Chapter 1

 

“You know stalking’s a crime, right?”

I jerked away from the glass display case I’d been leaning on and glared at my friend Ford. “It’s not stalking. I don’t follow him around or anything. He comes here.” I swiped a towel across the gleaming surface of the pastry case. It didn’t need it, but just in case a little drool slipped out of my mouth. “It’s staring.”

Ford filled the espresso machine’s hopper with fragrant coffee beans. “It’s ridiculous, is what it is.”

He would never understand. “But he’s just so… so… so manly.”

Ford snorted. “As opposed to what, girly?”

It didn’t matter what Ford said. The manly man I spent hours every day ogling, and several more hours a day daydreaming about, was worth every stalkerish second. For the last eight months, he’d come into Buddy’s Café every day, sat at the same small table by the fireplace, and read a book or a magazine or fiddled on his tablet computer. He really was a masculine work of art. Tall and broad as a mountain, and I wanted nothing more than to climb him. Dark curly hair, a thick beard. Not one of those unkempt, No-Shave-November deals. It was neatly trimmed, but long enough I wanted to tangle my fingers in it.

“Donnie, you’re staring again.”

Damn it. I dragged my eyes away. I couldn’t help it, though. Today my manly man wore an oatmeal-colored sweater that should have looked bland but instead looked soft and cozy. My inner coyote pup wanted to snuggle into the plush knit and soak up his heat.

“And you have customers.” Ford nudged me, and I had to once again forcibly draw my eyes away from the man.

I tucked one end of the towel into the back pocket of my jeans and helped customers. Luckily I could practically do this job in my sleep since my mind stayed focused on my manly man instead of taking coffee and muffin orders. Things I knew about my little—er, big—obsession: his name was William, he liked his coffee black, his pastries savory instead of sweet, and whatever he did for a living gave him a couple of hours a day to hang out in a cozy coffee shop in Cody, Wyoming. Oh, and he was a shifter, but for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what kind.

There were a lot of shifters in this part of Wyoming, partly due to Cody’s proximity to Yellowstone. But the town was also home to one of the only available shifter-friendly colleges this side of the Mississippi. Local humans didn’t know it, but a bunch of the students at Cody College were shifters of one kind or another. There weren’t a lot of places where animal shifters could attend school and have access to miles of forests, lakes, and mountains, and where classes could be modified to fit the special needs of the occasionally furry.

As a part-time coyote, my sense of smell was particularly keen. Which meant I immediately picked up the rich scents of musk and something herby, like sagebrush and grass. And, like his cozy sweater, the smell made me want to roll all over him.

I glanced at the clock above the stone fireplace in the corner. It was time. If I waited any longer, he’d get up and leave. “I’m taking my break.” I untied my forest-green apron and tossed it on the counter by the register.

Ford scowled at me. “It’s almost eleven. We have to prep for the lunch crowd.”

“I won’t be long.” I rushed to the back room.

The back room was about the size of a coat closet and held a small desk with a computer monitor, a safe, and a folding chair. There wasn’t space for anything else. I reached under the desk and grabbed the insulated bag I’d brought with me this morning. I pulled out the rectangular storage container, inhaling the distinctive basil-and-parmesan scent. My stomach lurched. It wasn’t the scones—they smelled fantastic—it was nerves. I’d been planning this moment for weeks. Now the time had finally come, and it struck me as stupid, potentially humiliating, and maybe a little dangerous. After all, what did I really know about my manly man?

“Don’t wuss out now,” I ordered myself, gripping the plastic box.

Before I could second-guess myself again, I pushed out of the back room and strode to the dining area with as much swagger as I could manage. Coyotes were good at bluffing, especially among the bigger predators.

William looked up from his newspaper. Jesus, those deep brown eyes should be outlawed. How was a guy supposed to remember anything while drowning in those coffee-colored irises?

He cleared his throat.

After an embarrassingly long pause—yeah, words really weren’t happening for me at that moment—he arched a brow. “Did you need something?”

Scones.” I cringed. I’d blurted the word out a little too loudly.

He cocked his head. “Scones?” His voice was deep and rumbly, and I quivered at the sound.

I nodded. “Exactly. Scones.”

“What about them?”

I cleared my throat. From the corner of my eye, I saw Ford smirking at me. Damn, I seriously needed to get my shit together. “I made some. I wondered if you wanted any?”

He glanced down at his plate, which held half of an onion bagel with cream cheese. “I’m fine.”

I sucked in a breath. Whatever I’d hoped to accomplish with this little interaction was going to explode in my face if I didn’t get my head out of my ass. “No, I know. I mean, I’m trying a new recipe, and I hoped you’d taste test it for me.” I shoved the box toward him. “I noticed you stay away from our sweeter items, but you like the more savory bagels and such. And, well, I came up with a sun-dried tomato, basil, and parmesan scone recipe I thought you might like.”

He leaned back in his chair, the move showcasing the amazing breadth of his chest. “You didn’t have anyone else who could test them for you?” He was so hard to read. He didn’t seem opposed to the idea. Not standoffish. Reserved, maybe? Like he wasn’t used to people approaching him with savory treats.

“Well, my friend Ford,” I said, bobbing my head toward the front counter, “is allergic to tomatoes. And my family tends to be a bit boring in their tastes. Real red-meat-and-potatoes kind of people. They think they’re being exotic when they eat bison instead of beef.”

William’s mouth pressed into a thin line, and for a second I thought I’d made him mad. Maybe it was the meat comment? “Are you a vegetarian? I know some people don’t even want to talk about meat and food in the same sentence. Too gory for them, maybe.” On the edge of babbling, I snapped my jaw closed.

“It’s fine,” William said after a minute. “I’m a vegetarian, but I’m not squeamish.” He took the container from me. “Thanks. I’ll let you know.”

I shifted from foot to foot. C’mon, Donnie. Say something. Seriously, I was usually better than this. I’ve asked dudes out before. Even dudes I wasn’t sure were gay. I hoped it wasn’t wishful thinking, but I kind of suspected William was of the man-loving persuasion. Sometimes, from the corner of my eye, I was positive I’d caught him watching me. And not in the absent way so many people eyed servers and clerks. No, I’d catch in him a predatory heat that didn’t quite match his studious solitude. That, in addition to my own little crush, was what prompted me to attempt my scone-based seduction. So really, there was no reason for this to be so awkward.

“Is there something else?” He watched me from under thick, straight brows.

I guessed he was older than me by a decade, but I refused to let the possible age gap or intimidating stare put me off. Especially since it kind of turned me on.

“Oh, and I’m Donnie. Donnie Granger?” Shit. Now I sounded like an adolescent girl, all questions and enthusiasm.

His gaze flicked to my nametag, eyes crinkling, and it looked like he tried not to smile. “William,” he said.

“Oh, I know.” Again, I sounded a bit too enthusiastic. I licked my lips, racking my brain for something to say, anything to keep the conversation going. And preferably in a way that wouldn’t make me sound like a junior-high schooler. “What do you do?”

“About what?” William pushed his newspaper aside, and I took the gesture as an invitation. If he’d wanted me to go away, he’d have tried to read it, right?

“You know,” I said, dropping into the chair across from his at the small table. “For a living. A job. For fun. Whatever. You’re here almost every morning. It’s made me curious.” Crap. That made me sound like a stalker, didn’t it? No, not a stalker. An observant customer-service person. Right.

He pushed back from the table far enough he could cross one leg over the other, and his grassy, sagey scent wafted toward me. It was all I could do to stop my tongue from lolling out of my mouth like a dog. “I’m a professor of history and politics over at CC.” He paused. “The special track.”

Ah, that meant he taught some of the shifter-only classes.

“Damn, if I’d had a professor like you, I probably wouldn’t have dropped out.”

He raised his brows.

Double crap. If I wanted to impress a professor, mentioning I was a college dropout probably wasn’t the best way. “How long have you been teaching there?” I kept myself—barely—from adding that I hadn’t seen him around before February. And believe me, if he’d been anywhere near town before that, I’d have noticed. Even if his looks didn’t trip every one of my personal triggers, there was no way I’d miss his scent. But he didn’t need to know how obsessively I tracked him.

“Started with the spring semester.”

“Cool.” Jesus, I was a moron. Cool? Maybe I needed to go back to school after all. Conversation 101 was looking more and more necessary. Then, after that, I could attend Flirting for Dummies.

“What about you?” he asked, thankfully not put off by my abysmal interpersonal communication skills.

“Me?”

“Yes, what do you do?”

“Oh, right.” I pushed my chair back so it balanced on its rear legs. “Well, I work here, obviously. I’m taking a photography class at the community center. I spend a lot of time riding herd on my dozen or so nieces and nephews. I bake a lot.” Realizing I sounded like a college application, or worse, an online dating profile, I produced my toothiest cheesy grin. “And I like long walks on the beach at sunset.”

William’s lips twitched.

“Hey, Donnie!”

I growled low in my throat. The place better be under armed attack or I was going to strangle Ford. Didn’t he see I was finally making progress with my manly man? I turned my head to glare at my soon-to-be-ex-best friend. He glared right back, jerking his head to indicate the long line at the register.

“Damn.” I let the chair drop back into place, then stood. “I’d better get back to work. Let me know how you like the scones,” I said over my shoulder as I headed back to the front counter.

He nodded. “I will. And thanks for thinking of me.” He tapped the container of pastries.

“No problem. Hope you like them.”

A few minutes later, while I was elbow-deep in lattes and danishes, William left the café. When he opened the door, the wind blew in, carrying with it the aroma of fall leaves and sagebrush.