Emmitt’s Treasure by Melissa Haag
“Seriously, Emmitt, when’re you coming home?”
I sighed and leaned against the wall of the gas station. The buzz emitting from the pay phone receiver was getting under my skin.
“I don’t know. I need to ride for a while. Nothing’s feeling right lately.”
“PMS?” Jim asked in a completely serious tone.
“Jim, if you keep that up, he’ll never come home,” Winifred said in the background.
“How’s everything going there?” I asked, almost smiling.
“Good. Your apartment’s done and waiting for you.”
“How’s the job?”
“It’s a job. I get to spend all day outside and be lazy. Nothing better.”
Working construction with a human crew couldn’t be very challenging. Jim probably thought he was being lazy; but based on his pay increases and promotions, I knew otherwise.
“Talked to my boss about hiring you when you get your butt back here,” Jim said. “He’s interested. Apparently a military background counts for something.”
I laughed and shook my head.
“Yeah, so I’ve heard.”
One of the reasons my parents had wanted me to join the military was that it would be the ultimate test to blend in with humans, a skill I would need as the next leader. My reason for joining was to run away from what they had planned for me.
“Hear from Mom and Dad?” I asked.
“Yeah, Dad called from town, checking to see how things are coming here. They want to send a few families our way by winter.”
I suppressed a groan as I looked off at the trees and considered what waited for me.
“Riding around won’t make it go away,” Jim said softly. “Just tell them no.”
“Yeah, right. Have you ever tried telling Mom no?”
“Yep. I do it every time there’s an Introduction. ‘Jim, honey,’” Jim said with a motherly falsetto, “‘you should come see Natalie. This is her first Introduction...you never know.’ They’ve been pushing even harder now that the human girl, Gabby, is off the market. It’s your turn, brother.”
“Explain to me again why I’m the one who needs to pick up the slack.”
“Because you take life seriously. If you would have tried harder at being a screw-up, this wouldn’t be happening.”
“Jim.” Winifred’s scolding tone had me grinning.
“You never change,” I said to Jim.
“My time’s almost up. I’ll talk to you soon.”
“You better. A week. Tops.”
After I hung up, I ran a hand over the back of my shaved head in frustration. I wasn’t avoiding going home. I was avoiding what came with being home.
Sighing, I turned and walked toward my bike, the only thing I owned. It wasn’t anything extravagant. I’d bought it used and cleaned it up as best I could. It ran well, was cheap on gas, and got me where I needed to go. If only the rest of my life would fall neatly into place like that.
Since I’d been a cub, my parents had raised me with the expectation that I would someday run my own pack. Now, according to them, someday was here. The whole point of joining the military, from their point of view, was to gain the discipline I needed to be a good leader and to gain knowledge of the humans so I could lead our people into a safer future.
The thought had me running a hand over the stubble of my hair again. I needed to help my people. I wanted to. I just didn’t think I was the right guy for the job. With a werewolf father and a human mother, who would follow me?
Though my parents didn’t want to see it, there was still a divide among our people: those who thought my parents were leading us in the right direction and those who still looked down on humans. I’d run into a few of the latter, all Forlorn, loners in our society. They hadn’t looked at me with acceptance. In fact, if I’d been alone at the time, I was pretty sure I wouldn’t be walking around now.
And my parents thought I should lead our people? Not a chance. If I were honest with myself, it wasn’t just acceptance. It was the desire to lead. I was tired of shouldering the responsibility of doing what I was told.
I put on a helmet for appearance’s sake, then my sunglasses. Absurd precautions for my kind; yet, if we wanted to fit in with humans, we needed to follow their rules. After all, they didn’t know we could heal cuts within minutes or mend broken bones within hours. They couldn’t know. That was the whole point of trying to blend in, while still maintaining our distance, to keep the existence of our race secret.
With a kick, I started the bike and eased from the parking lot. Riding was almost as freeing as shifting and going for a run. Almost. I opened the throttle and let go for a while.
My stomach let me know when I needed a break. I pulled over at a little diner and parked the bike in a nearly empty lot. The exhaust the kitchen was kicking out held the lingering scents of breakfast sausage. I grinned and idly scratched my stomach in anticipation. Breakfast food was one thing the mess hall just never got right, and I hoped the diner would still serve it, even if it was past lunch.
The waitress greeted me with a smile as I walked in.
“Sit anywhere you’d like, hun.”
I headed toward a booth at the front by the wall of windows. After tossing my jacket on the bench seat and setting the helmet on the table, I slid in and watched the traffic pass the place by until the waitress came over.
“Coffee?” she asked as she handed over the menu. She had a pot of regular in the other hand.
“Still serving breakfast?”
“For you, sure,” she said in a friendly, flirtatious way universal to most waitresses.
“Then coffee sounds great.”
She turned over the cup already on the table and filled it. Then, before she could walk away, I ordered the hearty man’s breakfast. If Jim would have seen what was all included, he would have been in heaven. With that thought, I realized how much I missed my brother.
As much as I wanted to avoid the pressure of returning home, I knew I wouldn’t keep riding aimlessly. I sighed. Getting home would only take a day if I pushed through the night.
The waitress came with my food after a few minutes. Two plates. Oh, yeah.
I dug in, eating the sausage first. I didn’t pay any attention to the car that pulled in; I was already planning what I’d do when I got home. First, the job Jim had mentioned. The more time I spent away from the house the better, once the families arrived. Knowing my mom, she’d be sending families with daughters. I wasn’t opposed to meeting women. I was opposed to false hope or shallow interludes. We were meant to Mate for life, not date aimlessly.
It wasn’t until a young woman and two boys were halfway across the parking lot that I looked up from my food. When she caught my attention, I froze. Everything inside me died and was reborn in the aftermath of the swift intangible pull I felt.
She was looking straight at me with her light baby blues. Her long, brown hair was pulled back into a simple ponytail. Her sun-kissed skin and full lips made swallowing difficult. She was beautiful. She was perfect. She was...starting to look a little embarrassed.
I realized I was staring while holding my fork halfway to my mouth. Nice one, I thought as I finished the bite and reached for my coffee. But, I didn’t look away. I couldn’t.
She continued walking toward the diner, maintaining eye contact until she passed the window. Anticipation for the first whiff of her scent had me tense.
The bell above the door rang, and a breeze swept in with them. I inhaled slowly and frowned. The bitter tang of fear coated the air. I couldn’t smell anything else.
I listened to the waitress tell the girl to sit anywhere. She walked past on the way to a booth at the far back of the place. It wasn’t just her fear, but that of the little boys holding her hands. They both looked close to the same age. Maybe four years. What could four-year-olds fear so much?
She stood to the side to let the children slide into the booth then sat down next to them. One of the boys had dark hair and a tan complexion like her. The other boy was blonde and paler, but had her eyes.
I hoped she would look at me, but she stared down at the placemat on the table. Her breathing grew light and her blinks slowed. Taking another sip of coffee, I studied her, noting what I’d first missed. Dark smudges under her eyes, a pale ring around her lips, and the underlying sickly tint to her olive skin told me she was not only afraid, but exhausted to the point of collapse.
She didn’t seem to notice when the waitress approached the table.
“Can I start you with something to drink?”
The young woman just continued to blink at the placemats. Finally, the blonde boy nudged her.
“Mimi,” he said quietly.
The woman blinked and looked around, finally seeing the waitress standing next to the table.
“I’m sorry. What did you say?”
The sound of her voice was warm and soft like a summer’s breeze back home. I wanted to close my eyes and let the sound wash over me. Then her lips curved ever so slightly into a smile, distracting me from my fascination and giving me something new to obsess over while the waitress repeated her question, wrote down their order, and left.
A slightly worried frown marred the woman’s features as she rested her chin in her hands and gazed around the room while the kids colored on their placemats.
Before she caught me again, I looked away, pretending that she didn’t have my complete attention. Should I introduce myself now? Should I wait until they were done eating?
I’d watched human men interact with human women over the years. There were many ways to a successful approach, but it depended on the man and the woman. I wasn’t shy. I was direct but not forceful. That put me in a tough position. From what I’d observed, direct men were often shot down by quiet women. And, she was definitely a quiet woman.
I glanced at her again and saw her closed eyes and relaxed face. Her exhaustion decided it. I’d wait until they were ready to leave then make sure she didn’t plan on driving.
The waitress came with my bill, and I thanked her and asked for more coffee. While I waited, the young woman fought valiantly to open her eyes again. The need to care for her, to help her rest, clawed at me.
When her eyes opened, she was looking straight at me. I calmly took another drink and turned to watch out the window, but seconds later, my eyes were back on her.
The waitress brought their drinks, and the woman took a huge swallow. I wanted to tell her it wouldn’t do any good. Her body needed rest, not fluids.
She caught me watching again and arched a brow at me. It was the cutest damn thing I’d seen in so long, I couldn’t help but grin. She frowned at me and turned away, focusing her attention on the boys.
The waitress brought their food, and I continued to sip my coffee and wait for them. For her.
When the kids finished, she paid and led them into the bathroom. I took that as my cue to get out of there.
While standing by my bike, I started planning what I’d say. How could I be direct without scaring her off? Hi, my name’s Emmitt. I noticed you look a little tired. Should you be driving? That sounded like I was judging her. Hi, my name’s Emmitt. Nice day isn’t it? I was really glad Jim wasn’t within earshot. Without a doubt, I was about to make an ass of myself.
A big SUV pulled in and parked on the other side of the car. I wanted to growl. She’d be less likely to accept help with others around. Maybe they’d head inside before she came out.
Two men exited the vehicle. They looked around the parking lot, glanced at me dismissively, then moved to the trunk. They didn’t open it. They didn’t talk; I would have heard even a whisper. They just stood there. Humans. Even after all the years I spent in the service, I still hadn’t fully figured them out.
The door to the restaurant opened, and my gut clenched as I listened to the woman and two kids make their way toward me. I opened the bag on my bike and pretended to look in it. When she came close, I’d—
“She’s coming,” I heard one of the men behind the car whisper.
I frowned and stayed focused on my bag as she passed me. What did those men want with my Mate?
The woman had almost made it to her car when her steps faltered. I looked up and inhaled deeply. Her fear salted the breeze as she stood frozen, facing the SUV. She obviously knew the vehicle.
One of the kids made a small sound of distress. Cubs shouldn’t know that kind of fear.
She broke free of her panic enough to look around. The men were still behind the SUV, though, out of sight.
“You circle around,” one of them said softly, a second before a man stepped around the front.
His grin held a streak of meanness as he looked her over.
“Michelle, you look terrible,” he said.
Hearing her name was heaven. Hearing it from a man who seemed to know her too well was torture.
“In fact,” he continued, “I’d have to say you look like hell. Not surprising since you’ve only been sitting still a few minutes at a time. I’ve followed you long enough. It’s time to come home. Good thing Blake knew Richard arranged for you to have this.” He patted the car. “You might have disappeared without a trace otherwise.”
Blake? Richard? I glanced at her hand and saw no recent signs of a wedding ring. However, I couldn’t say I was happy with all the male names the man was throwing around. But, whoever they were, she’d left them. From the things this guy was saying, though, she wouldn’t have a chance to get away unless someone helped her. I was ready to step forward when she straightened her shoulders and spoke.
“How’s your head?” she asked. “You went down pretty hard.”
I grinned. She had fight in her.
The man narrowed his eyes, but she didn’t back down.
“Walk away, David,” she said.
“You know I can’t.”
He took a step forward, and she nudged the boys behind her. That was my cue. As he took another step toward her, I took a few steps of my own. He finally noticed me when I was a few feet behind her.
“Does this man have any legal rights to these kids?” I asked. It wouldn’t change the fact that she was mine, but I needed to know how to approach the situation. No cubs should see their father get his tail handed to him.
“None,” she said, keeping her eyes on the man before her. “Their father recently passed away. This man is no relation to me or my stepfather.”
Not her husband, then. Good. I stepped closer, drowning in her scent as I stared down the man threatening her.
“Then you and your partner should walk away like she said.”
Michelle looked to the left and spotted the man who’d been creeping around the side of her car.
“Two to one,” the first man said with a grin. “Better for your health to move along.”
A half laugh escaped me.
“I’m not too worried about it,” I said.
As soon as she tucked the boys’ heads into her hips, I knew she understood what was going to happen. The men hadn’t figured it out yet, though. The talker drew a gun and aimed for me as his partner stepped out from the car, right between me and the gun.
I dove for the partner, knocking him between the cars so the kids wouldn’t see if they tried to peek. Then I drew back and hit him in the face harder than I intended. The bone of his nose crunched with the impact. The need to contact an Elder gripped me, and I mentally reached out to Winifred.
Winifred, I’m reporting an incident with a human. He started a fight with an unprotected woman. I broke his nose.
Thank you for reporting the incident, she said back to me.
I might have more to report in a few minutes.
Foregoing the use of my speed, I ducked around front of the SUV to circle the man with the gun. He knew what I planned because he took a step back, making his way toward me and further away from Michelle and the kids. I grinned and waited. As soon as he cleared the side of the SUV, I yanked him from their view. A punch to the head knocked him out.
Two men knocked out in the parking lot of a diner. I wasn’t paying attention to the name of the town. The woman’s safe.
Emmitt, I hope you have a good explanation for breaking our la—
She’s my Mate. She’s human and doesn’t know what I am, Winifred.
There was a brief pause.
Bring her home, Emmitt.
Home. Wiping any blood from my hands, I stepped out from behind the SUV, not knowing what to say. A comment about the weather was the last thing she’d want to hear.
“Thank you,” she said, staring at me with her big, wide eyes.
She looked worse than she had in the diner. My girl was going to crash hard, but I needed to get her away from the diner parking lot before she did. If the police were called, they would ask questions and try to put her back into the life she’d escaped, a life that didn’t include me.
“Can you drive for a few miles?”
She nodded slowly, but doubt pulled at her expression.
“Good. I’ll follow you to make sure these two don’t.”
Bitter little puffs of fear were coming from the kids who were staring at me.
“Need help getting your kids in?” I asked, looking down at the boys.
“No, but thanks.”
I followed behind them and watched her open the back door. Once the boys were both in, I opened the door for her and waited to make sure she buckled. Her moves were slow and measured. I wanted to offer to drive, but I couldn’t leave the bike. It would be too obvious who’d knocked out the men. The police could trace the plates right to my place.
“Just drive south,” I said. “I’ll be right behind you.”
She nodded, and I looked her over once more before closing the door. Introducing myself would have to wait; she was scared and dead on her feet. I hoped she had enough in her to get out of town and somewhere to rest. After that, well, maybe we’d have more to talk about than the weather.