Are you ready for a brand new book in a brand new series? Moon Glamour can be enjoyed as a standalone, but it also launches a new world of werewolves and fae. Keep reading for a preview!
I showed up at the job interview with salt packets in my pocket and a grease stain on my right knee. Scanning the museum steps for a woman with a rose pinned to her blouse, I came up empty. Good. I was early enough to nip inside and wash up.
Unfortunately, I didn’t quite make it to the ladies’ room before words a human wouldn’t have been able to decipher percolated into my lupine-enhanced ears.
“I’d hit that.”
“Mm mm, me too!”
I turned just a little so the glass case I was walking past reflected the faces of the girls behind me. They were around my sister’s age. Sixteen, fueled by raging hormones, and currently proving that men weren’t the only ones who objectified members of the opposite sex.
“I mean look at that butt.”
“Can’t. Too busy with his biceps.”
They sounded like they wanted to lick the object of their admiration. And even though I was on a deadline, I swiveled all the way around so I could follow their gaze.
No wonder the girls were excited. The man leaning forward to peer at the brush strokes of a Renoir measured over six feet of rope-thick muscles. His shoulders were so wide I wouldn’t have been surprised if he had to turn sideways to fit through doorways.
He also moved with the grace of a werewolf. I flared my nostrils then coughed as my throat flooded with the wildness that only another shifter could exude.
My fists clenched. Coming face to face with a male werewolf was bad news, even if both of us were currently playing human. If I was lucky, this stranger would acknowledge my right to pass through a territory I didn’t rightfully belong in after he saw the rectangle of paper in my pocket. But my get-out-of-jail-free card wasn’t likely to hold up to many testings. Better to fly under the radar….
Leave. Now, my inner wolf whispered. Our heart rate sped up. Human feet were pointing toward the exit with wolf speed hurrying their motion when the girls hissed out disappointment.
“Ew. What a face.”
“I’d still do him…if he tied a bag over his head.”
Their words descended into giggles and curiosity stole my momentum. This time, I turned all the way around to see what grotesqueness had squashed their juvenile infatuation.
I was too late to catch more than a glimpse before the man angled his body away from us. I’d seen enough, however, to note the relevant facts.
Skin a middling brown that I suspected spoke to a Latin American heritage. Bushy eyebrows. A nose that had been broken and reset without medical attention. Scars, multiple scars.
But that wasn’t the reason the girls had reacted so negatively. The charisma of an alpha—and he was an alpha; I could smell that on him—should have attracted human women as thoroughly as it intrigued female werewolves. Only, something was off about this particular specimen. Something related to the scars streaking through what might otherwise have been appealing features.
I cocked my head, trying to understand the girls’ repulsion. This was an unexpected twist in the well-worn path of werewolf charisma. The strength of an alpha, apparently, could either attract or repel.
And as I squinted, I could almost see what had turned the teenagers off about Mr. Broad Shoulders. More than the scars. Something deeper….
Then I blinked and my face blindness kicked back in.
Well, my face blindness plus his evasive action. Instead of responding with the rage I would have expected, the alpha turned even further so we couldn’t catch even a glimpse of his supposed ugliness. Maybe that’s why I broke my cardinal rule—never draw attention to yourself.
“The perfect male body,” I mused aloud. “A rare art form. I believe I saw two specimens on the fourth floor, third gallery over from the stairs.”
I had, too. Last Sunday when I wandered through the Roman marbles. The men in question, let me be clear, were statues. Naked, though. Muscular. Perfectly featured. The girls would appreciate their chiseled physiques.
I was tempted to add a zinger. Something about the cold harshness that often went hand in hand with perfect masculine beauty. The warmth of spirit that was far more important outside museums.
But these girls were kids. Too young to know better.
So I let their giggling recede without dousing them in the cold water of adult wisdom. Then I turned my own feet toward the exit, already thinking ahead to my upcoming meeting…
…and ran into a wall of hot, living werewolf chest.
“That was sweet, chica.” His voice was deep, gravelly. Before I could retreat, he took a single step sideways. Now he was toeing the line of appropriate personal space while also opening my path to the exit in case I needed to make a run for it.
And I did need to make a run for it. I’d wasted my hand-washing minute educating teenagers. If I didn’t leave now, I’d be late to the job interview. Which, in turn, was likely to cascade into making me late visiting my sister. Late preventing family drama from a stepfather who reveled in inserting monkey wrenches into my well-laid plans.
But my feet merely swiveled so I could stare upward into the face of the stranger. He was taller than I’d thought from a distance. Maybe because he’d been striving at the time not to scare gawking teenagers? Had his shoulders been hunched earlier? His spine bent?
Whatever the reason, I was the scared one now. Or maybe scared wasn’t the proper word. Some heavy emotion I couldn’t quite fathom struck me in the chest area. It was abruptly hard to breathe.
“But unnecessary,” the man continued, and for a moment I forgot what he was talking about. “I know what I look like.”
Oh, right. Human standards of external beauty.
“We have such a strange obsession with facial symmetry,” I observed, forgetting for a moment that I was talking to a male werewolf who could likely freeze me in my steps and force me to do his bidding. “Presumably based on the evolutionary advantage of choosing the healthiest mate. Infections during childhood….”
“These scars didn’t come from childhood infection.” His head cocked and he smiled, a slow display of sharp teeth that—I’ll admit—sent a tremor down my spine. I flinched and his mouth snapped shut, lips going instantly flat.
“I apologize.” His eyes struck the floor, as if he was afraid of me.
I wanted to stay and tell him he had nothing to apologize for. Because even as the tremor flew through me, I understood it for what it was—instinct no more rational than that which had disgusted the teenagers.
But I was late. My sister needed the cash this job would offer.
And this man was a werewolf. Dangerous to me in ways I couldn’t afford to handle. A threat to my tenuous understanding with another alpha, one that allowed me to see my sister while she lived far too close to the heart of his territory.
“Keep your chin up,” I told the stranger as I spun toward the open door. And why, when distance eased the tightness in my chest, was I left feeling heavy rather than light?
I recognized my employer-to-be by the rose on her blouse, just like she’d promised. Unfortunately, my handshake wasn’t up to her standards.
“What have you been handling, Athena?” Marina offered in lieu of a greeting. Pulling a dainty, lace-edged handkerchief out of her handbag, she dabbed at her fingers as if we were attending a tea party rather than hovering at the edge of a roiling crowd.
Oops. I’d lost track of the grease from my sister’s fries in the midst of my werewolf sighting. Still, I wasn’t the only one who’d overshot societal cues.
“I replied to your message telling you this was a bad time,” I countered, “but your account had been closed.”
As I spoke, my gaze dropped to my cell phone. Harper’s weekly visiting window started in two hours. And while I’d been willing to be late to this job interview, if I didn’t show up in a timely manner at my sister’s boarding school afterwards, her dad would sneak in and “visit” instead….
“Do you have somewhere more important to be?” Marina’s voice was steely as she interrupted my contemplation of time and sisterhood.
I was losing whatever chance at this job I’d once had. Still, I answered honestly: “Yes.”
The word hovered between us for several seconds before Marina shrugged. “Then we might as well get on with it.”
As she spoke, she gestured up at the pseudo-Grecian facade of the museum behind us. Surely she didn’t mean…? I’d assumed this was a neutral public meeting place, not….
“I don’t steal from museums.” That clinched it. Marina was too much trouble and….
The check materialized out of nowhere. One moment my right hand was empty. The next moment, my fingers clasped a crisp rectangle of paper sporting more zeroes than I’d ever seen in my life.
I blinked. Magic? Or just my tired eyes playing tricks on me?
Either way, my free hand slipped into my pocket, feeling for the salt packet that went with my sister’s weekly fast-food treat. Harper liked her fries double-salted. She’d be sad if I lost her favorite seasoning.
Still, I found myself worrying one corner until it frayed open. Then I let a few grains dribble out onto the pavement. Better safe than sorry, right?
And…Marina took a single step backwards. Coincidence, I was sure of it. After all, magic didn’t exist. Well, I mean, magic other than werewolves.
Shaking off my uncertainty, I stuck to the tangible. “What’s this?” I asked, waving the check between us.
“The first half of your payment.” Marina leaned in closer than was really appropriate by human personal-space standards. She didn’t, however, step over the line of salt.
Still, she was close enough now for me to count her pores…or would have been if she’d had any. Instead, her skin was so smooth she might as well have been airbrushed. My nose, though, didn’t report any metallic hint of makeup.
Instead, Marina reeked of rose petals. Not from the flower at her lapel, which appeared to be a simple, unscented supermarket offering. But if the rose aroma emanated from a perfume, why couldn’t I distinguish an oil or alcohol base?
Curious. Still, it was the zeroes that prevented me from taking my own step backward, that prevented me from hightailing it away to my more important engagement. “What do you want in exchange for another check like this one?” I asked finally.
Marina’s lips didn’t turn upward, but I scented her smugness. I’d been the first to cave. She’d won that round.
“Follow me,” she promised, “and you’ll find out.”
She turned away, heading up the stairs without waiting to see if I’d follow. I flared my nostrils…and something furry and wild impinged.
Wolf. Not from Marina. Not from the ugly-fascinating man I’d met inside either. Instead, the scent rose from behind me, the variety of sub-odors suggesting multiple shifters were present amid the chattering humans entering and exiting the museum.
I itched to swivel and hunt for trouble. Instead, I kept my eyes on Marina. After all, she was the more immediate danger and I’d run out of salt.
“The museum doesn’t own the object in question,” she called back, heels clicking as she strode up the marble steps away from my stationary figure. “It’s on loan from a rich, white dude. And isn’t your sister’s tuition due soon?”
Her knowledge of my preferred thieving target—complete with slang that sounded awkward on her lips—plus my familial weakness was chilling. More dangerous than shifters because it was more focused. I dismissed the wolf scent and jogged to catch up with my maybe-boss.
“I chose you for this job because of your special abilities,” Marina continued as we wended our way past the recommended donation box. She ignored it while I dropped in a ten-dollar bill.
My feet froze on the stairs I’d been following her up. My nostrils flared again.
But there was no wolf scent about Marina. No fur. No wildness. She shouldn’t have known what I was capable of.
Still, I disabused her of that notion. “I don’t use any furry abilities on the job.”
Not since making a deal with the local alpha, that is. Not since Harper had begun attending boarding school so close to the heart of Rowan McCallister’s pack.
“What, never? Well, no matter.” Marina’s voice was perfectly museum appropriate as she dismissed my refusal to use my wolf and returned to the object of her fixation. “Before the current owner took possession, the item had been in my family for generations.” She paused long enough to spear me with eyes bluer than the sky. “I’m not asking you to steal, Athena. I’m asking you to return what’s already been stolen.”
Again, she turned away, this time leading me into a well-lit gallery. We didn’t speak as she made a beeline for a glass case housing a metal bracer.
It was a decorative arm cuff, meant to be worn at the wrist. Three inches wide, made of pounded gold and silver.
The pattern portrayed a running wolf.
I shivered. A wolf…like me? Like the scent outside? Like the world I did my best to steer clear of?
Ignoring what felt like more than a coincidence, I focused on the sign beside the artifact. What I saw there made me shake my head in disappointment.
Of course Marina had lied. All of my employers lied sooner or later.
“This is over a thousand years old,” I noted, raising my eyebrows. “It was dug up last month somewhere in England. You couldn’t even bother dreaming up a story that matches the obvious facts?”
“It was stolen from a cemetery,” Marina countered. “A cemetery in which my ancestors were buried. Do your research. Then cash the check if you want the job.”
The sweetness of rose petals wafted past my nose as Marina turned away. She was leaving. Walking out on me.
Which was good. Safe. And yet….
All those zeroes prompted me to call after her. “What’s to prevent me from cashing the check then disappearing?”
At first, I thought she wasn’t going to answer. But Marina spun in a cloud of flowing fabric when she reached the arch separating the gallery from the hallway. Her hair looked more blue than black there. Her teeth appeared werewolf sharp.
“I wouldn’t recommend it. Harper would regret anything that prevented me from receiving my prize.”
Her use of my sister’s name chilled me down to my marrow. My breathing didn’t slow until the scent of rose petals had faded to nothing on my tongue.
I hadn’t decided whether to take the job, but I did my due diligence anyway. Wasted precious minutes pretending I was interested in other items in the gallery beyond the bracer so the security footage wouldn’t look so suspicious if this turned into a crime scene.
In fact, I was snapping photos of a Viking’s helmet when the scent of wolf once again surrounded me. This time it was closer. Stronger.
I whirled…then relaxed as I took in the same ugly shifter I’d met downstairs.
“You’re very recognizable,” I greeted him.
I’d intended my words as a compliment, my face blindness meaning that I often couldn’t pick out people I’d met only once or twice or, let’s be honest, seven times before. The stranger didn’t take it that way.
Instead, he sidestepped as if once again opening up my escape routes. His face tilted away from me so I could only see the unscarred left side, and his voice was apologetic as he rumbled, “I didn’t intend to startle you.”
“I wasn’t startled,” I began. But my nostrils flared and proved me wrong.
Because I didn’t smell wolf now. I smelled wolves, plural. More than this single gentleman in a shifter’s malleable skin.
I spun, not quite comfortable with having the wolf I knew at my back but even less comfortable with being unable to see the wolves I didn’t know. There were two of them. Both just as tall as the one behind me but totally different in every other way.
The one on the left was white, tattooed, and decked out in studded leather. A biker or biker wannabe. Definitely someone I’d cross the street to avoid passing alone at night.
The one on the right was black, clad in a suit that could only be tailored. As perfectly featured as Marina while still exuding virile masculinity. This one the chatty girls would have eaten up.
Still, something about his eyes suggested his gentility lay only skin deep. His wolf scent was overwhelming. The hairs on my arms stood on end.
So I was relieved that the biker spoke instead of the more dangerous man beside him. “What’s this?” he asked, his eyes skimming over me then rising to meet those of Mr. Ugly. “Tank?”
Tank’s answer confirmed his identity. “She was here when I arrived.”
For half a second, I relaxed into the already familiar rumble. Scary men stood between me and escape, but Tank wasn’t scary. He was gentle beneath his massive exterior. The kind of man who forced himself into a small box for the sake of skittish teenagers.
And…his breath was hot against the back of my neck.
Maybe not so safe then. Tank had advanced without me realizing, sandwiching me between himself and the other two shifters. His earlier sidestep now seemed less like politeness and more like baiting a trap.
A trap I’d blithely strolled into.
I swallowed. Tried to talk my way out of a situation that would have been better avoided. “Look, I have a card in my pocket from the local alpha. He’s granted me permission to hunt here….”
“Does it look,” Scary Suit asked, “like we’re interested in cards?”
Adrenaline consumed me. Fight or flight. Unfortunately, neither was an option at the present moment. Not when I was penned in by shifters, each of whom boasted double my mass….
Reprieve came from an unexpected source.
“Are these men bothering you?”
The interruption materialized into an ordinary human. Museum security guard, if his uniform was any indication. Late fifties, chubby around the middle. Nowhere near a match for one of these werewolves, let alone all three.
Still, his official tone and the gun at his hip promised an authority that might just get me out of this mess. I grasped at the offered straw.
“Yes,” I answered, tarring all three shifters with the same brush. Never mind that Tank had been nothing but polite to me. I tried to ignore the bitter disappointment wafting from him as I continued, “They were.”
The guard lifted his walkie talkie, calling in backup. I slid out from between the trio of werewolves, expecting at any moment for a hand to slam down and pin me in place.
None did. No one stopped me. Not even the security guard as I slid past him, through the arch, and hurried down the hall.
Four museum patrons seemed to be too much for one security guard to juggle. So I didn’t have to use my backup plan—begging for a bathroom break then using the ladies’ room as a staging ground for escape. Didn’t have to give my name and address. Just slid away from the werewolves and the human authority figure like the burglar I was.
I did spare a hint of remorse for Tank. But I doubted he’d be held up for long. After all, security cameras would confirm the men had only spoken to me, never even touched me. The guard would have no reason not to let them go.
Which meant I needed to make tracks before they were released. My tennis shoes snicked softly against marble as I plummeted back down the main stairwell. The front entrance drew me, but a stray thought changed my trajectory. Scent trails. It had been a year since my last run-in with other werewolves, so I’d almost forgotten. I needed to think less like a human and more like a wolf.
I wasted thirty seconds spinning through the smelliest aisle of the gift shop. Scented candles were always good for overwhelming a lupine nose….
They certainly overwhelmed mine. I had to pinch my nostrils shut to prevent a sneezing fit as I inserted myself amid a large family exiting the museum. These humans were just as stinky as the space I’d rushed out of. Fruity shampoos and manly body washes. Helpfully foul. I let their forward momentum carry me two blocks in the wrong direction before peeling away to strike off on my own.
That should be enough. Or at least I hoped so. The benefit of a city—there were too many people passing to make it easy to trace a single scent trail for very long. Add on my evasions and any followers wouldn’t stand a chance….
Not that I really expected the trio to track me. They had no reason to. Yes, I was a female shifter, but I didn’t possess the enticing chocolate aroma of a pack princess. My half-blood heritage had provided that much for me at least.
And my wending route away from the museum had turned up an unexpected side benefit. A fleeting glance down an alley caught golden arches on the next street over. Perfect. I’d pick up another salt packet for Harper before heading back to my car….
I was halfway down the alley when the scent of wolves rose around me. Halfway down the alley when something leapt from above, landing on my back and bearing me all the way to the ground.
I rolled while jabbing upward with my elbow. Someone grunted. The grasp on my shoulders relaxed just enough for me to wriggle free.
But whoever had leapt off the dumpster wasn’t my only problem. Out of the corner of my eye, I caught a glimpse of wolf fur that matched a warning growl. Meanwhile, the thud of boots on pavement promised there was at least one undamaged two-legger backing up the one swearing on the ground.
Then the wolf was upon me. Gray around her muzzle suggested age but her speed rivaled that of a teenager. She snarled. Snapped. Stopped one inch away from my skin.
I was on my hands and knees, lacking the leeway I needed to scramble upright. The wolf was providing just enough breathing room so I could scuttle backward. An attempt to herd me toward whoever I’d elbowed? I couldn’t see him, but I could hear him griping, the expletives loud and harsh.
He was the least of my worries, however. So was the wolf.
Or, at least, that wolf. My own inner animal was alert, angry, powerful. She grabbed at our shared body, doing her best to burst free of my skin and clothing….
And her instincts were good. Going wolf would help us escape this ambush. But I couldn’t afford to break the rules I’d agreed to when I accepted the card in my pocket.
Not now, I told my inner animal. Harper needs us.
Without the card, we couldn’t see our sister. Would be forced to leave this territory and beg for refuge in another. Or, more likely than begging, would be forced to make a deal we didn’t want to make.
My inner wolf was driven less by rational thought and more by instinct. But even she could see the juice wasn’t worth the squeeze in this instance. So she subsided…for a moment, until the gray-muzzled wolf snapped another offensive, her teeth cutting through my shirt and into my wrist.
Great. Just great. Wolves always responded so very rationally to physical challenges.
The growl rising out of my throat didn’t originate with my human self. Fur slid from the skin of my arms….
And I held my breath while scrabbling atop the greasy pavement in search of a weapon. If I could prove to my wolf that I wasn’t defenseless, she’d subside. Or at least I very much hoped so.
Fingertips turned up a bottle cap. A flattened piece of metal. Nothing useful. Couldn’t the litterbugs be bothered to drop a knife now and then?
“We’re not going to hurt you.” The voice twenty feet down the alley was deep, soothing. Tank. Why did his presence here make me so disappointed?
Still, he’d been helpful. My inner wolf stopped struggling the instant he spoke.
“Of course you aren’t,” I agreed just as my hand closed around something sharp and pointy. Aha. The litterbugs had come through after all.
The shard of glass bit into my palm as I fisted the found weapon. It wasn’t much. But perhaps enough to get out of this mess without going lupine? I hoped so.
“That’s why you’re attacking me in an alley,” I continued.
As I spoke, I eyed my route to safety. I’d only have one go at it. Slash the wolf’s face with the shard of glass, kick out a second time at whoever had initially leapt on top of me, then vault on top of the dumpster and from there onto the fire escape.
The shaky vertical staircase would keep the wolf from following until she could shift back to human form. I hoped Tank’s distance and my original attacker’s nosebleed would similarly slow them down.
It was a sliver of a chance, but I’d take it. Better than going full-on fur and wearing out my welcome in the city closest to Harper’s boarding school.
So I feinted with my empty fist. The wolf swerved just the way I knew she would. The glass shard bit into my skin as I teased it out behind my fingers…
…then something hard and unyielding clenched around my middle. Air wheezed out of me. My chin sunk to my chest as I peered down at tattooed arms cocooning me in an unaffectionate bear hug.
Meanwhile, the wolf shimmered upward into a woman. Mid-forties if I had to guess, with short black hair and dark eyes that seemed to see all the way through to my inner wolf.
Her voice was dry as she turned our recent fracas into a minor misunderstanding. “We just want to talk to you,” she said, walking away to pick up a pile of clothes from behind a dumpster.
Not only clothes. There was a gun there and a shoulder holster. The woman donned the combination so easily I had a sinking suspicion her profession lay in the field of law enforcement.
My past, it appeared, had caught up to me. Now I wished this had been a mere mugging carried out by an unruly group of male werewolves.
“I have the right to remain silent,” I informed her, trying and failing to hold my body away from the biker’s.
Because, of course, that’s who had disarmed me in the most embarrassing way possible. Or I assumed so, despite the way faces tended to slither out of my memory. How many other tattooed, leather-clad werewolves were likely to be hanging out downtown?
Meanwhile, Nose Bleed rose from the ground and materialized into a beautiful black man. The third member of the museum trio, presumably. Great. Just great.
This time, there was no security guard to rush to my aid. Instead, I bristled, not wanting my assailants to realize how intimidated I was by the odds, the gun, the badge the woman surely had in her pocket.
But one of them noticed. “Will you feel safer in a public space?” Tank murmured.
One minute ago, he’d been on the far side of the alley. Now he was so close his heat warmed me. Tank’s huge hand closed around my right wrist, then he jerked his chin upwards. “Ryder. I’ve got her. You can let her go.”
The tattooed biker snorted. The arm around my waist tightened. “Finders keepers.”
Tank growled and I got the absurd impression I was being fought over like a bag of Halloween candy. The air sharpened with alpha electricity and….
“Boys.” To my surprise, the woman’s voice stopped the incipient battle before it had time to begin.
Ryder released me. Tank took a step away from his former opponent, even though his hand remained clenched around my wrist.
Without meaning to, I’d followed Tank sideways. Now, I peered up at him, trying to assess his intentions. But his face twisted sideways. Not away from Ryder’s glare. Away from my searching glance.
“Should we take this somewhere more public?” he rumbled, repeating his question. The uncomfortable bend to his neck seemed habitual. A way to see me out of the corner of his eyes, I guessed, while hiding most of his own face from view.
His grip, meanwhile, was firm but not painful. I expected my wolf to rise onto the offensive. Instead, she sighed and settled down for a nap.
Traitor. Perhaps that’s why my voice came out curter than I intended.
“I’d feel safer if strange men stopped manhandling me.”
Tank’s lips—what I could see of them—thinned. But he didn’t release me.
And the woman, once again, took the lead. “I have handcuffs if you’d prefer. Can’t risk you doing another runner.”
Her eyes promised she was far scarier than Scary Suit. Whatever she wanted to talk about mattered to her as much as bringing fries to my kid sister mattered to me.
I swallowed down aggression and accepted reality. The faster I gave them what they wanted, the sooner I could see Harper. “A public space it is.”
We walked right past the McDonald’s. Breezed into a fancy coffee shop where the only item on the menu that appeared to contain sugar was a so-called Super Shake…which came out green and seedy and thoroughly disgusting.
I gave up on my beverage after one abortive sip then focused on Tank’s fingers curled into my fingers. Because he’d slid his grip down to my hand while walking. As if we were lovers instead of captor and prisoner. Even now, our intertwined fingers rested atop his knee.
I hated how aware I was of the flesh separated from mine by one thin layer of fabric. Of the muscles that slid beneath our joined hands when he leaned over to draw the sugar dispenser down the table toward us. Of the care he took tearing open sweetener packets to pour into my drink.
Thus doctored, the Super Shake became marginally less vile. The fact Tank had noticed my disgust and made an effort to remedy it was far more enticing.
There’s nothing sexy about being kidnapped, I reminded myself. Inside my belly, my wolf hummed disagreement. I clenched my free fist and told her to shut up.
Thief, I reminded myself. Cop. Bad combination.
“What do you want from me?” I asked Lupe—the woman, who appeared to be these werewolves’ leader. We’d faked amiability while ordering, sharing introductions. First names only. I wasn’t about to offer identifying information to someone who had attacked me in an alley and Lupe didn’t press the point.
Now she smiled before answering, as if she was well aware of my lupine half’s interest in Tank’s proximity. “The Samhain Shifters….”
Shifter I understood. But—“Saw Win what?”
“Samhain,” she said again, slower. “Sunset on October thirty-first through dawn on November first. The Samhain Shifters are a group assembled to keep the most dangerous night of the year safe.”
She eyed me, as if expecting instant understanding. And, yes, I could do calendars. “Halloween,” I confirmed. Then, unable to help myself, I glanced around at the guys who were silent observers of our conversation. “They don’t even need costumes. Posh Spice. Biker Spice….”
“And Ugly Spice,” Ryder—the tattooed biker—suggested when I couldn’t come up with a name for Tank.
Lupe spoke over me before I could finish my sentence, which was probably a good thing since my rebuttal had originated with my wolf and involved the word tasty. “This isn’t about trick-or-treating,” the gun-wielding female told me. “Nodes pop up every Samhain. I’m one of several full-timers who assemble a crew of shifters two weeks beforehand, a member of which is drawn from each nearby pack. Our teams start out as strangers and train just long enough to learn to work together without building pack bonds. After that, we keep the fae in check for a very critical fourteen hours.”
I was nodding along until the last sentence, at which point my eyebrows scrunched up in confusion. “Are we talking bad fairies? Like Tinkerbell with an attitude?”
Lupe shook her head, humorless. “More like full-size beings who use glamour to look and smell like your best friend then suck your pack bonds dry to fuel their depredations. Thus the short-term team.”
Pack bonds. My lips thinned. Based on a bad encounter as an orphaned teenager, I’d sworn off werewolf packs for the duration. I certainly had none of those much-touted connections with other shifters to be threatened by these hypothetical fae.
Still, I’d heard how pack bonds worked. They let mates communicate telepathically, allowed an alpha to locate his underlings, and could even be used to heal. So I guessed I could see why others found them so important. Regardless, they had nothing to do with me.
“Our job is essential,” Tank told me, sliding into the silence my lack of a response offered. “I met a pack once that was impacted by fae. They self-destructed. Tore each other to pieces. The few survivors told me they didn’t even understand what was happening for months after it started. They just thought long-time friends had turned into enemies. Family members became backstabbers….”
His cheek twitched. The pack, I could tell, had mattered to him. Despite myself, my left hand slid toward the one Tank had rested on the table. I stilled the pesky appendage before it could get me into more trouble than I was already in.
Lupe watched us both with eyes dark and hard. “The fae aren’t always that overt,” she told me. “The subtle ones are even more dangerous.”
“Dangerous enough to make it kosher to assault total strangers in an alley?”
In response, Lupe speared me with one of those alpha glares that made underlings shiver. “If we think she can help us, then yes.”
And maybe I could help. Marina’s rose-petal aroma shimmered in my memory. The way the check with all those zeroes had materialized out of thin air. “I might have met one.” I hadn’t realized I was speaking aloud until Lupe’s eyes narrowed. “A fae,” I elaborated. “Fairy. What’s the singular?”
“No.” Lupe shook her head. “The fae—singular and plural the same—only cross over during Samhain, although they can talk mortals into working for them in the interim. We call those helpers Sleepers. They’re trouble, but not our primary objective.”
A burst of masculine annoyance: “Why are you telling her this?”
I blinked. I’d forgotten there were others present beyond me, Tank, and Lupe. Now, I shifted my focus to the black man I’d punched in the nose. Butch, his friends had called him, even though the name made no sense for someone blessed with such sublime physical perfection. Despite my punching, his face remained as perfectly formed as before.
“We tracked Athena down,” he continued, voice melodious and at the same time grating, “because Ryder had a hunch she was a Sleeper. She could be taking notes right now, intending to sell us out to the enemy.”
“She’s not a Sleeper,” Lupe interrupted, still pinning me with her gaze. “Are you?”
About that, at least, I could be honest. “This has nothing to do with me. I appreciate the invitation and the drink….”
Ryder snickered. He was the one who’d recommended my so-called treat. He’d known, I now realized, that the Super Shake was full of kale and chia seeds.
My punishment for leaving him to the mercy of the security guard? Or a jab at Tank, who’d been ready to fight Ryder over who got the pleasure of restraining me?
Whatever the reason, Ryder’s childish means of retaliation reminded me to glance at my watch. And what I saw there made me wince.
I needed to leave now if I wasn’t going to be late to Harper’s visiting hour. Sixty minutes once a week. Stepfather aside, I wasn’t willing to lose one second of sisterly bonding time.
“As delightful as it was to meet you all…” I rose, or tried to. Unfortunately, Tank’s loose grip on my fingers had hardened to the implacability of iron.
“This is important,” he told me. “My alpha’s territory is close to the node this year. We have pack mates there overcoming trauma. Pups who require a safe haven. Their fate depends upon Samhain Shifters. On us.”
His point made, he turned his attention to Lupe. “Athena has skills our team lacks.”
I hadn’t thought Lupe was particularly impressed with me, but she nodded. “Our team could use another woman. Consider it your civic duty to participate. Like voting, but more intense.”
To save the world…or at least werewolf pack bonds? For half a second, I wavered. This was what I’d dreamed about when I was a child. Making a difference, not stealing baubles from and for the rich.
But childish dreams didn’t last into adulthood. “Does the job pay?” I countered, knowing it didn’t.
Only, I was wrong. “I could squeeze a little out of the budget,” Lupe answered, ignoring the way Butch’s face wrinkled in disgust that, on him, still appeared beautiful.
So that’s what this was? Another job interview? “I’m flattered,” I answered, “but no.”
After all, squeezing out a little cash didn’t sound like it was going to pay Harper’s tuition. I couldn’t afford to save the world pro bono.
Saying no to werewolves, however, was a bad idea. I tensed, fully expecting the kid gloves to come off.
Instead, Tank released me. Released me…and pressed a business card into my hand before I could retreat.
“At least think about it.” His words and his touch made it hard to swallow.
Still, I managed to rise this time without being yanked backwards. Took a step away from the table…and no one leapt up to stop me.
“Sure, I’ll think about it,” I said, knowing every one of these werewolves could smell my lie.