Ethan Copyright © 2015 by Nancy Corrigan writing as Dana Archer. All Rights Are Reserved.
The din of voices and the rock music pumping out of the speakers did little to drown out the sound of drumming fingernails. The rhythmic tapping reverberated in Hannah Kagan’s head. The annoyed growling of her wolf added to it, building the pressure behind her eyes and testing her self-restraint.
She tightened her grip on her beer and dragged in a deep breath. The calming exercise did little to soothe her ire. Her friend was about two seconds away from being growled at. Only their location stopped her from snapping at Alex.
The club they sometimes visited didn’t sit on Kagan pack lands, nor did any of the humans in it know about her kind. Except for Alex, that was. He knew every intimate detail about her, including her fears and wants. Some days the knowledge came in handy. Today wasn’t one of them. His insistence on wasting the night with the humans stopped her from letting her wolf out. Its edginess was driving her nuts. Or maybe it was Alex’s short nails hitting the table that pushed her to the brink. Either way, she was about to lose control of her temper.
She gulped back half of the warm liquid, then slammed the bottle down. A hard glare directed at the dark-haired human sitting opposite her stilled Alex’s fingers. He leveled his blue-green eyes on her.
“Maria’s not showing, Alex. Let’s leave.”
He glanced over his shoulder. She followed the direction of his gaze. The illuminated clock above the door proved her point. The place would be closing in thirty minutes. Considering they’d spent hours here waiting on Maria, a dominant from the Tanner pack, to show, there was no way they’d missed her. The secret liaisons Maria and Alex engaged in were the only kind allowed to them. If her father, the alpha of the Tanner pack, found out, they’d both suffer. Shifter-human relationships were still viewed as unnatural.
Alex faced her. Although Hannah had grown up with him, she was always taken aback by how different he was from his twin, Riley. Everything about him was hardened, from his harsh cheekbones to the glint in his eyes. The stubble on his jaw and short military haircut added to the image, including the scowl he’d worn for the past few months. His pain was the reason she was with him in the first place. The desire to see her pack mates happy and safe was an instinct she couldn’t ignore. The curse of an alpha, her father had once called the overwhelming protective instinct.
She’d assumed the drive would’ve lessened after her brother, Nic, had taken over their pack. It hadn’t. No, it had gotten worse. Another pack’s spirit called to her, beseeching her to claim it—the Tanner pack. The rival shifter group bordered their lands, and it desperately needed a new alpha pair. She wanted to be the female who stood at her mate’s side, guiding and nurturing the Tanner members. Goodness knew they needed help rebuilding their struggling community.
At the moment, though, her goal seemed out of reach. She was failing at everything—from being a woman to being a dominant. No way did she feel worthy of the title of alpha. It didn’t mean she’d give up. It’d guarantee she’d try harder.
She would mate a dominant Tanner male, and together they’d claim the top spot—the alpha pair who ruled the pack, from the dominants who carried out the alpha pair’s orders, to the betas who relied on the strong communal network to support them. She even had a partner picked out—Ethan, a Tanner male she’d met a few months ago. Unfortunately, she hadn’t been able to figure out if he wanted to be her other half.
“Yeah.” Alex cursed, drawing her out of her thoughts. “Let’s get out of here. I’m done with this sneaking-around nonsense. I told Maria the same thing.”
“No. You gave her an ultimatum.” Hannah crossed her arms under her breasts. “Marry you, or you’re leaving.”
“Sure. Did you expect anything else? I’m not about to sit back and watch her love another man. That stunt she pulled with Nic tells me she’ll have no problem with it.”
“It’s not as simple as that. She’s a member of the Tanner pack. There are rules she must follow.” And those laws didn’t allow Maria to get involved with a human, especially one who was an honorary member of a rival pack.
Alex snorted. “I’ve abided by pack law long enough. I’m done with your rules. Riley’s settled and happy. It’s about time I stop pretending to fit in with the shifters. It’s not as if I’ll ever be one or even a full-fledged member of the pack.”
No, he’d never rise above his position, despite being rescued as an infant and raised by powerful dominants. It didn’t mean he wasn’t loved. It only meant others saw him as weak—physically, not emotionally. As much as she hated to admit, she did too, though she did her best not to let it show. At least she hoped she did.
He moved to stand. She grasped his wrist. “So you’re just going to walk away? Is that it?”
“Yep. That’s it.” He yanked his arm free and strode for the door.
Hannah threw a twenty on the table to cover their beers and hurried after him. He made it to the edge of the dance floor before she caught up to him. She blocked his path. “You’re not going to fight for Maria?”
“No. I’m going to take the same advice I gave you.” Alex brushed her hair from her shoulder and leaned close. “Sex and love aren’t the same thing, and chasing after someone who only wants to sleep with you, not marry you, will turn you into a fool.”
She squeezed her eyes shut against the humiliating memory. After years of pursuing Alex, she’d finally gotten him in her bed, only to be kicked aside the following morning once he sobered up.
“I was young. I misunderstood your attention and the fact that…” Hannah shook her head. What was the point? She’d been a naïve fool, exactly as he’d claimed. What she’d thought didn’t matter. She was just glad he hadn’t exposed her mistake to the whole pack.
“Fine.” She pivoted and took a step toward the door. “You want to throw your life away? I’ll help box up your stuff.”
He hooked an arm around her waist, stopping her. Without a word, he walked her toward the wall. He massaged her hip with one hand and brushed the knuckles of his other over her jaw. The simple stroke countered her tension. The tightness in her muscles eased, and her heart rate slowed. She dropped her forehead to his chest and greedily took what he offered—comfort.
In hindsight, Hannah understood his tender caress was meant to soothe, not arouse her. He treated her as a friend in need of reassurance and support. It wasn’t any different from what she gave to their pack mates. The similarity in behaviors never clicked, though. She’d been the only one he’d ever touched. The reason why shamed her—as a lowly beta, no other shifter would welcome his solace, so he never bothered.
He pressed his lips to her ear. “You thought that since I wouldn’t sleep with any of the women in our pack that I wanted you.”
She flinched, hating the reminder of how she’d misread him. Anger replaced the embarrassment. He’d never discouraged her. He’d flirted with her too.
Hannah pushed against his chest. He staggered back, then stepped closer, caging her body in with his. She fisted his shirt. “You desired me. Don’t deny it.”
“Yeah, I did.” Alex held her in a loose hug and skimmed his fingertips over her back. “You’re beautiful, strong, kind. Everything a man could want.”
“Just not what you wanted, right?”
“And I’m not the man you wanted. Not truly.”
“You don’t know what I want.”
“You want someone to love you for you. What’s in”—he laid a hand over her heart—“here. Not the packaging. And I do. Always will. But I can’t be what you need. An alpha. For one, I’m human. For another, I consider you my—”
“Friend. Got it.” And she did. She was okay with it too. Had been for a long time. Thoughts of Ethan’s indifference brought all the hurt back to the surface, though. It made her wonder if she were making the same mistake with him that she had with Alex.
No! She wasn’t. What she felt for Ethan was different.
Breathing room. That was what she needed. She shoved against Alex’s wide chest a second time. He didn’t budge. “Game’s over. Maria didn’t fall for your attempt to make her jealous. Let’s call it a night. I can try talking to her. Maybe if she knows you’re serious about moving, she’ll change her mind.”
“She knows. I told her. She let me seduce her, then snuck out as soon as she got off, saying she’d never be able to give me more. That if I wanted to love her, we’d have to keep meeting in private.” Alex made a low, disgusted sound. “No way. I won’t be some dirty secret. I’d rather walk away.”
Hannah gave him a sympathetic look. “She’s right. That’s all she can give you right now. Until her dad is taken out, she can’t risk anyone finding out what you mean to her. They’ll kill you.”
“She’s leaving me no choice. I won’t stand by and watch her live her life with a shifter who doesn’t love her.” He narrowed his eyes. “That’s what’ll happen too if her father has anything to say about it.”
“Then take a page out of your sister’s book. Riley didn’t give up on Nic. She fought for him. You should do the same for Maria.” Alex’s sister had not only tamed Nic’s wolf but figured out a way to overcome the biological barrier preventing human females from conceiving a shifter child.
Of course, Maria and Alex’s situation was different. The role reversal made their involvement taboo in the eyes of many shifters, but Hannah was convinced Alex and Maria would figure out a way to battle their issues…if they were given the chance. Riley and Nic were proof that rules could be broken in the favor of true love.
“I’m trying.” Exasperation tightened his voice. “Obviously, triggering her instincts isn’t going to work.”
Hannah’s attempt at using Ethan’s primitive drives to get him to take their attraction to the next level wasn’t meeting with any success either. “Well, an ultimatum certainly won’t. What were you…”
Her wolf stirred, warning her of the female shifter who had walked into the bar. A deep inhale told her who.
He grinned. “Maybe my plan will work after all.”
He slipped his arm around Hannah’s waist. Mouth at her ear, he whispered, “Are you sure you’re okay with this? I want Maria jealous, but I don’t want her to hurt you.”
“I told you I was okay with it.” Hannah grabbed his behind and tugged him closer. “Besides, I can handle Maria. Don’t worry about me.”
“I should worry about myself, right? If one of the other shifters saw us or knew I’d been with you, they’d come after me.”
None of the males from her pack would. Alex was under her protection, and she’d made it clear to her pack mates what would happen if harm came to him. No way would she tell Alex that. He would resent knowing she’d stood up for him.
Alex shifted his hands to her bottom and lifted her. The move caught her off guard. She clutched at his shoulders. “What are—”
“Wrap your legs around me.”
She did, but kept space between their groins. “I hope this—”
A loud curse carried over the noise of the bar. Hannah tensed. The voice was one she knew well, and she didn’t want Ethan to see her in another male’s arms, especially Alex’s. Her pack mates might not be a threat to him, but Ethan was a different story. He was under no obligation to spare Alex his wrath. Too late. She was caught.
She peered past Alex’s body. Hands balled at his sides, Ethan stood near the door. Leanly muscled, tall with short, white-blond hair, and pale blue eyes. Her breath caught, and lust seized her. Hannah had the same reaction every time she saw Ethan. He was gorgeous. Powerful. Hers.
Anxiety mixed with the sense of rightness she experienced in his presence. None of his usual warmth showed in his gaze. Anger turned his beautiful eyes into chips of ice. He shifted his focused stare to Alex. Ethan’s lip lifted on a silent snarl. Her heart skipped a beat.
“Oh, no. Let me go.” Hannah shoved against Alex. He grasped her wrist and drew her hand between their bodies.
“Don’t blow it now. You wanted to trigger your shifter’s instincts too. This is a good way for both of us to get what we want.” Alex nipped her chin. “Now kiss me and make it believable.”
Her wolf sat up. Its eagerness radiated through her. No doubt, it liked the idea of Ethan fighting for her. Actually, she did too, but hated that it would be Alex who’d get caught in the crosshairs.
She squirmed and tried to break Alex’s iron grip. “Put me—”
He covered her mouth with his before she could get out another word. A growl reached her ears. Ethan approached, and the enraged vibes radiating off him told her she’d succeeded in triggering his instincts.
There was only one thing left to do. She moaned and kissed Alex back.