Daniel Martin spit on the toe of a beat-up black cowboy boot, then used an old cotton T-shirt to rub the leather surface until it gleamed. He was, thankfully, all alone in the bunk room. A couple months ago, they’d been packed in this tiny closet of a bedroom like sardines. And he didn’t like sardines. After Ben and Adam had settled into the new addition off the back of the house with their mates, Millie and Cassie, and Caleb moved to an apartment above the town’s cafe with Sarah, there was finally enough room to breathe. It helped that they’d sold off the third set of bunk beds.
He sniffed then smirked. Didn’t smell like a locker room as much, either. Almost like a damn palace.
The extra space was as appreciated as the two-hundred bucks had been. Frank had actually purchased and barbecued chicken breasts instead of hot dogs. And if Daniel ever saw another tuna casserole, he’d puke.
Now he shared the room with Frank and Ephraim, and even with those too big galoots, the space felt double in size. Despite Millie, the crew admin’s, best efforts to organize their crap, they’d still managed turn it into a pigsty. The remaining unoccupied bunk had become a dumping ground for their excess shit.
Whistling a country song about tequila making a chick’s clothes fall off, he buffed the boot to the beat of the music. God willin’ and the creek don’t rise, he hoped to get so lucky tonight.
A bit of caked dirt marred the heel of his other boot. Adding saliva to it, he made mud, then spread out the rag, looking for a clean spot. He chuckled when he spied the logo on the graphic tee, proclaiming the vintage shirt was official merchandise from the first Eagles farewell tour. Must be one of Caleb’s shirts. The eagle shifter loved the band and regularly included a couple of their songs in his gigs at the Norwegian Rat, the saloon Daniel was heading to as soon as he could see his reflection in his boots.
He spit one final time and buffed the spot to a high gloss. The boots were the most comfortable pair he owned, the heels worn, just enough to add swagger to his step, the toes curled just right. He sighed as he settled his feet inside, stomping down to perfect the fit. Felt like coming home. A wave of homesickness flitted through him. He missed his folks, his brother, Jason, and the rest of his wolf pack. But not the dreary, rainy weather that seemed to come three-hundred-sixty days a year on the ranch.
Shaking off the downer vibes, he snagged his favorite green and black plaid shirt and shoved his arms into it. The snaps gripped with loud clicks when he fastened them, then he tucked the tails into his worn Wranglers.
He wound the thick, cracked leather belt with the buckin’ bronc silver belt buckle through the loops on his jeans as he strutted to the bathroom. His hair was short and tidy—Millie had just trimmed it last week—but he wet it down to be sure it stayed in place. He brushed his teeth, splashed on spicy cologne, and checked the final result in the water-spotted mirror. Someone had shirked their chores this week. As Daniel studied his image, he hoped it hadn’t been his turn to clean the crapper.
“Yep, lookin’ mighty fine there, cowboy. The ladies gonna love on you tonight.” He pointed at his reflection, finger straight and thumb cocked back. He winked at himself as he mimed pulling the trigger.
The smile stayed on his face when he entered the living room. Frank and Ephraim were relaxing on the lumpy sofa, which Millie had covered with a brown slipcover, claiming it would hide dirt better. Ben and Cassie had taken the bus to Anchorage last week to see his sister, Yelena. The news about the Kodiak shifter’s sister was bad, and even Daniel could read the fear shadowing Ben’s face. Daniel wasn’t a spiritual man, but he’d prayed alongside Cassie and Ben when she’d asked for a blessing from the Creator for their trip before they’d left.
Caleb and Sarah had moved out as soon as she’d accepted the government job with the Department of Fisheries. She was super-smart, but not smart enough to know she was wasting her time with a dummy like Caleb. Daniel would have been a better choice. But the new couple were both eagles, so that worked in Caleb’s favor. Adam and Millie had gone somewhere on a picnic she’d planned for just the two of them. A fuckin’ picnic! Those two were like bunnies, always going at it. And here it was, eight PM and they were still out. Heck, Adam was probably letting Millie ride his bear through the tundra like he was a damn horse. Cute, but uh… fuck no!
Daniel rubbed his taut gut, trying to massage away an unwanted feeling. If he had to give it a name, he’d call it envy. He wanted what his three friends had found. But no fucking way was he going to be hogtied any time soon. There was too much fun to be hand, too many nights out on the town, and too many whiskey bottles with his name on it.
Shaking it off, he focused on the remaining guys. “Dang, Frank. You’re still dicking away your time on the Xbox? You’ve been on that for like nine hours now.”
Frank didn’t pause the game as he lifted his middle finger. “Listen, bro. We all have our tricks for relaxing. Mortal Kombat is mine. Reading is Ephraim’s, and it seems like drinking until you’re blind drunk is yours.”
“Don’t judge,” Daniel snapped.
“No judgement, friend. Just an observation. Now shut your pie-hole. I’m in a Netherworld quest for souls.”
“Welcome to the dork-side.” Daniel shook his head, muttering about losers playing video games. Ephraim’s nose was buried in a book as usual. The dude’s fingers hid the front cover. He didn’t look up as Daniel stopped next to him. At least not until Daniel ripped the paperback from his hands.
“Hey!” Ephraim protested.
Daniel snorted rudely at the bare-chested dude with a fucking dragon in the background. A dragon? “Brother, are you kiddin’ me? What the fuck kind of book is Blackwing Dragon? Are you reading a fucking romance novel?”
Ephraim, a gray wolf, snarled at the intrusion and knuckle-punched Daniel in the kneecap.
Daniel dropped the book back into Ephraim’s lap and clutched his stinging knee. “Hey!”
“That was rude.” Ephraim shook his hand, and Daniel was secretly happy that maybe the punch hurt his hand as much as it had hurt Daniel’s knee. Ephraim thumbed through the book, looking for his place. “I’ll have you know this is a novel about a treasure hunt.”
Daniel laughed and slapped his thigh. “Good one. But that’s a big-ass lie. Look at the cover, dude. My granny used to read books like that. Called ’em bodice-rippers. Have you come across any good sex parts yet? My gran lived for that shit.”
“Well, your granny is one smart cookie. These books are educational. Plus, it’d be cool to be a dragon. Get to fly around and breathe fire. Lots of danger and thrills. Don’t really see how that’s any different from Frank’s game.” Ephraim pointed to Frank just as the big New Zealander laughed after blowing some shit up. “Where are you going?”
“To the Rat. Gonna get my drink on.”
Frank finally paused his game and dropped the controller to the sofa cushion. “You were there last night. Wasn’t that enough?”
Daniel squirmed, scraping his boots over the beige-ish carpet. “You ain’t my ma.”
A scowl formed on Frank’s face, drawing his heavy black brows into an angry slash. “Maybe not, but I’m your friend. You hang out there way too much. Too much drink ain’t good for you. Or your wolf.”
“He’s got a point,” Ephraim joined in. “Why don’t you hang out here with us? We could shift and blow off some steam that way. There’s a new crop of rabbits to chase by the stream.”
“Leave it. It isn’t your business.” Daniel grabbed his favorite battered straw cowboy hat from the peg over the streaky front window. He jammed the hat in place before he headed to the door.
He put some extra attitude into slamming the door shut. Fuckers! Always trying to get in his business. He stopped on the top concrete step to take a deep breath. No sense going to the saloon mad. As he searched inside for his wolf, the one entity who could calm him, he had trouble connecting. Why?
It didn’t help that his hearing was sharp enough to overhear Frank’s exaggerated sigh. He and Ephraim were talking in low voices, but Daniel picked up their words as if he was right next to them.
“He’s a pisshead, bro. A true drunk,” Frank said, his tone flat and concerned. “I’ve seen that look on many faces back home in Kaikuora, where drinking is about the only thing a guy has to look forward to. A big problem.”
“Fuck you!” Daniel hustled over the cracked sidewalk. He fumed aloud as he strode away from the house. “Just because I like a drink every night doesn’t mean I have a drinking problem. I can stop whenever I want.” He turned and shook his fist at the house. “I’m not a damn alcoholic.”
He kept walking, and the exercise helped soothe away his anger. Just because they were a crew now, a ragtag group of shifters united under their alpha Adam, didn’t mean he had to take their shit on dry land. If he could find another job with the potential to earn enough money to send to his family, he’d tell them all to fuck off. Too bad such a job didn’t exist in this shitty back-woods town. He was trapped, and he hated it.
With each step closer to town, to the saloon, his spirits lifted, and anticipation grew. The sun was still high in the sky. It had stayed bright in British Columbia, where he was from, but not like this. Not this eerie illumination that seemed so common in summer in Alaska where the setting sun turned the clouds to fire.
It would have been a perfect night to shift, to let his gray wolf free to run to his heart’s content. July wasn’t the best time to see the Northern Lights in Alaska. Something about the wind and atmospheric conditions not being right. But the air was warm for Alaska, and the scent of the fireweed and the wet tundra meadows was sweet. He should be letting his wolf out, not parking his butt on a bar stool. But he could still shift after his visit to the Rat. His wolf rolled over under his skin, as if trying to sway his decision, to let him out before drinking. Because the beer and whiskey affected Daniel’s animal like it affected him. Muscles that normally felt strong seemed encased in lead. A permanent fog surrounded his brain, dulling the scent of potential prey, making it hard to hunt.
He slowed his step, determined to prove Frank and Ephraim wrong about his drinking. He’d show them. And he owed it to his wolf. Tonight, he’d have just one drink then go home to shift. A single beer to take the edge off. He’d been bored since they’d come home from crabbin’ for browns in May. Nothing to do but clean the boat or help with chores and construction at the house. Routine wasn’t his style.
Even though some might say it was routine for him to go to the bar. “That’s bull-crap!” Daniel quickened his pace.
He smacked his lips as soon as he stepped onto the main street. He could taste the beer now. After walking all the way into town, he’d built up a powerful thirst. Above the door, the tail of the neon rat wagged, a sign that the joint was open for business. He pushed the hat’s brim up, settling it at a jauntier angle. Tucking one hand in the front pocket of his Wranglers, he yanked open the door.
The bar was dimly lit on most days, but tonight it seemed downright dark inside. If not for the light coming from the windows overlooking the Rat’s patio, it might have been pitch black.
A raucous yell followed by hooting laughter drew his attention to the far corner. He sharpened his shifter vision enough to see the crew of the Cash Cow sitting around a table. His shoulders tightened as he waited for their reaction to him. In the best of times, he’d call those jokers mortal fuckin’ enemies.
The glowing tip of Bud’s cigarette turned the guy’s ugly mug and bleached blond hair to a muddy shade of red. The guy squinted his eyes toward the door, which was still open behind Daniel, backlighting him. Daniel was certain the glare made it impossible to figure out who’d just entered.
Still tense, Daniel let the door swing shut behind him. Jerry narrowed his eyes and nudged Cliff, lifting a finger to point Daniel’s direction. Donny swiveled in his seat, looking over his shoulder, then gave a shrug before turning back around. Whatever he’d said made the rest of the Cow’s crew scowl, first at Daniel, then at Donny. Donny refilled everyone’s glass, dragging their attention back to their drinking. A quarter plinked off the table, then landed in Bud’s glass. A shout went up, and Bud drained the glass before slamming it back to the table.
Good, Daniel thought as stress melted from his shoulders. They were occupied, so they’d leave him the hell alone. He was never sure what he’d find with those yahoos. Daniel lifted the straw cowboy hat from his head and sauntered toward the bar. He settled on the cracked red leather of the stool, dropped the hat onto the scarred wooden bar, and looked around for Willy, the owner. He wasn’t behind the bar tonight, which was a little unusual. Daniel hoped he wouldn’t have to wait long for a drink.
He fiddled with the braided leather band around the crown of the hat for a second, doing his best to look like he was waiting patiently, but eyeing the taps and glasses. Should he go ahead and pour himself a glass? Or wait? He knew about the sawed-off shotgun Willy kept behind the bar and didn’t want that deadly barrel pointed his way.
Drumming his fingers, he glanced toward the swinging doors leading to the kitchen. There was movement behind the smoky porthole in the middle. “Hey, Willy!” he shouted. “What’s a guy gotta do to get a drink?”
A loud crash from the kitchen echoed across the bar, drawing yells and hoots from the other patrons. The door swung open, and something so unexpected happened that Daniel’s jaw dropped low.
It sure as hell wasn’t Willy walking through the door. Unless the old codger had grown cleavage or spent hours preparing for a glamour shot.
A woman approached, and he froze like he’d thrown a horseshoe. How could the mere sight of a curvy woman paralyze him like this? Only his eyeballs seemed capable of movement as she neared. And he studied her as if his life depended on it.
Her ponytailed hair fell in a glorious red wave of corkscrew curls over her right shoulder, just skimming the tips of her breast; a breast that would adequately fill his hand. Her lush lips were the shade of a ripe peach, and her round cheeks were a similar color. Her pale, creamy skin glowed, and her intense blue-eyed gaze held fast on his face. The sway of her curvy hips as she moved made his palms itch to dig in and hold on. The short, black, flaring skirt she wore kissed her thighs with each step.
She stopped in front of him, wiping her hands with a bar rag. “What can I do for you, cowboy?” Her silky accented voice wrapped around his throat, making it hard to swallow let alone speak.
She tipped her head and raised her brow as if waiting for him to respond.
“You’re English?” Dear God, was that his voice? He hadn’t sounded this squeaky since puberty. Or that time when Mary Louise Dreymon took his virginity behind the ramshackle barn on his parents’ farm. He wanted to plant his face in his palm. God, her voice was so classy compared to his country bumpkin drawl.
Perfect white teeth peeked out from between those peachy lips. “You found me out! I should warn you that being from England in no way hampers my ability to draw you a beer or pour out a whiskey. In truth, it enhances that God-given talent.” With a broad grin, she leaned over the bar and gently lifted his jaw back into place.
The view down her sky-blue V-neck T-shirt was glorious. Firm, round, creamy flesh that all but begged to be tasted by his tongue. His wolf bristled beneath his skin, as if wanting a peek of his own. She shoved the wavy red ponytail over her shoulder, her breasts shifting with the movement.
All the spit in Daniel’s mouth dried up, making swallowing difficult. Even more difficult because the luscious woman appeared to have stolen his ability to talk, let alone think.
Well, one thought did make it through.
He wanted this woman.