Fangs of Anarchy, Book 1
Published 2016 by Book Boutiques.
Copyright © 2016, Dakota Cassidy.
All rights reserved.
“Whelp, you’ve done it now,” Irish McConnell muttered as his raven eyebrow rose on the sleek canvas of his granite-hard face. It was just the one, but it was always enough to make Claire Montgomery weak in the knees.
That and the perpetual stubble on his jaw. She wanted to feel it rubbed over every part of her, feel the scratchy tingle of his whiskers against her skin.
And yep, she’d done it all right. She’d outdone done it like she’d written the book.
“You have blood on your hand,” she pointed out, grunting as she stood to face him inside Boomer’s, an abandoned bar on the outskirts of their small town of Rock Cove, Maine. Her muscles ached and her eye was a bit sore, the scratches on her arm still raw but healing quickly.
Irish held up his hand to the light, looking at it with mock disgust. “And you know how hard real blood is for me to resist, Claire. What a crappy position to put me in.”
He said it as if it were her fault he’d walked into the middle of this. As if she’d offered him the genuine article to purposely tempt him.
“Blame, blame, blame,” Claire mumbled under her breath, looking down at the mess one of her favorite dresses had become.
Irish strode toward her, taking in the scene, his skin stretched taut over his high cheekbones. “Jesus Christ, Claire.”
“Leave Jesus out of this,” she huffed, forcing herself to stay calm while wiping the sweat from her brow with her forearm.
Irish looked at the mess on the littered bar floor, the neon sign blinking above his chiseled features making him look paler than he really was. His hair, like the feathers of a raven’s wing, gleamed slick and black in a short ponytail at the base of his skull.
His brow furrowed as he swiped the bottle of water she’d left on the bar, using it to rinse off the blood he’d managed to get on him from the door handle. He pulled a used cocktail napkin from one of the only nearby tables still standing and dried his hands.
Claire straightened her spine and waited for him to lose his cool. This scenario wasn’t going to happen without a heated exchange. Not if Irish was involved.
Their verbal sparring was legendary—she relished it. He made her use her brain, her words, and from the moment she’d met him, it had turned her on.
Yet Irish said nothing as he stood at the bar, roughly hewn, immorally sexy in his worn leather jacket and scuffed boots, bulky arms and thick thighs. Instead, his gaze fastened on hers and he waited until she broke first.
She always broke first. It was that stare. Penetrating her, devouring her, eating her up from the inside out.
“Say something. Say anything, Irish. Say it and be done.”
The leather of his jacket, identical to the one all his club members wore, creaked when he lobbed the napkin to the table, the sound abrasive and jarring to her sensitive ears. He pointed upward with a finger, still streaked with a crimson thread of blood. “Jesus. He might be your only hope at this point.”
Her sigh of exasperation echoed in the empty room. “Always helpful.”
Irish’s eyes narrowed and his jaw tightened. “Did you want me to rock you gently in the corner and blow unicorn kisses at you, Kitten, or do you want me to handle this first then give you the browbeating you deserve?” he asked, waving a lean hand around the room.
She lifted her chin in pure defiance. Irish McConnell had turned her down once before, and it had hurt like someone had stuck a hand in her chest and ripped her heart out. She knew why he’d turned her down, and it was logical, sane even. Still, she didn’t ask for anything from Irish because of it. Ever.
Lifting her chin higher, Claire said, “I didn’t ask for your help.”
“Well, you’re getting it.” He checked to be sure the door was locked before stalking back across the length of the bar, his thigh muscles bulging and pressing against his tight black jeans, and dropping his gloves on the scarred bar top.
Which meant things were about to get really real. When there was dirty work to be done, Irish always set his black leather gloves in a safe place. They’d been his father’s, and no one touched those gloves unless they wanted to lose a hand.
Claire planted her fists on her hips and shook her head, tamping down the naked fear of certain retribution. “You’re not allowed to help me, remember? We’re on two different sides. You know, like the Jets and the Sharks. The Montagues and the Capulets.”
He grinned then, the deep grooves on either side of his lean cheeks deepening. As always, when Irish smiled, it was an unlikely surprise. Like a meteor shower or an eclipse. It was a rare gift he bestowed on few, sure to steal the breath from any woman’s lungs and leave her in a puddle of goo.
Irish wasn’t just any old vampire. He was a cranky, pissy, hard-to-please vampire. The unlikeable, gruff president of the biker club Fangs of Anarchy—and the most irresistibly delicious man she’d ever known.
“You forgot Mothra versus Godzilla.”
She rolled her eyes at him and jammed a finger in the air. “Exactly. You’ve made our differences more than clear over the years.” He’d made them especially clear last year at their town’s annual Christmas fair and charity drive. A flash of red heat crept up her neck at the memory.
“And you decided now was the time to finally listen to me? What kind of alternate universe did I just walk into?”
Okay, so it was inopportune, to say the least. But no way could Irish be involved in this. One whiff of it, and her pack would string him up at high noon wrapped in cloves of garlic on a bed of crosses. There was nothing those cavemen biker club members the Road Dogs would relish more than to take Irish out—despite their races’ tenuous truce.
Claire dropped down to her haunches to assess how she was going to manage this, her nose full of the copper scent of blood, but she didn’t regret a second of it. Not one. Not right now. It had to be done.
Forcing herself to focus on the task at hand, she dismissed the vampire. “Go back to your club. I can handle this on my own.”
He reached down, hauling her up by her arm until there wasn’t an inch between them. “Not on your life,” he said, forcing the words from his tight lips like a thick milkshake through a straw.
It was always like this whenever they were within a hundred feet of each other. Tense, hot, an all-out war of restraint.
Even at this dark moment, when her life was crumbling around her, Irish’s body pressed to hers made her catch her breath. Every line of him, every inch of him was sculpted, unbelievably hard and cool to her own overheated limbs.
Claire tensed against his grip even though she wanted to melt into him, lean against his solid frame, take solace in his strength before all hell broke loose. “Do you want to die? Because that’s what’ll happen if you don’t go. Somebody’s bound to see your bike outside.”
Irish’s nostrils flared, his coal-black eyes consuming her. “I hid it. I come here to Boomer’s sometimes to get some peace and quiet. You know, away from the club and the clan. Luckily, no one ever comes out here much because they’re afraid of being hauled off to the prison camps, this being so close to the borders and all.”
“Who knew vampires needed special alone time?”
“If you had to run the club and lead an entire clan of misplaced vampires, you’d understand. They’re like a bunch of greased cats. Anyway, I’m always looking out for the one rebellious teenage vampire who thinks he can rage against the machine and get past the government borders. When I saw Boomer’s sign was lit up, I got suspicious.”
Damn. She hadn’t thought to turn the sign off after…Clearly, she lacked the stealth of a ninja. “Obviously peace and quiet isn’t what you’re going to get here tonight. Now, go home. I have to clean up.”
Rather than let her go, he pulled her closer, molding her body to his length, letting his hand stray to the swell of her hip. “Do you know the kind of hell that’s going to rain down on you for this, Claire?”
“Oh, hell-schmell. No one has to know unless you tell them. You’re my only witness,” she taunted, arching her back to get a better view of Irish’s face, fighting her hot longing for him. “You don’t want the same thing to happen to you if you rat me out, do you?”
She gave him a saucy grin as though she hadn’t a care in the world—even though she knew by tomorrow, her pack might be hunting her down like so much small prey.
He wrapped an arm around her waist, his eyes now amused. “You mean werewolf versus vampire? Hot. So damn hot, but don’t tempt me. Because you’d lose, pretty lady, and you know it. I’m stronger, faster.”
His eyes glittered. “That’s fair. But with age comes wisdom and a certain prowess you obviously lack. This was messy, Claire. Really messy.”
That was fair, too. It was messy. Boomer’s was a shitwreck of overturned tables, broken glass, and blood. So much blood. “Yeah. Things didn’t exactly go according to the plan.”
Hah. They hadn’t gone at all like the plan because there’d been no plan, per se. There’d been a lot of screaming she hadn’t anticipated, though. Had she known, she’d have brought duct tape and a ball gag. Still, in the end, she’d won the battle.
Irish’s delectable lips hovered near hers, making her gulp. “Do they ever with you?”
“Oh, c’mon. I’m pretty organized. But I admit, I’m better at planning a library fundraiser than I am at…this.” She stumbled over actually using the word to describe what “this” was. Her chest pressed against his heightened her lust, yet apparently dampened her vocabulary.
“They’ll kill you.” He hissed the words as though her death mattered to him.
“I’ve always said I’d rather be dead, haven’t I?” she challenged. When she’d spoken those words, she’d meant them. She’d said them loud and clear for two years, right up until just last week, when the full moon of her last birthday as a single woman was just around the corner.
She’d said it in front of her patrons at the library. She’d said it at the Pick and Pack while she shopped for rope and ant killer. She’d said it to her best friend Freya smack in the middle of a church supper.
In fact, she’d said it so much and so often, she might as well have wandered around with a sandwich board around her neck.
Irish lifted her, his fingers digging into her waist, plunking her down on top of the bar with a hard jolt. He spread her legs and stood between them, resting his hands on either side of her hips. “Was death really preferable to mating with Gannon?”
Claire shivered, goose bumps breaking out along her arms, bile rising in her throat. Just the mention of Gannon Dodd’s name made her want to projectile launch her lunch.
She stared Irish square in the eye. “Hmm. Let me count the ways. Being flayed alive and having vinegar poured into my raw wounds was preferable. Boiled in oil was preferable. Mating with the Abominable Snowman and the Lock Ness Monster in a ménage of sharp snowman claws and slimy water was preferable. So death was no big thing, as far as I’m concerned.”
“So you did this to avoid the mate? You couldn’t have just run off? Gone shopping out of town forever? Skipped over to one of the other paranormal territories? Hidden away?”
“Oh no. Make no mistake, Irish McConnell. I did this because Gannon’s a deplorable pig. But now that you mention shopping, a new pair of shoes might be in order.” She wiggled her feet encased in a pair of sparkly flats. They were ruined now—all the dragging and scuffling had ripped some of the rhinestones off.
Boo. A perfectly good pair of shoes and a dress trashed all in one night was so wrong.
Irish gripped her jaw, his long fingers curling into it. “Not a time to joke.”
Claire glared back at him even while his fingers on her skin drove her mad. He damn well knew what Gannon was like. Violent, angry, abusive. “Not a joke. I can’t go around without any shoes.”
“Claire,” he warned in that low, thick-like-caramel voice he had.
“Irish.” She mimicked his tone and his ultra-serious expression.
“Or I’m going to hand you over to your pack. Lock, stock and fresh mouth.”
Leaning back, she felt around the bar for her phone and held it up for Irish to take from her. “Do you think a text is too impersonal? Is telling your pack via text that you just murdered their alpha and your intended mate too much like breaking up with someone in a text? I’ve heard that’s rude. How would you word that to Gannon’s brother Courtland, anyway? Dear Second Pig in Charge, surprise, you’re the new alpha of the pack! Claire Montgomery just murdered your fuckknuckle of a brother in cold blood by luring him into her web with her feminine wiles and big words he was too stupid and too uneducated to understand. All input welcome.”
Irish glared at Claire, trying his best to ignore the frissons of heat she pulled from his body as easily as she pulled the books she loved from her library shelves. He clenched his hands into tight fists on either side of her generous hips.
Jesus Christ, she was everything. From the fiery cascade of auburn hair falling around her shoulders in shiny curls that he wanted to grip in his hand, to her pretty blue eyes. Claire was alluring, sweetly rounded, strangely olive-skinned for a redhead, and luscious-lipped.
Also forbidden, Irish.
Werewolves and vampires didn’t mix in this town. Ever. They really didn’t mix when the one woman you wanted more than you wanted to drink to sustain your immortality was mate to the alpha of a rival biker club. A rival biker club you were forced to live with.
But that had never stopped him from wanting Claire Montgomery. From wanting to splay her legs, rip off the scrap of panties she wore beneath her demure dresses, spread her wide, and take a long lick of the flesh he’d craved for five years.
Irish gritted his teeth. Claire didn’t know it, and he’d probably eat two heads of garlic followed by a swig of Holy Water before he’d admit it, but at all costs, he’d protect her.
And she was right. Gannon was a pig. A douchebag piece of shit who didn’t deserve someone like Claire Montgomery. But in the interest of keeping the peace, and keeping alive the gig he had going with Dodd’s club for synthetic blood, he stayed the hell away.
When she’d admitted how she felt about him last year at the town Christmas party, when she’d pressed her soft body to his, tried to capture his mouth in a kiss, his head had almost exploded right off his neck.
And he’d shunned her. Just like he was going to do now, even though he’d go home with her vanilla-wafer scent filling his nose and the memory of her breasts pushing at his chest, begging for him to run his tongue over her tight nipples.
The threat of vampires dying because they couldn’t live without the blood Gannon’s club provided was too real. Dodd would have taken that shit away in a heartbeat if he’d had even an inkling that Irish wanted Claire.
Irish and the Fangs ran the synthetic blood illegally. The same kind of blood on which humans had placed a tax so high three years ago, lower-middle-class vampires were starving, even dying painful deaths by the dozens.
Just another “fuck you” from the human government after they’d discovered it was unconstitutional to round up the paranormal and kill them all, which had been the original plan until the otherworldly revolted with the threat of a blood-sucking, entrails-eating uprising the likes of which humans had never seen.
Yet, even after the peace treaties and bullshit summits between both human and supernatural leaders, they were still at the government’s mercy just by virtue of their minority in numbers. The government used that against them, subtly, while trying to take them out by withholding vital necessities.
It was also considered too dangerous for paranormals to mingle with humans, so they’d sent them to obscure places like Rock Cove with the threat of mass extermination if they didn’t comply with the new laws. They’d given them towns to call their own, and left them to run them as they saw fit, leaving some paranormal territories in states of anarchy.
But not Rock Cove, Maine, where Irish had been forced to settle with his clan when the government had run them out of his home in New York, where he’d been a corporate attorney and only part-time bike enthusiast.
No one knew where Gannon got the blood, or who created it. But he’d cornered the market, and Irish had no intention of sacrificing the many with his painful lust for just one woman. It was a battle he fought every day, but he did it.
Still, this whole scenario wasn’t sitting right. She was hiding something—he just couldn’t pin it down. Claire wasn’t a murderer. Not without cause. He knew that much…smelled that much.
Claire swung the phone in his face, baiting him. “So, text? Or the more personal phone call?”
Irish pushed off the bar, mostly because he couldn’t stand another second spent so close to her. Even in the midst of this mess. “So, explain why you killed him. Please.”
“I’m not explaining anything to you, vampire. The less you know, the better.” She hopped off the bar, her feet slapping the floor.
She made her way over to Gannon’s awkwardly sprawled body, grabbing him by the feet and pulling him toward the door as though she were pulling a sack of potatoes from her car after a shopping trip. No emotion. Not even a twitch.
Irish blocked the exit. “What are you going to do with him, Claire? Bring him back to the Dogs at the club and just drop him off? Did you also lose your mind during your killing spree?”
“I wouldn’t step foot in that filthy club, and this was not a spree. A spree suggests more than one kill. A binge, if you will. Gannon was just one kill—even if it felt as if he had the grubby paws of a spree of people. Can you even believe I ended up destined to him? Me, a quiet, educated librarian with him, a disgusting…”
Irish’s ears went on alert. “A disgusting what?”
She shook her finger at him. “Never you mind, Coffin Lover. I’m not saying another word. No way am I letting you get in the middle of this.”
Irish crossed his arms over his chest and shook his head. “Uh-uh-uh. That still doesn’t tell me where you’re taking him.”
“Know any demons?”
She amused the hell out of him. Which he’d never show, but it made it damn hard not to indulge her. “A few, why?”
“Because Hell is as good a place as any to dump him. It’s where he belongs. Do they sell one-way tickets there?”
God. This woman. “Claire, stop being so damn difficult. I’m not letting you leave until you tell me what you’re going to do with him?”
She dropped Gannon’s legs, now becoming quite stiff. They plunked to the floor at a strange angle. “Listen here, Dark One. It’s none of your damn business. Wasn’t it just you who said you were going to turn me over to my pack? You have some phone calls to make, don’t you?”
“This is suicide.”
“Which rhymes with homicide. The noun used for what I just committed.” She reached back down, lifting Gannon’s legs again and throwing them over her shoulders to drag him outside, her heart-shaped face red, her chest rising and falling beneath the square cut of her neckline.
“Homicide does not rhyme with suicide. They only share the same suffix, Librarian.”
Claire stopped what she as doing for a moment and looked up at him, laughter in her almond-shaped blue eyes when she batted her thick eyelashes. “You stop. You know what a suffix is? Why, Irish McConnell, have you been practicing your Dr. Seuss?”
He gave her his best angry glare. “One fish, two fish, red fish, dead fish. Put him down, Claire,” he warned, letting his voice drop to a threatening decibel.
“Epic fail. It’s blue fish. Phew. For a minute there, I considered sleeping with you, Grammar Guru. Now you’ve gone and ruined it.” She leaned at the waist again, ready to hurl Gannon over her shoulder.
“Stop!” he bellowed, yanking Gannon’s legs from her grip and hauling his body over his own shoulder, cracking Gannon’s head on the exit door. Angry that her situation was forcing him to reveal a side he’d rather keep to himself. “The hell I’m going to let them kill you. You do remember the last werewolf to die for an infraction much smaller than this, don’t you?”
He watched Claire visibly shudder, smelled her ripple of fear. Good. Something needed to remind her she was on a suicide mission.
“I do. I remember. Joe Green.”
“And what did Joe do?” Irish asked as Gannon hung from his shoulder, his bulky body swaying to and fro.
Her nose wrinkled in cute distaste. “Had an affair with another club member’s wife or his old lady, or whatever you crazy bikers call them.”
He hated the disgust she held for bikers in general. Hated hearing it in her tone. Hated knowing she thought they were all ignorant, filthy scum of the earth. Someday he’d love to tell her that before the government interfered, he, too, had hidden amongst the humans, working as a very successful attorney, which was what paid for the synthetic blood he bought from Gannon while Irish searched for someone to recreate the formula.
“Right. They strung him up, stripped him of his patch, and burned the club’s tattoo right off his back. You werewolves might self-heal, but I’d bet my immortality it damn well hurt while it was happening. Remember Joe’s screams coming from the woods, Claire? How could you forget? You could hear it clear across town. A little bump and grind is nothing compared to murdering the alpha of your own damn pack. You’re bent out of shape right now, but you might change your mind damn quick if they come for you.”
Her beautiful blue eyes fell to the floor. “Fine. So what do you propose we do with him?”
“I propose you not ask questions. Just clean this place up—clean it good. Use your speedy werewolf skills, run home, get a bottle of bleach and get back here pronto. Leave nothing behind. Who knows who else comes out here? Someone might walk right into this mess if you don’t leave it spotless. Someone who might smell your blood mingled with Gannon’s. I haven’t seen many of the kids in town out here much because we’ve instilled fear in them about getting too close to the borders, but you can’t afford not to be careful, Claire. When Gannon turns up missing, you’re the first person they’ll come looking for. Be ready.”
He saw her bravado hit low tide when she said, “Shit. I didn’t think of that.”
Irish clenched his jaw. “There’s plenty you didn’t think about. Now handle this.” He turned to leave, wishing like hell he could stay. Claire put her hand on his back to stop him.
Just that small touch was all it took to create a rush of need in him so deep, so primal, it would scare the hell out of her. It scared the hell out of him.
“Thanks, Irish,” she whispered, the sweet lilt of her voice wrapping around his eardrums.
Walk away, Irish. Use those vampire legs and get the fuck out.
He nodded his head before pushing his way out of the bar and heading for his bike, trying to shake off the indelible scent of Claire.
The crunch of icy snow beneath his feet made what he was about to do real. Very real. Something he’d die a gruesome death for if he were found out.
Setting Gannon’s body on the back of his bike, he used a bungee cord to tie him upright to the seat. His silhouette under the moonlight made for a macabre image.
But Irish chuckled at the sight. He couldn’t say he was sorry the son of a bitch was dead. The werewolf had had it coming for a long time. He was a cruel pack leader, and an even crueler president to his club. He and Irish clashed often but they’d managed not to kill each other.
When the government had dumped them all here ten years ago and left them to their own devices, things hadn’t been so bad. At least not while Gannon’s father Hardy had ruled. The two clubs had managed to come to a peaceful, albeit tenuous understanding, enforcing laws as needed and, in general, keeping at least a modicum of the order one would expect to find in a small town run by humans.
They’d prospered together during a time when survival was dependent upon your neighbor. They’d moved into abandoned houses, made them their own, put their government supplements to good use, created families, went to school, hosted town events, lent each other helping hands.
But when Hardy got himself killed trying to cross the border into Canada and Gannon was handed the alpha role of his pack—shit went haywire, and it had been an effort ever since to contain the asshole and his cronies.
So whatever he’d done to Claire had to have been pretty shitty. She didn’t have it in her to hurt a fly—Irish knew that instinctively without question. She was spicy, no doubt. Her tongue was sharp, her mind sharper, but she was no killer.
Irish stared down at Gannon, the moonlight shining on his round face, his rubbery lips slack in death. Slapping the dead man on the back, he asked, “So, Gannon, what the shit did you do to make sweet, well-mannered librarian Claire Montgomery kill your dumb-fuck ass?”
Claire let herself into her small house on Rose Meadow Lane at exactly three-fifteen, exhausted but satisfied she’d rid Boomer’s of the scent of death—and the grisly aftermath of Gannon Dodd’s murder. She’d stopped at the stream adjacent to her house to rinse away the blood on her body, each splash of water a reminder of what she’d done.
Stripping off her dress, she decided burning it was the only way to ensure Gannon’s odor didn’t linger. Claire balled it up, grabbing a match from the hearth and striking it, throwing it into the fireplace where fresh kindling awaited.
As the flames grew, she forced herself to block out the horror of tonight and focus on the fact that she was free of Gannon.
Whatever that meant in this day and age of paranormal segregation.
It means you don’t have to mate with the vilest piece of trash to ever roam the earth.
Lobbing her dress into the fire, she watched it turn to ash before heading to the shower to more thoroughly wash Gannon’s filth from her skin. Her stomach rolled. Even as a were who was raised on the blood of the hunt, she’d never seen so much carnage.
She kept waiting for regret to sink in, for remorse to penetrate this haze of adrenaline she was experiencing, but so far all she felt was enormous relief that Gannon would never hurt anyone else again. He also wouldn’t darken her doorstep or humiliate her in front of her book club by stomping his big, ugly feet through her beloved library to remind her she was his mate.
As she made her way to the bathroom, her calico cat, Mr. Darcy, slipped between her ankles, weaving in and out. She scooped him up, hugging him hard, still weak from the night’s events. All she wanted to do, all she’d ever wanted to do, was live quietly in this new way of life her kind had been forced into, and manage the town’s library surrounded by her favorite books.
But when the mate call had come, and Gannon had picked her at the ceremony, everything in her peaceful life had changed.
Tonight, it had crashed down around her, and nothing would ever be the same if anyone found out the truth.
She shivered, dropping Mr. Darcy on the top tier of his kitty condo, pushing that awful mate night from her mind. The night that gave Gannon the right to declare her his in front of their pack members. The very sight of Gannon made her ill. What would it have been like if she’d been forced to be his wife?
What if she’d had to endure his beefy paws and breath that smelled like a thousand rotting souls forever?
What if she told everyone exactly who Gannon Dodd really was? What he was capable of?
Claire pushed the bathroom door open, grabbing fresh towels from the cabinet and flipped the tap for the hot water. She leaned against the wall, pressing her burning cheek to the tile, swallowing back the bile continually rising in her throat. She needed to keep it together. Hatch a story and stick to it at all costs. Never deviate.
And Irish—she needed to be sure he stayed out of this from here on out. Rock Cove couldn’t afford to lose one of the only fair enforcers it possessed. Despite his club’s moniker, he’d kept Gannon and the Dogs in line.
The mere thought of him—and the lengths he’d gone to in order to protect her—made her heart tighten and her gut clench with fear. If Gannon had known how much she wanted Irish, he’d have killed her just for her thoughts alone.
Now she’d put Irish and his people in jeopardy.
Gripping the towels, she forced herself to stay in the here and now, breathing in the steam the shower created, letting her newly remodeled bathroom relax her frazzled nerves.
Whoever had owned this house before being offered something bigger and better by the government in return for leaving their home had taken great pride in the small things. Carved-out nooks in the walls, decorative sills on every window, crown molding, and ivory beadboard on the sides of her kitchen cabinets. When she’d found it and claimed it as her own, she’d kept the tradition of love and care alive, planting roses and verbena along the whitewashed fence out front, hanging pots overflowing with fuchsia and geraniums in the summer on her tiny front porch, planted impatiens in the window boxes, cramming them with color.
This house was more than she could have afforded on her salary as a librarian back in California. While she was resentful as hell that she’d been forced from her life without so much as a week’s warning, she was grateful she’d landed here when there had been absolutely no choice but to leave or spend the rest of her life in prison.
She lived where she still heard the ocean, where the waves still crashed against the rocks, and the wind blew soft and rose-scented in the summer. Where there was plenty of land to shift and run.
Her cell phone rang, stilling her step into the deep-blue-and-green tiled shower. Who was calling her at three in the morning? The strains of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet pulsed in her ears.
Answer? Don’t answer?
Claire dropped the towels, turned the tap off, and ran for her phone, scanning the living room until she spotted it in the bowl on the table in her entryway. Her eyes flew open wide when she picked it up—Freya?
Freya was almost always in bed by eleven, tucked in after a long night of marathon Law and Order reruns.
Panic seized her. Stay calm, Claire. Breathe. She pressed answer and muttered, “Freya?” Thankful her voice was hoarse from all the screaming she’d done tonight; it lent being fake-awakened from a sound sleep some credibility.
“Did I wake you? Of course I woke you. It’s after three in the morning. How silly of me.” Freya’s sleepy yet still-sultry voice soothed her.
“It’s okay,” she offered, pinching her temple. “What’s wrong, Freya?” Something was definitely wrong. She heard it in her friend’s voice.
Freya paused for a moment, the crackle of the line hissing in Claire’s ear. “Are you sitting down?”
“I’m lying down. I’m in bed,” she lied, so effortlessly she might have patted herself on the back if not for the gnawing guilt.
Freya sighed into the phone. “Your intended is missing.”
Claire paused for a moment, praying some of her fifth-grade acting skills would save her. She’d been a mean Pilgrim Number One back in the day. She could certainly be one now when her life depended on it. “What?”
“Gannon’s missing, Claire, and no one can find him. They found his bike off of Rooster Rise, but no Gannon.”
Shit, shit, shit. His bike. His stupid, loud, ozone-eating, ugly bike. Rooster Rise was damn close to Boomer’s. Too close. How could she have forgotten to find his bike and get rid of it? “How do you know?” She winced when her voice rose. Squeaky. That sounded a little squeaky.
“The Dodds and their gang of merry men just came banging on my door. They’re doing a house-to-house search for him. Said they tried yours about an hour ago but you weren’t home. So naturally, they came here.”
Her hand began to shake. She tamped down the fear by biting the inside of her cheek. “But I saw him earlier this evening. He was at Captain Ahab’s, drinking, just like he does every night of his wretched life.” The foul, drunken sod drank like his existence depended on it. “Why would they go looking for him? He’s known for disappearing for days at a time. What’s the sudden panic about?”
She heard a rustle of fabric before Freya said, “Apparently, there was some big meeting he wouldn’t have missed for all the small woodland creatures in the world, and he missed it. Never showed up. That has the pack and his brother Courtland in a tailspin.”
Even in death, Gannon Dodd was still up her ass. “Well, they haven’t come back here.” Yet.
“But they will. You’re the first person they asked me about. They asked if I knew where you were earlier tonight, and if Gannon was with you. I think they hoped maybe you and Gannon were just, you know, getting to know each other and didn’t want to be disturbed. I had to bite my tongue to keep from telling them you’d rather be dead than let him inside your house, but really, they already knew that. It wasn’t as if you kept it a secret. Which, I’ll remind you, I told you was something better kept to yourself,” she scolded in her motherly tone.
That was true. Freya had worried often about how outspoken Calire was regarding the archaic mating ceremony, and more than once she’d pinched her arm to quiet her when she’d railed against the fact Gannon had picked her as a mate.
Claire’s knees wobbled as she made her way to her bedroom to find clothes. It was all she could do not to blurt out everything to Freya. The entire horrible night. They’d been best friends forever, shared everything. But if not a soul knew, not a soul could tell her secret. “Then I guess I’ll just wait for them to show up. I’d better get some clothes on.”
“Wait, Claire. Before you go…are you okay, honey?”
She pictured Freya’s pretty face, rosy-cheeked and ivory-skinned, her vanilla-blonde hair falling to her chin in silken waves as she gave Claire that worried look.
“What do you mean, am I okay?”
“I mean, I know mating with Gannon was a fate worse than death to you, and who could blame you? He was repulsive. But you have a good soul, my friend, and I wouldn’t put it past you to get upset because someone’s missing—even if that someone is Gannon Dodd.”
Oh, sorely misguided Freya. If you only knew. Her soul was blacker than the darkest night. There was nothing good about it anymore. “I’ll be fine. I’m sure they’re just panicking because they’re total idiots who couldn’t reason their way out of a paper bag. Gannon will probably show up at that dirty clubhouse tomorrow morning and they’ll find out he was off whoring and boozing. He’s probably passed out drunk on some hooker’s bed in the Zone.”
“Does he really go to the Zone?”
Freya’s disbelief that anyone was capable of going to a place like the Zone—where those who’d balked at the human government’s laws had opened up shop, and depravity ran rampant—might have made her laugh. Except, they were talking about Gannon.
“Where else could you find a woman willing to do him without the benefit of money as a dealmaker?”
Freya chuckled, soft and tinkling. “Score one for you. You’re right. But even so, do you want me to come over so I can be there when they question you?”
Claire couldn’t help but smile at the phone. Freya was ever the lawyer. Even though they’d taken her lucrative practice away and there was little to no lawyering to be had here in Rock Cove, you couldn’t beat the attorney out of her if you used a Louisville Slugger.
“I’ll be fine. Since when have you known me to back down from the Dodds? Never, that’s when. Go back to sleep, Sunshine. I got this.”
“Okay, but you call me if they give you a hard time. Promise?”
“Promise. Go back to bed. See you tomorrow.” Claire clicked the phone off and dug in her drawers to find some clothes. She threw on jeans and a T-shirt and then sprayed herself from head to toe with perfume, hoping to disguise the lingering scent of murder.
Simply washing away Gannon’s existence might be harder than she’d originally thought.
* * * *
Her doorbell rang precisely twenty seconds after the roar of motorcycle engines abruptly stopped. She took a long breath before propping her door open to find Gannon’s brother Courtland and the rest of his dimwit crew gathered on her small front porch. Their club jackets hung from their broad shoulders, their unshaven faces all looking to her.
As the icy wind of a Maine winter’s night rolled in, she affected an indifferent stance. “Don’t you boys need some sleep? Brain cells don’t reproduce by just squeezing really hard, you know. You need to constantly rejuvenate them.” Someone snickered from her lawn, but she couldn’t see past the crowd of bikers to identify who it was.
Courtland pushed the door open, wedging his way inside and planting his big body against it. His greasy, dirty blond hair trailed down his back in windblown mats as his beady reddened eyes assessed her.
Claire rose on tiptoe, her anger spiking as she waved a finger under his bulbous nose. “Didn’t your mother teach you any manners? You’re not supposed to enter someone’s house until you’re invited. Oh, wait. Your mother’s not with us anymore, right? Didn’t you buffoons eat her for dinner by mistake?”
Courtland, so like Gannon in appearance if you tacked on an extra forty pounds, made a face. “Shut up and get inside.” He pointed a finger in the direction of her living room, where the fire still burned bright.
Refusing to move, Claire glared up at him, towering over her. There was no use in cowering. That would be completely out of character for her when it came to Gannon’s brother and his crew. She’d never made any bones about how she felt about them before; she couldn’t afford to start now.
“Get out, Courtland. Get out now. You might think you have the authority to barge into my home, but you’re wrong. You’re just a lowly deputy to the council, and if I have to go to the council with a complaint, I will.”
Courtland ignored her, pushing past to take a sniff of the living room, his snow-covered boots leaving slushy footprints on her hardwood floors.
“Didn’t I use small enough words, Courtland? Get. Out,” she spat.
He was in front of her in an instant, his nostrils flaring, his eyes wild and glassy. “Don’t you tell me what the hell I can do!” he thundered from thick lips.
No fear—show no fear. Courtland was an ominous presence, and much like Gannon, you never knew when he’d fly off the handle. But this was her home, and he had no right to invade it.
She narrowed her eyes, her distaste for him and his ilk all over her face. “Or you’ll what? Beat me up like you beat up your old lady? You’re forgetting—I’m were, too. And I’m not some weak druggie were, strung out on that crap you get from the Zone, like your poor wife is. So let’s do this, big bad wolf.” She planted her finger directly into his chest for emphasis, ready to shift at a moments notice.
Courtland grabbed her hand, taking clear pleasure in twisting it—
Before he was shot through the air like a bloated cannonball, sliding across the top of her kitchen counter and crashing onto the floor.
Irish flew across the room behind him in a blur of black leather, hauling Courtland up by his jacket and pinning him to the wall with such force, the sheetrock cracked. “Touch her again and I’ll kill you myself,” he seethed, low and red-hot with anger.
Courtland tried to twist out of Irish’s grip, to no avail. Spit formed at the corners of his meaty mouth when he said, “Gannon’s gonna kill you for that!”
Irish let him drop, flicking him in the face with two fingers, making Courtland growl. “Aw, whassamatter, big guy? You need Gannon to fight your battles? You think he’d like it if he knew you were manhandling his intended mate? You said you had some questions for her. You didn’t say you were going to behave like a damn out-of-control moron. Good thing me and my boys decided to ride along, huh?”
When the rest of Courtland’s crew finally caught up to Irish, they surrounded him, with the Fangs right behind them, their pale faces crowding her kitchen.
Rosy, one of the oldest members of the Dogs, hovered behind Irish’s shoulder, bouncing nervously from foot to foot. Rosy was strung tight, wired and frenetic, with darting eyes and quick, often frenzied gestures. “He’s right, Court. Gannon’d be pissed. Relax, man.”
Courtland shoved his way past Irish, his eyes finding Claire’s. “Where’s my brother?”
Where he belongs. Claire squared her shoulders and affected indifference, which was perfectly normal for her where the Dogs were concerned. “Why would I even care enough to keep track of him? I think we both know how I feel about your sibling.”
Courtland’s moon-shaped face went blank. “My what? What did you just call him?”
She let a raspy sigh escape her lips. “Sibling means ‘brother’. I don’t know where your brother is, and I don’t care.”
“Nobody can find him, Claire, and his bike was just dumped off at Rooster Rise. He loves his bike.”
She jammed her hands in the pockets of her jeans to keep from jamming them down his throat and shrugged her shoulders. “That’s probably because nobody wants to find him but you, Courtland. Why all the fuss about Gannon taking off, anyway? Doesn’t he do this all the time? He goes off for days and you’re not waking the dead to find him any other time. No insult intended,” she said to Irish and the Fangs. “He has a history of disappearing into the Zone, doesn’t he? Did you check there?”
“He was supposed to be at a meeting. One he wouldn’t miss, and even if he was in the Zone, why would he ditch his bike?”
“Because Gannon’s not exactly a brain surgeon? Maybe someone stole it. The Zone isn’t Candyland. How should I know? I think I’ve made it clear how I feel about the mate with him. You’ve always known. So why would you think I’d keep tabs on his whereabouts?”
Courtland’s eyes narrowed to tiny slits in his chubby, unshaven face. “He said he was coming here to your place before our meeting. Where were you tonight?”
Had he? Damn that asshole. “Gannon says a lot of things. Maybe he did come here while I wasn’t home. I was out tonight. So if he came by, he was shit out of luck.”
Courtland’s glare said he was suspicious. “Where’d you go?”
Laughter rippled through the Fangs, the joke entirely escaping the Dogs.
“You’re a damn smart-mouth, Claire Montgomery. If I find out he was here, Miss Uppity—”
“You’ll what?” she yelped, her voice cracking. “Find out he was here? So what? Jesus, Courtland. Don’t be such a blithering idiot. Go back to that hole of a club of yours and leave me alone. I don’t owe you any explanations. I don’t know where Gannon is, but if I know your sibling, I bet he’ll show up, just like the bad penny he is. Probably tomorrow afternoon, smelling of illegal moonshine and the stench of some cheap woman. Now get out of my house and don’t come back!”
“You heard the lady,” Irish said, widening his stance.
Courtland jammed his face in Irish’s. “You have no damn right interfering in pack business!”
Irish smiled, sinister and cold. He waved a gloved finger under Courtland’s nose. “Uh-uh-uh, Second Fiddle Alpha,” he taunted. “First of all, you have no right to lay hands on a woman, and if you do it again while I’m in the vicinity, I’ll bleed your dog-ass dry. Second, I have every damn right. I run this town right alongside Gannon. If you’re going to question one of its occupants, I can do whatever I want in an effort to keep peace between us. Those are the rules as made by both parties. After your outburst tonight, it’s a good thing I came along. Now, get the hell out.”
Courtland gave a grunt of disgust, pushing his way past the Fangs and motioning his crew to join him before sending out a parting shot. “You’d better not have anything to do with this, Claire. Or I’ll see to your skinnin’ myself.”
She fought the shudder until the very last biker was gone, and that’s when it hit her. Full-on assault, square in the gut.
She was a party to murder.