Authors: Kristen Strassel
Tags: #alpha male, #werewolves, #shapeshifters, #bbw, #fated mates, #action adventure, #pack loyalty, #family saga
“What the fuck do you know about being an alpha?” Major nudged me.
I ignored him. “As alpha, I’ll protect her. We got her into this mess, we’re getting her out of it. She’s struggling to take care of us. No one’s helping her with donations, they’re just dropping off their problems. I’m going to solve them.”
“How noble,” Major scoffed. “You can make out with your new human girlfriend while I rip Ryker to shreds.
how you solve problems.”
I dove at Major’s neck. He didn’t know how to listen to reason, violence was the only equalizer for him. He’d get this message.
“Boys!” Trina cried. She rushed at us, balancing a kitten in one hand with a bottle under her arm. She stopped between us, glaring at Major. “Enough! Or I’ll put you back in your crates.”
“I don’t know how we’re going to pull this off, Shadow.” Baron pushed between me and Major. He’d been cozying up to Kiera, the short-haired girl who looked like she’d been an athlete, all week. Major nipped at him, but he shrugged it off. “We all should’ve run that night. Shea was smart. She’s going to lose her mind when we shift.”
Maybe we should have. We’d gone from one jail to another, and we weren’t helping anyone here. Yet no one was looking to escape Forever Home.
“Shea ran off because of what he did to Archer,” Dallas grumbled, licking his paw and glaring at Major. But he didn’t leave Lyssie’s side. Of my remaining brothers, Dallas would hold a grudge much longer than Baron. Baron would do anything to find a peaceful solution to this mess.
“Another thing that needs to be fixed when we’re out of here.” I lunged at Major one more time. “Shea’s going to pay for what he did to my brother.”
“He did his job.” Major didn’t back down. “You would’ve done the same thing in the ring that night. You said it yourself. And you planned to do the same fucking thing to me. Were you looking for a bounty on your head? Because we all have one now, with Ryker on a rampage. There’s no time to play nice, Shadow.”
I turned away. Fuck him. Blending the packs together didn’t take Shea off my shit list.
But Major was right about Trina. There was no telling how she’d react to our shift. Anyone who’d spent enough time in Idaho knew the werewolf legends. Some of the older townspeople referred to us as karma; we took care of problems they couldn’t. Unless it was the Lowe pack, who created more. But none of those townspeople had seen it in action. They just dealt with the consequences.
It didn’t surprise me that the Lowes didn’t try to bond with the girls. It wasn’t their style. They had a different idea of freedom than my brothers and I did.
Trina didn’t treat us like wild animals. She had more respect for us than some of the Sawtooth wolves; Ryker, females our age, and especially their mates. We were never handed anything. I wasn’t whining about it, but it was exhausting. It was a relief to stop fighting, even if it was just until the full moon. Even though she talked to every one of her guests—that’s what she called all of us who were staying with her at Forever Home—like she would call a friend, it felt personal. She meant every word she said. There was no bullshit with Trina.
If only she was a wolf. But then I’d never have her. I couldn’t win, either way. It hadn’t bothered me as much before the capture. Now I realized that my time came with an expiration date.
She saved our lives, and I’d do anything for her. At first it was a matter of principle. Then she became a daydream. A pretty face to make me stop thinking of the horror of the last six months. Otherwise, every thought turned toward revenge. Without Trina, I’d become as bloodthirsty as Major.
The longer we stayed here, the more my thoughts became an obsession. Trina made me want more, and realize how much I didn’t have without a mate. Even in the week we’d been here, I picked up on her quirks, like singing off-key to the country music station as she cleaned cages, whistling with the birds as she did her paperwork. And how quickly her happiness faded into something much darker, something troubling. She always came back around to the animals, relying on us for strength when she couldn’t do it all on her own. Trina needed more, too.
“Oh my goodness, what happened here?” A young woman poked her head around the battered doorway, a poodle whimpering in her arms.
“Renovating.” Trina plastered a phony smile on her face. The other two girls scattered. Trina was their alpha. A woman like her would make me stronger. She’d make our pack stronger. “What can I help you with?”
“Oh.” The woman was too polite to call bullshit out loud. “This is my grandmother’s dog. Or was. My grandmother died.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.”
The visitor took a deep breath before continuing. “None of us can take care of Candy, that’s this little girl. I live in a dorm, and my mother has her hands really full already. I’m sure there’s a family out there that would love to have her. Or maybe another older lady. She’s a really good dog.”
Trina walked over to the woman and patted Candy on the head, murmuring something to her. “I can tell. Right now, I’m at capacity. I have a couple of adoption appointments lined up this week. I can take your name and number, and when something opens up I can let you know? That’s the best I can do.”
“Okay.” The woman’s face fell. “We’re not going to be in Granger Falls all that long, and I don’t know where else to bring her. Is there anyone else who can take her?”
“We’re the only shelter in town.” Trina sighed, the smiled fading. She fidgeted, like if she kept moving there would be some way to make room for this dog. “I’ll make some calls to area shelters, but a lot of the no-kills are in the same boat we are.”
“She’s a good dog,” the woman repeated. “I really want her to find a nice home.”
“I know. Me too.”
Trina slammed her fist against the newly laid plywood and dissolved into tears when Candy and the woman left. She did this a lot, when an adoption appointment didn’t result in a placement or she couldn’t take a new guest.
In a week, she’d have five more spaces. We couldn’t fuck this up. It wasn’t just our lives on the line.
I stayed at Trina’s heels when she put the kittens back in their pen. “Careful,” she said to me when I put my nose too close to the bars. She absentmindedly dropped her hand into my fur. My coat was so much fuller already. Shifters healed fast. We’d all gained some weight and I almost felt like my old self. “I think tonight’s the night. I’m going to bring you home with me. We’ve got to start making room in here.”
“What the hell?” Major pushed against the front of his crate. “How’d you convince your girlfriend to take you out on a date?”
“Don’t question it,” I huffed at him. “It’s the first step in getting out of here.”
All the wolves whined from their crates as I followed Trina to the door. We were starving for freedom. “It’s going to be your turn soon, I promise,” Trina called over her shoulder, trying to calm everyone down. “I only have room for one right now.”
Trina led me to her pickup truck. Primer black and battered, it didn’t start the first time she turned over the engine. “Frigging hunk of junk.” She slammed her fist against the steering wheel. It worked, the truck started on the next try. She looked at me and smiled. Her hair almost looked blonde in the fading afternoon sun. I often wondered what she’d look like as a wolf, with a golden coat and green eyes. Gorgeous. “What a fucking day. And I haven’t even given you a name. You’ve got such beautiful gray fur. Smoky? No, that’s not right. But it works for now.”
In six days, I’d be able to tell her my name and so much more. If she’d listen. Maybe I should run, if I had the chance, so Trina wouldn’t. After six months, our shifts could be messy. If we shifted at all. We’d all be strong enough for the metamorphosis this month, but none of us had ever remained wolf this long. It couldn’t be without side effects.
She drove to a small log cabin on the edge of the forest. Damp earth and tree sap flooded my nostrils. I could run right into the forest and she’d never be able to catch me. I’d be free.
If I did that, I’d never see Trina again. Or I would, but there’d be no convincing her I was the wolf she’d so lovingly nursed back to health. This wasn’t going to be easy, but nothing good ever was.
The cabin had a front porch that faced the valley. Bright colors blazed across the rippling hills, reflecting in the lake below. A cool breeze bit through my fur, and we’d be seeing snow soon.
“Welcome home,” Trina said, her arms spread wide. “It’s not much, but I love it here.” She only had the necessities: a couch, a kitchen table, and a TV. I trotted through the house. One advantage of being a wolf was that I didn’t have to wait for a tour or figure out boundaries like a house guest. I stopped short in her bedroom, not expecting the pink sheets on the unmade bed. Hopping up onto it, I inhaled her warm apple pie scent.
“Oh no, you don’t.” Trina laughed, swatting my ass playfully. “You get your own bed.”
Trina never sat still. It was pretty clear her whole life was the shelter. She had no idea how to relax. Putting on the same radio station she listened to all day long, she made dinner, belting out the words to all her favorites. Realizing she’d forgotten to bring food home for me, she put more hamburger in the pan. This cabin was heaven.
After dinner, she settled on the couch with her computer and a beer. “Don’t tell anyone,” she said with a giggle. Oh shit, she had trouble with drinking. Maybe I could knock it off the table. Or maybe I could just let her relax. The woman never stopped. I crawled up beside her, nestling into the crook of her warm body. She leaned against me, jerking as she fell asleep, a pile of adoption paperwork falling off her lap.
She yawned as she shuffled into her bedroom. “Let me show you the guest suite.” A fuzzy dog bed lay in the corner. I sniffed; I wasn’t the first one to use this. This wasn’t anything special to Trina. It was just something she did before she gave her dogs away to their actual forever homes. Or sent wolves out in the forest. “The girls didn’t think I should bring you home, since you’re not exactly a dog, but I’m glad I did. I feel safe with you here. Sweet dreams, Smoky.”
I lay on the lumpy dog bed, listening to her breath deepen as she fell into oblivion. So many things were going through my mind and I couldn’t sleep. Maybe if I watched her, I’d figure out how not to scare the shit out of her when I turned into a man. She wouldn’t feel so safe if she saw that.
“No!” Trina tossed and turned in her sleep. Was she crying? “Don’t leave me.” Her nightmare intensified, as she bargained with the unknown to try to keep someone close to her. She wasn’t winning. I put my paws up on the bed. I wanted to protect her, make this vision go away.
Trina peeled one eye open, realizing she had an audience. “Oh fine,” she mumbled, seemingly unaware of her nightmare. “Come up here, Smoky.”
Didn’t have to tell me twice. I crawled into the bed and let Trina put her arm around me.
I won’t leave you, Trina.
I don’t remember the last time I slept so soundly.
“It’s a full moon.” I collapsed on the couch, exhausted. Smoky climbed in my lap, nudging me with his snout. Super needy today.
“How can you tell?” Lyssie asked. She had two of the other dogs by their collars. We liked to let everyone out of their crates as much as possible. Animals didn’t belong in boxes. But today almost everybody was on lockdown.
“They’re all nuts!” I laughed, roughing up Smoky’s fur. I was getting attached to this guy, big time. And the feeling was mutual. He’d hardly left my side, except for when he fought with some of the other wolves. Until they started fighting, I could almost forget they weren’t like the rest of the dogs. It was going to break my heart to set them free. It had to happen soon. I couldn’t believe how fast they were healing. It was already hard to tell they’d been involved in a dogfighting ring. “It happens every month. When you leave tonight, look up, I guarantee it.”
“I never noticed, until we had the big guys in here.” Lyssie gave up refereeing and started crating everyone. She was covered in end of day filth. “I thought it was just me having a bad day.”
“Nah, we’re probably all off.” I barely had the energy for the last round of the night. Everyone needed fresh food and water, and food was getting scarce. The wolves had changed everything. In the morning, I needed to make some phone calls, pull in some favors, and figure out how to get some cash for this place. Since the dogfight, it was almost impossible. Everything in town had been weird. Doors slammed in my face, people ignoring me at stores, the cashier putting my eggs under the cans at the supermarket. A whole bunch of passive aggressive bullshit I was getting real tired of. Not to mention the girls’ flat tire and the roadkill left at the shelter door. “Ready for rounds?”
“You’re actually leaving tonight?” Kiera raised an eyebrow. The full moon affected me, too. I focused on my work, keeping my brain busy as possible. I’d slept shitty the last couple nights, dreaming of the accident, not being able to stop the car from veering into the tree, powerless but always waking up just before impact. I had this nightmare a lot, but I was never able to bring my fiancé back.
“Yeah.” It didn’t sound convincing.
“I’m proud of you, T.” She came over and gave me a hug. We separated quickly, neither of us were very touchy. “I know how hard this is. When was the last time you went to therapy?”
“A while ago.” I didn’t even like talking about the fact that I went. Kiera and Lyssie were much more open about it. Every time I saw the therapist, she made me feel worse. And she’d bitch at me about drinking. I didn’t want to hear it. I was dealing with everything the best way I knew how. Everyone else had suggestions, but they weren’t living my life. What looked good on paper didn’t always work in reality. At this point, I wasn’t sure I’d ever get better. I didn’t know what better
anymore. That’s what had led me here. The animals helped piece me back together.
In my dreams, Ryan was still alive. But the reality was I’d killed him. Black ice and too much champagne shattered what should’ve been the happiest night of my life. The car accident replayed in my nightmares like I’d hit repeat. It didn’t matter how far I ran away from it, the memories followed me. His spirit should’ve comforted me, but I’d taken too much from him to ever be able to feel good about it.