The narrow sliver of darkness outside the shop gave Dani Neville barely enough room to press herself out of sight. One hand on the doorknob, one working the lockpick, she pressed her ear against the heavy paneling and trusted her lookout to watch for suspicious glances their direction.
Fifteen seconds later the third lock slid open with a soft sigh, and Dani was through the door with her partner in crime, safely hidden from curious eyes. Before them lay the empty retail section of the Wolf Brothers Wild Adventures shop, neat rows of shelves loaded with outdoor camping gear and clothing.
Ignoring the distraction, although she did appreciate adventure toys, Dani stuck to her task, glancing around for security cameras.
One in each of three corners—only two were fakes, which anyone in the know could tell at a glance. And someone who was basically a princess of the shifter world shouldn’t know, but hey, everyone had to have a hobby.
Dani flicked a finger toward the live feed, and Michele rushed ahead, crossing the floor like a shadow until she was directly under the security camera. She leapt skyward, and a second later the camera was covered.
Michele landed catlike, turning to snap a bubble in her gum. She flashed a thumbs-up then the two of them headed toward the back of the building.
Less than a minute had passed since they’d arrived at the front of the shop. After all the work it had taken to get to this point, for the first time things were going their way.
“I can smell them.” Michele spoke quietly. “Two wolves, two bears…and there’s a third wolf who hangs out here occasionally, but she’s not here right now.”
Dani scanned the walls for the next thing that was going to help them. “I’ve been tracking my sister forever, it seems. It’s time we find the truth.”
“Don’t jump the gun,” Michele warned. “You know what Charlene says.”
The reminder to follow the rules poked Dani the wrong way. She didn’t want to pull back her eager rush forward. Not after so long, but…Michele was right.
Dani fought a grumble of discontent. “It’s important to meet your objective, but more important to get out alive.”
Michele joined her in front of a wall full of keys, pulling two off and tossing one to Dani. “I was more thinking along the lines of her ‘hey, chicks, don’t get caught’ advice, but if you want to have every single thing she’s ever taught you memorized word for word, you go girl. Overachiever.”
A grin slipped free. “You ready for this?”
“I was born ready.”
Sheesh. Cheesy. “I would gag, but you’d probably spit up a hairball just to top me.” Dani fought down a horde of butterflies cavorting in her belly. It was a strange sensation, to be so close to potentially meeting one of her biggest goals. “I’m serious, Mich, this is the best chance we’ve had to date. I’m ninety percent sure we’ve found my sister, but if anything happens, regroup at the rendezvous point, then contact Charlene and see what she suggests.”
Michele offered a high-five before prowling over to the row of immaculate skidoos.
Dani opened the garage door before picking her machine. The engine vibrated with power as she guided them out the door and into the alley. She wove her way through the back roads of the small northern town of Chicken toward the mountains, following the trail left by three skidoos. Her targets had departed not even an hour ago.
A true thrill of excitement rushed her veins.
For years Dani been searching for information about what had happened to her sister Amanda after she’d accepted an arranged marriage and left their home on Kodiak Island. The island was inaccessible to outsiders to protect the secretive and rare ghost bears who lived there, but the layers of security made it difficult to get a lot of news in or out.
The useless bits of information leadership allowed to trickle in were so frustrating, Dani had finally taken matters into her own hands. She’d built a ham radio, and that one stubborn act triggered a chain reaction of events. While silently listening to conversations from around the world, Dani noticed too many overlapping coincidences. Names, events, code words even. At first she thought it was her overactive imagination, but eventually the puzzle pieces fell into place.
She’d stumbled into a hidden collective of shifters.
Not just hidden from the human population, but hidden deep even from their own clans and packs. Wolves, bears, cats and others, working together in the shadows in the hopes someday they could make a better world for those who needed help.
Those nights spent huddled secretly by the radio, talking with others in Russia and the Scandinavian countries, had changed Dani’s life forever. She’d been young, barely fourteen when she’d broken into their ranks, but they’d opened up a world of possibilities to her outside her isolated upbringing.
And then came the call from Charlene.
Head of an ultra-secret task force designed to do covert work within the shifter community, Dani’s youth didn’t seem to bother her. Charlene sent mentors on the sly to Kodiak Island to train her, and Dani had thrived at the challenge. She’d worked tirelessly between training sessions, learning all sorts of new skills. None of them had treated her as if she was too young. They’d sensed how much she wanted to learn, which was why she was ready to take her full place on the team.
She banked the skidoo sharply, headed farther up the snowy landscape. Snow flew skyward, cold air rushing past making her cheeks tingle.
This first excursion was for her—Charlene had given her the resources to ensure the recent rumours regarding her sister were true. If they were, Dani would be free to travel the world.
But first she had to know one hundred percent that her sister’s horrible situation had been fixed. It had taken too long to discover Amanda was in danger, and then too long to trigger events to make her safe, but Charlene assured her it was now accomplished.
Even as Dani gripped the wheel tighter, she felt a smile tug her lips. Her future was opening before her, and she couldn’t wait.
After thirty-three years Cole had decided prophecies were the stupidest invention ever.
After all, it hadn’t been anything he’d done that had caused a magical-guru-pixie-whatever to show up at his and his twin’s christening to spout off mumbo-jumbo. Nope, the spooky geas that had been laid upon his brow had a whole lot to do, he figured, with the roll of the dice and being in the wrong place at the right time.
But the absolute worst thing was when said mystical woo–woo didn’t come true beyond in the most annoying, irritating way.
He was coming at it from a perspective of never quite believing in the first place, but when a shifter grew up in a very remote pack, most of whom were quite superstitious, the arrival of one of the rarely spotted northern-mystics at the most inopportune moments kind of packed a punch.
It was bad enough the wolverine had shown up at his and his twin brother’s birth. But when the mystic had also attended their pack acceptance, and their first shifts—aiming her pointed attention at Cole like a laser-locked missile—after all that even a stoic like Cole could be excused for having begun to believe the unbelievable.
The only clear thing in the prophecy had been the instruction to learn, so Cole had. Anything. Everything. Physical disciplines like fighting and tae kwon do. More scholarly pursuits.
Learning just about anything came easy to Cole—with one exception. By the time he’d finished high school, he knew human and shifter political divisions from around the world as well as he knew his local territory. He had a smattering of languages he could speak with some skill, and could take apart any engine and rebuild it. He knew enough chemistry to make everything from explosives to medicinal remedies.
As long as his task didn’t involve cooking to provide edible food, he was more than competent.
For whatever reason his twin, Caden, hadn’t been included in the prophecy. Still, when his brother bumped into his mate only days after turning twenty-one, a very welcome and unusual situation, Cole had hoped it was a sign that he too would finally get more answers…
Now, twelve years later, fuck the fairy tales.
Well, actually, not, but come on. He was tired of waiting. Tired of learning, because his training was getting wider and wilder as he looked for new, unexplored topics—heck his latest certification was as a Reiki therapist.
Running the adventure shop with his brother was the only saving grace in his unending state of limbo.
“Lead the way,” his brother ordered, grinning briefly before gunning the engine on his snowmobile.
Cole gripped the handles and increased his speed, guiding their small group out of the remote town of Chicken and onto the wintry mountain swells just out of town. He adjusted his headset, clicking open the radio connection between himself and his brother. “You’re a brave man.”
Caden’s soft chuckle echoed over the line. “Because…?”
“You’ve got a woman riding with you who, if anything happens, a certain oversized bear is going to perform an appendectomy on you, and he’s going to go through your throat.”
Their guests for the day on the little skidoo adventure were visiting bigwigs. Cole didn’t need to know the details, but he’d been warned by town leadership and the enormous grizzly competently riding beside them that their lives were on the line if anything so much as ruffled a hair on the petite female shifter’s head.
Yada yada. Cole wasn’t scared, but the threat did make the day more interesting.
His brother was just as nonchalant about the situation. “Hey, this isn’t anywhere as bad as the time we had that set of triplets who managed to get us lost in that freak blizzard. We’re only going for a short ride.”
“Still say you’re a brave man,” Cole muttered. He adjusted the receiver, the cool wind against his cheeks brushing away a little of his ever-present frustration. “How’s she doing?”
“Pretty good. Shutting off the headset so I can let her take the controls for a bit.”
Cole signed off. The little bear his brother was escorting was a particularly fine guest for Wolf Brothers Wild Adventures to have scored. The big lumbering grizzly bear by her side was obviously more than a bodyguard, and Cole cracked a smile even though it hurt his cheeks. Yeah, it was clear the two of them were going to be cozying up sooner than later, and that wasn’t a prediction because he had any real prophetic knowledge. It was because he had a damn nose. The petite little shifter had been trying to hide it, but the grizzly hadn’t bothered. The two of them were hot for each other.
Cole wished them well, even as a streak of red-hot jealousy raced through him.
Stupid prophecy and stupid mystic foretellers. Stupid future that wouldn’t conveniently show up when he wanted it to.
Suddenly Cole couldn’t take it any longer. He’d been forced to watch Caden snuggle with his sweetie that morning, and now these two bears with their future shenanigans written all over them taunted him unknowingly with their togetherness, pointing far too clearly to his lack of mate-hood.
Oh, boo fucking hoo. He was an emo wreck, and there was only one solution for that problem. They’d pulled to a stop at the top of the rise, the view over the rolling mountains sharp and clear. With a cold wind and fading sunshine, at least the day was cooperating.
Cole pulled off his shirt. “Sorry, guys, but I need a little time in my fur. You’re welcome to join me, or I can run alongside the rest of you from here on.”
Nods of acceptance greeted him. Thank God for shifters who understood the need to get furry. This was the only pure and perfect thing he had to enjoy.
His wolf, who was waiting far more patiently than the human side, petted him.
She’ll arrive, his wolf consoled even as the animal part rose to the foreground and took control, limbs rearranging as the man fell away. Cole shook his fur and braced his paws on the snowy ground, feeling his animal’s connection to the earth. She’ll be here soon.
If only Cole had as much optimism about their future. Twelve years of expectancy was too long. He wasn’t holding his breath anymore.
Dani’s anticipation strengthened as they crested another of the ridges, following closely on the tracks in the snow before them. They were close now, so close she could almost smell it.
It smelled like bear and wolf, petrol and oil along with the sharp crispness of the early-winter air she sucked into her lungs with icy freshness. Darkness was growing, though. The sun had dropped behind the distant mountains, and reds and golds were streaks shining across the sky like rays from enormous spotlights.
The bears and wolves had left their skidoos and were running in shifted form over the snowy plain. There was so much joy in their movement, even from a distance, that Dani wasn’t pleased to be interrupting that, even for a good reason.
It was the best of reasons, though. She aimed straight at the smaller of the two bear forms. One chance. One minute with her sister might be all it took to be sure.
Her luck broke, and instead of being able to grab that moment, the wolves turned, sprinting back toward their sleds.
“Abandon the plan,” Michele shouted.
“But—” Dani clamped her lips together. No use in complaining. Michele was right. It was the only way. They’d give up today and try again tomorrow “Fine. Head north.”
The river beyond them was wide and slow enough a heavy layer of ice should have already built up. More than sufficient to act as a bridge to the other side if they were quick.
“Good luck,” Michele offered, before gunning her engine and streaking ahead, weaving left and right and mixing her fresh tracks with older ones on the surface of the snow.
Although there wasn’t much use in trying to make fake tracks when there were suddenly two speeding vehicles racing after them. Dani blinked, glancing over her shoulder again in shock.
Naked? Why the heck were the men on the skidoos naked?
Damn. That had to be mighty chilly.
She shivered in sympathy even as she shadowed Michele around a corner. The river was fast approaching, but with their followers, they couldn’t afford to take chances. Dani aimed her machine away from Michele’s, and sure enough, one of the trailing skidoos broke apart to track her alone.
Dani grinned. Banking sharply sent the man behind her into a tailspin as he attempted to double back on her. She had more maneuverability with her light frame and gentle hand on the controls. A minute later she crossed paths with Michele, the two of them creating a moment of sheer panic where the wolves had to stop or crash into each other.
Michele sailed her sled off the riverbank and onto the ice, the skidoo skidding for a second before she got momentum up again. Dani hesitated for a moment, glancing back to be sure that the wolves hadn’t actually hit each other—she didn’t want them hurt.
The small second of distraction was enough that she slowed, flying off the bank and onto the ice a few seconds behind her partner. Just long enough that the pressure wave of the first landing tipped the ice down, then back, and now instead of a smooth path over the surface to the far bank, there was open water—
Dani hit the brakes and spun the skidoo sideways, skidding to a stop inches before tipping into the pitch black of the river’s icy depths.
Michele was vanishing into the distance already, lights fading, the low rumble of the engine growing softer and softer until Dani was sure her friend was safely away. They’d connect ASAP down the road.
In the meantime, a roar on the southern bank pulled Dani’s attention toward the wolves. Dark shadows lengthened, the sky growing twilight dark as the sun gave up for the day. Dani eyed the open water between the shoreline and where she sat on the sled on what was now an island of ice.
Good. The gap was too wide for anyone to jump.
“Hang on. I’ll get a rope.”
One of the men disappeared, the other approaching the bank, stomping vigorously. “You idiot,” he grumbled, his voice dark chocolate and grit.
“I’m sorry about your sled,” Dani called, eyeing his naked form with admiration. Sometimes naked wasn’t a good thing, but in this case, he was a fine example of lupine masculinity. And yay for great shifter night vision that let her see him.
Soft curses rose from the man. “Fuck. You’re a woman.”
Dani snickered. “Last time I checked, yeah.”
“What the hell—?”
“Here, bro. Catch the rope.” The other man returned, tossing a coil to her grumpy dark shadow on the riverbank.
Mr. Grumbly caught the armful gracefully, turning to her as he anchored one end around his waist. “We won’t hurt you. Now catch the rope, and I’ll pull you and the ice float to safety.”
Oh, the sweet gentlemen. “Awesome.”
Not that she needed any help, but she did like for people to feel useful.
“Don’t make any quick movements,” he warned, that voice slipping over her like erotic sandpaper. All her lady bits were tingling for some reason.
The rope landed within an arm’s reach, and Dani smiled as she got off the sled and took one step toward the center of her floating palace. “Good job.”
“Tie it around your waist.”
Nope. “I have a better idea.”
She made a quick slipknot then dropped the coil over the skidoo handle bars. She tugged to make sure it was tight before twisting back to the shore and. “There you go. Thanks for the ride, darling.”
“What the hell—? Wait. Stop.”
Dani took a step around the sled toward the edge of the floating island. “You might want to increase your security a little. The second deadbolt on your front entrance is out of date. People can get key blanks for it on the black market for five dollars.”
He pulled himself to his full height, holding out a hand as if calming a child. “Don’t move. We’ll get you to safety, and I promise, nothing will happen to you.”
Awww. He was worried about her. “You’re sweet, but I’m okay.”
“That island you’re on isn’t stable.” He pulled gently, the ice rocking in spite of his care. “Keep your balance low, and once you’re close to shore, I’ll save you.”
He shouted over his shoulder at the other wolf, but Dani had seen enough to know it was time to make a quick getaway.
He was cute, though, that big ol’ wolf with the flashing dark eyes and the grumbly voice. Maybe someday their paths would cross again. Now, though, she needed to regroup and try a different way to reach her sister.
She kicked off her boots as she stepped to the water’s edge, icy chill sliding over her toes as she shrugged free of her jacket. Cold wrapped around her as she wiggled out of her pants and dropped to her butt, ankles dipping into the frigid water.
A hoarse cry of anger and denial rang from her wolf, but he was too late. She turned toward the riverbank as she slipped under the surface and shifted.
The last thing she saw as the current sucked her away was the dark-haired wolf being tackled to the ground before he could leap after her.