Sasha is dead?
“No,” I say and shake my head for emphasis. “I was told Sasha moved away. I specifically remember that.”
With a grit of her teeth, Runa removes the stake from her shoulder. The one Bran threw at her with terrifying precision. The second stake missed, but I suspect that was on purpose.
“Julian can tell you whatever he wants you to hear,” Runa says as she walks over to a nearby table and sets the bloody stake on top.
I’m suddenly itching for a rag so I can clean that mess up. I know it’s just my brain looking for anything to distract me and stop the agonizing mental pain of my life going sideways.
Bran comes over to me, but he speaks to Runa. “What did Sasha do to earn that punishment?”
“That I don’t know.” Runa examines the new hole in her leather jacket where the stake pierced her flesh. She frowns at the mangled material. “There is a rumor, however, that a shifter witnessed whatever happened.”
“Which one?” Bran asks.
Runa smirks. I sense a roadblock before she even answers.
I catch the barely perceptible flinch on Bran’s face.
Callen Crawford. The Alpha of the Midnight pack.
“Well, I guess that’s our dead end,” I say.
Bran scowls at me. “If you think an alpha is going to stop me, you’re sorely mistaken, mouse.”
“Oh really? You’re what, you’re going to visit the Midnight Pack and demand to see the alpha and ask him what he maybe saw over ten years ago? Besides, don’t you think that if he did witness Sasha doing something she shouldn’t have, he would have reported it? Cal may be vicious, but he’s always followed the rules.”
Except…now that I think of it, Kelly was just complaining about the pack not wanting to pay their taxes. Something about land disputes.
Bran doesn’t answer me. Instead, he goes to the table and retrieves the stake. Runa cringes. “I’m telling you what I know. I swear it.”
“Go.” He nods her toward the door.
“I expect payment for this.”
“I’ll have something for you by the end of next week.”
With a quick nod, she’s gone, and the front door clicks closed behind her.
“What do you pay her?”
Bran tosses the stake into the sink and taps on the faucet. “Information about her blood descendants.”
“Really? She can’t find out that information on her own?”
“There’s this whole thing with a witch curse on her blood line and Julian forbidding her from contacting them because of it.” He opens a cabinet to reveal a row of yellow tubs holding disinfecting wipes. He pulls one out. “I get an update on the family and I tell her what I know and she can carry on her immortal life, feeling cozy about her blood line.”
“That’s actually…kinda sweet.”
The look he gives me could singe hair. “Don’t try to paint me as a good guy. You’ll be sorely disappointed.” He says this as he wipes the blood from the table, scrubbing it clean.
“If you say so.”
“Mouse.” The word comes out throaty and vibrating with a warning.
But while I just witnessed him crush a vampire’s arm and then stake her, there’s this little voice in the back of my head that says I have nothing to fear from Bran Duval. Other than my heart getting broken.
Goddamn that heart anyway.
Best to protect it with everything I have.
“Yes, you’re the bad guy. That’s something we can both agree on. So now what?”
He tosses the bloody wipe and washes his hands. “Now we visit the Midnight Pack.”
The shifters live on the north side of the river in a self-contained community surrounded by hardwoods and pine. I think I’ve crossed the river a total of one time in my life when we went on a field trip to the Guard station when I was a kid.
The Guard is Midnight Harbor’s version of a police force, but in a town of supernatural creatures, their power is limited. They mostly deal with mortal disputes, but when their station was rebuilt on the north side of the river, on the edge of the shifter neighborhood, there was talk that they had an unspoken alliance with the shifters.
It was the squabbling and gossip that originally led me to want to leave Midnight. I hate politics. And politics with supernaturals is politics on steroids.
The second we take the Crawford Bridge across the river, I feel like we’re being watched.
The tall pines loom over us as Bran drives the car around a sharp turn on the road. When we get near the shifter neighborhood, maple and oak trees start to take over the woods, and the headlights cut across several driftwood sculptures hanging from the lower branches.
They’re called Valhalla ladders, and they’re made from collected wood that’s then strung up on twine and hung for protection. I know this because Sam’s dad is primarily Norwegian and made a ladder with the kids one year to hang in their bay window.
While the Midnight Pack is diverse in its members, Cal is Scandinavian and the pack is steeped in Scandinavian culture because of it.
When we crest the next hill, old-fashioned lampposts appear along the side of the road and send soft golden light into the night.
I can’t help but take it all in. I immediately like it. There’s a quintessential small-town vibe to it with one block of shops, the buildings original to the early 1900s judging by their style.
Music filters out from a bar and grill where the front doors have been propped open by rusty milk cans. There’s a sign hanging in the window, the curling neon tubes spelling out Galloway’s in a bright orange glow.
“Do you know where you’re going?” I ask Bran.
He’s got one hand casually on the steering wheel, the other curled around the head of the stick shift.
“Of course I do.” He nods to the end of the main street and to a massive estate house sitting like a lord at the top of the hill.
I’ve heard about the pack house, but it’s even more formidable in person.
The light of the waning moon sends a soft glow around the many steepled roofs and jutting chimneys. Once we turn off the main street, Bran has to navigate to an unmarked road that is at an almost constant incline as it winds back through the pines.
Finally, the road cuts into the property and wraps around the house. There’s a parking lot to the south with at least half the spots taken.
Bran parks and shuts the car off. The engine ticks in the quiet as it cools down.
“We’re really doing this?” I ask.
With the car off and the dashboard dark, I can only see the barest hint of Bran’s face. I can’t read his expression, but there’s a buzz of energy in the air like he’s preparing for battle.
“You want answers, don’t you?”
“I’m not sure what I want.” I pick at the frayed hem of my t-shirt. “This still feels like a dream.”
“Then let’s wake you up.”
I snort. “Easier said than done.”
“You’ll be glad you went this far when it’s all over.”
“But what is it, exactly? Aren’t you a little worried? We can’t stuff this goose back into the oven.”
He laughs, his raspy voice filling the intimate interior of the car.
“I know you are.” He reaches across the center counsel and takes my hand. The skin-on-skin contact sends an immediate, needy thrill between my legs even though there’s nothing sexual about it. Even though there are much bigger things to be thinking about.
“I suggest you get that under control if we’re walking into a pack house,” he says.
I hang my head back against the headrest. “This is a horrible idea.”
“You can’t control yourself around me,” he teases in that thick, horny voice of his. “I’m not surprised.” He unlocks our hands and drags a soft touch across my palm. That needy thrill turns hot and buzzy.
It’s not working!
His hand leaves mine and goes to my thigh. The curl of his fingers hit just a few inches from the seam of my thigh to my center, and I’ve never wished for a skirt more in my life.
Why did I have to wear pants?!
He grips me harder, hand trailing closer, and a gasp escapes me.
“If it’ll help get you through this meeting,” he says and leans across the center counsel, bringing his other hand to my jaw, tipping me toward him, “how about I give you something to look forward to?”
“And what’s that?”
“I’ll fuck you.”
My clit throbs and my inner walls clench up at the scant promise of his cock inside of me. I’ve fucked myself with a dildo before, but something tells me fucking Bran will be a ride I won’t soon forget.
“But…” I say and pant out a breath, my brain trying really hard to remind my mouth that I already told him I didn’t want him.
“But what?” His mouth finds my throat and kisses then nips, and I shiver beneath his teeth.
I gulp down air. I don’t know what my objection was going to be. It’s gone now, lost to the wind.
“Fuck me now,” I say.
“Needy little mouse.”
“What’s to stop us?”
“We’re in a pack parking lot, and I don’t relish the idea of getting staked with my cock buried in that tight little pussy.”
“Oh fuck.” I love it when he talks like that. “Then drive us away. We can come back.”
His hand trails closer to my center. “No.”
“Why?” I moan.
“Because I like seeing you desperate.”
The noise that comes out of my throat can only be described as sexually frustrated.
He lets his finger graze the seam of my jeans, sending a buzz through me.
“If you don’t fuck me soon, I might be the one staking you.”
“You could try. You would fail.” He laughs in the quiet cab of the car and then pulls away, leaving me panting and so fucking horny. He finds a pocket of moonlight, and in that silver glow, shoots me a devilish grin.
“I really do hate you.” My eyes are heavy, and I’m sure I’m flushed.
“I know, mouse. You hate me so much, I bet your panties are fucking drenched.”
He’s not wrong.
It takes me a few seconds to get control of myself, and the walk from the parking lot to the front of the house in the cool night air helps unravel some of my arousal.
And thank god too because we’re stopped before we even make it up the stone steps to the double front door, proving my earlier suspicion that we were being watched the second we crossed the bridge.
The shifter that meets us is the pack’s beta, Fox, which is ironic, considering he’s a wolf shifter. The story I heard from Sam was that his real name is Waagosh, which means “fox” in the Ojibwe language. Fox is half Ojibwe. I’m not sure how he found himself here in Midnight Harbor, but from what I’ve heard, everyone loves him. Unless you’ve found yourself in the unfortunate position of being on his bad side. I guess you don’t get to be beta without breaking some bones.
“Bran Duval,” Fox says, his voice like sandpaper drawing over cut wood. “To what do we owe the pleasure?”
Bran is loose and casual, but I sense his energy, standing as near to him as I am. He’s a master at appearing one way while being another. I admire the way he does this as if he’s confident he can walk into any room and make friends, or enemies, and he’s okay with either.
I’ve always wanted people to like me, and sometimes, I’ve gone overboard, trying to fit in or belong.
“I need to speak to Cal,” Bran answers.
Fox leans his shoulder against one of the stone columns that runs three stories high to the roofline above us. He crosses his arms over his chest. “What for?”
“I have a question for him.”
“Whatever you have to ask him you can ask me.” Fox tilts his head, regarding us like we’re peasants.
“All right.” Bran steps forward. “I was wondering if Cal knew why Julian Locke might stake one of his own.”
Fox goes still. Clearly that’s not where he thought this conversation was going. He narrows his eyes. “Why would he know anything about that?”
“A little birdie told me.”
“You and your birds.” Fox grunts. “You always were too nosy for your own good.”
“And you’re too bold for your age.”
“This is pack territory,” Fox says. “I shouldn’t have to remind you of that.”
Bran clasps his hands behind his back. “Now that we’ve pissed around, can we get on with it then?”
The front door bursts open, and several younger pack members spill out. They see Fox and quickly bow their heads and dart away.
Fox catches the heavy door before it slips closed and holds it for us. “Come in and I’ll see if Cal is about.”
Bran takes my hand and drags me behind him. As we pass, he says to Fox, “As if you don’t know where your alpha is at all times.”
“As if I’m going to give you free access to him whenever you want.”
“This is starting off great.” I let out a nervous laugh, hoping to lighten the mood, but no light can penetrate the dark moods of these two men.
We enter into a foyer with a domed ceiling far above us with a wrought iron frame and stained class inlayed between. Hanging from its center is a chandelier that looks small in the cavernous space, but I bet it would easily be three times the size of me if I were standing next to it.
Fox takes us down the hall to the left. The pack house might be massive, but there’s a comfortable din of conversation and laughter in the air like it’s a house well-loved and inhabited by family.
I suppose being part of a pack gives you that, whether they’re blood or not.
Being absorbed into the pack life was never even a consideration for me, but feeling the warmth of the house makes me wonder if I snubbed it for no good reason.
“She can wait here,” Fox says as he stops at the open pocket doors.
“She comes with,” Bran says.
“Yeah, this is technically about me,” I point out.
“Humans don’t get access to the alpha without being pack pledged.” Fox almost sounds bored explaining this to me. I guess he probably has better things to do.
“I’m not going to leave the little mouse in a house full of dogs,” Bran says.
Fox straightens, a rumble sounding in his chest.
“Take it back,” I say out of the corner of my mouth.
Bran sighs. “Fine. Wolves. Better?”
Fox doesn’t look like it’s better.
“You’ll have to excuse him,” I say. “He’s not used to civilized conversations.” I end with clenched teeth and a frown at Bran. He just scoffs.
“Please,” I beg, even though I’m aware that I didn’t want to come here in the first place, and now I’m groveling to get Bran on the inside. He’s really going to owe me, and thinking of him owing me…
Gelatin cake. Giggly gelatin cake!
“Fine.” Fox turns away. “This way, Duval.”
Bran gives me one lingering look. I can feel him hesitating, so I put my hands to his back and shove him away. “Go. Before he changes his mind.”
“Behave,” he says beneath his breath. “And don’t let any of the mutts touch you.”
I roll my eyes.
“Yes. Fine. Now go.”
He turns away and darts after Fox.
Of course, not even ten minutes later, I’m surrounded by wolves, with Evan and Adam at the head of the group.
“Jess!” Evan calls out and wraps his arm around my shoulders. “What are you doing here?”
“Bran,” I say. “He had to talk to Cal.”
Evan makes a snide comment that I don’t hear, but that makes Adam and a few others laugh.
“That explains why you smell like him.”
“I do?” I lift my shirt to sniff it and catch a lingering scent that reminds me of Bran. That rich amber smoke.
“Are you with Duval?” Evan steers me out of the room and down the hall, his arm still around me.
“Um…no. He’s just helping me with something.”
The others fall into step behind us and start discussing a movie they’ve all just watched.
“He seemed awfully possessive of you the other night at the Harbor,” Evan points out.
“Yeah, well…” I trail off because I really have no explanation for it. He did seem possessive, and he seemed possessive ten minutes ago, and while it should piss me off, it just makes me fill up with butterflies.
Arm still around my shoulders, Evan guides me into a billiard room where five pool tables are set up in the center beneath stained-glass bar lights. There are three games in session, with the last two tables open.
“Want to play pool with us while you wait?” Evan smiles down at me with that dazzling smile of his. He really is handsome in that All-American footballer kind of way. The cut of his bicep flexes against my shoulder as he deposits me at one of the tables.
“Sure, why not.”
Playing a game of pool is innocent enough, right?
Except ten minutes later, we’re in the middle of a game, and Evan plays one of the oldest tricks in the book.
“Here, let me show you how to get that shot.” He slides in behind me, his groin suddenly at my ass.
He wraps his arms around me and rests his hand over mine, the pool cue between us, his mouth at my ear.
And that’s when Bran walks in the door, and his eyes light up with fiery rage.