Monterey was a nice place, Monica decided. All the houses were simple, well-manicured, and quiet. Homeowners stood in their front yards with hoses in hands, spraying their rose bushes and creating rainbow arcs in the air. There were shiny new cars parked in the driveways, right beside old muscle cars brought out for the summer season.
Monica felt out of place.
The knees of her jeans were stained, a combination of dirt, grass, and motor oil from having to change her car’s oil by herself. Life in Salinas was much cheaper than this coastal town. No matter how pretty a place was, she was grateful that her rent was moderately low.
After double checking the number on the front of the house, she found a small path to the right and followed it toward the back. It opened up to a small, brick patio. There were potted succulents beneath baby trees and, on the other side of a chain-link fence, there was a hill that led into a local park.
Each step begged Monica to turn around. She didn’t belong here. She didn’t need what she’d come for. But, she did. All the years she’d spent by Oscar Torres’ side, he’d never noticed her presence. They were meant for one another; she knew it in her soul. All he needed was a bit of prodding.
That was how Monica found herself in Monterey, with a favor to be cashed in.
Nessa appeared before Monica could knock. The kitty-shifter was short compared to Monica, bouncing toward the French doors in her hemmed skirt and cardigan. Reflexively, Monica looked for telltale bruises around Nessa’s neck from the shifter that’d held her by the scruff the day of the fight, but it had been long enough for the bruises to heal. Lia and her mate were living a happy life on the Monterey coast.
“I didn’t think I’d see you back here so soon,” Nessa said. “Not after I… well, not after I gave away private information.”
Monica smiled. She felt her teeth grinding together, like a predator already imagining their prey as a snack, as she entered and sank into a seat across from Nessa’s desk. She curled her fingers into the arm of the chair, nails digging into the wood. “That’s actually what I came to talk about.”
Nessa went as white as a sheet. She began throwing out other options, discounts, anything that would keep her record of perfect matches from flopping again. From what Monica had heard, Miles had destroyed that record. It only made sense that she was looking to salvage it. And, Monica wanted to cash in on that desperation.
It was cruel, but it was also calculated. Monica had risked her neck to help Nessa’s adopted sister, Lia, get her sealskin back from Nikolai Wilder. It’d been a big task.
“That’s what I wanted to talk about. Before you get ahead of yourself, I should let you know that I’m not pulling my profile.” Monica met Nessa’s gaze and held it. She waited for the kitty-shifter to submit and look away, but Nessa wasn’t Pack and seemed stupidly fearless.
Monica looked over the room, at the paper hearts on the wall, at the photos of smiling idiots. They’d all settled for the first person Nessa had shoved into their lives. All save for Lia and Miles, but even they had settled. Monica suspected it’d been because of Lia’s predicament among the Alphas.
Monica wasn’t going to settle. She knew exactly who she was meant for and she was going to make Nessa help her.
“After seeing how happy Miles and Lia are, I wanted to see what ideas you had for my profile.” Monica offered a smile that she hoped wasn’t too predatorial. She even pulled her teeth apart to hush the grinding sound. “I’d love to see how you do it.”
Nessa raised a brow. When she looked down at the mess of folders across her desk, her brows folded in concern. “I haven’t started work on your profile yet. If you want, we could look over a few male profiles together. Your preference is male, right?”
Monica nodded. “I don’t mind either sex, but I was looking for a male mate.”
Nessa nodded and spun in her chair. She scooted the desk chair closer to a stack of filing cabinets. After a bit of yanking, grunting, and the sound of metal on metal, the cabinet slid open and Nessa let out a triumphant sound. With a handful of folders on her lap, she kicked off the cabinets and rolled back to the desk—all the while the wheels of her chair clicking over the bumps in the tile.
“I have a small number of males from your own pack. It seems that the rest of them are happy acting like Miles used to.” Nessa grimaced at her own words.
Monica could see the romantic in the matchmaker. It was painted all over her walls, in hearts and happy faces, it was in her eyes, filled with hope and dreams. Monica wasn’t so foolish. She knew love had to be earned. She’d been working on it since the day she’d met Oscar. If anyone in their Pack deserved his love, the place at his side, it was her.
She reached into the messenger bag at her side and fingered the fake file she’d brought. All she had to do was distract Nessa—just long enough to get the file onto her desk. Then, once it was there, Monica could suggest it.
Biting the inside of her cheek, she glanced around, looking for anything to use against Nessa. It was tricky, she realized, but how else would she get Oscar’s attention? For eight years, he’d overlooked her. Now, she would put him in a position where he couldn’t ignore her.
Finally, Monica caught sight of a water fountain. It was a tiny, gurgling thing that could be bought at any box store. She lifted from her seat, messenger bag still slung over her shoulder, and moved toward it as if she were enthralled by it. It was ugly and annoying, if she was to be honest.
“This is darling!” Monica exclaimed while trying to find a way to tip it over accidentally. She plucked at the little wooden slide that tipped water into the basin. It flicked water in every direction.
Pretending the be surprised at the spray, Monica leapt back. She made sure her foot was caught in the cord and the whole thing flew through the air. Nessa shouted with alarm. Her cat-like reflexes allowed her to catch it, but not before the damage had been done. Water sprayed in every direction. It slapped photos and hit Nessa in the face.
Nessa looked down in dismay. She cut a sidelong glance at Monica, but Monica only shrugged apologetically. The small woman let out a hrmpf sound and set about cleaning up the mess Monica made. While she was distracted with the water, Monica slid the folder out of her bag and onto the desk.
Her heart gave a small flutter. This could work, she thought to herself. All she needed now was Nessa to set up a date with him. Monica would wear her shortest dress, maybe even some false eyelashes. She’d deck herself out in her best and show him exactly what she could be.
Nessa returned from cleaning Monica’s mess, her brows low over her eyes and a thin smile on her lips. She was clearly annoyed. Cats really didn’t like water, did they? Monica realized she would have to tread lightly from here on out. If she pushed Nessa too far, Nessa could refuse her altogether.
The idea of being cast out shattered Monica’s plan. She would have to go back to trying to get Oscar’s attention the old-fashioned way—the way that hadn’t been working. Monica straightened and leaned back in her chair. She folded her hands in her lap, trying to ignore the way her heart hammered.
“Now that that’s over, shall we look at options?” Nessa raised a brow, as if challenging Monica to get out of her seat again.
Monica smiled and nodded.
They went through folder after folder after Nessa shuffled them. Monica recognized most of the faces, frowning while she thought of them. Jorge liked threesomes a bit too much for Monica’s taste—and with other men. Even if she hadn’t been aiming for Oscar, she wouldn’t have wanted to share her mate with other men. Then, there was Red. From the screams that came from his house, she could guess at what he liked in the bedroom and Monica was not about that kind of love-making.
Finally, they came upon Oscar’s faked profile. Nessa’s brows came together, and she glanced back at the file cabinets. “I don’t remember grabbing Torres.”
Monica almost slipped up, asking if he’d actually come to Nessa before. She snapped her mouth shut almost as quickly as she’s opened it, trying to hide her reaction behind a smile. Her teeth were grinding again. She wanted this. She needed this.
“I wouldn’t mind a date with him,” Monica said, trying to keep her voice level. Fear and excitement rocketed through her. This could work. It could happen.
Nessa’s lips pursed and twisted. Monica could tell from the way she looked between her and the folder that Nessa wasn’t convinced. Monica tried to keep an even smile on her face, a neutral look in her eyes. Was she doing it right? Was it convincing?
Nessa sighed and set the folder in the maybe pile. It wasn’t what Monica wanted, but it was close. When she looked back to Nessa, the kitty-shifter was watching her with a keen eye.
Nessa shook her head, the corner of her mouth quirking. She reached for the plastic cup of iced coffee on her coaster and brought it to her mouth.
“You should invest in a reusable cup,” Monica blurted. She was nervous and fumbling now.
Nessa looked to her cup and back to Monica before shrugging. “I guess you’re right. It’s too easy to rely on plastic. Horrid for the environment, I know.”
Monica opened her mouth, the truth almost slipping out. There was a false sense of friendship between them. The air had gone soft and Monica’s jaw had relaxed, but she couldn’t let Nessa know what she was doing. Nessa wouldn’t understand. She would chuck the fake profile folder into the trash and probably try to set her up on a date with Jorge.
No one wanted Jorge.
“Thanks for your patience,” Monica said when she shot up from her seat.
She was halfway to the French doors when Nessa stopped her. The air of familiarity gripped Monica when she looked over her shoulder. Nessa smiled softly, hopefully.
“Miles and Lia are having another cookout on the beach. You’re invited if you want to stop by. I’m bringing sushi.”
Of course, the cat and the seal would eat sushi.
Monica nodded and left. She raced up the small path between fence and house, her heart beating wildly. Nessa’s extended invitation had pierced her and released a wealth of guilt. She knew she was fooling Nessa, screwing with the shifter’s business, but she had to tell herself it was okay. This was the only way to get what she’d wanted for so long.
Nessa wasn’t really her friend, anyway. Monica didn’t have many friends, and she told herself she didn’t need them. The path toward being Oscar’s mate didn’t make room for friends. Other women always thought she was too harsh, too brutal.
At her car, Monica closed her eyes and sucked in a deep breath. She forced her teeth to unclench and reached for the door handle. This would work. She would have Oscar’s attention once and for all.
The hills of California rolled in every direction. Nikolai let out a soft sigh at the sight of them, spring green and gentle. Cows nibbled here and there. The smell of garlic filled the air from the nearby Gilroy farms. This was his home and he loved it.
His father, on the other hand, had not been so convinced. He’d been determined to spread his influence to the coast, claiming as much of California as he could while he’d been alive. Of course, the old man died in his mission, but that didn’t mean his mission died.
Instead, it fell upon Nikolai’s shoulders. Every step he took was weighted with his father’s last request, that their Pack should live upon the coast and watch the sweeping tides each morning. Too bad Nikolai failed. He’d been close, too. The sealskin had been in his grasp. He hadn’t even wanted the woman that’d come with it, prepared to let her run wild and free as long as she gave him what he needed.
Then, the damn selkie had dropped chaos into his life. He guessed it was only fair after what he’d done, but it destroyed everything he worked so hard for. His Pack now looked at him as if he’d cut the strings of their dreams himself. They didn’t blame the selkie. No, she was only a bystander in this, according to them.
Nikolai was the failure.
He bared his teeth at those who openly shook their heads. He challenged those who thought they could open their mouths in opposition. Every day since Lia’s chaos was a battle. It was a battle keeping his Pack in order, a battle keeping his head above the waves she cherished.
Today, he was helping a Packmate fix a broken fence. He pushed and lifted the heavy logs into place as if they were made of feathers. Another shifter lowered the crossbeams into place, sliding them into the notch they’d carved earlier.
The shifters, his shifters, avoided his gaze. They looked everywhere else but him, avoiding the ground as if they refused to lower their gazes as well. He almost snarled. A shifter pressed past him, their shoulders slamming into each other. This time, Nikolai did snarl. He whipped around, the sound rumbling from him.
The shifter who’d hit him didn’t back down. Cassidy Newman stepped up to Nikolai, a snarl on his own lips.
“Back down, Cass.” Nikolai drew himself to his full height. It was a staggering difference, nearly five inches over Cassidy, but the man didn’t budge.
Cassidy glared, his eyes flat and hard. His lips twitched, as if caught between foul words and guttural growls. Nikolai could see the hunger for growth, for power, in Cassidy’s every movement. Frankly, Nikolai was sick of his packmates’ crap.
Nikolai wasted no time. His fist whistled through the air before landing with a loud thud. Cassidy staggered back, but Nikolai didn’t give him room to breathe. As Cassidy fumbled, Nikolai pounced on him. They fell to the ground together, rolling in freshly turned earth. Not long ago, Nikolai had been bested by another bear.
With each strike, he could feel the press of Miles’s paws in his back. He could feel the touch of Caz’s boot. It drove him, fueling the force of his punches until Cassidy lay on the ground. His face was swollen pulp, blood trickling down his temple. Nikolai extracted himself, wiped his hands of blood and dirt, and walked away.
Without another word, he lifted another post and slammed it into the ground. They’d come to help a packmate, not to fight over power and lost territory. Later, Nikolai would buy Cassidy a sack of burgers and an extra-large milkshake, but for now he let the shifter lick his own wounds.
Regina groaned, loud and dramatic. Nikolai cut a sidelong gaze at her, a silent warning meeting her sad eyes. She’d failed her job, too. He even suspected that she’d been the one to tell Lia about the sealskin. Her betrayal, putting fellow women over packmates confused him. Regina should have been bound to his will, to obey him, but she’d responded faster to Lia’s plight.
There were days when he debated taking her for a mate. She was attractive, her hair the color of a bloody sunset and her curves the kind of shape burlesque dancers contort themselves for, but he knew it would have no love. Regina wanted more than he could give.
She wanted a heart when Nikolai was sure he had none.
He was setting a third post when his phone rang. The vibration buzzed across his leg, annoying him until he finally took it out. The number on his screen surprised him. After the chaos of Lia’s attack, he never thought he’d see that number.
Finally, he lifted it to his ear. “What can I do for you?”