Kira is a fox shifter making a name for herself in a wolf’s world. But when she’s sent to arrest an alpha who turns out to be innocent, she can’t force herself to keep following orders like a wolf….
Girls’ night out in a shifter bar?
I cocked my head at the cursive neon lights that glowed above the door of the blocky, three-story building. Then I checked my phone. Yep, this was the address Charlie had provided in her emailed invitation.
She just hadn’t included the establishment’s name—Full Moon Saloon. And her nose wouldn’t have picked up on the scent of fur that overwhelmed car exhaust and autumn leaves while I lingered on the busy sidewalk out front.
The question was—why would my entirely human friend pick this place? Charlie had no concept that some of us went furry on occasion.
Or so I thought. Given the dangers to Charlie of learning about shifters’ existence, so I hoped.
I shrugged away the trickle of concern and pushed the heavy door open, blinking as my eyes adjusted to the dim, throbbing interior. The scent of fur was stronger here, but a quick scan suggested no one was four-legged at the moment.
Danger, however, infused the space. Someone was hunting. But who and hunting what?
The establishment was smaller than it had appeared from outside, a closed door off to my right and one behind the bar leading to apparently non-public parts of the building. But that didn’t mean it was easy to find the hunter. Shifters were everywhere, elbows planted on polished wood tables, booted feet invading walkways, husky chuckles nibbling into the back of my neck.
My eyes settled on the broad shadow of the proprietor. Separated from his customers by a bar that ran the length of the room, his right hand caressed the long counter as if it wasn’t a hunk of dented and scarred wood but was instead a woman’s hip.
Wait, no, he wasn’t caressing the bar. He was wiping down its surface.
And he wasn’t hunting. The trickle of cold in my spine came from somewhere else.
I found Charlie before I spotted the hunter. Or rather, she found me.
“Kira!” Her greeting trilled above the music and chatter. Her hug struck like a rattlesnake and for one split second I let old memories bite.
Swords, camaraderie, and cascades of laughter. Cramming for finals while lounging knee to knee atop a white, fluffy rug in the twins’ dorm room.
Then emptiness. Silence. Friendship disappearing without explanation.
I swallowed, forcing myself out of the past to focus on the present. On a friend redolent with chemical reagents and bunsen-burner fuel, just like she’d smelled way back when.
Charlie squeezed me tighter before pushing me back to arm’s length. “You look exactly the same.”
Of course I did. My half-Japanese heritage meant I was often mistaken for a teenager even though I was actually midway through my twenties. Speaking Charlie’s language, I shrugged. “Blame it on the genes.”
“Hmm.” She squinched her eyes half shut. “You’re starving. Better feed you before something breaks. Thom, can you nuke us a pizza?”
Bar pizza was vile. Still, my stomach growled and Charlie released her customary peal of horse-snort laughter while drawing me toward the puddle of light above two empty bar stools.
“That what you want?” The bartender—Thom—didn’t look in my direction. But he was closer now, or so my nose informed me. Close enough that I could tell he wasn’t much older than Charlie. That his scent wasn’t mere shifter fur but instead carried the headier musk of dominant alpha werewolf.
Still, his question came out gentle. Not subservient, but protective. As if he’d smelled my initial caution and wanted to make sure Charlie wasn’t steamrollering over my wishes.
She wasn’t. Tonight, vile bar pizza with Charlie was exactly what I wanted.
And, without me needing to turn that thought into a verbalization, Thom nodded. Dropped the cloth onto the counter then headed away from us through a door into what was presumably a kitchen, leaving me alone with my once-friend.
“It’s been too long,” Charlie said as I sank down onto the bar stool beside her.
I nodded but kept scanning the room. Because the scent of the hunter had rebounded even stronger as Thom stepped away from us. And, being human, there was a good chance Charlie was the one in the predator’s sights….
Well, make that a slight chance. The bar wasn’t just full of werewolves the way I’d initially assumed; it also contained a healthy helping of non-shifters. For example, a man and a woman, clearly on a date, were laughing at a table only feet from three snarly werewolves. The combination, loosened by alcohol, seemed problematic at best.
But as I turned my head, seeking danger, the certainty that a hunter stalked the premises faded from my hair follicles. And Charlie’s words snagged my attention instead.
“I’m glad you emailed.”
My brows drew together. I hadn’t emailed.
Well, I guess I had. I’d sent out a group request for contributions to the alumni magazine last winter. “I—”
She spoke over me. “Can we not talk about what happened? At least not tonight.”
Charlie and her twin had been adorable as teenagers, all big blue eyes and glossy curls. Now, at twenty-eight, her prettiness had matured into elegance. If she’d wanted, she could have used that beauty the same way I used my understanding of human psychology—to wrap everyone around her little finger.
Which wasn’t why I nodded. I nodded because those usually wide eyes were squinting painfully. Charlie’s smile wasn’t as broad as I remembered it being. And, frankly, I didn’t want to sully the present with the past any more than she did.
“So you’re a chemist,” I guessed based on the parts of Charlie’s scent that had carried over from college. “What awesome discoveries are you on the trail of?”
And just like that, the awkwardness receded. Charlie waggled her eyebrows, her voice turning confidential. “I work on a military base. If I told you more, I’d have to kill you. But here’s a hint—Gate City ghost!”
Her arms waved wildly, as if including me in a well-known secret I wasn’t actually aware of. Or maybe she thought there was a specter present in the bar beside us. Never mind that ghosts, I was pretty sure, didn’t exist.
I hummed noncommittally, the time we’d spent apart yawning wider. And Charlie deftly changed the subject, pointing her chin at my sword then tossing out a conversational gambit that I could run with.
“And you. I’ll bet you’re still charming your way out of trouble while wearing the cutest, sharpest sword this side of the Mississippi. Let me guess.” She bit her lip, gloss catching a glint of lamplight. “Pirate?”
“Law enforcement,” I told her, which was only sort of a lie.
“Ooh, adventure. Dish, please.”
So I regaled Charlie with the tale of my latest escapade, leaving out bits where the trespasser had gone furry and tried to nibble his way through my trousers. We were both laughing when Thom slid dinner between us, a pizza that he’d somehow dressed up to become more than thin layers of toppings atop wheat-based cardboard.
“Full Moon Special,” he said, eyes remaining hidden. This close, his presence was hotter than the molten cheese that drew my fingers and made me forget about the danger of a scorched tongue.
Something unfamiliar and heady fluttered through me and I shivered. Charlie, never one to miss a physical reaction, poked at the goosebumps beading on my forearms.
“You don’t want to go there,” she whispered, her tone low enough so the human two bar stools down wouldn’t hear. “Thom doesn’t date. Doesn’t hook up either.”
Unfortunately, Charlie didn’t understand the superior auditory abilities of werewolves. The scent of amusement emanating from the alpha werewolf roiled between us in a wave of spice.
“Good. Great.” I took my slice with me as I spun the stool all the way around so my back was to the source of my chagrin. “Why don’t you tell me about them?” I asked, waving vaguely at the other bar patrons before biting into the Full Moon Special. It had real parmesan on top, along with fresh pepperoni that sparked my taste buds wide awake.
“The best part of moving here,” Charlie agreed. Picking up her own slice, she used it to point at two women parked at a table in one corner. “Officers’ wives rubbing shoulders with scientists and locals. Never a dull moment in the Full Moon Saloon.”
For a moment, the buzz in my brain made it impossible to focus. Then Thom’s scent receded, the gentle whoosh of the kitchen door promising he’d taken pity on me.
And, at the same moment, the scent of active predator reasserted itself. Someone was hunting. Nearby. Intently. And they were very close to the kill.
Luckily, Charlie seemed content to chat about the people around us, giving me further opportunity to peer past my pizza into the room. As best I could tell, the so-called locals were evenly split between werewolves and farmers. Other than the oblivious dating couple, most of the humans seemed to have chosen spots far from danger. Which made sense—humans usually sensed shifters’ predatory nature at an instinctive level and took steps to preserve their own skins.
Well, no, the couple on a date weren’t the only ones lacking hairs-on-the-back-of-your-neck sensitivity. A young human’s reed-thin arms shook as he braced himself one-handed against a wobbly walker. Beside him hovered a very rough-round-the-edges werewolf, young yet bulky. The shifter’s gaze riveted on the human as if the latter was a juicy rabbit just waiting to be snapped up.
“That’s my boss’s son, Eli,” Charlie explained, catching the direction of my gaze if not the purpose for it. “He makes friends with everybody.”
In fact, Eli appeared to be telling the werewolf beside him about the history of bar games even as he struggled to pick up a dart. The tiniest hint of a smile fluttered across the werewolf’s lips and I relaxed.
Yes, this werewolf was hunting. But not blood. I suspected he intended to fleece Eli for all the young man was worth.
For his part, Eli’s stream of chatter was so relentless that I blinked and nearly missed the moment his laboriously lifted metal projectile landed dead center in the dart board. “Looks like you’re paying,” Eli crowed, his jubilation resembling that of a ten-year-old winning a heated round of Monopoly. “I’ll take Pepsi. In a glass. With a cherry on top.”
What do you do when a rabbit turns on you with teeth bared? I would have been tempted to laugh and accept failure. The hunting werewolf didn’t share my approach.
Instead, a fist thudded onto the table between them, rattling empty glasses. The werewolf growled something wordless that, to a shifter, would have come across as a threat to rip out throats.
“Don’t feel bad,” Eli offered, leaning in closer so he could pat the irate shifter’s shoulder. “I’ve been practicing.” Then, as if reciting truisms from a parent: “Losing just means you need to try harder. You’re still a worthwhile person inside.”
Beside me, Charlie snickered. She thought Eli was tweaking the nose of a rough-around-the-edges bar patron. What she didn’t realize was the sharpness of that bar patron’s teeth.
Sure enough, Eli’s pat turned the werewolf’s muscles stiff. Then he made everything much, much worse.
Leaving his walker behind entirely, Eli flung himself into a hug that wouldn’t really have been considered appropriate even among humans. With an irate werewolf, the gesture was deeply unwise.
I dropped my pizza and drew my sword as the werewolf’s scent turned dark and dangerous. He shoved Eli hard at the same instant Charlie muttered, “Oh shit.”
We weren’t close enough to catch Eli as he was flung backwards, but someone else was. One of the military wives scrambled forward, perfume seething around her person as she sank down to her knees with Eli’s head cradled in her lap.
“He’s fragile!” she warned.
And the shifter picked up the nearest table. Hefted it as if the metal and wood weighed no more than a soccer ball and would be just as easy to toss toward Eli’s head.
Unlike a soccer ball, however, the heavy furniture wouldn’t bounce harmlessly away when it made contact. Instead, features would shatter. Blood would fountain. Bones would break.
Luckily, Charlie and I were able to prevent that disaster from unfolding. “Pied Piper?” my friend murmured. “You don’t happen to have another sword handy, do you?”
“Always,” I lied, tossing her the non-magical weapon I’d been holding. As she tested its balance, I mentally massaged my star ball to create another blade in a newly materialized scabbard running the length of my spine.
Because a kitsune’s star ball was one of our greatest assets. Made up of immaterial energy that helped us shift in the blink of an eye, the star ball could also be solidified into physical objects both visible and very, very tangible. The only danger being that separation from the result sapped my strength as quickly as water drained through a yanked bathtub plug.
I didn’t intend to be separated from my star-ball sword, however. Instead, I twisted the blade until it caught a glint of light from the dangling ceiling lamps, shining warning into the shifter’s eyes.
He curled back his lips, snarling. I cocked my head, grinning at the haze of adrenaline fizzing through my veins.
I didn’t speak to the werewolf, however. Instead, I addressed Charlie in a voice loud enough to catch everyone’s attention. “Wanna do it? Right now? Outside for all the world to see?”
Charlie wiggled her eyebrows just like she had in the college cafeteria when we were trying to catch cute guys’ attention. “I can’t wait to see who ends up on top, you or me.”
The werewolf, bless his heart, panted. He really was pretty far gone into his animal self. The never-to-be-flung table clattered to the ground as my sword curved towards Charlie’s.
Just a tap. A clang of steel on steel to solidify any wandering attention.
Then I was sidling backwards while Charlie ushered me doorward, her sword nudging mine when our trajectory needed a tweak. We’d perfected this dance years ago, so I was able to let my muscles drift into autopilot while I scanned the interior of the space.
The formerly irate werewolf wasn’t the only one following after us. As best I could tell, we’d attracted the attention of every red-blooded male in the Full Moon Saloon.
Every male…including Thom. He slammed out of the kitchen like a storm cloud, taking in the scene with one glance before vaulting across the bar. Hard boots gashed a new dent in the surface of the wood he’d so lovingly polished earlier. His gaze, when it met mine for the first time, was like an icepick to the brain.
Blue eyes boasted the hue of a submerged glacier. Luminous yet hooded. Wild and dangerous and dark.
For one split second, I fell into the Antarctic Ocean. Then Charlie’s sword clanged into mine a little harder than necessary. Flinching back to reality, I noted that Thom had picked up his pace.
Which was when I realized he thought Charlie and I needed rescuing. “We’re fine,” I mouthed. “Check on Eli.”
Because Charlie’s boss’s son—man in stature, boy in behavior—seemed unharmed from a distance. He was on his feet, being guided back to his walker. But that fall hadn’t looked good….
Thom hesitated then swiveled away from me. The icepick eased up into a strange sort of yearning. I shook my head, refocusing on my friend.
“I wonder if one of these big guys would like to have a go with the winner?” Charlie mused, eyes sparkling. Then we were dancing out the door into the crispness of October in Virginia, two dozen hungry werewolves at our back.
Ten minutes later, we were still dancing, even though Charlie’s and my positions had reoriented so we could fend off the werewolves who’d piled on all at once. Their behavior was reprehensible…and deeply gratifying. Because it gave me permission to press my back up against the back of an old friend and whack sense into those who deserved whacking in perfect unison with someone not in my pack.
“I’m gonna drag you behind that car,” the werewolf in front of Charlie snarled, his words not quite words but still getting his point across. “Then…”
Charlie snorted before he could finish, twisting her blade and tapping him on the forehead with the flat so hard he yelped. “I suggest you go home.”
A human usually wouldn’t have been able to make headway against a shifter, but these werewolves had reflexes dulled by drinking. Plus, even though they wielded swords, I didn’t get the impression they trained with them. Typical of outpack wolves gathering in a bar like this.
No wonder the guy Charlie had struck mumbled something I pretended not to hear then turned away into the darkness. Returning my attention to my own fight, I slid beneath a hulking werewolf’s guard, locked the hilts of our swords, and flicked his off into traffic. A car’s brakes squealed and the shifter made a very similar noise as he hightailed it out of my blade’s reach.
In the lull as our remaining opponents realigned themselves, I checked on the real purpose of our endeavor. Yep, there was the slow-moving huddle I’d hoped for, skirting the edge of the battle. Eli in his walker, flanked by Thom and the overly perfumed military wife. The unlikely collaborators helped the young man into the back of a car, then Thom leaned his head in after to offer a few words.
“You’re safe here, Eli. I won’t let this happen again.”
The bartender’s words rumbled with werewolf danger, but Eli just laughed. “I know I’m safe. I don’t get nightmares.”
Then the military wife was easing the vehicle away into traffic and Thom’s icepick eyes met mine above three werewolves’ bobbing shoulders. His eyebrows rose, a question. I shook my head, a reply.
No, I neither needed nor wanted any help. This was all fun and games.
Behind me, Charlie disarmed another of her opponents just as ably as the first one. “You’ve been practicing,” I called over my shoulder.
“Not quite enough,” she answered, only slightly more out of breath than I was. “Swords don’t play a big role in lab work. Actually, I’m surprised they do in law enforcement. Since when do cops rely on blades instead of guns?”
“New thing.” My mouth puckered with the sour taste of the lie and I almost missed the shifter, not so wobbly as the others, who leapt up in my blind spot. I tried to parry, but the angle was wrong. Words, more instinct than expectation, barked out of my mouth.
Even as I spoke, I rejected the expectation of assistance. After all, the term was a throwback to the days when Charlie, her twin, and I had all taken lessons under my sister. Ancient history. Unlikely to work today.
So I counterattacked, knowing as my arm lashed out that the wild blow wasn’t going to be effective.
To my surprise, our code was remembered. Charlie’s sword came stabbing back over her shoulder while I tossed myself sideways. And the werewolf who’d invaded my blind spot grunted in distress.
Charlie’s blind blow had only been a glancing one, but the guy still sheathed his sword, backing away from us with hands raised. The chance of an easy lay might have tempted him initially. But neither Charlie nor I was easy, not when we clenched swords in our fists.
And now the air between us sweetened. Moving in perfect harmony, only a few words were necessary to unite us in reminiscence.
“Remember that summer?” Charlie asked, referring to her twin’s kidnapping when I was in grade school and they weren’t much older, a trauma that had tugged us all so close together that we remained friends until college. After the event, the Raven twins had signed up for swordfighting lessons with my sister, which might explain why Charlie brought up the distant past now.
“Of course,” I answered. Then, broaching the topic I’d never been mature enough to ask at the time: “Do you think Jessie has flashbacks about it?”
“Nah.” Charlie’s blade flashed into my peripheral vision. We were almost out of werewolves to unite against. “Swords made us both strong.”
Then there were no opponents left. Just an empty sidewalk and the tentative germination of an old relationship turned new.
Assuming reality didn’t squelch that tender sprout of connection.
“We haven’t lost our touch,” I observed, swiveling to revel in our triumph.
But Charlie’s back was all that met my gaze. Her shoulders were tense the way they hadn’t been in battle.
“I need to visit the lady’s room,” she muttered. “I’ll be right back.”
Here in front of the bar, there were three small round tables directly beneath a streetlight, each boasting two rusty metal chairs. Rather than following Charlie the way I wanted to, I sank into one of the latter. At least I could keep an eye on the werewolf who’d seemed most upset about losing to ensure he didn’t sneak inside and waylay Charlie while she was alone.
Nope, he was stalking off across the street, crossing against traffic. A horn blared and he shook a fist at the driver. Venting aggression at cars—great move, werewolf.
I was still chuckling at the loser’s misplaced testosterone when a deep, gritty voice curled out of the darkness right beside me. “Your drinks.”
Someone had slipped past my guard, which meant I should have sprung to my feet with sword extended. Should have swirled around until my blade bit into his throat.
Instead, I turned slowly, knowing who I’d see even before two of the pinkest, cutest beverages imaginable settled onto the table in front of me. I mean, there weren’t just umbrellas stuck into the neon-colored liquid. There were candy lips kissing each rim.
This was exactly the sort of frou-frou fun Charlie adored. Someone knew his clientele’s taste.
The bartender who’d carried them out to us, however, was ten times as enticing as the beverages. Tall, broad, well-muscled. Dark facial hair that formed a well-cropped shadow around a square jaw. Eyes that no longer averted themselves from mine, and a smile that softened crags like sun slipping through a break in a mountain range.
Add in the flannel shirt and I expected Thom to pull out an ax and go Paul Bunyan on me. No wonder I let flirtatious banter dance off my lips. “These are adorable. But could you possibly leave them for Charlie and make mine a virgin?”
I did want a non-alcoholic drink, but I’d also found that tossing the V word around tended to pique guys’ interest. Only…this time my effort backfired. The sun left the mountain and Thom’s question came out hard and cold. “Virgin?”
And banter eluded me. Words eluded me. Thom hadn’t repeated my request as a sexy rejoinder. Instead, his voice had gone gruff, his body language proving that I’d made a major faux pas.
Did Thom think I was making a dig about his refusal to date? Insinuating that he was a virgin because he couldn’t find a willing partner?
“No, no, no! That’s not what I meant!” Diarrhea of the mouth. How embarrassing. And I couldn’t quite make it stop. “This is about me, not about you. Bad idea to drink tonight.”
Someone laughed inside the bar. A car rolled past on the street in front of us, teenagers bobbing along to the beat of way too loud music.
Thom still didn’t speak.
So I did. “Why, you might ask, did I come to a bar if I don’t want to drink? That’s an excellent question. The deal is, I haven’t seen Charlie for six years, since I was a freshman in college and she ditched me without explanation. She sent me this address yesterday and I had the afternoon off. So of course I showed up.”
I slapped one hand across my face, covering up my eyes so I didn’t have to see Thom’s reaction. “And, yes, I did just air all my dirty laundry to a stranger. Kill me now.”
For another moment, the night hung heavy around us. Then soft flannel brushed my cheekbone. A gentle hand pried my fingers loose from their stranglehold grip on my forehead. I blinked and peered up, half hoping and half fearing that the icepick would reignite.
Only, Thom wasn’t watching me. Instead, his gaze turned the spot where Charlie and I had fought just a few minutes earlier. The scent of fur seethed around us, leftover from aggression released in battle. “I understand your caution,” Thom rumbled, the words vibrating like honeybees in my stomach. “But I, personally, will ensure your safety in my town.”
His town. So Thom was an alpha.
Filling in the blanks settled my crazy emotions. Helped me forget about the icepick and see what Thom saw.
He thought I was a female werewolf outside her pack showing understandable caution around a horde of riled shifters. “No, that’s not it,” I corrected. “Unfortunately, I have promises to keep. And miles to go before I sleep.”
And, apparently, no ability to come up with succinct replies that hadn’t first been written by dead poets. Argh!
Wait, that argh hadn’t emerged from my throat. It had instead come from Charlie as she dropped down into the other chair, formerly sweat-streaked hair reformed into its usual perfect waves through her entirely human sort of magic.
“No!” she continued, the joy of winning against so many opponents sloughing off her. “You’re staying the night. I have a guest room. Actual clean towels. Come on, Kira. Don’t let me down.”
And now, finally, ordinary words became available in my jumbled brain. “Family. They’re expecting me.”
I shrugged, realizing as I did so that Thom had slipped away, his absence allowing me to carry on an understandable conversation at long last. Which, after all, was why I was here.
So Charlie and I conversed while someone other than Thom delivered more drinks to our table. I tried not to be disappointed that his alpha musk didn’t reassert itself while I sipped something with no kick but great flavor. And, gradually, I lost myself in the recital of family business.
I told Charlie about my sister’s six-year-old son—“I call him Grub”—and current pregnancy with my first and only niece. She reciprocated with the tale of her twin sister’s job teaching fencing in the same school all three of us used to attend. Jessie had two-year old and four-year-old girls.
“Wow,” I murmured. “Babies everywhere.”
“Yeah. But you and I are single and out on the town!” Charlie, who had gulped down her first two drinks and sipped her way through a third and fourth, now grabbed her borrowed sword off the table and brandished it at the nearest streetlight.
The blade circled dizzily before tumbling back toward her upturned features. “How about I take that?” I pried the hilt out of my friend’s fingers one second before sharp steel made contact. Settling the weapon back into its sheathe at my hip, I added: “And take you home.”
“It’s two AM.”
And the bar was closing around us. While Charlie and I had been deep in conversation, the hot bartender must have turned things over to a less brain-fuzzing human woman. She was the one who had brought us drinks and who was currently locking the door to the Full Moon Saloon.
The empty Full Moon Saloon. I hadn’t noticed everyone else dribbling away while Charlie and I relived our past adventures. Hadn’t noticed the street turning somnolent. Now, the only illumination flickered out of streetlamps and a few porch lights.
“You two good to get home?” the closing bartender asked.
I nodded and returned my attention to Charlie. She’d relented and was doing her best to lever herself upright. Unfortunately, she kept canting sideways before she achieved a vertical state.
“Oopsie,” my friend murmured, catching herself just before she tumbled back into her seat a third time.
“Here.” I offered my arm and we stumbled through the night to the cute little house Charlie had clearly been fixing up for some time now. I settled her onto the sofa and promised: “We’ll stay in touch.”
“Always!” Charlie’s promise would have been more believable if a line of drool hadn’t already soaked into a throw pillow.
Still, the possibility of a rekindled friendship warmed me as I drove the long hours to the territory of the werewolf pack who’d propped me up when the Raven twins let me down so many years ago. Sneaking into my childhood bedroom through an unlocked window so as not to wake the inhabitants, I embraced my return to the place that would always be home to me.
What I didn’t learn until later is what else happened in Gate City that night. A woman who’d enjoyed herself in the Full Moon Saloon was found torn apart by animal teeth at a private zoo a few miles deeper in the countryside. My first instinct had been right. The uneasy alliance between humans and shifters at the Full Moon Saloon had been a powder keg waiting to ignite.