Authors: Kristen Strassel
Tags: #alpha male, #werewolves, #shapeshifters, #bbw, #fated mates, #action adventure, #pack loyalty, #family saga
Throw myself back into work. It always seemed like the answer. Sometimes it helped when I stayed at the shelter. I wasn’t so alone with my thoughts. Thank God for company. Smoky had become my shadow, not leaving my side as we finished locking up for the night.
“Maybe you should,” Kiera said quietly. “You’re in a different place every time you talk to her. It might help, even if it’s in a way you don’t expect. We can’t control what’s already happened to us, but we can control what happens in the future.”
“I know.” I sighed, but it didn’t mean I wanted to talk about it now. Or ever. “Do you think you’ll be ready to take a foster soon?”
“Yeah. I’m excited about it.” She looked back to the crates. “I know which one I want, too.”
“The scrapper that’s been following you around?” She nodded, her face brightening up. That’s what made me know this was working. Better than those stupid appointments. Kiera had picked a wolf, but I wasn’t going to tell her she couldn’t have him. No, we couldn’t control the past. But we could make today better. It was true for every creature in this building. “Awesome. I’ll start getting you set up later this week.”
t was a beautiful fall night. I needed this crisp, clean air. Cracking open a beer, I headed back out to the porch. So what, I was replacing one bad habit with another. Nothing else helped me quiet the voices inside my head, and I wasn’t sure I wanted them to go away. I deserved to suffer for what I did. I killed the person who had promised to love me forever.
“Settle down,” I pleaded with Smoky. He paced back and forth, yet to sit, whining like his fur was too tight. All the fidgeting drove me crazy. I tapped my leg, sure he’d come sit with me. He looked over his shoulder but tipped his face up to the sky. “I get it, buddy.”
That warm and fuzzy feeling came halfway through my third beer. The images of Ryan lying on the side of the road, the snow turning pink around him, his eyes stilling, faded to a blur. This was a dangerous place. It was like a see-saw, and there was no way I could keep balance. Or as I liked to refer to it, a tornado. I had no control over the destruction. If I stopped drinking now, the visions would win. If I had another beer, I’d slip into oblivion. The world couldn’t go on without me. I’d dug my fingernails into the place I belonged.
I got up and grabbed another beer, knowing already I’d regret this tomorrow. Cleaning animal cages with a hangover was no easy feat.
“What’s wrong with you?” I went over to Smoky when I came back outside. His whines had grown to cries, and I was getting concerned.
Don’t do this to me, buddy, not now when I’m on a one way trip to Drunkville
. I wouldn’t be able to get him any help. The vet hated me and I was too drunk to drive.
Those eyes never got less haunted, less knowing. The wolves didn’t play like regular dogs, either. Everything was a scuffle with those guys. But with me and the girls, they were so gentle, protective, and downright loving.
I wished I could keep him.
Smoky shied away from me. Weird. He never did that. I sat on the edge of the deck and watched him squirm. Leaves crackled beneath him as he rolled around. Pink skin flashed through his fur. Shit. That was new. His coat had been perfect.
Kneeling beside him, I tried one more time to pet him, calm him down. Touch was such a powerful thing. Putting my hands in his fur always slowed my heartbeat down a few notches. Now I did it without even thinking about it, and he’d only been with me a couple of weeks. His cry became a roar, and he jerked away from me.
Those eyes. My breath caught in my throat when they locked with mine. They’d never looked more human.
His howl broke the trance. Smoky clawed at the earth like he needed to hold on or fall off. I’d never seen him do this before and I had no idea what to do. It was freaking me out. His fur was literally falling away before my eyes, muscles tense under stretched skin, and if I wasn’t drunk, I’d swear that his bare paws looked like hands.
The dog stood upright, thigh muscles formed, and his face was the freakiest part. Ears and snout melted away as I screamed, revealing a human face. He was all man now, all powerful and naked man, long black hair streaked with silver rippling in the breeze. The only thing that remained the same was his eyes.
I fell when I stood up. Scrambling into the house, I slammed the door shut and leaned against it. If that creature...person...was what I thought he was, he’d kick through this no problem. I needed to focus. This was what I got for being drunk. I’d laughed off the reports of werewolves in the forest when people were concerned about a little lady building a cabin on the edge of Sawtooth. That shit wasn’t real. There wasn’t anything out here scarier than me. Or so I’d thought. Now it was standing on my front porch.
“Trina!” I stopped breathing when a male voice called to me. I’d never heard it before, but it was so familiar.
He knew my name.
“I’m not going to hurt you.”
I needed my shotgun.
For the last week, Trina had welcomed me into her home, her heart, and her bed. But everything just turned on a dime. I’d gone over this moment so many times in the last couple weeks, trying to figure out how to make this normal for her. Easy to accept when it happened. Maybe, if it had been the other way around and I’d been a man first. I could’ve told her what to expect. But now that I was strong enough to shift, I had no control. Over anything.
Trust me, Trina, I’m freaked out, too.
I hadn’t been human in over half a year and nothing felt right. My legs were heavy and my fingers fumbled with the doorknob. My thoughts were always human, my actions were always wolf, no matter what form I was in. Words were strange on my tongue, and they failed me altogether when I came face to face with the business end of a shotgun.
“Stop.” It was Trina’s turn to growl. I put my hands up but didn’t take my eyes off that gun. It didn’t surprise me she had one. It shouldn’t have broken my heart that she thought she needed to use it on me. Taking her eye away from the sight, she met my eyes. No fear, but defiance. Disbelief. “What the hell are you?”
I didn’t move. Trina was more than halfway through a six-pack and her trigger finger was bound to be as drunk as the rest of her. Not the ideal circumstances to have to explain my shift, but by now I was used to less than perfect conditions. “Can I sit?”
She nodded. Her eyes had fallen to my naked body more than once, but they snapped right back up. Taking my place on the edge of the couch, I wouldn’t relax until she put that damned gun down. No matter how powerful I was, if there were silver bullets in that gun this would be my last night on earth.
I was spending it with Trina, so it wouldn’t be all bad.
Trina put the gun down and sat on the opposite arm of the couch. The door still hung open, and she was ready to run at any time. This was a woman who was used to taking care of herself. “Are you afraid of me?” I asked.
“No.” She didn’t blink.
That’s what I wanted the answer to be. “Good. You don’t strike me as the kind of woman that’s afraid of anything.”
She scoffed, hugging herself. “You’d be surprised.”
“Here’s one thing that you can be sure of. I’ll never hurt you. This is weird for me too, Trina. I usually wear clothes when I talk to a woman for the first time.” I wanted to touch her, but not yet. “What you did for me, my brothers, and the other wolves, you saved our lives. For that, I’ll do anything for you.”
“I couldn’t help everyone.” Her face fell. “The little one died.”
“Archer had been sentenced to death the minute Ryker put him in the ring. You didn’t do that to him, I did.” Shea would turn human tonight, too. Now I’d have a chance to deal with him.
My freedom wasn’t guaranteed. Trina already showed me she wasn’t afraid to use that shotgun. She may have no fear, but that didn’t mean she trusted me.
“That was his name? Archer?” Her eyes clouded over. I nodded. “I don’t even know yours.”
“I’m Shadow Channing.” I offered her my hand. “It’s surreal that we’re introducing ourselves now, after all you’ve done for us. Archer was my brother.”
She actually took my hand. Step one. Touching her like this was so much better. A strange electricity flowed between us. Trina noticed it too. Her breath caught. Maybe she thought she could stop it if she didn’t breathe, but she didn’t seem convinced that was what she wanted. “Your name’s actually Shadow? I almost chose that for you, because of your markings. But I never thought a person would be named that.” Trina chuckled, wiping her hand over her face hard. “I’m pretty sure I’m shitfaced. I can’t believe you were a wolf and now you’re a man.”
She tried rubbing her eyes again, surprised when nothing changed. “Really sorry about your brother. Randy, the officer I was with, said we had to let the dogs fight, then he could get Ryker and the rest of those assholes on felony charges. I got there as soon as I could.”
“Archer had been doomed since birth.” My shoulders slumped, I’d never admitted that to anyone. Being human after all this time felt like a boat caught in a sea storm. Frustration and confusion coursed through me. The perspective changed everything, my thoughts firing on a different wavelength. “He was much more human than wolf, always unsure of himself in battle. My brothers and I did everything we could to protect him. But there was going to be a time he had to stand up for himself.”
Trina drew her brows together. “It sounds like his death was no surprise.”
“It happens to the best of us.” I did my best to force a smile. Someday I’d have a chance to mourn my brother’s death. First I needed to avenge it.
She didn’t return it. Instead, her face paled. “I need to get you some sweatpants,” she muttered. Trina disappeared into the bedroom but came right back, tossing a ball of clothes at me. “These should fit. There’s a hoodie, too. You’re going to be shit out of luck for shoes until we can get you home. Where’s your home? You must have one.”
Home. It seemed like a dream. Even as a man, I was barely there. You can take the man out of the wolf, but you couldn’t take the wolf out of the man. “I have a place with my brothers on Outlook Road.” I put the Oregon sweatpants on. They were snug, but at least they weren’t pink.
“Wait a minute. Channing...Outlook Road. You haven’t been in touch with anyone, obviously.” Trina bit her lip. “There was a big fire out there a few months back. Since no one’s heard from any of you, the investigators concluded you all died in the fire.”
I fell back against the cushion, totally fucking shell-shocked. Everyone we knew thought we were dead. My mother, thinking she lost all four boys. I didn’t know how I was going to tell her about one. Now it seemed like a consolation. My plan, before this bombshell, had been to get back to work like we’d been out of town on a big job. This was a fucking mess. I put all of us in jeopardy by shifting tonight in front of Trina.
“Are you okay?” When I opened my eyes, Trina hovered above me, just as beautiful as ever, even with her bloodshot eyes. She brushed her fingers through the hair that had fallen in my face. “I know that’s a lot to absorb. But think how happy everyone’s going to be to see all of you.” Her pretty lips formed a little O. “Do you think the rest of the wolves changed, too?”
“I’d be shocked if they didn’t.” I could guarantee they were all pissed, stuck in those tiny crates, naked and human. I knew exactly what was happening. Major and X rattling the bars, pissed if they couldn’t break through. Dallas egging them on. Baron trying to talk sense into them. It was going to be chaos at the shelter tonight, even if I was there. Baron had a good head on his shoulders. I knew he could lead if I couldn’t. But to be away from my brothers when we’d been together almost every minute of this nightmare, I felt alone for the first time in my life. Even with Trina here. “If it wasn’t tonight, it’s going to be soon. Once I got out here, the pull was undeniable.”
Speaking of undeniable pulls, Trina’s warm dessert scent was intoxicating. Her face was just above mine and I willed her to lean down and kiss me. But she didn’t. “You shouldn’t have seen me like this. I should’ve run.”
“I’m glad you didn’t.” Trina sat back on her heels. “People always want to talk about werewolves with me, since I run the shelter. I thought it was bullshit. But there’s too much weird shit happening in this town for it not to be true. I let it slide, being in the middle of nowhere. And I’m weird, too. Can’t exactly throw stones.” She chuckled. “You’re the thing that makes sense.”
“You’re a target now, Trina.” I had to touch her again. “I’ll protect you with everything I have.”
Her mouth moved, but she couldn’t form her thought. “Yeah. I noticed.”
“What happened to Ryker and his guys?” I asked. There was no way the cops would be able to keep his entire network in custody.
“He got charged with a felony for the dog fighting and slapped with a pretty hefty fine. He’s out on bail.” Trina smirked, but it wasn’t happy. “His livestock inventory was liquidated after the fight. Everyone else was in pretty good shape.”
“He was behind the shelter break in, I can pretty much guarantee that.” I swallowed. Rage built inside of me and there was no good use for it. I wanted that bastard dead. I always said I’d be nothing like Major, but his ways were making more and more sense. Captivity had changed me. “We
make him pay.”
“Yeah, that hasn’t been all. The good people of Granger Falls think it’s my fault they got caught at a dog fight. Assholes. What the hell were they doing there in the first place? I’ve come out and found roadkill on my windshield, and other fun things. So he’s not the only one who’s pissed.”
“Ryker’s people have ways of keeping you quiet.” I ran my hand through my hair. “We’re not leaving you, Trina. The law can’t handle pack business, and they have no right targeting you. I’m not going to let anything happen to you or the shelter.”
She shuddered, reaching for the shotgun one more time. “Do you think Ryker burned down your house?”
The allegiance with Major made more sense now. There was no telling what had happened to his property. Ryker had almost succeeded in wiping us off the map.