The alarm shrieked, scaring Annabelle Sanchez awake and out of bed. She stumbled around the room, dressing quickly. This wasn’t the first time and wouldn’t be the last that her morning started that way, but it always made her leap up in fear. Her bedside clock read three-fifteen a.m. Having been taught to always be prepared, Annabelle jogged down the hall less than four minutes after the warning call. Doors opened as she passed, signaling others rushing to join her.
Mac Gordon was on his phone as Annabelle ran into the main bar area, Trent, Carter and Kelly spreading out behind her. Trent and Carter each stood next to one of the windows to peer out while Kelly ran to take position by the front door. Annabelle’s place was at Mac’s side. She would carry out all Mac’s orders while directing the rest of the team.
The rumble of motorcycles shook the floorboards where she stood and she recognized the sound of those pipes. At normal times, Annabelle would be comforted by the people who were arriving, but in the middle of the night, with the alarms still ringing, she was filled with dread. There was no reason for two of the team to be coming in hot.
“They’re here,” Mac said into his cell. “Put everyone else on high alert. We’ll take care of things here. Good job.”
Mac’s words had everyone in the room tensing. Putting the entire town on high alert was a big deal. The town of Brookside had around two hundred residents only, mostly shifters or their loved ones. It was a unique place but perfect for the secrets that had to be kept.
Annabelle wiped her hands down the legs of the sweatpants she’d pulled on. Her heart still pounded. It’d be a long morning and she’d only been in bed for a few short hours.
Mac turned toward them. “We have an emergency case,” he said.
“Trouble?” Trent asked. He bounced on his toes as though he itched to get into the thick of things.
“No signs of it so far,” Mac told him before glancing at Kelly. “Kelly, can you make some food? They’re going to be hungry.”
“Of course,” Kelly replied, already hurrying toward the kitchen.
“Trent, Carter,” Mac said. “Take your bikes and backtrack to the south. Make sure no one followed.”
“You got it, boss,” Trent responded with a wide grin.
Annabelle knew that he hoped to actually find someone following, and had to shake her head. The hyena shifter was just a little bit crazy at times. Trent gave a quick nod to Carter and the two men stalked toward the back door to follow orders.
“What’s going on?” Annabelle asked once she and Mac were alone.
“Not sure,” Mac confessed. “Calvin and Duffy have someone with them. Since they didn’t call me first, we have to proceed cautiously.”
The motorcycles’ engines cut off and Annabelle took the time to brace herself for what would be coming through the doors. In the many years she’d worked along with Mac, there hadn’t been much she hadn’t seen. It was sad to say that nothing surprised Annabelle any longer. People, human or shifter, could be so cruel to one another.
The front door opened and Calvin Montgomery stepped inside first. A young woman with long, flowing red hair had practically attached herself to him. Duffy followed behind the two, pulling the door shut before moving to lean against the wall.
From the front, the bar wasn’t much to look at, sure. But as an establishment that welcomed some rough characters nightly, its rundown exterior meant one thing—that whoever set foot inside would be comfortable.
Tabletops might be scarred and the floor scratched, but so what? The important thing about it? That a person’s species didn’t matter when they walked inside the Den. Everyone was invited to sit and enjoy a good brew.
The woman with Calvin didn’t look like she’d ever stepped into a place like their bar before, but that was all right. She wouldn’t be on the main floor for long.
Annabelle did her best to appear as non-threatening as possible while taking a few short steps forward. She didn’t know the girl’s story, but, like all the shifters who came through the Den, this woman needed the kind of help only they could offer.
“Samantha,” Calvin said softly. “Annabelle is the one I was telling you about. She’ll get you settled.”
Annabelle smiled at the redhead. She had beautiful clear green eyes, and freckles across her nose. She couldn’t be much older than twenty. “It’s nice to meet you, Samantha.” She kept her voice gentle.
“Hello,” Samantha replied, peeking around Calvin.
“I bet you could use a good meal, a shower and bed.” Annabelle waved her hand around. “It might not look like much, but you’ll be comfortable here, I promise.”
Samantha nodded at her and glanced at Calvin.
“You go ahead with Annabelle,” Calvin told her. He motioned to Mac. “That’s my boss. I have to tell him what’s going on.”
“O…okay.” Samantha looked at Mac nervously.
Mac might have appeared intimidating with his dark hair and eyes, along with his full beard. A huge, muscular, tattooed biker, to Annabelle he was also the kindest man she’d ever met. Mac smiled encouragement at Samantha. It normally didn’t take their guests long to trust him, so Annabelle felt certain that Samantha would soon be one of Mac’s biggest fans.
“I can already smell Kelly’s cooking,” Annabelle said, pulling Samantha’s attention to her.
“I am hungry,” Samantha admitted, her voice small.
“Well, then,” Annabelle said. “Follow me.” She led the way out of the main room and past the bar area. Since the bar had closed up hours ago, all the neon signs had been turned off and only a few security lights remained on. Samantha wouldn’t ever be in the public part of the bar again. Once through the doors, she’d be kept out of view from anyone who might stumble in or come looking for her.
Behind her, Mac greeted Calvin and Duffy. The back-slapping was boisterous. Calvin and Duffy had been gone two weeks, which wasn’t unusual. They loved to travel around on their bikes and, if they weren’t needed at home, they might be anywhere in the US. Annabelle envied their freedom, but she had her own reasons for never leaving their small northern California town.
“Hi!” Kelly greeted them warmly as they stepped into the open kitchen.
The space wasn’t big and a large stainless-steel oven and fridge dominated the room, but it was inviting. Annabelle always felt warm and comfortable there. While the bar did sell some appetizers and easy items, the real cooking took place once the doors were closed to the public. During the day, Kelly worked as a waitress along with Annabelle, but Kelly loved to cook for the family.
“It smells good,” Annabelle praised. “This is Samantha.”
“Hi, Samantha.” Kelly waved. “Make yourself at home at the table. I’ll have something to snack on here in just one minute. I also made a fresh pot of coffee.”
“Thank you,” Samantha replied quietly. “I hope you didn’t go to too much trouble.”
“Nah,” Kelly said. “I’m glad Calvin and Duffy are back. Plus they brought you, so it gives me an excuse to cook.”
Annabelle smiled as she pulled out a chair for Samantha from the table. None of the chairs matched, but that didn’t matter. This was where all of the family ate meals together, so there was plenty of room—especially when they never knew who from town might drop by. Kelly really did love cooking for the people she cared about. Before she had joined them, Kelly had cooked in a restaurant, working fourteen or more hours a day. Now she only stood behind the stove when she wanted to.
“Can I get you something to drink?” Annabelle asked Samantha.
When Samantha sat in the chair, with Annabelle still standing behind her, Annabelle picked up the scent of dirt and foliage. Fox shifter. Annabelle was surprised. Foxes weren’t a very common shifter species and she’d only ever met one other. Annabelle didn’t say anything to Samantha about it, though. It wouldn’t be comfortable for her to be around such large predatory shifters. Since her own animal was rare and small, Annabelle hoped Samantha would be even more at ease in her presence.
The way Samantha kept her shoulders hunched showed years of wariness from whatever she’d been put through. Even when Annabelle had first been brought to the bar, she’d had a chip on her shoulder. Annabelle didn’t cower to anyone.
She might only be five foot six but Annabelle’s attitude was big enough to go up against all the huge shifters who surrounded her.
Maybe one day, Samantha would regain her confidence. If anyone could give Samantha the chance of reclaiming her strength, it was them.
“Can I have some water, please?” Samantha asked.
“You got it,” Annabelle said, stepping toward the fridge.
The guys would probably start guzzling coffee when they got there, as they’d need the caffeine to keep them up to make plans. Annabelle hoped she’d be able to get some more sleep, so she chose two bottles of water for herself and Samantha.
As she passed by Kelly, she saw a couple of dishes already set on the side. Annabelle picked up one with a variety of cheeses, meats, crackers and fruit and carried it over. Samantha’s eyes lit up at the food as Annabelle set it in the middle of the table. Annabelle put down the water bottles then picked up a stack of paper plates from the counter.
“Help yourself,” Annabelle told her.
She set the plates down before going back and picking up bowls of chips. Kelly flipped hamburger patties on the grill and Annabelle’s stomach started to growl. She’d shifted for several hours earlier but hadn’t eaten after since it’d been so late. She was really hungry now that she’d smelled the food.
Samantha loaded a plate with a couple of crackers and a small amount of fruit. Annabelle hoped she’d eat more than that. While the dark circles under Samantha’s eyes spoke of her being exhausted, Samantha was also very skinny. Like she hadn’t had a good meal in a lot longer than the road trip would have taken.
Annabelle really wanted to know Samantha’s story but it wasn’t her place to ask. Instead, she took the seat next to Samantha and reached for some of the fruit. She didn’t fill the silence with small talk. In her experience, Samantha would be thinking about what she’d run from and what was going to happen now. As much as Annabelle wanted to take Samantha’s thoughts away, Annabelle knew she needed to take her cues from Samantha.
“I really appreciate all this,” Samantha whispered.
“It’s what we do,” Annabelle replied honestly.
“I’m glad,” Samantha said.
Annabelle patted her shoulder, pleased when Samantha leaned in to her touch instead of flinching away. There were many reasons that the underground organization Mac ran even existed. Mac had been taking in strays, like herself, for years.
She’d been fourteen when Mac had come across her living in an alley, sleeping behind a Dumpster. After running away from her twelfth foster home, Annabelle was not going to go back into the system. Mac had offered her an alternative. And it wasn’t sick and twisted the way all the other offers she’d gotten had been. Mac had just opened the Den and needed help with the nephew he had custody of. Duffy had been seven when Mac had brought Annabelle home. Now, thirteen years later, this group was the family she loved, the only one she’d ever had.
Mac, Calvin and Duffy walked into the room and Annabelle smiled up at them. Mac was the father figure who’d raised her, made sure she had enough to eat, a place to sleep, love and affection. Duffy was a little brother to her. When Duffy had fallen in love with Calvin, Annabelle had had another brother. The others in the group were like cousins, uncles, aunts and other extended family members. It was all she’d ever wanted. Getting to help shifters in trouble gave her an extra purpose. She felt as if she was making the world a better place.
Calvin ran his fingers across Annabelle’s shoulder before he took a seat on the other side of Samantha, with Duffy and Mac sitting across from them. Even if trouble had come home with Calvin and Duffy, she was happy they’d returned.
“Feeling better?” Calvin asked Samantha quietly.
“Yes, thank you,” Samantha replied. She looked at Mac. “Thank you for taking me in.”
“Of course,” Mac said. “We want to help in any way that we can.”
“Burgers!” Kelly announced, carrying a platter of meat and buns to the table.
“Oh, God,” Calvin moaned. “I missed your cooking.”
“Me, too,” Duffy agreed, already reaching for the food.
Mac slapped his hand. “Ladies first,” he growled. “Didn’t I teach you manners?”
Duffy gave Mac a sheepish grin. “Sorry, but if I’d had to eat fast food one more day, I was going to do something drastic, like order a salad.”
Everyone laughed, including Samantha, which seemed to be the break in tension that they’d needed. They began to eat. The food disappeared quickly while Annabelle shared looks and smiles with the group. The loneliness that usually surrounded her was absent. At least for a while. Eventually Calvin and Duffy would return to the road, Kelly would be buried in a cookbook, trying to find new recipes, and Mac’s job would have him stressed and locked in his office. But, for the moment, her family was with her and that made her content.
By the time their stomachs were full, Samantha’s head bobbed in exhaustion.
“Hey.” Annabelle laid her palm against Samantha’s back. “How about I show you to your room and let you shower and get some sleep?”
“That’d be great,” Samantha said.
Annabelle stood, glancing at Mac. He gave her a discreet nod to take Samantha downstairs. They guys would make sure that there was no lingering trace of Samantha, including her scent. Samantha gazed around as they walked through the narrow hallway that led to the bedrooms. Six of their group lived on that level. As far as anyone knew, they were the only ones who resided in the back rooms.
A mist sprayed over their heads and Samantha flinched.
“A scent neutralizer,” Annabelle explained. “No one will ever know you were here.”
Samantha laughed nervously. “Okay.”
“This way,” Annabelle said when they reached the end of the corridor. She moved aside a picture of the family to reveal a security panel. Before she punched in the four numbers needed, she glanced over her shoulder at Samantha. “Ready?”
Samantha’s eyes were wide, but she nodded in response.
Excitement coursed through Annabelle. She loved going down to the lower level. It looked like an entirely different building. While the bar appeared rundown and barely able to keep standing, that was just the surface appearance. The modern high-tech of the converted basement was amazing.
She tapped in the code and the wood separated, revealing a three-inch-thick steel door. Annabelle stepped forward to run her hands over the shiny barrier until she found the notch where the latch was located. She pulled down and a click sounded before the door unlocked.
“Wow!” Samantha murmured.
“Just wait,” Annabelle said.
She had to push the door open, but it moved inward silently and smoothly. As soon as she placed her foot inside, the motion sensor light triggered, illuminating the entry to the underground bunker.
Down here was a whole different world. The walls were solid concrete to keep those who needed to hide safe and out of view. But the homey feel of the space surprised most people.
The barrier opened into a large living area. Black leather couches and chairs were scattered around the room, alongside heavy, dark-wood furniture. Directly across the room was a small kitchen area and off to one side, the office had been set up. Monitors lined the walls, showing feeds from the numerous security cameras around the property. The hum of the computers was the only sound in the quiet space.
“Let me show you where you can sleep,” Annabelle said. Samantha remained standing in the doorway. When she moved forward, Annabelle pushed the door closed until she heard the locks reengage. On the other side, the wood panel would be back in place. “There are three bedrooms down here. Someone will be out here in the main room at all times.”
“You do this a lot,” Samantha commented.
“Yes,” Annabelle admitted. There was no reason to lie.
“When Cal and Duffy offered to get me to safety, I had no idea all this existed.” She waved her hand around. “I don’t… I don’t know what to do.”
Annabelle took her hand and drew her to the couch. It sounded as though Samantha needed to talk to someone. They sank into the big comfortable cushions, which was one of the best feelings in the world to Annabelle. “All you have to do relax, trust that we know what we’re doing and get some rest. Before you know it, you’ll have a brand-new life.”
“How can you do all this?” Samantha asked.
It was a common question. “Each one of us has our own reasons for getting involved in this organization. In the beginning, when Mac first set this up as a safe house, we mainly dealt with domestic disputes. Women who needed to get away from an abusive husband or boyfriend. Because of our animal sides, it can be harder for a shifter to escape. Most of us have it bred into us to listen to our Alpha, the dominant, or whatever we have. It’s difficult to fight back when that person is the abuser.”
“Yeah, it is,” Samantha whispered.
Annabelle remained holding Samantha’s hand and the fox shifter began to squeeze harder.
“After the humans were told about the existence of shifters, we expanded. Sometimes the laws don’t protect us. It’s a sad but true fact. We help those who need a new life.” Annabelle believed in what they did. She’d seen too many men, women and children come through those doors who’d had no hope until Mac had worked his magic and found them a place where they might regain the life that had been stolen from them.
“You didn’t ask me what happened,” Samantha whispered.
“Because you don’t have to tell me,” Annabelle assured her. “If you don’t ever want to think about it again, you don’t have to. But if you want to talk to someone, I am more than happy to listen. I’ve been told I’m pretty good at it.” She offered what she hoped came off as an encouraging smile.
“I’m pregnant,” Samantha said, placing her hand protectively across her stomach.
“Oh!” Annabelle reached over and laid her palm to cover Samantha’s. “A baby!”
“If I’d stayed, I would lose this child like I did my first one. He would have beaten me until I miscarried again.”
“Your husband?” Annabelle asked gently.
“No,” Samantha said. “I wouldn’t marry him, but he refused let me go. My brother Mike got money and a high position in our troop. He’s the only family I had. He turned his back on me, though. I begged for help, but all my brother cared about was moving up in rank.”
“I’m so sorry.” Annabelle felt tears gathering.
“I thought, when I got pregnant the first time, the abuse would stop. I honestly believed Frank would be happy about a child. I couldn’t have been more wrong. He was furious. Frank wouldn’t allow anyone or anything to take my attention from him.”
Annabelle had heard similar stories before, but this still sickened and shocked her. “No one helped?” She didn’t know why she’d asked. A part of her just wanted to hear that someone had attempted to come to this poor girl’s defense.
“No one’s going to report a crime the sheriff was responsible for,” Samantha said.
Fuck. Annabelle scooted over and tugged Samantha close until the little fox shifter sobbed against her shoulder. Once again, someone was using the law to protect themselves instead of the innocent. In Annabelle’s experience, she’d never come across an honest police official. That was why the group did what they did.
She waited until Samantha’s crying jag finished before pulling away. “If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?” she asked.
Samantha shook her head. “No idea. I just want to live somewhere private where no one will bother me. I want to raise my child in a loving home.”
Annabelle grinned. “You’ll get that.”
“How can you be so sure?”
“Because our network is vast,” Annabelle said. “You’ll end up right where you’re supposed to. I believe that with all my heart.”
“I have a hard time trusting any of this. The entire ride here I expected Frank or my brother to come after us,” Samantha confessed. “I still expect them to come busting in.”
“They won’t,” Annabelle assured her.
“How can you know that?”
“Others have tried,” Annabelle told her. “No one has ever gotten down here. You’re safe.” Even if the bar was breached, no one would find the entrance to the lower level. They’d run tests and drills, making sure.
Samantha nodded. “If your two friends hadn’t come across Frank beating me in a parking lot, I don’t know what might have happened.”
“How’d they get you out of there?”
“Calvin jumped in and saved me. He kept punching Frank until Frank fell to the ground. The restaurant was closed and none of the troop was there because we weren’t even supposed to be out of our territory. I’d run off because I found out I’m pregnant and Frank didn’t want the others to know that I’d taken off on him again. Duffy stepped in front of me, sort of guarding me, in case Frank got up.”
“Sound like our guys,” Annabelle commented.
“I wish he’d killed Frank,” Samantha whispered the admission.
“I understand.” Annabelle meant it, too.
“Instead, once Frank was unconscious, Calvin turned to me and said, ‘If you want to leave here, we have somewhere safe we can take you. If not, we’ll leave you alone. It’s your choice, but you have to make it now.’ So I chose to go with them.”
“I’m glad you did.”
“Me, too,” Samantha replied. “I think I’d like to shower now.”
“Good,” Annabelle said. She rose, pulling Samantha up with her.
The first room was the largest and also had the biggest bathroom, so Annabelle led Samantha in that direction. Samantha deserves some pampering.
“Here,” Annabelle said, pushing open the bedroom door. The décor was soft blues that she had read somewhere would give the space a relaxing atmosphere. Mac had allowed Annabelle to fix up the rooms. She hoped the people who stayed there found them peaceful.
“It’s beautiful,” Samantha praised.
“There are clean clothes in the dresser. We have all different sizes, so take whatever you want,” Annabelle said. “The bathroom is stocked with everything you should need.”
Samantha turned to her. “Thank you.”
“You’re very welcome,” Annabelle pulled her into a quick hug before stepping out and closing the door behind her.
Trent and Carter would return at any minute, so they’d probably head down there. Carter took care of the group’s IT needs. He’d no doubt be watching the cameras for the next several hours. Annabelle walked toward the little kitchen area with its fridge, microwave, stove and small pantry. Kelly was really good at keeping it stocked so that if they had emergency cases like Samantha, the group was prepared.
Annabelle started a pot of coffee before walking to the couch. She picked up the blanket off the back and wrapped it around herself, then lay her head against the arm. She was really tired.
She heard the water turn on in Samantha’s room. The rooms down there weren’t soundproofed, because part of watching over their charges meant whoever was on guard duty needed to hear what happened inside the other rooms. Sometimes the people who came to them for help became so overwhelmed that they tried to harm themselves.
Not hearing anything to worry about, Annabelle closed her eyes.
The adrenaline from earlier was slowly leaving, making her body feel heavy. It had been a couple of months since they’d had anyone needing their help. Sometimes it happened like that. They’d go for a while without any guests, or sometimes they’d be spread thin by having more than one person who needed assistance.
During the times when it was just her small family around, they played in their shifted forms and worked the bar. The residents in Brookside were all shifters. No humans stayed longer than a few nights. It was the town secret, so that when humans showed up, the population of the small quiet town didn’t do anything to draw attention to their differences. It was a shifter’s choice whether he or she decided to be out in public or not. The inhabitants of Brookside all kept their shifter ability secret. It allowed them to remain safe.
The locks disengaging caught her attention and she opened her eyes. Carter walked in first with Trent right behind him, which didn’t surprise her. She hadn’t been expecting Mac, Calvin or Duffy, though. Mac cocked his head, no doubt listening to where Samantha had gotten off to, and nodded.
“She’s showering? Good. That should help her relax. How’s she doing?” Mac asked, striding toward where Annabelle sat.
“Yes,” Annabelle said. They’d have a few minutes to talk without Samantha hearing them. “I think she’s doing okay. A little scared about what’s going to happen but grateful that she got away.”
“It was lucky we came across her,” Calvin commented. He sat in the chair next to the couch.
“You’re her hero,” Annabelle teased.
Calvin just shook his head.
“You should have seen him,” Duffy said, dropping down beside her on the couch. He pulled her legs onto her lap to rub the soles of her feet. “He was a total badass.”
“Which you need to be careful about,” Mac told Calvin. “You could have gotten yourself arrested or worse.”
“I know, boss. I saw him hit her and lost it. Samantha was so much smaller than this guy. He was at least six foot two and two hundred and eight pounds.”
“Damn,” Annabelle said. “She can’t be more than five two and I’d be surprised if she weighed more than one ten.”
“Yeah,” Calvin said. He looked at Mac. “I know I messed up. We tried to cover our tracks, but I don’t know if we got away clean. He’s a fucking sheriff. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Mac grasped Calvin’s shoulder, giving him a firm squeeze. Annabelle watched as Mac turned fatherly. “We can handle it. The important thing is you brought that girl here and you and Duffy are safe.”
“I’ll make up for it,” Calvin promised.
“Cal,” Mac said, moving to crouch in front of him. “There’s nothing to make up for. Yes, you made some mistakes, but I’m proud of you. If someone had stepped in when the same thing was happening with my sister, she’d still be here.”
Duffy’s hand tightened on her foot. It wasn’t often that Mac brought up Charlotte’s murder. A sweet girl killed by her jealous husband who’d been abusing her for years. Mac had still been in the army and hadn’t seen Charlotte much, and he’d had no idea what she’d been dealing with. Not until he’d gotten the call that she was dead, killed by her husband, before he’d turned the gun on himself. Duffy had been found hiding in his closet, a scared and traumatized boy.
“Mac,” Calvin whispered.
“I hope this fucker does come here,” Mac said, menacingly pounding a fist into the palm of his other hand. “We’ll show him what’s it’s like to fight someone his own size.”
Calvin nodded. “Okay.”
“Why don’t you two go get cleaned up and some sleep? Trent and Carter are on the cameras,” Mac said.
“Yeah.” Calvin ran his hands roughly over his face.
Duffy patted her leg before rising.
Annabelle waited until Calvin and Duffy had left, the door closing behind them, to peer up at Mac. “You okay?” She glanced into the office area, but Trent and Carter were busy on the computers.
Mac sighed deeply and dropped down into the chair that Calvin had sat in earlier. “I have a really bad feeling about this.”
“What? Why?” She straightened up.
“I don’t know,” Mac said. “I just feel like this isn’t going to be a simple case.”
“We’ll be okay, though, right? We’ll get Samantha out of here?”
“Oh you can count on that.” Mac leaned forward, dropping his hands between his knees. “I’ll never let anyone hurt any of you. We have to move fast and cover our tracks, but Samantha is going to be safe. She and the baby will have a good life.”
Annabelle bit her lip. Now she was scared. If Mac had any concern about Samantha’s situation, then Annabelle needed to consider what might happen. If any strangers showed up she’d keep her eye on them. No one was going to threaten what they were doing there.