Authors: Morgan Rae
The hammer thumped loudly as Jacob nailed the hardwood floors down. Westmore Works got all kinds of odd jobs—some days, it was drilling around a doghouse; other days, it was planting trees in someone’s backyard. Today, it was installing new hardwood floors into the MacLeans’ living room. Good people—Jacob knew them from on-and-off jobs and Sundays at church. He’d give them a discount.
Besides, he needed to do this job as much as they needed someone to do it. The swing of the hammer calmed his nerves and the act of lifting heavy planks one by one eased some of the tension off the energy bouncing around inside of him.
After Holly left for work, his hands started shaking again. Now, with a little elbow grease and pure, physical strain, he could push the Beast back again. Tame the moon sickness. Just until Holly got back, at least.
“Hey, boss!” Jacob glanced up and saw Brent—his brother and working partner for the day—step around the pile of wooden slabs to get to him. Brent crouched down and raked his fingers through his gelled-back hair. “Listen, might be we got a problem on our hands.”
Didn’t like the sound of that
. “What is it?”
Brent perched his arms over his knees, hands dangling down. “There was a bear sighting yesterday in one of our spots. Hollow Creek.”
“One of ours?” Jacob asked.
Brent shook his head. “Nope. Sounds like we’re dealing with the Davos clan.”
“Alright.” Already, Jacob could feel that itch inside him, like a tickling cough. The Beast knocking on his insides. He cleared his throat and then said, “Let’s finish up here, then we’ll pay Davos a visit.”
The Westmores were the strongest clan in Etna, but they weren’t the
clan. The Davos clan was a rough-and-tumble group that operated mostly out of the Weeping Willow Tavern, a rodeo bar not far from Red Moon Ranch. Too close for comfort, really, but Jacob was an inclusive Alpha. Territory boundaries just incited the Beast in everyone and caused conflict. So everyone got a piece of everything, as long they followed some basic ground rules. And—
“You got spotted,” Jacob explained. “That’s a violation.”
“Aw, c’mon now,” Major, the Alpha of the Davos clan, flashed Jacob a crooked grin. “Bears get spotted all the time on these mountains. It happens, right? Nothing to shed a tear about.”
They sat across from each other in the plush red booths of the Weeping Willow Tavern, Jacob and Brent on one side, Major and his Beta on the other side. The bar still had a couple hours before it opened, but country music crooned softly over the speakers. The tavern was a favorite for shifters in the area and the place was covered in animal smells, not to mention the scents of the Davos clan and Major’s Alpha aura. All of it roused Jacob’s Beast and he felt his hands begin to tremble once more.
“The bear was spotted in
territory,” Jacob said, voice low, trying to keep the growl out of it. “That puts eyes on my ranch.”
,” Major coaxed with that same smile. “Red Moon Ranch has seen worse. They can handle one meager bear sighting every now and then. What’s the Sherriff gonna do, hire hunters, start a witch hunt?”
“Point is,” Brent interjected, “we don’t want it to get to that point.”
Major laughed, lifting his hands. “You’re all blowing this out of proportion—”
“That’s my family!” Jacob roared and slammed his hand down. The table shook and his claws made dents.
. He realized before it was too late, and just then, Brent put his hands on Jacob’s shoulders. “Give us a second, yeah?”
Jacob felt Brent usher him to the back of the bar, out the door. Brent was trying to tell him something, but he couldn’t hear over the rush of blood in his ears, the gnawing pain in his muscles. Jacob doubled over with a groan; he could feel his gums stretching, his teeth lengthening to fangs, the Beast raging through him—
The sound of his name shot him back to life and Jacob glanced up. He could see worry in Brent’s eyes as the other man held him up and said, “Hold it together…what am I gonna tell Holly if you go full-bear in the middle a’ town, huh?”
. Her name was like an ice bath, slowing the rush of Beast in his blood.
. He thought about her smile. He thought about the way she chewed the end of her pen. He thought about the way she curled up against him when he slept, fitting perfectly in his arms, and how holding her filled his chest with warmth.
Jacob braced himself against Brent and caught his breath. Slowly, he felt the Beast recede back inside of him.
“Y’alright, boss?” Brent gave his shoulder a squeeze as Jacob rose full onto two legs.
His shirt had ripped around the shoulders, tattering his back, but he nodded. “I’m fine. Get me back to the booth.”
“Don’t strain yourself,” Brent muttered.
“I’m fine,” Jacob said, more adamantly.
Brent sighed and shrugged out of his leather jacket. “Shit…you’re a stubborn bastard, y’know that? Here.” Brent held out the jacket and Jacob slipped it on, successfully hiding the rips in his shirt.
By time they got back to the booth, Major and his Beta looked pale, shaken. It’d been unintentional, but nothing rattled another clan like an angry, Beast-roaring Alpha. “So we’ve put some thought into it,” Major said, “and you’re right. I’m sorry we were careless…it won’t happen again. Is there anything we can do to make it up to you, Jacob?”
“Just don’t do it again,” Jacob said, exhausted. His forehead pounded.
Brent perched on the cushions and glanced around. “How much does that mechanical bull go for?” Brent asked. He pointed to a shoddy, rusted-up mechanical bull in the corner.
Major’s eyebrows lifted. “That old thing? It’s busted. Hasn’t worked in years. She’s just there for show now.”
“I’ll help you fix it if y’let us ride it for free,” Brent said. Jacob shot him a glare. Brent shrugged. “What?”
“Hey, you’d be doing
a favor, taking her off our hands,” Major said, then laughed and slapped his Beta on the back. “Always good working with you, boys.”
After she had finished her classes, Holly scooped up her books and made her way out the door. Her heels click-clacked on the ground as she walked down the pathway to the parking lot and, with every step, all she could think about was putting her feet in a nice ice bath and letting the soreness pour out of her muscles.
Luckily, she didn’t have to stand in her shoes much longer. She recognized Jacob’s beat-up pickup truck immediately and walked as quickly as her heels would allow towards it. Jacob got out before she could get too far and opened up the passenger-side door for her (
—she would have to get used to that). “Thank you,” she said and plopped ungracefully into her seat.
“Of course,” he said and got into the driver’s seat. There, he leaned over and closed his mouth over hers. If it was meant to be a simple greeting kiss, his intentions seemed to shift as soon as his lips touched hers, and he lingered there, tasting her.
Holly finally pulled back with a chuckle. “Did you miss me?”
“You’ve got no idea.” His lips found their way down the side of her neck. She felt crazy, far too old and responsible to be necking in his truck like teenagers within full sight of the faculty and students. Yet, with a single touch of his lips, Holly felt her pussy bud between her legs, petals swelling with blood, aching to be parted by his enormous cock right now, right here, in the back of his truck—
Holly laughed breathily and squeezed her legs tighter, knowing he could smell her lust, knowing it would make him all the more ravenous. Then she felt his teeth brush against her throat—a sharp reminder of the Beast that lay dwelling inside her husband—and the spike of fear brought her back to reality. “Jacob,” she whispered, “not here…”
“Of course.” Jacob peeled back, took her hand, and pressed a small kiss to the back of it. The lust-haze in his eyes made her throb. “How was your day?”
“Exhausting.” The English teacher was normally better at using her words, but right now, language seemed to fail her.
“Y’ready to go home then?”
She nodded, vehemently. More than ready. Ready for him to close the door to their house behind them and pin her up against the wall.
“Alright.” Jacob pushed the truck into gear, and then added, “I’ve just gotta make one pit stop, if you ain’t too tired.”
Pit stop? Her throat went dry; she wanted him too badly for a pit stop. And he knew that, didn’t he? Was that a hint of a smug grin on his lips? She regained her composure and smiled. “I’m not too tired. Take all the time you need.”
You’re a grown woman,
she chastised herself.
“Shouldn’t take long,” he said and then the truck squealed and rumbled down the road.
The pit stop turned out to involve taking a trip to the market to pick up firewood for a bonfire. By time they got to the ranch, Brent had already set up the fire pit. The sun set in crimson and pale yellow streaks across the sky and, one by one, the Westmore clan filtered outside and found their way around the fire. They cooked skewers of chicken and hot dogs and Mama Mae joined with pasta salad and a green bean casserole.
The flames burned with a roar and Holly leaned back against Jacob’s strong chest, stomach full, admiring the inky outline of the mountains in the distance. They popped open beers for the adults and a bag of marshmallows for the kids, Tanner and Trish. Holly partook in the marshmallow festivities and, when one of the gooey marshmallows lit on fire, Trish screeched.
“Alright, last one,” Cassidy told the kids.
The kids whined and turned to Holly. “Don’t look at me.” She laughed. “What mama says goes.”
Brent got up and patted Jacob’s shoulder. “Y’got a second to talk, boss?”
“Yeah, sure,” Jacob said. He leaned in and pressed a kiss to the side of Holly’s neck before unraveling from her body. “This will only take a minute,” he said.
“Okay,” Holly said, trying not to feel like luggage tossed to the side before take-off. But then Jacob cupped her cheek and gave her a small, lingering kiss and she felt a swoon coming on.
“Be good.” He winked and then stepped away from the fire, going to the porch to talk with Brent in private.
Holly settled back in. Cassidy’s husband—the strong, silent type—started shepherding the kids away and then turned to Holly. “We’re going to call it a night.”
A tall, lanky woman stepped around the fire, clearing the empty beers, and said, “Can I get you anything, Mrs. Westmore?”
. Sounded like royalty. “I’m okay, thanks,” Holly said with a smile.
“Alright.” Once the trash was collected, the woman scampered back into the house.
“C’mere, scamps, say goodnight to your mama,” Cassidy said, pressing sloppy kisses to both her children’s cheeks. Cassidy’s husband leaned over and pressed a goodnight kiss to her mouth. Holly watched on, trying not to stare. Even though they were all half-bear, they seemed so…
The crowd scattered, leaving Cassidy and Holly as the last women standing. “You don’t have to wait up with me,” Holly reassured.
“Nah, I like watching the fire burn down,” Cassidy said. The fire cracked and hissed before Cassidy asked, “So what’s it like to be the queen?”
“I’m sorry?” Holly asked, surprised.
“You should be.” A grin curled over Cassidy’s lips. “You’ve broken the hearts of women everywhere, snatching my brother up.” She gave a nod towards Jacob and Holly felt herself color.
“I’m lucky,” Holly tried quietly.
“Human, no less. How’d you manage to swing that one?”
Holly’s eyes grew wide. “What—?”
Cassidy laughed. “This ranch isn’t what it seems, kid. Heck, this town is full of shifters. Bears, cougars, you name it.”
Cassidy took a swig of beer and Holly felt a tremor of unease.
“You can relax,” Cassidy continued. “As long as you’ve got the Alpha of Red Moon Ranch by your side, you’re safe.”
“I guess he’s kind of a big deal, huh?” Holly asked timidly. He was just her husband to her. Her weird, handsome, troubling husband.
“My idiot brother really hasn’t told you anything, has he?” Cassidy scoffed.
Cassidy sighed. “Alright. So you have my brother, your husband, Jacob, Alpha of Red Moon. That means if he barks, everyone straightens up to listen. Brent is his Beta—that’s second-in-command for you fur-virgins. The Red Moon clan is one of the strongest in Northern California. It’s our family bond that makes us so powerful. Other clans—they get into petty fights, they leave each other. We’re loyal to the end.”
Absently, Holly’s eyes followed the lanky woman that was making her way to the house where Jacob and Brent were huddled together.
, that’s what the women are called,” Cassidy said, following Holly’s line of vision and leaning in as though she had some great secret to tell. “Girls who hang around hoping one of the bears will take notice and Mark them. Being Marked by the Red Moon clan…that’s protection for life. You can think of them as the Red Moon fan club. Only instead of carrying gift baskets and cheer, they do a little farm upkeep from time to time.”
“Protection from what?”
“Hunters. Shifters. Other clans. Take your pick.”
Holly watched the girl that had gone back to the house—attractive, mid-twenties—and noticed her eyeing Jacob. She felt an edge of jealousy spark through her and tried to push it down—jealousy was an ugly emotion, in her opinion. Still, she couldn’t help but think—
had they baited him? Had he ever taken the bait?
Cassidy side-eyed her and clicked through her teeth. “You’re sweet. I can see why Jacob had to have you. But let me be the first to tell you, darling, that sweetness won’t get you anywhere. You’re the Alpha’s mate now. You have to stand up tall. Be worthy of the title. There’s a long line of women hungry to take your place.”
Cassidy perked up suddenly, blinked at empty air, and then put her bottle down and said, “Mama’s calling. I’ll be back.” Holly strained her ears, trying to hear whatever Cassidy was hearing, but came up with nothing. Ah.
. Right. A whisper probably sounded like a holler to them. Holly made a note to herself not to whisper behind anyone’s back. Not that she would, anyway. Cassidy patted her thigh once and said, “Sit on that for a bit. You’ve got a lot to learn, darling. Babysit my beer for me, will you?”
“Yes, of course,” Holly said and listened to the rattle of the front door behind her as the house swallowed Cassidy whole.
Holly lingered next to Cassidy’s beer and watched the approaching sunset. The mountains looked dark, shadowed in the distance, and rimmed in gold and red from the setting sun. Holly’s eyes swept over the Red Moon Ranch. Jacob’s place looked tall and proud in the dark, Brent’s hunched over a wild expanse of yellow shimmering crops. Cassidy’s was the only house with lights on, the chimney awake and puffing smoke. She imagined Cassidy’s husband cooking dinner for the two kids as they all sat around the dinner table. What did they talk about? School? Mating season? How all their friends had the new iPhone? Could she have a normal family with Jacob or would they be buying their cub a flea collar for his eighteenth birthday?
A lantern caught her attention, glowing like a firefly outside the stables. Holly could see shadows of the horses flickering in the windows and the woman inside, brushing them. It looked like one of the horses—the dark stallion she’d met the first time she came here—was giving the woman some trouble, tossing its head back and forth as she tried to brush it.
Holly glanced at Cassidy’s beer beside her and decided it would survive unattended for a few minutes. It wasn’t going to be possible to walk through the dirt in these heels (besides, they were murder on her feet as it was), so she slipped them off and walked barefoot. The cool blades of grass crunched under her toes until she made her way to the stables, where it was replaced by scratchy straw and dust.
“Settle down, boy,” the woman’s sharp voice rang out over the huffs and puffs of the irritated stallion. Face-to-face with a full-grown horse, the trainer held her own, her golden-brown eyes dark and commanding. She was beautiful in a way that might have been commonplace when she was younger but now—dangling into the snake pit of her forties, Holly guessed—she had strong, deep edges where there should have been delicate ones, giving her a handsome, commanding look.
“I’m not going to tell you twice,” she warned the stallion. In one perfectly manicured hand, she clutched a riding crop that seemed to vibrate with unspent tension.
“Maybe I can help,” Holly offered as she stepped into stables. She used the doorframe for balance to keep herself from falling in the hay (just being in this room brought back memories of being pinned into a pile of straw by Jacob’s strong arms and it warmed her from the inside out). From all the way across the stable, her voice felt small in comparison.
“Who are you?” An ugly sneer drew across the woman’s face, like a scar.
“Holly—” She had to stop herself from saying
felt somehow presumptuous, like she was forcing herself into a family before she even really got to know them, so she tried instead, “I’m Jacob’s wife.”
. That felt right, even now.
The trainer’s expression shifted. Instead, her eyebrow quirked in amusement and her eyes scanned Holly head to toe. “So
the thorn in everyone’s paws,” she said.
Holly tried to ward off a blush.
I didn’t ask for this!
she wanted to scream.
I didn’t want the Alpha of Red Moon. I just wanted a husband. And I wanted Jacob.
“That’s what they tell me,” Holly said and then gestured to the horse. “May I?”
“You can try. He’s about as stubborn as they come.” The trainer’s red lips curled into a smug, coy grin as she stepped back to let Holly in.
“Hey…it’s okay…” Holly cooed, taking the horse’s harness in one hand and stroking the side of his neck with her other. “It’s going to be okay.”
Holly could feel the trainer’s eyes digging holes in the back of her head. “You’re not what I imagined,” the trainer said.
“What did you imagine?” The horse shook his neck, snorted, and then began to settle under Holly’s touch.
“Jacob doesn’t usually go for someone so…” The lingering pause wreaked havoc on Holly’s heartbeat. Someone so
Old? Fat? Frumpy? Did he usually date young, hot little things that would succumb to his every whim, that would let him Mark them at the drop of a pin? “
,” the trainer finished, seemingly pleased that she’d nailed the right word.
. That was worse. Wholesome was the polite way of saying
. And Holly had strived to be anything but boring this time around.
was what had gotten her a cheating husband and a divorce last time.
Holly began to unhook the harness from the animal’s neck once he had fully calmed down and held the heavy brass over for the trainer. “What did you say your name was?” Holly asked.
“Miranda.” Again, there was that coy smile, that Mona Lisa grin, as though she was a big deal and that name was supposed to
something to Holly. Unfortunately, it wasn’t ringing any bells. “But I wouldn’t go around broadcasting this conversation. Jacob doesn’t always like it when I play with his pets.”
Holly couldn’t tell if Miranda was talking about the horses or if that was meant to be a jab about her all-too-
nature. Either way, she chose to ignore it. “Have you worked here long?” Holly asked.
“About four years. On and off. Horses are more of a hobby for me than a career path. But you learn a thing or two about animals in that time. For example—” She nodded her head to gesture out through the stable door. “You’re about to get stung, honey.”
Holly glanced over, but all she could see was a long-limbed, gazelle-like girl reach into a cooler and pull out a beer. “What?” Holly asked.
“Black Horn? That’s Jacob’s brand. Which means that lithe little honey
is about to make her way over to your man, drop herself in his lap, and give him something refreshing to remember her by. Is that what you want?”
the horror creeping up her face. “She will?” she asked blankly.
“That’s the way these girls operate. Trust me. Go. Intercept her. Unless you want to smell her on him when you snuggle up tonight.”
Red-hot, irrational rage spiked through Holly at that thought. Like a bull charging a matador, she tightened her jaw and stomped over to the porch.
She could smell the smoke from Brent’s cigarette as she got closer; then she could hear the low rumble of their voices. “Y’think Major learned his lesson, boss?” Brent asked.
“Let’s hope,” Jacob murmured back.
The honeypot must have been intent on her purpose, because she nearly collided into Holly. “Oh!” the younger girl chirped. “Crap, sorry. You scared me.”
Holly smiled. A smile similar to the one she wore for her students when she had to answer the same question for the thirtieth time in a row. “May I have that?”
The girl looked down to the Black Horn bottle in her hands and her forehead furrowed. “But I was gonna give it—”
“Thank you,” Holly said and plucked the beer from her, carrying it up the porch.
The conversation between the boys dimmed as Holly approached. Their heads turned to her and she offered a smile, hoping it didn’t look nervous. Jacob’s dark eyes softened when they met her.
“Hey, princess,” he said, and she suddenly wanted to curl up in the warmth of his lap, his voice like the low burn of a fireplace. “You okay?”