© 2023 by Jordan Summers

NIC CHAPTERS 1-3

CHAPTER ONE

 

Mindy MacDougal stopped her car next to the curb. Celina Gibson opened the passenger door and handed her the pepperoni pizza, then climbed in.

The aroma of tomato sauce, oregano, and sausage filled the small cab, making Mindy’s stomach growl.

“I don’t know if I can wait until we get to the house to have a slice,” Mindy said.

Celina buckled her seatbelt, then reached for the warm box. “If I can wait, you can wait.” She glanced at Mindy. “Isn’t that Izzy’s shirt?”

Mindy grinned. “Yep!”

“Can’t believe she let you wear it. I tried to borrow it one time and she threatened to break my fingers.”

“Yeah, Izzy is weird about sharing things. She never wants anyone to wear her clothes or use her stuff. Said it made them smell funny.” Mindy laughed and put her blinker on, then pulled away from the curb. “If she didn’t want me to wear her clothes then she shouldn’t have left them in the closet when she moved out.”

“I still can’t believe she’s gone,” Celina said.

Mindy squeezed her hand. “I know you miss her, too.”

Celina and Isabel had been best friends for a few years, then this last year Izzy pulled away. It was a pattern she repeated when anyone got too close. To soothe Celina’s hurt feelings, Mindy had stepped in as a surrogate for her sister. She wasn’t as good company as Izzy, but she did her best.

“She was always threatening to move. I just didn’t think she’d go through with it. I mean, where else is she going to get such a sweet setup?” Celina asked.

“What do you mean?” Mindy glanced at her.

“You paid her rent. You did her laundry. You bought all the food. Isabel never had to do anything while you were around.” Bitterness tinged her tone.

Mindy’s face heated. “It was my choice. She never asked me to do any of those things.”

“She never had to,” Celina retorted. “Wish I had a younger sister like you.”

Mindy sighed. How could she explain in a way that Celina would understand?

She hadn’t always been the responsible one. There was a time when she and Izzy had been footloose and carefree. That was before Izzy’s penchant for outlandish storytelling took a dark turn, before the expensive psychiatrists, before the psych meds, before all the experimental treatments.

Nothing their parents tried could eliminate Izzy’s “visions” or quell her talk of monsters. To this day, her sister was utterly convinced of their existence.

The treatments did succeed in one area. They successfully changed Mindy and Izzy’s relationship. Her role in the family dynamic evolved from close ally to her sister’s keeper.

The change hadn’t been easy for Mindy. At first, she’d chafed at carrying so much responsibility. She missed her freedom. She missed having fun. But there was only room for one bad girl at the table and Izzy had claimed the spot.

Now that Izzy was gone and Mindy was finally free, she didn’t know quite what to do with herself.

Celina chewed on her bottom lip. “Did she at least say goodbye before she left?”

She did her best to hide her pain, but Mindy didn’t think she was successful. “You know my sister. Goodbyes are so...responsible. She called you, though, didn’t she?”

“Yeah, but she didn’t tell me that she’d moved out,” Celina said.

“Then what did she say?” Mindy asked.

“She told me to watch out for the monsters,” she said.

Mindy rolled her eyes. “What’s that supposed to mean?”

Celina shrugged and looked away, but not before Mindy saw fear in her eyes.

“Don’t let her freak you out,” she said.

“You know, this might turn out to be a good thing in disguise,” Celina said. “You’ve been taking care of your sister for years. Izzy could do with a serious dose of reality.”

Mindy knew she was right, but it would take some time to adjust to all the changes.

“She’s your big sister. It’s past time that she acts like it,” Celina said.

“We’re only a year apart,” Mindy said. “Not exactly a huge gap.”

“Doesn’t matter. She’s still older,” Celina said. “Have you heard from her since she left?”

“She called Wednesday night, but I was at school,” Mindy said.

“Did she at least leave a message?”

Mindy hesitated. “Yeah, sort of.”

“Uh-oh. What did she say?” Celina asked.

Mindy sighed. “Maybe you can make sense of her message. She said the winds told her it was time to move on. That there was darkness coming.”

Celina’s perfectly shaped brow shot up. “The winds? Darkness? Last time I checked, wind didn’t talk. And darkness”—she looked out the window—“comes every night. Did she tell you anything useful? Like where she was going?”

The question surprised Mindy. She thought for sure Izzy would’ve told her best friend where she was going. But one look at Celina’s face made it clear that she hadn’t. Weird. Should she tell her? She couldn’t see any harm in letting her know.

“Apparently, the winds gave my sister directions to New Orleans.” She laughed.

Celina gasped.

“What is it?” Mindy asked.

“Nothing,” Celina said.

“Tell me.”

“I just always wanted to go there. Izzy and I talked about it a lot. She said we’d run away there one day.” Celina grew quiet. “Guess that won’t be happening now. She’ll fit right in down there.”

That was what worried Mindy. What if Izzy didn’t come back? What if there was no room in her ‘new’ life for her sister?

“I hope she’s okay,” Mindy said.

“You need to stop worrying about her,” Celina said. There was sternness in her voice that hadn’t been there a moment ago.

She was right, but the saying about old habits dying hard was true. “It’s what sisters do,” Mindy said quietly. She was surprised Celina wasn’t more concerned given how much she knew about Izzy, but maybe she was in shock about New Orleans.

“I know you love her, but your sister is a flake. You have to live your own life now,” Celina said. “It’s past time Izzy learns to stand on her own two feet.”

Mindy didn’t want to think about Izzy anymore. It would mean examining her own sorry life. “So what’s on the agenda tonight?” she asked.

“I thought we’d go for a Ryan double feature.” Celina reached into her purse and pulled out two DVDs. “Dibs on Gosling.”

“Man,” Mindy said. “That’s not fair.”

Celina laughed.  “Like settling for Reynolds is such a hardship.”

Mindy glanced at her and smiled. “True. I wouldn’t exactly kick him out of my bed.”

“No woman with a brain in her head would.”

Lights faded away as they drove out of town and made a right onto a back road that would eventually lead to Mindy’s home.

Thick woods on both sides of the road swallowed what little light came from the headlights. Mindy cranked the radio and pressed on the accelerator. The miles rolled by.

Celina was doing her best pop princess impersonation when Mindy spotted the entrance to a long drive.

“Hey.” She nudged Celina. “Is that the road you take to get to that club you’re always talking about? Pits or something.”

Celina stopped singing and looked out the window. “Yeah, that’s it,” she said reluctantly. “The place is called Sticks.” She crossed her arms over her chest and sank down in her seat. “Izzy never really liked it. She said the place made her feel uncomfortable. She only went there a few times.”

“Really?” Mindy asked. “I was always under the impression that Izzy liked it. Well, as much as she liked anyplace.”

“No!” Celina said. “The only time she ever wanted to go there was when she had the urge to dance.”

Dancing was one of the few passions she and her sister shared these days, but they rarely indulged in the activity at the same time.

“Can’t believe that I’ve driven by the entrance so many times and never noticed it before,” Mindy said. “For some reason, I could’ve sworn that you and Izzy told me it was on the east side.” She was positive they had.

Celina laughed off her comment, then shifted in her seat. “You aren’t exactly Ms. Observant,” she remarked.

It was common knowledge around the animal clinic that Mindy was driven and focused, but only on work and school. What little time remained had gone toward caring for Izzy and protecting her. 

Mindy stared at the entrance through her side mirror until it faded into the night. “Now that I know where it is I’ll have to go,” she said.

Celina cleared her throat and picked at the edge of the pizza box. “I’m not sure Sticks is your kind of place.” She stared out the window as she spoke.

Mindy frowned. “What do you mean? You said it was fun. You told me there were tons of good-looking men. I know you’ve been going there just about every weekend with your friend Erin. Izzy went with you last week.” She took a breath. “In fact, you’ve gone there with everyone but me.”

“Isabel didn’t have a good time,” Celina said softly. “She hated it so much that she made me promise not to take you there.”

Why would her sister do that? Mindy vaguely remembered Izzy coming home freaked out, but since that wasn’t unusual, she hadn’t been concerned at the time. Now she was.

Though she’d never shown it, Mindy’s feelings had been hurt that Celina had never invited her to go with them to the bar. Had she asked, Mindy may have very well declined the invitation, but Celina had never bothered.

“Why would Izzy ask you to make that promise?”

“Why does Izzy say or do anything?” Celina asked, smoothly deflecting the question. “To find out the answer, you’d have to ask your sister.”

They both knew that would never happen.

“Did anything unusual happen the last night you guys were there?” Mindy asked.

Celina readjusted the pizza box on her lap. “Not that I recall. It was a blast like always.”

“Then I don’t get why you and Izzy think I should avoid it,” Mindy said. 

“I can’t speak for your crazy sister,” Celina said. “But knowing you and knowing Sticks the way I do, I can honestly tell you it’s not your type of place.”

Why is Sticks great for Celina, but not for me?

Appearance-wise, they were polar opposites. Celina was tall, had long, dark hair, sun-kissed skin, a stunning face, and a trim figure that models would kill for.

Mindy had learned to live with being vertically challenged. Her curvy body was made for a different era—an era that didn’t give side-eye to a woman who enjoyed eating a whole sandwich and a side of chips.

“Don’t think you’re going to get away with that answer without explaining yourself,” Mindy said.

“You know what I mean,” Celina said.

Mindy shook her head. “No, I don’t. What exactly is mytype of place?” She immediately pictured a library and rolled her eyes. How long had Celina and her sister been conspiring behind her back? It made her angry that between them they’d decided what was and wasn’t good for her. How dare they after everything she’d done! She was the poster child for responsible behavior.

Celina’s face pinched.

“Spill it!” Mindy wasn’t about to let her off the hook.

Celina sighed. “You’re more of a coffee bar kind of girl. Sticks is wild. Most nights it’s a free-for-all.”

Mindy’s heart sank. “Are you saying I’m not any fun?” Celina wouldn’t be the first one of her friends to imply she didn’t know how to have a good time. Being her sister’s keeper had left little time for a social life. The added responsibility had cost Mindy a lot of friendships over the years.

There were times, though—in the dead of night—that Mindy wondered if her sacrifice had been worth it. Wondered what would’ve happened if, just once, she had shrugged off her responsibilities and kicked up her heels.

Celina’s brown eyes widened. “I didn’t say you weren’t fun,” she insisted.

“No, you implied it.” Mindy frowned as childhood taunts of “Monotonous Mindy” echoed in her head. She wasn’t monotonous. Not anymore. She could have fun. There was no one to hold her back now. Tears unexpectedly made her eyes burn. She blinked them away before Celina noticed.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings,” Celina said. “It’s just that Sticks isn’t your typical bar. It’s really rowdy. Fights are common. Most of the guys that go there are...different. You’re used to hipsters, not the kind of chest-beating, blue-collar he-men that frequent Sticks.”

Mindy glowered. “I like he-men. I just haven’t met many in real life.” Try never.

She wasn’t lying about being attracted to those types of guys. Or anytype of guy, for that matter. It had been a long time since Mindy had dated. Her dry spell now resembled the Mohave. She was willing to try anything at this point.

“And I enjoy going to wild places on occasion,” she said.

Celina snorted. “Name one wild place you’ve gone to. Seriously, just one. Before you answer, I want the dates, too, because I can’t remember the last time you went to a rowdy bar,” she said. “For as long as I’ve known you, you’ve planned your ‘impulsive’ moments.”

“That’s not true.”

“Yes, it is,” Celina said.

Heat spread up Mindy’s neck and into her face. She took her eyes off the road. “Perhaps if you’d invited me to go along with you just once, we wouldn’t be having this argument.” Her voice cracked.

Celina patted her arm. “I told you that Izzy didn’t want me to. She made me promise.”

“Well, Izzy isn’t here anymore. This isn’t about her. This is mylife we’re talking about, not my sister’s,” Mindy grumbled.

Maybe Celina and Izzy were right. Maybe she wasn’t any fun. Maybe her sister had inherited all the fun genes in the family. That would explain why Celina always took her other friends to Sticks and left her at home.

Celina glanced out the windshield and slammed her hands against the dashboard. “Mindy, look out!”

CHAPTER TWO

 

They were going to die! And it was all because she didn’t get invited to a bar. The black mass lying halfway in her lane grew larger and larger as she bore down upon it.

Mindy screamed and jerked the wheel to the right, missing the object by inches. Her tires screeched and her heart did its best to crack her ribs. She hit the brakes and the car skidded dangerously before coming to a stop in the center of the road.

She pressed a hand to her chest and looked in her rearview mirror to make sure no one was behind them. Darkness met her.

“What was that?” Mindy asked. She hadn’t gotten a good look at it. She’d been too busy trying not to hit it.

“Not sure. A bear, maybe?” Celina slowly released the dash. “That was close.” She looked over her shoulder. “Turn around so your headlights illuminate it. I want to get another look at it.”

With shaky hands, Mindy managed a three-point turn. The massive animal came into view. “I think you’re right about it being a bear.” Nothing else outside the zoo could be that large. She couldn’t see the beast’s face, but its crumpled body was almost as tall as the hood of her compact car.

“No, it’s the wrong shape.” Celina squinted. “We need to get more light on it.”

Mindy hit her high beams, illuminating the road and more of the animal.

They both gasped.

Whatever it was, it was massive. Really massive. “It has to be a bear. A grizzly from the size of it. There’s nothing else in the wild around here that big,” Mindy said.

“Buffalos are,” Celina said.

“That isn’t a buffalo,” Mindy said.

“I know,” Celina said. “Only one way to find out for sure.”

Mindy squinted at the animal through her bug-stained windshield. “Do you think it’s dead? It looks dead.” 

“Yeah,” Celina said. “I think it’s dead. We need to get it off the road.”

Mindy glanced at her. “Have you been lifting weights without telling me? There’s no way we’re going to be able to move it, unless we cut it up.”

Celina scrunched her nose. “Ew! I’m not cutting anything up. If need be, we’ll hook your tow chain around it and pull it off the road. If we leave it there, someone’s going to hit it and total their car.”

“Looks like it’s already been hit.” Mindy checked the deserted road to see if there was a car lying in the ditch. “I don’t see any wreckage.” She also didn’t spot any broken glass. “Maybe someone shot it.”

Celina paled. “Let’s hope not,” she said. “That wouldn’t be good for anyone involved.”

It might not be good, but it was common for the area. Mindy pulled over to the side of the road and parked. She flipped on her hazards and kept her headlights trained on the animal.

Celina unbuckled her seatbelt and climbed out of the car. Mindy walked to her trunk and popped it open, then grabbed two pairs of latex gloves. She pulled a pair on, then handed the other set to Celina.

“I don’t see a lot of blood.” Celina moved closer to examine the animal. “Holy crap! It’s still breathing.”

The news startled Mindy. She’d thought for sure the animal was dead. “Get away from it,” she said. “It might attack out of fear and pain.”

Celina glowered at her. “I’ve been working at the animal clinic longer than you have. I may not be a veterinary student, but I know what I’m doing.”

Mindy sighed. “I didn’t mean anything by it. I just don’t want you to get hurt.”

School was a sore subject for Celina. She’d had to go to work to help support her parents and had never managed to finish high school. After they died, she’d eventually gotten her GED, but the achievement had done little to ease her insecurities.

Mindy had encouraged her to continue her education, but Celina had balked. She’d claimed that if Izzy didn’t need a degree, then neither did she.

As excuses went, it was pretty sad. But not nearly as sad as the real reason Celina had no interest in going back to school.

The real reason she hadn’t bothered to better her life was because Celina was waiting for a knight in shining armor to come and sweep her off her feet. It was a fantasy she clung to and it was just as real to her as monsters were to Izzy. Celina wanted that knight more than anything and wouldn’t settle for less.

Years of looking after Izzy had taught Mindy that you couldn’t change someone, especially once they’d made up their minds.

“I’m going to move in closer to see if it has any other obvious injuries,” Celina said.

“Are you sure it’s alive?” Mindy couldn’t see any movement. Maybe what Celina had witnessed was the body settling after death.

“I just saw its chest rise again,” Celina said. “I’m pretty sure that means it’s alive.”

Mindy took a deep breath. She wanted to point out that she was the one with the medical training, but didn’t want to upset Celina any more than she already had. “Is it a bear?”

“No,” Celina said. “It’s canine.”

“That’s not possible,” Mindy said. “It’s too large.”

Celina tore her gaze away. “Pretty sure the animal in the road is definitive proof that you’re wrong.”

Mindy ignored her sarcasm. “I don’t have the instruments or equipment with me to tend its wounds and I don’t have pain meds to ease its suffering.”

“I know,” Celina said. “Help me get it into the car.”

Mindy glanced at the animal and then at her compact car. “There’s no way it’s going to fit,” she said.

“It’ll fit.” Celina sounded so confident.

Too bad Mindy didn’t feel the same. She hesitated.

“If we can get it to the clinic, then Dr. Fields might be able to save it or at least make sure it doesn’t suffer more,” Celina said.

Her friend was determined to save the animal. Mindy appreciated her tenacity, but found it odd since Celina had always kept her distance from all the animals that were brought into the clinic.

Up until tonight, Mindy was the only one who’d regularly rallied to save the animal kingdom. Maybe her passion was finally rubbing off on Celina.

Mindy approached cautiously. The animal was larger up close. Celina had to be wrong about the species. A quick cursory examination proved otherwise. What kind of canine grew to this size?

“Celina, I really don’t think he’s going to fit.”

“He’ll fit. Trust me.”

She didn’t think so, but Celina was right—they couldn’t leave the creature here for someone to hit. Who knows how long it had been suffering. Mindy couldn’t bear to see any animal injured and in pain.

“I’ll move the seats forward.” Celina raced to the car and adjusted the seats.

Mindy stared at the animal. She’d never seen anything quite like it. Its head was wide, wider than a typical canine, and it had a mouthful of sharp teeth. Sable fur covered its broad body. She glanced at its paws. They were canine in shape, but its claws looked like something more suited for a grizzly bear.

“I’m embarrassed to admit this, but I can’t identify this animal.” Mindy hadn’t grown up in the area, so she wasn’t familiar with every species, but thanks to school she had a pretty good grasp of the natural habitats of predators. “It sort of looks like a wolf, but it’s too big and its head isn’t the right shape.”

The biggest wolf Mindy had ever seen had weighed 175 pounds. This one was much larger.

“Have you ever seen anything like it?” she asked.

Celina’s gaze skittered away. “You grab the back end, I’ll lift its head.”

Mindy watched in horror as Celina whispered something in the creature’s ear. The animal shuddered.

“Seriously, be careful,” Mindy said. “I know you’re trying to soothe it, but an injured animal this size can do a lot of damage.” She glanced at her car. “I wish I would’ve thought to carry a muzzle.”

“I doubt it would fit, even if you had brought one,” Celina said.

Mindy glanced at the creature’s mouth. No, she thought. Probably not.

After thirty minutes of grunting, dragging, and shoving, they got the injured canine in the backseat of Mindy’s car. Surprisingly, it fit, when everything about its body said it shouldn’t have. Maybe its size was deceptive due to the thick fur? At one point, Mindy could’ve sworn the animal was helping them, but it was just wishful thinking on her part.

Celina’s knees touched the dash and the cold pizza box was crushed to her chest, as Mindy raced to the animal clinic in Breakbend, Oregon. Fifteen minutes outside of town, she dug her phone out of her purse and tossed it to Celina.

“Call Dr. Fields and tell him we’re on our way,” she said.

Celina punched in the number. “You know he’s going to ask you to assist,” she said.

Mindy glanced at her, afraid to take her eyes off the road for long at this speed. “Of course, that’s my job. It’s what I’m training to do.”

Breakbend’s lights twinkled in the darkness, illuminating the western facades covering the businesses on the main drag.

Mindy slowed when they came into town, but they still reached the clinic in record time. Celina pried herself out of the car and tossed the pizza onto her vacated seat. She was digging for the keys to the front door when Dr. Fields showed up.

“What do we have, Mindy?” he asked.

“Canine of some kind,” she said. “Looks like it’s been hit by a car, but it could’ve been shot. I haven’t located any entrance or exit wounds, but won’t know for sure until it’s been X-rayed. We found him lying on the side of the road. We got out to move it and discovered he was still alive.”

Dr. Fields poked his head into the car to take a look. His brow slowly furrowed. “Not a lot of visible blood, but no doubt there are internal injuries. Where did you say you were when you found it?”

“Off the highway. On the back road between Breakbend and Carson, not far from Telegraph Road. We were headed to my house.”

“I’m surprised it fit in the car,” he said.

“You and me both,” Mindy said.

Celina came out of the clinic with a gurney.

“Help me get it on the table,” Dr. Fields said. “Be careful. We don’t want to do more damage.”

Once again Celina and Mindy grabbed a section of the canine and lifted, then helped the doctor wheel it into the operating room.

After a quick set of X-rays ruled out a gunshot wound, Mindy pulled scrubs on over her clothes and administered the anesthetic under the vet’s supervision.

“He’s under,” she said, monitoring its vitals, before making sure the animal received enough oxygen.

The doctor’s frown deepened as he analyzed the X-rays for other injuries. “That’s odd. Only one bone appears to be broken. Given its lethargic state, I expected the damage to be much worse.”

“That’s good, right?” Mindy asked.

“No, that means it’s in shock. That can kill it just as effectively as an untreated injury. I’ll have to open him up to be sure we’re not missing anything vital.”

Dr. Fields made the incision, then carefully repaired a couple of minor tears on one of the organs. After a thorough search to make sure he hadn’t missed any other trauma, he closed the animal up and aligned the bone, then put a cast on the leg.

“Is he going to be okay?” Mindy asked.

“He should be, but I simply cannot explain his condition. With these minor injuries, the animal should’ve been up and moving around,” he said, his expression troubled. “Albeit slowly.”

“Do you know what it is?” Mindy asked.

“A mystery,” he said.

“I mean, do you know what kind of animal it is?” she asked.

He pulled his bloody gloves off and tossed them into the HAZMAT container. “I’m not entirely certain,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything quite like him, especially in the lupine family. It’s almost as if someone bred a Russian wolf with a Caucasian Mountain dog, which would be hard to do without the wolf trying to kill the dog. But then again, those dogs are tough.”

“I’m not familiar with that breed,” Mindy said.

“It’s also known as the Russian Bear dog for obvious reasons. The males can grow to be over two hundred pounds. They make perfect guard dogs.”

“I can see why. I wouldn’t want to take one on,” Mindy said. “But this isn’t Russia.”

“No, but people have all kinds of exotic pets that they shouldn’t own,” he said. “I’ve pulled some of its blood for a DNA check. We’ll know more once we get the results. In the meantime, let’s get him into recovery. I think we have one cage big enough in the back.”

“If he fit in my backseat, we can get him into the bear cage,” Mindy said.

Celina watched through the small window in the door as Mindy and Dr. Fields wheeled the massive wolf toward the back room. She’d been eavesdropping on their conversation, so she’d heard the doctor order the DNA test.

She couldn’t let them see the results when they came in. Celina had to get to them first, so she could switch them out with another canine. Since she received all the paperwork and documentation coming into the office, it should be simple enough to do.

The doctor and Mindy were baffled by the unique discovery, but Celina wasn’t. She’d immediately identified the creature they’d found on the side of the road.

Sure, the animal looked a little different from the others. Less wolf, more monster, perhaps. Celina hadn’t recognized it immediately, but once she’d gotten closer, she’d known.

She peered at it one last time before it disappeared into the recovery room. Its body was bigger and its head a few inches wider than the others of its kind. Its teeth looked longer and sharper, too. The only really surprising thing about the whole situation was that the animal was injured at all.

Celina had seen them in their other form many times. Watched them fight until they were bloody and almost unrecognizable. Each and every time they’d risen like nothing had happened. She’d always assumed they were invincible or close to it. The news that they weren’t came as a relief.

No, there was no mistaking the massive animal lying on the table, but Celina couldn’t exactly go in and tell them that they’d found a werewolf. A real, honest-to-goodness werewolf.

A thrill shot through her and Celina clasped her hands together. Today was her lucky day. She had prayed for an opportunity like this. Hoped it would occur. But deep down, never thought it would happen. Yet here it was laid out in front of her like a gift from above. It was a sign. The sign she’d been waiting for.

Izzy’s warning floated in her head. If you don’t stay away from the monsters, they’re going to end up killing you.

Her best friend was wrong. Unlike Izzy, Celina wasn’t afraid of these creatures. She understood them. They weren’t all that different from humans. There were both good and bad ones. It was a distinction Izzy rarely made. She loved her best friend, but Celina wasn’t about to pass up this chance.

It was the perfect opportunity to spend more than a single night with one of the Moonlight Kin. Be more than a chew toy that they nibbled on, rutted in, then passed around for others to sample.

Contrary to what those Weresbelieved, Celina wasn’t anyone’s plaything.

She tugged her shirt down to cover the scratches she’d received last week from her date. Marco had been a particularly energetic lover, but like the others, he hadn’t bothered to call her after she’d gotten him off.

Celina had really thought that he liked her, until she saw him around town with another woman. Their eyes met, but Marco hadn’t acknowledged her. She’d thought about confronting him, but Weres never responded well to aggression. Celina wouldn’t have to worry about Marco after tonight.

A plan formulated in her head as she waited for Mindy to finish up. She’d nurse this one back to health and imprint her scent on it. All Celina needed to do was prove to the Were that she could care for it, make the creature feel indebted to her, then she would get him to claim her as his mate.

Mindy helped Dr. Fields get the animal into the cage. She stroked its head and cooed softly to it, to reassure the canine that it was safe.

“It won’t wake up for a while,” Dr. Fields said.

“I know,” she said. “I just like to believe that it can hear me and knows that we’re taking care of it.”

He gave her a tired smile. “You have a good heart, Mindy, but I do worry about this job being too hard on you.”

“I’m tougher than I look,” Mindy said. A tongue brushed against the back of her hand. “He licked me.”

Dr. Fields looked in the cage. “He couldn’t have. He’s still asleep and will be for a few more hours. You probably just brushed against his mouth.”

Mindy frowned and looked at the snoring canine. She knew the difference between a lick and a brush. It had definitely been a lick. But since that type of thing wasn’t worth arguing over, she let it go.

“I’m going to head home now.”

Dr. Fields yawned. “Me too. See you in the afternoon.”

Mindy glanced at her watch and winced. She was going to be a zombie in class tomorrow if she didn’t get some sleep. The Ryans would have to wait for another girls’ night. She looked at the animal and gave him one last pet, then turned off the lights.

“Goodnight, puppy,” she murmured and left the room.

Mindy didn’t see the black wolf raise its head. She didn’t see its eyes begin to glow. She didn’t see it lick its lips so it could taste her skin again. And she didn’t hear it sniff the air, locking in her scent, so it would be able to find her again.

CHAPTER THREE

 

Gravel crunched under Nic La Croix’s truck tires as he turned onto the long driveway. Trees and dense underbrush lined the road, leading him deeper into the woods. He ran his hand through his shaggy hair and the tension in his muscles released as wilderness surrounded him.

Nic didn’t have long to enjoy the feeling. The tightness came right back as a steady thump, thump, thump reached his ears. So much for convening with nature. After a quarter-mile, the trees parted to reveal a crude gravel parking lot.

On the far side of the lot, a large wooden structure squatted like a toad against the tree-line. The roof slanted to the left and looked to be under imminent threat of collapse. Chipped red paint covered the front of the building, while ignoring the sides. The splash of color did little to disguise the building’s deteriorated condition. 

A flashing pink neon sign hung above the entrance to the bar. The first “T” and the last “S” of its name were burned out. Instead of spelling “Sticks”, the sign now read “Sick.”

The new name is more fitting for the shifter bar, Nic thought.

He stared at the crowded lot, debating whether to leave. The only parking spots left bordered the trees and were nowhere near the entrance. Not that it was a problem. The position would make it easier to get out when the time came. Nic looked at his watch. Not yet six o'clock and already packed. It would only get worse.

After a hard day’s work, he wanted a beer, but Nic wasn’t sure fighting the crowd would be worth it this close to the full moon. He glanced up at the sky. The sun hadn’t set yet and the moon was already rising. Its pregnant appearance made all wolves anxious, but was especially difficult for the younger ones, who thought they had something to prove.

Restlessness snaked its way through Nic’s body, leaving him edgy. The feeling was happening more and more lately, but had nothing to do with the moon and everything to do with not being bondmated.

Nic listened to the steady beat of the music and heard a crowd roar. The sound quickly morphed into howls. Blood simmered in his veins as he fought the urge to join in.

It had been two months since he’d moved off Aidan Fortier’s estate and away from the pack. Two months since he'd sworn off fickle human females.

He’d always fallen too hard and too fast for his own good. It had gotten him hurt on more than one occasion, but this time had been the worst because he’d fallen for his Alpha’s mate.

Nic couldn't bear to be around Aidan’s mate, Jenna Dane, feeling the way he felt about her. Every day he watched her belly ripen with Aidan’s child, and he couldn’t help thinking what if...

It didn’t matter that it was the man in him that wanted her, not the wolf. Pain was pain.

Next month Jenna would give birth, thanks to shifters’ short gestation periods. Pregnancy wouldn’t be possible if she wasn’t truly Aidan’s bondmate, but seeing her expectant, glowing, and happy only compounded his loneliness.

Maybe someday he’d get used to sleeping alone, but Nic had his doubts.

Once a pack animal, always a pack animal.

Being homesick for his pack was why he found himself at Sticks and not home at the little house he’d rented outside of town. The desire for a beer and to be around his own kind was a temptation he couldn’t resist. Nic drove to the tree line and threw the truck into park, then climbed out. One beer, then he'd leave. Okay, maybe one and a half. It would take a lot more than that to impair a Were.

The music pumped hard, vibrating his chest as he strode toward the bar. There wasn't a cover charge for shifters, only humans. Not that many humans came out to this place or even knew about it. And the ones that did, knew the score going in.

Weres had groupies, just like rock bands. Their animalistic, insatiable nature drew them from hundreds of miles away. The humans who partied at Sticks came here for one reason and one reason only—to hook up with a shifter.

Nic wasn't looking for company, and he certainly wasn’t looking for a fight, but he did want a beer. A nice cold one. For that, he’d put up with the loud music and the boisterous crowd.

“Hey, Derek,” Nic said. “How’s it going?”

The burly doorman grinned, flashing long canines. “Different day, same shit.”

“I hear you. Lucien Bellard working tonight?” Nic asked.

His best friend bartended most nights, but he did get off work on occasion. When that happened, he didn’t show up here. He took off for the mountains.

“Yep, he’s behind the bar, keeping a close eye on the pups,” Derek said. “A bunch of them came in earlier itching to test their claws. Remember when you were that young?”

Nic laughed. “Hell no! I was never that young.”

Derek chuckled. “Me neither.”

It was common for young Weres to come to Sticks. The place allowed them to blow off steam and test their skills. Pack life was all about hierarchy. Young wolves were constantly looking for ways to better their positions. Nic didn’t have to worry about that anymore. He’d earned his spot in Aidan’s west coast pack through blood, brains, and brute strength.

Nic leaned forward and waited for Derek to sniff him. It didn’t matter who or what you were, everyone got sniffed on their way into Sticks. It was a surefire way to keep out the troublemakers and to identify the humans. If you weren’t pack, you got your hand stamped with a wolf paw. It was an inside joke that only regulars recognized.

“You’re good to go.” Derek hiked his thumb over his shoulder. “You came on the right night. The band’s supposed to be good tonight.”

“Probably won’t stay that long,” Nic said. “Just here for a beer.”

The bouncer shrugged, then gave him a look that said “suit yourself.”

The inside of the bar was even more crowded than the parking lot. Most of the worn tables were already occupied, and the only stool available sat at the end of the long, polished oak bar. Weres lined the bar three deep. They kicked up sawdust beneath their feet as they waited to get served.

Nic made his way to the end of the bar and scanned the crowd. He didn't think many from Aidan’s compound would be there, but it didn't hurt to check. He wouldn’t mind shooting the breeze with a familiar face.

A dark head popped up above the crowd. Lucien waved to him, his green eyes glittering mischievously. 

Nic nodded in acknowledgment. It had been a while since he and Lucien had had a chance to catch up, but it didn’t look like that would change tonight.

Two pups knocked younger Weres aside as they pushed their way to the front of the crowd. Nic didn’t recognize them, which didn’t mean much since the west coast Moonlight Kin were spread out over several states, but he did recognize the type.

Impatience oozed from their pores. Some pups naturally fell into their pack position. Others fought for purchase. These two fell into the latter camp. Their stance screamed aggression. In a shifter bar, that was a good way to get your ass kicked.

Nic watched dispassionately as they stopped at the bar and waved money in front of Lucien’s face. I wouldn’t do that if I were you,he thought. His best friend didn’t have a lot of patience for assholes.

Lucien’s lip curled and a growl rumbled out of his wide chest. The Celtic tattoos that started at his neck and encased both arms rippled as he tensed. Smart pups took a step back to give Lucien space. The two with the money in their hands didn’t move.

Some pups just had to learn the hard way.

A claw came out and speared the money, yanking the bills from the closest pup’s hand. Lucien tossed the money into a tip jar, then yelled, “Next!”

The startled pup opened his mouth to complain, but must’ve got a look at Lucien’s expression and changed his mind.

Nic sighed. He wasn’t in the mood to put up with this kind of crap tonight. He turned to leave, but before he could go, a beer slid down the bar and stopped in front of him.

He looked over in time to see Lucien grin, then his friend went back to filling orders. The two pups who’d been flashing money glared at him. Nic raised his pint glass in salute, then took a deep swig. The cold, crisp flavor of hops and barley exploded on his tongue. He leaned his back against the edge of the bar and scanned the crowd.

Several groupies had already snagged a table near the front, close to the band. The location put them in the position to be seen by everyone, which Nic supposed was the point.

The band was still setting up their equipment. He couldn’t tell if they were human or not. He spotted a few wolf paw stamps in the crowd, but not many. Nic made a mental note to avoid them and went back to enjoying his beer.

A few minutes later there was a knock on the bar. Nic turned to find Lucien smiling at him.

“You look miserable as ever,” Nic said.

His friend had a perpetual smile on his face and took delight in the little things, especially if those things came in the form of aggravating a friend. But there was more to Lucien than that. Every once in a while the mask would slip and Nic would glimpse the darkness he kept hidden from the world.

Nic had never asked what caused the shadows. He figured if Lucien wanted to let him know, he would. Until then, he’d be there whenever his friend needed him and would continue to keep up pretenses.

“You’re the one lurking at the end of the bar, my friend. How do you expect to meet anyone with that sour expression on your face?” Lucien asked.

“I don’t,” Nic said. “I’m just here for the beer and your stellar company.”

Lucien laughed. “Then you’re in luck, because tonight I am in rare form.”

“I can see that.” Nic indicated to the pups jockeying for position.

Lucien followed his gaze, and his green eyes glittered with deadly intent. “The problems they present can be easily solved with a quick trip around back.”

“Is that what you plan to do later?” Nic asked, eyeing his friend.

“Ah, mon ami, I’m a lover, not a fighter. You know that.” Lucien winked.

Nic snorted. Lucien was definitely a lover. He lovedwomen. Nic had seen him with an endless string of ladies. One look from the dark-haired, green-eyed Frenchman and women fell to their knees. None of them stayed long, and that suited Lucien just fine. In that respect, they were polar opposites. Nic wanted nothing more than to have a mate to go home to at the end of the day.

As for not being a fighter, there was no way in hell his friend could ever convince him that was the case. The darkness in his green gaze was no illusion. He hadn’t come by it from anything other than pain.

“What do you have to do to get a drink around here?” someone shouted.

The muscles in Lucien’s arms flexed and his hands tightened on the bar. Lucien’s nails lengthened, burrowing into the grainy fibers. Nic heard the wood groan under the pressure.

“You’d better get going, Lover Boy, before the crowd turns on you,” Nic said.

Lucien glanced at him. “It wouldn’t be the first time.” His smile returned, but with a touch of melancholy. “Au revoir, mon ami.”

* * * * *

Mindy stared at the lights in the distance and debated whether to turn her car around. Coming here had seemed like a good idea.

She’d told Celina that she knew how to have fun. It still irked her that Izzy had made Celina promise never to bring her here. Despite her irritation with the women, it had still taken Mindy two weeks to work up the courage to come.

Not that it mattered anymore. Izzy was gone and Celina no longer cared what Mindy did. She was too preoccupied with her new boyfriend, Slade. They’d been dating for a little over a week, which was positively long term for Celina. Every time Mindy saw them together, which wasn’t often, they appeared to be joined at the tongue.

She was genuinely happy that Celina had finally found a steady guy, who liked her for who she was, but it also drove home the fact that Mindy went home to an empty house every night. 

Mindy stared out the window. The only parking spaces left were by the woods far away from the entrance. Not the safest of locations. She should just go. This was insane.

No one in their right mind went to a bar alone, especially a woman. Wasn’t she always telling Celina that? Yet here she sat outside of Sticks, considering whether to go inside.

Mindy tried to remember the last time she’d hit the bars. Between college classes and work, there hadn’t been a lot of time to socialize.

If her calculations were correct—and they were—then it had been a year since she’d painted the town red. Okay, mauve. With her sister gone, she couldn’t use Izzy as an excuse for not having a social life anymore. The music thumped and her body automatically swayed in her seat.

Just one dance, a little voice in her head whispered. One dance won’t hurt anyone.

Neither Celina nor Izzy would ever know that she’d been there. Especially if she didn’t stay long.

The music called out to her with its siren song. Mindy wanted to be the fun person she used to be before everything changed. She wanted to experience that kind of freedom again, if only for one night. Was that so much to ask?

She parked her car and climbed out. Gravel crunched under her shoes. Mindy glanced at her vintage pumps. They weren’t made for traversing rock, but she saw no other way to get to the bar, unless she suddenly sprouted wings. Mindy apologized to her favorite pair of shoes, then toddled to the entrance.

Her footsteps faltered when she caught sight of the man checking IDs at the door. Barrel chested with arms the size of telephone poles, the man wore faded blue jeans and a ripped T-shirt that had some kind of biker emblem on it that she didn’t recognize.

When his gaze landed on her, his light green eyes appeared to glow in the dark. The illusion only lasted a moment, but it was long enough for Mindy. Stories of monsters flooded her mind. She wanted to turn tail and run, but she wasn’t dressed for sprinting. Mindy’s knees locked in place.

How many years had she put her own wishes aside to cater to her sister’s whims? How many lies had she told on her behalf? Mindy couldn’t allow Izzy’s dark fantasies to prevent her from living her life. Not anymore.

Instead of running, she forced herself to focus on her clothes. Mindy tugged at the skirt of her vintage red dress, though it already dropped below her knees. The nice outfit usually made her feel pretty and confident. But right now she’d willingly trade the dress and her favorite shoes for a comfy pair of jeans.

The doorman came out of the shadowed entryway and slowly approached.

Mindy quaked in her pumps and craned her neck to look at him.

“You lost?” he asked.

It took her a moment to find her voice. “N-n-no. A friend told me about this place. She thought I-I-I’d like it.”

One dark brow rose as he stared at her clothing. He didn’t believe her. “What exactly did your friend tell you?”

Mindy’s confidence wavered. Sweat laced her palms. She rubbed her hands along her skirt and swallowed hard. “Just that Sticks was a fun place.” Her voice cracked.

He stared for a moment more, then shrugged. “Let me see your ID.”

Mindy retrieved her license from her purse. Her fingers shook as she handed it to him. He sniffed, then returned her ID. The man settled back onto his stool and took out a stamp.

“How much is the cover charge?” she asked.

“Hold out your hand,” he said.

She did as he asked.

He stamped a glowing wolf paw beneath her knuckles. “Have fun.” The cheerful sentiment was ruined by his anxious expression.

“Thank you.” Mindy put her license in her purse and stepped through the door. Her legs quivered when she saw the worn tables scattered around the room and sawdust on the floor. On the other side of the dance floor, a band was setting up their equipment.

Mindy tugged at her skirt again and waited for someone to greet her. After a minute, it was obvious no one was coming to show her to a table.

The music was louder now. It pumped out of the speakers, occupying the crowd until the live band started. The beat called to her, trying to lure her to the dance floor. 

Mindy glanced around the bar. The place was packed and exactlylike Celina described it. There were at least ten men for every woman in the bar, and most were exceedingly good-looking, especially the dark-haired, tattooed Adonis behind the bar. He was so gorgeous that he bordered on being pretty.

He smiled at Mindy and her knees went weak. She’d never be able to handle a man like him. Not in her wildest dreams, but flirting with the bartender never hurt.

She took a step forward and several heads turned in her direction. Mindy looked behind her, but there was no one there. The men sniffed in unison. She resisted the urge to do the same. She’d showered after work and put on a little perfume, but not too much. Or at least she’d thought so until she came in here.

Two guys broke away from the pack. Mindy giggled nervously at the metaphor, though it was fitting given the large group. They quickly approached her.

“Hello,” the brown-haired one said. “My name’s Marco. Marco Faretti. This here is Emmett.”

“Hi. I’m Mindy.” Every eye in the place was focused on them.

“You look like you could use a drink,” Marco said.

Her hands trembled as she smoothed her dress. “Yes, I could.” Mindy let them drag her to the bar. She had no intention of staying there long. Not with the music calling to her.

They passed a man with sandy brown hair and haunting dark blue eyes that she hadn’t noticed when she’d first walked in. Though how she could’ve missed him was a mystery. He leaned against the bar casually watching everyone around him, including her.

Like the doorman and bartender, the man was big and unusually tall. His rugged good looks were understated, but striking.

The man smiled at her. The act transformed his face and stole the breath from her lungs. Marco and Emmett faded away, along with the rest of the bar. Mindy smiled back, hoping her nerves didn’t show.

Outwardly the man appeared to be having a good time, but Mindy recognized lonely when she saw it. After all, it stared back at her every time she looked in the mirror.

His gaze stole across her, leaving heat in its wake.

Mindy’s heart raced. It had been a long time since she’d experienced that kind of attraction to a man.

Emmett put his arm around her.

The move shocked Mindy, breaking the spell between them. She casually shifted until his arm dropped. Maybe he wouldn’t notice.

Undeterred, Emmett did it again.

This time Mindy looked at him before lifting his hand and removing his arm from around her shoulders. She didn’t want the man at the end of the bar to get the wrong impression, and she didn’t want to encourage Emmett.

Just because he and Marco had approached her first didn’t mean that they had dibs on her. No one had dibs on her. Mindy wanted to make that clear upfront. She was grateful that they’d been so nice, but her gratitude only went so far.

The man at the end of the bar continued to watch her. Without warning, he suddenly came to his feet and rounded the bar. His gaze never wavered as he made his way toward her.

Mindy took a deep breath to calm her nerves. In her mind, she ran through a dozen ways of how to say hello. Before she could put any of them into practice, his footsteps faltered and he stopped. His disarming smile slowly faded and he returned to his spot at the end of the bar.

What just happened? Had I inadvertently done something? Had Emmett’s clumsy attempt to hit on me dissuaded the man?

The disappointment swirling inside surprised Mindy. She glanced at her clothes and wished once more that she’d worn something casual. This wouldn’t have happened to Celina or Isabel. They both had the ability to wrap men around their fingers.

Game playing of any kind gave Mindy hives. She’d always been a “what you see is what you get” kind of girl, and she’d been okay with that until tonight. Now Mindy wished just once that she were someone different. The kind of woman that the man at the end of the bar wouldn’t be able to resist. The kind of woman who was brave enough to approach him without throwing up on his shoes.

If only I were that kind of woman... Mindy sighed.

The music changed to a more up-tempo beat. Mindy slipped away from Marco and Emmett, away from the man at the end of the bar, and away from her troubles.

She strolled out onto the dance floor, where a few other girls were already dancing. Mindy allowed the music to seep inside her, until she could feel every note pulsing in her bones. Her body swayed gently at first, then found the rhythm.

When was the last time she felt this free?

Mindy couldn’t remember. Didn’t care. She let the music wash over her and move her body. Her hips swayed and she ran her hands down her sides as she rocked to the beat.

Nic couldn’t tear his gaze away from the woman in red as she swayed provocatively on the dance floor. That vintage dress she wore accentuated her voluptuous curves and fair skin, making her appear luminous in the low lighting. Her fluid movements hinted at the passion she kept buttoned up behind that high collar.

She looked young—innocent, but he’d never been good at guessing anyone’s true age. The woman rolled her hips and ran her hands over her body.

Drool formed in his mouth. Nic had to swallow hard to keep from embarrassing himself. Every muscle in his body tightened and his skin burned. He reminded himself again that this woman was human and not one of the Kin.

Nic watched her dance until the song ended. He was awash with disappointment when she slowly strolled back to the bar, back to the pups who’d been nipping at her cute kitten heels.

Mindy made her way back to the bar and ordered a wine spritzer.

“Nice dance,” the striking bartender said, then grinned.

“Thanks,” she said, but Mindy hadn’t danced for him or anyone else. That dance had been for her.

The bartender quickly made her drink, then placed the cocktail in front of her. “If you need anything else, just ask for Lucien,” he said.

She smiled and gave him a quick nod.

A moment later, Lucien added five more drinks to go with the first.

“I didn’t order these,” she said.

He looked at her, his green eyes mesmerizing. “I know, jolie femme. They did.” Lucien indicated to the men behind her.

“Oh.” Mindy reached into her purse for her money.

Lucien stopped her with a light touch to her hand. “It’s already covered.”

A growl came from the end of the bar. Mindy turned to see who’d made the odd noise, and so did everyone else at the bar. The sandy-haired man she’d been attracted to earlier was staring at the bartender’s hand with a mutinous expression on his face.

“Well now, that is interesting,” the bartender said, slowly removing his hand from hers.

“Did he just growl?” Mindy asked. She couldn’t have heard him correctly. People didn’t growl.

The bartender blinked. It was the only indication she got that let her know that she’d surprised him with the question.

“I mean no offense when I say this,” Lucien said. “But I think perhaps you’re in the wrong establishment.”

Mindy thought the same thing, but stubbornness kept her rooted in place. Isabel wasn’t the only one in her family capable of having a good time. She was determined to prove to her sister, to Celina, and to herself that some part of the “real” Mindy still existed. All she needed was the chance.

“I wish people would stop saying that,” she murmured.

Why did everyone think they knew what was best for me?She wasn’t a child. She was twenty-five years old.

With a grim expression on his lovely face, he gave her a slight bow. “As you wish.”

Nic watched the woman order a drink. Sparks flew as she and Lucien spoke. The attraction between them was undeniable. Almost as strong as what they’d experienced before he discovered what she was. Lucien touched her lightly. Nic’s wolf grumbled before he could stop it.

Everyone turned to look at him with shocked expressions on their faces. Everyone but Lucien. His best friend was having a hard time keeping a straight face.

Lucien said something to the woman, then walked to the end of the bar where Nic stood. “It’s nice to know that there’s still some life in you, mon ami. I was beginning to wonder.” Speculation replaced some of his amusement.

“Funny,” Nic said. “What can you tell me about her?”

Why had he asked? He didn’t want to know her, didn’t want anything to do with her. He wasn’t looking to hook up with a human, even one as delectable as her.

Lucien cocked his hip against the bar. “Not much,” he said. “Just that she doesn’t belong here.”

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