Authors: Kristen Strassel
Tags: #alpha male, #werewolves, #shapeshifters, #bbw, #fated mates, #action adventure, #pack loyalty, #family saga
“We should go free the other guys.” Trina still held onto the gun. “They can’t be comfortable.”
“Yeah.” I stood up, putting on the sweatshirt she’d given me. My gaze fell to the gun. “You bringing that thing with you?”
“Do I need to?”
Trina didn’t stand up right away. “I need to know I can trust you, Shadow. And the rest of them, before I set a whole bunch of angry men free. I don’t want to cause more problems. My girls, they’ve been hurt a lot. If anything happens to them, I don’t know what I’ll do.”
Anger formed under my skin like thunder rolling across the sky. “What happened to them?”
Trina looked away, her eyes clouding over. “It’s not my place to talk about it.”
I moved closer to her, putting my fingers under her chin and turning her face back to mine. She sucked in a sharp breath, but she didn’t shy away from me. “Is it the same thing that happened to you?”
Her body language changed, practically folding herself in half. “I’m definitely not going to talk about that.”
It didn’t surprise me. For two weeks, I’d done nothing but observe her. I probably knew things about Trina that she didn’t know about herself. “You have our protection. We’ll help you get the shelter back in order, we’ll get you the money you need to feed the rest of the animals. We’ll deal with Ryker. And when you’re ready to talk,” I took a deep breath, “I’ll listen.”
Trina’s eyes widened, her body relaxed under my touch. “Thank you.”
“You’re gorgeous, you know that, right?” The words came out of my mouth before I could stop them. Six months without speech and I couldn’t stop my thoughts from flying out.
She pulled away from me, head down, a blush creeping from her cheeks down to her chest. “No.” She shook her head sadly. “I’m not the person you think I am, Shadow.”
“Yes, you are. I’ve had nothing to do but watch you ever since you brought us to the shelter.” Trina gasped, but I didn’t back down. She needed to hear this. “And I’ve never seen someone work as tirelessly and selflessly as you do. I’ve seen you at home when you cry yourself to sleep. I don’t know why you do that yet, but I’ll do whatever it takes to make that go away. To help your heart mend. When I say I’ll protect you, I mean it. Body, mind, and soul.”
Trina trembled, rubbing her hands up and down her arms like she was trying to shake a chill. “No one can make it go away.”
“Let me try,” I whispered. “Please let me kiss you.”
This was absolutely crazy. I wasn’t drunk anymore. That comfortably numb feeling was long gone. Nothing sobered me up faster than an animal twisting and screaming in the light of the full moon and coming out on the other side as a man. Not just any man, but quite possibly the best looking one I’d ever seen, and one that had promised to protect me by any means necessary.
I’d done a damn good job of protecting myself since I’d arrived in Idaho. The shelter and the girls. There was only so long I could hold it all up. I needed help. Admitting it, even to myself, burned a place inside me that I’d forgotten about a long time ago.
But this man, Shadow, was standing in the middle of my living room, wanting me to kiss him. His broad shoulders filled the room. Under the sweatshirt, tawny skin rippled over tight muscles, tapering down to a narrow waist. I’d seen what my Oregon sweatpants now covered, and the whole package was pretty damn impressive.
I was actually considering taking him up on his offer. Maybe I
I took a step forward and his body softened. It had been a long time since I’d kissed anyone. I killed the last man I kissed.
Maybe it was a good idea to kiss Shadow.
Just kiss him.
This wasn’t going to last, either. Since the accident, I refused to commit to anything besides the shelter. But even then, I gave the animals away. I never wanted any of them to stay with me. The goal was to get them to their forever home. Every relationship I had came with an expiration date. So it didn’t hurt so bad when it was over—or I ended it.
Shadow wouldn’t be staying, either. He could say what he wanted about protecting me, but he had to be chomping at the bit for his freedom. Before I’d taken him and kept him in a cage, he’d been in chains. He was using me to get his brothers out of dog jail, and I was using him, too. Maybe he could help me heal.
Nothing else had.
One more step. That’s all it would take to say yes to the kiss. My legs had never weighed more.
Could I actually do it?
I knew this feeling, the too-heavy air, the room spinning, and I hated it. But a slow smile spread across Shadow’s face, and suddenly I believed I could do anything.
Exhaling as I took the last step, I wasn’t ready to look up at Shadow. He tipped my chin up with one finger. So firm yet so gentle. That crazy hair brushed against my cheeks. I was fascinated by the streaks. He didn’t look old enough to have them.
“How old are you?” I asked. Our lips were so close and I had to say it fast before I stopped thinking.
Shadow chuckled softly. His cheek moved against mine when he answered. “Thirty-five.” Perfect. Three years old than me.
Just like Ryan was.
“When did you start going gray?” Yeah, I was stalling.
Please don’t let the accident take this away from me, too.
“It’s not gray, it’s silver. And I was born with it. A full head of hair complete with streaks. That’s how I got my name.” I wanted to come up with some snappy reply, but Shadow’s lips brushed against mine, so soft. Testing the waters. He was like his name in many ways, but it didn’t make him meek. He was a protector, a shield, safe harbor in the storm of my emotions I’d kept under wraps for way too long.
I rested one hand on his shoulder, and he pulled me into his warm body. I melted, and we were one as our lips moved against each other. No, Shadow wasn’t meek. He’d been starving when I found him, and he was hungry now for something completely different. Our teeth crashed against each other, our tongues tangled and our hearts beat in a furious rhythm.
My fingers wound through his hair, black and silver strands knotted around my fingers. I needed so much more than I could possibly ask for right now. Shadow had me by the ass, his fingers digging in. The pain was as delicious as his lips. My body tingled, awakening from its slumber.
It was supposed to be just a kiss. But it was so much more than that.
We separated with a gasp. If Shadow hadn’t held me my knees would’ve given out. I hadn’t let myself feel anything like that since the doctor came into my hospital room and gave me the news about Ryan. Feeling things wasn’t always good. It led to loss and heartbreak. I needed to remember that, now that Shadow had catapulted me back to the top of the mountain. It was a long, hard way down.
But not before I went up on my tiptoes for another taste. Shadow groaned against my mouth, this time slipping his hand under my shirt, stroking my back. I cringed, not used to that kind of touch. I’d gained so much weight since the accident. I didn’t know myself in this body, for so many reasons. But Shadow either didn’t see it or didn’t care.
This wasn’t right. I shook my head. I was either bat shit crazy or kissing someone who was definitely not human. Either way, I was bound to get hurt. This is exactly what everyone wanted me to do. Move on. But I couldn’t. My pain had become my armor, a second skin. I wasn’t ready to rip the bandage off.
“What are you going to do once your brothers are free?” I’d recovered from the kiss enough to break away from him. I needed to get him thinking about the world outside this room before we went to a place we couldn’t come back from.
Shadow’s eyes were still heavy-lidded, lust drunk, and he scraped his teeth against his swollen bottom lip. “Regroup. We haven’t been human since spring. Figure out why someone wanted us dead, if it wasn’t Ryker. And if it was, deal with him.” His chest rose with his breath.
“What do you want to do?” I asked. Shadow had lost so much. I knew he was the leader of his pack, even though he and one of the other wolves fought all the time. He wasn’t going to have the luxury of time before he had to make decisions. I didn’t envy him.
When I was in his position, I ran away from everything I’d ever known.
Shadow’s eyes were focused on something I couldn’t see. Clear and blue like the summer sky. For a minute, I thought he’d forgotten anyone was with him. “I want the same things I always have. I want the fighting and the petty bullshit to stop. I want my family to be safe and comfortable. I want the packs to be able to get along with each other and the people in The Falls.” He turned back to me, those eyes glittering and warm, like rays of sunshine fell from them. “And now, I want you.”
“What am I supposed to do with four naked men in my house? I only have one more pair of sweatpants.” Trina laughed nervously. She’d been so quiet since I told her what I wanted. Everything that brought me to her showed me how precious life was. I didn’t have time to dance around my feelings. “Don’t get any ideas. Because that isn’t going to happen.”
“Damn straight it wouldn’t.” I’d never let any of them lay a finger on her. “We have a ton to talk about. I have no idea what’s happened to the Lowe properties.”
“Who are the Lowes?” She wrung her hands in her lap. After all the beer she’d drank, I insisted she let me drive. Although we weren’t much better off with me behind the wheel. My motor skills hadn’t totally gone back to human yet.
“Major and Xavier. We’ve been rivals forever. But since Ryker captured all of us together, we’re trying to work together to take the bastard out.”
“Are they the wolves you always fight with?” she asked.
“Yeah.” I sighed, having to concentrate on the road and not Trina. I was on sensory overload. “There can only be one alpha, and neither Major nor I will back down. Things should make more sense now we’re human again. Baron and Dallas are my brothers.”
“I can kind of tell who is who,” she said. “Major and Xavier have redder fur.”
“Yeah.” Trina didn’t miss a detail in that shelter. “No one will hurt you. It will just be for the night. Then we’ll be gone.”
I didn’t intend for the last word to have a bite. “Where will you go?” she asked softly.
“Not sure yet.”
“You can stay with me as long as you need to.” She bit that sweet, plump lip and I almost drove off the road. “I have a responsibility to make sure you make it home safe. Wherever that is. I know you want something else. I don’t know if I can give that to you.”
“Who hurt you, Trina?” I asked. The pain was so clear in her voice. The battle scars were tattooed all over her body.
“Don’t,” she hissed, turning back toward the window.
“Why not?” I knew I was pushing too hard too fast. I’d spent almost every minute of the last two weeks with this woman, even if I wasn’t human. I’d seen her shrink away from people. I’d comforted her while she cried. “Who did this?”
“Nobody!” she cried. I slammed on the brake at the stop sign from the force of the word. Granger Falls didn’t have any stoplights. The truck rocked—Trina needed new shocks. There were a lot of things she needed. Our eyes locked, we were the only ones at the intersection. “I did it to myself, okay?”
Not what I expected. “I don’t need you to feel bad for me,” she continued. “I can see it all over your face and I hate that. That’s the look everyone gives me when they think I should move on. I’m not ready, okay? I don’t know if I ever will be.” She turned away, shaking her head, but then looked back to me. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever done?”
The truck idled at the intersection. If we wanted to, we could’ve got out and walked to the shelter from here. But it seemed a million miles away. “I’ve hunted.” I pressed my lips together. “I’ve killed.”
“Me too.” That was the last thing I expected her to say.
I had a responsibility to make sure Trina made it home safe, too. When I said I’d protect her, I meant it. Even if it was from herself.
Trina stopped in the parking lot, pressing her lips together. “You’ve killed, but I’m safe tonight, helping you and your friends?”
“You’ve never been safer.”
An uproar greeted us in the shelter as soon as we opened the door. Dogs, cats, and birds all losing their shit over the wolves that had turned to men. Fear, jealousy, and awe. You didn’t have to be animal to pick up on what was going on.
“Trina! Is that you?” Major’s voice boomed through the small shelter and the other animals quieted. Didn’t matter what species they were, they all knew who was alpha.
“How does everyone know my name?” Trina whispered to me. All the wolves sat in their crates, naked and human, but patient. This wasn’t the same panic as when Ryker had trapped us in a broken down shed in his farm. Now it was finally over.
“We can understand everything you say, no matter what form we’re in,” I explained, opening Baron’s door first. My brother crawled out and smothered me in a bear hug. He was still unsteady on his feet and we staggered backward.
Dallas and Xavier joined into our pile once Trina freed them, but Major kept his distance. I looked over at Trina, who seemed so small in the shelter now. She’d been our queen here, and now she’d looked like she’d landed on another planet.
“I’ll wait for you all in the truck,” she said quickly and ran out the door.
“She’s freaked out,” Major said, still looking at the door. “Your plan backfired.”
He fucking nailed it, but I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of gloating about it.
“Of course she’s freaked out,” I said. Major didn’t deserve to know Trina’s secrets. “She needs time to get used to it.”
“You still think you’re going to be her protector, and she’s looking at us like we’re freaks. She doesn’t want you, man. Let’s go home. To the forest. Forget about her.”
can’t.” Everyone stopped their chatter and looked at me. “Our house was burned down. The investigators declared all of us dead. Trina’s been having trouble with Ryker and the rest of the town. We owe her. She saved our lives. We won’t leave her when she’s under attack.”