Rick Copyright © 2017 by Nancy Corrigan writing as Dana Archer. All Rights Are Reserved.
Hunched over the table I claimed in the back of the Black Widow, the only neutral, shifter-friendly bar in West Virginia, I reach for my current fix. My hands shake, but I wrangle the neck of the heavy, stout bourbon bottle over my shot glass. A few drops of the reddish liquid slosh into the bottom. It’s not even a mouthful.
I slam the bottle down and scan the nearby tables. The human waiter who’d reluctantly left the partial bottle meets my gaze. His expression pinches as if he’d rather serve anyone else. Can’t say I blame him. I look like a felon with my bloodshot eyes, tattoos, and scars. That’s what I’ve been told, anyway. What do I care? I’ve got nobody to impress.
I raise the bottle. “Another.”
Without waiting to see if he complies, I drain my glass and close my eyes. After a few minutes, my faster shifter metabolism erodes my alcohol-induced stupor. Memories push at me, waiting for me to give them life. I clench my jaw. Screw that. The waiter will bring my bourbon soon. That shit’s strong enough to kill a few brain cells along with thoughts of the past. Tastes amazing too.
Licking my lips, I savor the remnants of the bourbon’s spicy cinnamon flavor. “Sweet Fire.”
“It’s Death’s Fire, actually. And if you drink a whole bottle, you’re going to draw the wrong kind of attention.”
The woman’s rich, smooth voice wraps around me, soothing me in a way the booze can’t. A deep breath tells me she’s a wolf shifter, but some jerk must’ve gotten his hands on her tonight. She reeks of him. Suddenly, I want to find the guy and hurt him for touching her. It’s none of my business. I’m off the market. Have been for forty years.
I crack my eyelids. My heart stops. No wonder the jerk had his hands all over her. She’s prime breeding material. Her dark red hair and deep green eyes mark her as housing a red wolf, one of the rarest of our kind. Combined with the right male’s genes, her offspring will be a force to be reckoned with. And if I let myself imagine her future with a loving mate and kids, no amount of bourbon will save me from my memories. I’ll end up with a Glock in my mouth before the night is over.
Smiling and hoping she doesn’t see the suicidal thoughts eating away at me, I slide my hands over hers so we’re both holding the bottle. Energy skips along my skin. My shaft stirs. My grin widens. It’s been a long time since any woman, human or shifter, has gotten a rise out of me. Even more surprising is knowing I haven’t looked at her body yet. That’s not like me.
Needing a full visual for my inappropriate thoughts, I sweep my gaze over this female. Her breasts fill out her white T-shirt, drawing my eye to the bar’s iconic black widow spider stretched over her chest. Underneath the shirt, a turtleneck hides her arms and neck. Slim black pants hug her curves and define her long legs.
It would’ve been nice if she’d worn something revealing, but it is December. This is the type of outfit humans expect. It’s also the best for my fantasies. I love slowly stripping a lover and worshipping every inch I reveal.
“I’m not worried. If someone comments on my drinking, you’ll lie for me. Say the bottle was almost empty or something.”
Dropping her gaze, she exhales slowly. After a moment, she drags the tip of her tongue across her bottom lip. Her gaze raises to mine. Lust slides into her eyes, darkening them. I can’t look away. They’re the kind of eyes a male could get lost in while he’s deep inside a woman, claiming her body in the most primitive way.
“Nah.” She laughs, and my world tilts, leaving me uneasy. “I wouldn’t bother getting involved for a guy who’s just passing through. I need this job.”
“What about if I say I’m a permanent resident of this area?”
“Then, I’d call you a liar.” She sets the bottle on the table but doesn’t release it. She leans closer to me. Her wavy, dark red hair falls forward, obscuring her face from those humans near us. She lowers her voice. “You’re no stranger to drinking, and if you were a member of one of the packs who frequent the Black Widow, I would’ve seen you around. I’ve worked here for years.”
The female’s scent surrounds me. Underneath the offending stench of the male who’d touched her, her personal fragrance rises like a lifeline I want to grab and never let go. I capture a lock of her red hair. It’s as silky and soft as it looks. It’d feel amazing brushing over my naked skin.
Tugging slightly on the section of hair I’m holding, I urge her closer. Her face fills my vision. The freckles dotting her cheeks and nose should make her appear innocent. They don’t. She looks wicked. She’d look even better on her knees in front of me. “Maybe you forgot me.”
She eases back, leaving the bourbon on the table. Her hair slides from my grip. My fingers tingle with the desire to reach for her again, but I don’t. This isn’t the place to explore her body. I will, though. No doubt about it.
On a smooth, fluid move, she snatches two short glasses from another waitress’s tray and places the clean glassware next to the bourbon. “I would’ve remembered you. It’s not often a man with a death wish walks into my bar and makes me want to be the one to save him.”
“Save me?” I’m not sure why I latch on to that part of her statement. I’m beyond saving, but the words are out of my mouth. I won’t take them back.
Her gaze searches my face. She raises her hand but stops before skimming her fingertips over my parted lips. “Yes. You look like a man who’s been fighting his inner demons for a long time. You need to be distracted by the right lover before the voices win.”
I stare at this woman who’s managed to rattle me. At two hundred years old, not much affects me anymore. I’ve seen it all. Tried everything once. Managed not to kill myself in the process. Yet, this female has sucker-punched me with her candidness and left me speechless.
I swallow against the dryness in my throat. “What’s your name?”
She shakes her head, then hurries away from my table. I slide out my chair, ready to go after her. The sight of the huge feline shifter making his way toward my table stops me. So much for securing my plans for later tonight. Work calls.
Shifter Affairs told me I wouldn’t miss my new partner, despite not having met Uriel before. Apparently, this is why. Wearing an orange beanie, black sweatpants, an unbuttoned white dress shirt, and a purse slung over his body, Uriel stands out. It has nothing to do with his mismatched outfit, however. Or the fact that Uriel’s a Royal, an immortal shifter with three big cats sharing his soul compared to the single wolf housed by my mortal body.
Uriel’s don’t-mess-with-me vibe creates a natural bubble around him few people likely get past. I’ll have to find a way. For the foreseeable future, he’ll be my sidekick. Not sure if I’m happy about this partnership. I’ve never worked with a non-wolf shifter. I don’t get a say, however. The overpaid pencil pushers handle assignments. After abruptly resigning, I’m lucky Shifter Affairs is even giving me another chance.
Uriel stops at my table. “Rick Lyall?” At my nod, Uriel yanks out a chair and sits. “I’m Uriel Alexander. My friends call me Uri. You will too.”
A thick Scottish accent accompanies the order. Even dressed as oddly as he is, Uri probably has women falling at his feet the moment they hear that lulling brogue. His dark, brooding looks likely help too. If anything, hanging around Uri will improve my sex life.
“Uri it is.” I pour the bourbon into the glasses and slide one to my new partner. “Have a drink, then we can talk about the case.”
Uri glances from me to the bourbon. His eyes narrow. His lips press into a hard line. “I’m on duty.” He snatches my drink, dumps the bourbon back in the bottle, and smacks the heavy shot glass in front of me. “So are you. Drinking is not allowed while on duty.”
I’d ask if he was serious, but the arrogant look on his face tells me he is. Great. I’ve been paired with a hard-ass. “We’re in a bar. People drink in bars. If we don’t, we’ll stand out.”
Uri pours his drink into the bottle, then hands it over to a waiter who’s passing by. “Return this and bring us two sodas, please.”
I grab the edge of the table instead of reaching for my new partner’s neck. “What exactly are you doing?”
“Following the rules.” Uri crosses his arms over his wide chest. “You should try it.”
My nostrils flare. My wolf stirs, rising above the last of my buzz. The animal’s low growl echoes in my head. It doesn’t like being ordered around. In shifter hierarchy, I’m considered strong enough to be an alpha. That’s partially why I walked away from pack life. As a lone wolf, I don’t have to sit back and take crap from those I don’t respect. Partner or not, Uri hasn’t earned mine yet.
“There are two versions of the contract. One for men like us. One for everyone else.” I pick my words carefully. The general populace doesn’t know about our kind. Yet. I want to keep it that way.
“Rule number eight point seven of our contract is present in both versions. Would you like to refer to it?” Uri swings his purse in front of him and digs out the largest smartphone on the market. “I have it saved in email.”
I laugh, despite my annoyance. Either I haven’t lost my buzz completely or I’m starting to like my new partner, if only for the entertainment value he provides. “You do know that’s a woman’s purse, right?”
Uri’s fingers still on the phone’s surface. He peers at me from behind lashes that look as long and as full as a woman’s. His brown eyes don’t glow, even though I feel a surge of power along my skin, like a gust of warm air. He’s got to be wearing contacts. Probably because he has unnaturally colored eyes. A lot of feline shifters I’ve met do. None have ever felt as powerful as the male sitting across from me with leashed aggression, however.
“I needed something to carry all the stuff our company issued me.” Uri retrieves a fake leather holder displaying his badge from the purse and slaps it on the table. The six-inch dagger most agents strap to their calf lands on top of it. Next comes a small Taser gun, followed by a flashlight, handcuffs, and a pocket-sized can of mace. Finally, the standard-issue Glock, similar to the one I’ve been spending too much time holding between my teeth while contemplating my shitty life, makes an appearance.
A nearby human female screams. Uri yanks the purse over his head and lays it on the pile, hiding the weapons, but makes no other attempt to calm the woman. I don’t either. Nobody will call the cops. We’re not causing trouble, and if someone does, our IDs will save us. Our division of law enforcement, officially known as Specialized Affairs, is recognized by most local police, even if they don’t know about half of the agents are nonhumans or that we specialize in shifter-related issues.
Uri motions to the pile. “When I complained about how I was supposed to get all this home, Ella gave me her purse. It works, so I decided to continue using it.”
Of course he did. Nobody probably had the guts to comment on it either. Actually, I shouldn’t have. A purse isn’t much different than a sporran, and I wear one of those when I don a kilt.
In an attempt to salvage this shitty first meeting, I close my eyes on a slow inhale and exhale. The lingering scent of the hot waitress who’d brought my bourbon seeps into my body. I conjure her image, focusing on those eyes I want to stare into while the shadows of night surround us. My irritation eases, allowing me to focus my thoughts.
Ella Montgomery, the human Shifter Affairs agent who leads my division, cares about her agents and treats us as family. It’s one of the reasons I decided to join her unit. I might be a lone wolf, but that doesn’t mean I don’t crave the connection pack life offers. My pack just has to be unorthodox. Apparently, it’s going to include a feline shifter who obviously hasn’t spent much time in the human world. Or just doesn’t care if he fits in or not.
“We are only required to carry a password-protected phone, though the higher-ups have started recommending we keep either the Glock or the knife.” Uri’s brows furrow as if he’s considering my words. That’s a good sign. At least he’s not outright calling me a liar. Might as well tell him the rest. “The only caveat is that our survivor death benefits are rendered null and void if we forego everything else.”
“I don’t remember reading that in the contract.”
“It’s under some amendment about benefits. You can look it up, but I’m going to take a wild guess and say survivor income won’t matter to you.” Considering only losing his head would end Uri’s life. Me? Any severe injury would do me in. So will old age, eventually. Though, I probably have a good five hundred years before my body wears out. Maybe longer. I come from a strong bloodline. My kids would’ve been powerful.
Uri studies the pile of weapons and gear on the table. After a moment, he shoves everything but the knife and gun into the purse. “Which do you carry?”
Surprised by Uri’s interest in my opinion, I slouch in my seat. “Depends on where I’m going and what I’m wearing. Tonight I have my gun.” Just in case I decide to betray the promise I made to my dead breeding partner and take my life.
On a nod, Uri stashes the knife in the purse and holds the gun up, studying it from every angle. The humans near us ease farther from our table. Although I’m not worried about the cops, my intention is not to stress the locals, especially on my first official night here. Word gets out and nobody will rent me a place.
“We can get you a holster tomorrow.” I snatch the gun from Uri’s hand and shove it back into the purse. “Let’s talk about the case.” At least what little we can discuss while surrounded by humans.
“I dug up the body—”
“Uri!” I mutter a curse and lean over the table. “Shut up. This is not the place to be talking about desecrating graves.” Honestly, I can’t think of any place where the topic wouldn’t be taboo.
“I don’t think anyone can hear us over this music, but okay.” Uri slips into an older dialect of Gaelic, one I happen to be familiar with since I grew up in a Scottish pack.
“I dug up the body earlier today.” Uri plants his elbows on the table. A businesslike expression spreads over his features, lending him an aura of seriousness. “The corpse is heavily decayed, but what remains is now with a coroner who specializes in cases such as these. I also made arrangements to explore the murder site. Once we have approval from the owner of the property, we can look for any clues that might remain and go over possible scenarios for the young male’s death. Then we can compile a list of people to interview and begin working our way through them.”
Two things impress me about my new partner. First, even though Uri’s speaking a language few residents of this area likely understand, he’s mindful not to reveal anything that might implicate shifters. Secondly, and more importantly, he’s detail oriented. I won’t have to worry about solving this case on my own. Considering the depression I thought I’d beaten has decided to rear its ugly head again, that’s a huge plus.
“It sounds as if you’re on top of things.”
A pleased look settles on Uri’s face. He grins, revealing the tips of pointed canines. “Your accent’s a bit rusty, but with practice, it should get better.”
“You’re lucky I even speak it.”
“Luck has nothing to do with it. I researched you the moment I learned we’d be partners. I know where you grew up, when you came to the States, how your babies and—”
I reach across the table and fist Uri’s shirt. “Never bring them up.” I yank Uri closer and let a low growl trickle from my mouth only he’d be able to hear. “Do you hear me? Never.”
Without breaking my gaze, Uri nods. “I hear you.”
“Good.” I shove away from the feline shifter, but I don’t sit. I can’t. My dead breeding partner’s screams are echoing in my head. My wolf’s mournful howl follows. I press the heels of my palms to my ears. It doesn’t help. I can’t block out the sounds. They’re in my head.
Being back in the same county where my breeding partner died might be messing with my mind, but it’s driving my wolf insane. The crazed animal who shares my soul wants revenge for her death. It doesn’t care that she died a lifetime ago, or that there’s nobody to punish. Who am I going to hold responsible? My unborn babies who caused her to hemorrhage?
I need to get out of here. Go for a run or something. Anything. I’ve spent too much time thinking about the past, and my gun’s too close. I shouldn’t have brought it.
I run a hand over my head, dislodging my hat and mussing my hair, and scan the bar. Nobody’s looking at us. My hot waitress isn’t anywhere in sight either. I breathe a sigh of relief. I don’t want her seeing me like this and thinking I’m unstable. I’m not. I’m just…
I don’t know what I am. Lost, maybe? Looking for a reason to keep getting up every day? But, when it comes down to it, I have one, at least until this case is solved. Someone needs to pay for Benjamin Tanner’s death. After that?
I rub my fingertips together. I swear they still tingle from touching my bold waitress’s hair.
“We don’t need approval to explore Nic Kagan’s lands. We’re old friends. I’ll text him and tell him we’re coming over to talk to him. Get his thoughts on the murder.” I pull out some bills and shove the money into the hands of a passing waiter, who looks at me with questioning eyes. “Do me a favor. Pay Rick Lyall’s tab. Then give whatever’s left to the waitress who brought my bourbon over.”
“This is over five hundred dollars! I can’t—” The human tries to hand the money back.
“Yes, you can.” I curl his fingers around the cash. “Tell her it’s for saving me tonight.”
“Let’s go.” Uri hands me my beanie, then heads to the front door.
I follow, but the sensation of someone watching me stops me. My heart races. Anticipation grips me. I glance over my shoulder. A glimpse of red hair is all I see before my hot waitress slips into the kitchen, but it’s enough to set my path. With the effect she has on my mind and my body, she’ll be the perfect distraction from my memories when I’m in town.
At least until she finds herself a worthy mate. Then it’ll be me and the bourbon again.