Wild Cowboy Wolf by Kait Ballenger
Reading a room full of shifters made for one helluva dull evening. Blaze lingered at the bar, whiskey in hand and bored out of his goddamn mind as he scanned the crowd for potential threats. Quick thinking had earned him the job; the same made it duller than a post. Inside the decked-out old barn, the collective behavior of the pack ebbed and flowed with the pulse of the western music. Fast songs and quicker liquor meant high spirits and too-loud laughter with plenty of decisions to regret in the morning. Pack mentality at its finest.
At least the whiskey was decent.
Blaze threw back the dregs of his glass, feeling the burn slide down his throat. It’d take five times that for a wolf his size to even feel it. And he wanted to feel it, considering what kept catching his eye at the far side of the dance floor.
A feral growl rumbled in his throat.
“Another?” Austin’s slow Texas drawl was nearly drowned by the din of the reception’s noise.
With a shake of his head, Blaze slid the tumbler into Austin’s outstretched hand. “Not unless it’s beer.” Then at least he’d have something to do with his hands.
Austin waved at the bartender.
From two seats down, Malcolm eyed Austin with a disapproving frown. “Since when did you become Blaze’s personal assistant?”
Blaze fought not to roll his eyes. The Grey Wolf executioner turned warrior had two facial expressions: scowl and deeper scowl, which meant the grumbling edge in his tone was unfortunately permanent, right along with that mean-ass mug of his. More than once, Blaze had tried to remove it, but the fellow warrior was dead to humor.
Such was his luck tonight.
“Since I’m the one on detail while you two sit there looking…” Blaze scrunched his nose. “Well, no one would dare call you pretty.” The teasing grin that pulled at his lips came easy.
A permanent mask he’d never be rid of.
Malcolm bared his teeth in response.
“Snarly seems a more appropriate description.” Austin hopped over the bar top after several failed attempts to flag the bartender.
The hired buxom blond of a witch on loan from the relocated Midnight Coyote Saloon wore her pants a little too tight and had been calling Blaze “sugar” more than half the evening. Apparently, she thought Malcolm was a peach, because she’d said as much as she’d batted her eyes through that too-thick layer of mascara.
Yeah, a peach. Malcolm.
Blaze had choked on his own drink from snorting too hard.
Behind the bar, Austin cast their glasses into the dish sink and pulled three Coors from the mini fridge. “Ain’t nothin’ as ugly as that suit you’re wearin’ though.”
Blaze let out a harsh bark of a laugh. “Truth.”
Instinctively, he went to reach for his Stetson, then thought better of it. He’d forgone the cowboy hat this evening since it didn’t match his attire—an obnoxiously bright-orange monstrosity covered in palms and pineapples. Needling the packmaster never got old. Honest to wolf, Maverick took life way too damn seriously, even his own wedding reception…
“At least my suit is supposed to be ugly.” He cast Malcolm a cheesed-up grin before receiving another growl in response.
A dull evening indeed. He’d find humor where he could take it.
Austin popped open one of the beers and pushed it toward him, but Blaze ignored it.
His eyes caught on Dakota again.
She’d been stuck with Jasper for the better part of three songs, and the way she danced ever closer to the other wolf was killing him.
“Who’s making the rounds this time?” Blaze asked, his voice giving away more than a hint of his frustration.
Fuck the friend zone.
“I’ll do it.” Austin vaulted back over the bar, grabbing his Coors off the bar top and promptly taking a quick swig.
“Ever the volunteer.” Blaze made as if to tip his hat.
“Siempre.” The Texan raised his drink as he disappeared into the crowd.
Malcolm pushed off his barstool with a huff.
“Where you off to?”
Malcolm grunted. “Need to hit the head.”
“Breaking the seal is not advised when on patrol.”
Malcolm flipped him the bird and Blaze chuckled again.
Maybe not a total lost cause.
Alone, finally, in spite of the surrounding party, Blaze scanned the crowd again. No changes. Figured. Desperate for a hit of dopamine, he turned his back to the writhing bodies, mainly Dakota’s writhing body, grabbed the still-waiting Coors, and took a swig.
As he did, the thump of deep bass through the speakers assaulted his wolf senses. Immediately, he tensed. The Montana cold nipped at the edge of the old barn’s doors, but that didn’t account for the chill that raced down his spine. The feeling of being watched made him far colder.
Awareness prickled through him. With a thud, he set down the Coors and slowly rounded toward the crowd. Weaving his way onto the floor, he navigated to his first target. As the heat of his palm slipped onto the bare skin of Dakota’s lower back, she stilled beneath his touch.
Fuck, why had she worn that dress? The deep-blue one that brought out the cobalt undertones of her midnight hair and dipped so low on her spine it left little imagination of what her tight, round ass would feel like cupped in his hands. It tortured him every time. He’d tried to get her to leave it in her closet where it belonged, but she hadn’t taken the bait.
Leaning down, he whispered into her ear. “Stay with Jas.”
It was an order. Protective. Harsh. No humor.
Not like him.
She froze, blinking at him as if he’d startled her. He hadn’t. He was attuned to her every move, and she had been casting glances toward him for the better part of the night. He’d been living for it.
Dakota nodded, trusting him enough not to question. “I was planning on it.”
Unfortunately, he’d been hoping for that. She was a capable warrior in her own right, but he didn’t like the idea of taking his eyes off her for long. Whoever’s gaze was tracking him wouldn’t take care of themselves. Inside, his wolf stirred.
As he stepped away, Jasper raised a brow, but Blaze gave the other warrior a slight shake of his head. Later.
Blaze’s eyes darted down to Dakota with silent communication.
Stay with her.
Jas nodded. The Grey Wolf international relations liaison was a fierce fighter. He’d protect any of their pack with his life, but not like Blaze.
He was made for this.
Blaze disappeared into the maze of the dance floor. It didn’t matter where he went, the uneasy feeling followed. After several rounds playing cat and mouse through the decked-out barn hall, he finally ducked into a darkened alcove near the exit.
A strong hand clamped onto his shoulder.
Blaze spun. He slammed the assailant against the wall, pinning him with ease. The sharp edge of his blade pushed against the attacker’s throat as he let out a feral snarl.
But it was silenced by his victim’s deep-throated laughter.
Blaze stilled. He knew that laugh. Had served alongside the wolf it belonged to for several years.
The colored overhead lights of the party flashed through the dark, revealing a familiar face. Amarok “Rock” Saila. Mercenary for the Yellowknife Pack, their Arctic wolf allies, and as Blaze knew him, former MAC-V-Alpha soldier. They’d served together in the shifters-only unit of the U.S. military until Blaze had finally gotten out a few years back.
Blaze let out a curse, sheathing his blade. “You’re lucky I didn’t kill you, you bastard.”
“I wouldn’t be your first. Luck has never favored either of us.” Rock rubbed at his throat where Blaze’s knife had been, his expression turning grim. “You act like you’re still in Russia, brother.”
Blaze huffed with mild amusement. He glanced toward the floor as he ran his fingers through his hair. “I don’t think I ever really left.”
A beat of silence passed between them before Blaze cracked a grin to ease the tension. The dark Arctic wolf returned the smile and extended his hand.
Blaze swatted it away. “What the hell are you doing here?” He pulled the other man in for a quick thump of a hug.
Rock gave him a hard clap on the shoulder in return. “The better question is, what the fuck are you wearing, soldier?”
Blaze shrugged. “It irks Maverick.” He nodded toward the dance floor, where the Grey Wolf packmaster was no doubt waiting on the arrival of his bride.
Rock shook his head. “You always did cause trouble with your superiors. Me being one of them.”
“My superiors were never all that superior.” Blaze winked.
Rock let out a harsh laugh. “Only because you never wanted to play leader.”
“Don’t I know it.” Blaze nodded. “Still don’t.” Rock had him pegged all right.
Once he’d come home, as the Grey Wolf security specialist, he’d worked hard to keep a low profile among his packmates, at least when it came to anything away from his computer. With more than two tours serving in MAC-V under his belt, Blaze didn’t hold any illusion that he was a better fighter than most. He could have easily worked his way up the ranks of his fellow elite warriors, besting Colt, their high commander, or hell, maybe even Wes, their pack’s second, but that didn’t mean he wanted the responsibilities that came with it.
He knew all too well the blood that could leave on a man’s hands.
Rock gave him a once-over, sizing him up. “I know what you’re capable of, even if you’ve made certain your packmates don’t.”
Blaze gave a mock wince. “They have some idea.”
A cryptic response. He should have known.
Blaze’s expression darkened. It’d been to protect them, all of them, but if his packmates ever learned the truth…
“You’re not here to shoot the breeze,” he said, cutting straight to the point. A wolf like Rock didn’t do anything for shits and giggles.
“No.” Rock lowered his voice despite the sounds of the reception around them. “There’s been a breach.”
The cold nipping at Blaze earlier was nothing compared to the ice now coursing through his veins. The snarl that ripped from his throat was more wolf than man. “That’s not possible.”
“Possible or not, it happened,” Rock countered. “You know better than most what’s possible for those monsters.”
Everything inside Blaze coiled like a viper ready to strike. He hadn’t anticipated this.
Not now. Not ever.
Not when he’d thought he’d buried the truth.
Unintimidated by his venom, Rock reached out and gripped Blaze’s shoulder—hard.
Blaze growled. “I created those encryptions myself,” he ground out.
They’d been near impenetrable.
His eyes flashed to his wolf as the beast inside him reared its head. He’d need to shift soon for the sake of his own sanity.
“Exactly,” Rock hissed. The golden amber of his gaze now matched Blaze’s own.
With a guttural curse, Blaze pulled away from the other wolf, retreating farther into the darkness of the alcove. He needed to move, pace. Something. He snarled. “Tell me my file wasn’t accessed.” He didn’t have an ounce of hope he was that lucky. Who the hell was he kidding? Of course it had. He’d been the shield for the whole damn unit.
“I don’t know,” Rock answered.
Blaze slammed his fist on the nearby wall. “Fuck.”
“My words exactly.” Rock crossed his thick arms over his chest, looking as deadly as Blaze felt.
The pulse in Blaze’s temple quickened. “Tell me there isn’t anything else.”
“There couldn’t be anything else.” The gold of Rock’s wolf eyes flared. “We both know this is as bad as it gets.”
Blaze’s mouth went dry.
No. Rock was wrong. This wasn’t even close to the worst.
Something in his gaze must have given his thoughts away, because Rock reached for him again as if to lend him strength. “You’ve bested them before. You can do it again.”
The weight of Rock’s hand on his shoulder felt too heavy. Blaze tried to brush it off but failed. “The last time nearly killed me.”
“This time, it won’t.” Another squeeze before Rock released him. “You’ll know they’re coming.”
Blaze let out a harsh, humorless laugh. “I’m not sure that’s preferable.” He could still practically taste their blood in his teeth. Iron. Metallic. Nauseating.
“Anything that keeps you and your pack alive is preferable.”
Blaze shook his head. “Easy for you to say. It’s not you they’re after.”
Rock stiffened, the unspoken words between them brimming with tension.
“They’ll come for me next.” Rock smirked, but with the quick gleam of his wolf canines, it appeared more threat than pleasure. “That’s why I came to warn you.” He paused. “Watch your back, soldier.”
Blaze nodded. “I always do. I never stopped.”
Rock moved to step away. “I’ll be in touch.” He withdrew into the darkness of the party’s shadows as swiftly as he’d emerged, pausing only seconds before he disappeared. “And for what it’s worth, brother, I prefer the cowboy hat.”
Blaze let out a bark of a laugh, now standing alone in the alcove, despite the hundreds of bodies filling the building. Feeling suddenly overheated, he stripped off his suit jacket, tossing it on a pile of coats near the door.
He inhaled a deep breath, settling his expression as much as he could before he emerged onto the dance floor and headed toward the bar. Austin. Malcolm. Detail. Responsibilities.
Thenhe could come apart.
At the bar, Austin was still absent, making rounds, but Malcolm had returned. Blaze beelined straight toward his scowling packmate until he was within hearing distance. “I need you to take over detail for the next half hour.”
The lines of Malcolm’s face deepened. “Since when do I take orders from—”
“Just do it,” Blaze growled.
Malcolm fell silent. The other wolf gave a grim nod.
Blaze headed back toward the barn door, eager to shift, to run, to feel the mountains beneath his feet. He was already out in the freezing Montana cold and unbuttoning his dress shirt when a small hand caught his.
He hadn’t heard her approach. Dakota was stealth incarnate. The sounds of the party inside were silenced as she gripped his hand in hers. But he couldn’t turn to look at her.
“Are you okay?” Dakota’s voice was soft, concerned. If she hadn’t been his packmate, he would have thought she’d be freezing out here in that dress, the one he couldn’t bring himself to see her wearing again.
But his sexy little she-wolf was made of far tougher stuff than that.
He gave a sharp nod, casting a fake grin over his shoulder. “Always.” He forced any hint of anguish from his voice. “Go back inside. We both know Jasper will be lost without you. He’ll have to resort to staring at his own reflection in the mirror again.”
Dakota laughed, but the sound quickly fell short against the quiet of the falling snow.
He didn’t have to look at her to know the way the bright gleam in her warm brown eyes faltered. He’d seen it before, as if she wasn’t certain she believed he was all right. She was the only one who never really believed him.
She ran a gentle thumb over his hand, and he shivered beneath her touch.
“If you say so,” she whispered. She released his hand.
A moment later, he heard the barn door open, then close again as Dakota returned to the party, leaving him well and truly alone. That was the rub of Rock’s news, wasn’t it? Even in a room full of people, standing with the one woman he wanted to have by his side, Blaze would always be alone.
Without looking back, he shifted into his wolf, not bothering to wait until he reached the cover of the forest’s towering pines before he let out an echoing howl.