Beneath my skin, my pelt itched. The city lights blurred the horizon and clouded the stars, leaving my inner wolf confused and antsy. I rubbed a hand over the center of my chest to soothe it as I stared at the hazy sky. Without the starlight to guide us, we were lost—or as close to lost as we could be in this age of cell phones and built-in GPS.
Of course, I’d made us all leave our cell phones back in the car outside the city, so the leeches couldn’t track us. Much like the beast inside me, I didn’t trust technology—though, unlike my wolf, I at least understood it.
The wolf understood that Polaris always meant north, that Orion’s sword would lead him south. He knew the sun rose in the east and a scent mark would guide him home. Drop him in a strange forest and he’d be home before dinner.
A city, though…? He knew nothing of cities.
Luckily for my wolf, he was not a wild beast roaming free. Even if I thought of him as a separate being, as other—an animal spirit bound to mine by Mother Moon before she sent us to the earth as a babe—we lived together in harmony. His choices were mine, and mine were his, a true blending of consciouses in one body.
Behind me, my brother Micah, the pack beta, and Deacon, the pack bursar, were both just as twitchy, growling at shadows and flinching with every half-heard noise.
“I hate the fucking city,” Micah grumbled as we took yet another wrong turn and ended up in a dead-end alley. “Tell me again, Roan. Why couldn’t we have waited until the sun was up?”
“Because that’s when the leeches will expect us to get here,” I snapped back, spinning on my heels to start searching for the right street again. I’d booked the hotel under my omega mother’s last name, one she’d abandoned after marrying my father, so it was unlikely the vamps would be keeping tabs on it. I had even printed directions to the hotel out before leaving the pack lands, just in case the leeches were tracking my phone.
I might be paranoid, but it had kept me alive longer than many of my brethren.
Of course, I hadn’t expected someone to get carsick and throw up on the map. The reminder—of both the loss of directions and the sour odor we’d been forced to drive with—had me glaring at my brother again, who just smiled sweetly back at me. I knew he knew why I was glaring, just like he knew that look was always enough to get him out of trouble.
Fucking doe-eyed motherfucker.
“Can we at least stop for breakfast? We’ve been walking for hours,” Micah whined.
“Twenty minutes, you big baby,” I huffed, but since my own belly was grumbling, I kept my eyes open for a diner as we walked. It was the only good thing about cities, that they had places like that—ones that stayed open all hours of the night. The pack kitchen closed by nine o’clock sharp, except on Mondays. No one opened on Mondays.
“I factored four meals into the budget,” Deacon answered, a hopeful note in his voice. “If we stay away from any of those fancy places and the leeches feed us like they promised, we can swing breakfast.”
“Oh, hold your horses. I’m already lookin’,” I replied, finally spotting the neon lights glowing at the next corner. Compared to some of the other shuttered restaurants we’d passed, this one looked ratty. The glass was yellowed and frosty with age, paint chipping off the doorhandle—who bothers to paint a doorhandle?—and the floor was sticky under the soles of my shoes.
But the air smelled inviting, of bacon and grease and burnt coffee—just like home, with less of the wet-dog stink. The door closed with a rattle and Micah pushed past me, heading straight for the table by the jukebox, the lights blinking. “Dude! It still works!”
Honestly, I was surprised he even knew what it was.
I rolled my eyes as I watched the pup dig through his pockets for stray quarters. “Think he’ll ever grow up?” I asked Deacon, though inwardly I was glad my younger brother was less jaded than I was.
“You’ll be sad when he does,” Deacon answered, patting my shoulder as he strolled over to the booth and dropped. He grabbed a menu and skimmed through it. I supposed he was right.
“So, still hate the city?” I teased my brother as I sat across from Deacon and dragged out my own menu. A quick glance told me all I needed to know. Steak and eggs, available all day every day.
“Can we get a jukebox back home?” Micah asked instead of admitting he might like some things here.
“Sure. When you get a job that pays well enough to buy one,” I agreed. He made decent money as my beta, but he blew through it as fast as he earned it, between his comic book collection and his chew toys.
“Oooor,” he said, giving me a big smile, “my super nice, super rich boss could just me a raise.”
“Yeah, sure. As soon as you start actually working instead of spending your days working your way through the guards’ beds.” I lifted a brow, grinning when he blushed.
“You…you know about th-that?” he asked with a stutter.
“Hard not to when you stumble out of the barracks half-dressed at nearly noon reeking of wolf pheromones, brother dear.” Not that I judged him. At his age, I’d been just the same, except I’d been working my way through the women’s quarters just as often as the men’s. I was lucky I didn’t have half a dozen pups out there calling me da.
Micah pouted. “Maybe I was sparring.”
“Whatever you want to call it. I didn’t ask, so…you don’t need to tell. In the future, though, I would prefer you to keep your extracurriculars to outside of working hours.” I winked at him just as the waitress strolled up.
She was rail thin, her nose chapped and red, her scent acrid, but she was polite enough as she smiled. “What can I get you fellas to drink? Soda, coffee?”
“Just water, ma’am,” I answered for all of us. The fizziness of pop didn’t sit well on our bellies, and if I had to smell either of them drinking the coffee, I was going to vomit.
“Oh, ma’am?” She fluttered her eyelashes. “My, aren’t you a gentleman. I’ll have those right up for you.”
“Dude…” Micah leaned across the counter and swatted my arm. “Stop flirting. You’re the one who said to keep our ‘extracurriculars’ outside of working hours!”
I leaned back in the booth, propping my right ankle up on my left knee and folding my hands behind my head. “What can I say? I’m a Casanova.”
“You’re a dog, that’s what you are! And a downright hypocrite!” Micah pouted.
“Do as I say, not as I do.” I grinned, accepting my water from the waitress with a wink when she returned. If I wasn’t mistaken—and I rarely was—she’d undone another button while she was in the back, leaving a few more inches of pale cleavage on display.
I wasn’t really in the mood to flirt seriously. It was more to tease my brother, and I felt guilty that I might have led her on. I straightened and tried to look more serious, thinking of the upcoming meeting with the leeches. If they didn’t hold such a tight monopoly on the beverage distribution market up and down the whole coast, I wouldn’t bother taking the risk.
She must have sensed the shift in my mood because her smile dimmed, and her voice turned more professional. “Are y’all ready to order, then?”
“Steak and eggs for me,” I answered immediately, tucking away my sticky menu and downing my water. “And a refill, please.”
“And for you, darlin’?” She turned to Micah, flashing her blue eyes again. Poor thing didn’t realize she had the wrong equipment, but Micah didn’t seem to notice her attentions, regardless. He was still frowning at me.
“I’ll have the waffles, with extra strawberries. Oh, and extra cream, too, please.”
“You’re going to get fat,” I warned, grimacing at the thought of that much sugar. “You should have some protein.”
Micah rolled his eyes, “Yes, Dad.”
“Oh, cut the dear some slack. He’s skin and bones,” the waitress twittered, looking like she was just dying to pinch his cheeks.
Micah glared at her, and she backed off, scurrying away without Deacon’s order.
“Just my luck,” Deacon grumbled, throwing his menu to the side. “I guess I’ll be right back.”
“Order me a side of bacon while you’re up there,” I hollered after him. He replied with his middle finger.
* * * *
The sky was just starting to gray when we practically rolled out of the diner, patting our full bellies and groaning. “Good food,” Deacon said, yawning. “Now, bed.”
“Yes, bed,” Micah agreed, snuggling up against Deacon with a yawn of his own.
I stared between the two of them, thoughtful. To my knowledge, Deacon had never dated a man. Though, now that I thought about it, I wasn’t sure he’d ever dated anyone. I didn’t think anyone was good enough for my brother, but I supposed if he had to end up with anyone, Deacon wouldn’t be a terrible choice.
Before I could speculate too much, though, I froze, my nostrils flaring. My inner wolf clawed at my ribcage like a caged beast, howling at me to pay attention. To what, though? I spun on my heels, teeth bared in a growl as I struggled to figure out what scent he’d caught. Danger? Food?
I must have taken too long to figure it out because the wolf took control of my throat. Unused to this body, the single word came out strangled and forced…but still understandable. “Mate.”
I followed the scent.