“Two beers, please. The Hazelnut.” Ari set the charge card on the bar and waited. This time, it read ARI FITZGERALD. He’d chosen the last name after the famous author. He never changed his first name. He joked it was so that he wouldn’t forget it, but it wasn’t really a joke. Just because he was a lamia didn’t mean that his memory was any better than another person’s.
“Here you go, Mr. Fitzgerald.” The bartender set the tray with his card and the slip in front of him.
He signed and left a fiver on the tray. She beamed at him. He winked and took just the bottles, leaving the glasses on the counter.
Weaving his way through the other patrons, he found his brother, Cullen Fitzgerald, at the back of the bar. He and Cullen kept the same last name since that made it safer for them both. Cullen even looked a little like Ari, though he hadn’t gotten as much body art. The clan tattoo of a huge python crawled up Cullen’s spine and just peeked out of his collar.
Ari couldn’t wait to try the new Hazelnut IPA. He’d been reading about the brewery, Bear Creek, for weeks, and the critics couldn’t get enough of it. They almost sold out of the beer too, but Ari got there in time to try it. He knew something that the press didn’t know: the brewery was owned by the local bear shifter tribe.
The other lamia shifters didn’t know about the place yet, which sometimes added to its appeal. Sometimes, like when the two sons of the lamia alpha needed to talk.
needed to talk. He’d asked to meet Ari for coffee or something. Ari loathed the corporate coffee shops with their ten-dollar cups of coffee. He still remembered when a pound
of coffee was thirty cents. Folks had bitched when it went up to fifty cents. Besides, he had a sweet tooth and preferred hot cocoa, instead, despite the razzing he got from the others.
He arrived at the table and set a bottle in front of Cullen. “Here you go. Hazelnut IPA.”
“Wow.” Cullen’s eyes widened. “Thanks.” He took a sip and let it stay in his mouth for a moment. “Not bad.”
Ari laughed. “The most talked about small brewery IPA in town right now, and you say it’s not bad.” He took a sip, and it flowed around his tongue like silk. It went down even smoother. “Fuck me, Cullen. You have the palate of a philistine.”
Cullen stuck his tongue out. “I don’t even know what a philistine is, you troglodyte.” He sipped again. “What does IPA stand for, anyway?”
“It’s the type of beer. It means India Pale Ale. It’s not a lager, like that piss-water you usually drink.”
“Hey, man. Lager’s very popular with the young people.” Cullen winked at him, though the smile didn’t quite reach his eyes.
Toasting him with the bottle, Ari sat back. “So, what’s on your mind?”
“I miss going to the city.” Cullen looked down, drawing a pattern on the table with his finger. “I know we’re trying to find the source of the venom poachers, but I never get to leave the house anymore.”
Oh to be young. “It’s only been two weeks, Cullen. And you’re here with me now.”
“Yeah, but I didn’t tell Mike where I was going. He probably wouldn’t let me.” Cullen sounded like a sullen teenager.
Ari frowned. That couldn’t be right. “Are you sure?”
“Not since Jordan tightened security.” Cullen refused to meet Ari’s gaze.
“So why not ask Mike to send someone with you?”
Cullen’s lips tightened, but he didn’t say anything.
“Mike hasn’t been hassling you guys, has he?” That didn’t sound like Mike. He might be a hard-ass, but he didn’t pick on the kids.
“No, nothing like that.” Cullen peeked at him. “But I don’t know how to ask him either, Ari. You know how he gets.”
“All right.” Ari set the bottle on the table. “Let’s get something straight. Mike’s in charge of security for the younger snakes of the nest. You don’t want it getting back to Mike that something went wrong and someone got attacked but no one told Mike so he could prevent it?”
Cullen paled. “I didn’t…” He trailed off and looked down again. “I didn’t mean for that to happen, Ari. I just don’t know how to talk to him.”
“You talk to him like you talk to anyone else. Mike won’t bite you. You or
the others. He doesn’t have a sense of humor most of the time, but he’s the best one to have your back.”
“Will you ask him?”
Ari shook his head. “You’re beginning your warrior training now, Cullen. Start building your confidence.” He sipped from the bottle, enjoying the flavor. “You need to develop your own relationships.” He paused, and a thought occurred to him. “Ask him about boating. He would live on that damn boat of theirs if he could. Or cooking. He’s a chef and has been as long as I’ve known him.”
Cullen digested that. He gazed off into the distance, thinking. Then his eyes widened. “Ari. Look.”
A wave of strange magic flowed over Ari like a breeze from an open window. Damn it. Ari leaned over. He could be nonchalant under normal circumstances, but who knew what these guys could pick up. He saw the big one first, his tousled blond hair just brushing the collar of his jean jacket. A scar bisected his cheek under his left eye, and Ari wondered if it was a knife or something innocent, like maybe a car accident.
Yeah, easy bet.
Then the magic flared. His eyes widened when it hit him. Shifter, and a powerful one. With that scar, he would have had to have been changed, not born. Ari’s stomach soured. There were rumors that some of the shifter groups did that—turned ex-military soldiers so they could benefit from their training—but he hadn’t run into proof of it. Of course, he might’ve been a street thug. Still not the type Ari wanted to meet. Him or his buddies.
The guys with him were equally mean-looking and powerful. Their magic pushed at Ari like a hot wind from the oven. Blondie led the way to a table along the wall that would let him case the room and see both exits.
It was the one Mike would’ve picked. Being a chilly December day, Ari had chosen a table near the blazing fireplace. Now they were exposed and vulnerable, surrounded by oblivious human diners.
Blondie turned, and their gazes met. Ari’s eyes narrowed, and he schooled his features into a blank, polite gaze. Mike called it his “careful” mask and used to tease Ari about it, back when Ari was learning how to be something other than someone who needed protection, but as the considering look grew on the guy’s face, Ari could tell one thing: the guy recognized him.
Only question was, recognized him how? As someone magical or as a lamia? God damn it. The brewery was a nice place. Now he had to find somewhere else if these assholes wanted to make a scene. Last thing he needed to do was start a fight in the bears’ territory.
“Can I get you something to nibble on?”
The black-haired waiter who appeared at their table completely and totally distracted him. Ari looked up into the clean-shaven, smooth face and stared. He had a good, strong jaw, not overpowering but enough to give him an easy masculinity. He kept in shape too; the swell of strong pectorals pressed against his shirt and made Ari’s fingers twitch with the desire to brush them.
Ari looked down, flustered.
Cullen leaned forward when Ari didn’t say anything. “How are your cheese fries?”
“Fabulous. Why? You want to try some and see for yourself?”
Cullen glanced at Ari and then nodded. “Yes, please. And two more of the beers. The IPO.”
The waiter chuckled, his eyes kind. “That’s Initial Public Offering, like for a stock company. I think you mean the IPA, right?”
Cullen blushed and nodded.
“Can I see your ID, please?”
Cullen brightened and pulled it out. Only a couple months over twenty-one, he adored having the ability to legally buy alcohol.
“You too,” the waiter said to Ari.
Ari kept the retort I’m eighty-four
off his lips by sheer will and stared at the man. “You’re not serious, are you?”
“Of course I am, sugar. I could lose my job.” The waiter winked at him.
Ari sighed and pulled out his wallet. He showed the waiter the picture. It
said he was twenty-eight.
“Thanks. I’ll bring it out in just a second. My name’s Zac. Let me know if you need anything else.”
Zac. Short for Zachary? Zacharias. Zacharia, no “s”. Isaac. Izaia? Too many choices. It hit him that Zac had been gazing at him as though waiting for a response. Shit, had he asked Ari a question? What had he said?
How could he have eyes that gorgeous?
Before Ari could come up with anything resembling a reply, Blondie loomed next to Zac. “We’ve been waiting, dude.”
“Have you?” Zac’s tone was cool. He turned and looked the guy up and down. “I saw you come in, and I’ll be right over.”
The guy stepped closer, and magic flared, making Ari’s skin shiver in reaction.
Before he could do anything, though, an answering zap came from Zac himself, and the waiter stepped closer to Blondie. He dropped his voice. If Ari hadn’t been a lamia, he wouldn’t have been able to hear it. “Back up, coyote, or you and I are gonna have a problem.”
The coyote shifter watched Zac with narrowed eyes, annoyance on his face but not yet real anger.
The manager loomed over Zac’s shoulder. Terrific. The guy was a bear and as big as a house. “Is there a problem here?”
The coyote glared at him and stepped back. “Nope. We’re all fine here.” He spun on his heel and went back to the table with the others.
“You okay, Zac?”
“Thanks, Bryan. I’m good.”
They both disappeared into the back, where the aromas told Ari the kitchens were, and he sat back.
Cullen whistled under his breath. “Jesus, Ari. Did you see that guy that hassled the waiter? He’s canine but more powerful than any fox I’ve met. Is he a wolf?”
Ari shook his head. “No way bears would let another apex predator in their territory, and no wolf would have the balls to come and eat here.” Ari sipped his beer, trying to get his heartbeat back down to a normal rate. Adrenaline made his palms tingle and his stomach burn. “He’s a coyote, but I hadn’t heard of a pack moving into the area. I can’t see the local fox den being happy about being outmuscled in the hierarchy of shifters. ”
“What did the waiter do?”
“I’m not sure, but something magical. Why? What did it feel like to you?”
Cullen rubbed his arms, shivering. “I don’t know. Just tingled. But I didn’t used to pick up stuff. Sal says that will happen more as I get older.”
Ari nodded. “Up to your first molt it will be like that. Afterwards, you’ll be a lot more sensitive to it.”
Shit. Ari went cold. Cullen
had been at the table when the coyote came over. Damn it. Just what Ari needed, attract attention to the kid. Ari was supposed to be keeping both of them safe, not getting into scuffles with strange coyote shifters.
He still hadn’t worked out what to do about it by the time Zac returned with their plate of fries and two more beers.
“Sorry about that. My boss said to comp your ticket, so you don’t need to pay, though I hope you’ll leave a good tip.” He winked again.
Ari couldn’t help it; he laughed. “I’m Ari. This is Cullen.”
“Nice to meet you. New to Tacoma?”
Ari shook his head. “No, we live north of here.”
“Partners?” A frown appeared between Zac’s brows.
“No, he’s my brother.” Ari let the smirk come onto his face. “I’m single at the moment.”
“Are you now?” Zac’s eyes twinkled. “Imagine that.” He walked away before Ari could do more than bark a laugh.
Ari sipped his beer and nibbled on the fries. Zac was right. They were fantastic. He kept an eye on the coyotes, who seemed intent on watching all the patrons when the waiters or manager weren’t looking.
They showed no signs of leaving, either. Shit.
He pulled out his phone and thumbed the button for Mike’s phone.
“What’s up, Ari?”
“There are some coyotes here, and I’m alone with Cullen. You done with your errands?”
Mike’s voice got noticeably more intent. “Where are you?”
“Table in the back at the new brewery.”
“Bear Creek?” Mike sounded impressed. “Well, stay there. Jordan and I will be there in ten.”
The line went dead before Ari could add anything else. So much for the other lamiae not knowing about the place.
On the other hand, how was Mike close enough that they’d be able to get there in ten minutes? That meant he and Jordan were nearby, shopping or tailing Ari.
Easy bet as to which one.
Damn it. Quiet beer, my ass.
Mike walked in. He didn’t seem like much at first glance, just a slender man dressed in jeans and a dark green Henley open at the throat. He wore a thick jean jacket over it with a fluffy ivory fleece lining that Ari knew was soft as a whisper. Warm as hell too.
All impression of softness ended at Mike’s eyes. Hazel like coffee with cream, they were hard as granite. He glared around the room without seeming to case it, but Ari watched his lips tighten when he spotted the coyotes. They, for their part, didn’t notice Mike.
Ari suppressed a spurt of jealousy. Mike was a lot older than Ari and could hide his magic better than anyone Ari had met except for Jordan and Sal. Mike had a talent with being invisible unless he didn’t want to be. His gaze fell on Ari, and he narrowed his eyes, then started over.
A moment later, Jordan entered. He filled the doorway and paused, as though letting his eyes adjust. He didn’t bother to hide his power, and it rolled across the crowded eating area like a warm wave. The leader of the coyotes paused in the middle of a sentence, and his gaze flicked to Jordan, raked up and down, and then back to his buddies. But Ari could tell he didn’t like Jordan being there. Not one bit.
In spite of himself, having Mike and Jordan there reassured him. Ari wouldn’t have minded if he was alone, but he didn’t want to get in a fight with Cullen there. The kid didn’t know how to fight against coyote shifters, not if they had military training.
It was a little anticlimactic. After Mike and Jordan showed up, nothing else happened. The coyotes took one look at Jordan and got their check. They left without saying anything else, though the one who’d hassled Zac gave Ari an intense glare before walking out with his buddies.
A. Catherine Noon & Rachel Wilder