Authors: Lissa Matthews
Text copyright ©2015 by the Author.
This work was made possible by a special license through the Kindle Worlds publishing program and has not necessarily been reviewed by Eliza Gayle. All characters, scenes, events, plots and related elements appearing in the original Southern Shifters remain the exclusive copyrighted and/or trademarked property of Eliza Gayle, or their affiliates or licensors.
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Gus tried - and failed - to ignore the rumbling beneath his feet. He heard them coming long before anyone else would have. And, he felt them.
He turned the wrench harder than he should have and reminded himself that it wasn’t his bike he was working on right then.
It was a neighbor’s bike. A human’s bike. And a normal human wouldn’t have that kind of strength behind the simple turning of a wrench.
The roar of multiple engines gutted the silence of the normally peaceful little town of Dandridge, Tennessee. He’d brought Bex here when she sold her childhood home to start new and fresh with a bed and breakfast overlooking the lake.
He gave her a ride from North Carolina and hadn’t left. Didn’t have a plan to leave, either.
He also didn’t want to cause her or anyone in the small town issues and the wolf shifter leading the handful of other wolf shifters was nothing but one big, furry issue.
Gus stood, wiping his hands on a rag, and pretended he wasn’t tense as the first bike pulled right up to his feet. One by one, the engines shut off. It wasn’t until all was quiet again, that Gus looked up.
“Blackwood,” was all he said by way of greeting.
“I’m here to talk about the human woman.”
“She’s mine. Which makes her off limits to you. No need to talk about her. Have a… Safe trip back.”
“I’m not looking to cause trouble.”
Gus smirked. “You and your pack are nothing but trouble from what I hear. Especially, you.”
“At least the reputation fits,” the wolf said with a grin. His expression turned serious again. “She’s not a pure human. And I know you sense that. We all sense it. She’s part shifter, and given her age and where she comes from, I think I might I know something about her past.”Gus stared at the alpha wolf, one brow raised in question. That was a lot of specific information to just be tossed out into the open. Was Blackwood telling the truth? If he wasn’t, Gus would tear the wolf apart. But… But if he was…? Only Bex could say whether or not she’d want to know.
“Look, I know you have no reason to trust me, but when I saw her a few weeks back outside Sweet Retreat? Let’s just say it triggered some things I’ve been pulling together about past events involving our kind.”
Now, Gus was even more wary about the wolf and his intentions. “She gets off work in a few hours.”
“We can go see her now,” Luke said impatiently
“We sure as hell can’t. I’m not letting you and your pack loose all over town or upsetting her at her job.”
“Possessive or protective?”
“Where you’re concerned, both. Definitely both.”
“Fair enough.What’ve you got for entertainment? Sounds like it’ll be a bit of a wait.”
“You can work on your bikes, or nap, or best idea, go back where you came from.”
“How about some ink?”
“You trust me with a needle?”
“Guess we’ll find out.”
Gus regarded the wolf shifter for a long moment. He couldn’t get a real solid read on the pack and their intentions. Something didn’t feel right, but he couldn’t figure out what it was. The best way to get to the bottom of it, was to keep the wolves around for a bit. “All right. Come with me. Don’t touch anything. She’ll know if it’s out of place.”
Through the back door, Gus led Luke through the kitchen. It was mostly put together. Bex was waiting on the stove top. She’d bought it at an estate sale when the money can through from the sale of the bed and breakfast in Bryson City.
She had a thing for vintage appliances and the oven was being repaired at a local shop down the road.
She had a whole vision for the place. His vision was only for her and the home he wanted with her.
“Don’t suppose you or any of your boys brought donuts from that little place in Deal’s Gap, did you?” He hadn’t had a chance to go get any himself since he’d been back from his last tattoo trip. He had a hankering for something sugary and cake like.
“No. Can’t say that was on my mind when we set out earlier.”
“Shame. Would’ve been nice, since I don’t think you’re here to talk about anything good.”
“Guess it all depends on what you consider good.”
“She tell you about what happened to her mother?” Luke asked as they climbed the staircase. Gus had refinished it down to the original wood a couple of weeks back. He needed to earn his keep. He couldn’t let her be the only one working while she got things off the ground. She didn’t make him feel that he did. No, the feeling came from within him, from when he’d been taken in and raised by a family who didn’t owe him anything, who didn’t have to keep him, yet did.
He couldn’t and wouldn’t be beholden to anyone, not even the woman who made him feel as though he fit with her more than he’d ever fit anywhere. “Yes, she told me,” he answered honestly.
“Did she tell you it was a bear? One like you?”
“She did, but he wasn’t anything like me. I wouldn’t have done what he did. I don’t know any bears who would.”
Gus rounded on Luke so fast, the wolf nearly fell down the steps. “No, you son of a bitch. I don’t. If you’ve got something to say, say it. Otherwise, save your story for Bex or leave.”
Luke raised his hands in a show of surrender. “Guess donuts would’ve been a good idea. Maybe they’d have kept your temper in check. You’re touchy.”
“We’ll find out who’s touchy when I get the tattoo gun out.”
“You don’t scare me, bear,” the wolf muttered once they started up the stairs again.
“That was your second mistake,” Gus bit out.
“What was the first?”
“Showing up. If I don’t scare you, then what?”
“You worry me. Concern me. I can’t get a read on you.”
“Makes two of us. What’re your pack mates gonna do while we’re up here?”
“They won’t go searching for your woman if that’s what you’re asking. They’ll probably lounge in the back, work on bikes, nap, shift and wrestle. No idea. But your woman is safe.”
Gus grunted. It was the only acknowledgment he gave. In the attic, in a small corner near the window, he’d set up a temporary tattoo station. He’d need to take a trip back home if he intended to stay with Bex. He —
“Why her?” Luke settled on the massage table that Gus used as a tattoo table, and Gus settled opposite on the stool. Outside the window, he had a clear view of Main Street and the restaurant Bex worked at.
“You really believe in that?”
“Yeah. You don’t have mating instincts?”
Luke shrugged and removed his shirt. He presented his back to Gus. “Yeah, we have them. But there’s more to what we feel than the need to rut.”
“The need to survive.”
Gus’s movements didn’t falter, but the words struck him. He understood more than he ever let on to anyone, more than he ever let anyone think. Survival was bone deep and part of it was based on a past he couldn’t remember, parents he couldn't remember. His adoptive family gave him love and a home and never treated him different than they treated their natural born cubs, but that never filled the emptiness inside, the belief that he belonged somewhere else. He loved them, too. He was thankful they took him in and raised him, taught him how to survive as a half-breed, but his independent, loner streak was strong.
He smiled. And then he met Bex…
“How long have you been doing this? Traveling and tattooing.”
’Since I could ride. Got my training on the job in a shop over in Knoxville, and have been getting licensed as I can when I travel into a new state.”
“You ever met any others like us?”
Gus grunted. “Shit, wolf. Ain’t no one else like me and I sure as hell hope there’s no one else like you.”
“Fuck you.” The smirk on Luke’s face took the insult out if the words, but Gus wondered why that would matter.
“Not even on your best day. So, what are you wanting?”
“I want the start of this,” he said, handing over his cell to Gus.
“How do you know you can trust me to do this kind of work? I may be shoddy as an artist.”
“I asked around after you left Deal’s Gap. You have a reputation for being one of the best tattoo artists in the tri-state area. And, we need to kill some time.”
“This is a multiple visit tattoo.”
“’S why I said the start of.”
Gus grabbed his sketch pad and started to work on the outline. The image Luke showed him was a view straight out over the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sunrise. Winter. The trees were stark. The mountains gray and craggy. But the snow made it beautiful, and the sun glinting off it at just the right angle… It was a once in a lifetime, right place perfect time shot. It would be a crowning jewel in Gus’s portfolio.
“How did you know where we were?”
“I sent a couple of my pack to follow you. They stayed in the woods, so you wouldn’t be able to tell they were there.”
“No. This is the first time I’ve used the knowledge of your location to my advantage.”
“I see.” He set the pencil down. He preferred ink for the outline and colored pencils for the shading on paper. He handed the sketch over to Luke. “Here. Tell me what you think,” he said while grabbing for a stack of transfer sheets.
Luke whistled low. “If you can make this look as good on my skin as you did on the drawing, I’ll be suitably impressed.”
“Suitably impressed, my ass,” Gus muttered. “Where do you want it?”
* * * * *
Luke sat with this back turned and relaxed into the needles inking his flesh. Trusting the big bear shifter was akin to taking his life into his own hands. Or, putting his life into the hands of the big bear shifter. Whatever it was he was doing, he should have his head examined for this little stunt.
His pack had tried to talk him out of it, and he should’ve listened. He’d told himself a thousand times that he should’ve listened, but he had a hunch and needed to see if he was right.
“This would work better if you stop thinking so much and stop tensing.”
“Yeah,” was all he said. He knew Gus was right. Tension and tattoos didn’t go well. The pain could get intense if he didn’t relax completely rather than relaxing, then tensing, then relaxing, then… “Why this little town?” he asked.
“I don’t know. It’s what she’d already set in motion.”
“And you just went along with it? For the alpha in the relationship, you sure seem a little whipped into shape.” Luke kept his tone conversational. Gus just chuckled behind him.
“I never even thought to look or consider that I’d have a mate. Bear or human.”
“Really?” That confused Luke.
“Yeah. Like you said earlier. Survival.”
“Is your family gone?” He knew the dangers of poking a bear, but he needed to get the conversation started somehow, get the bear to open up about where he was from, who his family was. He had a scent that Luke had smelled before, but not in a long time. It made him twitch, and not in a good way.
The words were sharp, bitten out, and gave Luke pause before continuing. “You grow up alone or taken in?”
“Are you asking about me for a reason, Wolf? I thought you were here about Bex?”
The voice was quiet, but the underlying danger was there. The bear was close to having enough. Luke just needed a few more answers.
“I am here about her.” He looked over his shoulder at Gus. The shifter’s eyes were narrowed until only black could be seen and teeth were bared to show his displeasure at the line of inquiry. Luke understood. He didn’t like anyone nosing into his business either. “Look, the scent that is on you, that comes from you, is something I know, something I’ve come in contact with before. Years ago. It’s a puzzle I’m working to put together.” He hesitated for a microsecond. “Please.”
The word stuck in his throat before he’d uttered it. Luke Blackwood didn’t say please or thank you to anyone, especially another type of animal. He didn’t play nice, not inside or outside his own bit of territory. He needed the help of the bear and he needed to bite back his own instinct to fight in order to get it.
It fucking sucked. He wanted a fight. He didn’t care who with. He’d likely lose against Gus, but that didn’t make Luke like the bear or want to back down from him.
“Yes, taken in. I was a cub. Not more than two at the time. Around five or six, I began to realize I was different, not from their family. Part of, yes. But not theirs. Not in blood.”
That gave Luke pause. He hadn’t considered the adoptive family being what he’d scented, but it was the only possible explanation. There was pure scent from the bear that was all his own, but there was something else, something more, and something Luke didn’t exactly understand. “Were they close or part of your biological family?”
“No. Same general vicinity in the woods, but not part of the family. They said they heard the shots. I don’t remember any of it.” Shots. Guns. That added another puzzle piece. Shit.