Excerpt: Wild Wolf
Book 6: Shifters Unbound
Graham McNeil slammed his massive fist into the jaw of the attacking wolf just as his cell phone rang.
He got the wolf into a headlock and tried to reach for the phone, but the wolf fought and clawed, drawing blood, its breath like sour acid. Graham’s Collar sparked heavy pain into his throat, while the Collar on the wolf he fought was dormant.
Was this where things were going with the stupid-ass idea that all Shifters should have their pain-shocking Collars replaced with inert ones? Shifters at the bottom of the food chain would use their fake Collars as an excuse to try to claw their way up, like this Lupine was. The shithead was from the family of one of Graham’s trackers and was supposed to be loyal to Graham, but today the wolf had decided to wait in Graham’s house until Graham walked in alone, and jump him.
Idiot. Graham had territory advantage, even if he still wore his true Collar, which blasted pain into him with every heartbeat. Time to show the attacking wolf who was truly alpha.
Graham’s phone kept ringing against his belt. Because Shifters were only allowed to carry “dumb” phones, he didn’t have a fancy ringtone to tell him who was calling. The damn thing just rang.
Graham grabbed the Lupine by the throat and threw it against the wall. The wolf howled, but did it stay down? Not for long.
As the wolf prepared another attack, Graham yanked the phone off his belt and flipped it open. “What?”
“Graham,” came the breathless voice of his more-or-less girlfriend, a human called Misty.
Everything slowed. Graham saw in his mind the curvy young woman with light brown hair she wore in ponytail, her soft face, and her sweet brown eyes. Every thought of her was like a breath of air, snaking into his messed-up brain and trying to soothe him. Graham wished he was with her now, teasing her, kissing her, instead of trying to beat an insubordinate wolf into submission.
“I’m a little busy right now, sweetheart,” Graham said loudly as the wolf landed on him. A wooden chair smashed under them as they both slammed to the floor—damn, he liked that chair. “You break my TV, you’re dead,” Graham snarled.
“Not you, sweetie. I’ll have to call you back.”
“You can’t. Graham, listen, I need you. They’re . . . Oh, crap.”
“What?” Graham bellowed. “Slow down. What are you saying?”
“I have to go. I don’t know when I can call you again.”
Graham’s shift was coming. In a few seconds, he wouldn’t be able to hold the phone, let alone talk. “Wait!” he yelled at her.
“I can’t. I’ve got to go. Graham, I lo—”
The phone clicked, and Graham was shouting at a dead line. “What? Wait! Misty! Fuck.”
He threw the phone across the room and lifted the attacking wolf by the scruff of the neck. “Would you stop, you asshole?”
The wolf snarled, teeth snapping at Graham’s throat. The wolf in Graham responded. He felt his body change, muscles becoming harder and leaner, face elongating to accommodate teeth, claws jutting from fingers that quickly became paws.
With an ear-splitting snarl, Graham went for the other wolf’s throat, snapping teeth around fur.
At the last minute, the alpha in him told him not to kill. Graham was this wolf’s protector, not its enemy. The wolf needed to be taught its place, not destroyed.
Not that Graham wouldn’t rough it up a bit. But quickly. He needed to find out what was wrong with Misty. The fear in her voice had been clear, the desperation palpable. They’re . . . What? Here? Coming? Killing me?
Graham’s Collar kept snapping arcs into his neck. He held on to the throat of the fighting wolf, not letting the Collar stop him.
Dominance didn’t have anything to do with Collars, or pain, or fighting. Dominance was about putting full-of-themselves, arrogant Lupine Shifters in their place. Graham got the wolf on the floor and stepped on it, and then shifted to human again, breathing hard, his clothes in tatters.
“Stay down.” The words were hard, final.
The wolf snarled again, then became human—lanky, dark-haired, gray-eyed—typical Lupine. Except this one was female.
She looked up at him, rage in her eyes. “This isn’t over, McNeil.”
“Famous last words. Your dad sent you, didn’t he? Thought maybe I’d mate-claim you if you couldn’t best me, right?”
The way she looked quickly away told Graham he’d hit upon the truth. She was naked, and not bad, but Graham hadn’t been able to think about any other female since he’d met Misty.
He hadn’t mate-claimed Misty, or even had sex with her. Graham had never had sex with a human before, and he feared he’d not be able to gentle himself enough for Misty. The last thing he wanted to do was hurt her.
Also, his position as leader of the Lupines in this Shiftertown was precarious. His wolves expected him to mate with a Lupine, to provide a cub who would be their next leader. If he went into mating frenzy with a human, the more old-fashioned of his wolves might try to solve the problem by killing Misty.
But Misty’s phone call had his gut churning. Graham climbed to his feet. “I’ve got to go,” he said to the woman. “I want you out of here by the time I get back. No more ambushes. If you want a mate, go chase some bears. They’re always horny.”
Graham turned around and walked away. The best way to show submissives they were submissive was to indicate you didn’t fear them jumping you the minute your back was turned. Making them know that if they did jump you, you’d stop them. Again.
His heart hammered with worry, the wolf forgotten, as he detoured to his bedroom to grab clothes to replace the ones he’d shredded with his shift.
Graham left through the back door, mounted his motorcycle, started it, and rode noisily away from his house and Shiftertown.
“I’m asking you one more time, where is he?”
“I said, I don’t know.”
The gang leader who held Misty against the wall by the throat didn’t believe her. He’d caught her running out of the back of the shop, and he’d taken her cell phone, thrown it to the ground, and smashed it with his boot heel. She’d never seen the man before, but she guessed who he was—a guy called Sam Flores who’d been in prison with her brother—and why he’d come.
“You do know.” Flores’s breath was foul with cigarettes and beer. “That him you had on your phone?”
“No—” Misty broke off with a grunt as her head smacked into the wall. “I don’t know where Paul is. He took off.”
“Lying bitch.” Flores had blue eyes in a sun-darkened face, and dark hair streaked by strong desert sunlight. “I’m going to beat you until you tell me where that asshole is. Then my boys and me will make you understand why you don’t mess with us.”
Misty was so cold with fear, she couldn’t feel anything anymore. She struggled, though she knew she’d never get away. Paul had been out making deliveries, and Misty really didn’t know where he was. She’d called him before she’d called Graham, but she’d had to leave a voice mail, telling Paul to lie low. Paul had hiding places, but Misty didn’t know where all of them were.
Flores held her in place, the prison tatts on his fingers up close and personal. Behind him, his friends were smashing up her flower shop. Baseball bats smacked into the clear glass refrigerator doors that held her stock; pots filled with arrangements were thrown against the counter. Glass splintered and flew, the flowers, innocent, scattered everywhere. Broken stems and a river of petals littered the floor.
The gang boys got into the refrigerators and smashed the vases there to the floor. Water gushed across the cement and tile along with all the flowers. Cool, dank air, scented with roses, carnations, calendulas, daisies, and baby’s breath wafted across the shop.
“You know you aren’t walking out of here,” Flores said. “You might as well tell me where he is.”
Misty didn’t bother to answer. If she would die here, the last thing she’d do would be to keep her little brother, Paul, safe. She’d taken care of him all her life, and she wasn’t about to stop now.
“I don’t think you understand,” Flores said. “It won’t be easy. You’ll be in so much pain by the time we’re done with you, you’ll be begging to die.”
Fine, then Misty would beg to die. At least she’d been able to hear Graham’s gruff, take-no-shit Shifter voice one last time. She thought about his strength, the tatts of fire on his arms, his hard face, and buzzed dark hair. Everyone thought Graham too tough, too mean, and too wild to tame, but Misty had seen what was in his eyes when he was around the two orphaned wolf cubs in his pack.
She’d started to tell Graham the secret inside her heart when the man with the callused fingers had snatched away her phone.
They were going to do whatever they wanted with her, and Misty would die. She was scared, but at least Paul had gotten away, and Graham’s voice had given her strength to face what she had to.
Not that she’d give up without a fight. Go down swinging, her dad had liked to say. He should know; he’d had to fight for everything his entire life.
The men in her store—five of them—were armed, carrying pieces stuffed into back holsters, knives in boots and on belts. Misty had nothing but her fists and her flowers.
“Cops’re coming,” one of the men by the door said.
Misty heard sirens. Probably Pedro at the convenience store across the lot had seen the break-in and called the police. But Misty knew better than to relax and be thankful the police were on their way. There would be a standoff, probably a gun battle, and someone would be shot. Most likely Misty.
She struggled to get away. Flores punched her twice in the face. Misty’s head snapped back, and blood flowed from her mouth.
Flores clamped his hand over her throat, cutting off her breath. He squeezed, not enough to choke her, but blocking off enough air to make Misty dizzy and sick.
He dragged her with him out the back door to the alley, the other four following. Two of the guys had motorcycles; the other two and the man who held Misty went for a pickup—a Ford 250, all shiny and new. Big enough to shove Misty down into the backseat, tossing a cigarette-smoke-infested tarp on top of her.
The truck rumbled under her as it started. Then the pickup jerked, tires squealing, as it headed down the alley that ran behind the strip mall. Another turn onto the street, and they were off, carrying Misty who-knew-where.
Misty’s pickup wasn’t in her carport. Graham killed the engine on his Harley, stepped away from the engine’s smell, and inhaled.
Every hackle he had went up, the wolf in him starting to snarl. Misty was gone—Graham could scent how she’d left the house through the back door not long ago, got into her truck, and drove away. All as normal. She’d have gone to her store, as early as it was, to do whatever it was she did before opening for the day.
Why hadn’t the woman told him where she was calling from? Graham’s cell phone had indicated what number had called him, but Misty had been on her cell, which meant she could be anywhere.
Graham scented no struggle here, no fear or worry. Just Misty’s fresh scent, overlaid with the flowers she worked with all the time. Graham couldn’t catch a whiff of roses these days or the strong odor of what she said were Asiatic lilies without thinking of Misty.
No, thinking of her wasn’t the right way to put it. The scents conjured up her sultry voice, her uninhibited laughter, her soft face, and brown eyes that went shiny when she looked at him sometimes.
The images, sounds, and scents of her woke up Graham’s needs too. He hadn’t touched the woman, but he dreamed almost every night about running his hand up the loose skirts she liked to wear, freeing her hair from the ponytail, licking between her breasts . . .
Misty had sounded terrified. Someone had been coming for her, and she was scared out of her mind.
Graham swung back onto his bike, started it, and roared down the street again. He saw the people who’d come out of houses to watch him, wondering what the hell a Shifter was doing in their nice corner of the city, but Graham didn’t care right now what they thought.
He turned out of the neighborhood and joined traffic on the 215 before he raced off on Flamingo, heading to the flower shop in this middle-class side of town. Shifters didn’t come here much, confining themselves to the north side of Las Vegas and the desert not far beyond. The big hotels on the Strip and downtown didn’t want Shifters scaring away tourists, so Shifters mostly stayed away, even though some Shifter women danced at nightclubs as the entertainment. Pissed Graham off, how Eric Warden, the Shiftertown leader, was all right with Shifter females doing exotic dancing for humans. One of the many reasons Eric was a dickhead.
Misty’s flower shop—Flamingo Flowers—was in a strip mall with other small retailers, which should have been quiet this early on a Saturday morning. Graham knew something was seriously wrong, even before he saw the smashed glass in Misty’s doorway and the cop cars all over the lot.
A couple of cops saw him, and Graham hesitated. He should get the hell out of there and have nothing to do with the city police, but if he left, he’d not be able to help Misty. She might be in there, and if she wasn’t, he needed to get inside and sniff around to figure out where she’d gone.
He decided to approach as though he had every right to be there. Shifters weren’t banned from every store in town, just most of them. But not this one. Misty had sense enough to know that Shifters were good customers.
Graham pulled his motorcycle next to one of the cop cars and dismounted. Next thing he knew, he was surrounded by five cops, who’d all pulled their weapons on him. One cop backed those up with a Taser.
Graham’s wolf fought to get out, wanting to go into a frenzy that would land the cops on the ground, their weapons broken. He clenched his fists, fighting the aggression he always had a hell of a time taming. When he’d lived in middle-of-nowhere Nevada, in a Shiftertown where his word had been law, Graham had never bothered damping down his wolf instincts. Now he was expected to live in a city of humans who treated him like he was some big scary animal that had escaped from the zoo.
He wanted to grab the guns from the cops and break them, just to scare them, but Graham dialed it back. He needed to find Misty.
He lifted his hands to show they were empty. “Hey, this is my friend’s store. I need to make sure she’s all right.”
“A human owns this store,” the cop closest to Graham said.
“Well, no shit. Her name’s Misty—Melissa Granger. She called me, scared. She in there? Is she all right?”
Maybe watching Eric deal with humans for the last eight months had taught Graham something. The cops still eyed him warily but believed his worried tone.
“No one’s inside,” the lead cop said. He had black hair buzzed short, a flat face with acne scars, and a big nose. He held his Beretta steadily, still pointing it at Graham. “Place is torn up.”
“But her truck’s here.” Graham pointed at the black pickup sitting quietly in a space a little way from the cops. “She was here. Where is she now?” His fears mounted as he spoke. He couldn’t stop the growl in his throat, couldn’t stop the sparks on his Collar.
“This is a crime scene,” the lead cop said. “You don’t need to be here, Shifter.”
“No? This store belongs to my friend. My friend might be in trouble. I don’t see you doing anything about it.”
The pistol didn’t waver. “Why don’t you go back to Shiftertown so we can do our jobs?”
“Why don’t I go on in there so I can look around? Maybe figure out where she is?”
“Turano, call Shifter Division,” the lead cop said. “We need to contain one.”
Graham stared at him and then moved his gaze to the one called Turano, who was reaching for his radio.
“Aw, screw this shit.”
The cops tensed, expecting him to charge through them, but Graham turned his back and walked away, making for his motorcycle. He made a show of starting his bike, giving the cops a collective dirty look, before he pulled out of the parking lot.
Graham rode down the street and around the corner, then took the delivery entrance into the alley behind the shops. There was one cop car back there, and one cop. Graham roared up, dismounted his bike, and headed for the back door.
When Graham didn’t stop, the cop drew. Graham whirled around and had the pistol out of the man’s hand and broken into two pieces before the man could react.
When the cop opened his mouth to yell, Graham punched him, once in the face, then once in the temple. The cop folded up, and Graham lowered him gently to rest against the wall.
“Sweet dreams.” Graham stepped around the cop and through the door, which led to the back office and storage.
The thick steel door hadn’t been forced, which meant it had been opened from the inside. Probably by whoever had broken in taking the back way out. A glance into the shop revealed a mess: flowers, glass, and water all over the place. A dripper that ran constantly inside the refrigerated section had broken open, turning the refrigerator into a lake. The water wasn’t gushing anymore, which meant someone had been smart enough to turn it off.
Graham stayed out of sight of the cops picking their way through the scene at the front door. He didn’t have to go all the way into the shop though. He smelled Misty’s blood, along with the scents of four—no, five—humans. Humans who smoked heavily, hadn’t bathed in a couple of days, and one who’d been partaking of weed.
Graham got all that from a few long sniffs. He also scented that they’d taken Misty out back and loaded her into a vehicle. He growled, his blood heating with rage, and went back outside.
The day was already warm, August in southern Nevada. Heat made scents brighter. Graham smelled motorcycles and a car or truck, and these had taken Misty away. Too bad scent couldn’t tell him the make and models of the vehicles and where they’d been heading. Graham only knew they’d taken Misty.
He stepped over the unconscious cop, started up his bike, and rode out. A mile down the road, he pulled into another empty parking lot, took out his cell phone, and made a call.
“Hey,” he said to the Shifter who answered. “I’m gonna need some backup.”
Misty half woke when she was carried from the truck and into a house. Outside it was bright and hot, the day warming to its usual late summer temps. The men hadn’t bothered to blindfold her, but Misty had no idea where she was. Somewhere in Las Vegas, but it was a big city. Her vision was still blurry from the blows to her face and from the long, hot ride stuffed in the back of the truck’s cab, and looking around at the generic buildings didn’t tell her much.
The house was cooler than outside, though it smelled of damp garbage. Stale cigarette smells overlaid those scents, ashtrays overflowing.
The man who carried Misty dumped her on a couch that was strewn with clothes. The couch’s springs were broken, the cushions made of scratchy material, stuffing coming out the edges.
The leader sat down beside her. “Do you know who I am, Misty?”
“Sam Flores.” The words stuck on her tongue. She needed water.
“That’s right. Do you know why I’m looking for your brother?”
Misty licked her lips, tasting salt and dryness. “You were with him in prison.”
“Right again. And he screwed me royally. I just want to see him. To have a little talk.”
“To kill him, you mean.”
Misty drew a breath, trying not to gag on the living room’s odors. “He could have reported you. You’d still be in there if he had, maybe even in maximum security.”
“Oh, yeah, Paul was a little angel.” Flores put his face close to Misty’s. “But I had a good thing going, until he screwed it up for me. He didn’t think I’d get my parole, did he? Well, I have a good lawyer, who does what I want.”
Probably in exchange for the money Flores got for coke. Misty didn’t know the whole story, because Paul still wasn’t coherent about it, but apparently Sam had been good at drug dealing inside prison. Paul, whether he’d meant to or not, had helped an even meaner drug guy take away Sam’s business. Paul hadn’t explained very carefully, only that he’d had to choose between two evils. The second guy had promised to keep Flores away from Paul—Flores and his boys had beaten Paul every day before that.
“You’ll probably need that lawyer again,” Misty said, her voice a croak.
“No, because no one’s going to find you for a very long time, or your brother either.” Flores held up a cell phone. “Now, I was so pissed off I crushed your phone before I thought about it, and now, I’m going to need Paul’s number. So tell me what it is without making a big deal, and I might go easy on you.”
“I’m not about to tell Paul to come running over here so you can kill him,” Misty said hotly. “He’s my brother. Would you do that to your brother?”
“Yeah.” Flores grinned. “My brother’s an asshole.” He leaned closer. “You have a choice, pretty thing. If you give me Paul’s phone number, I won’t hurt you so bad. If you don’t, I’ll just kill you now and take your body out to the desert. All right?”
Misty wet her lips again. She needed water, but thirst was the least of her worries. If Sam stabbed her or shot her, a dry mouth wouldn’t matter.
She decided to gamble. What did she have to lose? “All right,” she said in a near whisper. “But give him a chance to explain. He had no choice.”
“Everyone has a choice. Even you, sweetheart, and you made the right one. What is it?”
Misty closed her eyes, repeated the number, and started to pray. She heard the little beeps as Flores punched in the digits, then the phone rang on the other end. In a few seconds, a harsh voice said, “What?”
She opened her eyes as Flores jerked. “Who the hell is this? Where’s Paul?”
Silence. Then the voice said. “He’s in the bathroom. What do you want?”
“Tell him to get his ass on the phone.”
“Shit.” More silence. Then another voice. Not Paul, Misty knew, but one doing a close approximation of him. “Yeah?”
“If you want to see your sister again, you’ll get out to where I might give her back to you.” Flores gave directions down a highway then to a turnoff, way out of town, some remote place in the desert. “I’m not going to wait long.” He clicked off.
Misty said nothing. Sam might decide to go ahead and kill her, and Misty would have to fight for her life. She would probably lose. But she had hope.
She had no idea who the Shifter was who’d answered as Paul, and she had no idea what Sam would do when he lured them out to the desert. But she knew Graham would be coming.
Graham rode out on his motorcycle, his nephew, Dougal, following. North out of town, then east on a county road, north on another dirt road, out into vast desert with knifelike mountains. The only vegetation was the creosote, with its long, slender white limbs and tiny gray green leaves reaching to the white blue sky.
The Mojave was a land of stark beauty, but it was deadly. The tourists who came to Las Vegas by the bucketload flew safely over this desert every day, but those who lived permanently in town knew its dangers. A human could die of dehydration and heatstroke out here quicker than he knew what was happening, and it wasn’t much better for Shifters.
Misty had been smart to trick her abductors into calling Graham. He’d grabbed Dougal, who’d come out to help, and told him to pretend to be Misty’s brother. Dougal had convinced whoever was on the other end that he was Paul Granger, which didn’t feel right to Graham. The man who had Misty couldn’t be that stupid. Or else the guy wasn’t afraid of whoever would come to him out in the hole in the desert. So, either he was overconfident, or he had a nasty surprise waiting.
Either way, the man was dead. He’d taken Misty, and Graham was going to rip him open.
Shifters weren’t allowed to kill humans though. A Shifter killing a human would bring human wrath down upon all Shifters.
All right, so maybe Graham would control his instincts and not do any actual killing. Maiming though—maiming he could do. It’s what he would do, whether humans liked it or not.
The turnoff came up, and Graham swung his bike into it, Dougal close behind him. Graham wished he could have a little more backup than his messed-up nephew, but there hadn’t been time. It was early in Shiftertown, when all the Felines slept heaviest, bears couldn’t be bothered to get out of bed, and even the Lupines were sluggish. If he’d called Eric, who would have been the best backup, Graham would have had to waste a lot of time explaining. Eric loved explanations.
The rough dirt road narrowed with each mile and finally petered out. They were a long way from the paved county road now, even farther from the highway. The desert floor, Graham knew from long experience, wasn’t the most stable of places to ride. What looked like solid earth could prove to be a crust for a giant dry hole, and washes hidden by brush opened out without warning.
Graham’s and Dougal’s motorcycles were leaving a trail any simpleton could follow, but Graham didn’t have time for stealth. The men ahead knew they were coming, they’d be armed, and they had Misty. The whole thing smelled of a big fat trap, but Graham would trip it and to hell with it.
They reached the appointed spot, which was at the bottom of a mountain. Around here, mountains began abruptly, rising straight up from the earth. No miles of foothills or gradual change in elevation, just horizontal and vertical.
A mining shaft had pierced the earth here but had been filled in—a mound of debris and stones protruded around rotted wood framing. An old shack, left over from the early part of the last century, squatted about twenty yards from the shaft. The tiny building had been reroofed at some point with corrugated metal, which was now square pieces of rust.
Five human men stood around the shack, waiting, guns in hands. Graham stopped his motorcycle and got off, Dougal behind him.
The men ignored Graham and focused on Dougal, who was shorter and much lankier than Graham. When Dougal took off his helmet, giving them a good-natured and toothy wolf grin, the lead man shoved his gun into Graham’s face.
“Where is he?”
“You mean Granger?” Graham asked. “He couldn’t come.”
“I want him. You were supposed to bring him.”
“He was busy. I came to get Misty. If she’s hurt, I’m going to kill you and not worry about it. We’re a long way from town—the humans won’t find your bodies for a while.”
“Yeah, it is a long way, isn’t it?” the gang leader asked.
Something was wrong. This guy, whoever he was, didn’t look scared enough. He took in Graham’s Collar and Dougal’s. “Two Shifters. I only need one.”
A growl formed in Graham’s throat. “Need one for what?”
“I wanted Granger too,” the man said. “But, oh well, I’ll just grab him later.”
What the hell was he talking about? Misty was inside the shack, Graham knew. He scented her in there, even over the fuel smell of the bikes and the rank odor of humans.
Flowers and spice. That’s how he always thought of her. Sweet and sassy.
“Get out of my way,” Graham said.
The gang leader touched the end of the pistol to Graham’s nose. “No.”
“I warned him, right?” Graham said to Dougal. “You saw me warning him? When Eric gives me crap about this later, tell him I warned him.”
“You’re funny, Shifter,” the gang leader said, even as Dougal gave Graham a serious nod.
“Yeah, I’m a tub of laughs.”
Graham ripped the gun out of the gang leader’s hands and smacked him hard in the face with it. The gang leader went back with a surprised grunt, hands going to his bloody mouth. As the other men started forward, Graham called the strength of his wolf and twisted the pistol in half. Pieces of metal and bullets rained to the ground.
The gang leader lifted his head, his nose and mouth dripping scarlet blood. “That was stupid.”
“But fun.” Graham grabbed the man by his shirt, hoisting him high. Then he stopped being civilized and went for it.
He threw the leader into the knot of his men. They scrambled either to grab him or get out of the way, and Graham was on them. He punched, elbowed, jabbed, swept his boot across ankles to send the men to the ground.
Dougal joined the fray, laughing. Dougal had a lot of anger in him, and he loved the chance to work it off. These dumb-ass humans were the perfect targets. Let the kid take it out on them.
He heard Misty yelling from inside the shack, and thumping as she kicked the wall. Not in terror—she was pissed off, probably bound and trying to get loose. You go, baby.
Graham punched and kicked, spun and jabbed. He didn’t bother becoming wolf or his in-between beast—it was a pleasure to kick ass without even shifting. His Collar sparked, driving pain into his neck, but he didn’t care. He’d care later, but not now. Pain didn’t slow Graham down; it galvanized him.
He heard the boom of a pistol, and then blood was running hot down Graham’s side, soaking his shirt. Damn.
The man who’d shot him looked up in terror as Graham bore down on him, half shifting as he went. Graham tasted blood as he tore into the guy, and the pistol became a pile of broken metal.
Howls filled the air behind Graham, but not howls of pain. Dougal had shifted, his wolf furious that someone dared wound the only parent he’d ever known. Fur flashed by Graham as Dougal, now a huge black wolf, charged the remaining humans standing.
They never had a chance to shoot. Dougal fought like a whirlwind, his Collar throwing sparks into the bright morning light. Graham slowed, his side hurting like hell, and watched as Dougal clawed and bit until the tough inner-city gang boys were pools of whimpering terror.
The leader managed to limp to the pickup parked behind the shack. Graham went after him, but the pain of the shot slowed him. The leader got into the truck and had it started up while Graham was still a few yards away.
“You’re screwed, Shifter,” the man said. Then the truck leapt forward, spun a little on the dirt, and rocketed down the track toward the road, leaving his yelling gang boys behind.
What an asshole. He’d just run out on his own men.
The humans left didn’t waste time standing around being mad. They ran for the motorcycles, Dougal’s and Graham’s included.
Graham spun and tried to intercept them, but one guy punched Graham in the side, right where the bullet was. Pain blossomed in Graham’s body, his Collar biting deeper agony into him. Graham grunted as he fell to his knees, and the guy managed to twist away and keep running.
Dougal’s jeans lay forlorn on the ground near the bikes—easy for one of the men to lean down and scoop up Dougal’s keys. Graham leveraged himself to his feet, but the two men had reached Dougal’s bike, starting it up. As Graham staggered toward his own bike, the second man on Dougal’s motorcycle aimed his pistol at Graham’s Harley and shot it again and again.
Graham had to watch his motorcycle, the Harley Softail he lovingly worked on every day of his life, become as wounded as he was. The gas tank punctured, fuel poured onto the ground, and more bullets lodged in the engine.
The man driving Dougal’s bike moved it out, following the others, leaving them stranded.
Graham folded his arms over his stomach, trying and failing to draw deep breaths. He was in excruciating pain, and their way out of the desert plus all the water was racing toward the highway, a thin spiral of dust rising in its wake.
Misty kept tugging at the handcuff that held her to the one beam in the shack that looked stable. She’d been pulling and yanking to no avail, her wrist raw. She’d feared to pull too hard in case the whole shed came down on top of her.
She heard the vehicles roar away, and then the drawn-out howl of a wolf. “Graham!” she shouted.
Another howl came, holding a mournful note, and one of fear. Shifter wolves were supposed to be strong and terrifying, but this one sounded lost and alone.
“I’m right here, baby.”
Graham yanked open the door to the shack. His eyes held deep pain, the skin around his Collar was black, and blood oozed from behind the hand he pressed to his side.
Misty tugged at the cuff again. “Oh my God, you’ve been shot!”
Graham’s voice was as strong as ever. “Stop screeching. You’re hurting my ears. And you—” He turned and yelled over his shoulder. “Quit with the howling. I’m not dying. Not yet.”
“I’ll stop screeching when you call nine-one-one,” Misty told him.
“Already tried. No signal.”
Graham kept his hand on his side as he moved stiffly into the shack. He latched his fingers around the cuff that bound Misty’s wrist, yanked once, and broke the handcuff.
Misty lowered her arm in relief. “Can you ride? I might be able to drive your bike if you help me. I’ve never ridden a motorcycle before.”
“Nope. The assholes shot up my bike and took Dougal’s, and their fearless leader took off in his pickup. They left us out here without water, transportation, or phones that work.”
He sounded so calm. “And you’ve been shot.” Misty touched his arm, finding his skin hot and slick with sweat.
“Yep. But don’t worry, sweetheart. I’m used to it.”
Misty started to shake. “Oh, right. Don’t worry. I was sitting here tied up, and you get shot, and you don’t want me to worry.” She swallowed, her throat dry. The thin-walled shack with its many cracks was like an oven. “You’re a shithead, Graham.”
“That’s what everyone tells me.”
Misty couldn’t move her hand from his arm. She felt his strength beneath her grip, comforting her even now.
Graham was a big man, loud-voiced and full of arrogance. Other Shifters were afraid of him, including his own wolves—his Lupine pack, he called them. Humans backed away from him, and even Shifter groupies only watched him from afar, too scared to approach him.
Misty, though, couldn’t bring herself to be afraid of Graham—or at least, not terrified of him. She remembered the first night she’d met him, in a Shifter bar called Coolers. She’d found herself sitting on a barstool next to him, Graham all banged up from a bout at the Shifter fight club. He’d looked disgruntled, angry, and very lonely. She couldn’t ever forget what she’d seen in his eyes that night, a man searching for something, though he didn’t know what.
Not that Graham had ever showed Misty his softer side. But he’d let her see a hint that maybe he had a softer side—deep, deep, deep down.
Graham turned from her, and Misty’s fingers slid away from him. “Dougal!” Graham bellowed as he banged out of the shack. “Stop whining. You need to take this bullet out of me.”
“No, you need a hospital,” Misty said, following him. “Maybe we can make it to the road, or at least close enough to find a cell signal.”
“I’m not walking anywhere, sweetie. I have a bullet stuck in my side, and it could lodge in a bad place if it doesn’t come out now.”
“Can’t you shift . . . ?”
“Sure. Then I’ll be a wolf with a bullet stuck in my side that could lodge in a bad place. Dougal can take it out. He knows how.”
Misty didn’t know much about Graham’s nephew, Dougal Callaghan, who lived with Graham. Graham had said that Dougal’s mom died giving birth to him—bringing him in, Graham had called it. Dougal’s dad had deserted him a long time ago, back before Shifters had been rounded up and put into Shiftertowns. Graham had never been able to find the dad, who’d probably gone feral, whatever that meant. Graham had raised Dougal himself, and apparently, Dougal had been a handful.
Dougal came running to them, in his human form now and stark naked. Misty’s face went hot, and she spun around and faced the shack’s sun-bleached wall.
“She’s human,” Graham growled at Dougal. “She expects pants.”
“Goddess,” Dougal said in disgust then ran off again.
Graham said nothing, making no apology. He leaned against the shack’s doorframe and closed his eyes, his face losing a little color. Misty turned and laid her hand on his arm again, wishing she could do more.
But she wasn’t an ER nurse, or a doctor, or anything useful like that. She ran a flower shop. She knew everything about flowers—their names, types, and popularity; how they were cultivated; traditional meanings of each flower; which ones were appropriate for what occasion; how to arrange them; and which ones sold the best. Great information for running her business, nothing that would save a Shifter who’d been shot.
Dougal returned, jeans on and belted. The morning had turned hotter—August days generally reached the triple digits. Clouds were forming over the mountains as well, signaling a monsoon storm that would be ready to come in during the afternoon. If the three of them were out here then . . . Storms had deadly lightning, high winds, and hail, not to mention the flash floods that tore along the washes and overflowed their banks. The three of them could be cut off until the washes ran dry again.
Dougal ducked under Graham’s arm and helped him around the tiny shack to it shady side, where Graham stretched himself out on the ground. There wasn’t enough room for him to lie inside the shack’s small interior, especially when its floor was covered in rusty bits of metal.
Dougal peeled Graham’s shirt from him, Graham grunting as the cloth came unglued from his skin. Graham’s six-pack abs were covered with blood, which continued to seep from the slash in his abdomen. Dougal used Graham’s shirt to wipe off excess blood then he stretched Graham’s flesh apart and started to reach inside to pull out the bullet.
“Wait!” Misty cried.
“Can’t wait,” Dougal said. “He’s going into shock. You have to help me.”
Misty’s head spun, but she knelt beside Dougal. “What do I do?”
“Hold this open.” Dougal indicated the lips of the wound. “It’s going to be messy.”
“Not to mention not sterile,” Misty said.
“We don’t have a choice. Don’t worry, I’ve done this lots of times.”
“Really?” Misty put her fingers where Dougal guided her. “Graham gets shot often, does he?”
“Not always Uncle Graham. But other Shifters. Hospitals were too far away from our old Shiftertown, and hunters liked to take shots at us.”
Graham gave another grunt. “Hunters and old Craig Morris.”
Dougal snorted a laugh. “Yeah.”
“Who was he?” Misty asked. She pressed down as Dougal showed her and spread the wound. More blood poured out, which Dougal mopped up with the T-shirt.
“Old Shifter,” Graham said. “About three hundred years old when we were rounded up. He hated living so close to other Shifters—he should have stayed in the wild and died with some dignity. He’d been alone a long time, and bringing him in and giving him the Collar was tough on him. He used to shoot anyone who came too close to his house. His eyesight was going by then, so his aim was usually off, but once in a while, he got lucky. Shit.”
Dougal had dug his fingers into the wound. “Press down hard,” he told Misty. “We have to keep him still. This is going to get bad.”
“Don’t worry.” Graham’s words were tight and faint. “I’ll try not to kill anyone.”
“That’s what you always say.” Dougal put his hand on Graham’s shoulder as he started fishing around for the bullet.
Graham roared, fingers sprouting claws as he reached for Dougal’s throat.
“Grab him!” Dougal yelled. “Hold him down. No matter what happens, hold him!”
Misty caught Graham’s wrists and quickly laid herself across his chest and shoulders. She knew she wouldn’t have the strength to grapple with him, so she used her weight to keep him down.
Graham growled, his body rippling beneath her. Misty felt him change. Fur burst across his bare chest, his face elongated into a muzzle, and his eyes went silver gray.
“Don’t shift!” Dougal shouted at him. “Hold him, Misty.”
Misty pushed her face at Graham’s terrifying wolf one, which was emerging from his human’s. His eyes were white gray, and full of pain, rage, madness.
“Stop!” She tried to sound firm, but everything came out shaky.
“I’m touching it,” Dougal said. “Just . . . trying . . . to grab it.”
Graham’s growls grew more fierce. Blue snakes of electricity arced around his Collar, the sparks stinging Misty’s skin. She pressed him down, her head on his shoulder.
“Hang on,” she said. “Almost done.”
More snarling, but she felt Graham strain to hold himself back. All that strength—he could snap her in half and Dougal too, but he didn’t. Graham’s hands balled into huge fists, claws jabbing into his own skin.
“Hang on,” Misty whispered.
“Got it!” Dougal lifted his hand, coated with gore, and held up a piece of metal. He whooped in triumph, then grabbed the T-shirt and jammed it over the wound.
“Keep pressure on that,” Dougal said to Misty. “I’ll try to find something to help patch the hole.”
Misty pushed down on the cloth, which was already red and sopping. Graham’s face gradually returned to human, and his Collar ceased sparking. But his skin was sallow, his breathing rapid.
Graham opened his eyes to slits, the silver gray of the wolf shining through. “Was it good for you?” he asked, his voice a scratch. “’Cause it sucked for me.”
“It really sucked for me too,” Misty said, giving a breathless laugh.
Graham reached for Misty’s hand. She slid hers into his, his fingers barely squeezing.
“What do you know?” Dougal said, returning from inside the shed. “Duct tape.”
Graham let out a chuckle, closing his eyes again. “One human invention that’s useful.”
“Lots of human inventions are useful,” Misty said, babbling while Dougal peeled off pieces of tape and ripped them from the roll with his wolf teeth. “Cars, for instance.”
“Paved the world and clogged all the clean air with crap,” Graham said. “Destroyed Shifter territory and made us vulnerable to humans.”
“Sure thing, sweetheart.” His eyes opened again. “Are you going to tape me up anytime soon? Like before my guts fall out?”
Dougal wiped the wound as clean as he could with the soaked T-shirt, then Misty helped him hold Graham’s skin together while Dougal taped it closed.
“This will hurt like hell when you pull it off,” Dougal said.
“Yeah, well, it hurt like hell going on,” Graham said. “Now you need to get out of here and look for a spot with a cell phone signal. If you have to go all the way back to Shiftertown for help, do it.”
Dougal stared. “You want me to go?”
“Yes, you. Misty will never make it across fifty miles of desert on foot, without water. Right now, I’m a wuss because I’ve been shot, had a hand dug into me, and am being held together with duct tape. That leaves you.”
Dougal gazed out at the empty land, his fingers picking at the roll of tape in his hands, his face almost gray. Dougal, though in his early thirties, was considered barely an adult by the Shifters. Graham had told her Dougal had come through his Transition—whatever that was—and had been an adult for about a year. But though in years Dougal was older than Misty, in many ways he acted like a scared teenager.
“Your wolf can do it,” Graham said. “Follow the scent trail back to the dirt road. Call Reid, tell him what happened. And for the Goddess’s sake, don’t tell Eric.”
Dougal nodded, but numbly.
“Promise me,” Graham said. “Not Eric. I don’t want him all up in my face about this. He’ll blab all over Shiftertown that I’m hurt, and we can’t afford for some of my wolves to know that. Understand?”
Dougal’s eyes cleared a little, and he nodded again. “Yeah, yeah, I got it.”
“Now, go. It’s getting hot, and I’m looking forward to that other human invention—air-conditioning.”
Dougal plucked his cell phone out of his pocket at the same time he unbuckled his jeans again. “How am I supposed to carry this as wolf? If I have it in my mouth, I’ll bite through it.”
Graham grinned and pointed a shaking finger at what Dougal had dropped. “Duct tape.”
“Shit,” Dougal said.
Dougal at least hid in the shed as he shucked his clothes again and changed back to his wolf. In a few minutes, a black wolf with light gray eyes emerged from the shack, his fur shaggy and rumpled, his tail almost dragging on the ground.
He looked so dejected Misty wanted to put her arms around him and hug him, but she’d learned she shouldn’t do that to a Shifter without permission. Shifters hugged each other all the time, including male-to-male hugs that would make some humans uncomfortable, but an outsider didn’t join the hugging group until invited.
Misty did give Dougal a gentle pat as she started taping the cell phone between his shoulders. Dougal growled while she fixed the phone in place, but his Collar didn’t spark, which meant it wasn’t a growl of aggression.
Dougal went to Graham before he went, pushing his muzzle at Graham’s face. Graham let Dougal touch his wolf nose to Graham’s, and Graham brought his hand up to pat Dougal’s side. “Go on,” Graham said.
Without looking at Misty, Dougal turned away from them and trotted down the little hill and into the desert. Misty watched until the wolf slunk away into the shadows of tall creosote, and then he was lost to sight.
Misty knelt next to Graham, who had closed his eyes again. “Don’t go to sleep,” she said sternly. “You lost a lot of blood. You need to stay awake.”
“Shifter metabolism is different from a human’s,” Graham said without opening his eyes. “I’ll be fine.”
“Then you need to stay awake to keep me from worrying about you. It’s my fault you’ve been shot, so I need you to live.”
Graham’s eyes opened a slit. “How is this your fault? You didn’t pull the trigger.”
“You getting mixed up in my problems, that’s my fault.” Misty hugged her arms across her chest, her shirt sweat-soaked and dirty. “I gave Sam Flores your number.”
“That was smart. Stupid human thought I’d bring Paul out here so he could be ambushed and killed.” Graham’s brows drew together. “Too stupid. Something’s wrong.”
“What’s wrong is I need to warn Paul. If Sam tracks him down, he’s screwed.”
“Let’s make sure we’re not screwed first, all right? It will take Dougal a while to find civilization. Good thing Shifters heal fast.”
Graham already sounded a little stronger, but when Misty took his hand again, his grip was slack. “All that with Dougal—making him take out the bullet and then sending him for help—you did that so he wouldn’t be scared.”
Graham’s grin cracked through dirt on his face. “Yeah, you caught me.”
“Will he be all right?”
“Probably. He’s been through a lot, and he’s learned to be tough. Poor cub got stuck with me to bring him up. I’m the alpha of the alphas, but Dougal’s not that dominant. Other cubs gave him hell for it when he was growing up, and my pack still does. He’s the natural choice to be my successor, but they know he’s not strong. The minute I drop dead, they’ll be all over him trying to throw him out and take over.”
Misty’s mouth popped open. “That’s terrible.”
Graham shrugged. “It’s a Shifter thing. They won’t touch him while I’m around, and I’m coming up with ideas to keep him safe. But having to fight back all the time has made Dougal stronger.”
Misty squeezed Graham’s big hand. “You’re good to take care of him.”
“He’s my sister’s son. I didn’t have a choice. That’s another Shifter thing.”
“I bet you did have a choice. You could have had someone in your pack help you with him, right? You did it yourself because you felt sorry for him. You were being nice.”
Graham gave her a faintly startled look before his grin appeared again. “Don’t tell anyone, all right? I’ve got a rep.”
“You’re nice to me,” Misty said, stroking his shoulder.
“Because you’re sexy as hell.”
He was joking. Graham always joked. In all the time she’d known him, he was either yelling at someone or joking with them. A serious talk was not something Graham did.
Also, in the eight months Graham and Misty had been going out, he’d never made any move to take Misty to bed. He’d kissed her . . . Wow, had he kissed her. Blood-sizzling, she-could-have-an-orgasm-just-kissing-him kisses. But nothing more.
Mostly Graham took her to clubs, like Coolers, or to out-of-the-way restaurants and bars that allowed Shifters. Other Shifters were always present at these sort-of dates, and much of the time, Misty had to drive herself to meet him there. Graham was very attentive during the dates, sitting with his arm around her, interested in her talk about her day and her opinions on whatever they discussed. When the date was over, he’d walk her to her pickup, kiss her good night, and wait until she drove safely out of the parking lot. Then she’d go home—alone.
Misty had been to Graham’s house, where he lived with Dougal, but Graham had never let Misty go to the fight club—an unofficial arena where Shifters battled it out with each other for fun. Misty also never stayed the night with Graham, and he’d never been inside her house, though he knew where she lived. He’d come to her flower shop once, but only once—some customers had been reluctant to enter when he’d been there. Graham had decided he shouldn’t scare away Misty’s business, and never went back.
They’d never talked about their relationship. Graham didn’t seem to be the kind of guy who wanted to discuss relationships. Misty was afraid he’d start ignoring her altogether if she brought it up.
Misty had her own friends now in Shiftertown, like the party-happy Shifter girl Lindsay and Cassidy, a wildcat who was the sister of the Shiftertown leader. Lindsay, the font of all Shifter gossip, told Misty Graham wasn’t seeing anyone else, so that wasn’t the cause of the distance he kept with her. He wasn’t gay either . . . that fact would be all over Shiftertown too.
Graham might die today. The sun was reaching its zenith, the shade from the shed narrowing to a sliver. In a few minutes, it would be gone altogether.
“Stay with me, Graham,” Misty said, massaging his shoulder.
“I’m not going anywhere, sweetheart.”
The shade disappeared. The sun burned down on them, beating through Misty’s thin tank top. She was in shorts too, which she wore when getting deliveries ready to go in the mornings, and the sun was hot on her skin.
Misty had lived in southern Nevada long enough to know what over a hundred degrees felt like, and this was it. It might get up to a hundred and ten today, and possibly higher than that. Out here, the temperature of the desert floor could rise to a hundred and twenty and more.
“We need shade,” Misty said.
“No kidding,” was Graham’s helpful answer. “Not in that shed. Don’t feel like lying on a rusty nail right now.”
Blood poisoning would finish him. There was only so much even Shifters could take.
A nice cool cave with an underground spring would be perfect. That was too much to hope for, but the mountain they were up against might have a niche or something out of the sun. The mining shaft was out, even if it hadn’t been filled in. Old shafts were dangerously unstable and full of vertical shafts that could drop hundreds of feet.
Misty had done enough desert hiking to know that rocks in shade absorbed coolness overnight, and gave off that coolness during the day. Even on the hottest afternoons, a niche that had stayed in shadow all morning could be twenty degrees lower than the rocks just outside it.
Misty squeezed Graham’s shoulder again. “I’m going to look for shade. I don’t like to move you, but I don’t want to watch you burn to a crisp either.”
“I’m worried about you more.” Graham reached for her hand, his brows drawing down. “Humans die fast in the heat.”
“I’m not that delicate. I’ll be right back. Don’t go away.”
“You are that delicate. And you think you’re funny too.”
Misty leaned down and gave him a soft kiss across his cracked lips, her own as dry. Graham could barely move his mouth in response.
When Misty lifted her head, she saw a flash of naked emotion in Graham’s eyes. Need, longing, loneliness, the weight of his position as alpha. On top of that, a tenderness for her.
Misty stilled a moment, soaking it in. She’d never seen any kind of sentiment in Graham for her. Liking yes, and he’d charged out here to rescue her today, but she’d never seen this flash of stark feeling.
She hated that this might be the last time she saw it. If he died today . . .
Misty wouldn’t let him. She kissed Graham one more time then rose and brushed herself off. Graham watched her, still frowning. “You be careful, understand me?” he rumbled.
“If I have to come looking for you, I’ll be pissed off.”
“I know.” She sent him another smile. “Be right back.”
Graham didn’t answer. He moved a little, grunting in pain, but Misty made herself walk away from him.
She started for the ridge above them, finding a narrow wash that gave her a clear path upward through the scrub. She went slowly, picking her way along, the wash full of loose rocks. If she fell and broke something, they could both die out here before Dougal returned.
Misty made for a fold of rock that jutted out into the slope from the desert floor. These mountains looked smooth from the distance, but close to, they were clumped with boulders, tough weeds, creosote, and critters. The critters were mostly lizards and birds for now—not too many bugs liked the hot, dry afternoons. But in the evening, crawly things would be everywhere, including snakes. Snakes liked dusk, when they slithered out in droves to soak up the last warmth of the rocks. When the snakes emerged, so would the coyotes.
Misty rounded one particularly large clump of boulders and was rewarded with the sight of a narrow opening between two big rocks. Going carefully, keeping an eye out for snakes that might have come out early, she squeezed herself through the niche.
It was a tight fit. Misty held her breath and inched along, promising herself she’d go back if it got too tight. She couldn’t afford to get stuck, and if Graham couldn’t fit, the shelter would be useless to him.
Once more step, and Misty popped through. She stopped, looking around in surprise.
A giant cave opened out from the rocks, lit by sunlight streaming through a hole in the granite wall high above. Reflections danced everywhere, caused by a burbling spring that spread out into a pool at the far end of the cave.
“A nice cool cave with an underground spring,” Misty whispered. “What do you know?”