Make sure you read the first part of Chapter 1 before continuing…
Chapter 1 Scene 2
The interior of the warehouse was in an even more disreputable state than I’d initially imagined. The building was small and windowless, with barely enough space for me to walk between two rows of cages. And the stench now that we’d entered was overwhelming. I actually had to ask my wolf to turn off our nose for a moment to prevent myself from gagging.
But that wasn’t the worst of it.
An emaciated female dog hovered against the back wall of one cage, her lip curling upwards into a snarl as she strove to protect her litter. Above her head, a frightened puppy released his bladder. Liquid splattered down to land on offspring and mother alike.
There were dogs everywhere. Half a dozen crammed into a cage too small to house a single beast. Others with matted fur and open sores where animals had been left to fight over the bare minimum daily ration.
The air filled with coughs every bit as loud as the growls and barks. And then there were the eyes. Dark, begging eyes. Liquid, terrified eyes. Crusted, infected eyes.
Amber, sparkling eyes so much like my mate’s that I gasped and released the proprietor before I realized what I was doing. I only came to myself when the first bloodling pup licked my hand, his tiny teeth following up with a bite to my thumb. Pay attention, he seemed to be saying. Your job here isn’t done quite yet.
I rose from my knees with murder on my mind. The puppy-mill owner was standing in one corner, a large, adult wolf growling in front of him as Hunter made up for my lapse by keeping the offender in line. “This is private property…” the human began.
“This,” I said, waving my hands to encompass the two rows of reeking cages, “is a travesty. You’re breaking so many laws you could spend the rest of your life in prison.”
I expected the man to cower in the face of Hunter’s teeth even if my rage made little impact. But, instead, he smirked. “And who are you to pass judgment?” he demanded.
“We’re with the…” I paused, trying to remember the name of the human organization that dealt with puppy mills. “We’re with the, um, AARP?”
I closed my eyes for a split second in frustration. I hated that my sentence had risen at the end into a question, our cover story abruptly forgotten in the face of the bloodlings’ eyes.
Worse, the puppy-mill owner laughed at me. “I think you mean the ASPCA,” he offered, side-stepping Hunter as if he knew my companion possessed a human intellect within that lupine body and wouldn’t lunge forward instinctively the way a real wolf might.
“But you aren’t really affiliated with any organization at all, are you?” the man purred, stepping into my personal space and forcing me to backpedal until my spine settled against the metal bars of the closest cages. “You have secrets of your own to keep and you can’t afford to harm a human, hmm?”
I gasped, shaking my head in negation. This money-grubbing two-legger couldn’t really know that he was trafficking in werewolves, could he? Hunter’s job as Tribunal enforcer had set us on the one-body’s trail, but the rules were clear—we couldn’t out shifter-kind to the larger human world and we didn’t have the authority to punish a human the way we might want to.
But if the human already knew about werewolves? That was a gray area I didn’t know how to navigate.
Hunter, apparently, lacked my scruples. Despite the security cameras I’d seen in each corner of the room, he shifted without warning and strode toward my assailant two-legged. “Stay away from my mate,” he growled, an unconscious alpha compulsion turning his words into daggers of command.
Of course, alpha compulsions only worked on werewolves. Still, the human’s eyes widened with the first faint inkling of fear as he took in Hunter’s massive, muscular, form. “Shit,” he muttered. “I didn’t think they were really real.”
Then, slowly, the one-body’s brain caught up with his eyes and his scent morphed into the terror I’d expected from the get-go. But the puppy-mill owner still tried to tough his way out of what he must have realized was an increasingly hairy situation.
No pun intended. Okay, maybe I did intend that pun just a little bit after all.
“You know more than you should know,” Hunter whispered into the man’s ear, his words so deep they resonated in my belly. Even when he’d fought by my side against serial-killing shifters, I’d never heard the uber-alpha sound quite so wolf-like.
In fact, I wasn’t entirely sure his human brain was involved in determining his current actions at all anymore. So I set one hand on Hunter’s bare forearm in hopes a simple touch would prevent my mate from doing something he’d later regret.
Amber eyes the exact same shade as those of the caged bloodling puppies flicked over to meet mine before darting away. The tiniest dimple formed on Hunter’s right cheek and I released my pent-up breath. No, my mate was still in there. He was just doing his job—making sure this puppy-mill owner didn’t turn into a repeat offender.
“Human law believes in three strikes you’re out,” my mate continued, his voice becoming even quieter as he leaned in closer. On the final word, his teeth snapped together a millimeter away from the puppy-mill owner’s ear and, to my satisfaction, the man jerked away as if he’d been struck. The human wasn’t so brave after all.
Smirking, Hunter finished his train of thought more loudly. “Our law believes in one strike you’re dead.”
The bloodling paused to let his words sink in. Then he stepped back, releasing the human from his over-powering presence. Abruptly, Hunter became the epitome of a cordial—if naked—businessman sealing a deal, and immediately the human’s tension eased.
“We’re taking the puppies, plus your records about any other ‘dogs’ you’ve rehomed. Then we’re burning the building,” my mate continued, his light tone suggesting that he was talking about baking cookies rather than planning arson. “In the future, I’ll be checking up on you at intervals. If you even think about bringing home a goldfish, you’re out of the realm of human law and into the realm of our law. Do you understand?”
The puppy-mill owner gulped, then nodded. Hunter clearly had everything under control, so I took advantage of our opponent’s stunned silence to snatch the cage-keys out of his hands and head toward the kennel that housed the bloodling pups. We’d save all of the residents of this reeking shed, of course, but the shifters came first.
Especially the biggest male with the dash of white fur on his forehead who had nibbled on my fingers a moment earlier. I’d bonded with him instantly and was already starting to call him by a pet name within my mind—Star.
But to my surprise, the bloodling in question bared his tiny teeth when I reached forward to pull him out. Only when Star began nudging his weaker companions toward the front of the cage did I realize that he wasn’t resisting my advances. He was merely making sure his less able cage mates were rescued first.
And wasn’t that all werewolf?
Shooting one last glance toward the one-body who considered shifters and dogs alike unworthy of his compassion, I once again thanked my lucky stars that I’d been abandoned by my parents. After all, I’d lost that easy familial love at a far too tender age but had gained something unimaginably more valuable in the process.
Despite my half-human heritage, I’d enjoyed the distinct advantage of being raised by wolves.
I wouldn’t have it any other way.