Josh Copyright © 2014 by Nancy Corrigan writing as Dana Archer. All Rights Are Reserved.
Josh Conway leaned against the wall at the far end of the bar. It was his favorite spot for surveying the Black Widow. From here, he had a perfect view of the dance floor and half the booths. The rest of the tables, and the front door, were visible in mirrors he’d had installed after he bought the place from his dad.
In the five years he’d been in charge, he’d made a lot of changes, all for the better, at least in his opinion. The Black Widow had gone from being a dive to becoming a popular drinking establishment, complete with food, live music, and dancing.
Yeah, he was proud of the turnaround and attributed the success to having fewer troublemakers hanging around. That meant not only keeping bouncers on the payroll but him being visible to the college kids and locals who wanted to get drunk and start a fight. The regulars knew when they saw him standing here, they weren’t getting away with anything, not the drug deals that used to be commonplace or the harassment of women that had given his family’s business a bad name.
Josh was counting on his presence in his normal spot being enough to dissuade potentially illegal activities tonight. Even though he made a point of scanning the room, he wasn’t paying attention. His entire focus centered on the verbal fight playing out between Mira and Devin, two of the many shifters who’d become important to Josh over the past couple of months.
Something big was going down. Josh had no idea what. Since he was human, he didn’t get all the details involving the pride, only the stuff that concerned Megan, the shifter child his deceased brother had adopted and Josh had since become responsible for. Even then, the scraps of information they deemed worthy of sharing were already common knowledge among the shifters.
This time he wasn’t going to sit around and wait for them to decide to inform him of what was happening. He’d get his answers, even if he had to coerce the information out of them.
Josh focused on Mira and Devin. Sometimes he could pick up clues by reading their lips, not a skill he excelled at but he’d been improving. Of course Mira chose that moment to stop speaking.
She pressed her lips into a thin line and stared at Devin. Her twin matched her glare. A minute passed, then another. Neither moved. They wouldn’t either. They’d hold each other’s unblinking gazes until someone intervened. Josh refused to be that person. He’d had enough of their asinine politics and their narrow-minded rules. It was about time he made some of his own. First, though, he needed to know what had all the shifters snapping at each other.
A slow inspection of the Black Widow’s main bar area showed his ex-girlfriend, Jazz, and Rafe, her shifter mate, swaying in a suggestive dance that bordered on being inappropriate in public.
Josh took in the drowsy look on Jazz’s face and the lust on Rafe’s and felt nothing. Not a twinge of jealousy. Hard to believe Josh had been adamant about getting back together with her a couple months ago. Of course that was before he met Mira. One glance into her exotic feline eyes and his life had done a one-eighty.
His gaze drifted to her. He couldn’t help it. Mira acted as a magnet, always pulling his attention back to her.
People talked about love at first sight all the time. He’d always thought it a line to get a woman naked. Yeah, not anymore. Maybe love was the wrong word for what he felt for Mira. Obsession. Stark need. Unquenchable lust. Those matched his emotions better. Didn’t matter what label he slapped on it. She was the girl his dad had warned him about—the one woman who’d grab his attention and not let him go.
No truer words had been said. Mira owned him.
Knowing he wouldn’t get any answers staring at her like some lovesick teenager, he continued his survey of the bar. Among the patrons, he picked out the few wolf shifters who’d become regulars and dismissed them as potential sources of information. When questioned about any of the pride members, they always gave the same answer—talk to Kade. Hard to do when the Alexander pride leader hadn’t been to the bar since the night Lena had almost died.
Josh turned his attention to the petite human female who’d tamed Devin. Lena sat on one of the stools at the opposite end of the bar, gazing in the direction of her mate. From the distant expression she wore, her mind wasn’t on the silent battle going down several feet away. Unfortunately, Josh could probably guess what had put the haunted look on her girl-next-door face—concern over her sisters, Gwen and Molly.
Neither the twenty-three-year-old human nor the five-year-old shifter had a great outlook for the future. Both were lost, one to a group of sick men and the other to her own stubbornness.
He’d never met Gwen, Lena’s biological sister. Molly, Lena’s adopted sister, was his niece in a roundabout way. Megan and Molly were twins, but they’d been separated about a year ago. Whereas Megan had found her way into Josh’s family, Molly had ended up in a medical facility where she was tortured and experimented on. After the tragedy that claimed Gwen, Molly had embraced her lioness form. Weeks later, she still refused to shift back into her human form.
With a bottle of Lena’s favorite beer in hand, he made his way to her. A couple of feet away from his destination, fingers hooked around his belt loop and tugged. He bit back a curse and glanced at the woman who’d stopped him. Abby, his last drunken mistake, smiled up at him. With dark-red hair and green eyes, she was pretty. She even had a nice body, all curves and softness that would make any man drool. Too bad the thought of touching her or any girl besides Mira turned his stomach.
“Abby.” He pointedly looked from her face to where she gripped his pants. “Need something?”
She stepped closer. “You haven’t answered any of my calls so I thought I’d come down and talk to you in person.”
She trailed her fingertips across his stomach. His gut heaved. He stepped back. Undeterred, she followed his retreat. “I heard you’re not seeing anyone, and I thought we could hang out.”
“Sorry, Abby. I already told you, I’m not interested in dating. I’ve got my hands full right now with Megan, the bar, and stuff.” And Molly, but he couldn’t mention Megan’s twin to anyone outside the pride. If word got back to the Shifter Council, the group of shifter elders who acted as a governing body for all shifters, they’d send their enforcers to West Virginia to pick her up. Because of what had been done to her, the five-year old, little girl was a threat. Or so they claimed.
A grin spread over Abby’s face. “We don’t have to date.” She laid a hand over his groin. “This is all I want.”
He grasped her wrist and pulled her hand off him. With his head bent close to hers, he captured her gaze and watched her confident glint fade. “I really don’t want to be rude, but this is getting ridiculous. I don’t want you to text me any more naked pictures, no more dirty phone messages, and you can tell your brothers to stop harassing me. I’m not interested.”
“Look, we had a good time—a year ago, but I’m not looking for another one.”
“Well, if you change your mind—”
“I won’t.” He walked around her and hopped on to the stool next to Lena.
Lena tipped her chin in the direction of Abby’s retreating back. “You know that’s what happens when you get involved with girls who have ‘looking for my next sugar daddy’ written all over them.”
He grunted. “Suppose so.”
Lena studied his one-night stand a moment more before turning worried eyes to him. “Devin’s cats don’t like her.”
He chuckled. “Devin’s cats don’t like anyone. That’s not anything new.”
She scrunched her brows as she no doubt tried to sort through the emotions and images her mate’s cats fed her. He couldn’t imagine it’d be easy sharing your mind and body with one, let alone three predators. Of course, he’d never know.
Despite being the guardian of his lion shifter niece and an honorary member of the Alexander pride, he’d never be a part of their world, not where it counted. He was just the black sheep, or maybe the odd cousin everyone invited to dinners because it’d be ill-mannered if they didn’t.
After a moment, Lena’s concerned gaze focused on him. “No, I mean they really don’t like her. They think she’s a threat to you.”
He glanced over his shoulder. Abby stood in a circle of her brothers. One of the younger ones pulled her against him and rubbed her back. Zeb, the eldest, shoved his sweaty mop of red hair off his flushed face and swayed. He blinked several times before he looked in Josh’s direction. Zeb’s bloodshot eyes were easy to see, even with the distance separating them. The light he stood under illuminated his sad state.
High, or simply shit-faced drunk? Knowing Zeb, Josh would bet both. He’d have to watch him. He didn’t need any trouble tonight. His bouncer, Ilan, had called in sick, leaving Josh to manage the place and keep everyone in line.
Josh faced Lena. “She’s no threat to me, but I hate being a jerk to her.”
“How long did you date?”
“We didn’t. We hooked up once, and I made it clear afterward that it wouldn’t happen again.”
“Obviously, she didn’t take the hint.”
“Guess not.” Hoping to change the subject, he slid the beer toward her. “How are you holding up?”
She took the bottle, ran a finger around its mouth, but didn’t drink. She pushed it aside. “Okay. I’m still having nightmares about the crash, but otherwise, I’d say I’m doing great.”
“You know that’s not what I meant.”
The pain reflected in her eyes broke his heart. “I’m worried. Molly hasn’t spoken since she talked to Devin.” Lena dropped her gaze from him to some interesting spot on the floor. “This mess with Mira isn’t helping either. Everyone is stressed and irritable.”
Bingo. “What mess?”
“Nothing.” Lena shook her head. “Forget I mentioned it.”
“You can’t say something like that and leave me hanging.”
She glanced toward where the silent battle between Devin and Mira was still playing out. “Mira doesn’t want you to know.”
He curled his fingers into a fist but managed to stay on the stool. If he moved, he’d go over to Mira and demand she tell him what she was hiding. Or throw her over his shoulder and carry her to his bed. Either idea appealed to him. Neither could happen.
“Come on, Lena. Give me a break here. What’s going on?”
Lena nibbled her lip while he silently urged her to talk. Finally, she blew out a breath. “The Shifter Council has ordered Mira to take a mate.”
She rolled her eyes. “I know, it’s ridiculous, but that’s what everyone is strung out about.”
He tensed. “They can’t do that. Arranged matings were banned a century ago.”
Lena’s expression softened. “Apparently they can. The councilmen have twisted around some ancient law. They’re claiming that since so many shifter women and children have gone missing, they have the right to order unmated Royal females to take breeding partners for the sake of continuing the species.”
“But the multi-shifters don’t breed well. There’s no point in forcing Mira into a bond when it might be hundreds of years before she has kids.”
“That’s the argument Kade used. The Council doesn’t care.” Lena laid a hand over his. “With Molly’s situation hanging over our heads, Kade’s hesitant to argue too much.”
Josh couldn’t blame him, but the knowledge of why Kade wasn’t fighting the order didn’t soothe him. Mira’s future was at stake. So was his.
“Tell me the rest.” Because he’d bet there was more. From the little he’d learned of the Shifter Council, they didn’t act without dropping a threat to ensure their dictates were followed.
“They’ve given her a month to choose a mate.”
Not if he could help it. He refused to lose her to some sick game a bunch of shifter politicians had decided to play.
He stood, the stool scraping over the tiled floor, and strode toward where Mira stood with Devin. Josh grabbed her hand. With a firm tug, he led her across the room. Although he’d love to take her somewhere private, he knew that would only cause a fight with Devin. Josh settled for crowding her against the far wall, away from her brother’s prying eyes.
With one hand next to her hip and the other over her head, he bent close. “When were you planning to break the news to me?”
Ugly brown contacts hid Mira’s breathtaking yellow feline eyes. They didn’t dim the lust simmering in her eyes. She held his gaze for a long moment before focusing on his lips. She licked hers.
Her voice with its rich, lulling European accent had the same effect on him it always did. Every inch of his body ached.
He moved closer. Her breath escaped in a shaky rush. “Don’t play dumb. Why didn’t you tell me they’re going to force you to take a mate?”
She surprised him by laying her cheek against his chest, right over his heart. “Lena told you?”
He rested his chin on the top of her dyed-brown hair, another camouflaging technique she used. Without the fake dye job, her beautiful locks were a patchwork of shades—red, blonde, chestnut, and black. Beautiful and downright mesmerizing, exactly like the woman.
“I should’ve heard it from you.”
“Don’t make this difficult. Haven’t we suffered enough?”
That was the understatement of the century. Heated glances and brushes of fingertips had been all they could get away with. The shifters watched Mira too closely for more. They didn’t want her involved with him. Stern lectures delivered to her and fists to his face had kept them apart. For their own good, of course.
He slid his palm around her lower back and tugged her closer so she pressed along the length of his body. Her fresh, spring-rain scent enveloped him. “Yeah, we have, and it’s about time we stop ignoring this.”
Her weary sigh would’ve irritated him a couple of hours ago and so would’ve the excuse he knew she’d utter next. Not anymore. The rules got tossed out the window tonight. Time to make new ones.
He slipped his hand under the back of her shirt. Smooth, soft skin met his touch. He inched his fingers along the edge of her waistband, tempting and torturing himself.
She pushed against his chest. “Stop. What if one of the others sees us?”
“Screw ’em. I’m not letting them take you away from me. Not now and not in a month.” He settled his hand on her denim-covered bottom. “The only man who’s going to wake up in your bed is me.”
“We can’t. You know that. Kade ordered me to stay away from you.”
Josh dropped his hands and put space between them. “You want me. I know you do.”
“Yes, but all I can give you is a couple of weeks. That’ll be worse than never getting together.” Mira rubbed her thumb along the corner of his mouth. “Please don’t torture me—being with you will be worse than anything I’ve had to endure. Eternity. That’s how long I’ll yearn for you. Every day I have to go into my mate’s arms will be a betrayal of you.”
Her words ripped him open. Made the anger worse. “I’ll figure out a way to be with you.”
She groaned and shoved away from him.
He grasped her wrist and spun her back into his embrace. “We have a connection. I knew it the moment I looked into your eyes. Something clicked, like I’d been waiting for you to walk into my life.” Josh shook his head. “I know it sounds crazy coming from the king of one-night stands, but I don’t want anyone else. Only you, Mira.”
Devin’s raised voice carried over the din in the bar. Josh couldn’t hear Lena, but no doubt, she was speaking softly to Devin, soothing him. Knowing he was most likely the cause of Devin’s anger, Josh released Mira.
They held each other’s gazes. A world of hurt and longing passed between them.
“You’re right, Josh. We do have a connection. I feel it. My cats sense it.” She trailed a fingertip across his cheek. “Impossible or not, I am yours, but you’re wrong about us being together. That’ll never happen.”
With that, she turned her back on him and walked away.
No. He didn’t think so.
He spun her into his arms with a hand at her waist. “Don’t walk away from me. If your cats feel it too, then it’s real. Maybe you can—”
She glared at a biker who swung his head around at her loud retort. The tattooed guy hurriedly looked away.
She lowered her voice. “I can’t mate you. We both know that. I’ll only end up killing you. Ripping your soul to shreds.”
So he’d been told, over and over. Only male Royals could take human mates. The decree of the heavens prevented it. Something about females being meant to share in their male’s strength and immortality, not the other way around. Mira would never be able to form a soul-bond with him. She’d kill him, exactly as she’d described.
Or so he’d been told.
“Has anyone ever tried?” He didn’t know why he asked. Josh already knew that answer too.
“Yes, and it hasn’t worked.” Mira jerked away. “I refuse to allow you to be another failed attempt.”
She hurried to the front entrance. The tortured expression she wore stopped him from yanking her back into his arms. He locked his knees and let her escape. For the moment, at least. The bar wasn’t the right place to discuss their options, not that they had many.
“The goddesses really screwed up with you two.”
Josh glanced over his shoulder. Zach, Kade’s younger brother, leaned casually against the wall. He was a contrast of light and dark, from his looks to his moods. His pale-blue eyes stood out starkly against his tanned skin. So did his white-blond hair. Tonight he’d pulled it into a ponytail, a change from when Josh had first met him. Then, Zach had worn it in braids.
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Means you’re Mira’s true mate.”
Josh snorted. “Well then, your goddesses must hate Mira.” It was the only explanation. Why else give her a true mate who’d only end up dying on her because she couldn’t tie him to her soul?
“Yeah, I think they do.” Zach rubbed his knuckles under his chin. “Or love her enough to bend the rules. With the goddesses, you never can tell.”
“Do you think they’ll listen to me if I talk to them? You know, beg them for a little heavenly intervention?” Josh had never been big on going to church, but he prayed. Those couple of times in his life he’d needed a little comfort, he’d found it.
“Think carefully about what you’re planning, my friend. Humans can love again. But a shifter? Once our instincts are triggered, nothing will save us. Love is a one-shot deal. Remember that.”
“Maybe, but I’ll never find another Mira.”
Zach shrugged and ambled away without another word.
Josh’s gaze drifted to the door Mira had left through. His mind kept going over all the obstacles keeping them apart. They seemed insurmountable. Still, he couldn’t let her go without a fight.
So where did that leave him?
On the outside looking in.
He grinned. “Good thing I can pick locks.”