Monday, September 15, 2014
Virgil Hancock carefully loaded another box into the bed of his pickup. Today’s the day, he thought. Today I leave Montana behind and start a new life. My life.
What kind of life it might turn out to be, or where, he had no idea yet. But it would include a she-wolf, that was for damn sure. And pups. Don’t forget the pups.
The Hancock shifter pack might be progressive in a lot of ways, but when it came to mating rights the leaders clung to their ancient privilege like a wolf with a bone in its jaws. Only the alpha pair got to mate and reproduce. Sure, the lower ranks could hump all they liked. Pack law had loosened up that much. They just couldn’t hump she-wolves. Non-wolf partners only. Pups resulting from such liaisons couldn’t rise to leadership. Full-bloods could be seen as a threat to the alpha’s authority. And alphas were utterly paranoid when it came to enforcing their authority.
As a low-ranker, Virgil was far enough down the line to be unnoticed, by females as well as the males. Those higher up the ladder took their pick of available non-wolf women. That didn’t leave much left over for Virgil and those at his level. Therefore, a permanent road trip was necessary.
He wrestled a trunk into the bed of the truck. Work fast, he ordered himself, before you change your mind. All he asked of life was a she-wolf to share it with, and maybe pups to raise. Was that too much to hope for?
In the Hancock pack, hell yeah.
He leaned against the truck to catch his breath, just as a she-wolf burst out of the pack compound’s main lodge. Virgil didn’t recognize her. She was high-rank and out of his reach. Hot on her heels charged a wolf Virgil did know, whose face prompted swearing and sub-vocal growls. Oh scat. Darnell. Mr. Beta-Enforce-the-Rules. Virgil turned back to his loading. Another hour and he wouldn’t have to put up with Darnitall any more.
The two stormed past him and his truck without noticing either. Typical up-ranks. Darnell caught up with the she some distance off. They argued hotly, in low tones, though not low enough that a wolf with sharp ears couldn’t pick up on the gist of it. A wolf such as Virgil, for instance.
“Why can’t I just—”
“You know why. This is too important. This affords us a chance t to—”
“I won’t be used like some kind of—”
“Well, if you hadn’t—”
Perhaps, Virgil considered, a quick duck into the lodge might be prudent. However, before he could move the she-wolf stalked past his truck and stomped back inside. Okay, one crisis averted.
Now here came Crisis Part Deux. Darnell sauntered up to him, as if the preceding drama hadn’t just happened. He looked Virgil up and down. That smile couldn’t fool a blind mole. “Vinnie. You’re up and about early.”
“Virgil.” Not that it was going to matter in about an hour or so. He slapped the side of the truck before Darnitall could start asking questions. “Hunting trip. I could be gone for a while.” Yeah. Try forever.
Darnell nodded absently. “Any chance you’ll be running into humans?”
“I’m not planning on it, but there’s always a chance.”
“You know the rules. No open conflict. Self-defense only. Be discreet.” His narrow eyes flicked toward the lodge. The porch still burned with the high, acrid scent of angry bitch. “Our survival as a pack hinges on discretion.”
“I’m going outside our territory, so it isn’t going to matter.” I.e., no chance he’d gossip to the other low-ranks about anything he might have just witnessed. He saw by the glint in Darnitall’s eyes the anal beta got it.
“All right, then. Have a good time. Bring us back some—” His usual suspicious frown returned. “What are you hunting?”
A life not dictated by hidebound high-ranks. “I was thinking elk. I might try Wyoming.”
“Good luck, then.” Darnell swept past him, on the trail of the outraged bitch. Never mind that an elk was too big and tough for a single wolf to bring down on his own. That wasn’t the point. As long as Virgil didn’t yap about anything he’d just seen, he and his plans didn’t matter a beaver’s flat ass to Darnell. Just the way Virgil wanted it.
He transferred the last two boxes from ground to bed of truck, then covered it all with a tarp. No good-byes. One last go-over in his quarters and then it was off to a brighter, better future.
There was no sign of Darnell or the she-wolf in the lobby, Virgil was happy to note. He made it to his room without incident. He had very little to pack up here—some extra clothes, bits of cash he’d stashed away, his favorite running shoes. Nothing in the way of mementos.
It frightened him a little, how easily he could walk away from the place that had been home and family to him for almost twenty-seven years. His place in the world was defined by the pack. What awaited him beyond its borders?
His first thought as a lone wolf brought a thin smile to his lips. Let’s find out.
Returning to his truck, Virgil checked the tarp and found a number of the ties loose. He snorted and secured them. Pups, sniffing around. He was going to miss the pups far more than their rank-rigid parents. His own pups (once he found a mate) would be raised to be more open-minded.
Before he climbed into the cab, he dug a quarter out of his pocket. He had no destination in mind, other than away. Heads, east, tails, west. Virgil tossed the coin, caught it, and slapped it onto his wrist. “East it is,” he murmured.
He drove out of the Hancock compound without a single backward glance. From here on out, everything was forward. He was packless now. With a little luck and a lot of effort on his part, that shouldn’t hold true for long.
# # #
Miles and hours rolled by before Virgil finally glanced in the rearview. He noticed not one but two ties on the tarp had come loose. Fortunately a road sign announced an upcoming rest area. He kept a close eye on the tarp for the full two miles, and pulled over.
His possessions were all still intact. Along with the one he hadn’t packed.
“Hi,” the argumentative she-wolf said. She smiled up at him brightly. “Where we going?”