Copyright © 2012 Vivian Arend
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
The alternating colours of cream and coffee revolved like hypnotic artwork as a finger of steam rose from the surface of his drink. Jared Gilliland took a long sip and waited for the caffeine to soak through his system and kick his brain awake.
There was nothing better than enjoying an invigorating cup of java while relaxing on the premier harbour-view patio in all of Haines. He turned his face toward the early July sunshine, and contentment rolled over him. Okay, the fact he’d had a wickedly pleasurable night the previous evening with a sweet young thing also had something to do with the lazy satisfaction in his limbs.
His life was good. A trifle frustrating at times, perhaps, but on the whole, damn good.
“If I didn’t know better, I’d think you’d been up to something, just from your expression.”
Jared popped upright from his sprawl to discover his Beta closing in on the table. The massive man carried a tray covered with mugs. Behind him trailed a convoy of the Granite Lake wolves. Jared jumped to his feet and pulled a chair out of Erik’s way. “Who, me? Up to something? You’re just saying that because nine times out of ten, it’s true.”
Erik chuckled as he lowered his burden to the table. “I like that about you. Honest enough to admit your faults.”
“Well, now, I didn’t say it was a fault—creativity is one of my better qualities.” He dipped his head politely to Keil and Robyn, the pack Alphas, before glancing at the diminishing space around his table. “Umm, did you want me to leave?”
“Of course not.” Keil rested his hand on Robyn’s shoulder to hold her back for a second. “I thought you’d picked out the best table in the place especially for us to join you. You don’t mind, do you?”
Hot damn, no. This might not be as restful a morning as Jared had planned, but getting to spend time with the bigwigs of the pack was worth giving up a little R and R. “Happy to be of service. I’ve been fighting people off left and right to save this spot.”
Chairs settled in place, cups and goodies were passed out, and then there were seven. Jared might have felt more anxious if all of them weren’t so well known to him. From Keil and Robyn to Tad and Missy, who acted as Omegas for the pack, Jared had watched with admiration over the past two and a half years as they’d worked from within the Alaskan wolf pack to make it stronger than before.
Erik and his mate Maggie—he’d spent time with them on the trail during the wolf equivalent of the Amazing Race. It was tough to be intimidated by someone he’d crawled over rocks and splashed through creeks with.
“What’s the word on the renovations?” Keil tapped the table in front of Maggie. “And please tell me you’re not still trying to get the Teslin brothers to finish the plumbing for the new kitchen.”
“Hey, they have the skills. They’ve been a little distracted over the past couple weeks.” She shook her head and pointed at Erik. “It’s his fault.”
“Yours. You gave approval for the contractor from the cruise ship to use the hall in the pack house for interviews. I can’t blame the guys for getting distracted when there’s been a constant stream of good-looking female wolves parading through the—”
Jared spoke without thinking. “Good-looking wolves?”
A sharp burst of laughter surrounded him, and he might have flushed for a moment. His reputation, well deserved, preceded him. He smiled sheepishly and grabbed a sip of his coffee. Lowering his cup revealed Robyn’s bright grin directly across from him.
They’d arranged themselves without thinking to make it easy for her to see their faces. Her skills in lip reading hadn’t changed when she became a full wolf, but somehow her deafness had become even less of an obstacle. She had an uncanny knack of analyzing people that allowed her to fit in easily with the hearing community. Of course, her willingness to slap down any out-of-line wolf might also explain why the pack remained on their best behavior around her.
Robyn spoke in sign language to her mate, and Keil laughed even harder. “I agree.”
Jared pressed closer. “What? I didn’t catch that.”
Keil tilted his cup toward Jared. “She was wondering why any of us are surprised to find your attention was caught by the idea of good-looking wolves. You’ve gone though the most amazing collection of females of anyone I’ve ever met. Before I met Robyn, I used to have a fair number…”
He trailed off as she crossed her arms, her expression changing subtly. Jared stifled his snort of amusement.
“…used to have all kinds of trouble finding a good woman to spend time with.” Keil folded his hands in front of him, resting his hamlike fists on the table. He smiled innocently at Robyn like a four-year-old, and not one of the scariest dudes in the entire state of Alaska, in human or wolf form. “There simply wasn’t anyone who could measure up to my high standards. I lived a sad and lonely life until you came into my world.”
She smiled and patted his cheek.
Erik shook his head. “We’ll all ignore the fact you just lied through your teeth.”
Maggie nodded in agreement, her blonde curls bouncing. “That would be less complicated, wouldn’t it?”
The teasing carried on for a short while, and Jared basked in a different kind of warmth than he’d been enjoying at the start of his coffee break.
Pack was family, and his had turned into one of the best around. Granite Lake had changed for the better over the past couple years. The group of shifters surrounding him was powerful enough to keep even unruly wolves in line, but they did it in a totally personable and fun way. There were new members coming to Haines all the time now wanting to join. It wasn’t just a remote place to live anymore. The harbourside Alaskan town had so much to offer to the new breed of adventurer moving north.
Not that he longed for adventure. Nope. The quiet life was more than enough of an exploit for him. He supposed. The yearning inside for something more could be shoved aside for a while longer.
Someone poked him in the arm. “You found a job for the summer yet?”
Jared scrambled mentally, pulling himself from his doldrums. One of the unwritten pack rules was work or they’d find work for you. He’d kept his actual business connections on the sly for so long, everyone thought the principle still applied to him. “Of course.”
“Well, strictly speaking, it’s not a job job, but I promised to help at the Heritage Village while the cruise ships are in port. You know, dressing up and—”
“Seducing the visitors? Oh, Jared, when are you going to grow up and get going with your life?” Maggie shook her head, but she was smiling too hard to actually be upset.
Busted. That was a sweet side bonus. “Hey, positive tourism is a good thing for Haines. I figure the happier people are when they leave our fair shores, the better chance they’ll return.”
“And the casual hookups aren’t something you mind, right?” All the men at the table stared at Maggie in undisguised shock. She rolled her eyes. “Damn sex junkies, all you male wolves. Okay, let me rephrase that. Aren’t you looking for something more than casual sex at some point?”
Jared waited a full five seconds out of respect before blurting, “No. Never. Like not ever.”
Six heads swiveled his direction, and this time even the guys seemed to be laughing at him and not with him.
“You’re going to be such a goner when you meet your mate.” Tad brushed his fingers through the pale curls at the base of Missy’s neck. Jared considered making a smart-ass comment, but thought better of it. Tad could use his freaky Omega spidey-senses and find out exactly how and why Jared didn’t expect to ever find his mate. And then there would be all kinds of questions and an inquisition…
From the pointed look he got from Missy, it might be too late. Damn mystical wolf voodoo—keeping secrets from this group took more energy than hiding catnip from a bunch of cougar shifters. Luckily, the Omegas were polite enough to not start scanning pack members without a reason like some out-of-control wolf TSA. She wouldn’t say anything in front of the whole pack, if she had caught his secret.
And secrets he had.
He adjusted his chair, hoping to fade into the background. Erik winked slyly then changed the topic. Jared made a mental note to buy a six-pack of the dude’s favourite brew and slip it onto his porch. Yeah, the Beta was one of the golden boys of the pack.
Actually, they were all fabulous. He had no issues with any of the leadership. Life was grand, other than his itchy feet and his one little issue, and that was something no one could help him with, so it was less of an issue and more of a thing. Things could be ignored.
Conversation picked up again, and he relaxed, taking the time to examine the faces around him as they visited. He checked out the mix of humans and shifters crowded into the little coffee shop and the second-story balcony seating on this glorious July morning. Down on the street two heftily built fishermen moved northward, coming from the harbour. Why did they look familiar? He didn’t think they were shifters, and he didn’t usually hang out at the docks. Jared leaned forward and stared harder. They turned to look his direction, and as he met their eyes, their expressions twisted from rather mindless to furious.
Jared glanced behind him. Nope. No one there the boys could be pissed at. Had Erik or Keil done something?
“Umm, anyone been annoying the locals lately? The pack got any unpaid bills at the fishmongers?”
Erik frowned. “What?”
“Someone down there is very interested in someone up here.” Jared pointed, and the entire table turned toward the street.
Of course, that was the moment Jared figured out exactly why the men’s features were familiar. The adrenaline that flashed through his veins was stronger than the kickback jolt from a dozen triple espressos—body instantly on edge, heart pounding. He snuck his chair back, planted one hand on the railing behind him, and threw himself over.
“Are you sure everything is in place?”
Keri crossed her arms and leaned on the wall outside the cruise ship’s command room. “At some point you have to get over this irritating urge to micromanage every single step of the journey. Tessa, everything is going to be okay. The cruise is fully booked. All the passengers have cleared the security check. Willis got the final staff we need in place—you can relax.”
Her best friend nodded, even as she rapidly puffed air. Keri looked around helplessly for a paper bag to shove over Tessa’s head. Hyperventilation wasn’t pretty to watch.
Tessa held up her arms and shook her hands as if she were greeting aliens. “It’s just, this has to be perfect.”
“Oh great, like no pressure on any of us. Even your brother didn’t run the ship with an impeccable record. Give yourself a break.” This wasn’t only first day on the job nerves, this was living up to being the little sister nerves. “The cruise leaves in a couple hours. Everyone will have an awesome time, reports will go out on all the tourist sites that Arctic Wolf Cruise Lines still runs the best getaway-slash-northern-experience ever. The shifter news network will rave about how sweet it is to have an exclusive cruise where going furry isn’t frowned upon.”
“But what if something goes wrong?” Tessa’s eyes widened. “What if the Fedoras don’t have a good time? Keri, why did they have to choose my maiden voyage to take a trip? Having royalty on board makes it worse. I keep thinking I should wear a corset and full-length skirt, and carry a fan when I greet them.”
Keri eyed Tessa’s pale face. “You going to swoon? Because I can get you some smelling salts, but I’m not sure what they would do to your metabolism. Aren’t cats allergic?”
“Shut up.” Tessa grimaced her way into a smile. “I get it. I’ll stop having kittens. I just…I just want to do well.”
“I know you do.” Keri grabbed Tessa by the elbow and pulled her toward the pilothouse. “Your family has operated this cruise line for years. It’s your turn to take up the torch, yada, yada, yada.”
Tessa tucked her arm through Keri’s, and they walked side-by-side, the position comfortable and easy. Her friend’s tension slowly faded as they strode the halls talking about not much of anything. Keri smiled. If there was one thing she’d learned living next door to cat shifters for years, felines needed to move.
“For my first recommendation as troubleshooter, I suggest you get your rebounder out. Pop it in the corner of your office. Actually, screw that. Put it behind your desk and use it instead of a chair.”
Tessa laughed. “I’m going to look oh-so-professional bouncing up and down as I talk to the crew.”
“Better than bouncing off the walls.” Keri squeezed her friend’s arm. “I know we kid around a lot, but I do think you’re going to rock this. You’ve got the skills. So what if Big Brother Golden Boy would do some things differently? Be yourself, use those freaky managerial skills you got at that fancy-schmancy school, and everything will work out fine.”
They pulled to a stop outside Tessa’s office door. Tessa whirled on her. “I’m glad you’re here. You’re the best friend ever.”
All light vanished as Keri was buried in an enormous hug, her face jammed into Tessa’s armpit, her ribs groaning in protest.
“Hey there, Tigger, lighten up on the full-body attacks.”
The words squeaked out like a ducky on its final float in the tub. Tessa released her and Keri sucked for air, maintaining her smile even as she gasped for breath.
The cougar shifter who was her best friend in the world, and as near to a sister as anyone could be, bounced in a circle around her. “I mean it, Keri. Thanks for lending a hand. It’s not everyone who would give up their holiday to work.”
“Hey, I’m on a cruise ship. Bonbons and swimming pools. Exactly how much exertion is this going to take?” Keri ducked Tessa’s halfhearted swing. “Kidding, kidding—but come on, I’m nothing but a glorified gofer. It’s not as if I’m cooking for five hundred.”
“That would be scariness of epic proportions.” Tessa gave an exaggerated shudder and clutched her stomach.
Keri snorted. “Right. You can’t cook either.”
“I’m surprised we didn’t starve during college.”
“Ahh, the wonders of microwave dinners and pizza delivery.” Keri gave her friend a light punch in the shoulder. “But we survived that, you’ll make it through this. More than survive—you’re gonna do awesome.”
“Thanks.” Tessa let out a deep breath before giving her a wink. “Thanks for reminding me I can do it.”
They fist-bumped, then Tessa slipped into her office and Keri headed down the hall to escape onto deck.
She took it all in—the beautiful blue skies, the undulating waves of the ocean. The scent of the sea and a faint hint of fried food from the restaurants of the town filled her nostrils. She leaned on the railing and smiled.
It was a holiday. Tessa might be in the middle of panic mode, but those were normal first-time-out nerves. The shifter-only cruises had operated without a hitch for years, and with Tessa at the helm, nothing would change except maybe to get better. Like the rest of her family—the clan that had provided Keri’s second home for the past ten years—the girl had a flair for making others happy.
Volunteering as a troubleshooter wasn’t going to be a huge task at all. It was more a favour to ease Tessa’s concerns.
No, Keri planned on using what should be ample spare time this trip to plan out her future. She had an art degree from the community college, ink permanently staining her fingers, and a backpack full of charcoal pencils and art pads. But drawing pictures in the farmer’s market wouldn’t pay the bills forever. She sent another set of good wishes her parents’ direction for being patient with a rebellious hothead and giving her a place to bloom.
Now if she could only figure out what she wanted to be when she grew up.
A gust of wind tossed her long hair into her eyes, and Keri regretted her decision to leave it down. At sea she’d have to drag it back into a ponytail. She twisted the strands out of her way and dug in her pocket for an elastic.
Loud shouts drew her attention to the harbour. Three people raced through the streets, the one in front narrowly ahead. He leapt over a stack of boxes before shoving them behind him into the path of his pursuers. The first man turned the corner, out of sight for a moment, as the two behind forced the crates out of the way, their curses painting the air blue.
Keri walked along the railing, trying to locate the cause of the commotion. Was he a thief, perhaps? Someone late on their mooring payments? By the time she’d reached the prow of the boat, the two pursuers were visible in greater detail. Big clumpy fishermen boots graced their feet, and they were covered in shiny rain gear from head to toe. The sheer awkwardness of running in those outfits made her legs ache in sympathy.
Out on the main street, a lone figure dashed back into view, head down, legs pumping. He was poetry in motion as he leapt over ropes and around barrels, climbing over people and shipping supplies as if taking a casual stroll down the beach.
Only, when he changed direction, raced up the ramp and disappeared into the depths of the Arctic Wolf’s hold, the fun and games were over.
“Oh, no you don’t.” Keri turned to the nearest stairwell and sprinted downward.
Troubleshooter? This was trouble shouting loud and clear, and no way was someone sneaking aboard the ship unapproved. Not on her watch. Especially someone who might or might not have the fishermen’s mafia on his heels.
She burst into the crew common area and glanced around. A short line of people waited before a folding table, the two pursers behind it handing out keys and information sheets.
“Something wrong?” The chief supervisor, Chad, smiled her way enticingly, and yeah, they’d been flirting earlier, but…timing, dude. Being a family friend didn’t mean any time, any place.
“Did you see an unauthorized entry? There was a disturbance down on the docks.”
“No one new boarded except the last-minute crew we contracted locally. And this is almost the last of them.” Chad stood and eyed the line. “There’s one missing. A Mark Weaver. He’s not here yet—”
“Here I am. Sorry. Tiny mistake—alarm didn’t go off. Got here as quick as possible.”
The late arrival was dark haired, the strands long enough to lie tousled around his shoulders like some bad-boy rock star on tour. Mmm, she liked bad boys. His leather jacket hung open, his chest moving rapidly, and Keri hesitated.
Chest heaving? Slightly panting—as if he’d been running? “Did someone escort you to the ship, Mr. Weaver?”
His eyes widened, then his grin flashed and her belly warmed. Damn, that face of his should be labeled a dangerous weapon. “No, but I sure could use an escort to my room.”
“You’ll get your sleeping assignment in a minute,” Chad cut in. “First, sign here.”
Keri shook herself, stepping back in self-defense.
Mark winked her direction then leaned over the table to add a swirl of chaos to the bottom of the page. “There you go, love.”
Chad choked for a second before handing over a key. “Your room is on the port side, toward mid ship. You can get extra linens and supplies from the hall storage, and your first shift starts at eleven hundred hours. Report back here and you’ll find your team leader, who will get you fitted up and give you last-minute instructions.”
Mark tilted an imaginary hat at Keri, ignoring Chad completely. “You going to be around? Help me find my sea legs, that kind of thing?”
Keri continued to retreat until her back hit the wall. “I think we’ll end this conversation now, Mr. Weaver. Find your quarters.”
His dark eyes sparkled for a second before he dropped his gaze, stroking his way down her body. She should feel insulted. She should turn and demand he treat her with more respect. The words wouldn’t come, mainly because what she really wanted was to strip right there and ride him like a Harley. Feel his power rumbling between her thighs and—
Sweat broke out on her brow, cooling instantly in the air-conditioned room. Mark was out the door before she figured out how to respond further. Keri avoided the blatant question in Chad’s eyes and raced away, slamming through the door that led the opposite direction from where her mystery man had gone. All thoughts of why he’d been chased aboard were lost in the disastrous new revelation that had overtaken her.
This was not good. This was so not good. The situation had gone from troublesome to tortuous in less time than it took for the average wolf pack to consume a prime-rib dinner.
Keri stopped to lean her forehead on the nearest wall. She hit with more force than intended, which was moderately excruciating but somehow appropriate.
In fact, she repeated the move. A couple of times.
The resulting pain made her screw up her face. Bang. She was supposed to be there for her friend and act as a troubleshooter. Bang. Not be the one to cause chaos right under Tessa’s nose. Bang. Not discovering her mate in the midst of the hired help.
Her mate. Oh my word, was it really him?
She flipped around and pressed her shoulders to the wall, letting her head fall back. Instantly drooling over some strange guy wasn’t the problem—shifters were cool about sex, and if she wanted to go knock boots with someone, no one would even blink.
But what her body was doing right now? This was an out-of-the-blue, off-the-charts, do-it-now and do-it-hard attraction. In any shifter’s handbook, she was sure she’d find her symptoms listed as classic he’s the one, accompanied by flashing neon warning lights.
Now the question was, what the heck did she do?