Chapter 5

It was only a few minutes’ drive to Angie’s, and the only conversation until they pulled into the parking lot consisted of giving directions. The brick diner sat at one of the town’s most busy intersections. Its neighbors were a pharmacy, a gas station, and a car factory. This made it the go-to spot. It also helped that Angie was willing to hire and serve anyone as long as they knew how to behave. She didn’t care if you were an aberration or a norm.

The interior had an old-fashioned diner feel to it without dipping into the tackiness of the fifties. It wasn’t too busy now since it was a Monday night and the factory’s shift change was hours off. That left plenty of empty tables to choose from.

After giving the whole diner a quick once-over, Ethan sat in a corner booth at the far end. Almost as soon as they sat down the waitress headed right over to us. The always-smiling Ruth was in her early twenties and could give Zephyra a run for her money in the looks department. She always tried to give Ruth a good tip when she was there.

“Evening, Zeph and company. What can I get you two tonight? Or do you still need a minute?” She spoke with her usual cheerfulness, but she gave Ethan a wary glance.

Zephyra slipped off her jacket and set it to the side as she answered. “Hey, I’ll have a coffee.” Ethan followed suit, taking off his jacket and ordering a coffee, but he went with a slice of apple pie. Ruth rushed off to get our coffee and Ethan his pie.

“So, Mr.?” Zephyra started, not sure what his last name was.

“Ethan, please,” he told her politely, ruining his bad-boy persona even further. He leaned back in his booth, glancing once more around the diner.

“Then call me Zephyra. Mrs. Callahan is my mother. I’m far too young for ma’am and Ms.” Zephyra told him.

He turned back to her with a nod and that smile again, but alas the damage was done. The twinge wasn’t as strong as it was before. Zephrya chastised herself, realizing how shallow that was of her. Ruth brought them their coffee, assuring the pie would be ready shortly and then skipped off to help her other customers. Zephyra held the warm, chipped cup in her hands with a blissful sigh.

“Now that’s what I’m talking about,” she said as she began adding cream and sugar, feeling almost like a mad scientist experimenting. Zephyra ignored the way his mouth tilted upwards just a little as he watched her. She took a sip, enjoying how the heat of the coffee spread through her. “So, you wanted to talk about hunting arrangements. Have you thought of anything?”

“I don’t believe that it’s going to be that big of a problem,” Ethan said, after a long draw from the white mug in front of him. “I’m sure that what happened with Noah was just a one-time deal, but Billy Jean wanted to get your take on it first.”

Zephyra played with her mug for a moment, deciding she definitely liked the female alpha. “Are you a hunter, Ethan? I mean an actual hunter not the when the moon is full my wolf goes out and hunts its dinner type of hunter.”

When Zephyra got the expected negative headshake she explained, “We hunters are as picky about our territory as you shifters are. Each of us has our little piece of the forest. We’ve explored it, we know it, and we care for it. Most importantly, we expect other hunters to respect that it’s our space.”

At that time, Ruth brought Ethan his pie. The piece of confectionary beauty drew Zephyra’s eyes, and she was sure it had called her name, beckoning her to eat it.

“Don’t even think about it,” Ethan warned as Ruth dashed off yet again. “I may not be some goddess-trained expert hunter, but I will defend this little piece of heaven with my life!”

He looked so deadly serious that Zephyra couldn’t stop the laugh that bubbled out of her. With a cocky grin, she replied, “I don’t want your pie, but I could totally get it from you if I wanted.” Ethan’s eyes seemed to sparkle with an unspoken dare: try me. The twinges returned full force.

Zephyra swallowed, glancing down at her mug to regain some of her footing. Looking back up, she went back to the reason they were there in the first place. “Your friend Noah was lucky it was me he ran into and not one of the norm hunters. I’d bet my next ten tags that if a norm hunter had seen him, they would’ve gone straight to the mayor.”

“What can the mayor do?” Ethan asked. “After today, I get that he’s not a fan of shifters, but what could he do if some norm complained about us?”

“Tell me, does any of your pack have hunting licenses?”

He shook his head again.

“If a norm complained to the mayor, he would legally be able to stick that shifter with hundreds of dollars in fines and even jail time. He wouldn’t just stop there either. Mayor Thomas is nothing if not diligent and thorough. He would most likely use one shifter’s violation as an excuse to have the rest of us investigated. He’d start with my mother and me and then move on to any aberrations who do business with us. Which in some form or another is everyone. Such an investigation would make a lot of us uncomfortable and very unhappy with your pack. This isn’t even touching on the fact that the shifter tried to attack me, which is assault.”

Zephyra realized at that moment, by the look on Ethan’s face, that Noah forgot to mention that part. “Can you imagine how it’d go down if he’d done that to a norm?” she told him. Her tone was devoid of emotion, allowing the simple statement to emphasize the obvious implications. It’d be a total nightmare! Zephyra waited for him to absorb everything and come to the only smart conclusion. There needed to be some arrangement so that norm hunters didn’t feel threatened by the shifters.

“Alright,” Ethan said. “I see your point. So, do you have any suggestions then?”

“Yes, of course. Follow the rules,” she told him and waved a dismissive hand at Ruth, who had started making her way towards them with a pot of coffee. She turned on her heel and offered a refill to the couple next to her instead.

“If your pack wants to take a forest stroll, even on four legs, stick close to the hiking trails. Get your hunting licenses, and make sure you respect the restrictions and seasons.”

Ethan seemed thoughtful as he took another drink of his coffee and then finished off his pie. “Okay. I’ll do that. We don’t want to get off on the wrong foot with anyone, norms, or aberrations.”

Zephyra gave him a nod, tossing the money for her coffee and a good tip onto the table. “Well, I have to head back home. I need to get up early in the morning.”

She stood and he followed, picking up the money she’d laid down and going to take care of their tab. Zephyra put on her jacket and left the diner when Ethan finished. A gust of chilly wind blew past us, and she pulled her jacket tighter. Walking home was so going to suck.

“I can take you home, so you don’t have to walk,” Ethan offered.

She hesitated at first, but the offer sounded like that of a Good Samaritan instead of a guy wanting to get a girl alone so he could have his wicked way with her. “Sure, if you insist,” she said with a grin, walking over to the minivan.

The drive was silent, and when he pulled into the driveway, he said, “I’ll make sure that the hunters are up to code by the end of the week. I think I’ll talk to the wildlife people too and see if we can’t get something set up for the full moon.”

“Yeah? That would be perfect,” Zephyra said, impressed. Perhaps her parents were just being paranoid. Right now, he didn’t seem any more dangerous than the rest of the aberrations.

“Hey, Zephyra,” he called as she started to get out of the car. When he had her attention, Ethan said, “When I do ask you out, it will definitely be a lot better than that.” He smiled a purely devilish smile that had her re-thinking those sexual escapades.

“That’s good to know, but don’t waste your moves on me. The answer would be no,” she told him and closed the car door before he could say anything else. Zephyra retreated into the house in a quick sprint, but as she shut the door, Zephyra wondered if he might think she was running from him. That was a surefire way to get labeled as prey. “Damn it.”

Zephyra took out her phone, sending a text to both Ellie and Jess to tell them she was home. Almost immediately, her cell chimed with a reply. Ellie must have talked to Jess because her text said she was immensely relieved that Zephyra was back home safe and not mate bait — at least not yet. She wasn’t sure if she wanted to laugh or smack them both a good one.

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