Ally paused in the middle of brushing her teeth as bile rose in her throat. Sweat pricked her temple and she gagged the peppermint toothpaste into the sink. Mere minutes in Mackey Kendricks’ presence and he haunted her nightmares again and again. And now she was heading out to stalk the beast to his own den.
A knock sounded on her front door.
Ally sagged over her sink, digging her palms into the cool porcelain. She knew who waited on the other side. Her heart lurched in response, a reflex she couldn’t help whenever he was in proximity. If she was going to be spending the next stretch of days up close and personal with Drew Williams, then Ally needed to strap on Kevlar, because he infected her like a computer virus, scrambling her mind and heart every time. The idea that she had gotten tangled up over her ex-boyfriend was cute—their mess traveled down to the roots.
They might’ve kept it a secret from their packs and families, but Drew Williams was her mate.
Ally tugged her freshly highlighted hair back into a ponytail and clapped a hand on her scarred thigh as a reminder. Drew had changed, and so had she. They weren’t the same people they’d been two years ago before she’d dumped him. Before Drew had joined up with the enemy and split their pack apart.
The knock sounded on her door again.
Ally splashed icy water on her face and headed out of the bathroom. Her pulse pounded in double time when she approached. Nerves over the mission, obviously. She was two steps from the door when it creaked open on its own.
“We don’t have the thousand years necessary for you to finish getting ready.” Drew’s droll voice echoed through the house as he strode inside. The familiar tone made her bare her teeth on instinct while her mountain lion lunged in her chest.
“Try an ounce of patience, Williams,” she responded through gritted teeth. “Not even asking for an average amount. An ounce.”
Drew shut the door behind him and turned to face her. A breath hitched in her throat at the full sight of him. Even though he was a bad decision in human form, Drew’s looks placed him in Hollywood territory. He had a jawline sharp enough to slice, an arrogant nose that fit him all too well, and tan skin that glowed like he’d spent days basking in the summer sun even though early spring had just arrived. His hair, long enough to tug, gleamed like molten gold and the wicked arc of his eyebrows complemented his mocking smile.
“Well, we both know I’m not average in anything—even my lack of patience,” Drew drawled, hooking his thumbs through his belt loops. He leaned against the wall.
“Excuse me while I eyeroll myself into a seizure,” Ally shot back. She dipped down to snag her blue tote from beside the couch. Even after living here a couple of months, she thought of this place as Lana’s, not hers. Probably because her bestie’s name was still on the deed—Ally just acted as caretaker for the cheap rent. Besides, any day now, Lana and her fearsome Tribe mate would be returning for a temporary stay to make this house comfortably crowded.
Ally sucked in a breath and made her way to the door. She’d had to argue with Dax for days to take this recon assignment even though the prospect terrified her. But her alpha’s mate, Sierra, was due in less than a month with the first cub or pup between the united Red Rock and Silver Springs packs. Dax needed to be there for the birth of his kid. Ally wouldn’t budge on that one.
“Let’s get this misery tour on the road,” Ally said, flicking off the lights. She followed Drew out to the landing and locked up behind her.
By the time she’d spun around, Drew had slipped his aviators on and sauntered toward his Cadillac. “I’m driving,” he called.
Ally tugged the tote at her shoulder and followed him to the car, to hop into the passenger seat before he’d even stepped in. She hated the way the familiar scent of vanilla and smoke stroked at her nerves, evening her breaths. How she sank into these worn cushions like an old memory.
Drew turned the key, bringing the engine to life. Music blared through the speakers, the same acoustic rock he’d always listened to. He didn’t say a word as he pushed on the gas to speed out of the development before she could even cast another glance to Lana’s house. She could understand why he wouldn’t want to linger.
Her fingertips traced the scar on her thigh on instinct. The silver had burned her flesh beyond repair when the pipe bombs had gone off through this neighborhood. The bombs Drew and his defection had been behind.
And she’d been good on hating him too. She’d gotten real good at that. Until the bastard had returned to town and told them of how Mackey Kendricks had used compulsion, forcing Drew to commit horror after horror. Ally might’ve pretended she didn’t understand how fucked up his whole situation was, mostly because hating him was better than the alternative. But then she’d experienced Mackey’s compulsion for a flicker-flash of a second, and holy hell.
Ally rolled the window down. This car was getting way too stuffy.
“So, what’s the plan, Williams?” Ally asked. She placed her hands behind her head and leaned back in the seat. “I’m assuming your lengthy history with the Landsliders gives you some indications here.”
Drew didn’t need to tilt his aviators up for her to feel the intensity of the gaze flashing her way. “Williams is what folks called the old man.” He tipped his glasses down on his nose, passing her a scorching look. “I prefer babe, darling, light of my life. Sir, if you’re feeling kinky.”
“You’ll be called dipshit next if you keep at it,” Ally shot back. Drew Williams had been the one person on the planet to keep up with her acerbic humor, to let her unleash when she sank into a mean mood, because they’d always worked the same way. He might’ve deceived most of the pack into believing he chewed up their hatred and spat it back out in droll one-liners, but she’d always known better.
“We’re heading to World’s End State Park to narrow down where the hell Mackey planted his secret lair. So, while we sleuth out the specific location, we’ll be staying at a cabin in the interim—it’ll be our home base.”
“World’s End? How fucking poetic,” Ally responded, tapping her fingers along the ledge. Focusing on the breeze and sunlight proved better than thinking of spending nights in the same room as Drew Williams. Close proximity and a flat surface to fuck had always been her kryptonite when it came to him. “Does Mackey Kendricks choose all of his spots for maximum dramatic impact?”
Drew snorted. “You have no idea. The bastard’s a full-blown prima donna.”
The sun winked at her as they sped across the highway leading away from their territory. Soon they’d be heading into different pack territories, hence their stay in the public cabins used by human hikers. Even with the warmth radiating through the car and the gentle scent of lilac traveling with the breeze, a chill swept through Ally.
“Ava’s spell on Mackey’s device—that’s all that’s keeping him from using it to blow our packs into ash, right?” Their clever shamanic friend had placed a spell over the anti-shifter device they’d fought Joe Ganzorig for. They’d lost. However, Drew and Lucas had calculated that one, a minor loss for the greater victory of tracking her spell’s signature to the general vicinity of Mackey’s lair, a secret that had eluded them for far too long.
“That’s the rumor,” Drew responded.
She and Drew had been waiting for the call to hunt down this lair at last. If their packs stood any hope of stopping Mackey Kendricks or his Landsliders, they needed to catch him in his home base.
“Are you ready to confront him?” Ally asked, her sharp edges softening. “Ava fixed the bond between you and Kendricks through the Landsliders’ mark, right?”
Drew’s cocky grin faltered. She didn’t need the mating bond to sense the terror gripping him tight. “Our friendly neighborhood shaman did me one better. She managed to reverse the bond—I can resist his compulsion. At the end of the day, either one of the East Coast Tribe takes him down, or me. Luc and Navi have too much to lose, so you can bet I’m going to be the one to end his life, even if I go with him.”
His words stung, though she didn’t have any right to the hurt. Drew wasn’t wrong. They weren’t dating, and most of his former pack and family barely tolerated him. Only Lana had welcomed him back in, but Ally’s cinnamon roll bestie couldn’t hold a grudge. Hell, Lana would forgive a bumblebee for stinging her, so why not Drew?
Ally tugged out the flask of Jack Daniel’s she’d packed and took a swig.
“We’re five minutes into the drive and you’re drinking?” Drew arched an eyebrow.
Ally saluted with the flask. “The astounding new lengths you bring me to. Also, you’re the one who wanted to drive so badly.”
What she could never admit aloud was how much his self-sacrificing pissed her off. His actions made her flip the mirror back around and look a little too hard at all the desperate maneuvers she’d pulled as beta. How she’d thrown herself into fighting fang and claw against Landsliders, even mutated ones, without a blink.
Her mountain lion prowled inside, restless, needing to fight or run. Her mother had always told her she was a firework—all flash before the burnout, and she hated, hated to prove Rylie Coleman right.
“Oh, we’re making a detour along the way,” Drew mentioned offhandedly.
Ally gritted her teeth—she’d wear them to nubs by the end of this recon mission. “Didn’t think of mentioning at all? You know I’m not the type of soldier to fumble along blind.”
Drew placed a hand over his chest. “No, really?” The sarcasm reached eleven. Even though he drove, Ally considered the option of reaching across to strangle him. “Luc asked me to check on a pack out here,” he continued. “He wanted to gauge if Mackey had them under his thumb or not.”
“Like Mackey hasn’t pulled together enough shifters to form a fucked-up little family? What’s his damage?” Ally leaned along the window, her hair rippling out with the breeze.
“Mommy and Daddy issues puts it lightly,” Drew drawled before flicking a quick glance her way. “And you thought we were bad.”
“How dare he,” Ally responded. “Didn’t you tell him I don’t share the spotlight?”
Her comment earned a genuine grin from Drew, one that made his eyes crinkle at the edges. One that made her heart thump hard. Once upon a time, she’d have set a forest on fire for one of those smiles. If she were even an ounce honest with herself, she still might. Ally’s gaze drifted to the trees ahead of her. Her brow furrowed. She hadn’t been serious.
Smoke trailed from the trees, the dark plumes billowing with increasing urgency.
“Hey, Drew?” she asked, sitting up in the seat.
A frown creased between his eyebrows. “Looks like there’s a fire in the forest.”
“That wouldn’t happen to be in the direction we’re heading…” Ally let her words taper, unable to dispel the tug in her gut. Mackey might be behind this too.
“One way to find out,” Drew said, slamming hard on the pedal. His Caddy soared across the highway even as a cool competency settled over him. Like this, he seemed so different from the cocky upstart she’d fallen for. He exuded a maturity she wasn’t used to seeing in him.
Her claws pricked out in anticipation for a fight. She needed somewhere to channel all this nervous energy beyond bickering with Drew.
In the distance, the fringes of buildings signaled an approaching town, and Ally half-expected to see the properties alight with crimson and gold flames. So many times, her mind transported to the night of the pipe bombs, and her thigh ached. Drew slowed when he neared the town, the slate smoke coming from the left past the main stretch of Mildred. The small bone-white church and red-bricked post office ahead lay untouched, even as folks pulled to the side of the street to gawk at the big plumes of what was building into a rager of a fire.
“We’re getting close,” Drew murmured, his tone darkening with the same seriousness that had settled over her. “The pack lives just beyond the town, nearer to the creek.”
Ally’s nose pricked with the charred scent of smoke beginning to pervade the car. Drew veered down a side street, farther away from the town.
“And you said a pack of shifters lives here?” she asked, even though she knew the answer. Mackey and his Landsliders had wreaked enough havoc on her own pack to dispel any delusions that he might show restraint. That he might not tear families apart in his quest to destabilize the region.
“He doesn’t care.” Drew’s voice had distanced, the same as his eyes, as if he’d gotten trapped in memories of a different life from that of the man she’d known. “Mackey hates the packs. He hates his kind, maybe more than the Coalition does.”
Her stomach flipped. This monster’s hatred radiated like Hiroshima, the effects stamped all across their region, their homes and their packs.
Drew turned down another side street. Ranchers and two-story colonials sprawled out around here, short driveways and lengthy yards bursting to life with the careful blossoms and sprigs of spring’s first breath. The acrid stench of smoke grew even stronger when they neared the column of black pouring into the sky.
Drew reached the end of a cul-de-sac facing thick brush and towering oaks. Flames glimmered in the distance, and the cries echoed through the air, faint from here. Ally’s blood thrummed, her body prepared to move, to fight, to lash out at the first bit of trouble to step in her way. He parked at the edge.
“The pack must be deeper in,” he said before stepping out of his car. Ally vaulted out of her seat, her nails shifting to claws. Drew met her eyes on the other side of his Cadillac. “Let’s shift and check the area.”
This was the sort of job for the East Coast Tribe—most packs stuck to their own kind and stayed out of each other’s business. But the escalating threat Mackey Kendricks had brought to this region affected them all. This might not be her pack, but she couldn’t let innocents suffer. They both started stripping their clothes off to prepare for the shift.
“Follow my lead.” Drew gave the command. He’d been spending too much time around the Tribe. As much as Ally wanted to argue on reflex, the thump-thump-thump of her heart drowned out any response. She nodded and began to shift.
Her bones transitioned and fur pricked out along her arms. Her mountain lion took over, the form coming as naturally as breathing. The second she crouched on all four paws, the scent of the smoke grew overbearing and the screams reverberated through the forest, clearer than ever. Beneath the stench, she caught the other trails of the wolf pack who resided around here.
Before Drew gave the cue, Ally launched into the woods. Drew raced alongside her within seconds, keeping pace like he always did. Her mountain lion never needed the confirmation that he was her mate—he’d always been able to keep up with her in every aspect of their lives when no one else could.
Even though the fringes of trees had begun to spark, the fire focused on a different target, one that became clear the deeper in they ran. A pack cabin similar to their own lay in the middle of these woods, one accessible by a thin dirt road lined with cars. The pack must’ve been in the middle of a meet, all of them gathered together when the Landsliders had struck.
And now, those innocents burned.