Authors: Kristen Strassel
Tags: #alpha male, #werewolves, #shapeshifters, #bbw, #fated mates, #action adventure, #pack loyalty, #family saga
The thing no one ever realized was how hard it was to work in a shelter. The way the animals came to us, the lack of funds, the ones that didn’t find homes...it got to even the strongest volunteers after a while. I went through a lot of people. Forever Home was a no-kill shelter, but that also meant if I didn’t have places for the animals, I couldn’t take them. I had nightmares thinking about the ones I turned away. I had to focus on the good we did at Forever Home. If I let myself dwell on the bad stuff that went along with it, all my progress could be lost. The shelter gave me purpose. I couldn’t be a drunk mess that didn’t get out of bed for days anymore. These animals needed me to have my shit together.
So far, Kiera and Lyssie were working out. Tonight was the most traumatic thing they’d have to see, I hoped. I learned long ago never to say never. I worried about them tonight, but they pulled through, getting the dogs out of the ring and into the shelter. Unfortunately I had enough experience with trauma to know there was an off switch. Survival instinct. And the ill effects didn’t always rear their heads right away.
“Ready to get them cleaned up?” I asked. The girls nodded, rolling their sleeves up as they followed me into the common area. This would be the real test, when they got up close and personal with the dogs and saw what had actually happened to them. Once we got beyond the matted fur, there was no telling what we’d find.
Kiera turned on the hose, and Lyssie got on her knees, urging two of the dogs to come forward as the tubs filled with warm water. We could only wash them two at a time.
I kneeled beside the tub, helping the first dog into the water. One of them hopped, protecting a lame paw. Their heads were bowed, trusting, thankful. I’d expected fear and possibly more fighting. There was no telling how long the fights had been their reality. They wanted something better. I’d thought they were huskies, but they might be mixed with some sort of Shepherd. Even half-starved, they were big. Two clear leaders had already emerged from the group. Larger and more confident than the others, they moved first, deciding they could trust Lyssie. The others fell into line behind them.
The blue-eyed one broke away from the pack and made a beeline for me, giving me big, wet kisses. He managed to make me laugh on such a terrible night. I rubbed his ears, careful not to be too rough. His eyes followed my every move. Even though they were filled with respect, they haunted me. Something about them was too human.
The dog stepped in the tub, shaking. “It’s okay. This is going to feel good,” I assured him as I turned the hose on. He whimpered when the warm water hit his body. I lathered him gently, not applying too much pressure to his skin. The vet couldn’t come until morning, and I didn’t want to aggravate any injuries. With a soft touch, I combed out the burls in his coat. The whole time I bathed him, he pressed against my body as much as he could. Even after everything that happened to him, he still was able to trust. He wanted my love.
I hoped Randy had Ryker on the floor of his cell with a foot to the balls. This guy was an asshole to stand behind in the coffee line. Why was I surprised that he could do something like this?
This is why I liked animals so much better than people. Their love was unconditional and they were always willing to take another chance.
Lyssie took over for me so I could check the dogs’ skin now that we’d washed away the filth. They had lacerations from the chains and bite marks. No signs of infection. Now that their fur was clean, it changed from brown to gray and black with white streaks, darker in some places. The brown-eyed dogs had reddish coats. All of them had a look in their eye that chilled my soul. They’d seen too much.
The first dog refused to leave my side. I toweled him off and he leaned on me after he shook out his clean coat. Not afraid, territorial. “That felt good, I bet.” I tapped his nose, and I already knew he was the one I’d bring home as my foster.
You can’t keep them all,
I reminded myself.
You need to find this one a home.
“Think they’ll be okay for the night?” Kiera asked. All of us were wet, filthy, and exhausted. “There’s not much more we can do for them until tomorrow.” And we still had the other animals to deal with, most of whom we’d roused with our late night arrivals. Hopefully everyone would sleep in tomorrow.
“Go home. I’ll see you tomorrow.” We ushered the dogs into their crates. Each one had a blanket, food, and water.
“Aren’t you leaving?” Lyssie asked.
“No, I’m staying here. I can sleep on the couch.” My new friend refused to leave my side. He curled up on the rug in front of the couch, settling with a sigh. He didn’t put his head down right away.
He wanted to protect me.
“You need to go home too, Trina.” Kiera gave a last ditch attempt to get me to leave.
I reached down and patted the dog’s head. “I am home.”
his vet hated me and I had no idea why. Yeah, I had a pretty high outstanding bill with her, but that shouldn’t have made a difference. If she truly loved animals, she wouldn’t bitch so much about helping the ones who needed her the most.
She came late, no apologies, but found the time to stop for coffee. “I heard about last night’s dog fight.” She sighed as she opened up her bag. “Everyone in town knows way too much about it.”
“The place was packed.” I shuddered at the memory.
“They’re all in an uproar. Turning against each other for being there and ratting each other out.”
“Good. Couldn’t happen to a nicer group of people.” I opened the latches on the dog’s crates, and motioned to them to get out. “I don’t know what’s going internally, but I think they’ll heal from the external injuries. A couple good meals won’t hurt.” My blue-eyed friend came to my side and I roughed the fur on his head.
“Don’t forget, you rely on those people for donations.” She looked up at me as she sank down to examine the first dog. I wanted to fucking smack her. She had a way of making me feel like gum on the bottom of her shoe every time she came here. I didn’t understand why she’d chosen to be a vet. She had about as much compassion as Ryker. “You can’t pay everyone with goodwill and the best intentions.”
“Who are you more concerned with, these dogs or your bank account?” I wished there was someone else I could call besides this woman. We were too far out of the city to get those vets to do house calls.
“I think that answer is obvious.” Yeah, it was. I didn’t respond, not wanting her here a second longer than she needed to be. Give me the diagnosis, the script, and don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out, bitch. She took the stethoscope away from her ears. “And these aren’t dogs. They’re wolves.”
Broken glass shattering across the lobby woke up everyone in the shelter.
“What the fuck?” Major said, throwing himself against the bars of his crate. Even over the cacophony in the shelter, the destruction continued. The attacker had a steady rhythm, cracking his weapon into anything that got in his way. Wood split, metal took a beating.
“It’s Ryker’s thugs,” I replied. I couldn’t see them, but there was no mistaking one thing. “I can smell them.” Evil had a very distinct stench, like acid burning my nostrils. Stuck in these crates, there was nothing any of us could do to stop them. Ryker’s guys were only interested in sending a message. This time, anyway. Our crates were in the big front room, and the place was packed with animals, any place Trina could put someone was occupied.
Even after she’d found out we were wolves, she kept us. Said she couldn’t set us free until we were well enough to survive. There was no bigger target in Sawtooth than a sick wolf.
“Fucking cowards,” Baron growled, his nose pushed against the wires. “Attacking the shelter when it’s us he wants.”
“Trina put him in jail,” I reminded him. “We’re all one in the same now.”
“When we get out of here, it goes without saying that this asshole needs to get his,” Dallas added. “Both of our packs have taken hits. I think we should work together.”
Major locked gazes with me. He never hesitated to point out how weak he thought I was. In a wolf pack, perception is reality. If you look weak, you are. It didn’t take much. We had different styles, and mine included letting my brothers be a vital part of my team. Now all Major had was X, who hadn’t uttered a word during the attack. But he’d get the job done, whatever was asked, and never look back.
“I think it’s a good idea.” I didn’t back down from his challenge. “We run in different circles, we’ll get different intel. And no one will ever expect us to be working together.”
“There can only be one leader.” Major’s version of a yes.
“I know.” I narrowed my eyes at him. “We’ll see which one of us that is.”
oly shit!” Kiera dropped her coffee cup, the first one in what used to be the door. “What the hell happened in here?”
“Check the animals!” Trina ran through the room. “Make sure everyone’s okay.”
“Why would anyone do this?” Lyssie hung back. Something told me this wasn’t the first time she’d dealt with senseless violence. “It’s an animal shelter.”
“We pissed someone off.” Kiera emerged from the crate room. “Everyone looks good on my side. Spooked, but no one’s hurt.”
“Yeah, everyone’s good over here, too.” Trina stopped in the middle of our crates. “I’ve had some pushback in town since the dog fight. They told me to not ‘shit where I eat’ and other charming things.”
“We had that flat tire when we left work the day after the rescue,” Lyssie added, wrapping her arms around her waist. “I didn’t think anything of it, but now it doesn’t seem like such a coincidence.”
“I need to call Randy.” Trina sighed as she opened our crates. “Think of anything else unusual that you’ve seen since that night. He needs to know everything, just in case it adds up to something. If anyone’s looked at you girls sideways, speak up. This isn’t the time to keep quiet. We can do this. It’s going to be hard, but no one is going to intimidate us out of doing the right thing for these animals.”
It killed me that we were putting the ladies in danger by being here. If I were human, I’d insist they walk away from us. They had no idea what Ryker was capable of. His bite was much worse than his bark.
But if I was human, I could protect them.
The girls busted their asses cleaning up the front room, trying to get everything back to normal. They swept up broken glass, boarded broken windows, and fixed whatever they could. No one came to help them. Didn’t shock me. Trina called the police department, but the other girls barely said a word as they worked. That wasn’t a big surprise, either.
I hadn’t been familiar with the shelter before I became one of its guests. I spent as little time in Granger Falls as possible. I was kicking myself now, knowing a beauty like Trina was here all along. Sawtooth wolves had never mated with human females. We had no problem showing them a good time, but when the party ended, so did our contact. Even if I’d met Trina before we’d been captured, there was no way she would’ve been more than a one night stand.
Six months in captivity was enough to change the thinking of this wolf. Female wolves our age had been sold to the highest bidder. Kept in a completely different kind of captivity, the girls were treated like rare jewels, closely guarded and shown off by those who could afford them. It was a cruel joke, the way the packs would flaunt the pretty little girls in front of us and we’d get our asses kicked if we tried to play with them. They’d laugh at us. Boys weren’t special, especially in the working class. There were so many of us because our parents would keep trying for a girl until they couldn’t any longer. The pay day was worth it.
Rich wolves didn’t have to worry about much. They’d been better at acclimating to their human side. They had money, women, and didn’t concern themselves with the politics or bloodshed of the working class. The rich may have the material means to survive, but the rest of us relied on strength and street smarts. The rich could keep their money, I knew that didn’t buy happiness. Freedom had a high cost, but anyone could enjoy it. I wanted a mate. I wanted to be a part of my pack’s legacy, and I wasn’t going to let this be the end of a proud journey.
Dallas was smart when he suggested teaming up with the Lowes. I couldn’t follow Major’s lead and sleep at night, and I wanted Trina. I had to prove myself as alpha if I wanted to have her. We’d never had an alpha without a mate, until now.
“You won’t leave my side, will you?” Trina planted a kiss on my head once everything was back to as normal as it was going to be today. She looked exhausted. I hated that we couldn’t do anything to help her. These ladies weren’t helpless by a long shot, but every little bit helped.
One more week until the full moon. One more week until I could earn my keep, and one more week until my kisses could be more than a tongue bath.
“You’re like my shadow,” she added.
She had no idea that was actually my name. I pressed against her. Soon I’d be able to wrap my arms around her and lose myself in that apple pie scent that made me crave much more than dessert.
“Fucking kiss ass. All of you Channings, trying to make nice with the shelter girls,” Major growled, nipping at my neck. I barked, knocking him down on the ground and rolling around. No way. He wasn’t going to shame me away from Trina. There were five of us and three women here. He was smart enough to do the math. And he was thirty-five with no mate, more math he couldn’t ignore if he wanted to be considered a leader. “That’s not going to do shit for you. We’re nothing but trouble for them. And when she comes in the morning after the full moon and finds five naked men in dog crates, she’s not going to think you’re so cute anymore. She’s going to run away from you screaming.”
“I want her to trust us.” I was snout to snout with Major, my breath had a rough edge that wasn’t quite a growl. Every day we got stronger, and every day he pissed me off a little more. “So when that happens she won’t freak out. She’s a target for Ryker now, too. As alpha—“