TANNER WEILING looked out at the new snow.
Damn near a foot of the stuff. That was fine, normally, but right now it made his life more difficult. Like, a lot. A lot a lot. He sighed, rubbing the back of his neck, not sure what he was going to do.
“What are you obsessing about, bear?”
His business partner and best friend, Fallon Underwood, was really good at sneaking up on a guy. The only reason Tanner didn’t jump a foot in the air was that he knew the vamp too damn well. And his sense of smell. Fallon smelled like spray starch with a hint of copper.
“The wolf,” Tanner murmured. “What are we going to do about the wolf?”
A bed-and-breakfast couldn’t have a rogue wolf problem. Even one that catered to paranormal creatures like his did. Maybe especially his.
“You didn’t trap him?”
“Like Carter wouldn’t beat your butt for suggesting it.”
Fallon gave him a beatific look. “He might try.”
“Ew. Ew, no. No no. Bad.” Tanner didn’t want to ponder Fallon and kitty sex.
Sometimes he didn’t have to imagine. Sometimes he heard it. Tanner shuddered.
“You could hunt it,” Fallon said.
“I would kill it. You know that.” He sighed softly. “And so would Carter. We need to find another solution.”
“We need another wolf.” Mr. Blond and Buff bounced down the stairs, screeching to a halt to nuzzle Fallon’s neck. “Mate.”
“Carter.” Tanner did not roll his eyes, because he would have strained something if he did. “What do you mean?”
“Another wolf could communicate, and if not? He can run Mr. Wolfy away. It’s not in primo shape. It can’t fight a healthy male. I’ll call Tom. I miss him. He likes frolicking in the snow.”
“I know.” Tanner shook his head. “Naps are way better.”
Fallon chuckled. “Such a bear.”
Carter purred. “He is. Can I call Tom? He’ll come. We can eat steaks and romp around like beasts.”
“Call him. See if he can come. I don’t like any of the alternatives.” Half of Tanner was an animal. He hated the idea of hurting the wolf who’d decided the Dead and Breakfast was its territory.
“On it, boss.” Carter nuzzled Fal’s ear, smiled, fangs just showing. “Catnip, mate. Upstairs. Ten minutes?”
“Oh yes. Yes, just let me get snacks….”
Tanner closed his eyes a moment, then smiled because his friends were happy, which made him happy.
“One day, bear,” Fallon whispered. “I swear. One day.”
“I know, Fallon.” He took the hug his friend offered because hugs were always good. Always.
So were vampire promises, he hoped.
TOM BLEW out a breath every time he sat up, hence the name sit-ups, he guessed. They sucked, but whenever the feeling came on him that only part of him was going to shift, he did an exercise, and it helped.
Up. Down. In. Out. Oh God, he hated this.
“Stray Cat Strut” sounded on his phone, surprising the fuck out of him. Carter!
He grabbed up his phone, answering it on an upswing. “Hey, kitty!”
“Hey there, pup! How’s the city? Have you searched and rescued?” Carter’s happiness reached for him through the phone line.
“I have. There was a coyote shifter who was being hounded by animal control because he kept shifting downtown.” Tom was all about helping other shifters the way Dr. Preston and the Dead and Breakfast gang had helped him. So many people needed help as the world changed around them.
“No shit? Never met a coyote. They tend to be a little skittish.”
Yeah, and Carter was preceded by bouncing.
He grinned. “He was cool when he saw me shift. One ear never came out, but I did okay, and now he’s somewhere out between El Paso and Fort Stockton. How are you?”
“Good. Good. Well, I’m great. The D and B? Less so, huh? We have a problem, and I’m calling you for assistance.” Carter pronounced it “Ass. Ees. Tonz.”
“Speak.” He loved to taunt Carter with cat and dog jokes. Made him so damn happy. The guy was really his best friend.
“There’s a rogue wolf that’s desperate to make his territory here. It’s going to get him killed, bud. Someone’s going to fuzz out and bam. Ugly lunch.”
“Tell me you’re not bouncing.” He rolled to his feet so he could grab his towel and head for his laptop. “Is it cold up there?”
“Six inches of new powder.”
“Oh, I love you.” He did love snow. Apparently his inner wolf cared not that he was from Texas.
“I love you too. Come play. Save Mr. Fuzzy, and we’ll have hot buttered rum and grooming. There’s a new hot tub.”
“Oh! Would Tanner skin us if we jumped in actually hairy?”
“Only if he caught us. He’s hibern-bear. Bernator? Hiberbearing?”
“Ha!” He laughed out the duck noise, which was the best kind of laugh ever. He opened his laptop. “Can I get a shuttle from the airport?”
“Oh, hon, someone can pick you up.”
“Good. I love to wallow in snow but not drive in it.”
“Until I die, man.”
“Well, if you fly in late I can come. If not, we have a couple of part-time contractors now who do odd jobs. I can’t wait to see you!”
Tom called up his favorite travel site. “Ditto, buddy.”
“See you soon. Email me your itinerary.”
“I totally will.” And he would fly into the local ski airport after dark so he could catch up with Carter before Tanner filled him in officially. Carter knew all the gossip.
“Don’t forget to bring those grasshoppers for Glenda. Her hair loved them.”
Glenda was the housekeeper and a real gorgon. Like, real. Literal. No eye contact. Squirmy hair.
“I’ll make a list of goodies. I found a tincture of catnip. I bought a spray bottle.”
“Oh.” Carter sounded reverent. “Thank you.”
“Have a good one, hon. I’ll holler.”
“You too,” Carter said. “Thanks, Tom.”
They hung up, and he started clicking through flights, looking for just the right one. He did love the Dead and Breakfast.
They’d literally saved his ass after he’d been bitten by a rogue lycanthrope—saved him nose to tail—and had helped him find the best buddy a man could have. They could have asked for anything and he would have done it.
Add in that they were appealing to his new passion and profession in life, and he was a happy wolf. If he had his tail right now, it would be wagging.
Tom looked back over his shoulder, just to make sure.
He really was getting better at this.
WOLF CREPT toward the light pouring from the cabin, head down as he went for the trash can. There was food there; he could smell it.
His belly ground against his spine, hunger and cold driving him too close to danger. The food, though…. It smelled so good. So good he drooled a little, which froze on his muzzle.
He heard a noise and stilled, crouching in a deep shadow, frozen as ice.
A light snapped out, glowing far brighter than the ones from the windows. He lowered his head so his eyes didn’t shine and give him away.
“Do you see anything, Carter?”
“Nope. You want me to come with you, Jami?”
“Nah. I just wanted to make sure. I can smell wolf, and I need this trash out.”
“Ah, is our rogue beast about? I swear, we should just put something out for him. I hate thinking of him starving.”
“Tanner would kill us…. Still, you were out there for a while and I fed you. Let me get some meat. We have some lamb in the fridge we never used for Mr. Menken.”
“I’ll take the garbage out, then come back and take the meat out a ways. I don’t want him to believe humans are friendly.”
“Good idea. Okay, let me get that.”
The one man left, the other standing in the doorway a moment before moving toward him, carrying something heavy and scented of food. The human walked gently, leaving only the barest prints.
Wolf tilted his head, nose working. Musk. There was the musk of a cat to this one.
Panic warred in him—he could take a human but not a puma. No way. Not one-on-one.
Wolf backed farther into the woods. The man dumped what he was carrying in the big bin, then turned back. His panic eased a tiny bit.
“I’ll bring some meat. Give me a second.”
He thought the man was talking to him. So he crouched, waiting. Hungry made him hopeful, made him stupid.
Still, it had been so long since he’d had fresh meat that wasn’t rabbit, and it was so cold.
The scent of blood hit him, and the man appeared with a bowl in hand, walking it out to the tree line without a word. Wolf went motionless, ears down, not even breathing.
“You have to stay away from the cabins, okay? This is our little secret.”
Did the man talk to all animals like this?
Somehow he thought so.
“I’m serious. The boss would bite my ass, and then Fallon would lose his shit.”
Wolf found himself nodding. Right. No biting.
The cat looked right at him. “Eat, honey. I’ll bring more tomorrow night.”
He waited, though. Waited until those glowing eyes left him and the cat man went back inside. Then wolf streaked over to grab the meat and carry it far away. It didn’t smell tainted. No, the cat would not poison him.
There was kindness there. It shone from him.
Wolf found a safe spot before he stood over the meat, tearing it to pieces. It threatened to come back up, but he panted through the nausea, then finished the meal.
Oh. Warmth and energy spread through him, making him want to tear around in circles.
He resisted, though. Shelter. Sleep. Protect his core.
The meat would sustain him, and if there was more tomorrow…. Oh, he hoped his kind cat friend wasn’t lying.
He would see. Tomorrow. He would believe.
Today, though, he would sleep in his den with a full belly.
TOM WAITED at the tiny, mostly closed airport for Carter.
He’d gotten in a little after dark, but Carter had to wait to leave the B and B until it was actually dark the whole drive. On the good side, the little ski resort airport was way closer to the inn, so the round trip wasn’t bad at all.
“Tom! Dude!” Oh, that was a greeting. He turned and held his arms open, knowing there was imminent pouncage ahead.
Carter bounced into his arms like Tigger on crack, kissing his cheeks in turn.
“Hey, buddy. So good to see you!” He hugged Carter tight.
“Oh, I missed you. You smell so happy!”
“I do?” Tom sniffed, but all he could smell was Carter, all musk and bread flour. “I think I am. Much more so than when we first met, huh?”
“Yes. You were having trouble controlling your whiskers.”
“Among other things.” He set Carter down on the floor, smiling. “I have my one bag.”
“Good deal. I thought we’d grab a coffee on the way.”
“Oh.” He wrapped his free arm around Carter. “You’re my hero.”
“I try, honey.” Carter cuddled in. “I have missed your face.”
“Me too! With yours, I mean. So tell me all the things. Are Glenda and Yardley still seeing each other?” The housekeeper had seemed to be very sweet on the gargoyle when Tom was at the D and B for Christmas last year.
“Yes! It’s amazing. Her hair hasn’t bitten Tanner in months.”
“Wow.” Glenda was a dear woman, but her snake hair could be challenging. “That’s awesome. What’s the weirdest thing to happen lately?”
“Well, inside it would be the ghost who drowned. He keeps leaving watery footprints all over.”
“Does that make Jami insane?” Whoa. That was vaguely creepy.
“We just started keeping towels everywhere.” Carter led him to the SUV, the air outside brutally cold.
He panted softly, watching his breath huff out.
“I know. It’s cold even for me in human form.” Carter got them in the car and had the heater cranked up in no time.
“So tell me about this wolf. He’s just a loner?”
“As far as I can tell, yeah.” Carter pulled out, then headed down the street to a sign with a coffee cup. “I haven’t seen any other tracks, and he’s eating everything I leave out.”
“Oh, Tanner doesn’t know, I assume?”
“He pretends not to, yes, and I pretend that he doesn’t either.”
Tom chuckled. “Good man. Men. Both of you. Better to have his feeding controlled than for him to be digging in the trash.”
“That’s my thinking. He’ll hurt himself on the foil, the glass. I knew you’d understand. What kind of coffee?”
“Uh, just a decaf with half and half?”
“No problem.” Carter ordered Tom’s coffee plus a latte, heavy on the cream. Such a kitty.
“How’s Fallon?” He liked Carter’s mate a lot, even for a vampire. They could be so… fussy, he’d learned.
“Almost cheery. He’s writing under a new pseudonym. Shifter erotica.”
“Oh? Oh! Oh wow. Okay. No asking me to read the wolves for veracity.” Shifter erotica…. Goodness.
“No? He’ll be sad.” Carter laughed at him, the sound filling the air. “It makes him joyous. Horny too.”
“I bet. You two make me happy.” Not least because he’d helped get them back together when things had fallen apart.
Carter had shown him his true calling, what he had been born to do, and he would never forget it. Never be able to repay his friends.
“I’m glad. We’re all happy campers.” Carter handed him his decaf after they pulled through the window. “Mr. Wolf? Not happy. He’s skinny and cold.”
“Well, we can try trapping him and getting him to a sanctuary. That might be kindest. My kind needs a pack, needs structure.”
“You don’t seem to.”
“I have my rescues. You guys.” And sometimes he howled with loneliness.
“Always. You’ll always have a space with us.”
Didn’t that make him vocalize softly, so pleased?
In turn, Carter made a rough chuffing noise and reached over to pat his leg. Then Carter had to use both hands to drive, because they were heading out of the resort area where the roads were nice and clean toward the upper mountains where ice and snow clogged things.
They chatted about coffee and Christmas and skiing, about river rafting and bungee jumping and roast beef. That was why Carter was the best friend he’d ever had. They could talk about anything and everything and not get bored.
“We have you in your regular cabin. I thought it would be nice to be close to the tree line.”
“That’s perfect. You’re a prince.” Walking right out into the forest would make it way easier to catch the wolf.
“I’ve been feeding him about ten yards from your front door.”
“My smart kitty friend.” He beamed. “I get to feed him tonight?”
“You do. We have some roast in there—cooked for you, raw for him.”
“Excellent.” He bounced like Carter normally would. This was a new, exciting adventure. Tom couldn’t wait.
“Do you want to get settled, or do you want to come into the main house, honey?”
“Can I get started? I’ll come up for supper tomorrow since it’s getting dark so early, so I can visit with everyone.”
“Of course. I’m off tomorrow evening, so we can visit for a while. There’s milk, beer, coffee, of course.”
“Peanut butter cookies?” he asked, hopeful.
“I could hug you again. But you’re driving.”
“Right?” Carter chortled.
He was the luckiest werewolf on record. Carter drove him up to the farthest cabin, the one he’d come to know so well.
Hopping out, he took his suitcase when Carter handed it over, and took the one-armed hug Carter gave him.
“Sleep well, honey. I’ll see you tomorrow night. You know you can call.”
“I know. I adore you.” He itched to strip down and shift.
He wanted to meet the wolf. So bad. Why not? Tom took his bag inside, but instead of shifting, he turned on the heat, then bundled up. He’d just remembered he was supposed to be feeding the wolf tonight.
Tom walked out the back of the cabin where the little deck looked into the woods. He moved into the trees, the meat smelling coppery and wonderful. This was the most important thing. Taking care of….
His nose wrinkled.
Poor wolf. That wasn’t disease. But it was hunger and desperation and maybe a wound or two.
And… humanity. Whoa.
“You’re one of us.” The words fell out of his lips. If the wolf was in earshot, would he understand? There was something very wrong. “You’re in no danger from us.”
God, he needed to speak to Carter.
But he needed to feed the shifter before he scared him off. Keep him coming back. Okay. Feed. Then call.
He dropped the dish on the ground and retrieved the metal pan from the day before. “I mean it. If you can understand, you’re safe here.”
He saw the wolf out of the corner of his eye, farther up into the trees but an obvious silhouette. So skinny, and the coat was in bad shape too.
Tom vocalized softly. Oh, poor baby. He hated that fear, the waves of pain.
“I know you can hear me. I’m your friend, wolf. I want to be your advocate. Eat, and if you want to sleep in my cabin, I’ll leave the back door open a crack. Please, it’s too cold out here for you, as weak as you are.”
The wolf stared at him, eyes glowing in the darkness, the light a clear beam.
“I mean it. You can come in. I won’t try to keep you there.” He made a mental note to add that to his list of things to talk to Carter about. He’d pay the extra power bill. Maybe he’d build a fire. Jami never did that. Vamps and fire….
He loved one, though. Loved the way the flames danced.
“Come on when you’re ready,” Tom said softly. “I have more roast, but it’s cooked.” He would share.
He held the wolf’s gaze because he couldn’t afford not to. This was law. It wasn’t in him to deny that. The wolf held his eyes for longer than he’d imagined, but eventually it dropped its gaze. It had to.
Tom was the healthier, bigger wolf, even in human form. In wolf form, well, he was intimidating. Now he could turn back and go inside, trekking across the deck and into the cabin to find his coffee. The fire was laid, so he clicked the lighter to set the kindling and paper going.
His mind was on that skinny wolf, though. One of ours. One of us. Lost, but one of us.
A plan. Tom had to make a plan, but so much would depend on whether the shifter came inside tonight. How skittish was he?
He grabbed his phone and dialed Carter, who answered immediately. “What do you need, man?”
“He’s a shifter, Carter. He’s one of us.”