Adrian Marlow was usually a pretty upbeat guy, if he said so himself, but the closer they got to Harrington Hills, the more sour his mood was becoming.
“I told you that you didn’t have to drive me,” Patrick muttered from the back seat where he‘d relocated earlier to try—and had failed at—catching up on sleep. Their road trip had been great and all, but they weren’t sleeping late most days.
“I told you I don’t mind.” Adrian shot his friend a glance in the rearview mirror. “It’s not like I have a place to be or a deadline to meet.”
The more times he said it, the quicker he should have been used to it, but after three weeks and counting since he’d walked out of his former employer’s office one last time, he still hadn’t gotten there yet.
“You could always drop me in the nearest town or—”
“Dude, what is it with you? I told you. I’m fine.”
Patrick gave him a look in the rearview mirror that Adrian pretended not to see. “You do remember I can sce—sense the anxiety coming off from you, right?”
Scent. That was what Patrick had been about to say and Adrian knew it. He grimaced. “Privacy, please.”
“Can’t help it,” Patrick said with his eyes closed.
If Adrian were lucky, maybe his friend would fall asleep soon—or preferably right this second.
But, no, of course not.
“Also, don’t change the subject. You obviously don’t want to go there, so why are you doing it to yourself?”
“It’s not that I don’t want to go there,” he protested. He wasn’t even lying—much. “I’ve read so many cool things about that pack in the last few years that I’d really like to see it. I’m curious about what makes them so famous.”
“Well, two women at the top of the pack, for one thing,” Patrick told him.
“That would make people talk but wouldn’t gather so much of a good reputation, so you know it’s something else,” Adrian said. They’d had this conversation before, but after they’d spent the last three weeks glued to one another, they were bound to circle around to the same topics.
And Adrian would much rather argue sociopolitics of the werewolf culture for the hundredth time than talk about why he couldn’t quite make himself pass on this visit.
The memories of bright blue eyes and a dimpled smile came back uninvited and Adrian clasped the steering wheel harder.
It might be the most masochistic thing he had ever done, but he just had to… He had to know. He had no desire to see the two of them together, but he hoped that learning Roy was mated, maybe even married, would finally let him move on.
“Whatever,” Patrick muttered, closing his eyes again. “I don’t care what special mojo they have. As long as they let me stay, I’m good.”
Adrian got no response but he didn’t expect one. For all Patrick’s bravado, he had to be stressed about moving across half the country in search of a new pack after being thrown out of the old one. Harrington Pack did seem like the best bet, but it was still a big change. One that Adrian, as a human, couldn’t even fully understand.
He stared at the road ahead. Everything that had happened in the last few weeks—leaving his job, packing up, the long road trip with Patrick—seemed to be coming to some kind of a resolution. It wasn’t going to end in Harrington Hills, not for Adrian, who had plans to continue heading east until he hit the coast, but something was going to happen there. He could feel it.
If he were lucky, he’d be able to free himself of his baggage before leaving the town. If not, he would leave heartbroken, after having an old wound scratched open again. But regardless of the outcome, Harrington Hills would be the last stop on his quest to have a real cleanse of his entire life.
If only his stomach didn’t clench as he passed the sign proclaiming Harrington Hills was only twenty-seven miles out.
* * * *
The town looked lovely at first glance. It had that small-town, cozy feel that was pretty foreign to Adrian, who had spent all his life in San Francisco. He’d seen a lot of small towns in the last few weeks, though. As they had been traveling through the country, they’d usually spent nights in places similar to this one—away from a big city, close to nature, with one area where most of the town life concentrated.
Patrick was wide awake now, staring through the window and taking in the sights.
“Let’s stop for something to eat before we do anything else, all right?” Adrian suggested. The tension in the car was obvious, even to his human senses, and it had to be a nightmare for Patrick. Getting out of the car should help both of them.
“Yeah, let’s. I’m starving.” Patrick pointed to the left. “How about here?”
Adrian caught sight of the diner sign out of the side window and shrugged. He was thinking about something a bit farther away from the center of the town but… “Sure.”
It took him a minute to find a place to park, but they stopped at a little lot in front of a supermarket. He stretched as soon as he left the car and watched Patrick do the same. Then his friend closed his eyes and inhaled deeply. The change was instantaneous. His shoulders dropped and the lines on his face cleared.
“What the hell?” Adrian muttered, more to himself than to Patrick, but of course the guy picked up on it.
He opened his eyes. “It’s a werewolf thing.” At Adrian’s raised eyebrows, he shrugged. “You forbade me to mention anything about smell.”
Adrian rolled his eyes. “I meant it as ‘stop smelling me’ and you know it.” He glanced around. The parking lot was pretty empty, but it was early in the day. Most locals were probably at work. A few people that passed them sent them curious looks but seemed friendly enough.
He still couldn’t relax.
“The smell is… It’s right,” Patrick said, peering around as well. “Peaceful and content. People are happy here, in general.”
Adrian nodded, rubbing the back of his neck. “That’s nice,” he told his friend, not knowing what else to say. “Come on.”
As they walked to the diner, they attracted more looks but, like before, the people seemed friendly enough. Most of them focused on Patrick, anyway.
“It’s because I’m a lone werewolf, outside of their pack,” Patrick told him when he pointed it out. “That drags every wolf’s attention.”
Adrian nodded. He figured it might have been that.
Patrick smirked as he threw his arm around Adrian’s shoulders. “Don’t worry. Your pretty face can still turn some heads, too.”
Adrian snorted. “What a relief.” They walked into the diner and he searched around. No Roy. He knew that even in a small town like Harrington Hills the chance he would run into Roy was small. Still, he couldn’t help himself.
“You boys looking for something?” A waitress with a big smile and an even bigger hairdo came up to them with a swagger in her hips that women half her age would be jealous of. Hell, Adrian was jealous. He had no ‘game’ to speak of, as his friends had repeatedly told him over the years.
“For a big, good breakfast, ma’am,” Patrick told her with a smile and a nod.
Yeah, Patrick definitely had game.
“Oh, I like you.” The waitress grinned at him. “Pick the table. I’ll be right there with you.”
They took a seat at one of the booths next to the windows.
“Stop staring,” Patrick whispered, grabbing the laminated menu and Adrian turned away from the window.
“I can’t help it,” he said but reached for the menu as well. He was hungry. He just wasn’t sure if his tight stomach would tolerate anything.
Then the smells from the kitchen hit him and, oh yeah, he needed to eat something right now.
The waitress—Betty, according to her nametag—came up to them with two mugs and a coffee pot.
“So, what brings two pretty boys like yourselves to Hills?” she asked, pouring them coffee.
“I’m thinking of staying,” Patrick said, picking up his mug in a gesture of a toast. “My friend here gave me a ride.”
Betty searched Adrian up and down then winked. “What a ride that must have been.”
Adrian coughed and heat rose in his face but Patrick just grinned. “Long and hard, of course. Is there any other kind worth talking about?”
Adrian sent him a murderous glare as Betty threw her head back as she laughed.
“We drove from San Francisco,” Adrian said after clearing his throat. “It took us a while.”
“Lovely sights along the way, I bet,” Betty told him, but she winked at Patrick. Adrian just shook his head. He wasn’t going to win with these two.
“Do you know anyone around here or are you just taking a chance?” she asked, leaning her hip against the edge of the booth.
“I don’t, but your town’s reputation precedes you.” Patrick shrugged. “Seemed like a safe enough bet to take a chance on.”
“I knew a guy from around here once,” Adrian found himself saying when Betty glanced at him.
“Oh?” She perked up. “Who?”
She nodded and smiled. “Roy’s born and bred in Hills. Where did you meet? In college?”
Adrian shook his head. “We did an internship in San Francisco at the same law firm years ago.” Ten. Ten years and Adrian still couldn’t let go.
“He has his own law practice here,” Betty said. “He and William handle most of the pack’s business.”
There it was, the name Adrian both expected and feared to hear. Under the table, he curled the fingers of one hand around the wrist of the other.
“They’re running the firm together?” He tried to make it sound like he was just making conversation and Betty seemed to buy it, but Patrick sent him a look that called bullshit.
“Oh, they do everything together, those two.” Betty shook her head with a soft smile.
That…that hurt, but it was what he had expected.
Then, because sometimes it was better to pull off the Band-Aid fast, he asked, “Are they married yet?”
Betty chuckled. “We wish, but no. Still, half the town’s rooting for them, so, there’s always hope.”
Oh, great. That’s what this story needed. Not only are they destined mates or whatever, but they have a fan club, too.
Adrian had to get away from this town as soon as this lunch was over.
“We’d have to convince them to mate first, though,” she added.
Wait, what? They’ve been together for years and haven’t mated? Even with Adrian’s limited knowledge about werewolves, that seemed weird. “Aren’t they…?”
She shrugged. “No, and we don’t know why not, unless you have some insider information you want to share.” She raised one of her very on-point eyebrows, leaning closer, and Adrian coughed.
He had some insider information but apparently it wasn’t worth much. “No, sorry. I haven’t seen Roy in years. You’re definitely more up-to-date.”
“Shoot.” She shrugged before topping off their coffee mugs again. “There’s hoping, though, right?”
Hoping. Yeah, right. He nodded at her and she got around to taking their orders and let them be, leaving Adrian to wallow in the regret of asking her anything at all.
Patrick waited before she disappeared into the kitchen then turned to stare at him. “Dude.”
If ever one word could sound more like ‘What the fuck is wrong with you?’, Adrian was yet to hear it.
He shrugged then hid his face in his arms he’d folded on the table. “I know,” he muttered before turning to gaze through the window again.
And that was when he saw him.
Roy Cocker was crossing the street, and it looked like he was heading to the diner. Adrian hid his face as his heart tried to jump out of his chest. He was so fucked.