges of the world, looking for oddball plants that might contain the cure for Ebola or MRSA or some other disease. Elvis, her half German shepherd, half whoknows-what-except-it-was-big who trotted beside her, was experienced, too. Generally, he would trot back and forth, investigating anything he found interesting, then checking in with her before exploring again. But for the last five miles he’d stuck to her side like glue. He didn’t look nervous, precisely, but the last time he’d done this it had been because a cougar had been stalking them. This was cougar territory. Elvis’s attitude had her paying attention to the branches of the trees she was walking under, but other than some porcupine sign, she hadn’t found any indication she and Elvis weren’t the only living things for miles. She didn’t think it was a cougar making her dog cling to her side, because she felt it, too. The air was . different. In her years of wanderings, she’d explored places that were sacred, where every step forward felt like a sacrilege.
She’d discovered secret meadows or caves that welcomed her presence. She’d hiked through places that made her stomach turn—even though her normal senses found nothing wrong. This had all the hallmarks of one of those hikes. She found some comfort in trailing her fingers in the big dog’s ruff as they climbed. It was hot and the last few miles had been uphill. She stopped in a shaded place, took out a canvas water bowl, and filled it from her canteen. She set it down for her dog and took a good swig herself. She was near her goal; she’d been circling it for a while, trying to find a negotiable path through the mountainside. “Dad,” she told the empty air. “I know you like to be an off-grid hermit, but this is ridiculous.” She found it an hour later—fifteen minutes after she swore she was going to turn around and start the two-day hike back to her car. She passed the rock face of yet another cliff—and stopped.
A petroglyph. Tired, sweaty, and frustrated as she was, she couldn’t help the smile of wonder. She reached out but did not touch it. The marks were perhaps two feet square, and they formed a symbol she hadn’t seen before. Like the legs of an isosceles triangle, two lines rose from opposite edges of the petroglyph and met with their vertex angle at the top of the figure. Each of those legs was crossed by three upward slashes. She took a step nearer—and realized there was a steep trail up the side of the cliff, tucked into a crack in the rock she hadn’t been able to see from where she’d been standing. There was no sign it was a trail to her father’s camp, but it headed in the right direction. She crawled up the steep trail—helping Elvis up ahead of her with a hand on his rump when he couldn’t find purchase on the sheer rock. It wasn’t quite steep enough for her to use her climbing gear.
She had to crawl out through a hole between a tree and a rock the size of a small house to get to the top. If the thought of getting Elvis back down in one piece hadn’t been so harrowing, she might have given up. She hoped she could find another way back once they were at the top. Finally, she surmounted a particularly difficult bit and found herself in a small meadow surrounded by dense forest. They had tucked the buildings in under the forest canopy so well it took her a moment to see she had reached her goal. But once she noticed the first building, her eyes started to pick out the rest of them. There were a few tents, but most of the living spaces were actual cabins or yurts. It was more than an encampment—a whole town, really, complete with one tidy cabin marked by a small hand-painted sign that read USPS—Wild Sign. It was much more civilized than she had expected her dad to tolerate. It took her a minute to realize it was too quiet.
“Hey!” she called. “Dad?” She waited. Then she tried, “Dr. Connors, it’s your daughter, also Dr. Connors!” But only the wind answered. SUMMER: MISSOULA, MONTANA PREVIOUS TO THE EVENTS IN BURN BRIGHT “I am never going shopping again,” Rachel said solemnly before tossing back the whiskey shot she’d requested from their server. She was a small woman with curly brown hair and a rounded build. She’d managed, somehow, to escape the hyperfit look most of the werewolves acquired. Anna had thought Rachel had ordered the whiskey because that was what Leah had ordered, but watching Rachel put the liquor away made Anna reconsider. Anna sipped at her own drink without enthusiasm.
She should have ordered whiskey, too. Specialty cocktail or not, her drink tasted like paint thinner. Doubtless the high alcohol content was supposed to make up for the taste, but as a werewolf, Anna didn’t even get much of a buzz from it. If she had been in this little intimate back room of the restaurant with her mate, she’d have laughed, put it aside, and ordered something else. But she was in if not precisely the company of enemies, then certainly dangerous company. It was important to maintain the appearance of competence. Competent people, she was sure, did not order drinks they did not like just to impress people with their nonexistent sophistication. Rachel set her glass down and told it, “No more fitting rooms for me.” Anna grunted in sympathy. “That,” said Sage accusingly, tipping her glass toward Anna, “was a Charlie grunt.
No men allowed on this expedition means no grunts.” Model-beautiful Sage was the only person allowed to call Anna’s mate Charlie—not excepting Anna herself. Sage treated him like a big brother. And, Anna thought ruefully, Charles treated Sage as if she were any other member of his father’s pack: to be protected but also to be held at a distance. Only with his brother and his father did the impassive shield he kept around himself loosen. With Anna he had no shield—Charles belonged to Anna with all his complicated soul and uncomplicated heart. Anna would much rather be curled up with him in front of the fire or eating something one or the other of them had cooked. Instead, she sipped at her paint thinner at a restaurant in Missoula, the better part of two hundred miles away from home, at the tail end of one of Leah’s females-only shopping expeditions. Anna was pretty sure there was no clothing store, shoe store, or makeup counter in Missoula they had not explored. Anna’s feet ached, and she saw Rachel slide out of her shoes and flex her toes when she thought no one was looking.
Even Sage, the shopping queen, was rubbing her left calf. Only Leah, in four-inch heels, looked perfectly comfortable. Anna frowned at Leah’s feet—maybe Leah wasn’t crazy for spending ungodly amounts of money on her shoes. Leah, the Marrok’s mate, used the shopping trips to Missoula or Kalispell as bonding time for the women in the Marrok’s pack. Usually they were something anyone without a Y chromosome could attend, but this time Leah had limited it further: Anna, Sage, Leah, and Rachel. Anna was pretty sure the trip had been designed to get Rachel, who had come into the pack only a month ago, comfortable enough to open up. Rachel was not a permanent pack member; she would be with them only until the Marrok found a place for her that he liked. Somewhere safe. As Anna well knew, even werewolf strength didn’t help you when your abusers were werewolves, too. Rachel had come to them after her pack had undergone an extensive reorganization.
No one had been killed, but her old pack was under new management, the former Alpha moved to a different pack where he was not in charge. Outside of the Alpha, Rachel had been the only wolf extracted from the situation. Rachel hadn’t said a word above a whisper since she’d arrived two weeks ago, and Leah or the Marrok (or both) had decided to do something about that. Shopping. Anna smiled into her house special cocktail as she pretended to sip. After two hours of trying on clothing, Rachel had forgotten to be intimidated and had joined the chorus of moans when Sage had found a dress that made her look fat. Tall and slender, with gold-streaked brown hair and deep blue eyes, Sage looked more like a fashion model than most of the fashion models. Finding something that made her look bad had been quite an achievement. Distraction and bonding over bad fashion had broken through the shell Rachel had worn and revealed a quiet but naturally cheery soul. Leah, for all of her faults, was good at her job.
And the semi-good-natured ongoing rivalry between Leah and Sage (that Anna was convinced they both enjoyed) served as a reminder that no one in this pack needed to worry a more dominant wolf would overreact to a little snark. A reminder that the Marrok’s pack was safe. Anna had probably been included because she was an Omega wolf. Without trying, she pulled the tension in the air down to a manageable level and made people feel comfortable around her. This wouldn’t be the first time she’d been recruited to help with a damaged werewolf. Now that Rachel was talking, Bran would be able to figure out where she would fit in best, whether that was in the Marrok’s pack or somewhere with less potential for violence—most of Bran’s pack were there because a lesser Alpha would not be able to control them. Food came eventually, and in the middle of eating her steak, Rachel broke into the conversation with a total non sequitur. “I feel like a failure.” Sage reached out and covered her hand. “Why is that?” “I’m a werewolf,” she told Sage.
“And I had to run away from my problems because I couldn’t protect myself.” “Me, too,” said Sage promptly. Rachel’s eyebrows shot up and her mouth opened in surprise. Anna had noticed throughout the day that Rachel was sporting a case of hero worship for Sage. Anna understood that. Sage had been the first to welcome Anna to the pack, too. Sage made it a point to protect newcomers until they could stand on their own two (or four) feet. She was an effective protector; her reputation as a fighter left most of the pack unwilling to push her too far. Privately, Anna thought the way Sage called Charles “Charlie” also helped her in her efforts to cow bullies. Most of the wolves in the pack were a little afraid of Anna’s mate.
None of them would have dared to give Charles a nickname he disliked. Sage nodded at Rachel. “One wolf cannot stand her ground against a whole pack.” She cast a mischievous look at Anna. “Wolves whose last names are Cornick excepted.” She returned her attention to Rachel. “Even Charlie had to bring Asil along to straighten out the mess your old Alpha made of his pack, Rachel.” That wasn’t why Asil had gone. Asil had been sent so there would be no chance of any defiance that would force Charles to kill someone who might otherwise be saved. Charles alone was terrifying.
Asil was a legend. No normal wolf would even imagine disobeying the pair of them. Sage nudged Anna’s leg underneath the table. At least she thought it was Sage. It might have been Leah. Anna was supposed to share her story to make Rachel feel less alone. Oh goody. “Me, too,” Anna muttered unenthusiastically. “I spent my time in purgatory.” “But you are an Omega,” exclaimed Rachel.
“No one would abuse an Omega wolf.” Anna would have let that stand, but Sage said, “They did. They forced the Change on her and followed up with several years of rape, pimping out, and beating.” Anna pushed her plate aside because she wasn’t going to be able to eat after that. “Yes,” she said. “And I needed rescuing, too, Rachel. But this isn’t a ‘my life was worse than your life’ contest.” Trying to avoid seeing Rachel’s expression, Anna met Sage’s eyes accidentally. The other wolf immediately dropped Anna’s gaze, and there was a faint flush on Sage’s high cheekbones. Did Sage feel like it was a contest? Anna grimaced.
“Is that what life as a female werewolf is?” asked Rachel in a subdued voice. “Abuse? Looking for a protector? A rescue?” Rachel was tiny, maybe two inches shorter than Anna. Next to Sage and Leah, who were both very tall women, Rachel looked fragile and defenseless. “Remember what pack you are in,” Anna told her. “There are hundreds of female werewolves out there—and the Marrok only brings in one or two women a year who need assistance.” “Don’t forget werewolves can live a long time,” said Sage, pulling Anna’s uneaten dinner over and shoving her clean plate in front of Anna. “We all, male and female, are likely to run into a bad Alpha or some other kind of abusive situation at some point. The trick is to not join the other side of the equation and become abusers ourselves.” Leah pushed her own empty plate aside and downed her fourth shot of whiskey neat. “I think it’s a matter of choosing your mate well.
” Sometimes the older wolves showed the effects of being raised in an earlier era—like Leah’s assumption a good mate was the cure for all problems. Anna was pretty sure no one else at the table believed the cold relationship Bran and Leah had was a good thing. It wasn’t abusive—not quite. Not physically abusive, anyway. But Anna would have lasted a month, tops, in a relationship where her needs were met with attentive care—and not an ounce of affection. But no one could say that, of course. Though there was something in Leah’s face that made Anna wonder if Leah knew what they were all thinking. “How did you choose Bran?” asked Sage.