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Forged Decisions by Katherine McIntyre (1)

Chapter One

Finn had been avoiding Beaver Tavern all week.

He sat in his Challenger, tapping ash out of the window as he stared down Raven’s car in the parking lot. Sneaking around, hiding from her at every chance—he was being pure chickenshit right now. The Tavern had already flicked on the open sign for the day and ever since the night of Dax’s victory when he’d spent the night with Navi, he hadn’t wanted to face Raven. Hadn’t wanted to untangle the complicated whatever they’d been dancing around all these years. His wolf lunged inside him, demanding straightforwardness he couldn’t muster right now.

He let out a stream of smoke, glancing at the time on his car’s interface. With his next class in a half-hour, he didn’t have long enough to dive into a serious conversation with her. His throat tightened when he wheeled the car out of the lot and his tires crunched over gravel. Even as he made the justifications in his mind, he knew he hid behind excuse after excuse.

A better man would’ve never strung Raven along this long, knowing at the end of the day they would never have a future together.

Finn wasn’t a better man—hell, he wasn’t even a good man most days. The previous alpha had groomed Sierra to take the reins and not him for a reason, despite their matched skills and strength. The current alpha of the Red Rock pack maintained the unshakable moral code his people needed to hold their territory and form a united front against any challengers that might come their way. Finn threw out a whole lot of swagger, but time and time again, he crumbled.

The hickory and oak trees of Rickett’s Glen rolled by, the dense forests he’d grown up running through. Those trails beckoned to his wolf on a regular basis since he skated a little more on the wild than the others, a little too attuned to the demands of his other side. He drove this route to work daily on the way to his studio. Thank everything holy he’d carved a successful niche teaching kickboxing and MMA out here, because if he hadn’t found some outlet for his aggression, he’d be flipping tables and slinging punches every night.

After the way he’d wussed out of the discussion with Raven yet again, he needed to burn some of the nerves making him buzz. Which made the upcoming class he was teaching perfect timing.

He pulled up in front of his studio, Kelly’s Gym, and parked along the patch of beaten earth that constituted the parking lot. Finn approached the shoebox of a place he couldn’t have been prouder of, the plaster siding glowing white and the near-flat black roof within jumping distance. His place might not compare to the massive gyms in cities like Philly, but he’d thrown a lot of work over the years into turning what used to be a couple of sessions a week into a thriving business.

He loped up the steps and unlocked the door, the light stuttering on once he flipped the switch. The pale white walls of his gym interior needed a new paint job, since every imperfection glared brighter against the red and black mats lining the floor and the six drop-down punching bags. The sets of weights lining the back were stacked neatly in place—folks might call him anal retentive, but he shouldered a fair amount of personal pride in this place, which he wanted to represent as a clean, organized space.

Finn strode to the back and set the big fans on, his sole means to combat the sticky heat rolling through this sector during late summer. Once strong breezes gusted through the room, he began his own set of warm-ups, his wolf snapping at the reins a little more than normal. Not like he thought he’d be less agitated in charge—Sierra made an amazing alpha—but ever since he’d become beta of the pack, a restlessness had kept him on edge.

Even with their old alpha, his wolf had lunged forward to strike at any chance, a rebellious side of him that clashed with the community he needed to survive. Wolves were pack creatures and he’d witnessed life outside their circle early on when his shithead folks decided to ditch. The time away had been a nightmare.

Drops of sweat beaded Finn’s brow as he worked his reps with the punching bag, burning some of the aggression heating his chest. One-two, one-two, one-two.

A slight creak from the opposite side of the room startled the hell out of him. Finn whipped around, droplets flying from his arms when he turned toward the door he’d never heard open.

“Don’t stop for my sake—I was enjoying the show,” Navi drawled, leaning against one of the pillars in the center of the room. The damn panther could sneak around better than most, even with the raw, lethal energy radiating from her. Like Finn needed more of a knockout punch—the sight of her shoved the air from him. Navi’s hooded gaze, those deep hazel eyes screamed sex, and the casual smirk on her full lips was a private one she’d only shared since the other night.

The tank top and running shorts she wore left her rich brown skin on full display, highlighting the sort of hips he wouldn’t have expected on a pipsqueak like her. Not that he’d ever call her that—he might be a dumbass sometimes, but he valued his life. She was one of the Tribe, the shifters imbued with the great spirits of the animals they transformed into and the governing force of their kind.

When he’d started flirting with the scary-as-fuck Tribe member during Dax’s trials, he knew he was playing with fire, but he expected her to shut him down. Never in a thousand years had he anticipated their unforgettable night.

Man and wolf alike couldn’t help the way his cock throbbed at the mere sight of her. When she moved, he noticed, and when she entered a room, he felt her presence as loudly as if she screamed in his ear.

“Got some aggression to burn before class, soldier?” she asked, approaching with a balanced, feline grace to her movements. His heartbeat raced. He wanted to slam her against the mats to claim every inch of her luscious body, but she patted the side of the punching bag. “We’ve tried that route,” she purred, her eyes glinting with amusement. “Now let’s see how you fight.”

Inches separated them and Finn stepped closer, moving into her space. “How’s that a fair fight, pussycat? You’ve got all those spirit-gifted tricks to whip out.”

Navi didn’t back down an inch, her calm smile twisting into a smirk. “Like I need my abilities to bring you to your knees. Quit making excuses, Finn Kelly, and spar with me.”

His heart thumped in his ears, the blood pumping through his veins in an intoxicating way. A slow grin rolled onto his face as he stepped back a pace and sank into a crouch. “I suppose we’ve got enough time for one round. Don’t go crying to your buddies that a Red Rock kicked your ass.”

Her mouth quirked with her grin, but Navi emanated lethal calm, her eyes flashing the silver of her panther even though she remained in human form. She was out of his league in every way, her abilities and the magic at her command the stuff of whispered legends, and yet Finn couldn’t help trying to catch the tornado by the tail. As she circled around him, the movement slow and seductive, her power crashed down like a tidal wave over the room until Finn near drowned in it.

Too bad he was a stubborn fucker.

He bared his teeth, fangs forming while he watched her with a wolf’s vigilance. A cat like her could play and tease forever—he knew without a doubt between the two of them, she’d hold out longer. He rolled his shoulders, the urge to lash out prickling through him. Thankfully, he’d never refined an attack style relying on patience. Finn had been throwing punches before he ever learned to speak, and teaching for a long time—long enough to see a thousand types of styles and figure out how to combat them.

She watched his every movement, waiting for him to tip off his first strike—which meant he needed to employ either speed, or a feint.

Maybe both.

Finn tilted his right shoulder forward to test the waters and tossed a few one-two punches in her direction. Navi’s palm blocked one and her forearm deflected the other.

Would she take the bait?

The micro-second twitch of her knee gave him the hint.

Right when she tried to thrust her knee into the opening, Finn pivoted out of the way. He grabbed her closest arm and tugged, throwing her hips off balance, and before she could right herself, he stepped in close and personal. With the opposite forearm, he slammed into her stomach. To his surprise, she didn’t stumble, just toed a few paces in the sort of dance anyone skilled enough could muster.

Inches away, he didn’t stand a chance of avoiding her punch.

The blow slammed into his stomach, and only the quickstep away helped diminish the force. This close, he could smell the vanilla scent of her skin, could see the way her forearms tensed into corded muscle, honed for lethality like his own. Her gaze flashed, giving him the one heads-up of where she would move to next.

Her hips pivoted as she unleashed a kick.

Instead of running, Finn surged forward, square in the center where the knee hit. Before her leg thudded against his body, he’d already tackled her. Navi wouldn’t appreciate him holding back and he’d learned to use his muscle and heft to his advantage. Even as her thighs tensed and she tried to shove him, he sank like a stone overtop her. Together, they crashed to the ground.

He landed on top with his forearm pressed over her chest. She tilted her hip to the side, but he refused to move his weight. “Check,” he said, a grin stealing his lips as her eyes blazed.

Her leg slipped between his thighs a second later. The moment he felt the movement coming, he rolled to the side. If she nailed him in the nuts, he’d be incapacitated.

Navi pounced, taking the foreground when she tackled him. The elbow she drove into his chest stung like a motherfucker, but he couldn’t help the smile that appeared on his face. The dogged persistence she fought him with reminded him of his bouts with Sierra and the way Navi analyzed on the fly never failed to impress him. She was the sort of fight that wasn’t just about proving something—right now, they were having fun.

He shoved her off again and she rolled into a crouch, rising at the same time as him. Her wicked grin mirrored his own as her shoulders heaved up and down from their form of play. She circled again, a predatory spark in her eyes. Finn’s heart raced, sweat trickling down his forehead. Hell on earth, he was so alive while he tracked her movements, ready to dive in again.

“Getting tired already?” he taunted, rolling his shoulders as he prepared for another lunge.

“Tired of listening to you jaw off, Kelly,” she retorted, even though her eyes sparked with amusement.

This time she took the initiative.

Her sneaker ground against the floor with a squeak when she launched through the air toward him. His instinct begged him to throw his hands out and catch her, following with another tackle—but instincts lied and she was clever.

Instead of lashing out, Navi tilted her right shoulder forward, making no effort to guard her body.

Finn barely got his arms up in defense as she slammed into him full force, using her body like a bludgeoning weapon. Despite her small size, she grounded herself like a powerhouse. Finn staggered back, the blow throwing him off kilter.

Except she didn’t stop there.

Navi lashed out with her fists, needling two quick jabs into his open spots.

Instead of falling back or losing his balance, Finn danced on his feet since he kept his body loose to absorb the blows. They stung something fierce, but Navi wasn’t throwing her full weight into them. Which meant she was planning something else. Her hip twitched to the right.

Finn thrust his arms down. The moment her leg snapped out, his hands wrapped around it. The side-sweep she attempted halted when he used his steadied stance to shove her leg out. Before she could regain her position, he pushed her forward, sending her tipping back. Finn’s heart pounded, a grin stole over his face and sweat trickled down his neck, his shoulders. He leapt forward to tackle her to the ground.

She threw a jab straight to his gut, enough to make his stomach squeeze. However, he refused to relent and crashed onto her with his full weight. They tumbled to the ground again.

Her chest pulsed beneath him, her sweat-slicked limbs tangled with his. Their eyes met, a wild wickedness in Navi’s that sent his mind to dirty, dirty places, reminding him of all the other things he’d like to do to her pinned to these mats.

The door to his studio creaked, drawing his attention at once.

“Am I interrupting something?” Kyle asked. The Silver Springs shifter scratched the back of his neck while he tried to avert his stare.

Finn hopped off Navi, but before he could offer a hand up, she rolled to her feet.

“Just your trainer getting his ass thrashed,” she called as she made her way to the far wall lined with towels. She wiped away the thick strands of her pixie cut that had plastered to her forehead. He followed her over there, already covered in a sticky film of sweat he wanted to shower off, a combination of exertion and the August heat spreading through this place.

Finn snorted. “Kyle, get started on your basic stretches—we’ll get rolling in a minute.”

“Want to walk me to my car?” Navi asked, phrasing it less as a question and more as a demand. While the woman possessed a confident sexiness, she didn’t do subtle for shit. Honestly, he liked that about her at once—Finn had been on the receiving end of so many mixed messages and sent some of his own, enough that he wanted a clean break from that sort of mess.

“Sure thing, sweetheart,” he said, slinging his towel around his neck. Her eyebrows lifted at the term, one Sierra would’ve smacked him in the face for, but, for some reason, every time he pushed with Navi, she tolerated his cocky bullshit. Like she could see right through every ounce of bravado he flung her way. The mats squished under his tread while Finn and Navi made their way across his gym, out into the blazing heat.

When he stepped under the glaring sun, his skin heated in response, begging to soak in the rays and turn his olive skin three shades darker. Navi’s old Plymouth sat out in the parking lot, the paint peeling and more than a couple of dents on the exterior. Finn’s fingers itched to grab his toolkit and fix the sedan as best he could. Sierra had once told him he ‘mother henned’ over his Challenger with the amount of attention he poured into keeping his girl running smoothly.

“So, I’m guessing you didn’t show up to tangle around on the mats with me,” he said, leaning against her car, the metallic body creaking from his weight.

“Color me surprised, Sherlock,” she drawled. “Didn’t think you had a brain behind the pretty face.” She leaned against the car beside him, her proximity comfortable.

“To be fair, you’re as blunt as a sledgehammer,” he responded, tugging at his wifebeater, which had glued to his chest.

“I’m not familiar with this area, and I’m going to need help from someone who knows every inch of this terrain. Sierra recommended you, but I needed to get a grip on your fighting style, because what I’m going to ask you isn’t short on danger.” Navi gave him a serious look that was all Tribe, pride and regality emanating from her. So different from the expressive woman who’d melted for him in the bedroom.

His skin prickled at the idea of danger and his wolf pounded approval in his chest. He’d been straining at the seams following orders here—even the normal responsibilities didn’t appeal to him since he’d seen Sierra inundated with resolving the stupidest conflicts, and as her beta, he wasn’t needed for much. He wanted to be in the thick of doing something useful and had honed his body into a weapon begging to be aimed and used.

“Sign me up,” he responded, his tone firm.

Navi crossed her arms over her chest. “Don’t even want to know what we’re up against?”

Finn shrugged. “I trust you’re not going to throw me into a suicide mission—you think I’ve got a pretty face.” Navi’s gaze bored into him at the comment, but those full lips quirked with a smile. When he’d first met the hardass, intimidating Tribe member, he never would’ve thought she had a sense of humor or even that theirs aligned.

“According to the supplier of those pipe bombs planted at the Silver Springs houses, the Landsliders are involved—the reason we came into town. You’ll be helping us track down their outposts, which means I’m going to brief you on information about the man we’re tracking, intel you’ve got to keep to yourself. Sierra’s given us the necessary permissions, because you won’t be able to share this with your pack.” Navi watched him with an intensity that made his blood burn. As if she was testing him this very moment to see if he’d jump or run the other way.

What she didn’t know is he’d been waiting for a chance, waiting for some way to unleash and let his wolf run free for far too long. This sort of fight, against an unknown, powerful enemy—this was something he could throw his whole heart and soul into.

Finn flashed her a grin, his teeth sharpening at the edges. “You had me at danger.”