Lily Baxter had once read a book in which the plucky protagonist had the uncanny ability to stare at a person with such intensity that the hapless victim’s head exploded. At the time, Lily couldn’t imagine what circumstances could drive a person to use such a talent without a shred of remorse.
She was starting to figure that out.
As she caught a glimpse of the side of her hopefully soon-to-be ex-husband’s face just before he tossed her blanket over her head, she didn’t wish irreparable bodily harm on him. Not really. She wasn’t averse to the idea of him enduring a bit of pain and suffering, though, particularly if that infliction centered around his fertile region.
“Get down,” Lance grumbled as he nudged her for the fifth time back down toward the floorboard. “One more coming. Jimmy Lewis in a pickup truck. Tall enough that he can see in here. He keeps going fast and then slow. I wish he’d fucking pass and stop playing around.”
“Super,” she muttered from the floor. She was tired of playing, too, and her frustration had little to do with Jimmy. Lily couldn’t be spotted with Lance so far from home. People would want to know why they’d been together—people like her high-handed father.
In small-town Maria, New Mexico, where they lived, news of scandals spread like wildfire. That was why they’d left town in the wee hours of the morning before the busybodies were out on their porches with their coffee. The trip was necessary, in part, so they could figure out in a distraction-free environment how to extinguish those flames of rumor before they could get started burning. But apparently, Maria Middle School’s eighth-grade class was heading south on a field trip and their caravan had been swarming Lance’s truck for the better part of twenty minutes.
She heard the wind’s whistle through the open window and the thunderous bass of the truck in the passing lane beside them. Jimmy was probably trying to get Lance’s attention. They were hours away from home and that was what people who recognized each other on the highway did. But if Jimmy saw Lily in that truck, the gossip mill would be cranking at full speed before the reluctant couple had a chance to even tell their family and friends they’d gotten married.
They didn’t want to have to tell. In fact, there was no good reason to tell them anymore. After three months of living apart as though they hadn’t gotten married at all, Lily and Lance had decided to end the farce. The nuptials had been a rushed, impulsive mistake triggered by her missed period, three positive pregnancy tests, Lily’s terror of becoming the town’s newest objet de scandale, and some aggressive shapeshifter problem-solving reflexes on Lance’s end. Disreputable as they tended to be, coyote shifters apparently favored two-parent households. Given her own single-parent upbringing, that hadn’t sounded like such a bad thing to Lily, but it didn’t matter. They’d never get a chance to test the arrangement. Her pregnancy had ended at ten weeks, right as they’d started to try to make serious plans to cohabitate.
“Is he gone?” The noise had ebbed. Lily’s feet and neck were starting to cramp, and she wanted off that freaking floor.
“Thanks a lot for telling me, Grumplestiltskin.” She climbed onto her seat and buckled in.
They’d hardly conversed at all in three months, so she really shouldn’t have expected tenderness from him. But just once, she wished he’d be kind so she wouldn’t feel like such a fool for trying to be civil.
She pinched her thick blanket closed around her neck and turned her focus to beyond the windshield. The scenery had become somewhat less monotonous in the past twenty minutes, and she was grateful for that. There was only so long a landscape could hold a lady’s attention, especially in November. Dry grass. Yellow leaves on what few trees there were. From a distance, they looked like gold with the sun behind them, but the marvel of that had worn off quickly.
She might be disenchanted of sun-colored things for a while, thanks to her recent exploits with premium mescal. The golden-hued spirit had looked so innocent and beckoning in its bottle, but it was the reason she and Lance had gotten into the mess they were in. Her memories of Blue and Willa Shapely’s housewarming party were fragmented. She and Lance had shared the remnants of a bottle and then squabbled unceasingly like children—just like the day they’d met back in spring. They’d hated each other from first sight, or perhaps, from first bark. He was an unyielding lieutenant of Blue Shapely’s pack of coyote shifters and Lily was…Lily. She was the human cousin and sidekick to Maria’s most prominent cougar shifter family. The groups were natural rivals.
And Lance was a natural dick.
She’d been driving the getaway van the day her friend Willa had sprung Lance’s best friend from a rushed arranged marriage. Lance had yanked open the door and demanded to drive.
Their tipsy squabbling at the party had evidently turned into teasing and flirting…and more.
She’d put two and two together when she missed her period and had texted him as soon as she was sure.
They didn’t even like each other, but they’d flown to Vegas for a terse quickie wedding the next night. They figured that by the time she started showing, they’d have their shit together and that people would have believed she’d been staying at his place all that time.
Three months was far too long to be legally attached to someone she despised, especially since it’d been six weeks since her miscarriage. They’d never gotten around to ending the thing. He’d been out of town, and she’d been too busy feeling sorry for herself to broach the subject, anyway.
Their marriage might have helped support the nascent truce between the Coyotes and Cougars, had it lasted. News of the dissolution could very well reignite old tensions.
Secrecy was the way to go.
Lance had been heading there anyway to pick up a young coyote shifter named Gus and his grandmother, Regina, at the request of his best friend and pack’s alpha, Blue Shapely. Lance had texted her the night before with an invitation:
“May as well get on with it,” she’d muttered before responding in the affirmative.
While she thought back on that since-deleted text, her phone buzzed, punctuating the glare she’d just fixed on the side of her husband’s face. She rooted the device out of the folds of her blanket cocoon and killed the noise without looking at the screen. She already knew who was texting her. She loved her little brother to death, but he was six, and sometimes his text messages told stories that actually didn’t lead anywhere. She’d read them all at once later and tap out a suitably enthusiastic response with lots of heart emojis. Antonio loved those pink hearts.
Lance thought emojis zapped brain cells—one for every pixel. He’d muttered as much somewhere on the Vegas Strip before their wedding when a tourist wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with a heart-eyes smiley screenprint had walked past.
Her gaze tracked over to Señor Silent Treatment once more.
He wouldn’t even spare her a glance.
They’d been in that truck cab for the better part of three hours and neither had said anything of consequence. Their first exchange had come an hour in when he’d groused, “Do you have to have the heat on?” which she responded to with “It’s forty degrees outside. Do the math.”
He’d opened his window after that. She’d turned the heat up more.
On and on.
He just wouldn’t let her win.
Stubborn Coyote. As much as she tried to downplay her male cousins’ deep-seated revulsion of their rivals, at moments like that, she couldn’t help but to ponder if they were justified in their hostility.
Ten minutes after exiting the highway, Lance pulled the truck over at the self-pay station outside of Elephant Butte State Park. He hopped out of the cab, leaving the door open.
She just hadn’t been able to get warm since her miscarriage at ten weeks. The anemia from the blood she’d lost from the complications would eventually correct, but she didn’t know if the chill accompanying it ever would. That wasn’t entirely medical. Some of that iciness in her body was marital.
He wasn’t looking. He was stuffing cash into a registration envelope and scribbling information about his truck and camper onto the paperwork.
Lance climbed back into the truck and slammed the door without a word.
“Might as well leave it open,” she muttered. “Not like I can tell the difference.”
He didn’t say anything. Just stared at her with cold blue eyes and put the truck into gear. She thought she saw his chin twitch a little, but she couldn’t really tell for sure because of that ridiculous lumberjack beard. He wasn’t a lumberjack. He was a pilot and Coyote pack lieutenant. She didn’t even know what his face looked like under that thing. That seemed to be something she should have known before she had sex with him, but no, for once in her well-ordered life she’d done something impulsive and irresponsible.
She suddenly understood a little about why her father had wanted her to live at home until she was twenty-five. She was twenty-six and had been living apart from him since eighteen, but maybe she still needed adult supervision.
Possibly, if she told him why she was so cold, he’d have some mercy on her, but as far as she was concerned, she didn’t owe him any details. He should have been kind without knowing all the harrowing details about the miscarriage. About her staggering through the hospital’s automatic doors and swooning before she could get a word out. And her zipped lips when the nurses made noises like “Didn’t know you were seeing anyone, Lily.” And of her shame when her cousin-in-law Ellery showed up for her usual shift.
Ellery had stood at the side of her gurney, hanging a bag of donated blood, and had whispered, “Did you know?”
Of course Lily had known. In ten years, her period had never been more than five minutes late.
“Who?” she’d asked next.
Instead of answering, Lily had chosen to close her eyes and let her head loll to the side. She’d been so tired and sad. Ellery had accepted that. In the weeks since, she hadn’t followed up, not even when they were alone in the kitchen after a big dinner at the ranch. Or when they walked the long dirt road to get their mail at the same time.
Lily didn’t know what Ellery had done to keep people in that hospital from blabbing her business all over Maria, but she was going to be eternally grateful for it…and she wouldn’t even feel so guilty if the usually-neutral witch had resorted to some black magic to get it done. Ellery sometimes broke her witch’s code for the good of the family. If Lily’s father had found out about the situation, he would have been raising all kinds of useless hell for weeks.
Lance angled the truck into an RV slot that had a pretty decent view of the beach down below and was a fifteen-second walk from the toilets. He pulled up the parking brake and killed the engine—the heater along with it.
The forecast called for a warm November day, and temperatures were supposed to peak in the mid-seventies. Soon enough, she’d shake the chill, but in the meantime, she needed to utilize some advanced-level mind-over-matter skills. That was what she used to do back when she was a dancer and ballet had turned her toenails into mangled, bloody flakes. She could survive cool temperatures for a while. She was stronger than her name let on.
Lance rapped on her window and crooked his thumb toward somewhere or other before he disappeared.
That kind of coldness? That, she wasn’t so sure she could endure.
Lance walked to the mouth of the nearby hiking trail. He put his phone to his ear as he looked back at the truck and camper. Lily still hadn’t gotten out, but if she wanted to be difficult and petulant, he wasn’t going to sweat it. He wasn’t going to force her out into the open, and he figured she’d eventually figure that out. According to their soon-to-be-worthless marriage license, he had a good ten years on her, but she wasn’t unintelligent. At least, not unintelligent for a human, anyway. There were certain instincts she would simply never have.
“Ah, Mr. Aitkenson,” Blue muttered into his phone. “I do so enjoy you calling me before I’ve waked enough to rub the damn crust out of my eyes.”
Lance snorted and leaned against the trail post. Although he was trying to affect a casual stance, in truth, he was always on alert. That was a hazard of being a dominant Coyote’s longtime bruiser, and Lance had no qualms about what he was. He was only good at four things, in his estimation—neutralizing threats with his fists, flying planes, fucking, and running his mouth.
Ugly-ass rug, at that. The wildly patterned thing looked like it’d been salvaged from a carnival funhouse. He shuddered.
“Why are you still asleep?” he asked Blue. “Not like you to be in bed now.” His alpha never slept the day away. Too much shit to do keeping the Coyote pack in order and keeping tabs on his multitude of investments. His family was going to double in size in a few months, so he had extra incentive to get his proverbial ducks in a row.
“Willa and I had a surprise visit from the Goddess of the Hunt last night,” Blue grumbled. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m always gracious about Artemis popping in to visit her niece, but I think she’s getting vicariously broody and her visits aren’t the short chats they were a few months ago.”
“She doesn’t have kids of her own, right?”
“Not a single one in her thousands of years.”
Lance whistled low. “Then you’ll probably be getting even more of those unsanctioned visits after Willa has the babies.”
Lance didn’t necessarily think that was a bad thing. Having Artemis around meant that Willa, Blue’s wife and a demigoddess with no significant magical abilities of her own, would be easier to protect. Nothing got past Artemis.
“You’re probably right, but I don’t have to like it, you know?” Blue said through a yawn. “Anyway, I’ve gotten so I can’t sleep unless I’ve got a leg slung over Willa. Didn’t get to bed until around two. Getting too old for that shit.”
Knowing Blue’s precise age, Lance chose to hold his tongue on that one because he wasn’t that far behind him. He didn’t like the term “middle-aged.” That implied a certain expiration date, and as far as he was concerned, it was fake math.
“Anyway, I made it down to Elephant Butte,” Lance said. “Ready to rendezvous with Regina and Gus and escort them into Pack territory.”
“Good. Hopefully, we won’t have any problems getting them in, but who knows? Territory renderings in this state are so out of date that even now, you could be trespassing on some false alpha’s lands.”
Lance had known that was a risk, but he was willing to take it. As far as they knew, there was only one legitimate, registered Coyote pack in New Mexico, but that didn’t mean there weren’t false alphas out there with their dogs looking for threats to their sovereignty. The Maria pack would get the boundaries sorted out eventually, but for the time being, it paid to be cautious.
“Why are you down there so early?” Blue asked.
“Um.” Lance searched for a lie. He could have kicked himself for not anticipating that question.
The lady from the van had stopped shaking the rug and had instead slung it over a rail to beat it with a stick. He knew he shouldn’t form any taste judgments yet. People who liked to camp sometimes hauled around some odd shit. He had some art in his travel trailer that not even a junk dealer would touch. Tacky, but matched the Naugahyde sofa.
“I…got here early just in case Regina’s estimate was off and she had any travel issues,” Lance said in a falsely cavalier tone. “I don’t know what kind of driver she is or how she’s going to adjust to having a young Coyote in the car with her for all that time. They fidget a lot.” He hated lying to his alpha about his decisions. Initially, Lance’s plan had been to leave Maria after the pack meeting later that night, but half the town would have been out then, cruising Main Street and looking for any-damn-thing to do. He’d needed to get Lily out sooner. Fortunately, Blue wasn’t in front of him and couldn’t smell the lie. The less Blue knew about Lily, the better. It wasn’t that he cared so much which ladies his lieutenants took home, but he did care about perceptions. The pack in Maria had a long way to go to undo the PR mess they’d created in the past hundred years. It wasn’t like he could hang out an “Under New Management” sign and expect other local shifters and paranormal sorts to take him at his word. They actually had to behave themselves.
Being impetuous sorts, behaving was hard for Coyotes. Still, Blue was an evolved kind of alpha and expected his Coyotes to keep their noses clean. If he found out Lance had potentially triggered another turf war with the Cougars, he was probably going to dig a hole in his newly landscaped backyard and bury Lance up to his neck until he got bored looking at him.
Lance sucked some air through his teeth and scratched his head through the back opening of his baseball cap. “Any updates on when Regina is supposed to arrive, by the way? She hasn’t contacted me directly.”
The rug lady’s climb back into the van triggered the abrupt liberation of some kind of shorthaired, high-strung dog. The animal looked around with the urgency of a carb addict on a donut bender and then took off like a bolt down the road. Lance stifled a laugh when the lady leaped back out of the van after it. She’d moved so precipitously that one of her sandals flew off her foot. She didn’t stop to put it back on. That waddling run of hers was comic gold.
“What was the problem?” he asked Blue. Lance tried to lock down his focus like the well-trained dog he was, but that effort was shot all to hell yet again because Lily chose that moment to get out of the truck. She was still bundled up in the blanket as though she were braving a trek through the Arctic wilderness and not a campsite equipped with water and electric hookups. She looked not at him, but in the direction the dog and the lady had sprinted to. If he’d been any less surprised, he wouldn’t have a pulse. She never looked at him. The little snob thought he was a waste of good organic material.
“She was having a hard time establishing her legal right to take the kid,” Blue said, drawing Lance’s attention back to his real reason for being there. “Didn’t have a lot of paperwork to show the caseworker. Too typical of Coyote kids coming out of small, disordered packs like his, though. Regina didn’t even know Gus existed until about six months ago. Her daughter had mailed her a confessional letter right before she passed and said to find Gus and put him in a pack. The daughter mentioned the only alpha’s name she could think of, which was Shapely. Fortunately, the query got forwarded to me and not to my father. Poor lady, getting thrown so slapdash into the paranormal shit like this. She hadn’t heard from her daughter in fifteen years before that letter. The daughter had run away from home with a bunch of bikers. Got turned into a Coyote by one, I guess.”
“Okay, well, distracted is putting things mildly. You don’t have to hang lace curtains around a pigsty for my sake.”
Back in May, Blue had been in the process of trying to put the brakes on the arranged marriage his father had coordinated for him. Randall Shapely was the kind of alpha who’d sell his soul for a diamond pinky ring. He didn’t give a damn about Blue’s desires. At the same time Blue had been trying to disentangle himself from his father, he’d been tasked with meeting the Maria Cougar alpha’s deadline for getting the Coyotes shaped up. The Coyotes under past alphas had squandered all the goodwill they’d had with the town’s other magic groups and the town had been fed up with their drunken antics. Blue’s options had been to get them square or get them shipped out.
Lance had been doing everything in his power to support Blue in the former so that they—along with Lance’s cousin Kenny, and Blue’s sister Diana—didn’t have to return to the Coyote hellhole known as Sparks, Nevada. It wasn’t like they could create a whole new pack somewhere else. Shit didn’t work that way. Territories had been carved out during the western expansion, and they had to respect the boundaries, even if sometimes, they seemed to be the only ones so hell-bent on following those archaic rules.
“Anyhow, we’ll get it all sorted out,” Blue said through another yawn. “Regina doesn’t know shit about Coyotes or shapeshifters in general, but she wanted to make sure Gus was around some before he started puberty.”
“Probably not how she wanted to spend her retirement. Packing up her life and moving to a new state with a culture she doesn’t know?” Lance gave his head a shake of awe. “Poor broad.”
“She’s doing what she’s gotta. I bet any of us would do the same.”
“Yeah. Probably.” Coyotes didn’t like to give up children. They were possessive when it came to kids, even the ones who weren’t technically theirs. “Finders keepers” didn’t always align so well with state and federal laws.
Another lady emerged from the van and looked in the direction the younger woman and the dog had gone.
Blue had started chatting with someone in his house, so Lance watched the spectacle in front of him with keen interest.
The lady turned her hands over in one of those “But why?” gestures.
Laughing and adjusting her blanket so she looked less mummy and more Statue of Liberty, Lily moved toward the stranger, chatting and smiling.
He growled softly.
That snobby little fraud could make conversation with a brick wall and have it talk back, but she and he didn’t really talk. They didn’t have anything in common except for a fondness for mescal, and mescal was what had gotten them in trouble in the first place. Mescal had told him, “Go ’head. Fuck the Cougar alpha’s cousin. Nobody has to know.”
He scoffed and gave his head a hard shake. Never in his life had he fallen for such a trap before. He couldn’t believe he’d opened his mouth to suggest they get married. Marriage hadn’t even been in his twenty-year plan, but there was a baby, and then there was no baby. He couldn’t blame Lily for that, though. He blamed himself for touching her in the first place. Coyote and booze had never been a winning combination.
“You all right?” Blue asked. He sounded a little more wakeful now that he’d finished his side conversation.
“All right. Keep your phone charged. I’ll touch base in a couple of hours.”
“Will do.” Lance disconnected.
The woman Lily had been conversing with took a space-eating step toward her. She was in her bubble, peering at something on the back of Lily’s neck, and Lily just let her. She was showing off her lack of personal safety instincts again. If a stranger had gotten that close to Lance, they’d crawl away missing a bite-shaped chunk. Wasn’t his business, though. If she wanted to make nice-nice with a gropey stranger, that was on her.
He put his back to the scene and attempted to tactically assess his surroundings, but he was too damned curious. Even with his superior hearing, he couldn’t make out what Lily was saying. He turned back around so he could read her lips. Her forehead was creased and lips turned down into a pout, but she didn’t look distressed. She rubbed her neck and murmured something to the woman who then grabbed her wrist.
Hands off, lady, the coyote part of him thought.
She’d touched Lily, and that got Lance moving. There was only so much “wait and see” a Coyote could do, and in spite of their tenuous association at the moment, he was still the ultimate steward of her safety. He probably wouldn’t have to worry about Blue putting him in a hole if anything happened to Lily. The Cougar alpha Mason Foye would get to Lance first. The man made high-end furniture for a living and owned a lot of powerful drills, saws, and clamps. He also had access to thousands of acres of ranchland that he could “misplace” a Coyote on.
The stranger’s head swiveled toward Lance with robotic alacrity and her gaze immediately focused. Too late he heard the hiss and saw her pupils shrink and fangs descend.
“Shit!” he shouted.
He tried to get to the open passenger door, but he was being swarmed by a mob of women who all had shifter energy. They’d seemed to come out of nowhere. He was used to having his attention divided—he couldn’t have been so effective as one of Blue’s lieutenants if he hadn’t had experience staving off threats from multiple directions—but in the past, what he was dealing with had always made sense.
Something was off. He knew Cougars. Lily was a blood relative to a whole passel of them. The shifter odor hung heavy around that van and the woman lunging at him, but it wasn’t quite right for the cats he knew.
“Lily?” he called out as the woman’s hands became claws and her mouth opened, ready to strike.
He got his head out of the way barely a split-second before she landed on him. Being substantially heavier than her, he managed to throw her off, but it didn’t matter. There were more of whatever she was behind him. They’d likely come out of the van. There were two, maybe three of them. Wicked stealth.
He couldn’t see her. He could barely make out the sound of her voice over the percussive thrashing of his beating heart in his ears. If they hurt her, heads were going to roll. He knew how to wing it when he had to.
“Te mueves, te mueres,” one of the women said.
“What?” He knew approximately ten words of Spanish, and many of those were types of liquor. “Lily?”
“Don’t move,” Lily called out from inside the van. “Just don’t move. I’m fine.”
“I can’t see you,” he said.
“Yes, um…I think there’s been a misunderstanding.”
“Yeah, well—” That sharp thing poking into his neck dug in a little deeper and Lance recoiled reflexively. “Would you get the hell off me?” he shouted at them.
Their grips tightened, the points got sharper.
Still, Lance was going to put up a fight because sitting ducks tended to become roasted ones. “‘Misunderstanding’ might the understatement of the year, shortcake.” He gave his wrists another yank to one side and then the other to pry himself a bit of breathing room. Their energy was suffocating and he needed space.
That dog that had bolted away earlier jangled past, tongue lolling, and parked its rump by the van’s front wheel. It looked from Lance to the open door, to Lance again, and then proceeded to lick itself.
Lance didn’t know whether to laugh at the ridiculousness of the situation or scream.
“Muévete.” The sharp thing at his neck dug in and Lance opted to save the fight for later. Picking up a kid and his grandma and figuring out how to file for a damn divorce were the only two things on his agenda for the day. Bleeding to death wasn’t anywhere on that list.
His wrists were bound with something sharp and digging, and his feet were tied to the bottom of his seat. He wondered if his innumerable sins had caught up to him and if he was going to meet his reckoning at the hands of some funny-smelling cat shifters.
It didn’t seem a glorious way to die. Seemed kinda like hell, actually.