Authors: Kristen Strassel
Tags: #alpha male, #werewolves, #shapeshifters, #bbw, #fated mates, #action adventure, #pack loyalty, #family saga
“This is disgusting,” I muttered to Randy, the police sergeant who’d volunteered to come from Ketchum to help with the rescue. Granger Falls wasn’t big enough to have animal control, and I needed to call in the big dogs, no pun intended. I was tired of having to rely on everyone else to fix things. Once word came in about possible dog fights at Ryker’s Farm, I immediately put a large-scale rescue into motion. If this shithead was treating these dogs this way, there was no telling what the condition of the rest of the animals was.
I first heard about the fights last month, but we didn’t have the manpower to go in or the space to deal with it. My shelter was meant for house pets, and we were always full to capacity. I had to gather intel before I could do anything. I only had one chance to get this right. Too much was at stake for a fuck up and every second counted. Now that I knew the exact headcount of livestock on the property, I had a plan to get every one of the animals to safety.
“I can’t wait to take this asshole down.” Randy took a sip of his non-alcoholic beer and scanned the crowd. We’d done our best to blend in. Too many familiar faces filled these seats. People I’d considered friends before tonight. Some of them had even donated to the shelter. What kind of sick fuck came to a dog fight for fun? If it wasn’t for the animals who so needed our help, I’d be burning rubber in the parking lot to get the hell away from this town.
But I’d already run away from my life. I had nowhere else to go.
The townspeople sat side by side with undercover policemen, and my two girls who volunteered at the shelter, Kiera and Lyssie. I’d disguised myself. My long hair was tucked under an Oregon Ducks hat, and my jacket was zipped all the way up to hide as much of my face as I could. Everyone was too drunk to notice me, or too dense and hypocritical to wonder what the owner of the animal shelter was doing at a dog fight.
“Oh my God,” I gasped, grabbing Randy’s arm. It was big and solid and if these animals weren’t in such grave danger I might be able to enjoy spending some time with him. The prospects for dating in Granger Falls were pretty piss poor, as evidenced by the turnout for this travesty. Good thing I wasn’t looking to date anyone. “We have enough to break this up right now. Look at them! Matted fur, skin raw from those chains. I can see their damn ribs!”
Randy’s face paled and he took a sip of his drink, probably wishing it were real alcohol. Once we got these dogs settled, I knew I was getting shitfaced. Even if I shouldn’t be having it. Anything to erase this picture from my memory. “If we let them fight, even for a second, we can get him on more severe charges.” His lips pinched together when he tore his eyes away from the ring to meet mine. “I want to nail this fucker to the wall.”
“Me too.” Almost five years of working in animal rescue and it never got easier. I stopped thinking that I could be shocked anymore. Every time I thought I’d seen it all, some sick fuck took it to a place that gave me nightmares. All the work I did, and I could never make it better.
Ryker, the owner of the farm, stood in the middle of the ring, tonight’s opponents in chains on either side of him. If a town was ever going to use white trash as a mascot, Ryker would be the guy to model the costume after. Mean, loud-mouthed, and ignorant, he’d figured out how to rally everyone together in the worst way possible. Greasy hair slid from beneath his ball cap. His clothes were covered in stains you’d expect to see on a butcher’s apron. I had a chill any time I saw him in town, and now I knew why.
The smaller dog had a limp. Ryker let him off his chain first, but he didn’t move. Instead he shook violently, looking back to the other dogs that had been chained along the wall. They barked frantically, either cheering him on or giving him guidance. It was hard to tell over the roar of the crowd as the second dog was freed. He charged the little one, and it took him seconds to sink his teeth into the other dog’s flesh.
“That’s enough!” I pushed Randy, who was already out of his seat, racing toward the ring. His fake beer went flying, drenching the assholes around us. Throughout the bleachers, cops ran down the stairs, guns drawn.
The crowd scattered like someone had yelled fire. Beer rained down on all of us, benches rocked, and I almost got knocked to the ground as people shoved me out of the way. None of these jackasses were willing to atone for their sins tonight.
Randy and his men were focused on capturing Ryker and the thugs who’d set this up. They had their hands full with that job. We knew none of them would go down without a fight. But no one stopped the dog in the ring from attacking the other one. The smaller dog howled, his gray fur stained bright red. I tore through the crowd, knocking many of them down. I needed to get down to the ring before it was too late.
I didn’t see Kiera or Lyssie anywhere in the chaos. No time to look for them. That dog needed help.
All the dogs were hysterical. Howling and screaming along with the crowd. I jumped over the barrier and ran to the middle of the pit. The bigger dog didn’t let up on the little one, even as I dove for them. I had to be careful. Both dogs were sick and hungry and there was no telling what could be wrong with them. Neither looked rabid but with a case like this I had no time to waste getting shots tonight.
Wrestling one dog away from the other, I covered the smaller one with my body so the other couldn’t attack anymore. He was still breathing, barely. His big, blue eyes met mine and he whimpered.
“Trina!” Kiera called out. “We got pushed into the parking lot. We had to convince the undercover cops we were working with you.” Fuck, I hadn’t given them any sort of credentials. That mistake cost us precious time. “Is he okay?”
“He’s taken a beating.” The dog’s breathing had slowed, hopefully because he was calming down and not bleeding out. Just in case, I peeled out of my jacket and ripped a strip off my T-shirt to use as a tourniquet. I didn’t give a shit right now that my belly rolls were hanging out. It wasn’t the worst thing people were going to see tonight. I gently wrapped the fabric around the dog’s neck and applied the lightest amount of pressure I could get away with and still be effective.
“What do you want us to do?” Lyssie asked.
“Call the livestock control people.” They were standing by. “And get the crates out of the truck. I think I counted seven dogs. How’s the other one?”
No answer right away. “He’s gone.”
I’d stopped believing in any sort of organized religion the night Ryker captured us. No Heaven, no Hell, just a dark and hungry purgatory that went on indefinitely; until tonight, when police officers stormed the fighting ring, arresting Ryker and his crew. And more importantly, three angels came to take us away from our prison. There was a God after all.
“Stay with this one,” one of the angels instructed the other. “I have metal cutters in my bag. I hope the collars haven’t embedded themselves into any of their necks.” As strong and fucking fierce as we all claimed to be, every single wolf whined and cried with appreciation when it was their turn to be freed. The angel took a minute with every one of us, patting us on the head and murmuring about it being over.
I’d been furthest from her, so I’d been last. “Let’s get this nasty thing off you.” Her words sounded like a lullaby. I was no more proud than my brothers or my enemies. Freedom felt too good for that shit. This was the only way I could thank her. She ran her fingers over my filthy, matted fur. She was beautiful. Her honey-colored hair was pulled back, her face was bare, and her clothes were plain and ripped. Unshed tears shined in her green eyes, her cheeks as round as the rest of her curves and probably just as sweet. And her little mouth begged for a taste. She smelled like the exact opposite of the shit and desperation that usually flooded my nostrils. I inhaled vanilla, cinnamon, apples, and everything good about being human. My mouth watered just thinking about it.
Anyone who was this full of love and compassion for a bunch of broken down, filthy animals like the Channings and even the Lowes had earned my undying loyalty. Whatever she wanted, it was hers.
“Everything’s going to be all right,” she cooed, and I pressed myself against her leg. “I’m taking you away from here. You’re safe now. I’ll give you some food and a bath.”
Two weeks until the full moon. I’d be stronger then, but I had no way to prepare this angel for our shift. It’d been so long since any of us had been human, this shift could be...interesting.
“You okay, man?” I asked Archer. He still lay in the middle of the ring, his throat bandaged. My brothers joined us, nudging him gently with their snouts. As the other two angels carried crates into the ring, I daydreamed about how it would feel to hold this woman in my arms and thank her properly for saving our lives.
“I will be,” he panted, his eyes unfocused.
“Don’t come over here,” I warned the Lowe brothers as Major stepped into the ring. “Not now.” We were so close to being rescued, I wasn’t going to fuck it up by ripping them to shreds.
All of us willingly went back into captivity. The angels loaded our crates into the truck without much effort. We’d been broken and living for this moment, and we were too weak to enjoy it.
“Kiera, can you drive?” my beautiful angel asked. She sat in the dirt with Archer, who’d barely moved.
Come on man, live. We’re free now.
“I’m gonna stay in the back with this one. I don’t want to leave him alone.”
“Yeah, sure,” Kiera answered, making sure the latches were tight so we didn’t slide around the back of the truck. My angel climbed inside the truck, cradling my brother’s body in her arms. His blood seeped through the makeshift blanket she wrapped around him. She settled in the middle of the crates softly, placing Archer down beside her.
He didn’t smell good. Fuck.
“Okay, guys.” My angel looked around at the crates, and I realized she was addressing us and not her coworkers. Did she know what we were? I was pretty sure there were only five crates. Shit, I realized I hadn’t seen Shea since the cops broke up the fight. He’d been promised his freedom, and that bastard took it.
I would’ve done the same exact thing.
“I’m Trina, Kiera’s driving, and Lyssie’s riding shotgun. They think I’m crazy when I talk to you guys, but I know you understand me.” She stopped and made a face to the front of the truck. If I was human, I would’ve laughed. “We’re from Forever Home Animal Shelter. That’s where we’re headed. We’ll feed you some good warm food, better than you’ve had in—“ She got choked up and didn’t finish. “We’ll clean you all up. Make your fur soft and bandage those wounds. Give you comfy beds to sleep in. Make sure you don’t suffer anymore. We’ll make sure you get better, then we’ll find you homes. No more fighting, no more abuse. It’s over.”
All of us were stunned into silence. I couldn’t take my eyes off the beautiful angel named Trina. She patted Archer’s head, murmuring to him. He closed his eyes and sighed.
“Shit! No! No, no, no.” Trina collapsed on Archer’s body. I threw myself against the front of my crate and howled. My brothers joined in, but no amount of noise was going to change anything.
This couldn’t be happening. My little brother depended on me to keep him safe. I let him come with us that night we were captured because I thought it would toughen him up if he went on a couple runs with us. I should’ve done anything to keep him from fighting tonight. It didn’t matter if I was in chains. I let him fight a battle he couldn’t possibly win.
“What’s the matter?” Lyssie crawled into the back of the truck.
“We lost him.” Trina cradled Archer’s lifeless body against her.
And I let him die.
I glared at Major. “Shea better run far, far away from here. Because if I catch him, I’ll show him the same mercy he showed Archer.”
It was going to be a long night. I’d already failed these dogs. One missing, one dead.
“You can’t beat yourself up about this, Trina,” Kiera said quietly. “We have no idea what condition that dog was in before tonight.”
The remaining dogs snarfed down huge bowls of wet food. I’d be scrambling in a couple weeks to make up for this, but I’d figure it out. I always did. My policy was no negative talk in front of the animals. Some people argued that I was crazy, thinking they could understand us. I never wanted people to give up on me at my worst. Doctors and nurses who said negative shit about my prognosis, thinking I was a vegetable. Even in the middle of my deepest, darkest black hole, I might not have been able to do anything about it, but I understood. And I’d never make that mistake with my animals. Any creature with eyes and a heartbeat could pick up on bad vibes.
“You’re right.” I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand. “But it still sucks. We saved these dogs, but...you know? I wish we could’ve got in there sooner, but Randy said he needed the proof of the fights.”
“I just got a text from Livestock Control. They said that the big animals were in pretty good shape. Thank God. They’re still checking them out. The chickens weren’t being treated very well, too many in each cage, but they think they can save all of them.” Kiera put down her phone. “You did good, T. Really good.”
Not good enough.
“Once they’re ready, we’ll help them place the animals.” I was pissed about the chickens. Birds were my favorite, and they always got the shit end of the deal. “Lys, how are they doing with that food?”
“It’s gone.” She yawned. I’d told both girls we’d be pulling all-nighters. They were both new at this. They’d come to me as part of their rehab. We’d all been through some serious shit and had gone to the same facility, CAST, The Center of Anxiety and Stress Therapy, for our panic attacks and stress disorders. Nothing they tried worked for me, and I spiraled into a dark place with seemingly no escape, until someone suggested I volunteer at a shelter. After the doctors saw how the animals brought me peace, we’d worked together to start a program. Hopefully, the animals would help the girls heal. Like they did for me.