Gunner dried off the last beer mug and put it in the box for moving. Pete had stepped out to take care of last-minute details. He would be back in an hour to get the rest of his glassware. All that would be left of the bar would be one crate of Canadian beer and a large bag of salted peanuts. A twinge on his shoulder from where Val had bitten him set off a tiny burst of pain. A flash of memory rushed through his brain. The way her sharpened teeth sank into his flash and the hot rush of blood that followed put a grin on his face.
The bell over the entrance rang, and footsteps thudded toward him.
“I’ll be with you in a second. All we have to offer is beer in a bottle. No glasses or plastic cups,” Gunner called out.
“Hello, little wolf. Long time, no see. Miss me?”
Gunner jerked his head up. Pain lanced the base of his skull, and white spots danced before his vision. His wolf surged to the forefront, ready to bring about the shift if they needed to fight.
“You’re going to break your face if you keep smiling like that. Or maybe I should break your face just because you’re happy?” The door slammed shut with a loud bang
Once his vision settled, Gunner saw Abel Falk, one of his father’s former pack betas. He was dressed all in black leather with the sleeves of his jacket pushed up to expose his forearms to the elbow. His hands were covered in gloves with just the knuckles showing. Abel leaned on the counter, showing off the myriad of black, white, and silver ink that decorated the pale flesh. His eerie onyx eyes glittering with bits of amber—as if the stone had broken off in his irises and remained there—stared at him. No animosity, no emotion whatsoever. Not even a wry smile to disarm his opponents, of which Gunner was one. His sharply carved visage was a blank canvas.
Gunner stilled. His heartbeat and breathing slowed. He placed the mug he’d been cleaning on the counter. “Abel.” He took a risk and turned his back.
“No, I think I’ll let you keep that feeling of joy for as long as possible. Makes it better when I finally steal it from you and there’s nothing you can do.” Abel glanced around the deserted space. “Is it wise to pick up a woman when you have a blut jagd
on your tail? Or does the little bitch care so little for her safety that she’d sleep with someone so tainted?”
His wolf growled. Gunner allowed the sound to slip up from deep in his chest and crawl along his throat to slip out of his mouth in a deep rumble that shook his body.
Abel chuckled and waved the action away. “Don’t worry. I’m not here to kill you. Yet. Or your one-night paramour. I’m just standing here, like Caesar, showing you that I can reach out and touch you.” He smiled wide enough to show his sharpened, bright-white teeth.
Gunner barked out a laugh. “Are you my Brutus, then? I’d have to trust you for you to carry out the conqueror’s fate.”
Abel shrugged. “No, just thirsty and bored.”
“The kitchen is closed, so if you’re looking for food, you’ll have to go elsewhere, but beer we have.” He grabbed a bottle of the brew and shifted around to place it on the counter before his elder.
Abel nodded. “Danke
“You could just kill me. Or do you like the chase so much you’d rather play cat and mouse? I thought wolves didn’t play with their dinner?” Gunner decided to keep the conversation as far away from Val as humanly possible.
“Now why would I kill the son of Alfred the Blood Breaker and Daisy the English Rain Wolf? Hmm? Why would I take out their little prince? When the chase is so much more amusing.” Abel used the counter to open the bottle, tossed the cap away, and took a health swig. The metal pinged on the wooden surface.
Abel wasn’t one of Gunner’s father’s fanatics who ignored common sense and decided to take their rage out on Gunner for all their losses, imagined or factual.
Gunner pressed his lips together.
“I saw your mama. She’s thriving in English werewolf society. The stain of being married to your father hasn’t affected her in the least. There is even talk of her marrying again. Some up-jumped werewolf. An actor, I believe. Think he’ll want you to call him step-papa? Or that you’ll be invited to the wedding? Too bad her family couldn’t buy your freedom.”
Gunner drew in a deep breath and blew it out. Hearing about his mother moving on as if he didn’t exist, carving out a new life for herself without a care for his survival, reawakened a pained part of his heart he’d tried hundreds of times to silence. “It’s not that they couldn’t. It’s that they wouldn’t. My mother and her family wouldn’t lift a finger to help the son of their hated rival. They didn’t want me to begin with. You know that.” He picked up the rag and another mug and went back to cleaning the glassware. “So you’ve showed me you can find me yet again, picked at my still healing scabs again. Time for you to go. Door’s that way.” He nodded toward the entrance.
Abel laughed. “I know the way out, child.” He finished off his beer, wiped his mouth with the back of his hand, and straightened to his full height of six foot three inches. “Fine. I’ll give you a two weeks’ head start this time. Think you can move all your shit?”
“The game.” Gunner rolled his eyes. Frustration welled to the surface while the wolf receded into the background. “You’re a sick motherfucker, you know that? Yeah, should be enough time. I got a thing, though.”
“A thing? The little female wolf from the inn? She must be a good lay. Fine. I’ll give you two and half weeks because I’m feeling generous and I have other things to do.” Abel turned sideways but didn’t put his back to Gunner just yet. “You know the rules. Remember, no innocents and no drawing attention to our kind. I’ll hold off the other hounds, but I do warn you… They have arrived in New York.”
“Shit.” Goose bumps rose on Gunner’s skin. “You and the rest of the pack leave her alone. She’s off limits. Rules. Remember?”
“I remember, and I will leave her alone so long as she leaves me alone. Just get rid of your quick fuck. I’ll be watching.” Abel stared at him, a question in his eyes.
“Anything else I should know?” Gunner wished he’d just go. Leave him the fuck alone, but that could never be so long as his father wanted him dead.
“Do you agree to these terms? The time limit, all of it?” Abel asked, voice low.
Gunner drew in a deep breath and let it out. “Yes, I agree to all of it. I don’t have a choice, anyway. Just leave her out of it.”
Abel nodded. “Then we shouldn’t have any problems. The deal is struck. See you around, little wolf.” He turned and left through the front door.
Gunner’s body trembled. He wanted to rush to the door and throw the locks but resisted the urge. His hands shook so badly he almost dropped the mug. He placed it on the counter and exhaled. He shut his eyes and tried to find his center. It had been a while since he’d encountered Abel, and each meeting left him unsure of what to make of the man.
The door squeaked open, and Gunner jerked his head. Again, his spots danced before his eyes and pain burst in his neck. A growl escaped him before he realized that the wolf had risen to the surface once more.
“Whoa. Moving Day jitters? You okay?” Val held up one hand and shut the door with the other.
Relief swept through him, so strong that his body sagged and his heart returned its normal rhythms.
He tried to give her what he hoped was a bright smile. “Yeah, Moving Day jitters. I’m stuck here until Friday. You come for your answer?”
She approached the counter and stopped exactly where Abel had been. Rather than stand around, she sat down on a stool and folded her forearms on the worn, dented, and cut-up tabletop. “Yeah, but I want to lay out more context. Okay? I promised my grandmother and parents I would pick someone, but they got impatient. My father wants to step down from the alphaship. He won’t pass the title onto my brother because he’s gay and the fertility clinics refuse to work with gay shifter couples for a multitude of reasons, from government regulations to not being trustworthy, and my sister, though already married and giving birth to two kids, didn’t marry up.”
Gunner took all of this in. His head began to throb once more. He hated werewolf politics. Even as child he’d been taught by the best the ins and outs of their world, but once exiled he’d allowed his knowledge fall to the wayside.
“So they’re making you marry to seal the deal and let your dad escape the political circus that will become your life?”
“Bingo. Plus, I think my dad wants to take my mother and grandmother to Europe, maybe even settle there to make this easier for them. We have the money, so…” She exhaled.
An ache filled his heart for a place he’d once called home and a place he could never set foot in again.
“You’re from Eastern Europe, right? With a bit of Brit.” She grinned at him. “I’m observant. I won’t ask for the details. Anyway, I just thought you should know what you could be walking into. I wouldn’t ask you if I weren’t so desperate, and I’m not good at pretending. I really like you, and I thought maybe I wouldn’t have try too hard to be all head over heels with you.” She gave him a shy smile.
His heart did a little flutter, and he responded to her grin with one of his own. “I’m flattered, but we have to be real here. What happens after? I can pretend all you want, and this gives us a chance to get to know each other even more and maybe even go on that second date. But I really don’t need your father or brother coming after me.”
“Well, if it works, I’ll be the alpha and I can order them to stand down and they’ll have to obey me. See, there are some advantages to being with an alpha female,” she teased.
He chuckled. “Yeah, your word is law and all that, but your father wouldn’t necessarily have to obey you. You won’t be his alpha. His power supersedes yours as being the elder.”
“And I’m Daddy’s little girl,” she said in a matter-of-fact tone.
He mulled over what she’d told him and now Abel’s appearance and the knowledge that the hunters were in town.
“Okay, fine. I’ll give it a shot. I’ll pose as your fiancé. I’ll take fifty thousand up front and then fifty when it’s over. No questions asked. We need to get our stories straight, how we met, et cetera. Your parents are going to try and trip us up. They don’t know me, and I can’t tell you too much about my situation. Okay?” He waited for her to press.
“Fine. We make up the details. So how did we meet?” She reached out, picked up a mug, and held it out to him. “Got any grape pop?”
He grinned and accepted her cup, reached under the counter, and opened the mini fridge. He took out one of the cans that he’d secreted away for himself.
“No ice?” he asked. “I could dig out a plastic cup.”
She pulled open the tab. “How’d you know? Yeah, no ice.” She tucked her hair behind her hair.
“Good guess. How about this? We met at a diner. I bumped into you, caused you to spill your lunch. I paid for a new one, and we got to talking. Nice and simple.”
She nodded. “Where did we meet? Here in town?”
“Yeah, we can say that. You were passing through?” he offered up, enjoying spinning a tale with her.
“Yeah, and I’d see you whenever I passed through. This place is close to my family’s compound, so it makes sense that we’d see each other often. We got to talking and kept it casual, and then things got serious, and you only just proposed to me. So I’ve been relishing it privately before I took it to the family.”
“Or you were pressured into revealing the news when backed into a corner? Where’s your ring, shätzchen
?” Gunner teased.
“Observant. You proposed without a ring. You’re going to let me pick it out.” She lifted her chin and winked at him. “See? Problem solved.”