Ben Harkil ran a hand through his silvery-grey hair and wished he’d run the other way when his pack Alpha and beta females approached him three weeks earlier with such innocent smiles on their pretty faces. Sabrina and Madeline even buttered him up beforehand with homemade oatmeal cookies before springing their birthday present on him. A gift certificate to an exclusive matchmaking site called 1Night Stand.
Honky-tonk music mixed with laughter and loud conversation in the shifter-owned bar on the edge of the Appalachian Trail in North Carolina where he sat and nursed his beer. Despite his promises to himself not to get too hopeful, he couldn’t help but wish that the man he met tonight would be able to ease the empty place in his spirit. Even if that relief only lasted for one night and that space in his heart already belonged to someone else.
The owner of the matchmaking site, Madame Evangeline, arranged the blind date that brought his Alphas together with their beta so he understood why they put such faith in Eve. After all, it wasn’t every day he met a human who not only understood the intricacies of the werepuma world, but seemed to have an almost magical touch for arranging mind blowing one-night stands.
And man, did he ever need his mind blown. Memories stuffed his head from his four tours of duty over in the Sandbox and all the horrors he’d experienced there. As part of the shifter division of the Marines special ops, he’d been through the worst humanity had to offer. Diagnosed with severe PTSD, he’d been medically discharged and sent back to the States.
Thank God the Amber Moon Pride had been waiting for him. Glad to be back among the forest-covered mountains, he spent most of his time in puma form, roaming the Appalachian trail and losing himself in the purity of being an animal. He’d happily stay that way, but his human heart yearned for companionship, craved love.
The door to the bar swung open and a group of loggers pushed their way through the growing crowd of the country bar. Their boisterous laughter echoed off the massive rough hewn beams of the vaulted ceiling. The full moon was two nights away and the coming rush of magic made all the shifters restless and added to the lively energy filling the bar. A perfect night for what promised to be a savage mating that would hopefully burn away the harsh memories of the past.
Paulette, one of the daughters of the werebears who ran the bar, leaned on her elbows and examined him with her big brown eyes as she tossed her long, dark braid over her shoulder. While nicely rounded and pleasing to the eye, he’d known her since she was a baby and found it hard to look at her as anything other than a little sister. A very nosy little sister.
“So, you meeting one of your humans here tonight? What’s on the menu? A nice little blonde like the one you brought in last week, or another big bruiser like that dark-haired guy you were dancing with the other day. He was yummy, too bad you don’t share.”
Ben frowned into his beer, avoiding her gaze and refusing to rise to the bait. “Nope.”
She gave a mock gasp of shock and ruffled his hair, earning a growl. “Why Ben, are you finally going to spend some time with another shifter? Considering the steady stream of humans you’ve been with lately, people were beginning to take bets that you’d sworn off shifters all together, but I knew you wouldn’t last much longer. Humans are nice and all, but nothing compares to the touch of another shifter.” She blushed and quickly said, “So do tell, who’s the lucky man or woman who gets to enjoy your pleasant company tonight?”
Hoping she would go away and annoy someone else, he kept his answer brief. “Don’t know, blind date.”
Instead of taking the hint, she got a gleam in her eyes that didn’t bode well for going away anytime soon. “Ohhh, a man or woman of mystery. How romantic.” She lowered her voice further and gave a quick look around the bar before adding, “Be careful, okay? I mean, you’re all right for a stupid cat. I don’t want to see you get hurt.”
He gave a soft laugh and shook his head. “Baby doll, I’ll be all right. My Alphas recommended the matchmaker, Madam Eve. She’s the same one they used to find their beta.”
That settled it for Paulette. “Oh, I love Sabrina. She’s so nice and she helped set my leg after I broke it last fall in that rock slide.” Someone called for a beer and she raised her hand. “Gotta go. You have fun tonight.” She hustled down the bar and made some smart comment to the group of loggers that left them laughing while she refilled their pitcher.
He couldn’t remember if he’d ever been as innocent and free with his heart as Paulette.
Not too long after his first shift, a powerful Alpha named Axel invited Ben into his Pride on the premise of seeing if Ben would work out as his new beta. Young, naive, and flattered that the strong Alpha wanted him as his enforcer, Ben quickly accepted. He should have looked beyond the promises of fame and glory and considered why such a strong Alpha would want an untried puma as his second. He probably would have noticed something was off sooner, if he hadn’t fallen deeply in love and bonded with the younger brother of the Alpha, Jude.
At first he didn’t want to believe that his suspicions about Axel being a serial killer were correct. Jude worshiped his older brother and some of that sentiment seeped through their bond, making Ben feel especially guilty for even thinking Axel was capable of murder. When he finally faced up to the truth, it had been too late to do anything other than kill Axel.
Unable to face Jude after killing his brother, Ben had fled and never gone back. He could have severed the bond with the help of a shaman, but a perverse part of him clung to the only thing that he had left that connected him to a time in his life where everything seemed pure and good. When love unlike anything he’d ever known filled his life, and he would have laughed at the idea that it would ever be any different. The Alphas of the Amber Moon pride offered to kill his bond-mate for Ben, but he’d turned them down. He gave them the excuse that he wanted to do it himself, but deep down he still loved Jude with all his heart.
A quick glance at the battered clock hanging on the wall between neon-glowing beer signs showed that his date was officially late. Ben tried to keep the disappointment at bay, but couldn’t stop internally berating himself for thinking that something good was finally going to happen to him.
The door opened again and the distant musk of a male puma scented the air as a group of giggling human women piled through the opening. Every hair on his body stood at attention and he unconsciously opened his mouth, scenting the other shifter on his sensitive palate. As soon as the taste hit the back of his throat, he went rigid with a mixture of fury, guilt, and a regret so deep it threatened to pull him down into a whirlpool of despair he might never escape.
His heart threatened to beat right out of his chest as he placed his beer down onto the bar with a shaking hand...Be careful what you wish for, ‘cause you just might get it.
The part of his soul that he’d tried to burn out, to bury, to freeze out of him, battered at the bars of his self-imposed cage. His inner puma hissed and snarled, urging him in every way it could to claim his mate. Their bond still existed, strong as ever, and he wanted to scream.
“Chill out, Ben,” a woman’s soft voice said from across the bar.
He forced his gaze to meet Judy’s kind brown eyes. A black bear shifter, she ran the bar with her husband and two daughters. Although a gentle woman with a good heart, she wouldn’t hesitate to kick his ass for disrupting her bar.
“I’m sorry,” he said through gritted teeth. She looked down pointedly at the bar and he saw that his nails had curved into claws and were buried in the wood. Ashamed of his lack of control, he closed his eyes and started thinking of different foods. Apple pie, cherries, ice cream, flour, corn, salt, oatmeal. The list went on and on as he used the relaxation technique that the PTSD counselor had taught him. Slowly, his breathing returned to normal and the itching burn of the magic of his shift left his body.
He opened his eyes to find Eric, Judy’s husband, standing next to his wife with his massive arms across his chest. A Vietnam vet, Eric understood what Ben went through, and they spent many long nights together talking about all the things that were fucked up with the world. Well, Ben mostly talked about things that were fucked up. Despite the fact that Eric looked like a biker from the rougher side of Hell, he had an optimistic streak a mile wide and could see the good in everything. A regular Pollyanna on a Harley.
Eric leaned against the bar. “There’s a stranger outside waiting for you. Says he’s your blind date.”
Ben covered his face with his hands and laughed bitterly. “Of course he is.”
Judy and Eric exchanged a puzzled glance. “Ben, who is he?”
Digging into his wallet, he tossed a twenty onto the counter and raised a hand in farewell to Paulette. “Evidently he’s my date...and the brother of the Alpha that I killed.”