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This was not how he'd envisioned the rest of his life. Not even close. But when the world slid sideways, Tyee Grayson abandoned what he'd always known and jumped into the dark, primal abyss of the unknown.
The abyss just happened to be located outside the small town of Sinclair, Washington. Through the dark red lenses of his night-vision goggles, he counted four of his trainees hunkered down between the compact huckleberry bushes and the fir trees' massive trunks.
He didn't need the NVGs. He could easily see the men's body warmth in the cool, misty night air, but it made training easier on the military recruits in his outdoor survival school program if they thought he was just like one of them.
Truth was, he anticipated that some of them would become just like him. New Werewolves he'd add to his pack of one. Hell, he had to start over somewhere, didn't he?
Nash was growing antsy, shifting his weight and looking around as though he was nervous. He would give away the red team's position if he didn't sit still. Ty whispered instructions into the mic strapped against his cheek. "Nash, stay low. Wait for Red Leader's signal."
The recruit gave a quick nod-maintaining silence just as he'd been taught. Good. Extra points for red team.
The other five members of Ty's training unit that formed the blue team were out in the dark, wet depths of the forest, closing in fast. Survival out here depended on each team staying sharp, using their wits and acting as a coordinated unit. There was no room for hotdogging in combat. You were either part of the team, or you went at it alone.
Alone sucked. Ty ought to know. A Were unwelcome in his pack and forced to go it alone only had so many choices. He could go stark raving mad and give the mortals a good reason to want him dead, he could isolate himself and die of loneliness or he could form a new pack.
He wasn't the solitary or lunatic type. In fact, he'd been groomed most of his life as the Beta, second in command, of the Wenatchee Were Pack beneath its old Alpha, Bracken, to one day become the pack's Alpha. But that was before the Cascade Clan vampires had interfered in their pack and changed everything. Damn bloodsuckers. If not for those vampires, he could have been the leader of an established, seasoned pack. Instead he was here, exiled, attempting to create a pack of his own.
Ty tapped his headset, changing channels. "Blue Leader, are you closing in on the target?"
"Good, execute tree flyer."
He stood back, watching the blue team shimmy up the trees, preparing to attack the red team from overhead. His outdoor survival school had been a stroke of genius. He could pick over the finest recruits the military bases around here had to offer, and make enough to set himself up on the outside fairly well.
Out of all the students in his first season of outdoor survival specialist training, Riley Brierly was the best candidate to become a member of his pack. The kid was smart, tough, knew how to follow orders and had been trained by the finest in U.S. military.
Mike Johnson was a close second, neck and neck with Collin Campbell. A wolfish smile curled Ty's mouth in the dark. Three cubs. A nice start to his Olympic Pack. Not bad, especially considering he didn't even have a mate.
At least there weren't any Were packs in the area. Ty suspected it was because the Cascade Vampire Clan was so close. The small town of Sinclair sat directly across the Puget Sound from downtown Seattle, an hour-long ferry ride away from vampire central. No Were in his right mind would want to live that close. But he had little choice. He had to take territory where he could, to form a family of his own. A lone Were wasn't going to be welcomed into an existing pack, like those that occupied the coast.
The blue team yelled as they dove out of the trees onto the startled red team. The men rolled about, throwing punches and kicking out at one another. Grunts and the smack of flesh against flesh resounded loudly in the night air.
The men stopped midmotion and turned toward Ty as he emerged soundlessly from the bushes. "Blue Leader. Extra points for your team for executing the overhead attack so well. Extra steak at dinner." The recruits elbowed one another in the ribs and grinned.
"Red Leader. What happened?"
"We didn't expect them to attack from above, sir."
Ty narrowed his eyes and pointed up at the trees. "Out here, danger is everywhere. Where you least expect it. What's rule number one of survival?"
"Know your surroundings, sir," they all said in monotone unity.
Ty nodded. "Good."
"Red team, you need to act as a team. Not a bunch of individuals working in the same group. You should have had one man assigned to watch above, in addition to your sides, back and front. Did you?"
"No, sir," the red team responded.
Ty stopped pacing and stood, pulling his NVGs off his head, then clasping his hands behind his back, his feet spread apart in a wide stance in the soft leaf litter. Moonlight filtered down from above, casting everything in the small clearing in stark relief. He made deliberate eye contact with each trainee as he spoke, letting his gaze linger a little longer on the members of the red team. "Unless you're a team, a pack, you've got nothing. You are nothing. You function as a unit, you live. You go out on your own in the wilderness, your chances of survival drop seventy-five percent."
The recruits stood at silent attention.
"Teams, pack your gear back to the barracks and prep for dinner. Red team, you're on KP duty. Brierly, Johnson and Campbell, remain. Teams dismissed."
The three recruits stayed behind and watched their classmates jog into the dark veil of the night. "You three did really well over this past week. Good enough that I think you deserve a little something extra. You've got passes for tonight to go into town."
"Yes!" Johnson gave a fist pump.
Campbell grinned at Brierly. "You're the hometown boy. What's a good bar in town?"
Brierly's mouth tipped up in a wicked grin. "You could hit the OON."
"Want to be more specific?"
Brierly shrugged. "That's its name, man. That or the Tavern. The neon sign used to say SALOON, but the neon has only three lit-up letters left. It's on the main drag. Sinclair isn't that big. You can't miss it. I'll show you how to get there."
Campbell turned and looked at Ty. "You coming with us?"
Ty shifted his weight. "Technically you aren't supposed to leave the school without an escort, so I suppose I could meet you there later."
Campbell's goofy grin got bigger. "They got hot chicks at this bar, Brierly?"
Brierly laughed. "Hard for me to know what you think's hot. It's not like I can read your thoughts."
"We find some hot chicks, you won't have to," Campbell shot back.
Ty crossed his arms. They were still so young. Too full of themselves to be of much use to a pack, but with some training they had promise. "Head back to the barracks, clean up and you can head out."
The three young men snatched up their gear and jogged off in the direction of the school camp base. Ty glanced around, making sure they were all gone and well out of sight before he shucked off his clothes into a neat pile, then crouched down, letting his fingers dig deep into the earth. He needed to burn off his excess energy before he went into town. He needed to hunt. Satisfying the wolf half of him now would lower the chances of him spontaneously shifting later.
With a wet pop and crunch, bone and muscle transformed. His skin tightened and grew hot as hair grew into a thick pelt. His fists turned into paws, his spine extended into a tail and his teeth elongated into lethal fangs. The shift took less than a minute, but in terms of strength and speed, it made all the difference. Ty loped off, disappearing into the night-dark trees.
Two hours later Ty eyed the door of the bar Brierly had suggested with skepticism.
The whole damn thing looked as though it was about a hundred years old and held up by baling wire and chewing gum. A sagging roof and chipped white paint faded to a pale gray didn't give him much hope inside would be any better. In fact, the only thing that convinced him to go in was the long row of expensive bikes parked out front. There was even an old Ford hot-rod truck, matte black with red, yellow and orange flames along the sides. To be this popular, the dive had to have something the locals liked.
A wail of guitar backed up by the pounding beat of rock drums and the stale smell of cheap beer drifted out into the evening air, beckoning him indoors. What the hell. He'd lost everything else. When you started at the bottom, there was nowhere to go but up.
He trudged up the step and pushed open the front door. A waft of heat and the scent of wood smoke from the black potbelly stove in the corner hit him full in the face. Inside was an assault on his keen Werewolf senses. The music, chatter, laughter and the smack of pool balls were too loud. He took a step toward the bar and heard a loud crunch. Ty glanced down at the tan husks of peanut shells littering the worn wooden planks of the floor. The greasy, hot smell of grilled hamburgers, the yeasty aroma of beer and the pungent mix of perfumes, body odors, cigarette smoke and bike exhaust fumes that swirled in the air were overwhelming to his preternaturally amplified sense of smell. It was hard to suck in a deep breath without getting light-headed.
He glanced around, looking for the three recruits. The old plank walls were covered in motorcycle posters sporting big-haired, tiny-bikini-clad women draped suggestively over shining chrome-and-leather machines. Old painted tin signs advertising everything from motor oil to soda pop added a rough appeal to the ambience of the place. There were a few booths, covered in cracked black vinyl, and a big-screen TV in the back was blaring out a football game.
This was definitely not his normal kind of place, but it did remind him a little of Joey's back in Te-anachee-a hometown hangout that the locals frequented. Ty scowled. It wasn't as if he'd ever see that place again, he thought as he settled onto a wooden bar stool. There was no sign of Brierly, Campbell or Johnson. So either they'd already been here, pounded back a few beers and left, or they hadn't made it down from camp yet.
The bartender, a heavyset bald man with a long beard in a sleeveless red plaid shirt that showed off his beefy arms, jerked his chin at Ty. The single diamond-stud earring in his lobe winked in the light. "What'll you have?"
"Beer." Ty didn't really care what kind. His ramped-up metabolism would burn off alcohol or anything else in his system in mere minutes. It wasn't as if he could get drunk. Which really sucked, because that was precisely what he wanted to do after a long week of working with green recruits. He shoved a twenty at the bartender, who returned with a clear plastic pitcher and cup and set both down in front of him. He slid forty more at the bartender. "Just keep it coming."
The bartender nodded, a look of understanding flitting through his eyes as he poured out the first glass. Ty took a drink, then snorted. The bartender might have seen a lot, but he didn't know a damn thing about Ty's problems.
Right now the plan was to lie low, drink and keep to himself. A great plan that went to hell in two-point-five seconds.
A sudden draft of air, laden with the musty odor of blood mixed with decay, tweaked his nose. Ty glanced at the front door. Three biker types walked in. The guy in front wore a black leather duster and the two men flanking him wore black leather jackets, making their pale complexions look waxen beneath the artificial lights. Vampires. The real deal.
Ty bristled. What the hell were they doing in Sinclair? While he knew he was on the edge of the Cascade Clan's territory, he sure didn't see why they'd bother coming to a rural town when there was far better hunting for them in downtown Seattle. A low growl vibrated deep in his throat. He couldn't seem to get the hell away from the leeches.
The scent of clean female flesh underscored by a hint of lilac, mint and a jarring note of antiseptic invaded his airspace as a woman sat down on the bar stool beside him.
Ty did his best to ignore her, but the grazing touch of a hand on his sleeve made him swivel.
"You planning on finishing that pitcher yourself?" Her voice was light and friendly, reminding him of a teasing summer breeze.
Ty prepared to fling back a glib answer, then glanced at her. Streaky honey-blond hair, a sweet bee-stung mouth and big blue eyes struck him with the impact of a sucker punch, turning him mute. All he could do was stare.
Her grin faltered. A pretty pink blush blossomed across her cheeks and down her throat, ending at the very enticing display of cleavage just above the edge of her pale blue angora sweater. "I'm sorry. I don't, well, I don't- Never mind."
She had a polish to her, something about her that made her literally shine in the dingy atmosphere of the bar. Just one look was enough to tell any living male with two eyes in his head that she was too refined to be a regular in a place like this.
He managed to kick his brain into gear long enough to hold out a hand to her. "Tyee-Ty- Grayson. Nice to meet you." She glanced at his hand but didn't take it. He tried not to shake as he grabbed one of the plastic cups off the stack just below the edge of the bar and poured the angel sitting next to him a drink. He managed a smile. "Go on. Have a drink. You look like you might need one."
Her smile reemerged, revealing white, even teeth. "Thanks. You have no idea."
No, he didn't. But he wanted to.
Ty mentally pulled himself up short. What the hell? What happened to sticking to himself and soaking out his week with beer? Don't fight it, a little voice deep down inside him answered back. She's the one.
That sobered him up quickly.
He'd heard about the Mesmer before-that unex-plainable attraction and drive a Were could have to mate with a particular person. It was powerful juju you didn't want to mess with if you could help it. But then, there was no helping it most of the time. A Mesmer simply happened. You didn't get the convenience of picking when, who or why.
"What's your name?"
The blush suffusing her skin intensified. "Jessica. But my friends call me Jess."
Ty gave her a coaxing grin. "No last name?"