Sierra was spoiling for a fight.
She slammed into the Beaver Tavern’s door shoulder first, amber light spilling on her, and the scent of tobacco threading through the air when she entered. Wooden planks creaked under her boots from her tread as she quick-stepped to the oaken bar on the opposite side. Three things lit her match without fail—abusive assholes, idiots who didn’t use their turn signals and unannounced shifters moving in on her territory.
Inside, her beast snapped at its confines, begging her to shift, to take to the woods and keep running, never turning back. Except leaving wasn’t an option, not since she’d become alpha of the Red Rock pack years ago. Sounds of the bar in full swing washed over her, from the shouts and laughs of the regulars to the clunks of heavy pint glasses hitting the tables.
“Sierra, what’s up your ass?” Jeremiah called over from a table as a lazy smile reached his hazel eyes. Her Red Rock pack filled the whole bar, since humans kept their distance from predominantly shifter areas, and in this part of Pennsylvania few would come strolling in.
She flipped him the middle finger. “Shut it, Streaky,” she called back, garnering a couple of laughs from the pack. After Jer had gotten caught buck-ass naked, stumbling out of at least three different tents at the last Fourth of July party, the nickname had stuck. Sierra beelined to where Raven operated the taps, dispensing dew to this loud and crazy lot. Sierra’s body brimmed with unspent tension. Fight, fight, fight pounded through her, an untamable urge, and her wolf prowled inside her, restless. As alpha, her rank heightened her tether to the beast, already one step away from primal.
“Shot of whiskey,” she growled, needing to regain control. Needing the reset before she engaged with her pack. Raven blinked at her, those deep-set eyes warm and welcoming as she reached for the bottle of Jack. Strands of the bartender’s thick black hair drifted over her shoulder as she passed the drink over.
“Boss, go for the whole thing,” she said with an amused smile. The bottle hit the counter with a thump, reminding Sierra of the massive inventory piling up in the back. The day she’d won the title of alpha, she’d also earned herself ownership of this dive.
“Thanks,” she muttered before unscrewing the cap and taking a swig. The amber liquid sloshed around the bottle, burning once the whiskey hit her lips. She soaked in the bliss, in the five-second distraction from the territorial urges pushing her toward an aggression-fueled pissing contest. Her skin prickled, hackles raised from her earlier run—from the note that had turned this day from sunshine-speckled to hellish.
She sucked down another swig, the burn of alcohol spreading through her before she returned the bottle to the counter. One deep breath, then two, and she started to feel normal again. The beast snarled but backed down. Sierra plopped onto one of the worn leather stools and leaned forward, elbows digging into the polished oak counter. Her tank top was glued to her chest and her thick obsidian locks plastered to her cheeks and her neck. The sweltering heat that swept the region wasn’t helping her mood in the slightest.
A hand snaked out in front of Sierra to tug the bottle away as the seat beside her creaked.
“Need to go a couple of rounds?” Finn asked, his dark eyes dancing with amusement at her barely contained rage. “Whatever’s got your wolf snapping is hitting the rest of us too. I’m assuming a summer squall’s brewing.” The beta of her pack dominated the stool, tall, with the lithe muscle of an MMA fighter—fitting, since he taught kickboxing classes six days a week. He’d been her sparring partner for years, and even as a teenager, the bastard had played dirty, sand in the eyes and all.
“Storm’s ready to touch down,” Sierra muttered, slumping onto the counter. When it came to her pack, she made calls without hesitation—every member from the eldest to the littles had complaints, problems to solve or disputes and fights she managed. However, this problem was in a whole different category. “We’ve got new neighbors, and they’re of the pain-in-my-ass variety.”
“Neighbors like us?” Finn asked, beckoning Raven. She sauntered over, eyebrow lifted at being summoned that way. He tilted his head toward the taps, and she rolled her eyes before pouring him a pint. Sierra withheld her smirk, entertained by watching big dominant guys like Finn getting sassed back. All those powerful wolves didn’t make dating easy though, especially being alpha. As much as the guys liked to talk the talk of handling a woman more dominant than them, few could walk the walk. She swallowed age-old bitterness of the lesson she’d learned the hard way.
Before she could respond to Finn, the door of the bar creaked open, drawing her attention.
She hadn’t even turned around before her wolf started yanking at the chain, begging to come out. The scent hit her nose at once, not the familiar one of her Red Rock pack, but this unfamiliar one that brushed her fur the wrong way. Claws pricked out from her nails before she could stop herself, and she wasn’t the only one. A low growl emerged beside her as Finn picked up the foreign scent.
“Mislabeled the sign,” a cocky voice called from the door. “Should read ‘Doggie Daycare’ with the number of pups packed into this place.” The man’s eyes twinkled at his less-than-funny joke, and an amused grin spread on his face. He walked in with a graceful stride, the liquidity of his movements betraying his kind, as if a cat could ever disguise its nature. Chairs squeaked as folks leaped up, teeth bared and claws out as her Red Rocks prepared to rush the intruder. A blonde chick and a long-limbed toothpick of a guy strode in behind him with similar refinement to their movements.
Sierra barely controlled herself as she forced her claws back into place. Out of everyone, she had to rein in her beast because she carried the responsibility of an entire pack on her shoulders. “You’d figure with so many pups under one roof, a kitty cat wouldn’t be stupid enough to wander in.”
“Oh, you know, curiosity and all that.” His white teeth gleamed against his tanned skin. “You folks give the warmest welcomes to newcomers.” He tugged on the end of his baseball cap before crossing through the crowded bar without a care. The cocky bastard ignored the bristling wolves on either side begging to leap forward, each lethal in his or her own right. Either he had brass balls or he had lost his common sense a few states back. A couple of members of Sierra’s pack glanced her way, begging permission to lunge at the intruder and take him down.
“Well, love notes as charged as yours tend to inspire passionate responses.” Sierra forced a grin, baring her teeth in the process. The note had been simple. The Silver Springs pack—a group of mountain-lion shifters with the reputation for being mean motherfuckers—were searching for a new home. Right in the middle of Red Rock territory. Asshole thought he was hilarious, leaving a trail of puppy chew toys strewn through her normal jogging path.
Sierra began her own approach, each step coiled with tension. Not like she would attack him unprovoked, but the moment she caught sign of a claw or fang from these intruders, all bets were off.
Sierra stepped up to the guy, the scent of woodsmoke and fresh earth saturating the air in his proximity. He must’ve been running through the forest and recently shifted to human. “Welcome to my territory,” she said, placing a hand out with emphasis. “I’m Sierra Kanoska, alpha of the Red Rock pack.”
The man’s eyes widened with interest as he clapped his large, callused palm against hers and shook. Even though he towered at least a foot above her, Sierra thrust her chin up, not intimidated in the slightest. Men tended to rely too heavily on their size instead of realizing one well-placed blow would make them crumble. And Sierra had honed her body into a weapon.
“Dax Williams, alpha of the Silver Spring pack. Pleased to make your acquaintance.” The challenge dwelled in his tone of voice, in the openness of his stance and the flare of his nostrils as he soaked in the scent of her surrounding wolves. The smirk on his face was one Sierra’s knuckles itched to knock off. The bastard had barely been here five minutes, but already she hated him. He stepped away, sidling past her to rest his forearms on the bar. “Don’t suppose I can get a drink around here?”
Raven glanced over to her, her eyes glowing silver with the same aggression as the rest of them. Sierra slid back onto her stool, giving Raven a nod in return. Until they established why Dax and his cronies had picked her territory to torment and whether they could be convinced to turn away without bloodshed, a pint would be the best way to defuse the powder keg this room had turned into.
“Sorry, we’re fresh out of milk,” Sierra said with a too-sweet smile.
Dax’s lips curled with a wicked smirk. “Pity. Guess I’ll have to settle for a pint, then.”
The woman behind him took one of the empty stools, her ponytail bouncing as she sat. “Make that three. All our running made Kyle and me thirsty.”
Raven stared stony-faced at the counter as she filled Sierra a pint first, then followed with drinks for the intruders, her claws pricking out in the process. The air thickened, and every eye homed in on the three intruders lining the bar by Sierra. She hadn’t taken her gaze off them for a second, waiting for a slip-up. The day she’d become alpha she’d swallowed her responsibility pills, but she wasn’t a saint.
Dax lifted the closest pint to his lips and his cronies took theirs. Not to be outdone, Sierra tipped hers back, chugging the liquid in an attempt to distract herself from ramming a punch into the too-calm kitty alpha’s face. The ale coursed down her throat until foam dripped to her lips, and she slammed the glass on the bar, heat flushing through her at her triumph. The three mountain cat shifters stared at her, sipping at their drinks as if they didn’t have a care in the world.
“Pint’s over. Since you came rolling up to what’s obviously one of our bars, I’m assuming you’re ready to discuss business now,” Sierra said, leaning forward to place her forearms on the bar. Her braid shifted down her back with the way she thrust her chin forward. “Right now, you’re considered guests in our territory. However, if you’re here to try and stake a claim, you’ll find yourself out on your ass before you can blink.”
A couple of growls reverberated around her, including from Finn, who hunched forward, his eyes glowing amber.
“I’d like to see you try.” Dax’s lips curled into a smile, smug enough to make her say to hell with the consequences and tear into him. He shifted on the seat, near dwarfing it with a lethal, coiled body that spelled dangerous. Despite his calm, the way his blue eyes flashed promised trouble. She’d heard rumors in the breeze of unrest in the Silver Springs region, of the old alpha passing. If these cats had encroached on her territory, they must’ve arrived for a damn good reason, since he didn’t seem the sort to go running from a challenge.
Sierra wasn’t alpha just because she’d wiped the floor with the big guys in the pack—hell, most of the strong ones could go toe-to-toe with her. She’d become alpha because she paid attention, she listened and, most importantly, she understood the big picture.
Her brow lifted as she soaked Dax in. Proud shifter like him wouldn’t come slinking in asking for help. No, he’d bluster on in and start a ruckus, distract, maybe carve out a niche for himself and his cats. Bringing her suspicions up in front of his pack wouldn’t help, either, because he had to keep a bold front. She had to figure out a way to get him alone, so they could hash this out alpha-to-alpha.
“Right, keep talking big while you’ve got your posse at your back,” Sierra challenged, pushing him.
He snorted into his pint. “Says the woman with an entire bar full of wolves to hide behind.”
“Fine,” Sierra responded, hiding her amusement at how fast she’d maneuvered him. “Then let’s have this conversation somewhere private. That is, if you aren’t too scared.” She threw the barb in for good measure but didn’t have to fake the heat of challenge in her voice.
Dax’s grin widened, revealing teeth as he leaned against the bar. “Darling, if you wanted me somewhere private, all you had to do was ask,” he drawled. The languid way he carried himself oozed sensuality and the confidence of a guy who got his way often. Just the sort she’d run roughshod over. Sierra didn’t blink, crossing her arms.
Finn tapped her shoulder. “Boss, you don’t have to give him the time of day, let alone engage in any one-on-one negotiations. Cats aren’t trustworthy.”
“My beta’s bringing up some pretty good points,” she said to Dax in return, getting up from her barstool. “Think you can survive a talk with me without resorting to petty tricks?”
The beanpole, Kyle, jumped in. “And why should we trust you to not launch an ambush once you get him alone?”
Sierra’s gaze flashed, her claws pricking out. “Because Red Rocks keep their word.” Her voice turned molten and harsh despite the complete control she’d regained. Intimidation against a bitty cat like him came as natural as running water. “Because we don’t go intruding on other folks’ territories, making demands. We learned a thing or two about honor and loyalty along the way and about defending our home with our lives.”
“I believe you,” Dax replied. His eyes danced with amusement, blue like the shifting seas. He slid his emptied pint glass across the slick surface of the bar and hopped off his seat. “So why waste any more time?” With his powerful stride, he was halfway across the room in seconds before he turned around to glance at her.
Sierra clenched her jaw. Even though she’d been able to unseat him for a couple of seconds, every interaction with him was a push-pull for power, one seeping beneath her skin like an itch she couldn’t scratch. She cast a glance to Finn. “Treat them like guests while they’re here,” she murmured. “However, if they get aggressive, don’t hesitate to slit their throats.”
“Please, my pack is nothing but well-behaved,” Dax called across the room. “Just tell your puppies to play nice.”
Sierra shot Finn one last glance before striding across the room to catch up with Dax. She didn’t trust the bastard for a heartbeat. Even though she could hold her own in a fight, the mischief blazing in his eyes and the slick calm he oozed set her nerves on edge. Whatever reason he had for bringing his pack into her territory, one fact remained undeniably true: The man was pure trouble.