Jennifer Ashley

Excerpt: Bad Wolf

Book 7.5: Shifters Unbound

Broderick McNaughton woke with a raging headache, dry mouth, and what felt like hot bands around his wrists. What the fuck?

He didn’t remember getting this drunk. He remembered hanging out at Liam’s bar for a while then heading to the fight club with Spike. Spike was a refreshing guy to be with—he didn’t talk a lot, wasn’t noticeably crazy, and didn’t expect you to speak if there was nothing important to say.

Spike could also kick ass in the fight ring and go out for pizza. Broderick had joined him for the pizza tonight—anything to keep from heading home to his three pain-in-the-ass younger brothers, a half-feral Shifter Feline, and the half-feral’s very protective human mate.

After he’d said good night to Spike, Broderick had dropped in on Sean Morrissey, the Shiftertown’s Guardian, to report on ongoing tracker business. He’d sat with Sean on his back porch a while, watching Sean cuddle his sleeping cub on his lap.

Somewhere between saying good night to Sean and heading home across the dark common yards behind Shifter houses, Broderick had lost consciousness.

The bands around his wrists were real—heavy-duty metal handcuffs. Strong enough for a Shifter, tight enough that even if he shifted to wolf, he wouldn’t be able to slip his big paws out.

Broderick couldn’t see and could barely breathe, because there was a bag over his head, its drawstring tight around his throat.

What the holy fuck?

Broderick’s first instinct was to struggle, to break out of his restraints no matter how strong and kill whoever had done this. His second instinct told him to shut up and lie still and figure out where he was. No sense busting out of the cuffs and bag to find five guys with machine guns waiting for him. Cunning was sometimes the better part of valor.

Broderick remained motionless. He might not be able to see, but he could hear and he could scent, which for a Shifter, were more important senses at times like these.

He smelled humans, not in the room with him, but definitely nearby. His hackles rose. He doubted these humans were police or Shifter Bureau’s mighty patrollers—they’d have put him into a sterilized cage, not bothering with the head bag. When he woke, a Shifter Bureau worker with a clipboard would explain why they’d decided to round him up, cage him, and terminate him.

So, if he hadn’t been caught by Shifter Bureau or police, that left Shifter hunters.

Shifter hunters were humans who boasted of stalking un-Collared, rogue Shifters to bring them in or kill them. They weren’t allowed to hunt Shifters with Collars, like Broderick, but because un-Collared Shifters weren’t thick on the ground, the hunters often bent the rules. They’d go after anything Shifter, pretending not to notice that the Shifter they killed actually had a black and silver Collar around his neck. They’d apologize profusely, but said Shifter would already be dead.

Even as these thoughts formed, Broderick had his doubts. Hunters would have also stuck him into a cage or simply shot him. Besides, no way human hunters could have sneaked into Shiftertown. It was too well guarded by Shiftertown’s trackers, of which Broderick was one.

Then who?

He felt cold stone under his body, smelled musty, dank air behind the head bag. Floorboards creaked, but overhead. He also smelled damp lint and laundry detergent, which meant a washing machine and dryer nearby. Conclusion—he was in somebody’s basement.

Humans lived in this house, not Shifters. So again—what the fuck?

He smelled another odor, one of warm plastic, and he heard a hum of electronics. Interesting.

Broderick should have said screw it tonight and tried to see Joanne. He could be curled up on the sofa with her, watching TV, or ignoring the TV while they explored kissing and touching. Instead he’d been noble and left her alone. What was wrong with him?

A door scraped open, and footsteps headed down a flight of wooden stairs. Heavy treads, men, and the lighter tread of a female. The light steps moved swiftly past the heavy.

“Is this him?” the woman asked, breathless, eager.

Goddess, please don’t tell me this is a Shifter groupie who wants a shag. I might throw up on her.

The bag loosened, and then was ripped from Broderick’s head. He still couldn’t see—a blindfold covered his eyes. Light penetrated the cloth, a very bright one, as though someone shone a flashlight on his face.

He felt breath touch his cheek, feminine, almost sweet, but cold and rapid with excitement. A small hand in his hair raised his head. Broderick suppressed his growl, his urge to snap out of the restraints and attack.

“Are you sure this is him?” the woman asked. She sounded young, especially for a human, past teen years, but not much. Broderick’s head was moved left and right, the woman’s breath coming faster. “Wait …” She released him abruptly, and Broderick’s head clunked to the cement floor.

“What the hell did you bring me?” she demanded.

“The Shifter who came out of the Guardian’s back door,” a man answered. His voice was deep, holding strength, yet Broderick heard and smelled his fear. Of a woman not much older than a cub?

“This isn’t him!” She climbed to her feet, her voice shrill. The flashlight beamed against Broderick’s blindfold. “Does this look like a Feline? He’s Lupine, you idiot.”

“How the hell are we supposed to tell the difference?” the man asked with the annoyance of a scared person. “You didn’t give us a picture to go by.”

“Four Shifters live in that house,” the young woman snapped. “Two are female. I would have thought you had at least a fifty-fifty chance of snatching the right male. But no, you had to bring me someone completely off the chart. He’s obviously a grunt worker. No use to me at all!”

Was she insane? The two Shifters who lived in Sean’s house were Sean, the Shiftertown Guardian, and his father, Dylan. If this woman’s thugs had captured Dylan, he’d have killed her by now and all these guys too—and joined Spike for three pizzas. Sean wouldn’t have been much safer for her, but maybe a little more polite before he left their bodies in broken piles.

Ah, the lucky sons of bitches. They’d snagged Broderick instead. He’d just bounce them around for fun and then call people to pick them up and charge them with hunting a Collared Shifter. Handy to know a guy in Shifter Bureau, one who wasn’t a total dickhead.

“Get out!” the woman yelled at the men. “You useless shits; get the hell out!”

“You owe us.” The tremor in the man’s voice betrayed his fear, but he spoke with the determination of one who would do anything for money. “It wasn’t easy to bring him here. Maybe he can help you anyway.”

“Seriously?” the young woman cried. “I gave you half up front. The deal was the other half on delivery, but you didn’t deliver, did you? If you come back with the right one, maybe I’ll pay you. Or you can just get the hell out before I kill you.”

Broderick heard a click of metal, the sound of a gun cocking.

“Whoa,” the man said. “You are one crazy bitch. We’re out of here.”

He was walking even as he spoke. Footsteps sounded on the stairs, moving swiftly, then a door slammed. The floorboards creaked overhead, and then another above banged.

Broderick was left alone in the basement with an insane woman who had a gun. Great.

A slim hand hooked around the blindfold and tore it away. Broderick blinked at the sudden glare of the flashlight, his mouth dry as linen.

When the light moved he could see the sharp-boned face of a young woman with short, unnaturally black hair. Her skin was fair and freckled, her mouth black with lipstick. The nails of the hand around the pistol had been painted black to match.

“No offense, Shifter,” she said, her voice clear and youthful. She couldn’t be more than twenty-something, the same age as Cherie, a young grizzly Shifter who lived not far from Broderick. “But I can’t let you tell them about me.”

Broderick could argue. He could say that a Shifter missing from Shiftertown would be a big deal, because they were all watched pretty closely. Joanne would worry when she couldn’t reach Broderick, then she’d get his aunt worried, and then Aunt Cora would send his brothers to track him. When they started panicking, they’d go to Liam, who would organize a search. Tiger would get involved, and there was nowhere in the world this woman could hide from the messed-up shit that was Tiger.

But Broderick figured that argument would be a waste of breath. He wasn’t good at arguing anyway.

He summoned all his Shifter strength, balled his fists, slammed his wrists apart, and rolled into the young woman’s legs at the same time.

The cuffs remained whole, made to withstand Shifters, but Broderick’s rolling bulk knocked the young woman off balance, and she went down.

Broderick kept moving. They hadn’t bound his ankles, and he got his feet under him, one heavy boot kicking the gun out of the young woman’s hand. The gun went off as her finger was tugged from the trigger, a bullet thudding into the wooden ceiling

She shouted vile words at him and scrambled to reach the gun. Broderick snarled in pain as he yanked at the cuffs again, calling on his strength to jerk free of them. He managed to break the chain between them, and now he had a matching pair of metal bracelets around his wrists.

Good enough. He’d done a quick assessment of the basement as soon as he could see and had already chosen his path of escape.

The long room had a washer and dryer standing on a cement platform on one end. Above these, at the top of the wall, were narrow windows leading outside. The rest of the room held tables upon tables of blinking computers, explaining the scent of warming plastic and the sound of working electronics.

Stacked CPU boxes flickered with lights, several monitors were pushed side-by-side, a few laptops were open, screens swirling with patterns, and keyboards lay here and there. The floor under the table was littered with junk—strands of wires, metal and plastic pieces, and small solid black boxes—a lot of stuff Broderick couldn’t identify.

He took all this in between one heartbeat and the next, then he was across the room, on top of the washing machine, shifting to his between-beast, pulling the window out of its slot. He smashed glass and frame to the floor and the yard outside. The woman screamed.

She’d reached the gun. She fired two rounds as Broderick shifted completely to wolf and leapt for open air. His clothes finished shredding and falling away, and a sudden pain in his leg made him yelp.

The cuffs still clung to Broderick’s wolf paws—the woman had judged the size and strength of them well. But he could squash himself flat if he needed to, and he did to scramble through the window, his most direct route of escape.

Pain burned in Broderick’s leg as he scrambled out, but he made it. It was pitch dark, and Broderick had no idea where he was. Behind him, the woman was still screaming, still shooting, but the bullets pinged harmlessly inside the basement.

He stood up, panting. There were large houses nearby, but no lights shone in them, and they had the air of being empty, abandoned. Beyond them lay open fields of nothing. The young woman wasn’t worried about anyone hearing her shooting, which meant these houses were a long way from anywhere.

Broderick didn’t linger. He took off across the dirt and dried grass of the field on his swift wolf legs, scrambling over rocks and brush, putting as much distance between himself and the houses as he could.

Now to figure out where the hell he was and how he was going to get back to Shiftertown, alone, a wolf, with no clothes and no money.

And still this is better than being at home with that crazy-ass half-feral Shifter, Broderick thought as he limped on. Damn, my life truly sucks.

* * *

Joanne Greene answered the phone with a sleepy, “Hello?” The bedroom of her north Austin house looked strange in the moonlight, sharp shadows on the wall like dancing ghosts.

“Joanne?” The worried tones of Broderick’s Aunt Cora came across the line. “Is Broderick there with you?”

Joanne came alert at the note of fear in the woman’s voice. Aunt Cora McNaughton was a small, take-no-shit woman with salt-and-pepper hair and clear gray eyes, who looked after Broderick and his brothers. When she sounded concerned, there was reason to be concerned.

“No,” Joanne answered, her tone mirroring Cora’s. “Or …” Joanne slid out of bed, her cell phone pressed to her ear as she had a quick look around her small house. Broderick didn’t always knock on the door and wait to be invited into a house like a normal person.

Joanne knew he wasn’t there, though. Broderick had a presence, a power, that filled the house and was notably absent when he wasn’t in it.

“He’s not here,” Joanne confirmed. “Why? What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know.” Aunt Cora’s voice trembled. “Maybe nothing. He vanished without saying a word to anyone and hasn’t been seen since.”

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