A month had passed since Finn Kelly had left, and with every day that passed, Raven’s composure unraveled a little further.
Her grip tightened on the wet rag as she slid it over the chestnut surface of the bar, cleaning the sticky spilled beer and the rings left from the bottles. The dusky afternoon light spilled through the windows of their haven, Beaver Tavern, which had divots in the floorboards and a lingering scent of cedar that reminded her of home. Already, old man Gene had wandered inside and was nursing a pint at his usual spot, and a couple of the younger guys in the pack were arguing back and forth over their burgers.
Everything remained the same as normal, and yet her entire world had grayed around the edges. She’d moored her anchor to the wrong ship and wasted close to a decade distracting herself with the wrong guy. And no matter how much Sierra offered to spar with her and Jer made excuses to swing over to watch a flick or crack stupid jokes, they couldn’t stop the way her chest throbbed, or how her skin itched so badly she wanted to tear it off.
Raven wasn’t an idiot. She’d always known Finn Kelly wasn’t in love with her, but he’d been the closest thing to feeling safe. When he’d driven off in his Challenger with his mate at his side and left the pack behind, he’d shattered that comfort. Now the lengthy shadows set her on edge, and each night when she returned to her empty apartment, her adrenaline spiked with every creak and groan of the old timbers.
So, she’d spent more time behind the bar, picking up as many shifts as she could, if only to drown out the memories she’d locked away ten years ago. Ones that crept closer with each passing day, threatening to drag her under.
Raven dropped the rag underneath the counter and straightened her ponytail, which had begun to slump in the hour she’d been here. She couldn’t stop moving if she wanted to, amped up in a constant state of vigilance that wore her wolf to the bone.
The door to Beaver Tavern creaked when it opened again.
Jer stepped inside, his presence commanding her attention the same as always. Not like anyone could help but get swept up by the sight of him. The man’s looks caused the air to vanish from the room and his sexual magnetism made her whole body flush with a single glance.
He caught her gaze and a heartbreaker smile rose to his lips, enhancing dimples that made her heart speed up every time. His clever eyes danced and his eyebrows tilted with a wicked edge, inspiring lust from just about every girl who crossed his path. He skimmed a hand through his tousled chestnut locks with an effortless grace as he sauntered in her direction. Based on the way her body reacted every time he entered the room, she should’ve been chasing after Jer all these years.
Except, with Finn, she’d felt safe. She’d been able to mute the turbulence storming within her, even if only for a little while.
Jer was another story.
His presence ripped her wide open and forced her to feel with such a strength she gasped for breath. She couldn’t hide or escape from the constant pulse of surrender, surrender, surrender. Raven would never be able to take the risk. For her, the options narrowed down to fight or die, and the fight for her own mind never ended—not after the past she kept secret to this day.
Besides, even though Jer managed to conceal his pain behind so many easy smiles, the hurt ripped into her as if it were her own. He fought his own daily battle—they both did. And with the stormy seas buffeting the two of them around all these years, she could barely believe they hadn’t drowned. Anything more than friendship might sentence them both.
“Have you been getting any sleep?” Jer asked, flattening his palms on the surface of the bar. Concern ringed his tone, concern she didn’t want to face.
“More than you, stud,” she responded with a sharp smile. “Though don’t take that as an invitation to go into the tawdry details of your latest conquests. I’ve heard more than I ever wanted to know from the other pack females.”
He shook his head, a half-smile on his face as he took a seat. “Talk is cheap. You know if you ever want to verify for yourself, all you have to do is ask.” He said it with smooth perfection, a delivery that would make most girls squeeze their thighs tight. Except Raven had the stupid curse of soaking in emotions like a wet sponge, and his offer wasn’t brimming with heat. The wave of hopelessness crashing off him slammed into her.
The guys might tease Jer for his distractions, but most of them egged him on, half in awe of his prowess. Not many people understood how he’d withered away over the years, losing himself in the chase, the same way Raven had thrown herself into Finn. She’d recognized his damage early on, a mirror to her own, and if they ever collided, they’d rip each other open until nothing remained.
Raven grabbed a pint glass from the stack and began filling it with the porter he drank on the regular. She placed the beer in front of him. “Keep on wishing, babe,” she purred. “I’m STD free and want to remain that way.”
She wielded her tongue like a whip because she valued Jer too much to become another distraction for him, another notch on his bedpost. And after Finn had left their damaged trio, the two of them had fought to stay afloat against the rising tides. He shook his head, the smile clinging to his face even though his eyes didn’t reflect it back.
He lifted the pint to his lips and swigged with an unsettling quickness. She hadn’t been the only one off as of late, but whatever had changed with Jer, he remained tight-lipped on the subject.
Ever since the East Coast Tribe had left the area, quiet had returned, since the powerful shifter governing force tended to set garden-variety shifters on edge. However, it wasn’t the peaceable serenity that arrived with the cool autumn breezes. The pebbling chill in the air promised trouble, no matter how hard she tried to convince herself otherwise.
“How are the new responsibilities?” Raven asked, picking up the rag and continuing to polish the same gleaming spot, over and over.
“Finn left some pretty big shoes to fill as Sierra’s beta.” Jer placed the glass onto the counter and slumped forward. “She’s encouraging as anything, but she holds back around me. Finn knew how to push through that shit—the bastard was so thickheaded he’d ram right through most folks’ hesitations. I don’t operate his way.”
“So, what you’re saying is it’s an adjustment.” Raven couldn’t help her wan smile at the sight of him there, fingers raking through his curls, exasperated. That was the Jer she’d first met, a sweeter one who felt more than he’d ever admit. Those glimpses were worth the slight distance she kept between them, how she’d never succumbed to the temptation to slip into his bed. And Spirits above, there had been so, so many times she’d wanted to over the years.
“Give me contracts and arbitrations with pack disagreements any day over this beta nonsense. At least I make bank doing that business, and I’m arguing already presented cases. Beta business means having an opinion of my own and standing behind it, all the shit Finn and Sierra get their rocks off on.”
Raven would be lying if every mention of Finn’s name didn’t make her wince, but she kept her mask in place, same as she’d been doing for years.
The door to Beaver Tavern creaked open. The scent drew her attention at once, and her wolf perked to attention. Not pack.
Not pack, but familiar, in the worst sort of way.
Christian Denzel strode into Beaver Tavern with a smirk on his lips and the devil in his gaze. He hadn’t changed in over a decade, with the same sweep of dark hair and even darker eyes against alabaster-pale skin. The moment Raven caught sight of him, the pint glass she was preparing to stack almost slipped from her grasp. Out of the ghosts to appear from her past, only one would be worse than him.
His coyote scent attracted attention as folks looked up from their tables when he walked by. But he didn’t pay them any mind. His gaze branded her, and she couldn’t tear hers away. Most of the time, she was safe behind the bar at Beaver Tavern, as if it created a barrier between her and the rest of the world. However, right then she was chained there when her wolf lunged in her chest, begging to run, run, run, anywhere but this place.
The squeak of Jer’s chair when he faced the intruder snapped her to attention.
“If you’re looking to stir up trouble, you stepped into the wrong bar,” Jer said, lifting his pint. Even though he gave him a lazy glance, only a fool would trifle with their pack lawyer. He was sharper and smarter than almost any other Red Rock.
“Me? Trouble?” Christian said in mock surprise as he took a seat. His gaze fixed on her with a steadiness that carved right underneath her skin. “I’m here to relay some news, and maybe catch a drink with an old friend.”
Raven swallowed hard. No. The past lay behind her, one she hadn’t brought along when she’d joined the Red Rocks. Her insides chilled colder than the ale in the taps. Jer glanced to her then Christian, his eyebrows furrowing in response. She needed to defuse this situation now, before Christian went running his mouth and ruined everything she’d built there.
“What can I get for you?” she asked, her voice coming out like battery acid. If she’d had liquid silver on hand, she’d dump it straight into a pint glass and force it down his throat. Christian’s face was one of the ones she’d buried from memory, and his sleazy tone one that whispered in her mind when she tried to settle for bed. The brand on her hip felt as if it burned from the phantom sensation of past regrets.
A grin rolled to Christian’s lips while he leaned forward at the bar. “I’ll take a pint, darling. You look like you’ve been doing well for yourself.”
Raven poured a pint of their cheapest ale and shoved it forward, foam sloshing over the edges. Christian’s expression never changed, mocking amusement gleaming in his eyes. Unlike the teenager she’d known back then with his flannels and jeans, he now wore a suit, giving him a city-slicker vibe that married so well with his sleazy personality.
“Where do you two know each other from?” Jer asked, glancing between them. Raven tensed, and Christian’s laugh scraped against her nerves. The gazes from the other patrons in the bar prickled along her skin, an awareness she couldn’t shake no matter how hard she tried.
Before she could make up some lie, Christian interjected. “We ran around in the same circles in our youth, but I haven’t seen this one in years. Almost like she’s been avoiding us.”
Raven’s grip tightened on the rag she held, and her claws pricked out. “Maybe because the lot of you were assholes. Drink your beer and get the hell out, Christian.” Her words came out low, but they seethed with intent.
He took a sip from his pint before unleashing another grin. This one glittered with the insidious intent she’d expected from the start. “Hey now, I showed up for a reason. Figured the Red Rock Pack should get some notice.”
“Notice about what?” Jer had been paying attention, but it was clear this commanded his full focus.
“I’ve been hired to represent the Coalition of Human Rights. As much as they dislike our kind, they needed a shifter on the inside to handle the bigger problem, because what they detest even more are the pack formations and the Tribes themselves. Collections of shifters are a threat to humanity,” he recited, as if he’d been practicing the speech in front of the mirror.
“Selling out your own kind?” Raven interjected. “Color me surprised.”
“I haven’t seen you working around these circles before, and I know most of the other lawyers in the region. Who’s your employer?” Jer asked, tapping his fingers along the surface of the bar.
Christian’s grin widened. “I work for Hansen Associates in Philadelphia. A bit of a distance from the hick central I grew up in.”
“And what does the Coalition want?” Jer asked, his voice the sort of calm promising imminent explosion. “We keep to ourselves, and our relations with the local humans have been nothing but friendly.”
“Oh, didn’t you hear?” Christian said, with the assured smile they wouldn’t have heard whatever filth he prepared to expound. Raven needed to retract her claws, but the instinct thrummed inside. Her wolf was covered in so many scars that she lashed out, begging her to shift and thrash this bastard.
Christian plucked out the folder he’d been carrying and placed it on the bar counter. Raven didn’t trust herself to look at it, but Jer’s expression darkened the moment he scanned the papers. A low growl thrummed from their new pack beta, and at once, every single Red Rock in the bar turned their way.
She sucked in a shaky breath and glanced down.
‘Petition for Sale of Ricketts Glenn State Park.’
The ground slipped from beneath her. “That’s our territory.” The words rolled out even as the numbness filtered through her veins. Even though Red Rock owned portions outside of the state park that couldn’t be touched, when it came to pack demarcations, everyone understood that her pack claimed the rest of it as well.
Christian smirked. “Except, as of late, the state’s been behind on payments. The Coalition of Human Rights knows how dangerous these packs congregating can be. Their plan is to buy out the land, and, honestly,” he paused to cast a cursory glance around the bar, “if this is all the Red Rock pack is pulling in, I doubt you’ll be able to outbid them.”
Raven couldn’t help herself. Her fist went flying right toward the smarmy bastard’s face.
Christian’s hand shot up to catch it. Her knuckles thudded against his callused palm. No matter how he might play pretend at being genteel, the man was the sort of dangerous bred from the worst places. The chestnut bar dug into her hips while she strained at the seams to keep from shifting. Jer cast a worried look her way before he snagged the folder from the surface of the counter top.
“Temper, temper, Tigerlily,” Christian murmured, igniting the flames inside her all over again. That nickname. She’d last heard it on those lips. Raven was going to be sick.
She stepped back a pace, her claws slipping out and fur beginning to prickle along her skin as if she was a kid again who couldn’t control her shift.
“What’s going on here?” a commanding voice rang out from the door. In the frame stood the woman who’d kept the pack together, the one who would fight intruders tooth and claw to protect their territory. Sierra Kanoska had arrived.