Chapter One—Heller

STEP.

Step.

Stop.

The rustling of dead leaves caught my attention, and I froze with one paw still in the air. Not moving and barely daring to breathe, I waited. My whiskers twitched as a cool October breeze disturbed the scent of decaying leaves and rich soil. The foliage trembled again as something rooted around.

I slowly lowered my paw. The disturbance wasn’t very noticeable except to my predatory gaze. The movement continued. Gradually, bit by bit, I crept forward, making sure my long fur didn’t disturb the surrounding mounds of dying leaves. It was times like these I wished my coat were short like Dolf’s. One thing was for sure—whatever was below those leaves was going to be mine shortly. All I needed was to cover a little more distance and I’d be close enough.

Step.

Step.

Crouch.

Heart thumping, I watched as the movement continued. My muscles tightened and my bottom started wiggling. Unable to wait, I sprang forward, claws extended. Leaves flew into the air as I landed on my target. Bugs scattered. Eyes narrowed, I searched for…. There! There was the little bugger. I growled at the big black beetle and trapped it with my paw.

Seconds passed. The bug wiggled under my paw, tickling me. Hunched down, I carefully lifted my paw and peeked. Dammit, can’t see. Unable to get a good look, I lifted my paw a little higher… and there it went, scuttling across the ground. Gleefully I slammed a paw down, trying to trap it. Slap. Slap. Slap.

Arrgh! What’s the deal? I keep missing.

Looked like I’d found myself in a game of whack-a-mole, except with a beetle.And off we went. The bug scurried away with me hot on its trail. Every time I thought I had a paw on it, I ended up missing. Stupid critter was fast. I bounded along behind as it raced across the ground. Then it suddenly cut back and ran straight under me.

Surprised, I leaped in the air, all four paws coming off the ground. Whoa! Zigged when I should have zagged. I landed and nonchalantly licked a paw. Hope no one saw that. I had to give the bug credit. That was a smart move. The shrill cry of a mockingbird caught my attention. I lifted my head, searching for the little tattletale.

Up in a tree it sat, its warning cries echoing around the yard. I eyed the tree. Hmm, I could climb it, but the stupid bird will probably just take off. Still, might be fun. Maybe after I finished playing with the bug… and damn. The bug.

My attention returned to where it had been, my tail slashing. Great. Lost it. Stupid bird. I sat up and threw a glare over my shoulder at the bird. Standing, I turned my back to the little menace, tail held high. That’s what I think of you, buddy. I prowled around for a while, sniffing, enjoying the coolness of the morning.

In the early morning sunlight, the dew on the grass sparkled like diamonds. Maybe it was pretty, but the stuff was also cold and wet against my paws. I was glad for my fur. As I wandered back toward the house, my stomach growled. I was hungry and… I sniffed. Oh, was that a blue jay I smelled? Oh, oh, a blue jay. Yum.

The human side of me groaned, but the kitty part wanted to jump with joy. The noisy little shits were actually quite intelligent. Catching one was always a feat. Quick as I could, I hid in the bright fall foliage by the back porch. I stayed very, very still so the stupid bird three feet from me didn’t fly off in a panic.

I licked my lips, my whiskers twitching as I watched the little rascal across from me raise its head. Shit, shit, shit. What caught its attention? Come on already. It’s all fine, nothing to worry about here. No cat hanging around. Just go back to pecking around on the ground. Everything’s good. See? I’m not moving, not even breathing.

Crouched low, I waited while my breakfast relaxed and returned to looking for acorns. Other birds came and went, but I refused to get distracted. I knew the one I wanted. Inch by agonizing inch, I crept closer to my prey. My mouth watered and my heart thumped.

The chatter of the birds around me was easy and relaxed, no distress calls sounding. That’s right. Just keep on eating. Soon I’m going to be eating you. My body tensed, back legs ready to spring me into action….

And the phone in the house rang.

The birds took off in a wing-flapping mad rush. I turned back to the house, snarling. Unbelievable! I should’ve shut the damn window in the house. I knew better, but I just had to raise the windows this morning. I never stopped to think about a ringing phone messing up my stalk.

I darted back inside and shifted just as my cell stopped ringing. I needed to check that since the ringtone was the head beta of our clowder, Dolf. One didn’t ignore Dolf any more than one ignored our Alpha. I was one of four betas now, but up until a few years ago, I was the clowder’s hacker.

My main job was protecting our Alpha, even though I ran a lawn service for the clowder members. I also did website design for many paranormals and fixed computers on the side. I was a regular jack-of-all-trades who really, really needed to find his clothes before his nuts froze off. Now that I was furless, I noticed the bite to the fall air even more.

I hurried to my bedroom. The hardwood under my bare feet sent shivers up my spine. As I dressed I heard my cell beep from the kitchen, letting me know I did indeed have a message. I returned to the kitchen where my cell sat. At least that couldn’t fly off.

I listened to the message and then called Dolf back. “Hey, what’s up?”

“Good morning, Heller. Did you get my message? Tal, Kirk, and I plan to eat breakfast at Love’s. Want to join us?”

Every Thursday the three of them ate breakfast at Love’s and invited one of the betas to join them. It wasn’t like there were too many places to eat in our little town of West Falls. Gods, it must be my turn again. Oh goodie. I dreaded this chore, and I’d tried to get out of it more than once. Why couldn’t they understand I was perfectly fine with just my own company? Even so, I knew Dolf expected his betas to socialize. He started this not long after he and Tal mated Kirk.

I checked the clock on the microwave. It was a little after seven in the morning. “Can you give me about an hour and half to shower and get there?”

Tal and Kirk were Dolf’s mates, but Tal and Dolf had been together for over thirty years when the goddess Bast added another mate to the mix. While threesomes weren’t that unusual to our species, the fact that Kirk was human when they met was. After they mated, Kirk wasn’t fully human any longer.

“Jeez, Heller, that long? Just throw on a ball cap, some jeans and a sweatshirt, and come on. We’re eating breakfast, not doing a photoshoot.”

Before I could reply, I heard Kirk in the background. “Yeah, right. That’s Heller you’re talking to, Dolf. He’s not leaving the house unless every strand of hair is perfect.”

Huh. Guess he knew me better than I thought. I didn’t know if I’d ever truly be comfortable with Kirk, but I was trying. Now that I’d lowered my guard, I found Kirk was cool in a smartassed way. I respected anyone who could stand up to Dolf, our heir apparent and head beta. Not that I’d repeat that to Dolf. Or Kirk. I’d had a problem with their mating, so much so it almost cost me my beta position and Dolf’s friendship. We weren’t as close as we used to be, and that was my fault.

“Hey, I was outside messing round with the birds,” I said. “I need a shower. Kirk’s right. I’m not going out in public looking like I just rolled out of bed.”

“Ah, I see. Have any luck?”

“Actually no. I had my windows up this morning. Then wouldn’t you know it? My cell rang and the birds all took off.”

It was a well-known fact I hated humans. I’d acted like an ass to Kirk in the beginning. But when Kirk’s life was threatened, I fought to keep Dolf’s mate safe. I’d since made peace with the fact Kirk had been human.

Well, I was working on it.

“Oops.” I heard the snort over the phone line. “I take it that was my fault?”

Grinning, I glanced out the kitchen windows at the birds returning to the feeders. “I’m good with you taking the blame.”

“I just bet. Meet us and I’ll buy you breakfast. Won’t be the one you were after, but hey, it’s better than nothing. Sound good?”

“Absolutely.”

“Good. See you there.”

I hung up. I hurried to my master bath, stripped, and started the shower. I slipped inside and washed. After I shampooed and conditioned my hair, I used my favorite bodywash. While I was in town, I needed to pick up more. Once I finished I dried my hair with my brand new Elchim Da Vinci 5000 hairdryer. I dropped close to two thousand dollars on it, but it was worth every cent. My hair looked fashion-model great.

I took over both walk-in closets in the bedroom since I had so many clothes. After a short debate, I dressed in faded jeans with strategically placed rips that cost a pretty penny, black combat boots, and a silky dark gray T-shirt.

Pushing my long hair out of my face, I debated tying it back, but decided not to. I liked it around my face—gave me a sexy, mysterious look. Me, and just about every other werecat, had some shade of brown or black hair. Only the Omegas didn’t—most were blond like Tal. But as rare as they were, redhead Omegas were even rarer.

I put on a leather jacket, grabbed my wallet off the dresser, and locked up the house. As luck would have it, I ran into road construction and got tar all over my truck. The morning had to get better.

 

 

AS I pulled into the parking lot, I saw Dolf’s truck. I parked next to him and entered the restaurant. First thing I saw was Tal’s bright blond hair. I had to admit they were a striking threesome.

Even though Kirk looked older, I knew that was wrong. Tal and Dolf were both one hundred and fifty years old. So was I. They just looked between twenty-five and thirty thanks to aging slower than humans. Most shifters looked as if they just stepped off the cover of a magazine too.

Kirk, on the other hand, looked like he’d lived life to the fullest, and not always in a good way either. But now that he’d mated Dolf and Tal, Kirk had developed shifter abilities like rapid healing and lifespan expansion. The one thing he couldn’t do was shift. Only born shifters could do that.

Tal waved at me. “Hey! Over here.”

“Hey, Heller.” Dolf nodded at me as I stepped to the table. “We waited until you arrived to order, but I asked the waitress to bring your coffee once you got here.”

“Good morning,” Kirk said.

I sat in the open chair, which put me facing Kirk. “Good morning, everyone. Thanks, Dolf. I didn’t have time this morning.” I’d barely finished speaking before a cup was set in front of me.

“Here you go, sir! Your waiter will be by in just a moment.” The waitress left.

Trying not to look desperate, I sipped my coffee, the delicious ambrosia sliding down my throat. It was the best coffee in three counties, and yeah, I might’ve made a totally undignified groan at the first sip.

“Good?” Kirk smirked.

I ignored the smirk because, hey, best coffee ever, so he had a reason to smirk. “Man, good doesn’t even cover what this is.”

“The waiter’s on his way over, so I hope you’re ready to order,” Dolf said. “I’m starving.”

“Oh, I already know what I want.” I didn’t bother to pick up the menu in front of me. I always got three scrambled eggs, a ton of bacon, sausage, pancakes, and did I mention the bacon? Because you know… bacon.

Tall shook his head. “Come on man, live a little. Try something new.” He tapped the menu in front of me. “You might find you like it.”

“Yeah, doubtful.” I shrugged. “I’m not interested in new. I like things just the way—”

“Good morning and welcome to Love’s! I’m Nat, and I’ll be your server today,” Nat gushed happily. “Have you guys decided what you want?”

Seriously? Clinching my teeth, I turned to glare at the human who interrupted me. “What I want is not to be interrupted while talking to my friends.” The waiter was a kid with big brown eyes and a mess of hair hanging in his face. “Think maybe you could do that?”

The cheerful smile faded from his face. “Oh. I’m sorry, sir. I didn’t mean to… I’m new, and I guess I was a bit too eager.”

“It’s no problem,” Dolf soothed the waiter. “Someone hasn’t had his coffee yet, so excuse him. Now I’d like the number four with my eggs scrambled, bacon, and hash browns with cheese.”

Once we placed our orders, our waiter left.

“Heller.” Dolf narrowed his eyes at me. “Was that necessary?”

Crap. Disapproval radiated off Dolf. “What?”

“Did you have to speak to him like that?” Dolf glanced in the direction our waiter had fled. “He’s just a kid—new to boot—and you just slapped him down.”

And? I shrugged. “It’s not like he’s one of ours.”

Kirk leaned across the table. “He’s a kid, Heller, and you cut him off at the knees for such a little mistake. Did you see his face? He was all happy and bubbly. You certainly cured him of that.”

I glanced around the table and saw the disgruntled looks on Tal and Dolf’s faces. “Look, I know since you used to be a—”

“Oh, good grief, how did I know you were going to go there?” Kirk rolled his eyes. “What I used to be and what I am now has nothing to do with it, Heller. I have what’s called manners. Compassion. You’re a grown man. Although after that little display, I’m wondering.”

Yeah, takes one to know one, dude. I leaned closer to Kirk too. “Funny. And as far as compassion goes? Most of them wouldn’t know compassion if it bit them on the ass. Just because they’re young doesn’t mean they can’t be total assholes.”

They aren’t the only ones who have a corner on that market.” Kirk’s voice dropped. “Want to talk about what happened to me several months ago? Remember that? I nearly died thanks to one of—”

“Okay, that’s enough. This isn’t the time or place. Remember where we are, both of you.” Dolf pinned me with a glare. “We all know how you feel, Heller, but back off it some, will you? I’d like to enjoy my breakfast, and at the rate you two are going, that’s not going to happen.”

I sat back. What was I doing picking a fight with Kirk in the middle of a restaurant? Dolf was right. This was not the place. They’d asked me to breakfast, and here I was acting like an ass. Again.

“You’re right.” I dropped my gaze and tilted my neck as a sign of submission to Dolf. “I didn’t mean to ruin breakfast. Maybe I should just go.”

“For crying out loud, why do you always run off when things get heavy?” Kirk threw a napkin at me.

I threw it back at him. “I don’t always—”

“Yeah, you do, but we’ll stir up that hornet’s nest another day.” Kirk huffed out a breath. “Don’t leave, please? Look, maybe you have reasons to feel like you do, but you can’t paint all of them with the same brush, man. I just wish you’d try.”

I’m still here, aren’t I? I’d say that’s trying. “I’m sorry, Kirk. I’ll, ah, apologize to the waiter too.”

I saw the looks on their faces. Even though they’d only been together a year, the bond between them was tight. I swear they sometimes knew what the others were thinking. I knew mates were close, but this was creepy. Especially since I knew they were disappointed in me. Story of my life lately.

The waiter returned with our food. Eyes downcast, he passed out the plates.

“Hey, kid, I’m sorry snapped at you earlier,” I offered.

Our waiter nodded but didn’t make eye contact at me. “No problem, sir.” After he handed out the plates, the kid hustled off. I ground my teeth. Stupid kid. I said I was sorry. What more did he want? That right there was just another reason humans weren’t worth dealing with.

Even our Alpha, Armonty, was against Dolf and Tal mating Kirk in the beginning, but Dolf took a stand. He threatened to go rogue and claim Kirk. Even more shocking was Tal did too. Our Alpha backed down, and Kirk eventually brought him around just as he had most of the clowder.

“Most” being the key word. There were still clowder members who hadn’t changed how they felt about humans or human mates. I made an effort to watch what I said for the rest of the meal, and we finished breakfast on a lighter note.

I enjoyed the banter between Dolf and his mates. The love between the three men was undeniable. My throat tightened as I saw the little touches they shared or the affection in their eyes as they looked at one another.

Hell, there were times they finished each other’s sentences. It was a cuteness overload that annoyed me endlessly, and I was so jealous I could hardly stand it. I wanted what they had. Craved it in fact. But I wanted a shifter mate, and so far I hadn’t felt the mate pull.