Free Read Novels Online Home

Jaguar's Joy (Veteran Shifters, #5) by Chant, Zoe (1)

Misty

Sheriff Misty Dale was pretty tired of getting yelled at by people who needed her help.

“Ma’am,” she said patiently, “I’m just informing you what’s going to happen if your son gets caught doing anything else illegal.”

“You get off my land,” Diane Bigelow shrieked. “You’re harassing us! You arrest my Zeke every other day—”

“No one’s been arrested, ma’am,” Misty repeated for the twentieth time. “Your son and his friend were just detained. We’re dropping him and Ryder off home as a courtesy, because I thought a warning would serve them better than a juvenile record.”

She bit her lip, too late. Sarcasm was never the best route to take with Diane—sure enough, the woman was off on yet another furious rant.

Zeke, meanwhile, smirked at her from where he was slouching against the porch railing. Misty wanted to shake him.

You little idiot, I’m doing you a favor. Your dad’s in jail, you want to end up the same way?

Zeke and Ryder were both the sons of newly-convicted felons—Zeke’s dad, Ryan, had led the local wolf shifter pack, and Ryder’s dad had been a member. The wolves had been into some seriously illegal things, and Misty had caught them in a violent attack on another shifter residence a few months ago.

The case had been airtight, and none of those wolves were seeing the outside of a prison anytime soon. But if Misty wasn’t careful, their kids were going to grow up to be just as much trouble.

The problem was, she didn’t know how to keep it from happening.

Misty had always been pretty good at putting bad guys away. Keeping the troubled kids from becoming bad guys? That was outside of her skill set.

“Have a good day, ma’am,” she said grimly, as Diane’s tirade started picking up some more colorful language.

She turned back to her deputy, Gene, who was too polite and venerable to smirk like Zeke, but who was giving off a pretty amused air. “Let’s get going.”

“You got it, boss,” he said, and they got into their Jeep and pulled away.

Diane was still yelling as they left. And, looking in the rear-view mirror, Misty could’ve sworn she saw Zeke give the retreating car the finger.

She blew out her breath in a sigh. “Gene, you got any advice on how to handle this situation before it stops being funny?”

Gene shook his head, tapping wrinkled fingers on the window. “Those kids are wolves to the bone, boss. You think you can tough-love them out of their blood? It ain’t happening.”

Misty shot him a sharp look. “You know my views on that kind of thinking, Gene.”

He shrugged. “That I do. But that don’t change how things are around here. How they’ve always been.”

Misty ground her teeth. There was no use reciting her lecture on pack dynamics to Gene. Again. He’d heard it, and he wasn’t about to change his mind.

She couldn’t stay silent, though. “There’s got to be a better way.”

Gene just shook his head.

But Misty knew she was right. There had to be a better way. For generations, like shifters had stuck with like. The wolves, the bears, the rodents, the sparrows, and now even the snow leopards, up in Glacier Park. They all closed ranks with their own kind, and God forbid one group angered another.

There could be all-out wars up here in the Montana mountain forests. Misty was determined that she’d see the end of that in her lifetime.

...How she’d accomplish that, though, she didn’t know.

But she was going to figure it out.

***

Ty

“You wanted to see me, sir?”

Ty’s boss Sam turned away from his computer. “That’s right, Ty. Come on in.”

He shut the door behind him and took a seat in front of Sam’s desk. As soon as he sat down, his bones sent out a plea: Let’s stay here a while.

And behind that was the plaintive voice of his jaguar: No, let’s go out. Let’s go run. Away from all the buildings and the computers.

“I imagine you know why I called you in here,” Sam was saying, looking at him over the tops of his glasses, brow furrowed.

Ty sighed. “Yes, sir.”

“How many times have I suggested you take a vacation so far this year?”

“Lost count,” Ty admitted.

“Yes. Me, too. And have you taken any of those vacations?”

“We’re understaffed,” Ty said quietly.

“We are always understaffed. You know what’s worse than understaffed?” Sam gave him a hard look. “Burnt-out social workers. I would far rather have an empty position than have one filled by someone who’s worked themselves to death.”

“I’m fine,” Ty said immediately. Sam, after all, wasn’t a shifter—didn’t even know shifters existed, as far as Ty could tell. He wouldn’t know the lengths to which Ty could push himself, the stress he could take.

But Sam was shaking his head slowly. “You’re sleeping less. You’re starting to get short-tempered—never with the kids, but with your coworkers. You’ve got the beginnings of burnout coming through, Ty, and it’s my job to catch that before it gets critical.”

“I would never neglect this job.” Ty knew his voice had gotten dangerously quiet. Inside his chest, his jaguar growled.

...And that, more than anything, gave him pause.

Sam had caught that something was up, and he gave Ty a long, considering stare. Ty breathed once, twice, and made his jaguar settle down.

“I’ve offered you a promotion to an administrative position,” Sam continued after a minute. “You won’t take it. I am running out of options, here, Ty, and you’re not helping me.”

His jaguar stirred again.

Not our enemy, Ty snapped.

If his jaguar was on such a hair-trigger that it was ready to snarl at a man Ty both liked and respected—a man who, even if Ty disagreed with him, was doing his level best to help...

“So I’m turning a request into an order.” Sam handed him a form. “You’re going on vacation. Two weeks minimum. And you either come back looking like it was a miracle cure, or we’re going to start talking long-term solutions.”

Ty really, really didn’t like the sound of that.

Sam leaned forward. “I’d hate to lose you, Ty,” he said, more gently. “You’re one of the best. You’ve got a touch with kids, and you work the longest hours I’ve ever seen someone sustain for so long. But no one can keep that up forever. And if I’m going to lose you either way, I’d rather it be on our terms, and not on the job’s terms. Got it?”

Ty nodded. “Yes, sir.”

***

“Wow,” said Iris. “Your boss ordered you to take a two-week vacation. Gee, your life is so difficult. I don’t know what I’d do in your place.”

Ty shot his sister a half-hearted glare from where he was slumped on the sofa. “He’s talking like I might lose my job, Iris. It’s a little more serious than a vacation.”

Iris’ gaze softened. “I know, hon. Sorry. I just—maybe this is a good thing?”

Ty’s jaguar growled again. Quit it, Ty admonished. “Giving up my life’s work is a good thing?”

No, Ty. It’s just—you’ve given your life to that job. You never married, you barely date, you just go out into these terrible situations and help people as best you can. No one can do that forever, and no one should let it consume their whole world.”

It was eerily similar to what Sam had been saying. “It’s not my whole world,” Ty objected. “My beloved sister takes up a little part of it. Why do you think I never got married and had my own kids? I had all of yours to help raise.”

Ty’s six nieces and nephews were his pride and joy, and anyone who suggested his job was more important than keeping them healthy and happy would have an angry jaguar to deal with.

Not literally, he added belatedly.

His jaguar was antsier than it had been in a while. Loathe as he was to admit that either his boss or his sister was right, he had been working long hours lately. Taking a break somewhere where he could run free for a while was probably a smart idea.

“My kids are all grown up now,” Iris said pointedly. “You got Rayanne settled into her dorm room yourself just a couple months ago. The nest is empty!” She waved her arms around the house, which was silent and neat, when it had used to be packed to overflowing with kids. “It’s time for the grown-ups to remember what it’s like to have a life.”

“How’re you and Steve handling that?” Ty asked.

“He’s taking me to Hawaii the first two weeks of December,” Iris said smugly.

Ty let his head fall back to the sofa with a thump. He’d always kind of wanted to be the looming, intimidating brother to the man in his sister’s life, but fortunately for them all, Steve was a hardworking, mild-mannered saint who loved Iris like she’d hung the stars in the sky.

So Ty had instead fueled his brotherly instincts into helping out with the kids, because six kids took a lot of time, money, energy, and love.

And now they’d all flown the coop. To mix his shifter metaphors.

Leaving him with nothing to do but work.

And taking away his weekly teach-the-baby-jaguars runs. Time he’d spent in the office instead of taking the hours-long drive out of the LA area into the wilderness where they could shift without being caught.

Maybe Sam and Iris did have a point.

“All right, fine,” he said. “You’ve convinced me.”

“Glad to hear it. What did I convince you of?”

“You’re going to sun yourselves on the beach...”

Iris pointed a spoon at him. “If you’re about to invite yourself along to our romantic getaway, Tyrone Neal, I swear to God—

“I’ll go up north to the mountains,” he laughed, holding up his hands. “Come on. I wouldn’t do that.”

She relaxed a little. “No, you wouldn’t. You were always much more likely to babysit so Steve and I could get some time to ourselves.”

“Glad you remember. Man, who’s going to appreciate me now that my uncle duties are relegated to liking the kids’ Facebook posts?”

“Get out of the Stone Age, old man, they’re all on Twitter now,” Iris said. “Or, probably, they’re all on some app that I’ve never heard of, and they only tell me about their Twitters.”

“So no one appreciates me at all.”

“Guess not.” She grinned.

“Fine. I’ll go up north where my real friends all moved, see if they have a kind word.”

“These are your Marine buddies?” Iris perked up. “You should absolutely go visit them, Ty! I remember when you came back from that wedding you went to last year, it was like you were ten years younger, and all you could talk about was how good it was to see them again.”

Ty didn’t remember it exactly like that. Sure, the wedding had been great. He’d forgotten how solid the connection was between him and the guys. They’d all shifted and gone to run in the enormous craggy forests that surrounded Glacier National Park: him, Cal, Ken, Nate, Carlos, and even their old Major, now-Colonel Hanes. It had been a literal breath of fresh air.

But all he remembered from afterward was falling back into the job like he’d never left. Carlos had even called him up a couple of months ago, asking for advice, and had mentioned Ty coming up to visit—and Ty hadn’t even been able to consider it.

The job had loomed too large, putting out its own gravitational pull. Trying to escape it would’ve been like trying to fly away from the surface of Jupiter.

Except now Jupiter had shot him off into orbit all by itself, and here he was, stalled out in zero-gravity, not sure what to do with his fool self.

“It’s so beautiful up there,” Iris went on. “I’ve seen pictures. Not that you took any when you were there.”

“Too busy looking at things with my real eyes,” Ty said absently. “Okay.” He was decided. “Up north it is.”

“Good.” Iris came over and wrapped him up in a hug. “I think it’ll be wonderful.”

Ty hugged her back. “We’ll see.”

But he had a weird feeling growing inside him. It took him a second to identify it as excitement. When was the last time he’d felt that? He couldn’t remember.

And then, suddenly, he could. It was when he’d received Cal’s wedding invitation.

Well. Maybe this was the right move for a couple of reasons.

***

Misty

It had been a long, hard day. And as the shadows stretched out towards evening, it was shaping up to be even harder.

One final member of Ryan’s wolf pack was still on the loose. Misty knew Eli Haversham had been part of the group that attacked Pauline, Carlos, and their kids at Pauline’s home, but he’d run away before she arrived to arrest everyone. And he’d been in his shifted form the entire time, so Pauline’s witness statement wasn’t going to help in court.

She’d spent the last couple of months collecting evidence on Eli, casually chatting with his neighbors, figuring out his patterns. And today, she was going to catch him with stolen goods, pin him to the electronics store robbery two weeks ago, and finally put him in jail.

Eli had stashed his stuff in an old shed off the road, out of town, and far away from his own run-down house. Misty and Gene had parked far enough away that even shifter hearing wouldn’t catch their Jeep’s engine noise, and were slowly making their way forward on foot.

Misty had to hope Eli was in human form, because as a wolf, he’d likely catch their scents before they were visible. But there was no reason for him to be shifted while handling stolen iPhones, was there?

Hopefully not.

She motioned to Gene with her hand, and quietly, they slipped off the road into the forest. They were both experienced at moving silently through the woods, even in human form.

Unfortunately for them, though, neither of them had shifter forms that would help much with combat: Gene was a raccoon, and Misty—to her occasional frustration—was a deer.

So they were going to need their guns for this, that was all. Hopefully Eli would come quietly. Two people with guns should be enough to stop even a large wolf, but Misty didn’t want to chance it.

They crept up close, behind the shed. Misty caught a flash of movement out of the corner of her eye: there was Eli. He was moving a box from the shed to his truck. As he turned his back, Misty motioned to Gene, and came forward in a couple of quick strides, her gun out.

“Eli Haversham, this is the sheriff! Put your hands above your head!”

Eli froze for the barest of seconds—

And then, in a blur of movement, he was shifting, hurling himself forward.

Misty had been right. This day was only going to get worse.

***

Ty

Ty had forgotten what the scenery around Glacier National Park was truly like.

Thick, dense forests led up to rocky mountain peaks, the stark beauty stretching out in all directions. Fall had hit hard up here, unlike back in LA, where it was still in the eighties. There was a crisp bite to the air, and the leaves had turned yellow, orange, and brilliant red. And just a bit higher in elevation, Ty could see where snowfall had already begun.

His jaguar was yearning to stop the car, get out, and run. Ty had to remind them both sternly that they were meeting up with Carlos, Nate, Ken, Cal, and Colonel Hanes—and all of their mates—and there wasn’t time to gallivant around the countryside.

But he was looking forward to doing some exploration. Soon.

He was reviewing the mental map he’d memorized of the area—some Marine skills really did come in handy, even twenty years later—trying to figure out if the turnoff was still coming or if he’d driven past it without realizing, when he heard the gunshot.

Another Marine instinct kicked in immediately. Ty pulled the car off onto the shoulder, killed the engine, ducked down under the windows’ sight lines, and listened carefully.

Another shot. Just behind him, and away from the road.

For just a moment, Ty hesitated. Was it smart to get involved in some local conflict on his vacation? He had no backup, no knowledge of the terrain, and no idea what he was getting into.

But he wasn’t about to let someone get shot and just drive on by.

He slipped out of the car, closing the door silently behind him, and made his way quickly and carefully through the forest by the side of the road.

Another gunshot. Close this time, and loud. Ty made a tactical decision: he shifted.

His jaguar form was much better able to move invisibly through a forested environment, and also had the advantage of coming with built-in weapons, which was one thing Ty hadn’t thought to pack for his relaxing vacation.

It wasn’t long before his enhanced shifted vision caught sight of the fight.

An older man lay on the ground, motionless, wearing a law enforcement uniform. Not dead—Ty could hear him breathing—but in a bad way. Standing just in front of him, feet planted, was a woman with a sheriff’s badge, pointing a gun at a big gray wolf who was bleeding freely from a wound in its flank, but who didn’t look like it was ready to surrender.

Sure enough, as Ty approached, the woman shouted, “Eli, surrender and come quietly! I don’t want to shoot you again.”

The wolf snarled, gathering itself to leap.

The woman took a deep breath, centering herself to shoot. She clearly wasn’t going to run, even though there was absolutely no guarantee she was going to be able to stop the wolf before it hit her, not with a handgun like that. And if he went for her throat—

No, Ty’s jaguar snarled.

No, Ty agreed, and sprang out from the underbrush to flank the woman.

She spun immediately, pointing her gun at him, and he took the opportunity to come forward so he was between the woman and the wolf.

The wolf, who was suddenly much less sure he wanted to attack.

Ty snarled. The wolf paced backwards a few steps.

The woman had apparently decided to go with Ty as an ally, because she shouted, “You better not run, Eli! I’m not alone out here, and you won’t get far. Come quietly, and no one else has to get hurt.”

The wolf hesitated. Ty took a step forward and snarled again, even more confident that he was on the right side. The woman could easily have shot the wolf again, even killed him, without any argument against self-defense. But instead she’d twice demanded that he surrender without further violence.

Besides, Ty felt—something about her. There was a ring of truth to her voice, a sense of rightness to her body language. She was on the side of good here, he knew it in his heart.

His gut feelings were hardly ever wrong, and he’d never had one as strong as this. It was almost like his center of gravity had shifted, focused on the woman next to him instead of the earth beneath his feet.

The wolf, meanwhile, had apparently decided that she meant business, because he shivered, blurred, and shifted. In the wolf’s place stood a haggard middle-aged man bleeding from his side, who raised his hands and spat out, “Fine. You caught me. You and your friend.”

“I’m the one you’re going to be dealing with from here on out, Eli,” the woman said, coming forward with handcuffs in one hand, her gun still in the other.

That was smart: even wounded, the man was a shifter. He could still have a trick or two up his sleeve. Ty paced slowly behind her, still in jaguar form, his eyes fixed on the man’s hands in case he tried anything else.

But the woman was able to handcuff him without incident. She hauled him over to her vehicle and put him in the backseat, then hurried back to check over the fallen man—her deputy, it must be.

Ty wanted to shift back, ask her if her deputy was all right, if she needed any further help, but he was too aware of the fact that she now had her back to a hostile man, handcuffed or not. He stayed by the Jeep to keep watch.

And by the look she shot over her shoulder at him, she knew exactly what he was doing.

Ty kept his eyes on Eli as she checked her friend over, apparently decided he wasn’t in need of emergency care, and called back to her dispatch with a brief report of the incident. She classified Ty as unexpected local aid, which he found kind of amusing. It was hard to get less local than he was, around here.

“What—” the deputy was saying as he woke up. “Crap. What happened?”

“You got jumped by a wolf, is what happened,” the sheriff responded. “How’re you feeling?”

“Ugh. Sore.”

“He must not have been trying to kill you,” she said thoughtfully. “Probably didn’t want to go away for murdering a cop. You’re lucky, Gene.”

“Don’t feel like it right now.”

“Give it a couple of days. You got smacked around, and you should get that claw gash checked out just in case, but you’ll be fine. Can you stand?”

“Help me,” he grunted, and a minute later, the two of them came into view, the deputy’s arm around the sheriff’s shoulders. The deputy was older than Ty had realized, maybe as much as sixty. How short-staffed was the sheriff’s department around here, that these two were all the available personnel to come after a dangerous shifter like this?

Not, Ty supposed, that you could make an official requisition for a SWAT team based on the fact that your target was a mythical shapeshifting creature. This town was rife with them, from what everyone had told him, but that didn’t mean the rest of the world knew what hid in the remote forests of Montana.

The sheriff got her deputy almost to the car before the man let out a sudden yell. “Good God, Misty, who’s that?”

“That’s our unexpected aid,” said the woman. Misty, Ty supposed. Beautiful name. Misty settled her deputy in the passenger seat of the Jeep, then turned to face him. “You got a name?”

Ty shifted. He watched her look him up—and up; Ty’s human head was a lot higher than his jaguar’s head—and down. “Ty Neal,” he said, keeping his tone light and unthreatening. “Just passing by on my way to visit friends. Heard the gunshots, thought someone might need some help. Are you all right? He didn’t hurt you?”

She gave him a long, assessing stare. Her eyes were a captivating hazel, he couldn’t help but notice, with golden flecks. Her hair was dark brown, pulled back into a severe bun that was clearly designed not to get in the way. It only emphasized the clean lines of her face, a sharp beauty that didn’t depend on makeup or jewelry.

“Sheriff Misty Dale,” she said finally, holding out her hand for a shake. “I’m fine. And I appreciate the help. Mind if I ask who the friends are that you’re visiting?”

Her voice had a suspicious edge to it, and Ty supposed it might be natural to find that offensive, after he’d just helped her out.

But he didn’t: he had to imagine that for a sheriff of a small town, having a total stranger appear from nowhere during a gunfight had to be suspicious as all get-out, no matter whose side the stranger was one.

“I don’t mind at all,” he said easily. “My friends live just down the road: Ken Turner and Nate Sanders. Also well-acquainted with Carlos Gonzalez, Wilson Hanes, and Cal Westland, who’s the head ranger up at Glacier Park.”

Understanding dawned on the woman’s face. “You must be one of their Marine friends.”

“That’s right. Another reason I wanted to help—I have experience with situations like this.”

“Huh.” Her eyes were still assessing, but the suspicion was draining away. She must know the rest of the men—in fact, she had to, given what Ty had heard about the happenings up here lately. Nate and Carlos had both had run-ins with a local wolf pack, full of troublemakers, and Ty knew the law had gotten involved. Ty eyed the wolf in the backseat. Was he one of them?

“Do you want me to come back to the station?” Ty volunteered. “Give a statement?”

Surprise bloomed on her face. She probably didn’t get a lot of people volunteering to come down to the station. “That would make my life easier.”

“Then it’ll be my pleasure.”

That had come out more flirtatious than he’d meant it to—he should put a lid on that. Surely a sheriff wouldn’t appreciate a man hitting on her while she was working at her job.

But she didn’t look angry. Just...a little unmoored.

“Do you need a ride?” she said finally.

Ty shook his head. “My car’s just back there. I can follow you back.”

“Thank you,” she said. “I appreciate this. Mr. Neal.”

“Ty,” he said immediately.

The corner of her mouth quirked up. “Ty.”

***

Misty

Well, the day had certainly taken a weird turn.

There had been several moments there where she hadn’t known whether she and Gene were going to make it through the day alive. She’d been kicking herself for not bringing something heavier-duty than a handgun, sure that Eli was about to make a bid to tear her throat out.

And then a jaguar had melted out of the woods to save her.

Misty didn’t believe in fairy tales, but for a second she’d wondered if it had been some kind of crazy apparition, rather than a real live shifter. It had seemed so impossible.

And then the jaguar had shifted into a huge, gorgeous man who had willingly volunteered to come make a statement at the station, which seemed even more impossible.

Misty didn’t know what to make of it at all.

She drove carefully back, not wanting to jar Gene, and keeping a weather eye on Eli, handcuffed in the backseat, in case he decided that he wanted to try something else after all.

She’d been so sure that the biggest risk was that he’d run. He was demonstrably a coward—he’d run away from the fight at Pauline’s house. But she supposed that he’d felt cornered enough to be desperate.

Although God knew what his endgame had been. Fight the sheriff and her deputy to a standstill, and then...what? Kill them? Run away to Canada?

She supposed if Eli had been better at long-term planning, he probably wouldn’t have ended up in this situation in the first place, though.

Fortunately for everyone, Eli didn’t decide to make a last-minute break during the drive. He stayed slumped in the backseat, looking defeated. Misty might even have felt sorry for him, if he hadn’t attacked an innocent woman and children in their home a couple of months back.

As it was, she had a hard time mustering any sympathy.

Ty Neal followed them all the way back to the station. Misty had half-expected him to disappear on the way—either to realize that he wasn’t actually interested in spending hours detailing every minute detail of an incident he had no personal investment in, or to disappear in a puff of smoke like the benevolent spirit he still half-seemed to her.

But no, he pulled in right behind the Jeep on the street outside of the station, and got out with that same friendly, helpful air around him that he’d had back in the woods. Somehow, it was even more incongruous here in town than it had been at the scene of the crime.

“Hi,” he said to her.

“Hi,” she repeated, feeling a little stupid. “Thanks for coming along.”

His smile broadened. “Happy to help.”

He sounded genuine. In a world of surly, I-didn’t-do-nothing-I-didn’t-see-nothing constituents, Misty almost didn’t know what to do with that.

“Come on, Misty,” Gene said behind her, and she jumped. Somehow, looking at Ty Neal’s smiling face, she’d forgotten all about Gene and Eli in the Jeep behind her.

She cleared her throat. “Right. Follow me.”

Waiting just inside the doors was Betty, a haven of all-business in a sea of weird feelings. Betty didn’t stand for anything coming in the way of proper paperwork and procedure, and Misty blessed her for being there to get everything sorted out, with forty years of administrative police work under her belt.

The procedure was reassuringly boring. Misty sent Gene off to get medical attention, processed Eli, and left Ty with Betty to give his statement.

Though not before she assured him, “I’ll be back when I’ve taken care of all of this,” waving her hand awkwardly to take in Eli and all of his consequences.

Why she felt the need to reassure him, she didn’t know. Maybe because she didn’t like the idea that she might head into the depths of the station to do all the necessary things, and come back to find he had disappeared as mysteriously as he’d come.

But he smiled at her and said, “I’m counting on it.” She left him with a growing warm feeling in her chest, and a strange, solid confidence that he’d be right there waiting for her when she was done.

***

When she had a second, between bouts of paperwork, she picked up her cell phone, hesitated, and then called Pauline Gonzalez.

Pauline was married to Carlos Gonzalez, one of the several Marine veterans who’d moved here recently. Misty had watched the influx with some bemusement, wondering at this enclave of capable over-forty men who’d drifted into town, found something captivating here, and settled down with local mates.

They’d been the ones who had tangled with Eli’s pack, more than once. Misty would’ve been inclined to mark them as troublemakers, but it had been too obviously clear that Eli, Ryan, and their gang had been the ones causing the trouble. These men had just been stepping in the way, between the wolves and innocent women and children, and Misty had to admire them for that.

Even if she was occasionally irritated at what seemed to be a tendency to take the law into their own hands.

Pauline picked up with a friendly, “Misty! Hello, what can I do for you?”

Misty had helped Pauline when Ryan’s pack had attacked her and her family a couple of months ago, and had cooperated in helping her and her mate Carlos get custody of her cousin’s children. Pauline had responded with a level of gratitude that Misty wasn’t sure she deserved for doing her job.

Pauline kept inviting Misty to potlucks and barbecues and family gatherings, too. Generally, Misty was too busy with work to attend, but the invitations kept coming. She’d gone to a quick dinner with just Pauline’s family once, and had been a bit bewildered at the friendly acceptance that Pauline, Carlos, and their three kids had extended.

As sheriff of a town where most people had the mistrustful, insular instincts that shifter packs tended to instill, she wasn’t used to locals being happy to see her. It made her suspicious, even though she knew there wasn’t any reason to be.

“I just wanted to ask you about a witness I’ve got here at the station,” Misty said. “A Ty Neal? He says he’s a friend of yours and Carlos’.”

Pauline drew in an audible breath. “Ty’s at the station? All he said was that he’d been held up and he’d be late! What happened?”

Well, that answered the question of whether Ty was on the level about being Carlos’ friend, Misty supposed.

Not that she’d suspected he was lying. She’d been sure he was telling the truth, in fact, which was strange all by itself. Misty wasn’t a naturally trusting person; her father had raised her to be skeptical of everyone and everything, and she’d taken those lessons to heart.

“He—happened to be driving by while I was arresting a suspect. He stopped to lend a hand, and offered to come back and give a statement,” Misty said, unwilling to tell Pauline exactly who the suspect had been. She probably didn’t want to be reminded of the attack.

Once Eli was safely convicted, maybe then she’d make a point of telling Pauline that he wouldn’t be able to bother her again.

“Oh,” Pauline said, sounding relieved. “Oh, good. I was afraid there’d been some kind of trouble.”

“Not to speak of,” Misty sort-of lied. “Thanks to his being there.”

That was the truth. She was going to have to find a way to thank him. What sort of fruit basket did you send someone for putting himself between you and a charging wolf?

“Well, good. I’ll tell Carlos not to give him a hard time for being late. Thanks for letting us know, Misty.”

Pauline hung up with a cheerful goodbye, leaving Misty looking at the phone bemusedly. She hadn’t really meant the call as a courtesy—she’d been checking up on Ty’s story. But Pauline was too goodhearted to have thought of that.

And anyway, the corroboration hadn’t been necessary. It had only been because she felt such an instinctive trust in the man.

It was just weird.

***

Ty was waiting for her when she came out, just like he’d said he would.

And he wasn’t just waiting for her, he was chatting with Betty, which basically no one ever managed to do. And Betty was smiling. It was uncanny.

When Misty came in, he looked up, his own smile broadening until it threatened to take over his face. “All done?”

“Just about,” she said, trying to keep her tone businesslike. What was it about this man? “I’ll need to read over your statement, just to be sure that our accounts match up.”

“Right here,” Betty said, handing it over.

Misty scanned down the statement, finding to her pleasant non-surprise that it was detailed, coherent, and absolutely accurate as far as she remembered. “Thanks,” she told Ty when she was finished. “We don’t usually get witness statements this thorough.”

“I’m a social worker,” he said. “Trained to observe and report.”

That was a surprise—although, looking at his cheerful, friendly manner, Misty thought it made sense. He seemed like the kind of man who’d be comfortable talking to anyone, no matter where they were in their life, or what struggles they might be dealing with.

“And you’re in town visiting your friends? On vacation?”

He hesitated. “That’s right.”

It was the first time he’d pinged her as less than completely honest. She frowned, and he noticed.

“It’s a sort of a mandatory vacation,” he said, with an air of confession. “My boss kicked me out to get some R and R.”

Misty couldn’t imagine not wanting this smiling, capable man working for you. Maybe his job had some kind of prescribed vacation policy. “A good place for it,” she said finally.

Ty nodded. “It’s beautiful up here. I was here once before, for my friend Cal’s wedding, and I’d never seen scenery like that before.”

“Where are you from?”

“LA. Born and raised.”

Los Angeles might’ve been a foreign country, as far as Misty was concerned. In fact, as close as they were to the Canadian border up here, Los Angeles was probably more foreign than a foreign country.

“Biggest city I’ve ever been to is Missoula,” Misty admitted.

Ty sighed. “Maybe not a bad decision, all around.”

There—she could a see a hint of what he might’ve been showing his boss. There was an air of frustration, of weariness, just barely peeking through.

Then he focused on her again, and it disappeared. “I haven’t spent much time in small towns. Is there a good place to eat around here? I remember there was a diner or something, last time—”

“Oliver’s,” Misty finished. “Yeah, Oliver’s is good. It’s the best place for locals, hardly any tourists.”

“Can we continue this conversation there?” Ty asked, with another one of those compelling grins.

Misty looked over her shoulder. “I’m still on shift—” Which was her only real objection, she realized. She wanted to keep talking.

He waved a hand. “And I’ve got to go tell the guys I didn’t run into a ditch on the way to their house. After you’re done?”

“All right,” Misty found herself saying.

This smile was slower. “Good.”

***

Ty

Ty drove away from the sheriff’s station with a lighter heart than he’d had in a long time.

Which was a strange thing to come on the heels of one of the more violent encounters he’d experienced in the last several years.

But everything had turned out all right, no one had been seriously injured, and he had a—a date? Dinner, at least, with a woman he found fascinating for reasons that he couldn’t quite explain.

It wasn’t just that she was a tough, smart, capable woman. She was all of those things, but as a social worker, Ty worked alongside plenty of tough, smart, capable women. None of them had captured his attention like this.

Misty seemed to have the same quality about her as the air up here in the Montana mountains. She was clean and sharp, like a refreshing wind blowing the fog out of his brain.

A fog that had been there for a while. Just getting away from LA had started to reveal how right Sam had been. It was like he could stand straighter now, breathe more freely, and see past whatever was right in front of his nose.

A vacation was a good idea.

So he felt cheerful as all get-out as he pulled into the driveway of the big, rambling house where Nate and Ken now lived with their mates. A whole crowd piled out to meet him.

“Hey now, hey, one at a time!” he chuckled, shaking hands and dispensing hugs. “Form an orderly line.”

Ken punched him lightly on the shoulder. “Yeah, right. Everyone’s got to come get a look at the weird specimen—the last lone holdout, insisting on living down in the big city.”

“Hey, my family’s down there,” Ty defended himself, letting the group herd him into the house. This was the first time he’d seen it, and it was like a charming old labyrinth. They all ended up in a room that looked like it was about a hundred years old, full of old books and a table that looked like a lady had used it to write her letters or something.

“So are you tired from the trip? Do you want to take some time for yourself?” asked Pauline, Carlos’ mate.

The two of them had ended up with three kids right off the bat, relatives of Pauline’s. The oldest one was a teenager, Ty knew, and he didn’t seem to be here, but there was a little boy playing with Hot Wheels in the corner, and a toddler girl peeking out from behind Pauline’s chair. Ty grinned down at her.

“I’m ready for anything. Although I’ve got a date tonight.”

He was anticipating a very satisfying reaction to that, and he wasn’t disappointed. Ken burst out laughing, Carlos raised his eyebrows, and Nate leaned forward and said, “You have a what now?”

“A date,” Ty said, mock-innocent. “Surely you haven’t all been settled old men for long enough that you’ve forgotten what a date is.” He glanced at Stella, Nate’s mate. “Does he never take you on dates?”

She laughed, bright and silvery. “Once in a while.”

Nate caught her hand. “Excuse me, I seem to recall taking you to Marrakesh not too long ago.”

Ty blinked. “Well, I’m just going to that diner, Oliver’s. I didn’t realize the game around here was so impressive.”

“Ignore him,” Stella said, although she had a pleased smile and a blush lingering on her cheekbones. “Who are you going to Oliver’s with? Who have you even had time to meet since you got here?”

Oh,” Pauline said, in a tone of realization. “Is it Misty?”

Ty laughed, startled. “How’d you guess?”

“She called me,” Pauline said. “Letting us know where you were, I guess. Although maybe she also wanted to learn a thing or two about you.” She smiled a little.

“You’re going out with the sheriff?” Nate shook his head. “She’s a tough one. I didn’t know she dated at all.”

“She doesn’t, mostly,” Pauline said thoughtfully. “Not since she got back into town, anyway. Probably hard to find time to date when you work as hard as she does.”

Ken nudged Ty’s arm. “You sure it’s a date and not just an opportunity for interrogation?”

“I don’t think she usually interrogates suspects at Oliver’s, Ken,” said Ken’s mate Lynn. She and Stella were sisters, from what Ty remembered, and this house was theirs. Lynn was more severe-looking than Stella, but she gave Ty a small smile now. “Hope you guys hit it off. Misty could use a good time or two.”

Guilt pricked at Ty. “I hope she doesn’t mind I’m only in town for a couple of weeks.”

Ken, Carlos, and Nate all exchanged glances. “That’s what you think,” Carlos said finally, while Pauline smiled to herself.

***

Misty

The rest of the day passed in a blur.

She should’ve been savoring every moment, because this was what she’d been waiting on for months—the last of Ryan’s gang safe in the town jail, waiting for an airtight case to put him away for a long, long time.

It all kept receding into the background, though, when she thought about what was waiting for her when she got off shift.

Who was waiting for her.

It made sense to be thinking about him so much, she defended herself. He was a big part of the case, after all. He’d saved her and Gene’s lives, and that was bound to leave a big impression. She was processing his statement as part of her job.

And she was meeting him at Oliver’s when her shift was over.

Had he meant to ask her on a date? Can we continue this conversation over dinner was a pretty date-like line, in Misty’s extremely limited experience. So...probably.

He’d just delivered it so naturally. There hadn’t been any of that sleazy expectation she was used to from men. As a female sheriff, she got hit on a lot, usually as a defense mechanism from assholes she was arresting. Ooh, you gonna use those handcuffs on me? That sort of thing. They just wanted to pretend they were still in control of the situation.

Ty hadn’t done any of that. He hadn’t acted like he was threatened by a female sheriff. He hadn’t been smug about rescuing her. He’d made sure she was all right, cheerfully answered her questions, and just...paid attention to her.

And demonstrated that he was worthy of attention himself.

Misty told herself firmly that it was okay to be looking forward to dinner, it was okay to be interested in this man, and it was okay to take things as they came. If it turned out it wasn’t a date at all—if he just wanted to learn more about the arrest he’d involuntarily participated in—that was fine.

But if it was more than that...

Watch out for people trying to get personally involved with you, Misty, her dad’s voice echoed in her head. Law enforcement has to be impartial. Your emotions can’t get a say.

He’s not a local, Misty responded to the memory of her father. So it’s fine.

Yes. It was fine.

She kept telling herself it was fine all day, right up through the end of her shift, while she passed things off to her night deputy, while she drove to Oliver’s, and parked, and went inside.

And then she saw Ty waiting for her at the hostess’ stand, and she realized that fine was absolutely, positively the wrong word to describe what was happening.

Ty stood out from the crowd of people coming to Oliver’s for dinner on a Saturday night. It wasn’t just that he was African-American, unlike most people in northern Montana. It wasn’t even that he was huge, tall and broad and impressively muscular.

It was that her eyes didn’t want to look at anyone else.

When he saw her coming through the door, his face lit up into that impossibly bright smile. Misty almost reached for her sunglasses.

He was too much to take in. Part of her wanted to break and run away.

Although...weirdly, for once, that part wasn’t the deer shifter inside her.

No, the deer was fascinated.

Predators weren’t usually her inner doe’s favorite thing, although Misty had a lifetime of dealing with predatory shifter criminals under her belt, and her deer’s instincts had been honed into diamond-sharp observation and lightning-quick reaction.

But still. There was usually some wariness.

Not so with Ty. Her deer leaned eagerly forward.

That’s a good cat, was the doe’s verdict. Protected us against the wolf.

That he did, Misty had to agree, as she went up to say hello.

“Misty,” Ty said. He reached out—Misty was suddenly immensely curious at what he was going to do.

Shake her hand? That was professional. Kiss it? An indication that he hadn’t paid any kind of attention to what kind of woman he was out with. Hug her? Surely it was too early.

But he didn’t do any of those things. He settled his hand on her shoulder and gripped it, half-comradely, half-caressing.

“Thanks for coming out tonight,” he said. His eyes were warm and dark, filled with happiness. “I know it must have been a long day.”

“That doesn’t make it a bad one,” Misty countered.

His eyebrows went up. “Getting charged by a raging wolf isn’t a bad day in your book?”

“Not if it ends as well as it did today. For which thanks, once again.”

He waved it off. “It was my pleasure.”

Misty raised her own eyebrows. “Getting charged by a raging wolf was your pleasure?”

He laughed, big and expansive, and Misty saw a few heads turn. This was a man who wasn’t ashamed of enjoying himself.

She admired that.

“It is if it ends as well as it did today,” he admitted. He turned to the hostess’ stand and holding up two fingers. The woman nodded, her eyes lingering on Ty as she picked up two menus.

Misty surprised herself with a flash of possessiveness. Mine.

Ours, her deer agreed.

Whoa, wait, no, she thought, as she followed the hostess, Ty behind her. No one is anyone’s. We just met him and he lives a thousand miles away in one of the biggest cities in the world.

So what am I doing?

Misty didn’t have an answer to that one.

They were seated in a booth, and Ty picked up the menu with another one of his tireless grins. “What’s good here?”

“Everything,” Misty said honestly. “For a local dive, it’s a good restaurant. Try the steak or the fish. Or the burgers are good.”

“You eat here a lot?”

Misty nodded. “Takeout, mostly. Call in an order while I’m out on patrol, pick it up and take it back to the station.”

“Busy job,” he observed.

“The busiest. We’re a bit understaffed, and when Gene retires it’s going to be worse. Trouble is, it’s hard to find good recruits.” Misty contemplated the menu and sighed.

The waitress appeared to take their orders; Misty got a beer, and Ty followed suit.

“So how’d you get into it, then?” he asked. “Are you local?”

She nodded. “My dad’s family is all from here. He was the sheriff back when I was a kid, and he taught me everything I know.”

Ty smiled. “It’s good to have family traditions. I bet he’s proud of you.”

Misty looked away. “He was.”

“I’m so sorry,” Ty said immediately. “I didn’t think.”

“No, there’s no reason you would have known.” Misty took a steadying breath. “And sometimes I like to think of him here with me, watching over me. Saying, Misty, you could’ve been faster on the draw against that wolf. Don’t hesitate!

Ty chuckled. “He sounds tough.”

Misty nodded emphatically, remembering the way everything had always seemed to go quiet whenever her father walked into a situation. Anyone who’d been misbehaving would instantly freeze.

“He was really hard on crime, back when he was sheriff,” she said. “No one wanted to get on his bad side. I want to follow in his footsteps, but...it’s harder when you’re a woman.”

“You seem plenty tough to me.” Ty’s voice was serious, and he kept steady eye contact—not buttering her up, but telling the truth as he saw it. “And I’ve seen you in action.”

Misty couldn’t help smiling a little. “I try. You aren’t a typical man, though.”

Ty’s eyebrows flew up. “Should I be flattered or offended?”

She chuckled. “Flattered! Most men around here would’ve said something crude or insulting about a lady sheriff by now.”

“Sounds like most men around here aren’t comfortable enough in their masculinity to handle a tough woman,” Ty said easily. Then he frowned a little. “Please tell me none of my friends have offended you.”

“No, not at all!” Misty hastened to say. “They’re a cut above your average guy, every one of them. Pretty much the only thing I’ve got to say against them is that they have a tendency to try and take care of things themselves when the law would be the best place to turn.”

“Well, that’s not a surprise,” Ty muttered. “I’m probably the only one of them who really learned how to work within the system. Maybe the Colonel, too.”

“Interesting traits for Marines.”

Ty flashed her a grin. “Just because we learned how to follow some orders doesn’t mean we wanted to follow anyone’s orders.”

Misty sighed. “I—well, I can’t really say I understand, because I grew up with the system all around me. I just wish that so many people around here didn’t feel the same way.”

Before Ty could respond to that, the waitress reappeared with their beers, and took their food orders. Ty got the steak, and after a moment of consideration, Misty did, too. She usually got a burger or a sandwich, something that would be easy to eat with her hands back at the station, and it was a nice luxury to get a meal that required a knife and fork.

Ty took a long drink of his beer, and sighed. “That’s good. What do you mean about people around here feeling the same way?”

It took Misty a second to remember what she’d been talking about. “Just—well, shifters. There’s this whole pack mentality. It drives me crazy. It made my dad furious.” She could remember his enraged rants about it word-for-word. “The way they close ranks, the way they don’t want to bring in law enforcement, the way they respond to violence with violence. Feuds, almost open warfare at times—it hurts the community.”

Ty looked down at his beer. “Like those wolves who were bothering Stella and Pauline.”

Exactly like. Although they’re the worst the town has seen in a while. Most people around here believe in minding their own business. It’s the only reason a town like this, with so many different shifter types on top of each other, has survived this long.” She took pride in that. There weren’t a lot of places in the country where deer and squirrels lived peacefully side-by-side with wolves and lynxes.

Mostly peacefully.

“Things have been better lately, to be honest. But every so often there’s a problem, like with the wolves, and it always spirals out of control fast. And no one ever calls the police, because they think it’s pack business and they want to take care of it themselves!” She clenched her fists.

“And that doesn’t go well,” Ty said in a low voice.

No. I just—I’m supposed to be here to protect these people. To keep the community safe. But I can’t do that if none of them cooperate with me.”

Ty leaned back in the booth, looking at her thoughtfully. “You’re really passionate about this.”

“Of course I am,” said Misty, surprised that he’d say so. “What is there to be more passionate about than keeping people safe?”

He held up a hand. “No, no, you’re right—it’s just that in the city, most of the time people’s passion gets burned out by the time they’re your age. I mean—not that you’re old—”

“Don’t bother backpedaling, I’m not vain about my age,” Misty said dryly. “I’m forty-four and I don’t care who knows it.”

“Good. I hate it when women feel like being older and wiser makes them less, somehow.”

That gave her an uncomfortable flush of warmth. On the job, Misty had always worn her utter lack of femininity with pride—it wouldn’t do for the sheriff to care if she broke a nail, after all. But in her personal life, it always seemed like kind of a handicap.

Not that she’d ever had that much of a personal life.

“But most of the time, that kind of intense feeling is something you only see in twenty-five-year-olds. At least in Los Angeles.”

“Well, out here it must be different, because my dad was waving his arms and yelling about tribalism and rule of law until the day he died,” Misty told him. Then she frowned. “You’re about my age. What about you?”

He raised his eyebrows. “Are you asking me if I’m cynical and jaded?”

“If you are, you hide it really well.”

She was expecting that big smile again, but he sobered instead. “I’ve always thought that it was important to keep that passion going. To care, because people can tell if you do. But it does get harder. My boss thinks I’m going to burn out if I keep it up.”

Ty was here on mandatory vacation, Misty remembered him saying. “And what do you think?”

He turned his hands up in an I-don’t-know. “I want to keep going. It’s hard for me to picture myself without that passion and drive. But...it’s been more of a struggle, lately. I didn’t even notice until my boss sat me down and made me, because it’s come on so gradually.”

Misty’s heart hurt to think of this sincere, joyful man slowly breaking down under the pressure of a horribly difficult job. “What are you going to do?”

Ty closed his eyes. “I don’t know yet. I hope I’ll know by the time my vacation’s over.”

Misty dared to reach out and cover one of his hands with her own. “I hope so, too.”

Ty closed his fingers around hers. His hands were big and warm, and she was startled by the shock that went through her at the touch.

“I’m glad you’re here,” she said impulsively.

His fingers tightened. “Yeah?”

“Yes. I mean—that you chose to come to Glacier for your vacation. And not just because you saved my life today.”

“I’m very, very glad that I was there to help today,” he said. His voice was normally light, but it deepened with sincerity, and when she looked up, he met her eyes and held them. “I don’t want to think about what might have happened.”

Misty didn’t, either, but it was her job to think about that sort of thing. “I should have brought more backup,” she confessed. “Better weapons. I thought Eli was too much of a coward to fight like that. Next time, I’ll know better.”

“I hope there doesn’t have to be a next time. Are there more of that pack still out there?”

“Only the women and the kids,” Misty sighed. “And for better or for worse, the local wolves are pretty traditional. The women don’t tend to fight with claws, just with words.”

“And the kids?”

“Some of them are teens,” she admitted, “and I’m not sure what’s going to happen with them. I want them to see, to understand that if they take after their dads, it’s just going to go bad for them, but they don’t listen to me.”

“It’s hard to make a scared teenager listen,” Ty agreed.

“You probably have a lot of experience with that kind of thing, as a social worker.” Misty sighed. “Maybe I can emergency-deputize you again. Keep you human this time, use your words instead of your claws.”

“I’m at your service.” He squeezed her hand again.

Misty had been joking...but he didn’t sound like he was joking. She bit her lip, thinking about how much easier her job might be if she had someone like Ty around.

Then she shook the thought away. Ty was going home, and it wasn’t useful to fantasize about things that could never happen.

“I do wish I had a predatory shifter or two on the force,” she said, trying to generalize the fantasy into something useful. “Just your other form was very helpful today. A jaguar?”

He nodded confirmation. “We’re pretty unusual, so you’re probably not going to stumble across another one. Maybe one of your teenage wolves will grow up into law enforcement material.”

Misty tried to wrap her brain around that one, and it didn’t quite fit. “I wish.”

“Are you a shifter?” His voice was low. “It’s rude to ask, but it seems wrong that I don’t know.”

“Oh—I forgot that you didn’t, actually,” Misty confessed ruefully. “Don’t feel like it’s rude. Of course you want to know. I’m...well, I’m a deer. Actually.”

His eyebrows shot up. “A deer.”

“I know, it’s unusual. We’re all unusual, the deputies and me. Gene’s a raccoon, and the others are regular humans.”

He looked like she’d felt when she was trying to process the idea of Zeke or Ryder as deputies. “Policing wolves? And—I assume—bears, and cougars, the sorts of predators you see out here in the mountains?”

“Yup,” she confirmed, feeling the thrill of pride that always swept over her when she really thought about it. “And doing a damn good job of it, if I do say so myself.”

“You should.” He whistled through his teeth. “You must have a hell of a hold on your instincts.”

“Sort of.” Misty thought about how to explain this. “My dad taught me how to make it work. He was a deer, too—a stag. And he made sure I understood that being a deer isn’t all about being frightened and running away. It’s about observation, and quick thinking. It’s about making sure that you have all the skills, all the experience, necessary to prevent something bad from happening. And that’s what good police work is, too.”

“I wouldn’t have thought of it that way,” Ty said slowly, “but I can see how your dad was absolutely right. Deer are incredibly quick thinkers, and reactors. They have to be to survive. That’s genius.”

Misty smiled. “Thanks.”

“But what about really violent encounters, like today? I saw you. You were standing square between Gene and a charging wolf, pointing your gun at him without flinching. You can’t tell me that’s a deer’s natural instinct.”

“Well,” said Misty, “that’s where it’s important that I’m a human as well as a deer. After all, you’re not pouncing on every tasty meal that you see and tearing into it with your claws, are you?”

As luck would have it, the waitress appeared at that exact moment with their steaks. Ty waited only just until she’d turned her back, and then stabbed his knife into the meat with a playful growl.

“You haven’t seen me around food yet,” he said, and winked.

Misty laughed out loud.

***

Ty

Ty saw heads turning as Misty laughed. He wondered how often the people around here heard that gorgeous, bell-like laugh.

Not very often, he’d guess. When Misty had talked about her job, her forehead had wrinkled, her mouth set in a serious line. It hadn’t made her any less beautiful, but she’d looked determined. Almost intimidating.

No, Ty thought, she had looked intimidating. It was just that Ty wasn’t intimidated by her—he was drawn to her instead. He wanted to help solve the problems she was talking about, and he wanted to see the person underneath the intimidating looks.

Her laugh faded, but she was still smiling, her hazel eyes sparkling. He was getting a taste right now, seeing the woman behind the sheriff, and it was only whetting his appetite for more.

He couldn’t believe she was a deer. It must take such incredibly bravery to overcome her instincts in situations like today’s fight.

Although he could absolutely see what she meant about quick reflexes and attention to the smallest details being very important for police work. But the way she’d stood rock-solid in the woods, staring down a charging wolf...

Her father had been a stag. Ty could see it more easily with a stag—those antlers weren’t just for show. So maybe he was letting animal-kingdom gender roles blind him to the fierceness that a deer could really have.

Or maybe Misty was just exceptional.

Or both. Ty was willing to accept both.

“Are there are a lot of deer shifters around here?” he asked, wondering if there was a whole crowd of tough stags and does out in the woods somewhere.

But Misty shook her head. “You’d think so, but no. A few generations ago there were more, but Dad always said they left town because they didn’t like how many predators there were around here.” She smiled a little. “He said he and my mom were the last holdouts who were determined not to be scared of a few sharp teeth.”

Ty smiled. “I believe that.”

Misty took a deep breath. “But my mom passed away when I was just a baby, so it was just Dad and me when I was growing up.”

“That must have been hard,” Ty said softly.

Misty sighed. “I’ve always wished I could have known her. But my dad and I were a team. I know he tried twice as hard to be as much of a parent as he could, with a tough job like this one.”

“Seems like he did a great job to me,” Ty offered.

A quick, surprised smile spread over her face. “Thank you.”

“Nothing but the truth.” Ty finally took a bite of his steak, and his eyes closed involuntarily. “Wow. That is good.”

“We’re neglecting our food,” Misty said. “And after all your big talk about pouncing.”

“Forgive me. I’ll be over here inhaling this, excuse me.”

She laughed again. Ty felt like every one of his senses was in pleasurable overdrive—the close, warm atmosphere of the restaurant, the smell and taste of one of the best steaks he’d ever had, and the sight and sound of Misty, laughing.

He was starting to wonder if he ever wanted to leave.

***

Misty

It seemed like everything Ty did was—Misty didn’t know what the best word was. Expansive. Big. With gusto.

The way he laughed. The way he ate. The way he’d plunged right into the fight today.

The way he looked at her.

Misty tried to tell herself that he probably looked at every woman—at everyone like that. It probably didn’t even have anything to do with her being a woman. He was just the sort of man who made everyone feel like they were the only person in the room.

So she applied herself to her steak, which was insanely delicious, and resolved to have a nice evening with an interesting, fun person, and not take anything else away from it.

After all, how often did she just go out to dinner with a friend? Never. She didn’t have many friends, and most of the ones she did have were also colleagues.

Not that she and Ty were friends.

Stop it. She wasn’t like this. She didn’t second-guess what people thought of her. She was Sheriff Dale, after the Sheriff Dale who’d come before her, and that was all that was important.

And if it was a little lonely sometimes, that was fine. Keeping people safe was much, much more important than having a personal life.

So it was fine. Everything was fine.

The steak, at least, was much better than fine. Conversation stalled as they both ate like starving animals, which Misty supposed they kind of were, and made various pleased noises.

Misty determinedly didn’t pay attention to the deep rumble in Ty’s chest that seemed to indicate immense satisfaction. There was no reason for it to send a thrill through her.

When they’d both polished off their steaks and were idly toying with the very last of the sides, Ty took a long drink of his beer and sighed. “Good job, both of us,” he said with a grin. “Those steaks didn’t stand a chance.”

Misty stabbed the very last of her sautéed mushrooms and demolished them. “Should’ve known better than to mess with us.”

“Little did they know that we’re a crack team of steak-assassins. Search and destroy, no target left behind.”

Misty giggled. “Everyone’s always telling me I should be a vegetarian, because deer are. I like steak. Though I don’t eat venison.”

Ty blinked. “I never thought about that. I haven’t spent time with a lot of shifters other than my family, not since I was in the Marines, and then we were mostly predators.”

“You don’t have shifter friends or a—or coworkers, down in Los Angeles?” Misty was proud of herself for biting back the word girlfriend. It wasn’t any of her business.

Ty didn’t seem to notice her slip; he was shaking his head slowly. “No, it’s harder to find each other out in the city. Fewer of us, more precautions. Not a lot of places to shift and run.”

“Where do you go to shift?” Misty asked curiously. She’d had a hard enough time the few years she’d been stationed in Missoula, and Los Angeles was far and away a bigger city.

“Way up in the mountains, north of the city. It was a heck of a drive, so I don’t get out there very often, especially since my nieces and nephews grew up.”

Misty blinked. “So when was the last time you shifted? Before the fight today.”

Ty’s eyes went faraway. He started counting on his fingers. “Three—three weeks? No, maybe more like a month.”

What?” Misty couldn’t even imagine it. “No wonder you’re feeling burnt out!” Then she bit her lip. “Sorry, that was presumptuous.”

“No,” Ty said on a sigh, “no, you’re absolutely right. One of the things I mean to do while I’m here is get out into the forest and run. Maybe with the guys.”

“Why not right now?” Misty asked.

He blinked. “Right now?”

It was impulsive, and maybe a bit forward, but Misty suddenly didn’t care. So what if Ty looked at everyone the way he looked at her? He was looking at her right now, and she could see a dawning excitement on his face.

And she couldn’t be a part of putting off a shift-and-run for Ty for one more minute. She’d be going absolutely crazy after a month.

“That sounds...like exactly what I need.” Ty’s voice thrummed with eagerness. “Let me just get the check.”

“Oh, I have cash—” Misty started rummaging in her pockets for her wallet.

“No, absolutely not,” Ty said firmly. “I asked you to dinner. I’m paying. Besides, my mother would come right down from Heaven itself to grab me by the ear if she knew I let a woman pay half.”

Misty realized she’d been babbling on about her childhood and her father all this time, but she hadn’t asked Ty about his own family. It sounded tantalizingly large, given that mention of nieces and nephews earlier, and his mother must have been a force to be reckoned with.

She was about to ask, but Ty had lifted a hand to snag the check from the waitress, and the next few minutes were involved with cards and tip and so on. And the second he signed the receipt, Ty was up out of his seat, looking back at her. “Ready to get going?”

More conversation would have to wait. This was the most important thing right now. “Ready,” Misty agreed as she stood up to follow.

Ty eagerly led the way out into the parking lot. He stopped to drop his wallet, phone, and jacket in his car—all items that might not come along with a shift, unlike regular clothes—and then paused. “Should we drive somewhere first?”

Misty smiled. “We could. But the forest is right there.” She gestured at the woods behind the lot. Oliver’s was on one end of the town, backed right up against the beginning of the rise of forested mountain.

Ty shook his head, wondering. “It’s crazy to think that you can go out to eat at a restaurant in town, and then shift and be in the wilderness right outside the door.”

“Believe it,” said Misty. “Want to get going?”

Do I.”

She led the way a few yards into the forest—pretty much the entire town knew about shifters, even those who were regular humans, but Oliver’s got the occasional tourist, and in any case it was considered bad manners to shift out in the street where anyone could see you.

As sheriff, Misty had plenty of cause to be grateful for that unspoken rule; she was pretty sure that there would be a lot more shifted fights in town if people felt like they could just go for their rivals in public whenever they got angry.

So they went a little ways into the forest. The sun had set long ago; the days were getting shorter, and the chill in the air was even more evident now that it was night. It was already snowing just a little uphill, and the snow would come to town very soon.

She paused in a tiny space between the trees, not really large enough to be called a clearing, and looked at Ty. He was camouflaged well in the darkness, his skin fading into the forest the way a white person’s wouldn’t, but she knew exactly where to look. It was like she had some kind of strange sense of his body heat; she’d felt him at her shoulder the entire time they were walking.

“Here’s good,” she said. Her voice was hushed, though she couldn’t have said why. It wasn’t like this was a secret from anyone.

“All right,” he responded, just as softly, and shifted.

The low light made it almost impossible to see him in his shifted form, but once again, that didn’t seem to matter. Misty could sense the dense musculature of the jaguar, the big, soft paws, the twitch of his tail. His eyes shone in the moonlight.

He sat back on his haunches, as if to say, Well? Your turn.

Misty took a deep breath and shifted.

She was ready, immediately, to clamp down on her doe’s instincts. It was much harder to stay calm around large predators in deer form—the doe’s instinct was to run, as far and as fast as possible, and it had taken Misty and her father a lot of years to slowly train her mind to master the desire to flee.

So she was ready to breathe, to calm the inevitable surge of fear, to coax the deer’s mind into friendliness again.

But she didn’t have to.

She waited, sure that it was coming.

Nothing.

Hello, cat, her doe thought. She took a step towards him. Look how beautiful he is.

He is, Misty agreed dazedly. Why aren’t you afraid?

Why would we be afraid of him? He would never, ever hurt us.

Misty had to agree, but she wouldn’t have thought her doe would be the one saying it first.

Bewildered, she took a few more tentative steps towards Ty. He stayed absolutely motionless, watching her move but not even twitching a whisker.

Misty leaned forward and almost touched their noses together, inhaling. He smelled like a cat. Like a big, scary, predatory cat.

He’ll protect us, her doe thought, satisfied.

We don’t need protection, Misty responded automatically—and only then realized that she’d frozen in place with her nose a hairsbreadth from Ty’s.

Almost a kiss.

That startled her as nothing else had, and she leapt back abruptly. At least her deer form always landed gracefully.

She recovered her dignity after a second, and decided it was best to ignore...whatever had just happened. Instead, she went a few steps further into the woods, then looked back over her shoulder, waiting.

Ty understood immediately, and stood up, padding after her. In her deer form, the low light didn’t matter as much, so she could see the way his muscles moved under his fur, the beautiful patterns of spots, the graceful curve of his tail. His paws were absolutely silent on the forest floor.

Rather than let herself get mesmerized again, Misty turned around and led the way, trotting forth into the woods.

Ty made no sound behind her, but she knew he was there.

Testing, she picked up speed. Ty loped along behind her without any trouble, leaping stumps and fallen logs. She sped up again, and he paced her.

Soon they were both running flat-out. Ty caught up, pulling ahead for a minute, and she had a chance to see him run, powerful hindquarters propelling his body forward in startling bursts of speed, front paws landing unerringly in the rough terrain.

Misty felt like she could watch him forever.

The crisp night air invigorated her like it always did. She went for runs like this almost every day...but they were never quite like this. The thrill of the chase flushed through her, the exhilarating charge of matching Ty’s pace, ignoring everything else in favor of the big cat streaking through the forest in front of her.

They reached the first steep upward slope, where rocks started to break through the pine needles and underbrush. Snow dusted them, shining white in the moonlight.

Ty leapt up on one of the rocks and paused, his tongue exposed as he panted for breath. Misty jumped delicately up to join him, snow crunching under her hooves. It didn’t feel cold to her—Misty was a mule deer, hardy and suited to the Rocky Mountain weather—but she wondered if they should head back down for Ty’s sake. Jaguars were tropical animals, weren’t they?

But he didn’t look uncomfortable. He’d sat down on his haunches and was surveying the landscape they’d just run through. Then he shivered, blurred, and shifted back to human.

Misty followed suit, wondering what he wanted to say.

“That,” Ty said on a long exhale, “was amazing.”

Misty couldn’t help the pleased smile that spread over her face. “It was?”

Ty nodded, still catching his breath. “I haven’t run like that in—oh, I don’t know how long.”

“You’re fast,” Misty observed.

“In short bursts,” Ty said, waving a hand. “Big cats are sprinters, not marathon runners. But that kind of all-out run—I love it. I forgot how much I love it.”

He had that broad, bright grin on his face again. Like the moment was too wonderful for his expression to contain.

“I try to get out and run every day, if I can,” Misty said softly. “Even if it was a long, hard day at work. It always refreshes me. And looking at all of this—” She turned to survey the slope down to town.

They weren’t very far elevated yet, but it was still enough to see the lights of the town twinkling below them, the inky black of the mountains on the horizon, and of course the endless stars overhead.

“You can’t see a sky like this in the city,” Ty said, sounding wistful. “There’s way too much light. You’re lucky if you see a few stars here and there.”

Misty couldn’t imagine going without a night sky like this for her entire life. “I feel the clearest when I’m out here at night,” she said. “Like I really know what my purpose is. To protect all of this, keep it clean and safe and beautiful.”

Ty breathed, in and out. “That’s everything a person should want. To know their purpose.”

Misty nodded. “I’m lucky.”

He turned his gaze on her. “You are.”

Their eyes met and held for a long minute. Misty was struck by the memory of the moment back in the clearing, when they’d been so close their noses almost touched.

Then Ty shivered, and Misty blinked. “Are you cold? You left your jacket back by the car.”

Ty laughed. “This southern California boy isn’t used to the weather up here. Back home, we call it winter when it rains for a day or two and the temperature gets below seventy.”

Misty shook her head, unwilling to disbelieve him, but having a hard time picturing it. “Up here, we call it summer when it stops getting down into the thirties at night.”

He chuckled. “Well, I’ll just have to toughen up, I guess.”

Misty said, “I like—” and then bit her lip.

“What?” Ty asked, his gaze turning soft.

“It’s just a—a personal thing to say. I’m sorry.”

“Tell me,” he said, taking a step forward.

“I like how you can laugh at yourself,” she said quietly. “I’ve never...I haven’t known many men who could do that so easily.”

Her father hadn’t been a humorous man. And he’d taught her that strong men—strong people—took themselves seriously.

But Ty was a Marine veteran, a seasoned social worker, and a bona fide hero who’d saved her life today. He sure as hell wasn’t weak.

“Laughter’s what keeps me going,” Ty said, paradoxically serious. “You see that with kids—if they can learn to laugh when they fall down, instead of crying, they get up that much faster. It’s the same with everyone.”

“Well,” Misty said. “Maybe you can teach me sometime.”

“I think you’re doing just fine,” he said quietly.

***

Ty

Misty looked almost sad, staring down at the twinkling lights of the town. She was still in her sheriff’s uniform, must have come to dinner straight from work.

“What do you do in your spare time?” he asked impulsively.

Startled, she looked over at him, animation coming back into her face. “What?”

“When you’re not working,” he said. “What do you do? Other than run out here in the mountains. Do you have hobbies?” Friends? A boyfriend?

They hadn’t yet clarified whether this was a date or not. Ty had suppressed the impulse to ask in so many words, because he wasn’t yet sure it would be fair. Not when he was only here for a couple weeks.

But it meant that he didn’t actually even know whether Misty was single. And suddenly, it was very, very important for him to know.

Misty, meanwhile, was shaking her head. “I don’t do much besides work. Shifting and running is my hobby, I guess.” She eyed him. “Do you have hobbies?”

He had to laugh. “My hobby used to be hanging out with my sister’s kids,” he confessed, “and that took up most of my spare time. But the youngest is off to college now, so I’ve mostly just been working more. God knows there’s always more work to do.”

“Amen to that,” Misty said on a sigh. “I wish...” She trailed off.

“Yes?” Ty asked, as invitingly as he could.

“I wish that I—knew how to have a real social life.” Misty’s voice was almost a whisper. She laughed a little, then looked up at him. “I haven’t said this to anyone before.”

“No one else here,” Ty said, just as softly. “Just me and the mountains.”

She looked up at the tall, dark peaks above them. “I feel like them sometimes. Standing above the town, looking down on everyone, too far away to share anything.”

A long pause, and then she snorted. “That sounds melodramatic and ridiculous, doesn’t it.”

No,” Ty said immediately, his heart aching at the self-deprecation in her voice. “You want to know a fact?”

“What?” she asked.

Unable to stop himself any longer, Ty reached for her hand. Misty blinked, looking startled, and then hesitantly reached back.

Taking her hand in his felt like coming home. Like walking into his sister’s house, full of children and laughter and happiness, and knowing everything was all right.

“Loneliness negatively affects people’s health,” Ty said to her, gripping her hand tightly. “It’s been studied. Not having a close community—it’s not only bad for people’s happiness, but it decreases their lifespan, makes them more susceptible to illness.”

Misty blinked. “Really?”

Ty nodded. “Scientifically.”

“I didn’t know that,” she said. “I—my father, he always spoke against tight pack bonds. Said that it promoted tribalism, where people were more likely to be loyal to a pack member, even if they were a violent criminal, than they were to do the right thing.”

“Healthy communities work against that sort of thing,” Ty said quietly. “I’m not saying that that doesn’t happen in shifter packs. I know that it does. But the answer isn’t to be alone.”

Misty bit her lip, and her fingers clenched hard on Ty’s. “But then how do I fix it?” she asked. “You’re telling me this is a problem—all right, it’s a problem. But a community, a pack, it doesn’t just arise out of nowhere. There aren’t any other deer shifters around anymore, and even if there were, I hate it when shifters only think their type is—is worthy. And I’ve never had a community around here. I grew up here, and I still never quite managed to make friends.”

Ty’s heart wasn’t just aching now, it felt like it was about to crack. “I’ll help you,” he said. “I know how.”

Misty looked up at him. For a second, she seemed totally trusting, with a vulnerable excitement in her eyes.

Then her forehead wrinkled. “Hold on a second,” she said. “You just got here today. How are you going to help forming a community in a place you don’t know at all?”

Ty felt a helplessly fond smile spread over his face. Both the vulnerability and the suspicion were integral parts of Misty, he could already tell. “I’ll tell you after we get back,” he said. “First let’s run again.”

Misty held the frown a moment longer, searching his face as though there might be a clue hidden in there somewhere. Then she laughed a little. “All right, fine. Keep me in suspense.”

“I’ll tell you if you catch me,” he said with a grin.

Her mouth opened in surprise, but before she could say anything, Ty had shifted. He waited just a second, until he saw her form start to blur, and then he took off down the mountain, racing as fast as he could.

The cold air burned in his jaguar’s lungs, but it was an exhilarating burn, a sign of him pushing his body to a limit it hadn’t known in a long, long time.

Yes, his jaguar exulted. Run as fast as we can. As far as we can. Faster than anything.

Ty had to agree, at least here in the moment. Trees whipped past, and he depended wholly on his instincts to avoid them, to keep his paws landing unerringly on clear ground.

He could hear Misty’s hooves behind him. He was faster than she was in a sprint, but he knew that the longer they ran, the greater her chance of catching up. He was depending on his stamina lasting long enough for victory.

Although defeat wouldn’t be a bad thing, either.

Yes, his jaguar thought. Let her catch us.

Make up your mind, Ty shot back, laughing to himself as he started to slow just a fraction.

That was it, he decided. He was going to make sure that Misty knew that he wanted this to be a date. Sure, he might not be sticking around here forever, but he couldn’t ignore the connection that had arisen between them. He needed to know this woman better, to truly understand her sharp, pure combination of a sheriff’s toughness and a deer’s fragility. Even if it was temporary.

That thought send a pain through his chest.

Or maybe he was just running too hard.

***

Misty

Misty’s hooves were pounding on the earth, her legs pumping, her heart pounding in her chest. And the feeling underneath at all was something almost foreign.

She got plenty of hard exercise, both in human form and while shifted. She went on long runs as a deer several times a week, sometimes every day. She was intimately familiar with the burn of chilly air in her lungs, the way the trees flashed by, the satisfying pound of her legs hitting the ground and propelling her forward in leap after leap.

But she wasn’t used to this—this joy.

They were essentially playing tag like little children. She was chasing Ty’s big, graceful form, following the flash of his tail and the sharp, predatory scent of him through the woods, and it was somehow ten times as exhilarating as running by herself ever was. It was strange, because she wasn’t a predator; she shouldn’t have this kind of instinctive glory in chasing another shifter.

Maybe it wasn’t a deer instinct, though. Maybe it was a human one.

They were nearing the edge of the woods, and Misty was gearing up for a final surge of speed, determining to pull ahead of Ty as his jaguar speed started to flag—when there was a loud crack off to the east, deeper into the forest.

Misty skidded to a halt, instantly turning towards the source of the noise. That hadn’t been anything natural.

Ty turned in place, no hesitation, and circled around to stand by her. He looked at her with an obvious question: investigate?

Misty moved forward purposefully. Maybe it was nothing, but she was sheriff of this town, and she wasn’t going to let something potentially dangerous go just because she’d been having the most fun she could remember having in recent memory.

Or...possibly ever.

She shook that thought off and trotted forward.

Ty padded along behind her, once again absolutely silent, just giving off whatever...aura it was, that let Misty sense his presence. She was going to have to ask him how he did that.

It wasn’t long before she saw movement through the trees. Then a sudden, bright flare of light, and another loud crack.

Misty sighed and shifted back to human. Ty followed suit, and she looked back to tell him, “Firecrackers. It’ll be kids. I have to go break it up.”

“I’ll come with you,” Ty said.

“You don’t have to. It’s not going to be any fun, I can guarantee that.” Yelling down rebellious teenagers never was.

But Ty didn’t look hesitant at all. “I want to. You can deputize me.”

“I hope we’re not going to have to go that far for a couple of kids with firecrackers,” Misty grumbled, and started forward. As they closed in, she could see it was two boys, and she had a hunch as to which two.

She kept her footsteps quiet until they were almost on top of them, and then paused just outside the clearing they were in, took a breath, and barked, “What the hell do you kids think you’re doing?”

They froze for a second, long enough for her to step out with Ty behind her.

She could see the moment when they decided to run. Zeke looked at Ryder, then at the forest behind him, and he started to shiver, ready to blur and change. Misty took a step forward, knowing that it would be too late—she couldn’t compel them to stay, not in human form or in deer form, and then it would just be another round of calling their moms and getting yelled at for accusing their precious babies—

A growl sounded behind her.

Zeke stilled.

Ty paced out around her legs, prowling around the edge of the clearing, a fully-grown, fluidly dangerous jaguar. And an unknown quantity to the boys; they would have no idea who he even was.

Zeke let out his breath, remaining human. Then he summoned up the sneer that Misty, unfortunately, was coming to know very well. “Who’s the kitty?” he asked, chin up. He was a gangly kid, with a sharp face and a naturally sullen set to his mouth. Or at least, Misty assumed it was natural; he could’ve just always been projecting dissatisfaction. He was certainly never happy to see her.

“A friend of mine,” Misty said mildly. “You know you two are risking starting a forest fire. This close to the town, you’re putting everyone’s lives in danger.”

Zeke rolled his eyes. “So what?”

“So what?” Misty could feel anger rising in her chest. Her doe was already infuriated at the idea of flames engulfing her beloved forest. “You grew up here. You know what it’s like when there’s a fire.”

“It’s November,” Ryder put in. He was more heavyset than Zeke, with flat blue eyes and a habit of hunching his shoulders as though he was digging in for the long haul. “It’s been raining for a month. You must be pretty dumb if you think there’s gonna be a forest fire ‘cause of a couple of firecrackers.”

“Listen, you little—” Ty appeared at her side, and Misty took a deep breath. Swearing at them wasn’t going to help anything. “You want to take a ride to the station?” she asked, slightly more calmly.

“So you can arrest us like you arrested our dads?” Zeke growled. “This is police harassment.”

“You don’t even know what that means—”

There was a shiver next to her, and Ty blurred back into his human form. Both Zeke and Ryder took an abrupt step back. Misty was aware, suddenly, of how Ty towered over her, large and muscular and much more intimidating than either of the teenagers.

“You guys don’t have anything better to do than hang out in the woods pretending to blow stuff up?” Ty asked, his voice calm and conversational.

“Who the hell are you?” Zeke asked. He was scared, Misty could tell, but was covering it with an extra layer of bravado.

Ty stepped forward—they both flinched back—and held out his hand. “Tyrone Neal, formerly a sergeant in the Marine Corps. Friend of the sheriff’s. And you? What’s your name?”

“Uh—Zeke. Sir.”

Misty watched the transformation happening in front of her with disbelief. Zeke was morphing from a mutinous brat into a respectful young man before her eyes.

“Ryder,” Ryder mumbled when Ty looked at him.

“Well, Zeke and Ryder, how about you hand over your explosives?”

Misty had no idea how he was doing it. Ty seemed simultaneously friendly, like he was really on the kids’ side, and forbidding—like that might change at any minute.

And it was working. Zeke scuffed his foot, but dropped his eyes, and after a second, handed over the remaining firecrackers. Misty noted with unamused eyes that they were heavy-duty, the kind that could do serious injury if they weren’t taking care, and the kind that was illegal to have without a permit.

Misty debated the pros and cons of reading them a lecture on safety—they wouldn’t listen—or taking them into the station—she doubted it would have an effect, particularly since she’d dropped them both off at their parents’ place just this morning with an admonishment to stay out of trouble.

Ty seemed to be having some luck with the friendly approach. Misty couldn’t quite bring herself to sound friendly to these two idiots, but she let go of as much of her anger as she could and said, “All right, now get.”

They blinked at her, momentarily disbelieving. Misty guessed it was a surprise—these two had been in her Jeep ten or fifteen times in the last month.

“You heard me,” she repeated. “Get gone.”

One final moment of pause, and then Zeke’s form flickered again, blurring into a rawboned young wolf. Ryder followed, and a second later, the two of them were bounding away into the woods.

Misty looked at the minor explosives in Ty’s hands, then at him. “That went better than I was expecting. How’d you do it?”

“Element of surprise,” Ty said. “I’m an unknown quantity. And a big scary one, at that. Plus, teenaged boys like that usually respond better to male authority figures than female. I’m willing to bet that they’ve got strict dads.”

“They did,” said Misty. “I arrested them both a month ago. Zeke and Ryder have been nothing but trouble ever since.”

Ty took that in. “Well,” he said. “That does make a certain amount of sense.”

“I know it makes sense. What I don’t know is what to do about it. I don’t want to stick the kids in jail six months after the fathers. They’re both still seventeen, but once they’re adults, if they’re still doing as much stupid, dangerous stuff as they are now...” Misty shook her head. “It seems inevitable. Nothing I say is making any difference, and their moms sure aren’t on my side, not after I arrested their husbands.”

Misty had been half-hoping that they might be grateful not to have to live with those violent assholes any longer, but of course they hadn’t been. The bonds of family were too strong.

Which she understood. But it would be so much better if more people prioritized justice.

“I can tell you from experience,” Ty said, “if all they’re running up against is discipline, or people trying to scare them into behaving, it’s not going to get any better. They need community, support. Something constructive to do with their time would help, too.”

Misty frowned. “They responded pretty well to you scaring them into behaving.”

Ty smiled a little. “Temporary measure. If I were working with them long-term, I’d be focusing on being a positive influence. Giving them something good to want, instead of something bad to not want.”

Misty tilted her head, thinking about that.

Her father’s school of law enforcement had been all about what people didn’t want. The sheriff didn’t want disorder, didn’t want pack-based loyalties, didn’t want feuds and violence. On the other hand, the locals didn’t want to get arrested, and sure didn’t want the law sticking its nose into their business. Overall, the previous Sheriff Dale had been able to balance both of those sides into a state of affairs that everyone could—grudgingly—live with.

Was there a better way, though?

***

Ty

Ty watched Misty considering his words. Here was another thing to admire about her—she was a tough, no-nonsense kind of sheriff, he could already tell. He could half-picture the father she talked so reverently about: a stern, humorless law enforcement officer, who wanted order and respect.

Misty had clearly learned those lessons well. But she wasn’t rigid about it. It was easy, sometimes, for police officers to think in black and white. In his years as a social worker, Ty had struggled with that—sometimes people he was trying to help would get in trouble with the law, and it could be hard to get a cop to see that there was more in play than criminal vs. law-abiding citizen.

Misty, though, wanted to make things better. Not just more disciplined, but better.

“Hm,” she said finally. “I don’t know what sort of good things I could come up for them to want to do. They definitely don’t like me very much after last month, so maybe I’m not even the right person to do it.”

“We can talk about it,” Ty suggested. “I’ve got a lot of experience helping kids who’d insist that they don’t need or want any help at all.”

She smiled at him. Her smile lit up the dim forest like it was noon; Ty felt almost dizzy whenever he saw it. “Thanks. I’d appreciate that.”

“Meanwhile,” he said, “where were we?”

The smile took on a competitive edge. “I was about to pull ahead of you and win our race.”

“Oh, were you.” Ty tucked the kids’ firecrackers into his shirt, and concentrated as he shifted, hoping—yes, they came with him, disappearing with his clothes as he took on jaguar form.

Misty was shifting, too, and out of a sense of fair play, Ty waited until she was firmly on all fours before bolting into the woods again. She raced after him.

This was a much shorter run, because the edge of the forest was already almost in sight. It was just as much of a rush, though, running with Misty hot on his heels. He’d been almost flagging when they’d heard the firecrackers before, but now he’d had time to catch his breath, and his jaguar’s sprinting skill was in top form once again.

Still, Misty was hard on his heels, her hooves pounding on a tree stump as she bounded over it, landing just at his tail. Ty put on a hard burst of speed and leaped, landing on all fours smack in the middle of the tiny clearing where they’d started.

Misty skidded to a halt right next to him, and Ty wheeled to face her. Her deer form was delicate and gorgeous, with beautiful markings, fine and agile hooves, and lovely, enormous eyes. Ty drank in the sight of her as he caught his breath. He’d never known a deer shifter before—never even lived anywhere where he’d seen ordinary deer. Her grace was astonishing, even when she’d been galloping at top speed,

Slowly, she shivered, blurred, and became human again. Ty followed suit, never looking away.

“So,” she said. “What now?”

Ty remembered, suddenly, the conversation they’d been having at the top of the ridge, before their evening had been broken up by irresponsible teens. A solution to Misty’s loneliness. He grinned.

“Follow me,” Ty said, and led the way back out of the woods, into the parking lot, and over to his rental car.

He dug around inside until he found where he’d dropped his phone before they shifted, and thumbed it on. Sure enough, he had ten different texts from five different people, asking if he was ever coming back to the house, because everyone was waiting to hand out with him.

You can’t resist us forever, Ken had texted. We have beer.

Can I bring a friend? Ty texted the group thread.

You mean your sheriff? Nate texted back immediately. Sure.

Yes! Ken added, almost at the same time. Dying to see what she’s like when she’s not arresting fifteen violent criminal wolf shifters all at once.

Even given Ken’s general penchant for entertaining exaggeration, Ty had to take a moment to be impressed.

“...What?” Misty asked, catching his look.

“I’ve found your solution,” Ty said, mentally resolving to ask for the arrest story later. “Come with me back to where I’m staying.”

Then he realized how that sounded.

Misty’s mouth dropped open, and he had to backpedal.

“To meet my friends!” he added hastily. “That is—you know them already, but to meet them in a social setting, instead of at work.”

Well, that had been suitably awkward. But at least he’d hopefully dispelled the idea that he was inviting her back to his place for—

For something he wouldn’t mind doing at all, now that he thought about it.

Wouldn’t mind at all.

Until this moment, he’d mainly been caught up in admiration of Misty’s bravery and drive, her obvious intelligence, and that tantalizing sweetness she showed when she talked about her father or her desire for friends. He’d gotten caught up in the sparkling depths of her hazel eyes, and already started to memorize the set of her mouth when she felt determined.

But now he was noticing how curvy her body was, obvious even in the sensible khaki shirt and loose pants of the sheriff’s uniform. He wanted to see her without it, to strip off that shirt and those pants—what sort of underwear did she wear?

Focus. Now he was about to be really guilty of what he’d accidentally done, turning something that should be a nice, platonic social event into an opportunity for sexual innuendo.

Misty was thinking about it, her forehead wrinkling. “They’ve—invited me to things before,” she said slowly. “Or at least Pauline has. I think she’s grateful to me for helping them out with the wolves a couple of months ago. But I was just doing my job. Really, I’m grateful to her for giving me the opportunity to put them away.”

“Maybe she likes you,” Ty offered. “Maybe she wants to be friends.”

The face Misty made at that was so obviously disbelieving, Ty wasn’t sure if he was about to laugh or cry.

“It could happen,” he persisted. “You’re pretty likeable. I can tell that after only knowing you for...” He checked his phone. “Eight and a half hours.”

Had it really only been that long? He felt like he’d been getting to know Misty for days already.

“Most people don’t seem to like me very much,” Misty said. It sounded like the words hurt to get out, and Ty straightened, setting his phone down, coming forward a few steps.

“That doesn’t seem right,” he said gently.

Her mouth twisted, and Ty reached out, softly, to pull her forward. She went without resistance, and then he was cradling her against his chest.

Protect her, his jaguar growled. No one hurts her!

Not while we’re around, Ty agreed.

“It doesn’t help that I mostly see people when I’m there to arrest them,” she said, muffled by his shirt.

“That does seem like it would get in the way of making friends,” Ty agreed. “There, see? All you have to do is hang out with some people in a non-arresting situation. How often do you do that?”

There was a moment of silence. Then Misty pulled her head back to look up at him. Her expression was rueful. “Sometimes I interview people as witnesses.”

Ty couldn’t help the snort of laughter.

She had a tiny smile growing on her face. “I talk to Betty every day. And my deputies.”

“At the station?”

“At the station,” she confirmed. “Or in the Jeep.” She wrinkled her nose; it was impossibly cute. “I guess you might be right. It’s maybe time to get out more.”

“Fortunately for you, opportunity has come knocking,” Ty said triumphantly. “Follow me to Nate and Ken’s house?”

“I know where the Davidson house is,” Misty said. “I arrested some people there once.”

Ty couldn’t help it: he started to laugh.

After a second, she joined in, shaking her head. “All right, all right. I guess I see the problem.”

“No worries,” Ty said, letting his arms drop from around her shoulders with some reluctance. “We’re fixing it.”

Misty lingered for a long moment before stepping back. “I suppose we are.”

***

Misty

Misty hadn’t really known what to expect. Who all was going to be at the Davidsons’ house? Were they genuinely welcoming her, or had they just agreed with Ty to make him happy (because who wouldn’t want to make Ty happy?).

And why was she so suddenly aware of how much she wanted Ty to be happy?

It was all very confusing, and she pulled into the Davidsons’ drive and got out of her Jeep with the same amount of trepidation she’d had the last time she’d been here—when she’d been arresting violent home invaders.

Frankly, violent home invaders were a bit less scary than trying to sit and make friends.

It wasn’t like she didn’t know the Davidson sisters socially, at least. She even quite liked Lynn, who was about Misty’s age and had a no-nonsense, get-it-done attitude that Misty truly appreciated.

They’d all gone to school together, too. And maybe Misty and Lynn would’ve been friends, if Misty hadn’t been so devoted to her schoolwork, her sports teams, and her father’s homemade training regimen for Misty’s eventual succession as sheriff.

With that, plus the fact that he’d worked a lot and she’d had to make her own dinner most nights, she hadn’t ended up having much time for friends. And as soon as she’d gone through the police academy, she’d turned into just as much of a workaholic as he’d been.

Well, it was time to change that. Apparently.

So she joined Ty, who was waiting for her up the drive with that big smile on his face. The smile steadied her. She knew Ty was happy to have her here. There was no way he was manufacturing that grin.

And if it turned out the others weren’t genuinely welcoming, well, she could make her excuses and leave. Nothing was stopping her.

So she came forward and let Ty lead the way to the front door.

It was opened before he could knock, with Lynn’s mate, Ken Turner, on the other side. He had a grin on his face to rival Ty’s. “You show your face again!” he said, pulling Ty in for a back-slapping hug. “We thought you didn’t like us anymore.”

“Not sorry,” Ty said over Ken’s shoulder. “See, I’m here now.”

“And the more the merrier,” Ken said, pulling back and extending his hand to Misty. “I think we’ve only met when you were on duty before. I’m Ken.”

“Misty,” she said, shaking his hand.

“Come on back, everyone’s in the yard.”

“In the yard?” Ty asked. “Isn’t it like forty degrees out?”

“We’ve got a fire pit, it’s awesome. You’ll love it. Come on.”

They trooped back through the hall. Misty’s eyes automatically noted the places where the wolves had entered, all those months ago, and then she shook her head and focused instead on the character of the house: old, and full of decorations that reminded her that Lynn and Stella’s grandmother had owned this house before they did, but also full of signs of life. Boots by the front door, a thriller novel turned upside-down to mark its place. An iPad charging on the kitchen counter, and coffee mugs in the sink.

And the rise of voices out the back door. Misty almost hesitated...and then Ty, who’d had to squeeze ahead of her in the narrow hallway, reached his hand back.

Warmth filled her. She took it, twining their fingers together. How was this so comfortable? She’d never been one for holding hands in public. But with Ty it somehow seemed natural.

They’d still never talked about whether they were on a date or not. Hand-holding seemed to confirm it, though.

Together, they stepped out through the door into the firelit backyard. Misty’s first impression was of a crowd—all indistinguishable shapes by the fire. Which, her professional eye noted, was appropriately safe and separated from any flammable vegetation, although much as she hated to admit it, Ryder had been right earlier: at this time of year everything was a bit damp and the risk was minimal.

Ty tugged her forward, as shadowed shapes started separating themselves out and coming forth to resolve as individual people.

First were Pauline and Lynn, both with genuine smiles on their faces for Misty. She stepped forward with relief, shaking both of their hands.

“I’m so glad you came along,” Pauline said, sincerity in every word. “I keep hoping you’ll make it out to another one of our dinners. I know you’re busy, but it’s always so nice to see you.”

“Thank you,” Misty said, overwhelmed.

Lynn nodded. “Nice to have you over. Been meaning to catch up since you moved back, but there’s been...” She waved her hands to indicate the crowd of people. “A lot going on.”

“I’ve noticed,” Misty said dryly.

Lynn surveyed the scene. “Never thought this place would get lively like this. It was never this busy, even when we were kids. But it turns out that I like it.”

Several months ago, Misty knew, Lynn had lived alone in this rambling old house. She’d been single, and worked as an individual wilderness guide, hiking around in the mountains all day with one or two tourists along with her.

Now, her business was booming, she had a mate, her sister had moved back in with a mate and her teenaged daughter, and their mates’ old friends had moved to town and started the—what? Community? Pack?—that Misty was meeting here tonight.

“I’m glad you’ve found a—a pack,” Misty said hesitantly. “I don’t know if that’s the right word.”

Lynn looked thoughtful. “Hard to say,” she said. “I grew up knowing that a pack was all the same animal. I thought I couldn’t have one here, because there aren’t that many lynxes around, not like the wolves or the bears or the smaller animals.”

“I feel the same,” Misty said, grateful that someone understood.

“But you don’t have to,” Lynn said seriously. “Because that really does seem to be what we’re building here. Ken and his friends...in the military, they didn’t have the luxury of hanging out with only the same type of shifter. They were with their platoon, and that was their pack, and that was it. And that’s carried over, and I have to say I like it.”

“Me too,” Misty agreed wholeheartedly.

It made her wonder if this could be the future. If, instead of a group of factions all made up of the same type of shifter, insular and mistrustful of outsiders, they could be one thriving community, with bonds across all lines.

She didn’t know how to make it happen, but she suddenly wanted to see it in her lifetime.

“Come on,” Pauline was saying, “you have to meet everyone.”

Ty, Misty realized, had been pulled forward and absorbed into a crowd of equally enormous men, all slapping his shoulder and punching his arm and giving him back-pounding hugs. Lynn’s sister Stella, meanwhile, had come over to join them, and was surveying these rituals with a critical eye.

“I don’t know why men feel like they have to pretend they’re fighting when they show affection,” she said.

Her daughter Eva, who was a senior in high school, if Misty remembered correctly, had followed. She rolled her eyes. “Because anytime they have feelings, they have to remind everyone they’re big and tough so no one can hurt them,” she said with extreme teenage disdain.

Drew, Pauline’s foster son, was following behind her. “I don’t do that,” he objected. “I mean. Not anymore.”

Eva turned back to him, the critical expression dropping off of her face. “You’re different,” she said.

“Yes, yes, young people are infinitely superior to old people,” Lynn said. “We get it.”

“Aunt Lynn, that’s not what I meant—”

Lynn was laughing, and Eva turned up her nose, trying to hide the smile tugging at her own lips. “You know that’s not what I meant,” she insisted.

Drew, meanwhile, had made his way over to Misty’s side. “Um,” he said.

Misty turned to him. “Yes? What’s up?” She wondered if he’d had any more trouble with the wolves lately. Maybe Zeke and Ryder were giving him a hard time?

“I just wanted to say thanks, too,” he said quietly. “You could’ve put me in jail this summer if you wanted to. I’m really glad you didn’t. Really...really glad. If there’s anything I can do...?”

Misty felt like her whole body softened in response to his words. Why couldn’t all teenagers be earnest like Drew? “I don’t want you thinking I went above and beyond the call of duty,” she told him. “I felt bad for you, but also, it didn’t make any sense to arrest you when getting information on the gang you’d met was so much more important. And you can help me out by staying out of my professional eye from now on. Maybe get yourself a college education.”

Drew nodded vigorously. “I promise. My lawbreaking days are in the past.” He cracked a tiny smile. “And I applied to a bunch of colleges already.”

“Good,” Misty said. She looked over his shoulder at Eva, who was hovering just behind.

“Don’t worry, Sheriff Dale,” Eva said firmly. “He’s telling you the truth.”

“I never doubted it,” she told Drew. He blushed.

“Thanks,” he repeated, and backed away to fade into the crowd.

Ty, meanwhile, had turned away from his crowd of friends and was looking back at her. “Misty,” he said, “come on. Meet everyone.”

“I do know everyone already,” she reminded him, coming forward anyway. “Colonel Hanes, good to see you again. Carlos, hello. Nate, Ken.”

“Good to see you, too, Sheriff,” the Colonel said, shaking her hand firmly. “Call me Wilson, I’m retired anyway.”

“Well, I’m not retiring anytime soon, but you’re still welcome to call me Misty,” Misty said, which got her a hearty laugh.

“I’m glad to hear that,” he told her. “Misty. You’re a force for justice in the town. My men and their mates would’ve had a much more difficult time these last few months, if there’d been a sheriff who was less committed to her job, or more partisan about local concerns.”

“You can be sure that I’ll work hard to avoid that,” she said fervently. “My father, who was sheriff when I was a kid, was very firm about not allowing pack bonds to affect adherence to the law. We are humans, after all, as well as animals.”

“We are indeed,” the Colonel said approvingly. “He sounds like he was a good man.”

“The best,” she said quietly.

The Colonel—she was going to have to start trying to call him Wilson, now that he’d asked her to; he was just so imposing that it was difficult to think of him that way—clapped her on the shoulder. “And you’re following in his footsteps, from what I’ve seen.”

“She’s sure doing a good job at keeping the peace,” Ken put in next to them. “I’ve never seen anyone whip five crazed wolf shifters into shape, and into handcuffs, as fast as you did that one time.”

Misty had not anticipated the evening becoming some kind of...paean to her skills as a law enforcement officer. “If I recall correctly, Carlos had fought them to a standstill all by himself already,” she pointed out. “All I had to do was hand out the cuffs and point to where they needed to go.”

“You did a little more than that,” Carlos objected. “If you hadn’t arrived when you did, things could’ve gone very, very badly.”

“Because they thought they were facing only one other shifter,” Misty said. “Just the presence of a show of force—”

“All right, all right!” Ty interrupted, laughing. “Can we just agree that we’re all heroes and leave it at that? Everyone did a fantastic job.” A beat. “Especially Misty.”

“You weren’t even there,” Misty objected, and then everyone started to laugh, and she couldn’t be heard over it, and had to give up.

“Are you guys giving Misty a hard time?” Stella asked, coming up behind them, and the laughter erupted again.

Misty had to assure Stella that no, it was pretty much the opposite, and then they all took seats around the fire pit, where Eva and Drew were roasting marshmallows and ignoring the adults entirely.

“So tell us more about your vacation,” Pauline said to Stella and Nate, and the conversation picked up where it must have left off.

Stella and Nate, it turned out, had been traveling all over the place since they’d gotten together, and had just returned from a week in Morocco. They’d both loved it, and were excited to go back someday. They told stories about the food, the culture, the people they’d met and talked to—it sounded exciting.

But also kind of overwhelming. “Do you like to travel?” Misty asked Ty in an undertone, while Ken was interrogating Nate in detail about a story where he’d embarrassed himself in front of some locals.

He shrugged. “Haven’t done much of it, other than when I was in the Corps. I’ve always been a homebody. I like to be around my people, know that I’m helping my community.”

She nodded, feeling oddly satisfied. “I’m the same.”

“But it’s fun to hear other people’s stories,” he added, and she had to agree. She’d never known anyone who’d gone to Morocco before.

Stella showed them a bunch of pictures of the fantastic things they’d seen while they were there, and then put her phone away and asked Pauline, “So how are the kids? The little kids,” she revised, with a smile at Drew.

“Oh, they’re doing all right,” Pauline said with a smile. “Troy’s in first grade now, and it’s a bit of an adjustment, after all of the upheaval in his life, but he really likes having other kids to hang out with.”

“Val’s basically the Energizer Bunny,” Carlos added. “I spend a ton of time just following her around while she runs. I’m thinking about entering her into a marathon, because I’m pretty sure she manages about twenty-six miles a day.”

Everyone laughed. “What about the center?” Lynn asked. “Still getting going?”

Misty leaned forward. A few weeks ago, she’d learned about the community center that Carlos—who was apparently fabulously rich—was going to fund, and initially she’d been skeptical.

After all, Carlos was a random businessman who’d just moved here. Sure, he clearly cared a great deal about Pauline and their own three kids, but how would he know anything about helping out locals, fostering a community?

But looking around at the crowd of people, she couldn’t think of anything more like a community than this. And they were all different shifter types, hadn’t grown up together. Maybe there was something to this idea for a center after all.

“Well, we’ve got a space,” Carlos was saying, “and it’s this beautiful building over on Main Street, you know, by the Methodist church? That white one with the crazy turrets?”

“The old Barbur place,” Misty said involuntarily, and he turned to look at her.

“You know it?”

Misty nodded. “There used to be—well, there used to be a whole group of deer shifters in town, a pack. A couple of generations ago. But the predator population kept growing, and they were less and less comfortable sticking around. My father was the last stag holdout, and he kept on telling everyone to stay, he’d keep them safe. But he was really young, then, and they didn’t believe him. So they left. That was the pack home, once upon a time. They sold it to some company who tried to put a—oh, I don’t even remember what kind of store. But it went out of business fast, and the place has been empty ever since.”

Carlos blinked. “Wow. I had no idea it had that kind of history. I hope you don’t mind that we’re using it.”

Misty swallowed and shook her head. “No. No, absolutely not. It should be used for something like this.” She smiled suddenly. “Use it, and prove those old deer wrong. This town isn’t too dangerous for prey animals. We can all live together.”

Carlos grinned back, and she liked the fierceness in his smile. “We sure can.” He looked back to the group. “So, we got it for a song, and we’re ready to start setting up. I’m looking online for furniture and supplies and things—”

“I bet we can get some people to donate stuff,” Misty put in.

“I have the money—”

“It’s not just money,” Ty rumbled next to her, low and thoughtful. “It’s investment. If they donate their things, even if they’re old things, they’ll feel some kind of ownership over the place. More than if everything’s new.”

Misty nodded, and she saw Lynn and Stella nodding, too.

“Huh,” Carlos said thoughtfully. “I hadn’t thought of it like that.”

“We have some stuff up in the attic,” said Lynn. “Some of our grandmother’s things. She’d be pleased to see them put to use like this.”

“I’ll stop by Oliver’s and talk to my old coworkers,” Pauline said. “Some of them have kids who’d really benefit from this place. I know free childcare would sure appeal.”

“Good,” Carlos said. “Great! This is great.”

Misty said, “This is a good idea. I’d really like to see kids spending time someplace constructive, learning and having fun, rather than left alone and looking to make trouble. Maybe...maybe we can prevent another pack like Ryan’s from growing up around here, if the kids who would become that pack aren’t roaming around figuring out what sort of illegal stuff they can get up to.”

Ty took her hand and squeezed. “That’s exactly what I was talking about, earlier,” he said quietly. “Yes. Exactly that.”

Misty felt warmth flush through her body. She was suddenly aware of how close they were pressed, together in front of the fire. His muscular thigh was right up against hers, their clasped hands resting on his knee. She had to force her eyes away, to keep them from traveling higher, curious.

The conversation carried on, and Misty was surprised at how much of an effort everyone made to include her. They wanted to know why she’d moved back after living in Missoula for so many years, and when she slowly tried to explain how she felt tied to this land, this place, how her father’s legacy was something she’d never be able to abandon, she saw heads nodding around the circle.

“I always felt the same,” said Lynn. “Our grandmother was born here, in this house—literally in the house; no time for a hospital, she always said.” She smiled at the memory. “I’ve never wanted to be anywhere else.”

Stella laughed a little. “I always wanted to be somewhere else,” she confessed, “but eventually I realized that as much as I love to see new places, I really do want to have a home to come back to, and this is it.”

“I never knew that I wanted a home,” Carlos said softly, looking at Pauline. “I thought I was fine in New York, living in an apartment I’d had professionally decorated, spending most of my time at my job. I was wrong.”

“I felt the same,” said Colonel Hanes—Wilson. “I was living in Washington, DC, married to my work. I knew something was missing, but I didn’t know what that something was until I met Mavis.” He and his mate exchanged a loving glance.

Misty felt a strange feeling rising in her. A kind of—painful fondness. Hearing all of them talk about her home like this...it was filling some kind of gap she’d never knew she had. And she realized that she’d been missing something, when she talked to Ty about how grim things could be around here.

“Thank you all,” she heard herself say.

Everyone turned to look at her. “For what?” Stella asked.

“For coming here,” Misty tried to explain. “I’ve been sheriff for just over a year, and when I started, I would’ve said that there wasn’t a good sense of community here. That the packs all kept to themselves, no one asked questions, and everyone had to watch out to keep from offending everyone else. And once they did—well, that’s when I had to show up. And the wolves were running rampant. They were looking to take over, to make this place just a base for all of their illegal hobbies.”

She shook her head. How could she have missed what had been happening, until she heard it laid out like this, around this fire? “And then you all started moving here...and somehow, everything’s improved. Mavis, I know you’ve been helping all the small businesses around here. The economy’s perking up. Lynn, your wilderness guide business is getting all sorts of attention on the Internet, and it’s bringing in more tourists. Nate, you came in when the wolves were causing trouble, and stood up to them when no one else would. And now this community center...I don’t even know how to express the improvements you’ve all made around here.” She smiled a little. “I guess—thanks for making my job easier, is what I’m trying to say.”

“Our pleasure,” said Nate immediately.

“And really,” Ken added, “we should be thanking you. What with the long arm of justice and all.”

Misty had to roll her eyes, but everyone was chuckling and nodding, so she laughed too.

Ty squeezed her hand, and she looked over at him. “This was a good idea. Thank you.”

“Good,” he said quietly. “I’m glad.”

She leaned in closer to him and took a deep breath of air tinged with laughter, companionship, and firelit warmth.

***

Ty

Ty was struggling to contain a whole host of feelings that he hadn’t anticipated.

For one, it had been strange, listening to all the others describe how they’d known in their hearts that Glacier Park was their home. That the people they’d met there were their mates, meant to be with them forever.

Because while they’d been talking, he’d understood. Deep in his chest, his jaguar had purred with recognition, with the knowledge of what they were talking about.

But—he wasn’t like them. He hadn’t come here aimlessly, looking for a new job or a new purpose in life or a new home. He had a job, he had a life, and he was going back to Los Angeles once this vacation was over. He hadn’t even come here voluntarily.

It was just suddenly really hard to imagine leaving all of this behind, going back to the hot, dusty streets of LA. The cynical coworkers, the traffic, the beach he never managed to get to, the mountains he mostly saw as a haze on the horizon. Iris’ empty house, no kids left in it.

And then there was Misty.

Ken was telling some dumb story about a prank he’d pulled back when they were all in the Corps—Ty had heard it a hundred times, and also he’d been there when it happened, so he was only listening with half an ear.

But Misty was laughing so hard she’d doubled over. Her hair was slipping out of its severe bun, little wisps coming out to frame her face, and when she looked over at him to share the joke, the firelight lit the beautiful planes of her face and put flames of light in her dark eyes.

Ty couldn’t imagine never seeing her again.

He literally couldn’t imagine it. Taking her out on a few more dates, and then waving goodbye and getting on a plane back to Los Angeles forever...

He couldn’t do it. He’d freeze on the tarmac, unable to take that last step. He knew it in his bones.

Was this a temporary thing? Was the sight of Misty laughing in the firelight, the fellowship of his oldest friends, all conspiring to make him dizzy with desire, fantasize about being with all of them here forever?

His jaguar growled in disgust, and Ty found himself agreeing. He was pretty sure this wasn’t temporary at all.

***

Misty

Misty hadn’t been drinking, other than the one beer at Oliver’s, but she felt strangely as though she had been.

Almost. She wasn’t dizzy or having a hard time with words; she was sure she could walk a straight line no problem.

She just kept laughing, which was something that never happened unless she’d overindulged in alcohol a bit. She wasn’t giggly, never had been.

But everyone was just so happy. And Ken and Stella were both very funny people, it turned out, and even Lynn had a dry humor that Misty had never seen in her before.

There had even been a moment when Ken had bet Nate, with comical sincerity, that he could infiltrate the ranger HQ at Glacier National Park and play a prank on their friend Cal, the head ranger there—who was apparently home with a sick baby tonight, and had sent his apologies.

Ken had been speculating on how to avoid the extensive pack of snow leopards who were all rangers up at the Park, and how he might enlist their friends to help him, and claimed he could totally carry this off tonight, and Misty had said, “I’ll be sure to get to the station early tomorrow to meet you all coming in,” and the entire group had exploded with laughter.

And she’d been struck speechless by the deep flood of joy within her at the sound. Everyone had been smiling at her, happy with her joke, including her in the experience of fun and conversation, and it had been so overwhelming that she’d felt tears pricking at her eyes.

It was too much. It was all too much—but not too much in a way she’d ever felt before. She knew what it was to have too much exhaustion, too much pain, too much sadness, too much work, too much care.

She’d never had too much joy before.

“Excuse me,” she said, standing abruptly. “I—I’m going to get a glass of water, if you don’t mind.”

“Not at all,” Stella said immediately. “I can get it for you—”

“I’ll show you where everything is,” Ty cut in, standing with her. “I mean, I don’t know where everything is, but I won’t hesitate to rummage around in the cabinets until I find the glasses. And I could use some water, too. Anyone else want anything?”

Everyone declined, and Ty and Misty made their way back to the house, Misty taking calming breaths of the crisp night air away from the fire.

“All right?” Ty asked her in a low voice as they went inside.

She nodded, looking around the dim kitchen. Ty went and found her a glass, filling it with water from the tap.

“Thanks,” she said as he handed it to her. “It was just—”

“A bit much?” he asked.

“Sort of. I mean, they’re not what’s too much, they’re all lovely. It’s me. I didn’t realize—” She bit her lip. “How lonely I really was.”

Ty touched her shoulder, and she set down the glass of water—which she hadn’t really wanted, anyway, it had just been an excuse to step away for a minute—and turned into his embrace.

This was another thing she hadn’t even realized she’d wanted. Being held—when was the last time she’d been held, before today? Even her father hadn’t been very affectionate; she’d known he loved her because of his words, not because of a lot of hugs or kisses.

She’d dated men before, certainly—in college, and when she’d been working in Missoula, mainly. But her experience of physical affection with them had mostly been frustrating. They’d been too gruff or too saccharine, touched too hard or too soft, always had a hand or on her or hardly touched her at all except in bed.

It had never been right. Misty had eventually concluded that dating wasn’t for her and moved on to focus on her work. It had hurt, but she’d told herself that that was stupid: if she didn’t like it, why was it hard to stop?

Because she’d been missing this.

Ty’s warmth enveloped her completely, his strong arms supporting and enclosing her. She felt like she could just relax, for the first time in...she had no idea how long, and he would hold her up, no problem.

“Wow,” she sighed. “I could stay like this forever.”

“Me too,” he murmured into her hair.

She frowned to herself, thinking about that. In the safety of his arms, she felt like she had hours to ponder, and like she could say anything she thought, and it would all be fine.

“I suppose I don’t see what it’s like from your side,” she said finally, a little muffled by his chest. “This feels so—safe. I’m not used to feeling safe like this. But you’re on the outside. What do you feel?”

“I feel like I have the most precious thing in the world in my arms,” he said. She could feel the throb of his voice through his body, almost more than she could hear it with her ears. “Like everything I could possibly want is exactly where it should be. And what could be safer than that?”

She smiled a little, warmed by the thought. And by the feeling of his body pressed up against hers. His arms weren’t the only muscular thing—his chest was basically a wall of muscle, and she was suddenly more and more aware of the heat of his skin underneath his shirt, the movement of his breathing. The masculine scent of him.

Misty pulled back, looking up into Ty’s dark eyes. “There’s one thing I keep meaning to ask you, and forgetting,” she said.

He smiled, his eyes crinkling. “And what’s that?”

“Is this a date?”

The smile broadened. “What, you haven’t figured that out yet?”

“The clues are there,” Misty admitted. “But I thought it would be best to lay it out in so many words. Just so that there wasn’t any chance for misunderstanding.”

“I would never want you to misunderstand,” he said, more serious now. “Yes. This is a date. This is, in fact, the best date I’ve been on in—”

“Yes?” she asked, as he frowned, clearly trying to remember.

“Well, it’s been a while since I’ve been on a date,” he admitted.

“Same,” she murmured.

“But I’d say this one is solidly at the top.”

Still amused, it took her a second to really assimilate what he meant. Then she leaned back even more. “Your ideal date involves running off a couple of teenaged delinquents setting of firecrackers in the woods?”

“You’re really attractive when you’re doing your job,” he murmured. “All confident and authoritative. I like it.”

She laughed. “You were the one who got them to listen.”

“Teamwork,” he amended without missing a beat. “Even sexier.”

She blushed a little at hearing herself described as sexy, even obliquely, and hoped the room was too dim for it to show.

“Misty,” Ty said, “I have never connected to a woman the way I have with you. Ever. It’s strange and it’s scary and I’ve been purposefully not thinking too deeply about what it might mean long-term, because I have a whole set life back in Los Angeles, and it’s hard to imagine it getting overturned. But it’s real. What’s happening right now is real.”

Now her heart was thundering in her chest. “You might—you’re thinking about changing your whole life? For me?”

“Am I wrong to be thinking that?” he asked. She could hear the notes of worry in his voice, and paradoxically, that steadied her. If he was just as uncertain and anxious about this whole thing as she was...

“You’re not wrong.” She bit her lip. “If you told me right now that you’d made a decision to stay here forever, I’d be so happy. But Ty, I can’t just ask you—maybe I should think about giving up—”

No.” This time, there was no hesitation at all. “What I’ve seen since I got here—the community everyone’s slowly starting to build—the way you’re following in your father’s footsteps, continuing his legacy—no. I would never, ever ask you to give that up. You have my word.”

Misty let out a breath she hadn’t realized she’d been holding.

“Anyway,” he said, clearly trying to lighten the mood, “maybe this is all a bit premature. We haven’t even kissed yet.”

She blinked. “We haven’t.”

It was suddenly the silliest thing in the world. Why hadn’t they kissed yet, when they were talking about rearranging their entire lives for each other? Misty was laughing breathlessly when Ty caught her mouth with his.

The rest of her laugh disappeared into the incredible heat of the kiss. She forgot anything else, any thoughts or considerations or anxieties, and devoured Ty’s mouth.

God, he tasted so good; he felt so good under her hands; he smelled so good; how could any one person be such a delicious joy to every sense? She just wanted to touch him all over, taste him all over, listen to his noises and feel him shudder under her hands.

His hands, meanwhile, were exploring all over, palming her curves, slipping into the slight gap her waistband made at the small of her back and making her shiver.

“Where,” she gasped between kisses, “where can we—”

“I’m in the guest room,” he rumbled, “which is—this way—”

Misty was horribly afraid they weren’t going to make it there, because she could feel that he was hard in his jeans, pressing against her hip, and once she realized that, she couldn’t help leaning into him, grinding a little, desperate to hear what kind of noise he’d make.

He didn’t disappoint—his low, wanting groan was everything she’d wanted to hear, and it made the muscles jerk deep in her stomach. Her sensible, no-one-will-ever-see-this underwear was probably soaked. Her clit was pulsing with sensation, and he hadn’t even touched her there yet.

“Oh, God,” he said, “we’ve got to be quiet, everyone’s a shifter, they’re going to hear—”

Misty blushed at the thought that anyone out there might know what they were doing here in Lynn and Stella’s house.

But the blush was lost in the heat that had overwhelmed her body. She meant to step back, but when she put a bare inch of space between their bodies, she felt the gap like it was a thousand miles, and had to step forward again, reach up and pull him down for another kiss.

He came willingly, tasting her mouth, his tongue clever and dexterous, making her wonder what it might do elsewhere on her body.

“Bed,” she gasped, and he nodded.

“Yes. Okay. This way.” He tugged her backwards, kissing her with every step, fiddling with the buttons on her shirt. “Why is this uniform so hard to get off you?”

“That’s not really its—primary purpose—” Now that they weren’t plastered up against each other, she realized she could get her hands underneath his shirt, confirming to herself that he had a six-pack hiding beneath it.

“Stairs,” Ty muttered. “Okay.”

The stairs were a problem. Misty told herself they could reward themselves with a kiss for every stair. The problem was, one kiss would melt into another, and soon enough she was pressed against the banister, legs spread, with Ty’s narrow hips between them, half-wondering if they could just strip down right here, because she was aching with the need to have him inside her.

What is happening? a tiny, rational part of her wondered. I’m never like this. Ever.

Her doe had nothing to add, just a full-hearted wave of desire and approval.

So Misty let the tiny voice slip away, wrapped her arms around Ty’s shoulders, and opened her mouth to his next kiss, tipping her hips forward and sliding her hands up under his shirt again.

They panted together for a long moment, the ridge of his cock hard against her clit, grinding in desperate little movements. Misty was fascinated by the way he was falling apart, the clear hunger for her—for her. She wanted to eat it up, swallow every noise he made, every harsh exhale.

He tore his mouth away for just a moment and said, “We can do one more stair. Come on.”

Misty did not want to stop, at all, but she summoned up the ragged remains of her self-control and followed Ty up another stair. And then forward momentum kept them going, and then she could see the top, just three stairs away. “Almost there,” she murmured, and together they stumbled into the hallway.

“Made it.” She kissed him in reward.

“Not quite, it’s—down there—oh, forget it.” Ty muscled her up against the wall, unbuttoning her clothes frantically. Her shirt was gaping. Ty made a noise of frustration when he found the undershirt beneath it.

“Sorry,” Misty gasped. “It’s just an old T-shirt, do whatever you want to it.”

Ty leaned back, met her eyes, and ripped the shirt in one sharp movement, from neck to waist. A surge of excitement went through her at the sight of it—no hesitation, no struggle.

And that strength was all hers.

Right now, at least.

Misty shook that thought away and shrugged out of her uniform shirt, the pieces of her T-shirt, and struggled with the clasp of her bra. Ty was kissing her breasts, his mouth hot, sending twitches of pleasure down to her clit. “Oh,” Misty heard herself saying, “oh—more—”

Blindly, he ran his hands down her stomach until he found the button of her pants. He jerked it open, slid down the zipper, and came up to kiss her mouth as one of his hands slipped inside her panties.

Misty moaned, the noise totally uncontrollable, as his big hand found her soaking wet clit. He rubbed hard with his fingers, catching the shapeless mass of pleasure that had been gathering heavy inside her abdomen and bringing it to a single sharp point, centered on his fingers. Misty’s noises grew in pitch.

Then his hand slid down even further, his palm finding the spot where his fingers had been, massaging in circles, as one finger slipped inside her where she ached so much, filling that need and making her clutch hard at him as her legs gave way.

His other arm caught her, hard as iron, keeping her up, bracing her against the wall as he moved his hand, his finger stroking inside her, his palm moving roughly against her clit, as the pleasure grew sharper and better and better and—

Oh.” The sound felt like it was torn out of her as she came, pleasure wrenching through her body as she convulsed in Ty’s arms, shuddering in orgasm.

“Mmm,” he said, sounding immensely satisfied. “Wow. That was good.”

Misty caught her breath, feeling like a puddle of jelly, and stared up at him. “But you didn’t—” She checked, first with her eyes, and then with her hands. “You didn’t.”

Ty groaned as she touched him, outlining the shape of his erection with one hand. “No,” he said, sounding strained. “But I wasn’t going for that. I wanted to see you come. And it was gorgeous.”

Misty flushed. I wanted to see you come. She’d never been much for dirty talk, but that wasn’t dirty so much as it was honest.

And if she was honest, she thought she wouldn’t mind hearing Ty talk dirty. In fact, the idea was making her very aware that his hand was still in her panties, his finger still inside her.

Watching her face, he stroked his finger in and out again. Misty closed her eyes in pleasure.

“You think you can go again?” His voice was low, aroused.

Misty nodded. Then she really looked around. “Maybe in the bedroom this time?”

Ty started to laugh. “I meant to get us there.”

The motion of his laughter was jiggling his arm, and the effect on his hand made Misty shudder. “Come on,” she said breathlessly, “we’d better move now.”

He laughed harder, but pulled his hand out of her pants—Misty tried not to make a protesting noise—and led the way to a door about three feet away.

Misty shook her head. “We could’ve made it.”

“I couldn’t have waited one more blessed second,” Ty said, and held the door open for her. With his dry hand.

Inside was a pleasant room that Misty was able to take in for about four seconds before Ty caught her around the waist, kicking the door shut behind him, and bore them both down to the bed. Misty almost protested, but then got distracted by kissing him again.

“Clothes,” he said into her mouth.

Misty nodded, but couldn’t quite bring herself to take her hands off of his body for long enough to undress. Ty seemed to feel the same, and this problem occupied them for a few minutes until Misty had the brilliant idea to start taking Ty’s clothes off. His jacket had fallen off somewhere in their adventures on the staircase, so she just had to pull his shirt over his head, tugging impatiently when he wouldn’t lift his arms.

“Come on,” she said, “it’s not fair. I haven’t seen you with your shirt off yet.”

That persuaded him to pull back so she could strip it off, and then she was transfixed by the sight of all of his rippling muscles, thrown into stark shadow by the moonlight coming through the window.

But she couldn’t appreciate for long, because he was getting his fingers under her waistband, pulling her pants down her hips, and she had to do the same for him. And then finally, finally, they were both naked.

Ty rolled them over until he was between her legs again, only this time, there was nothing between him and the slippery wetness between her thighs. Misty tilted her hips up, thighs spread wide, feeling wild and wanting in a way she’d never, ever known before.

He reached down, sliding his fingers through her folds until he found her opening, circling a finger around it. “You’re ready?”

“Come on,” Misty ground out, and he laughed.

“Message received,” he said, and guided himself to her entrance, then pushed in with one long, tight thrust.

Misty’s head fell back as she felt him settle inside her to the hilt, pressing up against all the aching, empty places that had been screaming for his cock. It was a relief as much as a pleasure, having him inside her, like she was finally complete.

Then he started to move, and the pleasure rose like a wave to overwhelm everything else.

Misty had never had sex like this. They licked at each other, biting and grabbing every part they could reach, grinding into one another with full desperation. Every movement sent a bolt of ecstasy through her, and every breath brought her to a higher level of pleasure.

She wasn’t sure when she started to come, exactly. It was like the throbs of pleasure just increased and increased until they were blinding, until Ty’s body, his breath, was the only thing she could think about, the only thing that existed in the world.

And at some point, Ty kissed her hard and started to shake, and she knew he was coming with her, and they fell together into bliss.

***

When Misty came to, she realized two things.

One, they’d fallen asleep. It was still night outside, but she had no idea how long they’d been out.

The second thing quickly chased any other thoughts from her mind.

When Ty had slid inside her, there’d been a feeling of utter completeness, not just in her body, but in her...heart. Her mind. Her soul. Something.

And even though they weren’t physically joined anymore, that sense of completeness was still there, a warm pulse of certainty and joy inside of her chest. Misty had never felt anything like it, but she knew what it was.

Ty was her mate.

She turned over, carefully in case Ty was still asleep.

But no, his eyes blinked open as she moved, and he met her gaze with the same sense of gravity that she felt in her bones.

“So that’s what it feels like,” he whispered, wondering. “I never thought I’d find out.”

“Me, neither,” said Misty. “I was sure I was—meant to be alone.”

Ty pulled her close, kissing her temple, holding her tight. Misty clutched at him, feeling like her emotions were all caught in her throat.

The realization that she wasn’t alone, that she was one half of a whole, sat strangely inside her. It felt good, but raw. Like a half-healed wound she hadn’t even realized she had.

They held each other for a long time, just soaking in the knowledge that they’d never be alone again. Misty could feel him breathing against her, and the swell of love in her heart was like nothing she’d ever known.

“I thought I was meant to be—not alone, exactly, but to be helping others,” Ty said finally. “Like my sister and her husband; they have six kids, and I spent years and years being dependable Uncle Ty, always there to babysit or drive someone to practice or take the healthy ones when some of them were sick, that sort of thing. I thought that was my calling. It was part of why I became a social worker, because I liked the idea of that.”

“And now?” Misty asked quietly.

“Now—I’m not sorry I did all that, of course, I’d never undo it. But I never knew that there was so much more for me, even after that was all done.” He pulled back to look at her, a smile breaking through the seriousness, and Misty smiled helplessly back at the sight of it. That bright, sunshiney grin was hers, now, she thought.

And the man attached to it. It seemed like an embarrassment of riches.

“Well, I guess I’m moving to Montana after all,” Ty said, which distracted her from her appreciation.

“Wait, I don’t want to completely destroy your life,” she objected. “I meant it, before. Earlier.” When they’d been talking about him moving here, but it hadn’t seemed quite real. Because it was ridiculous to talk about that with someone you’d only known for one day.

But if they were mates, it all actually made sense. It all was real. She wanted to pinch herself to see if she was dreaming.

She wasn’t. This man was real—and his offer was real, too. He wanted to move to her home, to be here with her forever.

But—“We should both make sacrifices,” she made herself say. “It shouldn’t just be you.”

Ty shook his head. “No, Misty, this makes the most sense. And—it won’t be a sacrifice. I told you my boss insisted I take a vacation?”

She nodded.

“That insistence came with a side of implication that I might be wanting to leave soon,” he said.

Misty frowned. “He’s thinking about firing you?” That seemed impossible.

“Not exactly. He was just noticing—you know, the burnout rate for social workers is incredibly high.”

Misty nodded. The turnover of the people she saw in the course of her own job was always surprisingly quick.

“I’ve lasted much longer than the average. Much, much longer. I thought that meant I could stick it out forever, but apparently not. My boss is right—it’s gotten harder. I’m seeing more cynical people, less reason to find joy in the work. And the job hasn’t changed, so much—it’s just harder to see the bright side, these days.” He stroked a hand up her arm. “And it doesn’t help that I never get out of the city anymore, never have happy, healthy kids to play with like I used to. Iris and Steve are off to Hawaii for vacation, and I’m realizing that I poured my whole life into their family, and I didn’t know if I had the strength to keep standing when I was just by myself.”

“You’re not by yourself anymore,” Misty said fiercely. “Still, I could try moving to Los Angeles—”

He shook his head. “No, I want—Misty, I want to be here. Seeing all my old friends together like that, running in the woods like we did tonight...it’s been a total awakening to something I didn’t even know I needed.” He smiled. “And this new community center, helping troubled local kids—that’s exactly the sort of work I’m experienced with. Having me here isn’t just going to benefit me, you know.”

Misty laughed. “What confidence.”

“Confidence is supposed to be sexy, I’ve heard.”

“Well,” she said, leaning in for a kiss. “You’ve heard right.”

***

Ty

Ty could hardly believe that this woman in his arms really belonged to him.

More than that, he could hardly believe that everything had happened just today. When he thought back to the moment he’d first seen Misty, standing unafraid in front of her injured deputy as a wolf prepared to charge her human form, it seemed far away in the past. It was like he’d known her forever.

And now she was his.

Brave, beautiful, determined, achingly vulnerable, wanting nothing more than a pair of strong arms around her and a community to call home...Misty was everything he’d never known he wanted in a woman. In a partner. Because she wasn’t just someone to protect: she’d be out there working to keep the community safe, while he worked to build it up into something everyone could be proud of.

Creating a future for them both.

***

In the morning, of course, they had to face the music.

Well, first, they had to wake up in each other’s arms, and make love slowly in the dawning light through the window. Ty made sure to appreciate every inch of Misty’s body, now that it was bright enough to see her properly. He thought his favorite part was the curve of her hip where it arced away from her stomach, a delicious rise of skin that he loved to stroke his hand over, to taste slowly while she squirmed.

Or it might have been her eyes. Or the hint of teeth as she bit her lip when pleasure first started to overwhelm her.

It was hard to choose.

When they were both satiated, Ty kissed her forehead and said, “You stay here. I’ll brave the wild animals downstairs and bring us coffee.”

“Mmm, coffee,” she sighed, and Ty grinned. He’d never known a police officer who didn’t mainline the stuff.

He took a quick turn in the shower, threw on some clothes—pausing to appreciate the sight of Misty dozing amid the sheets, her long limbs stretched out, her hair a tangle on the pillow—and then made his way slowly and ruefully downstairs.

It was Ken in the kitchen, of course, already holding a mug, giving him the eyebrow.

“Okay,” Ty sighed. “Yes. Out with it.”

“No, I didn’t have anything to say,” Ken said, mock-surprised. “I can’t imagine what you’d think I have to say.”

Ty went to the cabinet to get two mugs. “Whatever you don’t have to say, you’ve got exactly one chance, because after this moment, it’s null and void. And if you say a single word to Misty—”

“Whoa, whoa, I’d never say anything to her.” A beat. “You, on the other hand, I seem to recall saying something about being in LA for life—never once considering going crazy like we did and moving to the wilds of Montana—what’s in the water up there? you asked—”

“You’re jumping right to moving?” Ty asked, in real surprise.

Ken paused. “Isn’t that what’s happening?”

“Well—yes—but—”

Ha. I knew it. Just from how you were looking at her, man. I recognize that poleaxed expression. Like something hit you upside the head hard enough to knock you out, but somehow it felt good.”

Ty had to admit that that was an accurate description of how he’d been feeling for the last twenty-four hours. “All right, yes, you got me. Misty’s my mate. I can’t believe you knew before I did.”

Ken did a little victory dance, except he had to be careful not to spill his coffee, so it was more like a self-contained butt-wiggle. Ty rolled his eyes. “I’m sure you conducted yourself with grace and charm when you first met Lynn.”

“Hell, no. She thought I was a total idiot.” Ken grinned, a flash of white teeth. “But we got there in the end.”

Ty had to smile. “It didn’t take much getting there for us. From the second I saw Misty—”

“In an armed standoff in the woods—”

“I knew she was something. We connected right away.” Ty smiled, reminiscing, and then shook himself out of it and went to pour two mugs of coffee.

“And then you connected—”

Ty pointed at him. “Watch it.”

Ken held up his hands. “I was just going to say, you know, on a mystical, metaphysical level. As mates.”

“Sure you were.” Ty took the mugs and turned to leave the kitchen. “Hey, thank you for starting the coffee.”

Ken slapped him on the shoulder. “My pleasure, man. Enjoy your coffee and your lady. I’m happy for you.”

Ty smiled. “Thanks.”

He took the coffee upstairs, and managed to maneuver the door open without spilling anything or burning himself. Misty was sitting up in bed, blinking sleepily, the sheets pulled up to just under her full, bare breasts. Ty drank in the sight.

Then she made grabby hands, and he hastened over to hand her a mug.

She took a long drink, not seeming to care that it was screamingly hot, and sighed in pleasure. “Oh, that’s the stuff. Thanks.”

“No charge.” Ty settled in next to her. “Do you have to get to work?”

She shook her head. “Day off.”

Ty contemplated the entire day stretching out before them. A whole day to spend with his mate. Then he laughed.

She looked at him over the top of her mug. “What?”

“We get to double our total time together today.”

Her brow wrinkled. Then she laughed too. “I guess we do. It seems like so much longer than that already.”

“I know, I feel the same.” Ty wondered what they could do. Spend the day in bed? Shift and run some more? He felt a little restless, like he wanted to do something.

“You want to go check out what they’re doing over at the new center today?” Misty asked.

He smiled. “That sounds perfect.”

Then an almost comical expression of dismay came over her face. “You ripped my shirt last night.”

Ty felt a flush of heat as the sense-memory washed over him, of needing to get to Misty’s body so badly he couldn’t wait, grabbing her shirt and tearing it down the middle—

Which meant that she didn’t have a shirt. Oops.

“You can wear one of mine,” he offered.

Misty frowned. “It’ll be way too big.”

Ty suddenly couldn’t get over the picture of Misty wearing his shirt. “I cannot think of anything more attractive,” he confessed.

Misty blinked, and then started to laugh. “All right,” she said. “Lend me a shirt.”

He kissed her. “My most definite pleasure.”

***

Misty

Misty hadn’t been expecting the number of people they found in the old Barbur building.

“I called around this morning,” Pauline explained. “A lot of people have been interested in the project, and they were excited to come by and see what we’d done so far.” She smiled. “And we told everyone there’d be free doughnuts for breakfast and pizza for lunch. That brought out a whole crowd.”

“I bet,” Misty said, looking around.

They’d done quite a bit. The building had been painted, the broken-down porch fixed up, and the inside was clean and empty, just waiting for its new incarnation.

“What sort of things are you looking to do here, exactly?” Misty asked her.

“We want it focused on kids,” Pauline said. “So we’re going to have a playroom for little kids, a library, an activity room, a couple of basketball hoops outside, maybe a place where teenagers can come play video games and hang out, a kitchen so kids who might not get enough food at home can have snacks or lunches here—things like that.”

“That all sounds fantastic,” said Ty. “I want to go talk to Carlos about staffing—see you in a bit?”

Misty nodded, and Ty leaned in to give her a quick kiss. She closed her eyes in the brief moment of warmth and connection, and watched him leave. His movements were so graceful, even when he was just walking down a hallway.

When she looked back, Pauline was giving her a knowing look. “So, you and Ty,” she said.

Misty could feel herself blush; it was very annoying. “We’re mates,” she admitted.

“We guessed,” said Pauline, smiling. “From how you were last night.”

Her blush intensified. “I’m sorry we—we shouldn’t have—”

“Oh, no, no, not that!” Pauline laughed. “I meant when you were sitting together, by the fire. It was clear there was a connection, a close one. And when you’d only known each other for a few hours—well, the rest of us have all felt it. We know what it’s like, and that made it easier to recognize in you.”

“Oh.” Misty took a calming breath. “I wasn’t expecting anything like this.”

“Neither was I, when it happened to me.” Pauline looked fond, reminiscent. “Carlos appeared in my life when I had a lot going on, and I didn’t think I had any room for a man. The kids were in trouble, and I was trying to figure out how to handle it alone—and then this man asked me on a date, and I couldn’t say no. I told myself it was silly to date a tourist, that going to a nice restaurant when I was worried Drew didn’t have enough food was frivolous...and then it turned out to be the best decision I ever made.”

Misty wondered how she might tell the story of Ty coming into her life, someday. The best decision I ever made didn’t seem quite right, for her, because everything had just happened all at once, no decisions apparently necessary. She hadn’t chosen Ty so much as she’d realized he was there, and there was no reason to separate.

None at all.

“Anyway,” Pauline said with a smile, “you want the tour?”

“Of course,” Misty said with some relief. There was only so much examination of her feelings she could do all at once.

Pauline took her through the building. It was empty, and clearly hadn’t been in use for some time, but the bones of it were strong. The wood floors gleamed in the light coming through the dusty windows, and Misty could see the potential in every room. Could they fill this with people? With kids and teenagers, spending time together and learning that they could do things with their lives, better things than their parents had done?

“We want to have events here, too,” Pauline murmured. “Wedding receptions, holiday celebrations, that sort of thing. There’s never been a good big space for that in town before, not so everyone could come and all fit.”

There hadn’t, it was true. People either held celebrations in their homes, or if they had enough money, rented out the diner for the evening. Or just stayed outdoors, but that wasn’t an option for a lot of the year, here in the north. Even for shifters.

They came back into the main room, which was plenty big enough for a wedding reception—Misty could tell that this place had been built to be a pack house, not a private home. Private homes didn’t have rooms this big unless they were the sort of place that had a name and a noble family attached.

The small crowd of people were talking to Ty and Carlos, and as they approached, Misty could hear a conversation about organizing a drive for donating furniture, books, and toys, and about today’s project for cleaning the place, which was to wash all of the many windows.

“I wanna wash windows!” piped a tiny voice, and Misty looked down to see a little girl, maybe six or seven, hopping around the room, looking at each of the windows. She stopped when she saw Misty looking at her and came over. “I want to wash the windows,” she said sincerely.

“Looks like you’re going to get the chance,” Misty said, trying to place her. She looked familiar, but Misty wasn’t personally acquainted with all of the kids in town. “Is your mom here?”

The girl nodded and pointed to the crowd, which didn’t help. “She said we better come and make ourselves useful.”

“That’s a good philosophy,” Misty approved.

The tiny forehead wrinkled. “What’s a—phisoly?”

“Philosophy. A way of thinking about things. What you think about how stuff should go.”

“Phisolophy.”

“Philosophy.”

“Philosophy,” she repeated successfully, and grinned. “Philosophy. My philosophy is cookies for breakfast.”

“That one you’re definitely going to have to take up with your mom,” Misty said. “What’s your name?”

“Tina.”

A kid named Tina. Misty half-remembered noting someone with a child named Tina somewhere, but she still couldn’t place the family.

“What’s your name?” Tina asked.

“I’m Misty. I’m the sheriff.”

Tina’s eyes went wide, and she took a step back. Oh, no.

“You arrested my daddy,” she said in a tiny voice.

Oh, no.

“Well,” Misty said, and didn’t know what to say. She remembered where she knew the name Tina, now. Tina was Diane and Ryan Bigelow’s daughter, Zeke’s little sister.

“Why did you arrest my daddy?” Tina asked. She came back forward, her surprise over, looking like she was ready to do battle.

Misty took a deep breath. She wanted to help the local kids grow up to be law-abiding citizens, better than their parents? Well, here was her first shot. She squatted down, bringing her eyes to Tina’s level.

“You know how sometimes, when kids misbehave, they need a time-out?” she asked softly.

Tina nodded.

“Sometimes grownups do, too. Your daddy could be kind of scary, sometimes.”

Tina looked away. Then she nodded.

“Well,” Misty said, “I wanted him to learn how to behave better. It’s not good for people to run around being scary like that. I’m sorry he had to go away, though.”

And she was—not so much that she’d arrested Ryan, who’d deserved it ten times over, but that this little girl would be growing up without the father she deserved.

Tina scrunched up her face. “I want him back.”

“We all want our dads to be around,” Misty said. “I wish my dad was still here, sometimes.”

Tina’s eyes went wide. “Was your daddy scary?”

Misty thought about that. “Well—sometimes he was, I suppose. He’s not in time-out, though. He died a long time ago.”

Tina hesitated. Then she came forward and hugged Misty. “That’s sad.”

Startled, Misty hugged back.

And that was when Diane came hurrying out of the crowd. “Tina!”

Tina jumped back. “Hi, Mommy.” She sounded a little guilty.

Diane looked like she didn’t know what to make of the scene in front of her.

Misty stood up. “Hello, Diane,” she said, trying to figure out how to handle this situation. Finally, she just went with the truth. “Tina and I were just talking about how we both miss our dads.”

Diane’s brows came together. “Tina, go find Rachel and Marie and play,” she said.

Tina’s face lit up, and she went off running without a backwards glance, finding a couple of families who had just come in the door.

Diane straightened and turned to Misty. “What were you telling my daughter?”

Misty’s instinct was to fight fire with fire, to step forward and tell Diane to back off. She made herself take a deep breath instead. What would Ty do?

He’d be kind and empathetic, she thought, without being weak.

“I was telling her that I was sorry,” Misty said. “That I missed my dad, too.”

“Your father arrested Ryan for the first time when Ryan was fourteen years old,” Diane ground out. “He never gave him one chance. Ryan had no chance, growing up with that asshole as sheriff.”

Breathe, Misty told herself. Don’t get mad. What would Ty say?

“Well, I want different things for these kids,” she managed, pushing down any anger she felt about hearing this woman talk about her father like that.

And she did want different things. Maybe it didn’t matter what had happened in the past, if they could all manage to focus on the future.

“I don’t want to arrest Ryan’s kids,” she said. “I haven’t charged Zeke with anything yet, because I want him growing up into a good man, not a criminal. I want this place to be somewhere Tina can go after school, and I want them both to get good jobs and have families of their own.”

Diane stared at her suspiciously.

“That’s what I want,” Misty said on a sigh. “And so today I’m going to wash some windows.”

Diane still wasn’t saying anything, but Misty decided she’d better quit while she felt good about what she’d been saying. She smiled at Diane, then turned and went to find Ty.

“Hey,” he said, turning away from where he’d been chatting with Carlos. “What’s up? Everything okay?”

“Why do you ask?”

“I don’t know, I just—I had the sense that something might be wrong.” He frowned. “It’s strange, now that I think about it. I guess I just knew that you were...agitated, somehow.”

Huh. This mates thing was more powerful than she’d realized.

“I was,” she said, “but it was just a difficult conversation, nothing dangerous.” She smiled up at him. “I did my best to channel you.”

That broad smile. She’d never get tired of seeing it. “Did it help?”

“It really did.”

“Good.” He kissed the top of her head. “It’s good to hear that I can help you even when I’m not there.”

“I’m grateful.” Misty looked around. “Now, are we washing some windows or what?”

The morning passed with a pleasant sense of hard work and camaraderie. Misty enjoyed working alongside people she didn’t see very often. It made her think about how much of her perspective on her own community was colored by mostly interacting with people when there was a problem of some kind. It was nice to get out and be involved in a project that was all positive, no danger or lawbreaking involved at all.

Everyone broke for pizza at lunch. Misty suspected that some of the volunteers had come because they couldn’t afford to turn down free food, so she made sure to take only a single slice, leaving as much as possible for other people. Ty, she noticed, did the same.

“This is a good precedent,” Ty murmured to her, when she shared the observation. “If people start to think about this place as somewhere where they can get food if they need it, but also where they can feel useful, that’ll be a huge benefit. There’s lots of people who hate the idea of accepting charity, but will be happy to take food if it’s in exchange for their own labor.”

Misty nodded. “There are a lot people up here who are poor but proud. I know Pauline struggled with getting Drew’s mom to accept her help, and she was even family. No one wants to admit that they can’t take care of themselves and their families.”

“No,” Ty sighed. “But we can make a difference.”

Misty smiled, thinking about the future.

Then she had to wonder when the last time was that she’d felt so optimistic. Usually, it seemed like she was just treading water, getting ahead of the inevitable tide of criminal behavior. Her father had always insisted things were getting worse, that there wasn’t enough funding or police personnel to take care of it all, keep everyone in line.

Maybe he’d been focusing his efforts on the wrong side of the equation. Stopping criminals after they broke the law, rather than before.

“Hey,” Ty said in her ear. “After we’re done here, do you want to go to dinner with me?”

She pulled back and smiled up at him. “Are you asking me out on a date?”

“Want to be sure about it this time?” he asked, eyes sparkling.

“It pays to confirm these things,” she said seriously.

“Well, let me confirm: yes, I’m asking you out on a date. Are you interested?”

Misty pretended to think. Ty pretended to look offended. She started to laugh.

“I never joked around like this before I met you,” she said, wondering.

“I love hearing you laugh,” he said. “You should have laughter in your life every single day.”

That was something Misty never would’ve said she wanted. But hearing it from Ty, with his bright eyes and his big smile, she couldn’t think of anything she wanted more than for him to keep making her laugh.

***

Ty

After a day spent in honest labor—probably not what Sam had meant by vacation, but Ty found it refreshing as all get-out, much more than lying around all day—they went back to Oliver’s.

Carlos had recommended some fancy tourist place over nearer the Park, but Ty was pretty sure Misty wasn’t a fancy-restaurant kind of a woman. Plus, he wasn’t a fancy-restaurant kind of guy. Most of the restaurants he’d patronized over the last fifteen years or so had been drive-thrus on his way from one appointment to another, or kid-friendly places with plastic booths and crayon placemats.

Besides, he’d found that he liked Oliver’s. With its dark wood, comfortable booths, and local crowd, it had a homey feel to it that he appreciated. And he certainly wasn’t complaining about the food.

Or the company. Misty was gorgeous in his shirt, with wisps of hair escaping her bun and framing her beautiful face. He couldn’t believe he got to look at that face every day for the rest of his life.

“Let’s split some appetizers,” Misty suggested, perusing the menu, not noticing his heartfelt appreciation of her stunning beauty. “My treat tonight, by the way.”

It took a second for him to hear what she’d said. “Wait a second, I never agreed to that,” Ty objected. “Remember what I told you about my mom.”

“I’m an independent, modern woman,” Misty said dryly. “I can treat if I want to.”

Hard to argue with that logic. Still. “It feels wrong.”

“Get used to it,” she said without sympathy, looking over the menu. “Besides, if we’re mates and we’re going to be together for the rest of our lives, all of my money is your money, anyway.”

“Then it shouldn’t matter if I pay.”

“Then it shouldn’t matter if I pay.” Dark eyes locked with his, and Ty found himself not even wanting to win, not really.

“All right,” he sighed. “Since apparently I’m going to be out of a job soon, anyway. I’ll have to become your kept man.”

Misty snorted. “There’s an idea I can’t quite get my head around. Have you ever had a lazy day in your life?”

Ty tried to remember. “Maybe when I was a kid. Although if that isn’t the pot calling the kettle black, I don’t know what is.”

Misty opened a hand, acknowledging the fair point. “Fine, so we’re both workaholics. What’s your new workaholicism going to look like, up here?” She frowned. “We don’t have as many social workers as we need, but I think that’s more of a funding thing than anything else.”

“I was talking to Carlos about this today,” Ty said comfortably. “He’s not just paying for the community center out of his private bank account—he’s setting up a community fund, to which anyone can contribute. That fund will provide for the center’s activities, equipment, and staff. I’m going to be one of the staff.”

Misty’s mouth opened in understanding. “So you can be attached to it permanently! That’s wonderful.”

Ty nodded. “And I can make my own hours, work with Carlos and Pauline to lay out what a good set of responsibilities would be—it’ll be ideal, really.” He grinned. “Carlos asked if it was weird that he was going to be my boss.”

“What’d you say?”

“That he wasn’t my boss, the local community was my boss, and if he ever tried to pretend otherwise, he’d learn pretty fast that he was wrong. He liked that answer.”

“Good.”

“There’s going to be a set of people to oversee the fund distribution and so on—Carlos really knows what he’s doing with the finances, which is great because I don’t think anyone else does.”

“I sure don’t,” Misty said. “An excess of money hasn’t been the biggest problem around here.”

“Things seem to be turning around,” Ty said thoughtfully. “I see some little businesses around. There was a sign advertising a local shopping district—I heard this one tourist woman talking about how cute everything was.”

Misty smiled. “That’s partially thanks to Mavis, Colonel Hanes’ mate. She used to be a financial advisor to small businesses in the city, and when she moved here to be with her daughter, Nina, she shifted her focuses to helping out the local community. She’s really started to turn the place around.”

Ty had to smile to himself. “Looks like I got lucky. My sister’s going to be jealous of me, moving out of the big city to somewhere as gorgeous and up-and-coming as this.”

Misty shook her head, the smile lingering on her lips. “No, we’re the ones who got lucky, to have you here with us.”

Ty had to reach across the table and take her hand, and they smiled at each other like dumb teenagers in love until the waitress arrived. He wouldn’t have had it any other way.

***

Misty

Ty mentioning his sister reminded Misty of something that she’d been meaning to ask him.

“I hardly know anything about your family,” she said as they were eating their appetizers. “What’s your sister’s name? Where did you two grow up?”

Ty blinked, looking surprised. “I suppose I haven’t talked about her much, have I. Too focused on what’s been happening in front of me.” He gave her another warm look.

Misty blushed—she’d blushed more in the last two days than she had in the last ten years—but wasn’t about to be distracted. “Tell me about her,” she pressed.

“Iris,” Ty said. “Her name’s Iris, and she’s my older sister by five years. She got married before I left for the Marines, real young—she and Steve are mates, they dated through high school, real sweet story. When I left she had Acacia, and Leo on the way, and then by the time I got back there were two more, and she ended up with six overall.”

Misty tried to imagine that. Six children. There were women around here who had that many, and it had always seemed like an impossible task to Misty, who’d never had anything more than a houseplant to care for.

Well, a houseplant and a town full of lawbreakers. The houseplants usually lost that battle—she wondered suddenly, and guiltily, if there were any desiccated husks hanging around her house right now. Ty was probably going to see the inside of the place at some point, and she didn’t want him to think—

—what, that she was a workaholic who was never home to water her plants? He knows that already, she reminded herself.

And he was okay with it. That was another thing that had always made her think she was totally unsuitable to date—her work schedule was impossible and she had no domestic skills or ability to cook whatsoever.

But Ty clearly wasn’t looking for a domestic woman—a natural-born mom like Pauline was. He liked that she was out in the field, protecting the town. And that was something to treasure.

“Anyway,” Ty was saying, “even with a devoted husband, it was really hard for her. Steve worked long hours to make enough to support them all, and sometimes he had to travel for work, and Iris was at her wits’ end half the time. So when I got back, while I was in school to become a social worker, I practically moved in with them. I’d write papers with a baby on my chest, take study breaks and play with the kids, cook dinner for everyone to give Iris a break.”

“Wow,” Misty said. “That’s—really impressive.”

Ty shrugged. “Everyone is always surprised that I’d do something like that, but they’re my family. Of course I wanted to help Iris and the kids.” He grinned. “And I play a mean game of tag, if you recall.”

Misty remembered that breathless chase through the woods. “Did you shift with them?” she asked, imagining it with six baby jaguars. “Are they all shifters?”

Ty nodded proudly. “Every last one. And I brought each of them up to the mountains, taught them how to hide from humans if they were about, to run and jump and hunt if they had to. Uncle Ty’s Wilderness School, they all called it.”

“It sounds like the sort of thing my father used to do with me, when I was a kid,” Misty said wistfully. “I can’t tell you how valuable it was. Both the education, and the time I spent with him.”

Ty smiled. “It was great. I wouldn’t trade any of the time I spent with them for the world.” He took a big breath. “But, now they’re all up and out of the house—even the youngest one, Rayanne, just went off to college this fall. And so I’ve been at loose ends. Tried to throw myself into my work, but...” He spread his hands. “You saw how that ended up.”

“You must miss them,” Misty said sympathetically.

Ty nodded. “I do, but I’m glad they’re all out there living good lives. I wouldn’t have wanted any one of them to cut off their dreams and stay home just to spend time with old Uncle Ty.” He smiled, looking thoughtful. “And now it really is like I’ve entered a totally new phase of my life. One that’ll be just as good as the last, if not better.”

That warm look again. He wasn’t even smiling, just...using all the same muscles as a smile would. Misty thought she might like that look even better than the big grin. If that were possible.

But Misty was still thinking about that enormous family, the big city...”Are you sure you’re going to be happy up here? It’ll be much lonelier than LA. And—I don’t want children of my own. I never have. We wouldn’t have a big family like your sister’s.”

Ty squeezed her hand. “LA can be lonelier than you can believe. There’s so many people that no one can afford to care about all of them, and it’s easy to get lost in the anonymity. I saw it every day—people slip through the cracks. Up here, it’s small enough that we can actually stop everyone from slipping through the cracks. We can have the biggest family ever: the whole community. We can watch Pauline’s kids grow up, and Cal’s baby, and I can be Uncle Ty forever.”

He grinned. “Actually, now that I say that, it sounds amazing. I was really missing being Uncle Ty, and I knew it wasn’t going to be the same even when Iris’ kids start having kids of their own. But now I don’t have to lose that, after all.”

Misty shook her head, wondering. “I really admire how optimistic you are. I’ve never been able to be as cheerful as that.”

“It takes work,” he said, sobering for a moment. “It doesn’t always come naturally. But when I’m faced with a challenging situation, I have a choice: I can look at it negatively, and think about all the ways it could go wrong, or I can look at it positively, and think about all the ways it could be beneficial. And things always turn out better when I do the second one.”

“That makes a lot of sense.” Misty bit her lip. “I really admired my father,” she said after a moment. “I used to think that he had all the answers—that I all I had to do was keep living out his vision, keep doing everything exactly as he’d have done it, and I’d have it all figured out. But I’m starting to think that his perspective might have been...incomplete.”

Ty was watching her, looking thoughtful. “Everyone’s perspective is incomplete. You just have to decide which pieces work best for you.”

Misty smiled at him. “I’m glad I have your pieces now. They’re working for me better than I ever would have imagined.”

“I feel the same,” he said.

Misty wrinkled her nose. “Really?” She tried to think what she was bringing to the table, exactly. She had a strong work ethic, a good sense of community responsibility, and a respectable amount of courage—but Ty already had all of those things, and had had them back in LA, long before they met.

“Really,” he said. “Just in the last couple of days, I’ve been so inspired by how grounded you are. How much you know what you want and where you belong, without depending on anyone else around you to say what that should be. All of my life, I’ve responded to the needs of others. And while I think that’s admirable to an extent, it can’t carry you through everything. When the others aren’t there, who are you?”

He picked up her hand and kissed it. “You know who you are, and you choose for yourself, based on your own values. I love that about you.”

Great. Blush number eighty-seven, right on cue. “Well,” Misty said, trying to get herself together a bit, “it’s good that we can help each other, then. I—I believe in always working to be better.”

“That’s exactly what I mean.” Ty ran his thumb over her knuckles. “I never thought I’d have a mate, and I’m so glad to experience that connection—but even more, Misty, I’m so glad that it’s with you. I couldn’t have asked for a better woman to be my mate.”

“I couldn’t have asked for a better man,” Misty whispered.

“Good.” He grinned. “I’m really looking forward to the rest of my life, now. I can’t wait for all the new undiscovered heights of happiness we’ll be experiencing.”

Misty had to laugh.

***

After dinner, they went back to Misty’s place.

“It’s kind of dusty,” she said, a little shamefaced. “I’m not here very often.”

“No shame,” Ty said easily. “You should see my apartment in Los Angeles. With the amount of time I spend at work and the amount of time I’ve always spent at my sister’s place, it’s always been kind of a disaster.”

“Well, I guess neither of us are domestic goddesses,” Misty said, rueful. She flicked the lights on and led Ty into her little house, past the spartan furniture. “Something to drink?”

Ty shook his head. “Is this the house where you grew up?”

Misty nodded, looking around. “I inherited my sense of interior design from my father,” she said dryly.

Ty chuckled. “Maybe we could—” He stopped.

“What?” Misty asked.

“I just realized that I was picturing our life here together,” Ty said wonderingly. “Do you want me to live here?”

Misty blinked. “I—I don’t know. Do you want to live here?” She looked at the place with new eyes. “It’s not very big.”

“I might take up a lot of space personally, but I don’t have that much stuff,” Ty said. “I’d fit. You wouldn’t mind me here, in your own house? We could get a new place if you’d rather start fresh.”

Misty thought about Ty’s big presence filling the empty rooms, she and Ty laughing over how nobody ever swept the floors or hung pictures. She and Ty sitting on the porch when they got older, the porch her father had finally started sitting on, once he slowed down too much to be constantly running around.

“I’d love to have you here,” she said softly.

Ty kissed her. “I’d love to be here.”

Misty was instantly aflame. “God, you can never, ever kiss me in public,” she murmured.

Ty made a dissatisfied noise. “Why not?”

“Because I’m ready to christen every room of your new home right now, and—” he kissed her again—“it’s getting hard to remember if I was thinking about anything else,” she gasped.

“Sounds like a great plan,” he said into her mouth, and she wrapped her arms around him and stopped trying to remember anything but the feel of him against her.

Ty groaned, pulling her against him. “I love your body.”

Misty mostly only thought of her body in practical terms—whether it could do what she wanted, get her where she needed to go, subdue a criminal if necessary. But Ty was so obviously delighting in it, in the feel of her. His hands explored her, cupping her breasts, sliding down over her butt.

Of course—“Same,” she sighed, loving the way he was so tall and broad, the hardness of his muscles. She spread her hands on his shoulders and gloried in the fact that she couldn’t even come close to spanning them with her fingers.

“Mmm, yours is more interesting.” His fingers were busy on the buttons of her shirt—no, his shirt, from this morning. Suddenly, she understood what he’d meant about it being hot. The realization that she’d spent all day wrapped in his clothes...

Then it was a race to see who could undress each other first, clothes flying everywhere. Misty was arrested by a sudden thought. “Did we ever clean up our clothes from the hallway of Lynn and Stella’s house, last night?”

Ty laughed, his body shaking against hers. “I grabbed them when I stepped out to hit the bathroom.”

Misty sighed in relief. “Good.” That made sense. She had a feeling that there would have been a few more knowing looks if everyone had had to step over her uniform shirt to get to bed.

Then Ty got his hands into her pants, and her attention was abruptly returned to the matter at hand.

And of course, this was her house, and it didn’t matter if their clothes went everywhere.

Ty won the race, unsurprisingly, so Misty was naked while he was still in his boxers. “Wait,” she laughed as he bore her backwards toward the couch. “Just one more—”

“Nope, I won, so I’m claiming my reward,” he said, and plopped her down on the couch, nudging her thighs open and settling in between them.

“Oh,” Misty said in surprise. “I guess—I guess I’m not complaining.”

“Mmm,” he said, nuzzling the soft skin of her inner thigh. She shuddered and opened her legs, letting him lick right up until he was parting her lips with his tongue and licking a long stripe up her clit. “Oh, God.”

Ty made an appreciative noise and kept going. Misty clutched at his enormous shoulders and let herself go—for once, let herself just relax and appreciate the sensations in her body.

His tongue was hot and clever, catching every little twitch of pleasure and drawing it out, making her quiver. Misty had always thought of herself as slow to climax, but Ty was proving her wrong—she was feeling the edge already, and he’d only been licking her for a couple of minutes.

He teased at her opening with a big finger, and she lifted her hips for it, wanting. He slipped it inside, and then another—and then a third, thick enough to stretch her out, bring the pleasure in her clit to a sharpened point. He sucked hard, licked quick and deep from his fingers up to the tip, and then sucked again, and orgasm rolled through her.

“Up,” Misty groaned when she could form words again, “come on, up, get up here—” She hauled him up, tearing at the waistband of his boxers—she heard the fabric rip, and had a moment of smug satisfaction; Ty wasn’t the only one who could tear people’s clothing off. Shifter strength was good for a lot.

Finally, finally, the boxers were out of the way, and Ty was over her as she laid back on the couch, lifting one leg, setting her foot on the back of the couch, opening herself to the air. It felt deliciously transgressive to be naked out here on this couch—she was never naked out here; there was never any reason to be.

But now Ty was settling between her legs, his cock nudging at her opening where she was wet and ready, already thrumming from her orgasm, open from his fingers. She made a desperate noise, and he thrust in.

There was no resistance, no tightness, just a smooth slide and a rush of pleasure, wet and warm, like falling into a bath. She closed her eyes and drank it in. Ty’s breath in her ear, his hot skin against hers, the shift of his muscles under her hands, the drive of his cock as he started to move.

“Oh,” she heard herself saying on a long, throaty sigh. She hadn’t known her voice could sound like that. “Oh.”

“Yeah,” Ty said, deep and close. “Just like that. Misty, God, you’re so beautiful—”

She’d never thought herself beautiful in her life, but right now, caught in their rhythm together, she believed him. She lifted her face for a kiss, and he gave it to her. Their tongues slid against each other as she panted for air, and his cock drove deeper and deeper into her—reawakening her pleasure, reminding her body that she’d only come once, and she could go again.

“Oh, God,” she managed as he started to speed up. Whenever he bottomed out, he’d pause for a second deep within her, rotating his hips so sensation shot through her clit. It was simultaneously dirty and profound—the deep grind of pleasure combined with the knowledge that they were as close as two people could possibly be.

She realized her eyes were still closed, and opened them just in time to catch Ty’s mouth falling open, his face twisting in pleasure as he bottomed out one last time and came. Misty felt the surge inside her as though it were own pleasure, tipping her right over the edge into her own climax.

It seemed like it lasted forever.

***

Misty was woken up by her phone ringing.

She always kept the ringer on in case there was an emergency, and middle-of-the-night calls usually qualified. Eyes snapping open, she grabbed it and answered. “This is Sheriff Dale.”

“Sheriff,” said a woman’s voice, rough with emotion. “My boy’s in trouble.”

Misty sat up in bed. Next to her, Ty had come silently awake; he watched her alertly, no doubt able to hear every word of the conversation, with shifter hearing.

“Who is this?” Misty asked.

A sniff. “It’s—it’s Diane Bigelow. I need you to come down here. Ryder came by, he says he and Zeke were up in the mountains, and Zeke fell, and—and he doesn’t know if—”

“All right, ma’am, we’re going to get out there right away,” Misty said, in her calmest voice. “Were they in the Park? We can mobilize the rangers right now.”

“No—Ryder says no. They were out further east.”

“Okay. We can get the rangers to help anyway, I know, and I’ll wake up the deputies. If we have to, we can get the whole town to help. Meanwhile, I’m coming down right now.” Misty got out of bed, fumbling in her closet for her spare uniform jacket. Her other one was still in the Davidsons’ guest room, she remembered. “I’ll bring help. Is Ryder still there with you?”

“Yes, he is.” Diane’s voice turned sharp. Misty had the sense that Ryder wasn’t the subject of Diane’s good graces right at this moment. “Should I keep him here?”

“Please. I’m going to need him to show me where he left Zeke. I’ll be there in just a few minutes, all right, Diane? Stay calm and I’ll see you soon.”

“All right,” Diane said in an airless voice, and hung up.

Misty set her phone down and went back to getting dressed. Ty was already up, pulling yesterday’s clothes on. “Am I coming with you?”

God, she loved this man. He was completely calm, ready to help at—she checked the time—3:37 in the morning. And he wasn’t even trying to take charge of the situation. He trusted her to know where he’d be the most help.

“You are,” she assured him. “I’m going to call around, but it’ll take a little time to muster everyone out of bed at this time of night, and if this kid is injured out there in the mountains, we need to move as fast as possible. It might be you and I heading up to rescue him our own.”

“Got it,” Ty said. “Let’s get going, then.”

They finished pulling on their clothes and went out to their cars; it made more sense to drive separately, in case they needed to split up to get more help, but Misty felt a pang as they turned away from each other.

Ty must have felt the same, though, because he hesitated at the door to his rental, and then turned back and caught her swiftly up, planting a kiss on her mouth. “I’m glad to be here with you,” he murmured.

Misty smiled helplessly. “Me, too. There’s no one’s help I’d want more, when going to rescue a dumb teenager at four in the morning.”

“Right here with you every step of the way,” he said solemnly, and they turned away again. But this time Misty had a warmth in the pit of her stomach that lasted until they pulled into the Bigelows’ drive.

Diane met them, looking simultaneously terrified and furious. “Sheriff,” she greeted her. “You think you can find my son?”

“We’re going to do our absolute best,” Misty said sincerely. “Where’s Ryder?”

“In here.” Diane led the way to the front room, where Ryder was sitting miserably on a couch, shoulders slumped, hands dangling between his knees. He looked up when they arrived, and winced when he saw Misty.

“All right, Ryder,” Misty said. “Do you remember where you left Zeke?”

He hesitated, and her heart sank a bit. “Sort of.”

Sort of?” she asked pointedly.

“I mean, we were just out running in the mountains—”

“They’d been drinking,” Diane put in, with a vicious look. “Pair of little idiots.”

“Is that true, Ryder?” Misty asked calmly.

Slowly, he nodded. He didn’t seem like he was still drunk, but shifters tended to metabolize alcohol more quickly than regular humans did. “It’s all kind of—we were just messing around, you know? Shifting, hunting some rabbits, running around. We were way up in the mountains. And then Zeke fell, and I—I just ran down until I knew where I was. I don’t know exactly...”

“All right, Ryder. We’re going to call the Park rangers and get them out to help,” Misty said, “and the sheriff’s office, and they’ll all have search-and-rescue equipment. But first, since Zeke might be really hurt and time is of the essence, you and I are going to head out ourselves.”

Ryder’s eyes flicked behind her shoulder, where she knew Ty was looming. “Him too?”

Misty turned to Ty. “You seem pretty good at bringing things with you when you shift. Could you take my radio?”

Ty nodded. “Pretty sure. It doesn’t work a hundred percent of the time, but it’s pretty reliable. I’ll put a cord in my pocket just in case it doesn’t work, so we can tie it around my neck while I’m shifted if we have to.”

Misty handed it to him, relieved. Silently, Diane disappeared into the house and returned with a length of twine, handing it to Ty. He thanked her sincerely.

“All right, Ryder,” Misty said. “We’re going to drive out until we reach a point where you think we should leave the road behind. You’re going to shift with us and lead the way. We’ll shift back and check in as we go, to see what you remember. If we can’t find him, we’ll radio the search-and-rescue teams and let them know they need to start running a search in the general area where you were. Okay?”

“Okay,” Ryder said, almost silent.

“All right,” Ty said, and the kid looked up. “Let’s get going, son.”

He stood up, still hunched and despondent, and followed them out to the car. Ty said, “I can drive if you need to make calls.”

“Good idea,” Misty said, handing him the keys to the Jeep. She motioned Ryder into the front, the better to give directions, and got in the back, already dialing her phone while Ty started the Jeep, talking quietly to Ryder as he pulled away.

Misty placed her first call to Laura, the night desk worker at the station, telling her to send out the deputies on duty and be ready to roust everyone out of bed if they had to, and secondly to Cal.

“Sheriff,” he answered, sounding tired but alert. “What can I do for you?”

“Cal, I hope I didn’t wake you.”

“Up with the baby, already awake,” he said, unbothered.

“We’ve got a missing teen up in the mountains somewhere, possibly injured, definitely was drinking. His friend ran back for help and can’t remember exactly where he left him.”

Next to her, Ryder hunched down even further.

“Got it,” Cal said. “Does he know if it was within Park boundaries?”

“He says further east. Can you get your people together to help?”

“Absolutely. You have a radio frequency?”

Misty gave it to him, and told him to rendezvous with the deputies. “Ty and I are headed up with the friend right now, since we’re the closest. We’ll be shifted, but we’ll check in periodically by radio, give you our location, let you know if we find him.”

“Good. We’ll be in touch.”

Misty hung up and turned to Ryder. “How’s it coming, kid?”

“It’s definitely this way,” he said tensely. “We headed out from behind my house. You can turn off into the woods from there, the road’ll take you part of the way.”

“Good,” Misty said.

“All right if I speed up?” Ty asked over his shoulder.

“Go ahead,” Misty said, and was startled at the burst of speed the Jeep put on.

“Combat driving training,” Ty explained as he hurtled along the road. His reflexes were shifter-fast, and he handled the Jeep as though he’d been driving it since it was brand-new. Every move he made was precise; it seemed like he started turning before anyone could even see the road start to curve, and never had to make a single abrupt swerve, despite the way the trees were blurring outside the window.

“Turn’s coming up,” Ryder said quietly, and Ty sent them off the main road and into the forest with a smoothness Misty couldn’t have managed yourself.

“Much call for combat driving these days?” she asked him, fascinated. “You seem to have kept your skills up.”

“Only avoiding Los Angeles drivers on their cell phones,” he said dryly. “I’ve done some offroading in the mountains here and there, but mostly it’s just something you don’t easily forget.”

“I guess not.”

Misty wondered how many more occasions she’d have to be grateful that Ty was here with her, ready to bring his considerable skills—and considerable brains, kindness, strength, and love—to any problem she faced.

She had a feeling it was going to be a lot.

***

Ty

Ty wasn’t sure it was right to get any enjoyment out of the situation—a kid might be seriously hurt, after all—but there was a certain exhilaration to be had in using his reflexes to the full extent of their capacity, for the first time in a long time.

His job in Los Angeles was challenging, but it was challenging on a mental and emotional level. Almost never did he have to exercise any physical effort—and if he did, that usually meant that something had gone very, very wrong.

Out here, he was starting to realize, the very day-to-day life would be partly outdoors, and the job of keeping the community safe could be hard on the muscles as well as the mind.

He was looking forward to it. He’d forgotten the pleasure that could come from this kind of exertion. If he could use his body as well as his mind to help stranded kids, well, that was just one more reason to belong up here in the wild instead of in the citified streets.

“We’re coming up on where we turned off into the woods,” Ryder said quietly, and Ty slowed.

Ryder was much, much more subdued than he’d been the other day. Which was understandable, but also reassuring. If his rulebreaking was more bravado than anything else, then there was still a good chance that they could get through to him, show him how he could turn his trajectory around from the destiny of petty crime he currently had stretching out in front of him.

He pulled the Jeep to a halt at the spot Ryder pointed out, and they all piled out of the car. “Okay,” Misty said. “We’re all going to shift, and you’re going to lead the way, Ryder. If at any point you get confused, or you’re not quite sure which way to go, stop and shift back. Don’t keep going if you don’t know exactly that you’re going in the right direction. Understood?”

He nodded.

“All right,” said Ty. “Let’s go.”

Ryder shifted first, into his lanky adolescent wolf form—gray with white markings, with the beginnings of a powerful frame. He’d have to grow into those bones, Ty thought, and hoped that one day the kid would be the sort of man his wolf form hinted he could be.

Misty shifted, too, into her deceptively delicate doe form. Ty had wondered, at first, at how his jaguar—who tended to turn his nose up a little at prey animals, to Ty’s exasperation—had had instant respect for the doe.

Fast and strong, the jaguar thought now, reiterating his earlier sentiments. Powerful even without claws and sharp teeth. A worthy mate.

Ty could only agree.

At first, Ryder was unerring. They ran swiftly through the woods after him; it was clear that he was scared for Zeke, and wanted to get to him as quickly as possible. Another point in his favor.

After they’d been running for a while, though, Ryder hesitated and slowed. He paused in a close thicket of trees, sniffed the air, looked right and left, and then shifted back to human. Ty and Misty followed suit.

“I don’t know—we wandered around for a while after this,” he admitted. “Back and forth—we weren’t paying attention to where we were going. I don’t know what’s the right way.”

Misty nudged Ty and reached for the radio; he handed it to her, and heard her reporting their location in a low voice. Ty focused on Ryder. The kid’s breath was getting faster, and Ty needed to make sure he didn’t work himself into a panic attack.

“Ryder, look at me,” he said. “We’re going to work on helping your memory, so we can find Zeke. First, I need you to take a deep breath.”

Focusing on the goal worked to bring Ryder’s attention back to Ty, and he followed Ty’s rising hands to inhale, and then falling hands to exhale. Already, he looked a little calmer.

“One more time,” Ty said, keeping his voice slow and even. “In....out. Good. Do you feel like your head’s a little clearer?”

Ryder nodded. “Yeah. Yeah. Sorry, I was just thinking—I didn’t mean to freak out on you—”

“No need to apologize,” he said. “We’re looking ahead. Let’s not focus on which way you went anymore. Think about where you were when Zeke fell. Was it higher up than this?”

Ryder nodded vigorously. “It was a lot of snow. And mostly rocks, not too many trees anymore.”

Where they were, it was still heavily forested, and there was only a light dusting of snow on the ground. Ty nodded encouragement. “What did the rocks look like?” He glanced back at Misty, who was now listening closely.

Ryder haltingly described a craggy area. “We were stoked because it was really cool-looking and we’d never explored over there before. We’re always looking for epic rock formations, you know, the really steep weird ones, and it was—like—a huge steep peak with a hole in the middle, almost a crevasse thing. And...that’s where he fell.” Ryder looked agonized. “I swear I would’ve brought him back if I could, but I didn’t know if I could even climb back out by myself, and I definitely couldn’t have done it trying to carry Zeke with me. I didn’t want us both to be stuck and then maybe he’d never wake up—”

“You did the absolute right thing,” Ty assured him, politely ignoring the tear that slipped down one of Ryder’s cheeks. “No one would’ve benefited from both of you going missing.”

The radio crackled. “Cal’s on his way,” Misty reported. “He’s got a couple of people with him. Lynn, too, and she’s bringing Ken and Nate.”

“Do you have any idea what he might be talking about?” Ty asked. “A big peak with a hole in the middle?”

Misty hesitated. “Maybe. Cal or Lynn might have a better idea, although we’re outside the Park, so—but I might. If I’m right, it’s this way.” She nodded northeast.

“Let’s go, then,” Ty said. “We can keep the others apprised. If we don’t find him, they can start searching elsewhere.”

Misty nodded, and they all shifted again, Misty leading the way this time.

***

Misty

Misty was still, continuously, impressed at Ty’s ability to talk to people. She knew that if she’d been the one talking to Ryder, the urgency of the situation would have bled into her voice. She probably would’ve been short and forceful, because a kid’s life was on the line and it was hard not to be.

Ty, on the other hand, had been completely calm, not putting any pressure on Ryder at all. Far from stressing him out, he’d clearly kept the kid from panicking. Misty wanted him on hand whenever she had to talk to a scared witness or a mutinous suspect.

And now they might know where they were going. Misty was once again grateful to her father, who had insisted that she know all of the territory around the town like the back of her hand. Don’t worry too much about the Park, he’d always said. There’s a whole crowd of people whose job it is to know the Park, to protect the tourists from getting themselves in trouble out there. Our job is to protect the town, so you make sure you know all the places a person could get themselves in trouble nearby, because if I know anything about people, you can bet you’ll be finding someone in every one of them over the course of your career.

And she could remember noticing a hole, hidden from anyone who hadn’t climbed up the steep rocks around it—not high up on a peak, where big gashes in the stone were common, and anyone who was climbing would likely be experienced and have equipment with them, but down beneath the tree line.

So she led the way, trotting forward as the terrain got more rocky and difficult, remembering the landmarks she’d internalized so long ago.

These days, she didn’t have time to get this far up, usually; her runs tended to be restricted to the woods immediately behind her house. But she remembered vaguely which way to go.

They arrived at a steep climb upwards, and suddenly Ryder bounded ahead. Her doe startled, prancing to the side before Misty could clamp down on the instinct of Wolf! and stay put.

But then Ty came up next to her, and her doe calmed immediately. The presence of her mate meant that no predator could hurt them.

Ryder was pulling ahead, so Misty corralled her doe and leapt after him. He must have started to remember the way. Thank God.

They climbed further and further up, as the trees thinned and the snow grew heavier, until finally Misty could see a huge rock, a dark shape rising over the sparse forest. Ryder stopped at its base and waited.

When they arrived, he shifted, and nodded to the stone. “Up there.”

“You climbed up,” Misty interpreted, “and then he fell down the other side.”

Ryder nodded. “There’s not a way to get around—you have to go up and over. I tried, after.”

Misty radioed again. Lynn immediately knew where they were, which was a relief, because giving directions through the night-dark woods based only on landmarks would have been difficult.

“Okay,” Ty was saying. “Help is on the way. But we want to get to Zeke as soon as possible, make sure he’s all right. Ryder, you’re coming with us, so let’s scale this rock, all right?”

Ryder nodded bravely. Misty wondered if it was necessary to bring the delinquent teen along—what if he fell, too?—but she trusted Ty’s judgment.

In human form, they scaled the rock, which had just enough of a slope, and plenty of jagged bits to grab. Ty went first, and Misty made Ryder go between them, just in case. Misty’s hands were cold and scraped by the time they got to the top, but no one had fallen.

They made their way across the top of the rock to where it started to slope again. Misty could see the problem Ryder had had. They were on top of one solid rocky outcropping that had a rift in the middle of it. However, the rift didn’t extend all the way to the ends—it was more of a long hole, with steep slopes, almost completely vertical, on all sides. She would have been hesitant to commit to climbing back up with an unconscious person.

“All right,” Ty said. “I’m going to go down there and check on him.”

“I want to come with you,” Ryder said fiercely.

Ty glanced at Misty, checking in on what she thought.

“If you think he’ll be useful, and you’re confident you can keep both of you safe,” Misty said. She trusted Ty’s judgment.

“All right,” Ty said. “We’re going to climb down. It’s not far enough to get seriously hurt if you’re paying attention. Then we’re going to assess Zeke’s situation, see if we can wake him up. The sheriff’s going to wait up here to help us up if we need it. Understood?”

“Understood,” said Ryder.

Ty nodded sharply. “Let’s go.”

***

Ty

In Ty’s experience, when someone was behaving immaturely, the worst thing to do was to treat them like they were immature. A delinquent teen, in particular, was never going to shape up if everyone assumed he didn’t know any better—whether they excused his behavior, or tried to punish him into knowing better, nothing was going to change.

If, on the other hand, you put the kid in a situation where he had real responsibility and he knew it, and where the consequences of his behavior were obvious and up-front and mattered to him, he’d probably shape up. And if he didn’t, he needed more serious help.

Ryder was shaping up.

He followed Ty down the other side of the rock with careful concentration. It wasn’t a long or difficult climb; Zeke must have hurt himself by going down unexpectedly, maybe headfirst. Ty really, really hoped that he wasn’t seriously injured or worse.

They were going to find out soon. As they climbed down, a dim shape at the bottom resolved itself into the motionless form of a lanky teenage boy.

Ty landed solidly on the snow at the bottom of the hole, and Ryder followed suit. Immediately, the kid rushed over to his friend. “He’s breathing!” he reported.

“Good, good. Don’t try to move him yet,” Ty instructed, coming over next to him.

What he saw reassured him. Zeke wasn’t conscious, which was a bad sign, but his neck was at a normal angle, there wasn’t any obvious blood, and when Ty checked his pulse, it was strong and even.

He sat back on his heels. “Okay. So far, so good. It’s not great that he hasn’t woken up, but I don’t think his neck is broken.”

Ryder blanched at the idea. “Can I—what can we do?”

“We’re still not going to move him—better to wait for the emergency crews for that. But you can talk to him, touch his hand if you want.”

Ryder leaned over his friend, grabbing his hand roughly. “Hey. Zeke. Hey, idiot—wake up!”

“He might not,” Ty cautioned softly. “But don’t think the worst if he doesn’t. He’s a shifter, he’s resilient. Takes a lot to put us down.”

Ryder sat back, then shook himself, blurred, and became a wolf. He nosed at Zeke’s palm, sniffing him. Then he sat back on his haunches and howled.

Zeke’s eyes snapped open.

Ty started, and then immediately leaned forward. “Zeke, hi. Hey. Don’t try to move just yet. Can you talk?”

“What—” Zeke tried.

Ryder was frozen in place, staring down at him. Then he growled and shifted back. “Zeke! You goddamn—I thought you were dead!”

What?” Zeke repeated, blinking hard. “Ryder—what—what’s this asshole doing here?”

“Watch your language,” Ty said easily, feeling much, much better about being mouthed off to than he usually did.

“He’s saving your dumb life,” Ryder snapped.

“All right, all right. Zeke, how do you feel? Can you feel your fingers and toes?”

“Uh...” Zeke said, sounding startled. His hand twitched, then his fingers moved. His toes were in boots, but after a second, his feet shifted in place. “They feel—really, really cold.”

“That’s fine, it’s cold out. But you can feel them?”

“Yeah.”

“How about everything else? Anything numb? Anything hurt?”

“Um, I have a headache. A really, really, really bad headache.”

“Okay. You probably hit your head. But if your fingers and toes work, you’re likely going to be okay.” Head injuries could still be dangerous for shifters, but the likelihood of an unhealed brain injury going unnoticed was much less than it would be for a regular human. “We’ll get you to the doctor just in case, though. Anything else hurt?”

Zeke lifted his hands gingerly, stretched his legs carefully. Ty recognized the tentative movements from occasional mishaps he’d had himself, the slow dance of Am I okay? Will I fall apart if I move?

“Shoulder,” he said finally. “Left shoulder. It hurts a lot.”

Ty went around to Zeke’s left side and took a look at it. It was swelling, but didn’t seem to be dislocated.

“Probably landed on it and your head when you fell,” he said. “We should be careful—whoa, hold on there!”

Too late. Zeke was pushing himself up into a sitting position. He stopped halfway up, one hand coming to his forehead. Ryder darted forward to support him, and Ty sighed. Well, if he was sitting up okay, he was probably good to move.

Shifter healing took care of a lot. Ty had a feeling that if Zeke had been a regular human, the fall would’ve been a lot more serious.

As it was, though, Zeke was grumbling about being able to sit up by himself, thanks. Ty took a few steps away and looked up.

Misty was crouched at the top of the hole, looking down at them. Ty had been too distracted until now to notice the dramatic way the tall, craggy stone walls rose up around them, the world blocked out except for a slice of star-spattered sky...and, of course, his mate.

“He okay?” Misty called down.

“Mostly,” Ty called back up. “Hurt his shoulder and took a good bump on the head. He should definitely get checked out, but it doesn’t look like he’s in any real danger.”

Misty’s shoulders relaxed. “Good, I’ll let the others know.”

“We should still get a team up here to get him out,” Ty said. “No one should really be free-climbing this without any equipment or spotters.”

“Says the man who went down with his bare hands and a dumb teenaged boy.”

“That was different,” Ty protested. “There was someone in danger.”

“Uh-huh.” Misty shook her head and turned away to radio the others.

Ty felt a surge of affection and relief. Zeke was safe, and likely to recover without a problem. He and his mate were together. Ty had already managed to do something useful for the inhabitants of his new home.

Overall, a good day’s work.

***

Misty

Misty waited on top of the rock, looking down at the forest below, and so she was able to see the first movements in the trees.

Soon, the dark shapes resolved into a full pack’s worth of big cats. She’d never seen anything like it. A lion, a panther, a tiger, and a lynx headed the group, and then behind them, almost invisible against the dark snow and rock, a phalanx of snow leopards, close the ground and moving so smoothly they seemed to flow over the landscape.

As she watched, one of the leopards spotted her, and bounded ahead of the group. It leapt, grabbing onto an outcropping in the stone with its claws, and scaled the side of the small cliff as though it were climbing a ladder. The others followed suit, graceful and quick, and the panther and tiger, and then at last, the lynx and the lion.

At the top, everyone shifted back. The leader of the snow leopards turned out to be Cal, the head ranger at the Park and the final missing member of the old Marine crowd. The rest of them she knew by sight, though not well: tall, quiet Grey; easy, affable Jeff; then Zach and Teri, a mated pair, and Zach’s brother Joel and his mate Nina—Mavis’s daughter—and of course Mavis and Colonel Hanes. We must have the largest pack of snow leopards in North America, she thought all of a sudden.

“Cal,” she said, coming forward to shake his hand. “Thanks for coming out so quickly.”

“Of course,” he said instantly. “Where’s the kid? Medical attention needed?”

“Nothing emergency, thank God,” Misty said. “Ty would probably appreciate a second set of eyes, and then it’s just getting him up and out of there, and back to town to see a doctor.”

“You got it,” Cal said, then turned back to the group and started giving quiet, sharp instructions.

What followed was the most coordinated series of actions Misty had ever seen. The rangers and the veterans quickly split into two groups, with one climbing down into the little ravine—just as gracefully in human form as they’d been as shifters—and congregating around Ty and the two boys.

There was a short exchange between them, and then Zeke was lifted between two sets of hands—Cal and Joel—and carried smoothly to the side of the rock, where Grey, the biggest of them, took the boy on his back. Someone had brought a set of rope—wrapped around their waist when they shifted, probably—and Zeke was quickly secured to Grey, while another rope was lowered from the top. Grey started to climb up, with the others following closely and ready in case of any difficulty.

Meanwhile, Carlos, Wilson, Ken, and Nate were at the top with Misty, bracing the rope and leaning down to help Grey over the top and get Zeke out of the makeshift harness.

It was all over in minutes, and Misty had to marvel at the ease and efficiency. Zeke was blinking in surprise.

Behind them, Ty and Ryder climbed up as well, and everyone breathed for a moment in the cold night air.

Then Misty stepped forward. “Son,” she said to Zeke, “you’ve caused everyone a hell of a lot of trouble tonight.”

He winced, pulling his shoulder up. “Uh,” he said. “Sorry.” He looked sheepishly around at all the adults standing with them. “That you had to go to all this trouble.”

Misty let out her breath. “We’re just glad you’re okay, kid.”

He blinked, his eyes going wide. “You are?”

He sounded so surprised. Misty rubbed her forehead. “Yes,” she said. “Believe it or not, Zeke, I really don’t want you to get hurt. I’d rather have you around.”

“And making trouble?” he asked with a ghost of a smile.

“Preferably not that,” she amended. “But that’s all right. I have an idea or two of what might keep you and your friend out of trouble for a while.”

“Whatever you want, ma’am,” Ryder said fervently, as Zeke looked over in surprise. “Seriously. You saved his life.”

Misty smiled. “Well, let’s get him back to town and make sure everything’s okay before anyone makes any promises.”

“I don’t think that’ll be a problem, with this crew,” Ty rumbled next to her.

Misty looked around at the group of capable shifters around here. “I bet not.”

***

Misty sighed as she unlocked her front door, Ty right behind her. “That was a long night.”

The sky was starting to lighten above them, heralding the late winter dawn. “Long but successful,” Ty said as he shut the door behind him.

Misty nodded. “Thank God.”

“Do you actually have a plan for Ryder and Zeke, or were you just being ominous?” he wondered, stripping off his jacket.

“Oh, that. Yeah, I’m going to put them to work on the community center building. Carlos was saying the roof needs some repairing. They want to climb all over things, they can be useful doing it.”

“Genius,” Ty chuckled. “And they’ll go along with it, they’re so grateful. Ryder especially.”

“Ryder was conscious for the whole thing. But if Zeke protests, you can bet his mom will be on our side.”

Diane had been effusive in her gratitude, tears staining her cheeks as she hugged her son. Misty had taken the opportunity to assure her that she wanted nothing bad for the Bigelow family, that she hoped Zeke would make a full recovery, and that she wanted to make sure everyone came together as a community more often in the future. Miraculously, Diane had agreed.

They’d have to see how it all went, going forward. Meanwhile...”Now I’m going to sleep for about ten years.”

“Me, too,” Ty said fervently.

Misty had work tomorrow, but after tonight, she was letting herself show up late. For now—“You haven’t been back to the Davidsons’,” she realized suddenly. “You don’t have any clothes here.”

“I’ll figure something out,” Ty yawned. “Don’t want to leave your side. Can’t wait to crawl into bed with you and sleep forever.”

“Mmm,” Misty said, relaxing into his embrace. “Let’s do that.”

Slowly, they undressed, leaving their clothes where they lay. Misty had enough presence of mind to close her heavy curtains before they both collapsed on her bed. Ty wrapped her up in his arms, warm and close after the bite of the winter air outside, and Misty relaxed into sleep.

***

She woke to a feeling of absolute warmth and comfort. Misty wasn’t the sort of person who had a fuzzy brain when she woke up; she always opened her eyes and got up right away, ready to go about her day.

But it was turning out that with Ty around, she felt the temptation to linger a bit longer.

They were still wrapped up in each other, pressed together—although not in the same position they’d been in last night, with Ty behind her, holding her close. Now they were facing each other, which must mean that they’d moved around in the night, but even unconscious, had wanted to stay close.

Misty was glad of that. It seemed like her conscious and her subconscious were on the same page.

Then she felt Ty slowly stretch against her, his whole long body moving in place as he woke up. She smiled to herself.

Then Ty said, “Mmm.” His mouth brushed her neck, with a rasp of stubble.

Heat flashed through her. Misty turned into the touch, feeling warm and liquid, like any tension or stress had totally drained out of her overnight.

Ty’s hand drifted down her side, palming her hip, and Misty blinked her eyes open and smiled at him. “Morning.”

“Morning,” he rumbled, and leaned in for a kiss.

How anyone could taste good immediately after waking up was a mystery to her, but Ty managed it somehow. She leaned forward, drinking him in, as his hand drifted around to her front, exploring the curls between her legs. She parted her knees, letting him in.

Oh,” he said softly, as he found her clit. “You’re already wet.”

“I woke up with you,” she murmured, smiling against his mouth. “Besides, you’re a little interested yourself, I see.” She nudged her hip against his cock, which was half-hard and growing.

“Guilty,” he said. His fingers traced over her clit, rubbing softly, and Misty moaned, pushing her hips forward.

“Come on,” she said, wanting him inside her.

“I don’t know.” Ty grinned. “Maybe I should take a little more time to be sure that you’re ready—”

He cut off, laughing, as Misty pushed him over onto his back.

“Or now,” he said, grinning up at her. “Now works.”

“Glad to hear it,” she said, already reaching down to guide him inside her. “Oh—oh, yes—”

This angle, Misty quickly discovered, was a different kind of intense. As she sank down onto him, she could swear that she was taking him in deeper than she ever had before. His cock pressed against different spots, and when she shifted her hips, she saw stars.

Ty groaned, reaching up to grab her hips. “I love seeing you above me like this,” he said breathlessly. “With the light behind you—you look like a goddess.” Then he grinned. “A really sexy goddess.”

Misty half-laughed, half gasped, and started to move.

Being in control of everything was another new experience with Ty, and she found she loved it just as much as the other way around—she got to watch Ty’s chest heave with his indrawn breaths, feel his hips surge beneath her, his hands clench, as she moved over him.

And the way she felt, with his eyes devouring her, moving exactly as she pleased to get as much pleasure as she could—

Misty had never thought of herself as a sensual person, much less a sexual one. But right now, she felt earthy and sexy and hot, and it was as wonderful as it was astonishing.

She shifted her hips, getting his cock right up against the best spots inside, her, and picked up the pace as the pleasure built. Ty was thrusting up to meet her, now, and he moved one of his hands to touch where they were joined, finding her clit again and pressing hard against it.

Misty came in a wrenching rush of pleasure, a shriek escaping her as she climaxed around Ty’s cock, her hips jerking wildly. Ty’s eyes fell shut as she clamped down on him, the waves of orgasm clenching her so tight around him she thought she might pass out from how intense it felt.

He pulled her hips down to him as his own climax hit, pulsing inside her. Misty shuddered softly, loving how he felt as he came.

She held herself up with great effort until he relaxed, and then let herself collapsed on top of him, panting. “Wow,” she sighed.

“Wow,” he agreed. “We’re doing that again.”

“I think I’m a little tired for it right now.”

She couldn’t see his grin, but she could feel it against her temple. “I’ll let you have a snack and a rest, how about that.”

Her own grin threatened to take over her face. “I guess if you’re going to be that generous.”

“Mmm, here,” and he rolled them so he could get out from under her. He kissed her softly and disengaged. “Right back.”

Misty couldn’t quite summon the energy to ask him where on earth he could be going, when obviously the best place to be was right here in bed, catching a quick post-wakeup nap.

She dozed for a few minutes, or maybe a little longer than a few minutes, and then woke up again to the most delicious smells she could remember.

Her stomach growled, reminding her that she’d had some serious exercise this morning, but no sustenance so far.

She sat up in bed just as Ty came in, carrying a tray.

Misty stared. “I didn’t know I had that.”

“It was buried in the back of a cupboard. Here, scoot back.”

She did, putting her back against the headboard, and he set the tray in her lap. Pancakes, scrambled eggs with all sorts of stuff in them, coffee—

Misty guessed she did have all of the ingredients for this in her kitchen—milk, eggs, flour, sugar, cheese, ham—but she almost never took the time to put them all together. The ham and cheese were for sandwiches, the flour and sugar were wistfully optimistic for a time when she might actually bake something, the milk was for cereal.

This was better.

She took a long drink of coffee. “Mmm,” she sighed.

Ty shook his head, getting into bed next to her. “That noise you make when you drink coffee should be illegal.”

“But then you’d never get to hear it,” she objected, smiling. “I am the sheriff. I’d have to keep quiet or arrest myself.”

He laughed. “Okay. Illegal to do in public, how about that? Then I’m the only one who ever gets to hear it.”

“That sounds fair. I’ll see if I can get a new statute put in the books.” She took a bite of pancake. “Oh, wow, this is delicious.”

Ty had brought two forks, and he dug in with her. “Mmm. If I do say so myself, you’re right.”

“You’re going to spoil me,” Misty said, trying the eggs. They were fantastic, light and fluffy and perfect. “You keep bringing me coffee in bed, and now breakfast, too. I’m going to start getting used to it.”

Ty reached over and tilted her chin up for a syrup-flavored kiss. “Well,” he said quietly as they separated, “good. You deserve some spoiling. I hope you get so used to it that you expect it every morning for the rest of your life.”

Misty looked up at him, suddenly aware of a catch in her throat. “The rest of my life,” she repeated quietly.

“Because that’s how long I’m going to be here with you,” he murmured. “Bringing you coffee in bed, and loving you more than I’ve ever loved anything in my life.”

“Not fair,” Misty managed. “When do I get to bring you coffee in bed and love you more than anything I’ve ever loved in my life?”

He laughed that big laugh that she loved. “We’ll take turns,” he promised.

Misty kissed him again. “Deal.”

Epilogue: Misty

“I’m nervous,” Misty confessed.

“I promise, there’s no need to be nervous,” Ty said.

Misty frowned up at him. “I always spend Christmas working. I don’t know how to do Christmas.”

“Trust me, with Iris and the kids, you’re not going to have to do anything,” Ty said dryly. “They do Christmas enough for everyone.”

Ty’s whole family had decided, apparently as one, that they absolutely had to come up to Montana for Christmas to meet Ty’s new mate. They were on their way from the airport now, en masse.

“Why are they all showing up at once?” Misty wondered for the first time. “Aren’t most of the kids in college all over the place?”

“They coordinated their flights,” Ty said with a shrug. “They’re a force to be reckoned with, strategically.”

Thanks, no doubt in part, to ex-Marine Uncle Ty. Uncle Ty, whom they all adored, and whom Misty had stolen away to the frozen north. Her nervousness increased.

“Here they come!” Ty said, sounding delighted. He went to the door, where a big van was pulling into the drive. Misty took a deep breath and followed.

The crowd that piled out of the van seemed, at first, to be impossibly large, like Ty’s family was its own football team or something. Eventually, they resolved into eight distinct people, but it took some careful attention on Misty’s part.

“Misty, this is my sister, Iris.” Ty had his hand on her shoulder and was moving forward to hug a tall, beautiful woman with her hair in a million tiny braids.

Iris returned the hug with interest, and then came forward to take Misty’s hand in both of hers. “Misty, I’m so happy to finally meet you. Sorry to descend on you in force like this.” She smiled. “The kids are probably going to want to spend most of the time shifting and exploring, so hopefully you and I can get to know each other in peace.”

“After the big party,” Ty put in.

“After the big party,” Iris agreed. She let Misty’s hand go, but it was taken up again almost immediately by her husband.

“Can’t say how impressed I am by what Ty’s told us about you,” he said sincerely. “Sounds like you’re doing a great job of keeping the peace up here.”

“Thanks,” Misty said, feeling a little overwhelmed.

Not by the need to impress Ty’s family, like she’d thought she would be, but by how nice they were being.

Ty, meanwhile, was being swarmed by a gaggle of young adults, all wanting to tell him about their final exams or their new jobs or whatever else had been going on in their lives. He was hugging everyone and looking happy as a clam.

Misty thought about watching Ty be that happy, about getting to know the smiling couple who seemed to already think Misty hung the moon. About really doing Christmas, for maybe the first time in her life—her father had mostly worked on Christmas, talking grimly about family gatherings and the potential for violence.

Looking around at the delighted faces surrounding her, Misty thought maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all.

***

Ty

The grand opening of the community center went off without a hitch.

After a month and a half of repairs, restorations, painting, furniture installment, and decoration, they’d decided to officially open it to the public for a big community holiday party.

Not that the public hadn’t been the ones doing all the work on it already—Ty didn’t think there was a single person in town who hadn’t been inside already at least once—but this was the first time everyone would be there simply to have fun.

Iris’ mouth dropped open as they pulled up in front of the building. “Ty, it’s beautiful.”

It really was. With its new cheerful red-trimmed paint job, covered in snow, the rambling structure looked almost like something out of a fairy tale. It was all lit up with Christmas lights, and the windows were glowing golden in the twilight.

“Come on, I can’t wait to meet everyone,” Iris was saying, and they all piled out of the van and went on inside.

There was a whole flurry of activity the second they came inside. Iris and Steve wanted to meet all of Ty’s old friends, and he wanted to introduce them to all of his new ones, and the kids were making a beeline for the tables piled with food. Ty saw Rayanne introducing herself to Zeke while piling a plate high with little sandwiches, and smiled to himself.

Zeke and Ryder had really come through with this place. They’d worked hard on restoring it, first out of guilt, Ty knew.

But Ty also knew that working on a place like this was the perfect way to get a kid to start feeling some ownership and responsibility for his efforts. It wasn’t long before the boys had been excited to show off the work they’d done, and now they were as invested in this place as anybody.

Misty called him a genius. Ty called himself someone who’d once been a teenaged boy himself. For him, the Marines had been the thing that really showed him what it meant to invest yourself in something. He was glad Ryder and Zeke had something closer to home.

And he had a private hope that one or both of them would think of joining up as a deputy after they graduated. Their perspectives on the sheriff’s office had certainly changed since Misty had been instrumental in saving Zeke’s life, and Ty had already had a couple of serious talks with each of them about what a man should be and do—something their dads hadn’t ever bothered with. He’d really hammered home the point of what Misty was trying to accomplish around here, and it seemed like they were starting to get it.

Speaking of Misty—he looked around and found her deep in conversation with Lynn, Stella, Mavis, and Pauline. As he watched, Iris came over to say hello, and was immediately drawn in.

“Well?” Steve said next to him. “How’re you settling in, up here?”

Ty smiled. “I have to tell you, completely honestly: it’s like I never lived anywhere else.”

“That good, huh,” Steve said, smiling back.

Ty nodded. “I wouldn’t give up those years with you guys and the kids. I’ll always be Uncle Ty, and Great-Uncle Ty, eventually. But living up here in the wild, and being with Misty...it’s going to be home forever.”

Misty looked up, as though she’d sensed him talking about her, and met his eyes. “‘Scuse me,” Ty told Steve, who gestured him away with a grin.

He went over to the women, just as Misty detached herself. “Hi,” she said, her eyes warm with love and happiness.

“Hi,” Ty said back. He bent down and kissed her softly.

“Mm,” she sighed. “What’s up?”

“I just had to come over here and tell you that I love you,” Ty said seriously. “It’s important, so I didn’t want you to have to wait.”

Misty laughed. “I waited long enough to hear it,” she said, her eyes sparkling. “My whole life. Glad the waiting’s over.”

“Over forever,” Ty promised. “How’s the nervousness?”

Misty sighed happily. “Gone completely. Your family’s lovely.”

“I have to agree,” Ty said. “Though I’m biased.”

“With good reason.” Misty looked around at the slowly-growing crowd, the tables piled with food, the kids running around. “This is a good thing we’re doing here, isn’t it.”

“It is.” Ty kissed her again. “I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life doing exactly this, with you.”

“Me, neither.” Misty leaned into him. “I love you.”

He held her close, breathed in her scent, and thought that he’d never been this happy.

End