Winter Thane ran his tongue along the underside of the skin he’d pulled from the deer and then licked his own crimson fingers. The sharp taste of iron mingled with the sweetness in his mouth, while the smell of cooking venison filled his nostrils. A rivulet of blood dripped from the skin, and he caught it on his outstretched tongue. Good.
He jumped. “Yes, Father.”
“Eat the cooked food, not the raw. You know that. You don’t want the pack to think you’re an animal.” His father smiled to soften the reproach, but still.
Alpha tone. Winter’s head hit the dirt. “Yes, sir.” His father wasn’t an alpha, since alphas were chosen, not born, and the two of them lived packless, just the way Winter liked it. Still, the power and skill of Damon Thane would make him alpha in most packs.
Winter took the knife from his belt, hacked at the venison suspended over the fire, and slopped some half-cooked meat onto a paper plate. He poked the food with a couple of fingers, then stuck them in his mouth.
“Winter!” His father looked up from the book he was reading while sitting on a log. Antigone in ancient Greek. A good one. “I’ve taught you manners. Practice them.”
Winter leaped to his feet, scattering the plate and food into the dirt. “Why? Who’s going to see me? I am a fucking animal. Why can’t I just live like one?”
His father closed the book slowly. “You know why.”
Winter scuffed his booted feet against the hard-packed earth of the clearing. “I want to go home.”
“You are home.”
The words felt like ice up his spine. “No. I’m an adult in human society. I don’t have to stay here.”
His father stood. Though not as tall as Winter, his presence felt bigger. “As you’re so fond of telling me, you’re not human, and in our society you do as I say. I won’t have my pureblood son living like some kind of outcast rogue.” He ran a hand through his white-blond hair. “I know it’s my fault, but now I choose to undo my error.” He took two steps forward, and Winter steeled himself not to back up. His father’s eyes, darker blue than Winter’s, narrowed. “And I won’t have my son shoving his cock into some human male’s ass, is that clear?” He seemed to grow even larger as he spoke. “That is not done by werewolves, and you will live like what you are. Not an animal, but the proud descendant of alphas for many generations. Am I clear?”
Winter stared. He could run. Damon might be more powerful, but nobody tracked Winter. Nobody. Not even an alpha.
His heart beat against his ribs. Did he want to be that alone? No father. No companion, teacher, friend. Damon was rarely harsh. He just didn’t get the male-fucking thing. “Yes.”
“Yes, you’re clear.”
Damon smiled, flashing those beautiful white teeth that always made the females sigh. “I don’t want to be hard on you, Winter. I’m sorry I’ve kept you so isolated all your life. It’s time you came to know your heritage and your pack.”
Winter hunkered down in the dirt while his father talked. Why did his father love Connecticut so damned much?
“I know it’s only the loneliness and lack of a proper outlet for your drives that led you to perversion. Once you see some female weres—” He grinned. “—thoughts of males—actually pretty much anything else—will fly out of your head.”
Winter crossed his arms. “I never said I wanted to marry the guy. I just wanted to bang him.”
“No! There’s no such thing as a gay werewolf! On top of that, the male was a human. The prime law of our society is to keep our existence from humans. What would happen if you fucked a human and lost control? Death of the human? Destruction for you and me? Being herded into laboratories and made slaves?”
Yeah, yeah. “Yes, sir.” He stared at the ground. The venison was burning. Who gave a fuck?
His father walked to Winter and wrapped an arm around his neck. “Come on, smile. Get cleaned up and I’ll take you to a club to celebrate our return to Connecticut—and to the Marketo pack.”
GETTING “CLEANED up” was a relative term when you owned two sets of clothes and carried them on your back. Winter washed his face in the stream, shook out his mane of platinum hair, and called it done.
They doubled on the motorcycle. Coming down from Canada, they’d switched off, with one on the motorcycle in human form and the other running nearby as a wolf. Occasionally they’d double, but two big men on a cycle were less than comfortable for long distances.
The lights from the club his father promised to show him blinked in the distance. The Way Station. Damon practically genuflected when he said the name. No idea why his old man worshiped this place like a church. For Winter, just getting a drink would make it the holy fucking grail. He’d been dry for most of the five days it took them to get down from Canada. They’d slept under the stars at night and traveled all day, with no space for bottles or cans. Technically he wasn’t old enough by a little to drink in the US, but since he stood six feet six of mostly muscle and bone, not many humans had the nerve to card him.
They climbed the porch of the log building. The construction made him feel like he was still in northern Canada, where he’d lived most of his life. Not many werewolves there. More wolf wolves.
Damon pushed open the doors. Wolf scent poured out at Winter like a wave. For a second he hesitated. He hadn’t been around other wolves in groups since he was very little—just one or two solitary individuals. What would it be like? Maybe they wouldn’t like him—not that he really cared. But he might hate them. Damon, on the other hand, vibrated with excitement. His eyes shone unnaturally bright, and he wore a sappy smile on a face that was usually pretty damned taciturn. Nothing much turned the man on. Weird.
The door closed behind them and left them in a large room with a long bar, packed with people, and a bunch of tables and chairs, also mostly occupied. Music came from some kind of sound system playing a rock-country song. Heads turned and a lot of eyes stared. Okay, so they were something to look at. Two men way over six feet tall, both with pale blond hair. Winter’s was nearly white, and his eyes scared people; they were so light blue as to be almost colorless. Damon passed for human a lot more easily than Winter, but neither of them looked like the homo sapiens next door.
Interesting that the staring faces belonged to both humans and werewolves. Humans occupied some tables, but a lot of wolves crowded both the tables and the bar.
A female hurried over to them with a wide smile. Wolf. Pretty-ish. “Hi, I’m Amy. Welcome to the Way Station. Can I help you find a table?”
Damon smiled and the female practically passed out. Okay, he was forty-six, but in werewolf terms that was pretty damned young, and this female, who was probably thirty, clearly admired him. He nodded toward the bar. “I think we’ll just sit there, but thank you so much.”
Her lashes fluttered. Lesson one. Werewolf females act just as stupid as humans. Winter walked toward the bar, leaving his father to catch up. He grabbed a stool and, when the bartender came over, asked for a beer. Damon arrived and ordered a whiskey soda, so the bartender, a huge tree trunk of a wolf, didn’t pause to question Winter’s age.
Winter turned and looked out over the club. “Nice enough place.”
Damon nodded. “Fond memories for me.” He grabbed their drinks as the bartender set them down and handed the beer to Winter. “To coming home.”
Winter tried to hide his frown as he clinked his beer bottle against his father’s glass. “What’s so special about this club in your life?”
Damon shrugged, but it was much too casual. “Oh, you know, just stuff young guys remember.”
“You couldn’t have come here that much. Hell, you were my age when you left here, right?”
Winter lowered his voice. “So you weren’t even old enough to drink.”
“Uh, no, I was. The drinking age was eighteen then.”
“Yeah. So I came here for a couple years.”
Winter sipped and glanced at the faces. A few of the wolves stared at him and Damon pretty hard. Probably wanted to know who they were and if they represented a threat.
Damon glanced at Winter, then at the crowd. “Probably some Marketo pack members here.”
Winter bared his teeth. “Smile.”
Damon shook his head, but Winter could tell he was trying not to laugh. Hell, his father might be all “pack and family” now, but he’d been a lone wolf most of his life and understood exactly where Winter was coming from. He’d trained him since a pup.
Who were the Marketos? What the hell would they think of two prodigal wolves showing up in their midst? Winter scanned the room. Back in the far corner, three males sat at a table. Not a lot of light except for a candle, but Winter could see even in the pitch black. Fuck, two of the males were huge. One looked older and carried some weight around his middle, but the other would probably be Winter’s height and looked as inhuman as Winter did. Shiny, silver-cast hair and eyes that reflected light when he glanced up toward the candle. The third male—Winter caught his breath. Human. Why would those two powerful wolves be sitting with a human when no others in the club mingled at all?
Hell, he’d like to mingle with him. What a human.
How could he get closer? He looked around for a men’s room sign. Yeah, perfect. If he went just a little out of his way, he could walk past that table, get a whiff, and see the man up close.
He glanced at Damon, who seemed to be studying the crowd like he was searching. Winter set the beer bottle on the bar. “Excuse me a minute. I’m going to find the washroom.”
“Okay. I think it’s back there.” Damon pointed exactly where Winter wanted to go.
Winter slid off the barstool and walked slowly through the crowd toward the indicated door. Fortunately, as he passed the table where the human sat, a woman came toward him, and he stepped aside to let her go by. Breathe deeply. Whoa. Man, what a nose-full. Both wolves were superpowerful—at least Damon’s peer. But the human? He smelled like food in the very best way. Like sweetness and musk with whiffs of pine and sandalwood and—something good to eat, but not necessarily with Winter’s teeth. Oh well, maybe some teeth would be involved. He grinned, raised his eyes, and the man stared at him.
Most humans shied from Winter. Too big. Too strange. This guy’s eyes widened when their glances met, his nostrils flared, but no fear showed on his face. Winter’s cock rose in his jeans. Down, boy. What was the attraction? The guy was nice-looking. Brown hair cut institutionally short and wide eyes that might be green. Still, most people would have drooled over the tall wolf with the silvery hair before they’d ever notice the human. Not Winter. The man’s eyes shone with intelligence and curiosity; his skin glowed with a passion for life that his conservative haircut didn’t advertise. Damn, Winter wanted to pick the guy up, carry him into the forest, and swallow his cock for dinner. The desire made his hands shake, and he clutched them.
He dragged his gaze away, only to meet the silver eyes of the big wolf. Winter jumped at the steely assessment. This one was large and in charge. Winter could feel the wolf checking him out and sense the banked but still present threat if Winter got out of line. His hackles rose, but he controlled the growl tickling his throat. You just got here. Don’t go biting the natives. With an effort of will, he managed to get his feet moving. He tried to hold on to the human’s heavenly smell as he walked toward the men’s room.
MATT PARTRIDGE watched the tall figure disappear into the head. “What an amazing-looking person.”
Cole Harker, who was pretty damned extraordinary-looking himself, nodded. The heir apparent of the Harker family sure seemed interested in the two big blond men who’d come into the club. The marshal did too.
Partridge glanced toward the older of the two blonds still sitting at the bar. “Are you worried about these men, Marshal?”
Ben Freedman shrugged. “Always interested in strangers. Not necessarily worried. Nothing for the FBI to be concerned about.” He smiled at Matt in that hail-fellow way he had.
“Do you know them, Cole?”
“No, never saw them before.” He sipped his beer.
Matt drank from his apple juice on the rocks. The appearance of two very conspicuous strangers right now probably added up to a coincidence. “Maybe I should talk to them.”
Cole shook his head. “No, let me. I’ll welcome them to the community. You’d have to show your credentials, and that would freak them out.”
“You’ll let me know what you learn?”
Right. Cole Harker never told Matt everything; that was for sure. As information sources went, the guy was guarded, edited, and manipulative. Still, the Harker son represented a way into the tight-knit community Matt didn’t want to pass up. Two could be guarded and manipulative. Plus, he did not need to be nosing around that young guy with the white-blond hair. Jesus, he dripped sex off that big, lean body—which added up to a very good reason to stay far away. Matt’s existence was already way past complicated.
The men’s room door opened, and the big blond walked out. Don’t look. Matt forced his eyes toward Ben. “Local law enforcement reports one death and several overdoses among juveniles in the area. The fact that the dead agent’s body turned up here strongly suggests a link between the New York drug traffickers and local distribution. This could fall into your jurisdiction, Ben.”
“Yep, certainly could.” He crossed his big arms on the table. “I’ll see what I can track down from informants. Don’t want our kids on drugs.”
“You don’t want your community involved with this drug lord. A nasty piece of work. He’s relatively new. Name’s Ivan Kubelik.” Ben’s eyes widened a little. “You know him?”
“Heard the name.”
“It seems like he was an underling in some other group of gangsters a couple years back and broke off on his own. But he’s mean, aggressive, and has quickly established excellent cartel connections.” Matt turned to Cole, who slowly revolved his beer bottle, those strange eyes glittering. “You’ll come with me into the forest tomorrow?”
“Yes. I know those woods well.”
Ben leaned back in his chair, the extra layer of fat on his otherwise fit body showing in his strained shirt buttons. “I’ll come with you too.”
“No need, Marshal. Cole and I’ll report anything we find.” Sort of.
The man didn’t seem to like that, but he grunted approval and took another pull on his beer.
Matt turned his glass and tried not to look up. “Besides, my crew did a thorough examination of the woods around the clearing where we found the dead agent. This is just a follow-up. I doubt we’ll find anything useful.” At least not about the dead FBI agent.
WINTER PARKED his ass on the stool and stretched out one leg. Sitting always made him antsy. He leaned toward Damon. “Those two males in the corner really checked me out. Think they’re Marketo?”
“Possibly. The young one would have been born after I left. The other one could have been an adolescent with me, but he doesn’t look familiar. I think he’s law.”
“Yeah. Smells like it.” Act casual. “That’s a human with them. Wonder why they’re together?”
“Probably law also. Like a deputy or something.” Damon grinned. “He’s got on jeans, but it looks like that denim is about to morph into a gray suit. Could be some kind of Fed.”
“Why do you care? You’re just another law-abiding citizen.” He clinked his glass against Winter’s bottle.
A law-abiding citizen who wanted to leave the guy’s gray suit in shreds while he fucked him in the dirt. “Yeah. I don’t care.” He turned and faced the bar.
A second later, Damon turned also. “Look relaxed. The big one’s coming this way.”
Winter tensed. They’d never broken laws outright but lived on the fringes, off any known grid, cash-and-carry, no address. In animal form, law meant men with guns running them off cattle and sheep herds. Law seldom looked friendly.
Winter could feel the heat of the guy’s body from feet away. The wolf stopped. “Hi. You’re new here, I think.” Winter felt Damon turn, so he did too. Up close the big wolf looked just as wildly unhuman and gorgeous as he did at a distance. Probably just a few years older than Winter. The guy stuck out a hand. “I’m Cole Harker.”
Winter felt Damon tense just a little. Enemy? But he shook the offered hand. “Yes, Cole, I think I know your father. I’m Damon Thane and this is my son, Winter.”
Cole smiled, but no doubt this was an inquisition. “You know Landon?” Yeah, Winter remembered that name from his father’s talk about the packs. Landon was part of the Harker pack.
“Yes. I left the area about twenty-five years ago when your grandfather was—” He glanced around. “—the family leader. Landon was older than I, so we weren’t in school together, but I knew him.”
“He’s the family leader—” Cole grinned at their euphemism. “—now.”
So that made Landon alpha.
Damon nodded. “And that makes you—?”
Alphanta. That was the word they weren’t saying. So that’s why the guy had so much force. Winter had never met a real alphanta before—the wolf destined by blood and skill to become alpha, but with the qualifier that the pack had to choose him. At least that’s what Damon had taught him in his pack catechism.
Cole stuck out a hand to Winter. “Glad to meet you.”
Winter shook. Holy shit. The power of the wolf shivered up his arm, but he saw a slight widening of Harker’s eyes. Maybe the recognition went both ways. Harker glanced back at Damon. “So, were you a part of, uh, our family? Would I know your relatives?”
“You might, but we’re actually part of the Marketo pa—family.”
Harker gave a real smile. “No kidding? Actually, we have a family alliance. So I guess that makes us related.”
“Really. When did this happen?”
“A little more than two years ago.”
“Yes, my spouse and I.”
Damon tipped the last of his drink toward the handsome wolf. “Congratulations. We’re going to have a lot of catching up to do.”
Harker asked a bit too casually, “Is this a visit?”
“We’re hoping to stay. I want my son to have benefit of—family life.”
“Have you made contact with Merced Marketo as yet?”
“No. We just arrived. I’m hoping to see him tomorrow.”
“Good. It’s important that you get his, uh, blessing while you’re in the area. Perhaps the rest of your family left when you did? I don’t recall any Thanes in the area.”
Damon set his empty glass on the bar. “Actually, that’s because I changed my name when I left. I always have had a great love of the classics. Thane of Cawdor? Macbeth?”
Harker nodded, but a crease popped out between his silvery brows. “So what was your name? Would I know it?”
“Yes. Our family name is Marketo. I’m Merced’s brother.”