THE BEAST IN HIM
True, he was drunk. Very drunk. His daddy’s idea of a proper send-off for his youngest boy before the United States government owned his ass for the next few years. But just because he shouldn’t have had those last four tequilas, didn’t mean he didn’t know they were tracking her.
They were always tracking her. Always screwing with her. From what he could tell, she didn’t even stay at the house anymore. Her foster parents didn’t care as long as the checks kept rolling in. So she mostly lived out in the woods like a wild child. Except she wasn’t a wild child. Just a poor kid who’d had the unlucky misfortune of getting on the wrong side of his baby sister.
He caught their scent and immediately knew where they were heading—to the high school. They’d find her under the bleachers. She hid under there a lot. She could hide anywhere when she needed to. Unlike the brawnier She-wolves, her kind’s body type was small and wiry, like all wild dogs.
By the time they made it into the gymnasium, he already stood in front of the bleachers. He didn’t have time to find her and get her out; he’d have to stop them here.
“Hey, Bobby Ray,” Bertha, also known as Big-Boned Bertha, cooed. His sister, at sixteen and already six feet tall, was still smaller than Bertha. But she was tougher and Bertha learned early on not to mess with Sissy Mae Smith. She learned the hard way. Now she took it out on the smaller, weaker Omegas of the town. Yet, she seemed to have a special hard-on for this one girl. This one girl with no protection, no family, and no Pack. A dog among wolves. The Lord could be cruel when He set His mind to it.
“I know why you’re here, Bertha. And I want you to take your friends and go.”
“Oh, come on, Bobby Ray. We won’t hurt her none.” Bertha squatted down to look through the slats of the bleachers. “Is she in there? Come on out, Jessie Ann. We just wanna say hi.”
“I said you need to go.”
Bertha stood up, damn near as tall as he was, and tossed her hair back. “Why aren’t you at your party, Bobby Ray?”
“Once my daddy starts putting my brothers into headlocks and telling them they only live ’cause he didn’t kill ’em in the crib, it’s time for me to go.”
She stepped closer to him. “You really going to join the Navy tomorrow?”
“Already joined, darlin’. Tomorrow I get on the bus.” And the hell out of here.
“You’ll be missed,” she said low, for him only.
“My momma says that too.” He put his arm around her shoulders and steered her back toward the doors. “Look, you take these guys out of here. I’m waitin’ on somebody.”
“A friend who’s going to hook me up with the best ’shine in three counties. But he’s not coming in if he sees an audience. So why don’t you head back to the party and I’ll meet you there.” He forced a smile. “And then we’ll have a party of our own.”
“Okay. See you in about an hour?”
“Sure,” he lied, feeling almost guilty if he hadn’t known she’d come there to beat up a ninety-five-pound girl.
Bertha kissed his cheek and motioned to the other wolves to follow her out. The bunch of them were already pretty drunk. A few more drinks and they’d all pass out, and by the time they woke up in the morning, he’d be on a bus and gone from Smithtown forever.
Once their scent faded, Bobby Ray turned around and headed back toward the bleachers.
“It’s okay, Jessie Ann. You can come out now.” He waited for her to answer, but it seemed she was still scared. He caught her scent, so she was around somewhere. “Come on, Jessie Ann, you know you have nothing to worry about with me. I’ll walk ya home.” At least he hoped he could. That tequila was starting to hit him pretty hard.
“Dammit, Jessie Ann, I don’t have time for this.” He walked around the bleachers and crouched down to see under them. He felt a little wobbly from all the liquor, so he reached out and lightly put his hand against the metal of the bleachers.
Small brown hands grabbed hold of his shoulders and yanked him back. They both hit the floor as the bleachers slammed down like a set of dominoes. If he’d been under there, he’d have been crushed to death.
The silence after the deafening sounds of all that slamming metal stunned him.
“You did that.” Bobby Ray looked over his shoulder at Jessie Ann Ward. She was a cute little thing, but a tad innocent for his tastes. Big, wide brown eyes, a cute little nose, and full lips that promised all sorts of things he felt pretty confident she’d never be able to deliver on. She kept her long curly hair in two ponytails, and you could easily see the many colors flowing through each strand. All wild dogs had multiple colors in their fur and, when human, in their hair. Brown, gold, blond, white, and black all on one head made it hard for Jessie not to be noticed.
Still, he’d had the hots for her since the first time he saw her, but Jessie Ann was the kind of female who you mated with, not simply made out with. And he had no intention of getting trapped in this town. Another Smith male with a Pack of vicious sons and a mate who didn’t know if she loved him or hated him, probably both.
“I could have gotten killed,” he growled.
“Don’t snarl at me,” she growled back, pulling herself into a sitting position. “It wasn’t for you anyway.”
“No, it was for them. And do you think you would have ever forgiven yourself if they’d actually gone under there?”
“They wouldn’t have. It was just to scare ’em off. I’m tired of being hunted like a gazelle.”
He stared at her and finally saw all the bruises on her face and neck, probably going well down her torso and legs. They’d caught up with her again. Dammit. He did try to protect her, but there was only so much he could do, and Sissy Mae simply wouldn’t call off her She-wolves. Not even seventeen and she already had her own Pack. The females her own age followed Sissy around town like the Second Coming. He had no idea what happened between them, but Sissy made it clear she thought of Jessie Ann Ward as their own Pack Omega. Problem was, Jessie Ann didn’t much like that position. So she fought back when most Omega wolves would have taken it until it was over. But she wasn’t wolf. She was wild dog. And if she had her own Pack... but the wild dogs were dying out. The young adults had been hit by a vicious strain of influenza that could only be passed between them when shifted. It had wiped out more than half of the adult breeders before their own doctors could get a handle on it and come up with a vaccine to stamp it out. The damn thing had left a lot of elderly grandparents raising pups and a lot of orphans. Orphans like Jessie Ann.