Read Shiftless Online

Authors: Aimee Easterling

Tags: #Romance, #Fantasy, #Werewolves

Shiftless

Shiftless

 

by Aimee Easterling

 

Copyright © 2014 by Aimee Easterling.
All rights reserved.
No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the author.   The only exception is by a reviewer, who may quote short excerpts in a review.
Read more about my books at www.wetknee.com.
 

 

Chapter 1

"No, that's just rude and inappropriate," the soft male voice insinuated its way into my reading.  A pause, then he continued his one-sided conversation.  "Stop for one minute and imagine you're a woman alone in the city and two guys walk up to you.  You probably wouldn't feel very safe, would you?"  Pause.  "Okay, one guy and his
dog
."

At first, I didn't realize they were talking about me.  I was happily curled up in a comfy armchair with a copy of Patricia Briggs' newest book open on my lap, already enveloped by the satisfying welcome of a werewolf pack, albeit a fictional one.  Yes, this is what my life had come to—it had been ten years since I'd last seen a werewolf anywhere other than in a mirror, so I relied on books to get my pack fix.  Depressing, but true.

Momentary pleasure aside, the whole day had been one long mistake.  I usually tried to stay away from the big city, but when I woke this morning, my inner wolf had felt like it was gnawing at my bones and my stomach ached with the absence of pack.  Filling the gaping cavity in my soul with an imaginary wolf pack seemed worth lying to my boss, putting my good sense on hold, and playing hooky for the day.

Only after I'd settled in a chair by the bookstore's front window, paranormal fantasy in hand, did I see the error of my ways.  Or rather,
hear
it.  At first, I'd merely blocked out the man's words as they drifted over to insinuate their way into my reading, but now I noticed the frustrated, yet loving, twist to the man's tone.  Despite my better sense, curiosity made me peer up from my page and crane my head around to seek out the source of the conversation.

The speaker was about my age, and he did have a canine with him, but the slight smile on my lips leftover from overhearing his words was quickly stifled as I realized that the monstrosity was no dog.  It was a wolf, and not just any wolf—the man's companion was a werewolf like me.

While you might think that would be a good thing given the yearning in my stomach, I had kept my distance from other werewolves for a very good reason.  Now was not the time to go back.  I could feel my cheeks heating up, and the man's voice became distant as terror stole blood away from my ears, sending the nutrition to my tensed muscles instead.  I had to get out of there fast.

This danger was the precise reason I rarely came to the city.  Even though the area was out-territory, not owned by any wolf pack, who was to say I wouldn't bump into another werewolf drifting through?  As much as I hated my history, my father was an alpha and I was aware that I smelled like the best kind of mate material to male werewolves.  The alphas, especially, were used to taking what they wanted, and one glance into this wolf's eyes was all it took to prove he was as alpha as they came.

The reality was that I had fled my home pack a decade ago to prevent a forced mating.  And even though the packless ache in my stomach was a constant reminder of what I'd lost, in the light of day, that pain still seemed like a good trade for my independence.  No way was I going to let a momentary slip rope me back into being an alpha werewolf's pawn—I needed to get out of this wolf's sight immediately.

Even though I hadn't paid for my book yet, I figured it was a worthy casualty to save me from being drawn back into the werewolf world.  So I dropped the text onto the couch cushions, sprang to my feet, and speed walked out the door, back into the seeming safety of the street.  My car—and freedom—were only two blocks away, and I could almost taste how good it would feel to slam the door, pop the locks, and hit the accelerator.  I could be back in my empty cabin in half an hour, this close call forgotten.

But my car was still out of sight when I heard the bookstore's door open and close behind me.  No longer concerned with appearances, I broke into a run, S
tupid, stupid, stupid
echoing through my mind in time to the beat of my shoes on the pavement.  I couldn't let myself believe that this is how I would be sucked back into a pack, due to a chance meeting in a bookstore while reading about fictional shifters.  If I'd picked up
Twilight
instead, would I have been treated to a sparkly vampire?

Even as that thought drifted through my adrenaline-charged mind, I realized that no one's footsteps pounded after me.  I would be able to see my car as soon as I rounded the corner, and for a moment, I thought I might be safe.  Maybe I'd misread the acquisitive gleam in the alpha's eyes; maybe a random customer had left the store soon after I did, not a hunting werewolf.

But I knew better.  With one short bark, the wolf stilled my flight, then the man's voice came a beat behind, asking me to wait.  But it was the alpha's command, not his partner's words, that had stopped me in my tracks.  Just like my father's orders had been impossible to disobey, now another alpha had taken away my free will with one bark.

I was so angry and terrified, I almost expected to feel my wolf rising up through my skin the way it used to in the Chief's presence.  And for the first time in a decade, I would have welcomed her strong protection rather than being afraid of the wolf's wild nature and sharp teeth.  Instead, I heard only my human mind, which reminded me that there was no sense in running now that I'd been snared in the alpha's net.  Taking a deep breath, I let my shoulders slump as I succumbed to the inevitable.

 

***

 

As much as I wanted to stay in place and ignore the approaching alpha, I couldn't let danger creep up behind me unseen, so I turned and waited for the duo to catch up.  As they advanced, I focused on the man instead of the wolf for the first time and noticed that he was clearly a werewolf just like his partner.  He was also apologizing profusely even before he reached me.  "I'm sorry.  I'm really, really sorry!" he exclaimed, switching the leash he held into his left hand so he could reach out to shake mine.  "I'm Chase, and my very rude friend is Wolfie."

Although I was both terrified and angry, I liked Chase on sight.  He was the kind of male werewolf who didn't have an alpha bone in his body—the golden retriever of the lupine world.  He was also handsome, but not full of himself, and I could tell that this one werewolf was friend material.  In fact, if there had been more Chases and fewer Wolfies in the world, I might have tried to join another pack after fleeing mine, but werewolf packs were inevitably run by alphas, and every alpha was like Wolfie...or like my father.

Okay, maybe not
just
like Wolfie.  As ebbing adrenaline let rational thought once again fill my mind, I realized that it was decidedly odd for the alpha in question to be walked around in wolf form on a leash.  But for all I knew, the two were tracking something that required the wolf's superior senses.  In human form, we could sometimes use our wolf brain to boost our sniffing power, but the effect was nothing compared to how in tune we were with the world when entirely wolf.

Fur aside, Wolfie had the arrogance of every other alpha I'd ever met.  After forcing me to stop running against my will, he was now sitting at Chase's feet and looking up at me with his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth in a doggie laugh.  Once he was sure he had my attention, Wolfie reached up one paw as if to shake...then winked.

"I don't think she thinks you're as cute as you think you are," Chase warned his friend when I looked pointedly away from the raised paw.  Despite myself, I smiled at the beta's words, amused that a lower-ranking wolf could yank the alpha's chain, even metaphorically.  "Like I said, I'm really sorry," Chase continued his earlier apology to me.  "But Wolfie is pig-headed and I'm afraid he's not going to give either of us any peace unless you agree to talk to us, just for a few minutes.  Maybe you'd let me buy you a coffee?"

As I said, I liked Chase, and his words were perfectly polite, but I was 100% sure that spending another minute in the alpha's presence was the last thing I wanted to do.  I closed my eyes in an effort to collect myself, hoping this was just a hallucination brought on by my pack craving.  But when I looked back down the street, Chase and Wolfie were still waiting expectantly in front of me...along with a kindergarten-aged kid who was pulling away from his mother's hand in hopes of petting the huge, terrifying beast sitting beside me.

"Don't worry, he doesn't bite," Chase said to the mother, who had taken in the situation just as the boy's hand landed squarely in Wolfie's eye.  She had more sense than her son and seemed poised to yank her offspring to safety, but to my surprise, the alpha wolf put up with the mauling good-naturedly before offering the child the same paw trick he'd pulled on me.  With the complete lack of self-preservation instinct typical of a human child, the kid took Wolfie's paw and shook it adamantly, before being pulled away by his mother.

Greetings complete, Wolfie looked back up at me and tilted his head to one side, the meaning clear—he wasn't a monster who ate small children.  But I didn't allow myself to be impressed.  So what if an alpha wolf had let a human child manhandle him?  That didn't counteract the same alpha's freeze-in-your-tracks command just minutes earlier.  On the other hand, I hadn't come up with any way of wiggling out of a meeting during the unusual interlude, so I shrugged my acceptance and allowed Chase to lead us across the street to a sidewalk cafe.

"Coffee?" the beta asked, handing the wolf's leash over to me as I stood beside an empty table outside the door.  I nearly dropped the tether in surprise, the rough fabric feeling like a poisonous snake in my hands as I considered the repercussions of my situation.  No way did I want to be in charge of an alpha's leash if the wolf suddenly decided that the restraint was beneath his dignity, but I realized we had to keep up appearances for the sake of the humans around us, so I kept my eyes averted from the alpha on the other end of the line and nodded stiffly.  In light of the leash issue (and being dragged to the cafe against my will), it seemed like a small matter that I didn't drink coffee, having found that stimulants were one of the danger points for a female werewolf struggling to control her shifts.  But no one said I had to consume the beverage Chase would put in front of me.  I probably would have choked on any drink given my current state of mind, so the flavor was irrelevant.

But the wolf disagreed with my unwillingness to state my preferences.  Before his beta could leave to collect our drinks, Wolfie nudged Chase's hand to attract his attention, then firmly shook his head.  "You're hungry?" Chase asked the wolf, surprised, but Wolfie only huffed in disgust.  Then, just as I realized what the alpha was communicating, understanding came into Chase's eyes as well.  "You'd prefer hot chocolate?" the man tried again, returning his gaze to me, and I nodded despite myself.

And that's how I ended up in such a ludicrous situation.  After spending half my energy over the last ten years hiding from the merest hint of werewolf presence, I was sitting at a cast-iron table of a sidewalk cafe, clinging to the leash of an alpha werewolf while his beta headed inside to buy me a hot chocolate.  I wasn't even surprised when the wolf rested his chin on my thigh in search of an ear scratch, but I
was
surprised that I allowed my hand to drift over his soft ears.  The fur was every bit as silky as it looked.

 

***

 

"You know, if you'd just put these on, you could ask her yourself," Chase told Wolfie, exasperated as he shook a backpack full of men's clothing under the wolf's nose.  Despite myself, the two were growing on me as I sipped my hot chocolate and watched them carry out a seemingly coherent conversation...despite the fact that one was a wolf.  After the bark that froze me on the street, Wolfie hadn't said another word, but he was quite adept at making his meaning clear, to Chase at least.  While taking in the show, I had even started drifting into wolf brain, where Wolfie's nonverbal language was more understandable, but I had quickly pulled myself back to the safety of the human world.  The middle of a city was no place to turn my wolf loose, even if we had been on speaking terms.

"What does he want to know?" I asked, when a stalemate appeared to have been reached by the opposing forces across the table from me.  Wolfie, for some unknown reason, preferred to stay wolf, Chase was unwilling to continue being his mouthpiece, and I was starting to get curious about the alpha's question.

Only when Chase turned to me with a huge smile on his face did I realize that these were the first words I'd spoken in the pair's presence.  So much for the cold shoulder.  But I shrugged internally and decided there was no point in freezing out Chase anyway, since he seemed to be a nice guy.  I was reserving judgment on the wolf.

"Wolfie just wants to know your name," Chase answered.  "But I can tell you aren't comfortable sitting here with us, and I didn't want to pepper you with questions until you had time to see we were harmless."  In contrast to his alpha's demand for information, Chase's strategy for putting me at ease seemed to involve talking until the cows came home.  So, with an effort, I pretended he wasn't a male werewolf and interrupted the monologue.

"I'm Terra," I answered, looking straight into the alpha's eyes rather than at his beta.  It was strange to be chatting with an alpha werewolf as if he were the guy down the street, but the wolf merely nodded his appreciation of the information then peered at Chase as if to say,
I told you she wouldn't mind
.

I felt okay parting with my given name since I figured neither Chase nor Wolfie would know the first name of the second daughter of an alpha from out of state, but I was careful not to offer a surname, which would have instantly linked me to a pack.  Wanting to stay as anonymous as possible, I decided some misdirection was in order to turn the conversation away from a potentially tricky topic, so I shifted my eyes back to Chase.  "And
his
name really is Wolfie?" I parried, hoping Chase would be willing to play along with my obvious attempt to talk about something other than myself.

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