“HOP IN, man. We ain’t got shit for time.” Connor was fairly sure that when the guys he’d knocked out with his drugged beer came to and discovered he’d untied the coyote shifter and plopped the skinny, bruised dude in his Mustang, they were gonna be pissed.
Not as pissed as when they discovered he’d taken their weapons and all their cash, but he figured he might as well be hung for a sheep as for a lamb. He had to fund his little lost-and-found business somehow, and he could sell all that shit.
The coyote shifter guy blinked at him, settling into the passenger seat. “Who are you?”
“Connor Ragbone. I find lost things. You seemed lost. Wanna get the fuck out of here?” Because Connor sure as shit did.
“Hell yes. These guys are poachers.” Coyote dude shook his head as if to clear cobwebs.
“That doesn’t seem like a very nice thing to be.” He peeled out of the parking lot and tossed Mr. Coyote a pair of sweats. “There are flip-flops in the floorboard. Not fancy, but they’re clothes. You got a name?”
“Jason. I—thanks. For finding lost things, I mean. Um, I can’t really remember where I’m from, though, so I have no idea where to go.”
“That’s okay. I know a few places that are willing to give a guy a place to put his life back together.” Three or four that were willing and one in particular that totally needed a few more able-bodied males about.
Connor wondered idly how wolves and coyotes got along.
One way or the other, he needed to call his buddies Gus and Sam in northern Nevada and tell them he was coming. He’d get a hundred miles down the road or so and find a truck stop so Jason could shower. Because, wow, the guy was making his eyes water from the unwashed stench.
“You mind if I open the window? No? Good.” He rolled the window down and sucked in a deep breath. Good Lord and butter.
“Sorry. I know it’s bad. I haven’t been able to get clean for so long.” Cheeks pink, Jason ducked his head, clearly ashamed.
“Hey. I been there. Like I said, lost things. You’re found now. There’s a truck stop in a few hours with clean, hot showers.” Truck stops were kind of marvels—food, bathing, silly sex toys, and weird tourist clothes.
“That sounds like heaven. Well, that and some Twizzlers. Do you think I could have Twizzlers?” Jason asked, looking so hopeful when Connor glanced at him.
Dude, this guy was way younger than he’d thought. Not as young as the teens he’d found along with Gus and Sam all those months ago, but not surely fully adult either. Those kids had a home now, and he had a feeling Jason was going to end up there too.
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m craving some pork skins. Salty, crispy goodness. There’s some chocolate in the glove compartment, I think.” Was chocolate bad for coyotes? He knew it was for dogs, but surely in human form a coyote shifter could metabolize it.
“I like chocolate. If I’m shifted, it makes me barf, but in human form, I can mainline it.” Jason laughed, sounding lighter, more free already.
“Go for it. I keep it for emergency snackage.”
“Thank you.” The kid tore open the glove compartment and took maybe ten seconds to devour two candy bars. “Sorry. I’m just so hungry. They only fed me when they felt like it.”
“You don’t have to apologize. You have anyone looking for you? Any family?” No one should go hungry just because people were giant dickheads. Hell, he was opposed to going hungry on general principles.
“I don’t know?” Jason sighed. “I don’t think so. I was in… maybe Colorado when I was taken. I drifted a lot. When I started shifting, I freaked out, you know? I can’t—hormones were sucky.”
Damn. Without a stable mentor, some shifters went whackadoodle when they began shifting in their teens. Kids needed a role model. Shifting was tough to control without guidance.
“Well, let’s get you fed, clean, and somewhere safe,” Connor promised.
“Thank you. I mean, really. You’re my hero.”
He grinned. Yeah, but he had a feeling Gus and Sam might not be so pleased. Good thing he knew they would never turn down someone in actual need. They were following in Sam’s parents’ footsteps and taking in all sorts of misfits.
Most of the people he dropped off left after a month or two, but one or two had stuck.
Okay, maybe five.
Connor grinned. Of course, he’d also stuck around for two months a while back and done a Habitat for Humanity-type build on three new cabins so folks didn’t have to share anymore.
Now he had a cell phone and instructions to check in with his brother from another mother, Sam, once a week, no matter what, and he had a room of his own in the main house.
How fucking weird was that?
Connor was a nomad. He didn’t have a home. The closest thing he did have, however, was a weird cat-and-wolf combo who had the craziest, most amazing family Connor had ever met. And for whatever reason, Sam and Gus loved him.
He headed out of El Paso, making a beeline north.
The worry at the base of his neck didn’t ease until they were an hour into New Mexico. Maybe this guy wasn’t worth chasing, as far as the poachers were concerned, but Connor knew there was always a chance of pursuit.
Jason sacked out on him about Anthony, so instead of stopping, he floored it all the way to Santa Rosa, which was a great place to grab a snack and shower. Tiny town. Easy to see someone coming, and with enough cell signal to call Gus’s pack and warn them there was incoming.
“Hey, bud. You want to grab a shower?” Connor pulled into the truck stop and coasted to a parking space. “I need to make a few calls, and then we can have a grilled cheese or something before we get Twizzlers for the road.”
They headed in, and Connor paid for Jason’s shower and a T-shirt for him to wear instead of the improvised hoodie. “I’ll be in the restaurant when you’re all set.”
“Thanks, man. Really.” Jason headed off, flip-flops flapping.
He got a booth in the diner and pulled out his phone. He dialed Sam and waited for his buddy to pick up so he could warn the man he was on the way.
“Hello?” That warm voice always settled his nerves, Sam solid as a rock.
“Hey, Sam. How do y’all feel about coyotes?”
OH, HE did like a cold beer on a pretty night.
Connor leaned back in the deck chair, belly full of a lovely slab of tuna he’d picked up in Vegas as a “don’t kill me” present for him and Sam to share. He brought Gus a double-ended amethyst and a huge chunk of raw garnet.
Gus chuckled. “You look pretty pleased with yourself, Con.”
“Y’all know how I feel about a good finding.” Nothing felt better than discovering what he was looking for and ending up with a positive result. Sometimes things didn’t want to be found.
“Mmm-hmmm. Poor guy looks worn to the bone.”
“Poachers suck.” And they were sneaky fuckers too. Between hunters without a care for permits, poachers, and loss of territory that drove their kind out into the cities, more and more lost folks kept showing up on Connor’s radar. It was hard to know where to go.
Connor knew Gus and Sam, a wolf and a big cat, could only take so many in their little sanctuary in northern Nevada. They had a lot of pups to care for, and at some point, they would need more strong males and fewer nurturers. Still, they were kind, and their place was so safe for the oddballs….
“They do. Can you stay a bit, Connor? It’s a week ’til the moon, and I have a whole bag of catnip….”
He felt his whiskers vibrate, his tail twitch at the mention of the catnip. “I could use a few days downtime, yeah. Totally.”
Gus groaned. “I should have bought more fish.”
“Go to Winnemucca.” Sam chuckled, nudging Connor. “I love to say that word.”
“Winnemucca. Winnemucca. Mucca-mucca-mucca.” Connor chuckled softly, tickled. “I get it.”
“Oh, for fuck’s sake. You two….” Gus rolled his eyes, and Connor stuck his tongue out at the big Alpha wolf. The guy loved having something to grump about. “You two warn me when you want to catnip,” Gus said. “I’ll get some trout.”
“You’re good to me, Puppy.” Sam moved to slide into Gus’s lap with a happy little purr.
“You two are still humping? You’ve been together how long?”
“Long enough to stop being bothered when some weird bobcat asks awkward questions.” Sam raised one black eyebrow at him, green cat eyes glinting.
“Awkward is if I ask you if you like sucking him, buddy.” He loved teasing. Loved it.
Sam smacked his lips. “Deeeelish.”
“I swear to God, Connor. I will pop you. What if the kids had heard you?”
Oh, this was the perfect time to point out that Sam and Gus had become parents of four adopted wolves. Four—from seventeen to five. Connor loved it. He especially loved how inarticulate and amazed Gus was about being a dad.
“The older two would say, ‘Ewwwww,’ and the younger ones would have no idea.”
“They’d better not,” Sam snarled. “My baby girls will never ever….”
Connor started hooting, just tickled as a pig in shit.
“Yeah, yeah. Shut up. You want another beer, anyone?” Gus rose, and Connor knew he would go check on the kids while he was in there.
“I’ll take one if y’all are.” He wasn’t as tall as either Gus or Sam, but he was stocky, and he could hold his beer with anyone.
“I’d love one, babe.” Sam watched Gus go, then turned to Connor, grinning hugely. “He doesn’t know I got five pounds of smoked salmon for the moon.”
“Oh, you’re a bad kitty. I knew I liked you for a reason.” He stretched, his back popping. “So seriously, how’s things? You have enough little ones to populate Montana.”
“I know, right? Pete needs to stay off his girl.” Pete was Gus’s younger brother, and he and his wife had a lot of kids. A lot.
“Yeah, she’s on her third litter? That’s just a little nuts.”
“At least the last one was only two, and the doctor only hears a single heartbeat this time.”
“Oh, so she hasn’t caught up with Gray and Marina’s single set….” Because eight babies. Eight.
“Not yet, but Marina hasn’t caught pregnant again.” Sam chuckled. “Now we have a coyote.”
“He seems to be solid—a little scrambled, but dear.” Connor set aside his empty beer bottle. “He says he can’t remember much about his life before. I found him in El Paso, but he don’t sound like one of us Texans.”
“No, he doesn’t sound like you, for sure.” Sam waggled an eyebrow.
“No. No, not my type. Adorable, but I have enough flakiness for any relationship.” Hell, he had enough flakiness to make any guy run like a rabbit that had heard a hound bay on hunting day.
“You’re unique,” Gus said when he came back out, beers in hand. “Here, man.”
“You’re too kind.” He clinked bottles with both men. “Y’all sure you want me here ’til after the moon?”
Because he was feeling the need to sit and stay for a few days. Catnip and salmon….
Gus was the one he worried about, and Gus just shot him a frown. “Don’t be any stupider than you have to be, Con. Stay as long as you want.”
“Of course you’re staying. There’s a bag of catnip, a full moon, and a pack full of kids desperate to hang with you. Lisle and Bella are learning ballet. You have to see them. And Randi’s a whiz at the computer. Shit, Richie wants to be a doctor now. He’s applying to colleges and everything.”
“No kidding?” Wow. Richie was a bright kid. “Well, if he needs a ride anywhere when he’s ready, I’m his guy.”
“He wants to go to Texas, for fuck’s sake. Texas.”
“Well, I got family near Dallas. He’ll have protection.” That actually made him feel good, to be able to offer help.
Sam gave him a relieved look. “Seriously? That would be great.”
“A sister and her mate. They have three teenagers.” They weren’t close, but they weren’t fighting. They were just… siblings.
His sis would think looking after a wolf was a little weird, but she would do it for him, especially if Richie was in med school. Hannah was a nurse.
“See? You’re finding homes for people that aren’t even lost yet. We have over a year, but he’s eager.” Sam’s rumble was low, pleased, and it made Connor feel good.
Not “sexy kitty rub-rub” good, but “pleased with himself and happy to help” good.
Gus clinked their bottles one more time, then drained his beer. “I’m ready to head to bed, Puss.”
“I’m going to get Connor’s bed made up with fresh sheets.”
“Like they weren’t clean when I left, Sam.” Sam was so fastidious.
“Who knows who’s been napping in there, Con.” Sam’s wrinkled nose spoke volumes. “Come on, and I’ll give you some towels too.”
“Works for me. Good night, Gus. I promise not to keep him up too late.”
“Night, Con.” Gus followed them inside but headed for the master suite side of the house.
“I’m glad you came home for a while, Connor.”
“Yep. I just enjoy having you around to visit with,” Sam murmured.
Well, that made him purr, bump shoulders with his very good friend, his pride mate. “It’s good to have a room.”
“I’m glad. You always have a place here. Always.” Sam moved to the linen closet, grabbed sheets and towels to hand to him.
He took the sheets and headed to the weird little third-floor nook that was his. There was a window and a bed, a dresser and his guitar collection. His place. He loved jumping up the little ladder in kitty form, but his human self adored the view and the privacy. Connor thought a loft was maybe his natural habitat.
“Night, Connor!” Sam called.
“Good night, Sammy. Holler if you need me.”
He made his bed and opened the window, the air pouring in. The smell of high desert and mountain air made him smile, and he breathed deep, his chest expanding.
It was good to be home.
Weird, but good.
“UNCLE CONNOR! Uncle Connor!”
The sound of his name hit him about three seconds before a passel of wolf pups did—some fuzzy, some not, all ready to play.
Connor laughed and opened his arms, running down the steps to meet the horde. “OMG, look at you guys.”
He let them run him over, hugging and tossing, playing with the happy, healthy little beasts. He loved kids and had missed having ones this age once his sister’s kits had gone all tween and standoffish.
When he glanced up for a moment, he saw Jason sitting on Mona’s porch across the way, the little coyote smiling as he watched the pups.
It was amazing how much a couple days of sleep, food, and daily showers helped Jason look less insane and more just eccentric. His torn-out hair still looked as if he had mange, maybe, but his face had already filled in some, and his eyes had lost their haunted expression. He smiled a lot, so Connor thought maybe Jason felt right at home.
Gray barked happily and herded a pair of the youngest puppies back into play. It fucking blew Connor’s mind how Gray could do it, even without being able to see a thing. The guy was like the best dad ever. Seriously.
Someone gnawed on his ankle, and Connor hooted, lifting the pup and twirling.
“Uncle Connor! Me next! Me too!”
“Everyone gets a hug. I swear!”
Lord have mercy. He would dance with every single kid if that was what it took. He thought maybe he ought to lead them around like the Pied Piper for a bit, wear them out.
A huge black panther landed in the middle of the cubs, roaring loud enough that the trees trembled. Everything stopped for a second, and then the puppies pounced, totally unafraid of the big cat.
Sam. Connor had to shift. Had to. His bobcat came right out, his clothes falling away. Boom. Paws.
He waded in, batting happily, yowling as someone started chewing on his tail. When he looked, it was Gray. Oh, no fair.
Connor rolled over and over, spinning a few cubs and Gray, landing with a thud against Sam.
Sam gave a comical kitty shout, paws batting with no claws in play. He joined in, forming a happy feline whirlwind, spinning pups with wild abandon.
My friend! My good friend!
Gray barked, and one of the wee ones tipped his nose to the air, howling. So frickin’ cute.
To his utter shock, Jason stood up, not furry a bit, voice joining Gray’s. The pups’ ears swiveled, and then all of the fuzzy ones were howling, just rocking the chorus.
Sam leaned against him, mouth open, panting hard.
All the adult wolves came out, staring in shock with their human eyes, and Connor rolled with hysterical laughter, his paws batting the air. Someone jumped right in the middle of his shit, growling and gnawing, and he realized it was Gus, the biggest Alpha wolf of them all.
He wrapped his paws around Gus, hugging hard, making sure not to scratch. Gus didn’t play too much, according to Sam. Not like he had a few years back. So this was a real honor.
Gus bowled him over, teeth on his throat for a second, and he allowed it, gave the puppy his due. It was no skin off his back. Gus had let him be family, after all. After the gentle shake, Gus pounced his tail once and bounded over to tackle Sam.
Connor rolled up to all four paws and tossed a puppy back into play. Gray shook, then came over to rub muzzles with him.
He shared scent, purring as hard as he could.
Yes. They were family. All of them. The pups flopped down, panting, and the younger human kids started grooming them all.
Connor began to groom Gray, chuffed softly as Marina appeared with a brush in each hand. She smiled at him, rubbing his ear tuft gently with one brush. “Hey, guys. Lunch soon.”
He nudged her knee, smelling chicken and bacon, all the good things.
She sat cross-legged between him and Gray, humming as she ran the brushes over them. That was universal, right? Brushing felt good.
Sam met his eyes from where Sam was holding Gus down and grooming with intent.
It was good to have a home. A place to return to.
And when that place came with lunch, it was even better.
THE FULL moon had come and gone, twice, and Connor began to itch, the world calling him east.
Something needed finding. Maybe a place. Maybe a thing. Maybe a person. Maybe nothing.
Regardless, he needed to go.
Connor crawled up into his loft and began to pack, surprised at how many choices he had with clothes. He’d accumulated quite a bit. He stuffed warm clothes in his pack. He always needed a few things to give away.
“Don’t forget to call once a week, brother.” Sam’s voice was warm, sliding gently in his ears. “I put some food in your trunk. Stuff that’ll keep.”
“Thanks, Sam. Don’t let the kids kill my guitars.” He had a feeling he wouldn’t have time to play on this trip.
“I never do.” Sam came over, squeezed him tight. “You need any money?”
“You know me. I always find what I need.” He had a nose for being in the right place at the right time.
“Mmm. Now if you could just find Gus’s shed key.”
“Underneath the cookie jar at Mona’s so it won’t get lost.”
“You rock!” Sam waited for him at the base of the laddery stairs, then took a hug as soon as Connor came down. “I’ll see you when you come home.”
“You will.” He held on for a second. “I’ll be home before the snow, I think. Maybe I’ll spend the holidays.”
“We’d love that. Let us know, and we’ll put you in the name draw.” They all drew names for gifts, because getting or making something for everyone… wow.
“I will. I swear. You can call me anytime.”
“I know that.” Sam let him go, then cuffed him on the shoulder. “Love you, brother.” Sam never let him leave without telling him that. It seemed seriously important to Sam.
“I love you. Take care of each other, and I’ll see everyone soon.”
Sam waved him off but didn’t walk outside with him. It was Jason who met him at the Mustang. “You leaving?”
“I have to, but I’ll be back. Gus says you’re staying, that you’re joining the pack.”
Gus’s exact words had been “The kid can fucking work his ass off, man. He’s something else.”
“I am, yeah.” Jason gave him a wry grin. “I may not be able to run under the moon anymore after, you know, all the crap, but I can use these.” Jason held up his hands. “Thank you, man.”
“You’re welcome, and you’re not alone here, right? Helena gets you.” Sam’s sister maybe had a wee thing for Jason.
“She does.” Jason’s cheeks went pink. “She’s a hell of a lady.”
“She is.” How fucking cool was that? That Jason had found something lost too. “Good luck. I’ll be home by the winter.”
“See you then.” Jason gave him an awkward man-hug, but it was clearly heartfelt.
“Call anytime. I’m going before the little ones wake up. I’m a coward.”
“Nah, you’d just never leave if they caught you. Later!” Jason pelted back toward the cabin he’d built for himself, which was just a cute-as-a-button tiny house.
They would have to build on when Helena moved in and they started having babies.
He grinned, then tossed his bag into the backseat of the car. Connor hopped into the driver’s seat, easing the ignition on so there was no roar to wake the kids.
Time to go.
Someone was needing to be found, and he needed to find them.
Needed to do his job so he could come home again.