His life sucked, and not in a good way.
At the high-pitched feminine giggles coming from the other side of the bar, Dean Sterling resolutely kept his attention on the beer in his hand. Thirteen of its buddies lined the bar in front of him, but he was no closer to smashed out of his face drunk than when he’d started a couple of hours ago. Pity. He sighed. It would take more than fourteen bottles of weak-assed crap like this to render a werebear even mildly tipsy… like maybe a tanker or three.
Werebears, especially alphas like Dean, didn’t get drunk easily. Like most shifters, their metabolisms ran too fast for alcohol to have much effect, which was a good thing since bears often made really bad drunks. Pissy was not the word. And Dean wasn’t just an alpha, he was an alpha among alphas… a Prime, leader of his clan.
Yet here he was in a grubby little backwater bar trying, and failing, to get smashed out of his face. Over a woman, of all things. But then, when was it ever anything different? Women and taxes, the two great banes of any man’s life.
He tipped his head back, poured what was left in the bottle down his throat then set the empty down next to its fellows. Without a word, Ash, owner and head barman of the Beast Bar, slid another across the bar.
Most customers, even bears from the local clan, Dean’s clan, he would have asked if they’d had enough… but he’d seen the look on Dean’s face often enough to know two things—to not ask questions and to keep the alcohol flowing. Preferably until Dean face-planted through alcohol and sheer exhaustion… which was the only way he got any sleep when this mood was upon him.
Despite all the other noises in the bar, the sound of female giggles and the click of pool balls were all he could hear. Every ounce of his attention was focused on the two women on the other side of the bar.
Correction, one of the two women on the other side of the bar. As an alpha, Dean was as highly sexed as the rest of them, but even he didn’t do multiples, especially when one of the women in question was a mean-assed she-bear. Lilly Braun was an enforcer with the Beauty Clan… Dean’s head enforcer. She made sure everyone toed the line and obeyed the rules.
Even he wouldn’t cross her, especially if she was in a bad mood. Those days he tended to step lightly and find some clan work right the other side of the territory, that or send her out on patrol. She’d like nothing better than to tear him a new one, even if he was Prime. Sometimes he thought, especially because he was Prime. No one was above the law. Not even him. Another sigh hit him and he downed half the new beer in one long swallow.
No, all his attention was on the little human female with Lilly. Kacie Leroy—a pint-sized firecracker of a beauty who had haunted his dreams day and night since he’d figured out the difference between little boys and little girls. Unfortunately, his father, the previous Prime, had chosen that same time to point out the differences between little boy bears and little human girls… And the law said any human that found out about them had to die.
Therein lay the problem. Kacie was human. He was a bear. If he told her what he was, he had to mate her or she had to die. And if he revealed himself as the proverbial monster from legend, he wasn’t sure she’d want anything to do with him.
Dean snorted, almost spraying beer through his nose to cover the bar. “Yeah, right! You’ve met Lilly? If I even try that, she’ll tear me a fucking new one. Several in fact. She wants me to talk to her.”
“Hmmm.” Ash wrinkled his nose, looking over the bar toward the two women in question. Dean’s gaze followed, and for a second he allowed himself the luxury of admiring Kacie’s curvy ass as she bent over to take a shot. Her dark hair was upswept, revealing the sensuous curve of her neck and shoulders as her arm came back. A sharp movement later there was the distinctive click of balls colliding and she caroled in triumph, obviously having gotten one up on her opponent.
Dean shivered as she moved, the little head south of his belt taking them on a fantasy joyride of other ways he’d enjoy that view.
Which was right about the point the two men became aware of Lilly watching them. Her eyes dark with her bear, her expression brooked no argument, stating plainly that both had better find something more interesting to look at if they knew what was good for them… Like the ceiling, or maybe the floor.
“Yeah… See what you mean, Capt’n,” Ash muttered with a shudder. He wasn’t a bear, but a werepanther, and a veteran at that, so he was no slouch. “Wouldn’t like to tangle with that one in a hurry.”
Sliding off the bar stool, he sauntered across the bar. The she-bear watched him every step of the way, her expression unreadable. Even though she was one of his kind, one of his clan, and as a bear owed allegiance to him, Kacie was her friend. More than that, they were best friends and, in some ways, that trumped his claim.
Especially in this.
“You ready to bear up and tell her?” she growled in demand, not bothering to make sure her voice was entirely human now that the only human in the bar was out of the room.
He winced at her comment. He knew what she meant, and she knew he knew what she meant.
Kacie was his fated mate. The one woman in the world meant for him… and she was human. The fates either had a weird ass sense of humor or they were just fucking bitches. Since he and Kacie lived in the same town, and he’d had to watch her growing up… watch her blossom into a beautiful young woman right under his nose, flirt with all the local boys and he couldn’t do a thing about it, he was going with the second option.
Kacie was the most grounded person he knew, one who had no tolerance for “fairy stories” as she called them. She’d rip him a new one and then tell him to fuck off and grow up. If he changed in front of her, the scales would be ripped from her eyes and not in a good way. She was strong… but he’d seen hardened combat veterans lose it when faced with the truth. He didn’t want that for Kacie.
“We’ve been through this. Not happening.” He didn’t stop his bear deepening his voice, a subtle reminder that while they might have been in the middle of a human town, she was still one of his bears. “You two going out tonight?”
She nodded, not bothering to argue. There was no point. Everyone in town knew that the two girls went dancing at the nightclub just out of town on a Friday night. The last Friday of the month, the place would be packed, everyone pouring in from all the towns in the area. Packed with men… human men… men that Kacie might find attractive. And he wanted that, he really did. Or so he told himself. He should want that. Should want her to find a nice safe human man to settle down with.
But fuck that… the growl rose from the pit of his soul, man and bear in perfect agreement.
“Look after her,” he ordered. “Or I’ll have your hide for the lodge wall.”
Two weeks later…
“Seriously? You told Cast-iron Balls Braun you’d have her hide for the wall?” Morgan Jones, master warlock, combat veteran and all round badass, managed to keep a straight face for all of two point four seconds. Then he burst into laughter, tears streaming down his face. “I always said you were fucking suicidal. Or was that just stupid?”
“Screw you, asshole.” Dean chuckled, leaning back in his chair to rub a hand over his short-cropped hair. He and Morgan went way back to their first days in basic, and sometimes he needed the leveler the guy produced on a regular basis.
“Love you too.”
Morgan lounged back and took a sip from the heavy tumbler in his hand. Whiskey, neat. It could be cheap-ass shit or the finest vintage. The warlock didn’t care. All went down the same way. Despite the large amount of alcohol the pair had consumed though, his gaze was sharp and perceptive.
Dean stared right back. “No clue what you mean.”
The warlock rolled his eyes. “Really? You’re going with denial? You do know that’s only a…”
“…river in Egypt.” Dean chuckled. “Yeah, I know.”
He leaned his head back and closed his eyes. He had to talk to someone not a bear and not human, and since Morgan was neither, he was it. “And, yes, I know I’m fucked. Totally. My fated mate is a human and half my clan are freaking elitist who believe we should take over the town and make all humans our slaves. Because shit like that’s really gonna fly in the twenty-first century.”
Morgan emptied his glass. “Always did say you bears were a bit slow on the uptake. Apart from Braun… that girl’s fine as hell.”
Morgan’s expression froze, the look in his eyes somewhere between ‘oh hell no’ and ‘holy crap.’ “Don’t you freaking dare, Sterling, or forget being a bear, I’ll turn you into a frog for a month.”
Dean just gave a little beckoning motion with his fingers. He’d been turned into worse before. Like that time in the ass end of beyond when Morgan had turned the whole section into weasels so they could get behind enemy lines. He hadn’t stopped itching for fucking weeks. Turned out he was allergic to weasel fur.
“Don’t let the door burn you in the ass on the way out.” Dean waved in the direction of the fire. “Should get you a cape and a fancy scar on your forehead.”
Morgan’s answer was to give him a one-fingered salute as he started to chant, drawing magical sigils in the air over the flames.
They both started a little when the shrill ring of a cell phone split the air. Dean frowned and patted his pockets until he located the thing. The number on the screen made him frown. He punched the answer button and lifted it to his ear.
“What the hell, Braun? I told you guys I was busy tonight.”
Even as he spoke, he motioned to Morgan to hold fire. Instantly, the warlock dismissed the transportation spell and waited, gaze and posture ones of alertness.
Icy tendrils of unease wrapped around his spine. Shit, this was not good. He frowned, trying to work out what was going on from the muffled background noises.
Dean’s heart almost stopped. That was Braun’s voice. Who were they moving?
“Hello? Hello? Are you still there?”
“Yeah, I’m here.”
The woman came back, but he could hear the fear in her voice.
“Yeah, it is.”
“Kaitlyn. I need you to tell me what happened.”
It took all his control for Dean to remain calm and not bark orders down the phone. Kait wasn’t one of his bears, so he couldn’t. Besides, she sounded on the edge of hysteria and, in his experience, pushing would just make her shut down. He’d get no useful information out of her. Like what the hell had happened.
Morgan hovered, his expression intent as he waited for information. There were no questions, not yet, they’d worked together too often for that.
“There were men.” She paused and he heard a hint of movement around her. Heavy footsteps. Not female ones, unless they wore hobnail boots. Within a second or so, Kait spoke again. “Men in the alley, waiting for us. They had…they had claws.”
Dean’s heart almost stopped. The three girls—Lilly, Kacie and Kait—had always gone out dancing of a weekend when they were younger. Kait had been away for a few years in the city but the other two had continued the tradition. Now Kait was back, and it appeared she’d slipped right back into the routine.
Bears. They’d been attacked by bears.
“Oh god, there’s so much blood.”
“Prime? It’s Bennett. We got a couple of intruders. Five by the smell of it. They caught Braun and her friends in the alley by the library. One got tagged and it’s bad.”
Fear struck his heart like a lance. He’d heard the phrase used before and always scoffed at it for being too fanciful and flowery. But as he sagged forward, his arms numb with the pain, he realized it absolutely felt like someone had jammed a six-foot spike of metal right through his body. So much so, he actually had to flick a glance over his shoulder to ensure no one had snuck into the room behind him and attacked. The room was empty apart from Morgan and him, so he focused on Bennett’s words.
There was a hesitant pause on the other end of the line and he had to bite back a growl, wanting nothing more than to reach through the phone, grab Bennett and shake some answers out of him. He knew the answer though, in his heart of hearts. He just didn’t want to admit it. Wanted to believe that his fated had stayed home tonight, washing her hair or something, and that Kait and Lilly were out with someone else.
The next words out of Bennett’s mouth shattered his hopes into a thousand pieces.
“Yeah, it’s Kacie Leroy. How did you kn—”
The roar broke free before Dean could stop it; pain, fury and fear pouring straight from his heart and soul. Someone had hurt Kacie. Hurt his fated mate. His delicate, little human mate. His fragile little human mate.
“Get it together, bro,” he heard Morgan saying, the big warlock appearing a thousand miles away through the red-tinge over Dean’s vision. “We can deal with this. You know we can.”
He nodded and forced the primal rage pulsing from the feral parts of his soul down.
“Get her to the lodge,” he ordered, his voice laden with the roughness of his bear trying to break free. All it wanted to do was tear through his human form and race to their mate’s side. Protect her. Kill whoever had hurt her. Then Morgan could bring them back so he could kill the bastards again. And again. And again. Fuck, even centuries wouldn’t be enough for him to slake the fury in his soul.
“Yes, Prime.” Bennett’s voice was level but wary. Dean recognized the tone. It was the sort people used when someone was on the edge and about to lose it totally. It was the same tone he’d been using with Kait Turner mere minutes ago.
“We’re on our way,” Bennett assured him. “Scott went to get a truck…” He paused for a second. “He’s just about here now.”
“My mate’s been hurt.”
It was all he needed to say. All he could say. The thought of anything else was just too much to bear.