"There," he said with a smile. "Was that so hard?"
No, not really. Relaxing back in her seat, Riley closed her eyes. "Q time is now over." She really hoped she slept through the need to pee, because she detested using the tiny bathrooms on airplanes. As Tao's arm curled around her and pulled her close so that her head rested on his shoulder, she frowned. "I can sleep sitting up."
"That's just stupid. You'll wake up with a kink in your neck."
"Fine." Against her better judgment, she relaxed into him. As his fingers toyed with her hair, she drifted off to sleep.
Neither the flight to Arizona nor the drive from the airport to Sedona was very long. However, given that Sedona was a place where traffic was heavy and slow, it took a little while to reach the outskirts, where the Exodus Flock resided. Tao would have lost his patience long ago if it hadn't been for the picturesque view.
He wasn't a person who was moved by scenery, but Sedona was truly a beautiful place. Surrounded by red rock formations, it was situated at the mouth of the Oak Creek Canyon. As he took in the rustic valley boasting cacti, pine trees, bushes, and rocks of various colors, he felt as if he were in an old Western movie or something. His wolf liked it.
"The town's not very well lit," he observed. There weren't even any streetlights. If it hadn't been for his shifter's enhanced vision, he might not have been able to truly appreciate the scenery around him.
Riley kept her face angled toward the partially open window, enjoying the breeze on her skin. "No, but it makes the view of the red rock landscape look even better when the sun sets. We've missed it."
"A lot of tourists here," Tao noted. A lot of commercialized businesses too.
"Sedona is pretty popular. It's considered very spiritual because of the vortexes; a lot of people believe that the energy fields can sort of heighten psychic ability and even raise their self-awareness. People often come here to 'find' themselves. Boynton Canyon, which isn't far from where we're heading, is thought of as the most sacred in the Red Rock Country. Sage told me that many American Indians consider Sedona so sacred that they won't live here. The Exodus Flock, however, are regarded as guardians."
He gave Riley a sideways glance. "You told me that you and Cynthia clash. Do you think there's a chance you two will end up battling at some point?"
"If we did, it wouldn't be the first time," said Riley. "We've had plenty of fights over the years. They were battles for dominance, really. Our mutual dislike goes right back to childhood. We're just very different."
"She's smart and she always worked hard during lessons-the regular star student. I was never academic, I just wanted to be outside in the sun, so she thought she was very superior to me. She was also an awful snitch who cried whenever she didn't get her way, even for simple stuff like if she wasn't picked first for sports.
"Still, she wasn't a major problem until she grew tits and boys started looking her way; then she turned into a complete nightmare. Brash, bitchy, fashion-conscious, and totally obsessed with the male gender. Seriously, she gave away more pussy than a cat rescue center."
He chuckled. "You have a way with words."
"There honestly wasn't much she wouldn't have done to get a guy's attention. I would have felt sad for her if it was because she was secretly insecure and trying to compensate for it, but I once heard her tell her friend that she was going to have every boy in the flock so that whoever they later mated would always know she'd had them first
Tao shook his head. "Sleeping with them all was a form of domination to her."
"Yes. She wasn't just using them; she was marking every one of them in her own weird way. I think Sawyer knew that, because he never once touched her. Not until after I left, anyway."
"I think that was part of his attraction for me. But enough about them." Riley sat up straight. "We're not far from Exodus territory. Two minutes away, at most." That was a good thing, because, according to the text messages she'd received from Lucy, the party was in full swing.
"A little," she admitted. "It's been a long time since I was last here. I don't really know what to expect, and I don't like that I don't know what to expect."
"Your uncles will be happy to see you. That's all that matters, right?"
She nodded. "Right." Soon enough they reached the border of the flock's territory. Riley smiled. "There's Lucy." Duncan was also there, obviously in on the secret.
At Lucy's urging, Tao whipped the rental car into a mostly full parking lot.
Lucy immediately pulled open the passenger seat, smiling like a loon. "I'm so glad you're here! Duncan will take your bags to the guest cabin-I've put you in the one near the waterfall. It's the prettiest."
While the two females hugged, Tao took the duffels out of the trunk and handed them to the male raven. His wolf took an instant dislike to him simply because he didn't know him; Tao sensed the distrust was mutual. Still, the males managed not to snarl at each other.
When Riley grabbed a small gift-wrapped box and pink card and held them against her chest like a shield, Tao squeezed her shoulder and shot her an encouraging look.
Lucy opened the trunk of another car and said, "Tao can carry the card and gift. You need to carry this." She picked a white box out of the trunk and lifted the lid, revealing a large, rectangular cake covered in white icing and some kind of edible photo-Tao couldn't quite make it out. Obligingly he took the card and present from Riley, who then carefully took the cake.
Guiding Tao and Riley quickly toward a forested area, Lucy said, "The party's taking place in the clearing."
Tao didn't need her to point it out; he could hear the music blasting.
Lucy paused. "I never thought to ask if you need to freshen up."
"I probably should," said Riley, "but if I hang around there's a good chance I'll be seen."
"True," said Lucy. "Then our efforts would have been for nothing." Lucy paused midway through the woods. From there Tao could see lights twinkling up ahead. Balloons and streamers were tied to trees and bobbing with the breeze.
"How many people know Riley's coming?" he asked.
"Me, my parents, Sawyer, our Beta, and Duncan. I couldn't trust the others to keep it quiet. If Cynthia found out, she'd have told Riley's uncles out of sheer spite." Turning to Riley, she gripped her arms. "You ready?"
Riley took a deep breath. "I'm ready."
"Good. Listen for a cheer. That's your signal to light the candle and get moving. By the time we start singing 'Happy Anniversary,' you should be entering the circle." Lucy handed Tao a lighter and gave Riley a nod of approval. "You did the right thing." The female then jogged away.
Tao blinked at Riley. "They sing 'Happy Anniversary'?"
"In the same rhythm that they sing 'Happy Birthday,'" she confirmed. "Cheesy, I know."