Excerpt: Lone Wolf
Book 4.5: Shifters Unbound
“Whoa there, little lady.”
Maria stopped, scrabbling to hang on to the tray loaded with beer bottles and glasses, to find the asshat who’d been bugging her all night standing in front of her. He was human, annoying, and in the Shifter bar for kicks.
Maria had labeled him asshat the second he’d walked in the door, for two reasons. First, he’d strolled in with his friends in his greasy jeans and baseball cap, unshaved whiskers, and attitude. He was human; he was superior—he thought—over these Shifters and the little human Maria who was there to serve him.
Second, Maria called him asshat, because Ellison liked that word, and she liked Ellison.
“You bringing those to my table?” the man said, raising his voice over the rollicking country song playing on the old-fashioned jukebox. “None of that Mexican beer crap, right?”
“Your order’s coming,” Maria said with cool dignity. “This is for them.” She jerked her chin at a cluster of Lupine Shifters in the corner, one family—brothers, sisters, father, and mother, all having a good time.
“Don’t think so. We’re tired of waiting. Take it to our table.”
Maria stood her ground. “Not yet.”
“You talking back to me, bitch? Someone needs to teach you a lesson.”
With a practiced hand, the man banged the tray upward from the bottom. Maria tried to hang on to it, but the tray became a vertical plane, and bottles and glasses slid off to land in a spectacular crash on the floor. Beer fountained over Maria’s black leggings, glass skittering past her sneakers. The asshat danced back, laughing . . .
Right into a tall Shifter in jeans and a button-down shirt, with honey-colored hair, wolf-gray eyes, and a body that bulked above the human man’s. His large hand, tanned by Texas sun, landed on the human’s shoulder.
The music from the jukebox ran down, and the Shifter’s slow drawl sounded over the last strains. “I think you need to apologize to the lady, son.”
Ellison’s grip on the man’s shoulder looked loose and relaxed, but Maria saw the asshat flinch, his pale eyes widening. “Stupid clumsy bitch dropped beer all over me.”
Ellison’s fingers tightened. “Wrong answer,” he said in his fine Texas baritone. “You go on over to the bar and pay for what was on that tray, then you and your friends get on out of here.”
“Screw you. I ain’t paying for that. She dropped it. Take it out of her paycheck.”
His stupid trick hadn’t angered Maria much, but his last words made her fury rise. She needed every penny of her paycheck and her tips for the goal she’d determined as soon as she’d moved back to the Austin Shiftertown six months ago. Every day she worked for it, saving everything she could, so that one day, she’d not have to put up with asshats like this, or live on the charity of the Shifters who’d rescued her.
Another Shifter, a scary-looking Feline with a shaved head and body full of tattoos, was already coming up behind Ellison. His name was Spike, and when Maria had first seen him, when she’d arrived scared and broken from Mexico, she’d wanted to run the other way.
Asshat didn’t notice him, and he didn’t notice the tall, black-haired, blue-eyed Shifter who ran the place coming up behind Spike. The man did see the Shifter Maria sensed behind her—Ronan, a giant of a man who could turn into a Kodiak bear. Hard to miss Ronan.
The human man paled. Liam Morrissey, the black-haired Shifter, stepped into the man’s line of sight. Liam flashed his Irish smile that could melt paint off a building, and the asshat looked uncertain.
Shifters did that—they charmed and terrified you at the same time. They could gaze at their prey with half-closed eyes, like animals dozing in the sun. The next moment, they’d be awake, alert, focused right on you, while your animal brain yelled at you to run, run, run . . .
Shifters might wear Collars, but they weren’t tame, and they sure as hell weren’t safe.
“Now then, lad.” Liam moved around the man with his lanky grace and stopped a foot in front of Maria and a little to her right.
This forced the human man to turn slightly, moving his line of attack away from Maria. Ellison adjusted so that he was now half behind the human and half on his left side, a position from which he could grab said man if he tried to go for Maria. Spike and Ronan moved in to cover any remaining gaps in the circle.
Maria had seen the same tactics during her three years of absolute terror living with a pack of feral Shifters. No, not living with them. They’d stolen her from her family and imprisoned her in a warehouse basement with other females.
She’d watched those Shifters form similar circles around intruders or with dissidents within their own pack. They’d surround the victim, not threatening, not attacking. Just intimidating.
Shifters had intimidation down to an art. The Shifters in Mexico had finished their circle of fear by killing the intruders and the dissidents. Maria had never seen the Austin Shifters kill anyone, and they wore Collars made to shock them if they grew violent, but she knew the potential for destruction was there.
Something deep in the asshat’s drunken brain knew it too, but he tried to brazen it out. “I’m not paying for shit.”
“Nor will you be,” Liam said smoothly. His Irish lilt was musical and deep, despite twenty and more years living in Texas. “You’ll leave this bar on the moment, and you won’t be coming back again. Not ever, I’m thinking.”
He smiled when he said it—the smile of a lion who knows the gazelle is within paw’s reach. Didn’t hurt the lion to be nice to the gazelle.
“You don’t own this bar, you piece of Shifter turd,” the man said. “You can’t throw me out, or my friends.”
“It looks like your friends have already left. Fine men they are for deserting you, aren’t they?”
The man looked around, blinking when he realized he stood alone, surrounded by Shifters. His friends, who’d been loud and obnoxious in the corner, had quietly walked out when Ronan had left his post.
“Ellison,” Liam said, looking over the asshat’s head. “See that he gets out, will you? I’ll put you in charge of his safety. Spike, go with him.”
Ellison’s grin flashed. It was a wolf’s grin, matching the large gray wolf Ellison became when he shifted. His was a fine-looking beast, with silver gray fur that shone in the moonlight, and a long-legged grace that went with his strong face.
“I’d be happy to.” Ellison returned his hand to the human’s shoulder. No mistaking the flinch that time. “This way, son.”
“Stop calling me son.”
Ellison laughed, his strong Texas accent booming through the room as he said, “Hey there, Ronan. Why don’t you back off and let the man through?”
Ronan—who, Maria had come to know, was one of the gentlest guys in Shiftertown—instead moved to block the doorway, folded his arms, and looked mean. Seven feet tall, he made a formidable barrier, and the rumbling in his throat became a deep, vibrating growl.
“Come on now, Ronan,” Ellison said. “Liam says we got to let the man go.”
Ronan glared down at the asshat, whose face was now shining with sweat.
Spike—the tall, tattooed biker-looking Shifter—moved past Ellison and leaned his hand on the doorframe. As though he and Ronan went through an unspoken conversation, Ronan finally nodded and turned sideways in the doorway to let Ellison and the man pass.
Ellison, hand on the man’s shoulder, steered him between Spike and Ronan. Ronan left barely enough room for them to squeeze through into the glaring lights of the parking lot.
Maria went to the doorway to watch, as did every other Shifter in the bar. Ellison turned the man loose at the edge of the parking lot, halting as the man jogged across the dark street and got himself into a pickup.
“Y’all don’t come back, now,” Ellison called after him. “Hear?”
The truck roared to life. The man peeled out onto the quiet road, squealed around the corner, and was gone.
Ronan laughed, the loud sound filling the bar. Ellison strolled back inside and high-fived first Ronan then Spike. Ellison’s laugh joined Ronan’s in loud, rich warmth, and Spike added his grin. Liam stood back and watched the three with a fond look an older brother might give mischievous siblings.
Ellison let out a Texas whoop. “Good fun, Liam. You all right, Maria?”
His cowboy boots crunched on the glass in the middle of the room. Maria, shaking from anger, fear, and watching Ellison’s eyes soften to warm gray as he looked at her, lost her temper.
The human man had unnerved her, and the Shifters surrounding him like stalking beasts had reminded her too strongly of the Shifters who’d held her captive. Shifters were Shifters, and Maria would never be safe.
She swept a shaking finger and a scowl around the four men, ending at Ellison. “Locos. You’ll bring the police in here, and then they’ll close the bar, and I won’t have a job. I need this job.”
She ended shouting up at Ellison, who blinked his gray eyes then turned up his grin. “Now, sweetheart, it was good fun, and that asshat is too scared to do anything to retaliate. He’s gone.”
“I could have taken care of him, until you had to step in with all your muscles.”
No, no, the term was “muscle in.” That’s what they said on TV shows—Maria was learning all her American slang from television.
Ellison started laughing again. “Yeah, me and my muscles to the rescue. Don’t leave out Ronan’s. His are pretty hefty.”
“You gobshite,” Maria snapped. Liam was also teaching Maria slang. She retrieved the tray from the floor and held it up like a weapon. “If he tells the owner I made trouble, who will get fired? Me. You don’t even work here.”
“Now, honey . . .”
Said in that Texas drawl, in Ellison’s deep voice, the endearment made Maria warm inside, threatening to assuage her anger. Which was why she raised the tray and started for him.
Liam’s big hand yanked the tray from her hands. “Take a break, child.”
Maria opened her mouth to let her hot temper have its way, but one look in Liam’s eyes made her close it again. “I don’t need a break,” she said. “I’ll clean this up and get back to work.”
“I’ll be cleaning it up,” Liam said. He jerked his thumb at the office door in the dark rear of the bar. “You. Break. Now.”
No one argued with Liam. Not for long. At least, no one but his wife, his brother, his father, his nephew, and now his little girl, who couldn’t even talk yet. Maria raised her chin, turned her back on the Shifters, walked past Ellison, shoes crunching broken glass, and slammed her way into the empty office.
Ellison started after Maria and found Liam in his way. “Let her go,” Liam said in his quiet voice. “Give the lass time to catch her breath.”
Ellison eyed the office door between him and Maria, a barrier he needed to break down. That Liam formed another barrier made him growl in irritation.
Maria lived in Shiftertown under the Morrisseys’ protection, staying now in Liam’s brother Sean’s house. She’d been brought here by Liam’s dad a year ago after she’d been rescued from the feral Shifters down in Mexico. She’d then gone to stay with her brother, who lived way out in El Paso and who had sponsored her to get her a visa. But the brother had made it clear that he, like her parents still in Mexico, considered Maria ruined goods and a disgrace to the family.
Maria had returned to Shiftertown after six months, and Liam made sure she got hired on at the bar he managed. In her off time, Maria cleaned houses, ran errands, and looked after cubs for Shifters who paid her. She worked nonstop, her energy amazing. Ellison’s sister had said, with a laugh, that Maria could be a Shifter with stamina like that.
Liam brought out a broom from behind the bar, then the great alpha Feline, leader of his pride, his clan, and all of Shiftertown, went to work sweeping up the glass. Spike, one of the most formidable fighters in Shiftertown, grabbed a mop and started helping him.
Another Lupine stopped next to Ellison—Broderick, who was in the second wolf pack in Shiftertown. Ellison’s pack was very small. Most of his clan had died out in the wild, their immediate family going just before Shifters took the Collar, leaving Ellison, his sister, and his sister’s tiny cubs alone. Shiftertown had been good to them, letting the boys, Jackson and Will, grow up unharmed.
“She’s ripe,” Broderick said. He was watching the office door, behind which Maria rested, his gray eyes intense.
Ellison tightened, the wolf in him tense, readying itself to take down a rival. Ellison kept his voice mild when he said, “I think she smells pretty good.”
“I mean she needs to be mated. Soon. Now.”
“I know what you meant.” Asshole. “But she’s off-limits.” Liam and Dylan had made that clear. “To you, to me, to all Shifters.”
“That’s bullshit. This is a Shiftertown full of mateless Shifters. And she’s fair game.”
Ellison didn’t bother to answer. Fair game was a female without a mate, a clan, a pack or pride. A female whose mate had died and who had no family to return to was considered fair game, as was a female stolen from another clan. Unmated, unprotected. Shifter leavings was another term Ellison had heard.
Maria wasn’t quite the same. First, she was human, and second, she was definitely under Morrissey protection.
Good thing she was. As soon as Maria had returned to Shiftertown, intending to stay a while, male Shifters had started sniffing around. Maria had formerly been mated to a Shifter, she smelled of Shifters, and Shifters were desperate for mates.
“She’s off-limits,” Ellison repeated with a growl.
Broderick laughed. He was tall and rangy, with a buzz cut and white gray eyes. “And don’t you just hate that?”
Ellison did. Maria was lovely, with her black hair, red mouth, and lush hips outlined by the black leggings she wore to waitress, but Ellison saw the bleakness in her eyes. Her life had been destroyed by Shifters, and she was hurt, and she grieved.
He eyed the blank panel of the closed door, knowing Maria was hurting behind it. He wanted to go to her, put his arms around her, and say, Hey, sweetheart, it will be all right. I’ll fix everything for you.
But he knew he couldn’t. The Shifters who’d captured Maria had sequestered her—Shifters in the wild in ancient times had locked their females away from all others in the same way. She’d been imprisoned against her will, hurt, terrified—nothing that would heal easily, if ever. The best Ellison could do right now was turn Broderick away from the door and let Maria have some peace.
“Ellison.” Annie, another waitress, passed Ellison with a tray of drinks to replace the one Maria had lost. “You have a phone call.”
Ellison put his hand on the cell phone in his pocket, but it was silent. At the bar, the human bartender briefly held up the house phone, then set it down to pour the next drink.
Ellison didn’t want to take his eyes off Broderick, but he knew that neither Liam nor Spike would let anyone into the office with Maria, especially Broderick.
Ellison made his way to the phone, thanked the bartender, and picked up the receiver, wondering who’d call the bar, not his cell phone.
“Yeah?” he drawled.
“Ellison?” the breathless voice of one of his nephews came to him. “You need to get back here. It’s Mom. She’s gone again.”
Ellison tore away from the bar and sprinted out into the darkness, his nephew’s words pounding through his head. The wolf in him told him he could move faster in animal form, but Ellison didn’t want to lose precious minutes stopping to undress and shift.
He ran up the porch steps of his house to find all the lights on inside. Jackson, the older of his nephews, met him at the door.
“We tried to stop her,” Jackson said, panicked. “But you know what happens.”
“Tell Andrea to come over,” Ellison said, pushing past him. Andrea, a wolf Shifter who lived in the house across the street, was a healer. They might need her.
Ellison raced down the hall in the one-story bungalow to his sister’s bedroom, finding his second nephew, Will, waiting anxiously in the doorway. Will, twenty-four, the youngest of Denise’s cubs, had tears in his gray eyes.
“She’s bad this time.”
Ellison paused to put his hands on Will’s shoulders. “Jackson’s getting Andrea over here to help. Don’t worry.”
Will returned the clasp, slightly comforted by Ellison’s touch, but he didn’t relax.
Ellison stepped into Deni’s bedroom. In the middle of it, facing him, was a huge gray wolf with murder in her eyes.
Deni wasn’t as large as Ellison, being female and about forty years younger, but she was a Shifter, and that made her powerful. She snarled at Ellison, no recognition in her expression.
Deni’s room was a wreck—furniture overturned, clothing shredded on the floor. The window blind had been half ripped down, the slats tangled as though an animal had seen something through them and had gone for the window, not caring that the blind was in the way.
Deni sniffed, smelling Ellison fresh from the bar, and then snarled again, ears flattening on her head. The Collar around her neck emitted several sparks.
Ellison carefully didn’t move. He was Deni’s alpha, leader of their tiny pack. Though it broke his heart to see her like this, at the moment he needed to be less worried brother and more alpha wolf.
“Den.” He made his voice firm but not harsh.
Deni growled right through the word, an arc of electricity running around her Collar. Ever since whatever foul bastard had run her down on her motorcycle and left her mangled and half-dead, Deni had been having episodes of forgetting who she was, who Ellison was, who her own cubs were.
Each time this happened, she reverted into her wolf and stayed there—threatening like a cornered animal.
Deni’s body had healed fairly quickly—Shifters had incredible metabolisms that closed wounds swiftly. Plus, they had Andrea—half Shifter, half Fae—who had Fae healing magic, made greater when she channeled it through her mate, Sean, the Shiftertown Guardian. They’d brought Deni back from death and thought all was well.
Then had come the first episode of Deni’s brain more or less shutting off and making her forget everything she was. Human doctors couldn’t find anything wrong with her, and Andrea couldn’t help.
What Deni needed was a Shifter healer—one stronger than Andrea, well versed in ailments from which Shifters could suffer. The trouble was, Shifter healers weren’t thick on the ground, if any even existed these days, and Deni was sick now.
“Deni,” Ellison said again, making his voice hard with command. “It’s Ellison.”
Deni snarled one last time, then attacked.