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For the Hope of a Crow (Red Dead Mayhem Book 1) by T. S. Joyce (1)

 

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The sound of a gun being cocked jolted Ramsey Hunt from deep sleep.

On instinct, he reached for the Glock he kept on the nightstand, but when he stretched out his fingertips, they weren’t fingers at all, but feathers. And the gun he’d heard was staring him straight in the face. The only thing that moved was his pounding heart.

He wasn’t in bed at all, but in the woods. No…he was in Two Claws Woods, and the man holding the handgun to his face was none other than the Alpha of the New Darby Clan, Kurt. Behind him, Ten stood shivering in her human skin, an oversize T-shirt wrapped tight around her. It wasn’t that cold, though.

“You said you would leave me alone,” she murmured, her shaking voice matching her body. Shit. She sounded scared.

“Caw!” Fuck, he couldn’t explain in this form, but a Change would mean standing naked in front of a loaded weapon while hoping Kurt didn’t pull that trigger and paint the mud with his brain matter. Already, the dark-haired man was snarling a feral sound, and his eyes were glowing light silver.

Ramsey backed away, wings tucked tightly to his side so he looked smaller, never taking his eyes off the barrel of that weapon. The grass underfoot tickled, and the breeze was warm where it lifted his feathers the wrong way. Summer had come to Montana, but his blood stayed chilled all the time.

Kurt lowered the weapon, and for an instant, Ramsey felt relief. Mercy. Kurt was granting him mercy. Or so he thought until the jackass pulled the trigger and blasted a shot at the ground by Ramsey’s talons. Pain sliced against his hip, burning red hot. Fuckin’ mountain lion. He’d shot too close. Didn’t he know anything about ricochet? From the feral smile on Kurt’s face, he didn’t care.

Ramsey beat his wings against the hot wind and lifted into the air. And just as he turned to leave these awful woods, he caught a glimpse of Tenlee’s face. She looked like she was about to cry. She looked sad that he was even here. While Ramsey…Ramsey…he was only sad she couldn’t see him like he saw her—worthy.

He left them behind and flew up, up until it was only him and the stars and the moon, and the rest of the world was far below. Warmth trickled from where the bullet had grazed his underbelly, but he couldn’t bring himself to overly care. If he died, he died. There were worse ways to go than bleeding out mid-air and falling to the earth.

He was going crazy.

Ramsey flew faster, over the night lights of the small town of Darby. He was going crazy because his mate had chosen another, and his crow would never be able to cope with the loss. This is what happened to shifters like him. To shifters who mated for life. To shifters who bonded to someone who didn’t bond to them back. They got worse and worse and worse until they couldn’t even see straight, and then they made mistakes that got them killed.

Only Ramsey wasn’t the only one at risk. He was Alpha of Red Dead Mayhem. He had an entire murder of crows bonded to him, propping him up, and when he fell, he would take them with him.

They would all go crazy because of him.

Because he hadn’t been able to keep the mate his crow had chosen.

A broken mating bond started out as sleepwalking. He had been waking up all over the small town of Corvallis. And then it had progressed to Darby, a ten-minute flight away. Now, apparently, his crow was suicidal because he was fine sitting in front of a damn pistol in the hand of a mountain lion shifter. Volatile creatures, those.

The lights of Corvallis appeared below him, so he dipped down, gliding easily on the warm wind currents. He could make out the clubhouse for his MC, Red Dead Mayhem. They’d weeded out the surrounding businesses one shop owner at a time. Crows were territorial. They’d bullied and pestered until the small businesses directly around them had folded. A dick-move, sure, but secretly, he’d been sending business to their new shops and throwing money at them, too. It wasn’t like he didn’t respect small business. Crows just didn’t like humans too close, and especially not near a clubhouse. The deeds of crows weren’t always for the good of society.

The large wooden sign for the clubhouse didn’t state the MC’s name. Instead, it just had a red painting of a crow with paint dripping down. Ethan Blackwood, his Second, had made it when they’d first bought the place. If he had he been born human, he could’ve had a promising career selling his paintings in studios. But he was born a crow, with a monstrous bloodline, and crows had rebel blood, so mostly he just did graffiti art around the cities they visited. The art always depicted crows. Ethan was more territorial than most. He was also having the hardest time with Ramsey’s order not to murder the entire Two Claws Clan and force Tenlee back here.

Ramsey needed to keep his shit together. Ethan would come for his Alpha rank soon. And the Clan would back Ethan because everyone knew what was coming for Ramsey—insanity.

He dipped toward the parking lot behind the club and spread his wings, angling his body to slow himself. And right before he landed on the ground, he Changed, just like he’d done a thousand times before.

A few of the MC were sitting on an old bench near the row of motorcycles out front, but they stopped talking when they saw Ramsey. God, he hated this. The Clan had gone to hell since the war with Two Claws. “The fuck are you looking at?” he barked at Trey, the most dominant of the three.

“Nothing, Alpha,” Trey murmured, but his eyes were the pitch black of his crow, and there was a smirk on his lips.

Asshole was cruising for an ass-whoopin. It had been two days since a good fight, and Crazy Ramsey was due.

But first, he needed something to dull the pain in his head, his body…and his heart. Fuck. Tenlee had messed everything up. She had no idea what she’d done, what destruction she had caused.

She had doomed Ramsey.

Rike was behind the bar. Thank God, because Ramsey couldn’t deal with Ethan’s shit tonight.

The dark-haired, tatted-up giant dragged his attention from a couple of Crow Chasers to Ramsey. “’Scuse me, ladies, I’ll be right back.” He twitched his chin toward the end of the bar. “A word?” he asked Ramsey.

“Not tonight, Rike. Give me the good stuff.”

Rike looked down at Ramsey’s hand that was shaking. Ramsey followed his gaze and clenched his fist to cover it up. “We got a fuckin’ problem? Whiskey. That’s the only words you get tonight.”

“Where were you?”

“Where I wanted to be,” Ramsey lied in a growl. He sidled the counter and yanked an unopened bottle of Jameson from the cabinet, then strode toward the stairs. “Meeting in the morning.”

“You actually gonna show up to this one?”

“What did you say?” Ramsey yelled, rounding on his Third.

Rike looked around as everyone dipped to silence. Swallowing hard, Rike tucked his chin to his chest and angled his head. Even crows knew submission. He cleared his throat then said, “You called a meeting tonight.”

Ramsey felt like someone had socked him in the face with iron knuckles. “What?”

“You called a meeting. It’s why everyone is at the clubhouse. We waited a couple hours, but you never showed.”

Ramsey parted his lips to call him a motherfuckin’ liar, but it sounded familiar. Had he? Had he called a meeting? And then sleepwalked through it?

Ramsey clenched his shaking hands harder. “Meeting is rescheduled for tomorrow morning. Something came up tonight.”

There was pity in Rike’s eyes. Pity. Of all the emotions a crow could show, Ramsey hated pity the most. He ripped his attention from the Third, scanned the mess of people crowded around the bar and pool tables, then turned his back on all of them, made his way to the stairs, and got out of their line of sight as fast as possible.

He was still king here, but his crown was slipping.

He took the stairs two at a time until he reached the hallway up top. There were four doors, two on each side—three bedrooms for when the boys were too drunk to ride home and a bathroom. There was also a hidden room that was stacked with money and guns, but that didn’t have a door in the hallway. That one had floor access from the room he walked into at the end.

He didn’t have a home outside of the club. This was it. His room. His life. Or the end of it, at least.

Ramsey popped the top on the bottle and tipped it back, drank until his throat was on fire. He sat down in the chair in the darkest corner of the room. His body just…ached. Chronic pain was enough to send a person over the edge without a broken mating bond. Nothing felt right, and this headache was a year old. It had started when his mate ran away. Ramsey shook his head, trying to dislodge the confusion. “Not my mate,” he growled. “Kurt’s mate.”

Christ, his head hurt. He chugged another eight gulps and slammed the bottle onto the end table. Whiskey spewed out the neck, and he damn near cracked the glass, but he didn’t have a single ounce of give-a-damn in him right now.

His body was humming to Change again. Great. He couldn’t even pass out into unconsciousness to get away from this hell he was living, or he would sleep-fly right back to her.

She was going to have Kurt’s babies.

Ramsey buried his face in his hands. He’d made mistakes. He’d treated her like an object, but it was better than he’d been raised! His father had been a monster to his mom, and Ramsey had tried so hard to be better than him. He’d watched Tenlee in her first Changes out in the woods near Corvallis, struggling with her new, human side. She was an Origin and hadn’t started Changing into a human until she was an adult. He’d watched her out in those woods, scared, alone, crying…and his crow had decided in those hours that she was his to protect. His to save.

Only Tenlee had never needed saving, and so now what did he do? What purpose did his crow have? Ramsey the man ran the biggest Clan of crows in existence and was fulfilled. Ramsey the crow was on a downward spiral that had started with every disgusted look Tenlee had given him when he’d tried to touch her.

His middle felt like it was caving in. With a grunt, he ran his hands through his hair and gripped his neck as hard as he could, just to keep his head from splitting apart.

Creeeeak.

Ramsey jerked his attention to the door. It opened slowly, and in slipped Sabrina. She was a Crow Chaser, as he and the boys called the girls who hung around the club. They all looked the same to Ramsey. Hair color didn’t matter. They all wore dark shimmery make-up around their eyes and bold red lipstick. Leather jackets, black ripped-up jeans, and sky-high heels that looked uncomfortable as fuck. Sabrina smelled like cigarette smoke and hairspray and desperation.

“Rike sent me up for you,” she purred, peeling her leather jacket back from her shoulders. She looked at him directly, daring him to enjoy her slow tease. Sabrina let the jacket slip to the floor and slowly unfastened her jeans. “He says you need something to take your mind off everything, and I got just what you need.”

“An easy pussy?” he deadpanned. “That’s what Rike thinks I need?”

She’d probably practiced that pout in the mirror a dozen times, but it wasn’t going to work on him.

“If I wanted tail, I could get it myself,” he gritted out.

“Yeah, well, you gotta rep to maintain, and you ain’t had tail in a while. Everyone has been paying attention, Ramsey.” Her eyes flashed with fire, and she peeled her shirt over her head. Well, there were her tits, and yeah, she looked hot. Really hot.

Ramsey sighed and sank back in the chair, considering what she’d said. “The boys are keeping up with my sex life?”

“Yep. Can’t you feel it, Ramsey? All eyes are on you. Everyone notices every little thing you do different. You ain’t fucking the girls no more.”

“Because I have a mate.”

“Had. Had a mate, and was she ever really yours? She didn’t even want to be around you. Alpha of Red Dead Mayhem, you had a line of girls ready to do anything you wanted, even that kinky shit, but where were your eyes at? Tenlee, that frigid bitch— Gasp!”

Ramsey’s hand was around her throat before he even knew he had moved from the chair. “Watch your words about Ten.”

Sabrina’s eyes flashed with pleasure. This one liked it rough. “Why?” she gasped out, leaning into his grip with a red-painted smile. “She ain’t one of us. Never was.”

Ramsey snarled but then looked down at her breasts, angry yet strangely turned on. At least there was that. At least his dick was working. He gentled his grip on her throat and pulled her toward him until their cheeks rested against each other. In her ear, he murmured, “You want this? You want an emotionless fuck? No strings? You want me to pound you until you lose yourself?”

“Yes,” she whispered, her voice shaky with need.

Too easy. Too easy, and his heart was still all fucked up over Tenlee. As much as he wished he could do the same thing—get lost—he couldn’t make himself fuck her. She was too easy, and he would wake up even sicker in the head. He didn’t need a helping of guilt piled on top of the mountain of shit he already had to deal with.

Before Tenlee, he would’ve been inside Sabrina already. He could stay detached and have two girls a night. His appetite had grown insatiable, and he’d kept the Chasers happy. And they kept him steady.

Love.

Love ruined everything.

Love had ruined him.

Ruined something as simple as sex.

Ramsey backed away from her so fast Sabrina stumbled forward and caught herself on the edge of the bed.

“Asshole,” she said, grabbing her shirt and jacket from the floor.

“Never pretended to be anything else.”

Sabrina gave him one last fiery glare before she slipped through the door and slammed it closed behind her.

Tomorrow, Ramsey was going to beat Rike’s ass. He wouldn’t feel any guilt about that.

Bloodlust was the only thing that made him feel better anymore.

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