Double Alphas by Mia Wolf

Chapter 1 – Max

The croupier slides the next card across the table, reaching further than she has to, so that her fingertips brush mine, her skin a shimmering gold, her breasts pressed against the table for full effect. She watches with unblinking green eyes, her tawny hair full of movement, although she holds herself still.

I lift the corner of the card to see what I’ve been dealt—Ace of Hearts—but it doesn’t matter, I know I’ve won. She scans me for a reaction, but I give none. I learned to mask my true self a long time ago, the same way a human might learn to walk or talk. She draws her hand back, and sits back on her high stool, looking down at the table and the players.

Members of the Hawk Clan hold positions in society where they can use their natural observation and hunting abilities. A croupier might not be an obvious career choice, but those eyes of hers miss nothing, as she watches and waits. I lay my cards on the table, push all my chips carelessly to the center of the table and the only person still in play swallows nervously.

“All in.” The croupier turns her attention to my opponent and waits for him to indicate his play.

It is his move, and all he has left available to bet is his business, the very casino we sit in. I accrue property in many ways, buying up land and real estate on both sides of the river. The casino is smack in the middle of downtown Carlisle, on the East side, which is traditional Yhukal territory, and it is about to be mine.

I sit back in my chair, drink in hand, prepared to wait as long as it takes for the man to make his decision. Men in suits surround him, whispering furiously to each other and to the owner, flicking cautious glances to my side of the table.

Fear comes off the men in waves, I smell it. They are loyal to Luca, Alpha of the Yhukal clan, even if they don’t know him in his true form. It’s the strictest rule of any shifter clan, to maintain human form when in their company. This was Luca’s side of the river, and the fact that I, a Mukchi, am here makes them incredibly nervous.

My lifelong friend and clan brother, Moran, enters the room after taking a call outside, and stalks toward me. I turn my head to listen to him.

“Arkady’s crew has just turned up, wanting to know what we’re doing here,” Moran hisses. “Luca too, and he’s pissed.”

I nod and sit forward, my forearms resting on the green baize of the table. Everyone’s eyes are on me.

“Gentlemen, I have business to attend to. Let’s wrap this game up.”

The whispered conversation becomes more frantic, and I am aware of some noise outside of the room. Moran’s hand grips my shoulder to indicate I am needed, and I stand to my full height, my hands flat on the table.

“Gentlemen?”

The croupier turns her head to the owner, her palm upturned toward him in invitation to make his move.

He reaches over his shoulder to take a roll of paper from one of his associates and puts it on the table.

“It’s yours, Mr. Fedorov.”

I let out a loud laugh of satisfaction, smiling broadly at the room. I nod my thanks to my opponent and flick a chip to the croupier. She catches it without breaking eye contact. A momentary flicker of remorse runs through me; I won and am now her boss, and since I never fraternize with my staff, she’ll be the one that got away.

I follow Moran out to the reception, and down a corridor to a fire exit, where the noise gets louder; men’s voices raised in anger. Moran presses down the handle and I step out into the cool night air, inhaling the scent of the river tinged with pheromones from the gathered group.

“What the fuck are you doing on my patch, Fedorov?” Luca steps out of shadows, his crew giving him space. “Are you lost?”

Moran was right, Luca is pissed; his bearded jaw lifts as he speaks, his hands clenched into fists, his pecs dancing under his t-shirt. I generally avoid physical violence in human form—my suits cost more than some people’s monthly wage and I hate getting dirty. I know, completely at odds with being a bear shifter, but have you ever tried getting into a shower when you’re ten feet tall?

But I will always make an exception for Luca Arkady. A typical gambler apparently at the top of his profession, he hates to lose, and tonight is no exception. Like a sharp claw in a wound, I press hard with my choice of words and watch him squirm.

“Your patch, Luca? Oh no, my friend. You’re on my turf now. I just won the casino in a card game, and you and your Yhukal teddy bears are trespassing.”

A low growl comes from somewhere. Luca and his beardy bears stand close together, and I smile. Moran swirls his finger in the air to indicate to our men that they should surround the Yhukal.

“You didn’t learn your lesson last time?” Luca’s voice is menacing, his chest expanding with each breath he takes.

I run my hand down my tie, and sigh. All I want to do is celebrate my win, not ruin yet another set of clothes getting down and dirty in a parking lot. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, the dispute between our families started over some woman years ago, but our histories are much more intertwined. The Yhukal and Mukchi have battled for hundreds of years to control the territory, way before the city was founded. In more recent times, our forefathers tried to settle the dispute by splitting the city, with the river as the boundary.

But that was before, and I am Alpha now. I love my human form. I love my human life, with the money, and the power money can buy. Bear battles are so last year, and I avoid shifting as often as I can. I want to rule the city, I want to be the best, but I want to do it my way, in human form. I fight hard and I fight dirty in the boardroom, stock markets, even in a card game, but I loathe the physicality of bear fights.

Luca loves to fight physically, lives for the vicarious thrill of claw-to-claw combat but also trains hard in his human form, often in his gym for hours at a time. He is a bear through and through and since he became Alpha last year, we’ve had regular run-ins. I took a bit of a beating last time.

I do learn from my mistakes, though, and this time I am more than ready. I’ve come to the East side with plenty of men, ready to quash any skirmish Luca might want to start. Plus, he needs bringing down a peg or two; he really isn’t ready to lead his clan. I’ve heard whispers the elders didn’t like his style. It might be time to make my move, especially as Luca is outnumbered.

The musk of shifting bears hit my nostrils, and as Luca starts to shift, I feel Moran make the change more quickly at my shoulder. Out of the corner of my eye, I see a flash of metal in the moonlight, before hearing a gun discharge and the floodlight illuminating the parking lot explodes with a flash.

We are fighting, and it’s for the best that it’s in the dark, so it isn’t immediately obvious that a bunch of bears are wrestling behind the casino. I make a note to check the security cameras afterwards, so that any evidence of our true form can be erased.

“Dammit,” I growl, feeling my own shift beginning, and yank at the knot of my tie, shrugging my jacket off. “This is gonna hurt.”

My shifts, if I wasn’t in the mood, take longer because it’s more of an effort. Luca, mid-shift, already towers above me, his simple black t-shirt shredded and hanging from his claws. He always makes it look so effortless, but then his outfits—any combination of t-shirt, jeans, and leather jacket—can easily be replaced from the thrift store. He probably carries a spare set with him.

The last human thought that enters my head before I lose the power of speech, and the primal urge to establish myself as the only Alpha takes over is that the current trend of beards is a godsend to any fur-based shapeshifter.

***

“Keep it together, Max,” I hear a voice speaking, but I’m not sure who it is.

I open my eyes, and then squeeze them shut tight, against the fluorescent tube lighting that causes star bursts behind my closed lids.

My head throbs at the sudden noise, a mixture of cries of pain, sirens and orders being shouted. After a shift from bear to human, with injuries, my senses were always hyper aware, and just being wherever I am, is hurting bad.

I am supported with my arm around someone’s neck, as they drag and carry me into a building. The smell of disinfectant, and of death, assails the sensitive hairs in my nostrils.

“Where—?” I begin but stop as the back of my legs hit a chair and I am helped into the seat.

“I’ve had to bring you to A&E, Max. You got shot.” I squint at Moran, who sits down heavily beside me. His face is bloody.

“Who the fuck shot me? One of the Yhukal?”

“No, the casino owner.”

I slump backwards, my head makes contact with the wall. I remember swinging my paw at Luca, as he lunged at me, his front legs raised to head level. I staggered backwards as his full weight bore down on me. My claws drove deep into his shoulder, and he roared in pain. I remembered shouts and gunfire, and shifting back, rolling Luca off my chest as he shifted also. That guy was solid muscle.

“I am the casino owner.”

“Funny.” Moran sniffs and swipes his hand across his upper lip, leaving a trail of blood. “I need to get you looked at, Max. There’s no exit wound.”

“Shit. Was anyone else hurt?”

“You did a number on Arkady. His shoulder is shot. Someone called the cops and the paramedics. I got you out of there before the cops arrived.”

I grunt my thanks, as a bolt of pain shoots through my leg. “What’s the official story?”

“An insider tipped off a local gang about your win and jumped us in the parking lot.” Moran stands and motions to an orderly with a gurney.

“What hospital are we at?” I ask, as Moran and the orderly help me up. Jesus, the pain is the worst I can remember experiencing.

“You’re at St. Bridget’s, man,” the orderly tells me cheerfully, swinging the gurney, making me nauseous.

My equilibrium is off kilter with the additional stimulus, and as I’m wheeled through a set of doors, the cries of pain are replaced by beeps from medical equipment and the sharp chemical tang of medication, and something else.

“Moran, why did you bring me here?” I grip his arm with all the strength I can muster, and pull him toward me, as I hiss, “The Yhukal shaman runs this place.”

There is no chance for further discussion as a female voice reaches my ears, along with a scent I’ve never experienced.

“Is this the walk-in gunshot?” Her voice is calm, the tone warm, but firm. “Okay, get him in bay two.”

I hear more voices, but hers is the one that fills my brain, the rhythm of her words like balm to my pain. The scent is floral at first, and the top notes dissipate to give way to a more earthy texture, like the damp soil after a spring shower. There’s more, as if the soil has been warmed by the sun, and a sensual bloom flowered, opening its petals to capture—

“I’m Kara.” The woman touches her hand to mine briefly by way of introduction. “I’m the senior charge nurse, and I’ll be looking after you.”

Her touch surges through me, taking three different pathways, to my brain, my heart, and my loins. I knew it would happen to me one day, that the smell would wash over me, and I’d know I was home. She would be the one and only I’d give my seed to. Who knew she’d be a human?