COMING MARCH 17th
Fate has played River for a fool. Again. He thought he’d earned the respect of a decent and admirable wolver pack. He was grateful for it. He was content…until they took it all away, and left him alone and angry. Again.
Yet Fate rewards him with another pack, one that needs his survival skills, and one where he meets the girl of his dreams, but River is no longer a fool. The beautiful Rebecca is an Alpha’s daughter. She can never be his and she knows it, too. But knowing the outcome, changes the game, and both River and Reb decide to play this one on their own, but different, terms.
What Fate knows, and River must learn, is that happiness comes when you least expect it, and finding a love worth fighting for is what brings a Wolver’s Reward.
One of the many odd things about Eugene Begley was that physically he didn’t look like an Alpha. He was short, slightly built, and carried a bit of a paunch up front. Alpha Charles Goodman had met him once before at the Convocation of Wolvers where pack Alphas met to discuss the growing needs, problems, and successes of the Wolver race. Every Alpha who participated in the Convocation knew that Eugene was a matchmaker. Only certain women qualified for the position of an Alpha’s Mate, and Begley had a knack for finding them. The little Alpha had, in fact, found Charles’ own Mate, Katarina.
Every Alpha also knew that Eugene Begley was a problem solver. He had the means and the men to take care of things beyond the scope of a single pack. Some said he ran a Wolver Security Force, though it had no official name and no one knew for sure. Exactly who he was, and what specific role he played in the wolver world was open to argument and speculation, but on two things, they all agreed. The first was that Eugene Begley was one of the most powerful Alphas they’d ever come across. The second was that an Alpha would be a fool to argue with him.
Alpha’s Mates, however, were a different story. When it came to defending the wolvers in their pack, they had no fear of anyone.
Kat folded her arms across her chest. Her head snapped side to side in emphasis to her words. “No, no, no. I won’t do it. What you’re asking me to do is essentially turn my back on the boy.”
“He’s not a boy, Katarina.” Her mate reminded her of an issue they’d argued over many times before.
“I know, I know. River isn’t a boy. He’s never been a boy. He never had the chance to be a boy,” she repeated his argument before he made it. “I get that, but what you don’t get is that knowing that, he’s still my boy and always will be, and…” She raised her finger in the air. “He never had a home or a pack either until we found him. Don’t ask me to do this. I can’t.” The accusing finger pointed to Begley.
“This is your fault. You made me a Mate. You gave me the power to feel what each and every member of my pack feels. I feel their pain. I feel their losses. I’ve felt enough from River to last a lifetime and now you’re asking me to betray every promise I ever made him and send him away.”
Eugene raised his hands in denial. “I don’t make Alphas and I don’t make Mates. I just make opportunities. Y’all made it happen, not me. None of us made River happen. You’ve given him more than he ever dreamed of, but it ain’t enough. I’m here to offer him an opportunity is all.”
“River isn’t happy,” Charles told her gently. “You know that.”
“He’s content,” Kat snapped back.
Eugene sat back and wove his fingers together over his soft belly. He nodded sagely. “Content is a fine thing for a man my age. But at River’s age? Content is likely to give you an itch. You itch, you scratch. You keep scratchin’ and that itch is gonna fester, and what pours out of it won’t bring no good to anybody. That wolver’s already itchin’ and a-scratchin’. Deep down he knows the cause, but he won’t seek the cure. We gotta do that for him.”
“He has the right to happiness,” Charles said, taking Kat’s hand in his and tugging her to him. “Or at least the right to pursue it.”
Kat bowed her forehead against his chest. “I don’t know if he’s capable of it.”
In her mind, she substituted love for happiness, because for her, one stemmed from the other. She wasn’t sure River was capable of love. It was an emotion that needed to be learned in the early years of life. River’s early life contained nothing but cruelty and abuse. He was protective of those closest to him and Kat felt privileged to be among them. He cared in his way, but caring wasn’t love. He was loyal to a fault, but loyalty wasn’t love.
That intangible emotion couldn’t be found in River. She knew this because she was the Mate and she opened her heart to him regularly to see if the situation had changed. She prayed for it and fought to light the flame, but the spark never took hold and she was beginning to think it never would. In the Wolf’s Head pack, he was safe. His caring and loyalty, and their love for him would help him control what was raging inside. What would happen if he was out there alone?
“What if he can’t find happiness?” she whispered aloud. “What if we’re the closest he can come? What if no one out there sees what we see?” And finally, she admitted the truth. She had felt River’s anger and self-loathing. Laying her head over her mate’s heart to find what comfort she could in its steady and reassuring beat, she spoke to the little Alpha.
“You talk about a festering itch, Mr. Begley. I’m worried about a fetid and vile infection that runs much deeper than that. It’s been, as you say, festering a long time. If it pours out, there’ll be no cure, no happiness or contentment, either. For any of us.”
Charles tightened his arms around her, understanding how hard it was to admit her deepest fear.
Eugene Begley understood it, too, but had none of her mate’s sympathetic concern. His voice became hard. “Good or bad, the truth of a man’s soul always wins in the end. There’s nothing you or I can do to stop it. You know what he feels. Only River can find out how much truth those feelings bear. Charlie here can talk about the pursuit of happiness. You can talk about love. I don’t give a good goddamn about either one of ’em. Good or bad, that wolver is ready to jump and I need to know which way he’s jumpin’ before too many get hurt. One way or t’other, he’s got to go.”
“I’ve felt other things, Katarina,” Charles added gently. “Other things that could be dangerous. I’ve told Eugene about them and he’s felt them, too. He knows about these things. We need to trust him. You need to trust me.”
That was the end of the argument, because as much as Kat loved her pack and River, she loved and trusted her Alpha more.
“I won’t fight you,” she said in surrender. “I’ll do what I can to soften the blow, but don’t ask me to like it. If he goes, he’ll go with all the love I can send with him.”
Eugene Begley smiled and nodded. His easy downhome twang was gone. His diction became formal. “I’d expect no less from an Alpha’s Mate.”
River laid his foot on the gas pedal and shot the pickup into a space between two cars with barely a foot to spare on either end. He stuck his arm out the open window and raised his middle finger in answer to the blaring horn behind him.
“Fuck you,” he muttered, “And fuck them, too.”
They’d kicked him out. Oh, sure, they’d been all nicey-nice about it. Charles hinted that there were things River needed to work out that couldn’t be worked out in the confines of the Wolf’s Head Pack. Ryker kept pointing out that he had no intention of either dying or retiring and River would be an old man before the Security Chief’s job was open. Kat guiltily danced around the subject when she asked if he ever thought about going out into the world to see what it might hold for him.
They were fucking cowards, all of them. Only Eugene Begley had the nerve to lay it on the line. It was while River was taking a break in the shade offered by the striped umbrella next to the pool. An assortment of wolvers, mostly female, was enjoying the water. River always took his break by the pool.
He was sitting there, minding his own business, and staring out over the land that used to be wild and free, but was now dotted with roads, homes, and businesses. The pack had grown. It was all part of their Alpha’s design to bring wolver society into the modern world. It was a planned community with room for more growth that still left plenty of land for their wolves to run and hunt. It made sense, yet River felt every tree that fell in the name of progress, every neatly mowed lawn that replaced the fields and meadows where the rabbits and other small game lived and died. Thinking about it, as he often did, brought a tightening to his chest and an anger rising within him.
“You can’t stay here, River. You don’t belong.”
River wasn’t sure if he disliked the little wolver sharing his patio table because the guy spoke the truth, or because he voiced aloud what River already knew. He’d never felt like he truly belonged to Charles Goodman’s Wolf’s Head Pack. He’d made the best effort he could, but it wasn’t enough.
He had no interest in computers or high finance, which was the main source of Wolf’s Head income. He had no hankering for fast new cars, when everything he needed could be reached on foot or carried in the back of a basic Ford F150. He felt no need to build dwellings that could house twenty, but were meant for two or four. He had no reason to leave his mark upon the land, preferred, in fact, to leave no mark at all.
Charles Goodman, the Alpha, had offered him a place in the pack and River had served it loyally for a little over seven years, yet the woods and hills still called him to run and each time he went over the moon, it became harder to come home, and that shamed him. Kat, the pack’s Mate, had offered her love and acceptance to the cubs he’d protected when he was still a cub himself. He owed her his loyalty, too. He owed them his life.
Without the Wolf’s Head pack, he would likely be dead by now or running with a rogue pack, which was pretty much the same thing. This pack had given him a home when no one else would.
Ryker had taken River under his wing, and, at twenty-two, he was seen as the gruff Chief’s second in command. This sounded good until you considered that with a force of six, being second was no great accomplishment and Security Specialist was just a fancy term for village cop. River spent most of his time tracking down cubs who’d rather run the woods or go fishing than sit in a classroom. It was the worst part of the job since he’d rather go fishing, too.
“What the fuck do you want me to do?” he asked the little wolver in the tropical print shirt.
Eugene Begley pulled out the thin, plastic stick that decorated the fruity drink in the tall glass. He used his teeth to slide a chunk of pineapple off the end. Wolvers didn’t eat much fruit, unless it came in the form of pie, but Begley seemed to enjoy it.
“It’s not a matter of what I want, son. It’s a matter of what’s best for the pack. Pack comes first,” he quoted. It was the first Primal Law. “You know that as well as the next wolver. Ranger and Dakota are old enough to go over the moon. You’re holding them back. After all this time, their loyalty is still to you and not to the Alpha, to the pack. That’s not your fault, but there’s no denying it’s a fact. They won’t ever transfer that loyalty to Charles as long as you’re here.”
This was something else River already knew. The little female, Meadow, who was now a happy and healthy eleven year old, made the transition to pack and family easily from the day the Alpha had given her a ride on his back and while there was no blood relation, she saw Charles as her father.
The two boys were different. At fifteen and sixteen, they were no longer the little devils they once were, but they stuck together and, except for their sense of humor which their idol had never developed, tried to emulate River in all things. He tried to stay away from them and encouraged them to look to others for support. There were better wolvers to emulate, but those early years, when he was all they had, formed a bond they couldn’t seem to break. And it had to be broken if they were to lead full lives within the pack.
“Forest sees you as her future mate,” the older wolver added, uncannily pinpointing another of River’s concerns.
“That’s no business of yours,” the younger wolver said sharply. The girl was like a sister and just the suggestion of the possibility brought with it a shiver of disgust.
“That’s where you’re wrong, son. Alpha’s Mates are my business and she was born to be one. I’ve got plans for that one.”
River was immediately on his feet. Jaws clenched as tight as the fists he held to his sides, he leaned over the smaller wolver and released a trickle of the power all wolvers carried within them. “I don’t care what you think your business is or who you think you are. You leave Forest alone. She doesn’t want to be a Mate and I won’t let anyone force her into it.”
Watching River carefully, Eugene Begley ignored the swimmers in the pool who’d suddenly become quiet and watchful. He smiled around the straw as he took another sip of the fruity drink before he released a little of his own power, which was a lot more potent than River’s, and toasted the look of surprise on the young wolver’s face with his half empty glass.
“Yes, sir, you have just learned a valuable lesson,” Begley said conversationally. “Never judge a wolver by his clothes or his drink. I’ve never forced a Mate to do anything she didn’t choose to do, so watch your tongue and listen to what I have to say, think hard on it, and then tell me what you decide.”
River listened, but all he heard was that he had to leave and he was surprised by the anger that welled up inside him. Without reading them, he grabbed the papers Begley had laid on the table, stuffed them into the front pocket of his jeans, and stalked off.
He’d been waiting for this day for a long time, so long in fact, he’d begun to think it wouldn’t happen. But now it had, and he sure as hell didn’t need to think about it. He was Outcast and Rogue from the moment he was born and nothing could ever wash that stink away. Wolf’s Head had finally gotten sick of the smell.
“Fuck it. Fuck ’em all.”
He went immediately to his room, took the small metal box from the top shelf of his closet, and pulled clothing from hangers and drawers. Within a half hour he had his duffle packed and his motorcycle secured in the back of his truck, along with a few other things he would need. He took only the things he’d paid for from his own earnings. He wanted nothing from the Wolf’s Head Pack.
He felt the Mate’s love flood through him as he drove away. He rejected that, too. He was a rogue now, without home or pack. It was what he was born to be.
He spent his first night in the city. It was already dark when he found a rundown neighborhood and a cheap motel that smelled of sweat, urine, vomit, and sex. The scents were human, but familiar. As a cub, it was his job to sneak into the rooms of places like this and empty the pockets of human men while the females of their rogue band kept the mark busy. He was good at it. He had to be. If he got caught, one of the males would have to step in and River would get the same beating as the mark.
He paid the clerk for the night, stowed his gear in the room, left the truck in the lot, and took the bike. For two hours he rode through the streets seeing things he’d never seen before. His band never operated in the better parts of town, but his Alpha did. Charles had invited him several times over the years, but River had always refused. He could think of nothing better than the woods and fields that surrounded their village. He had no need to see the brick and mortar that lay beyond.
Now he did. Not that he wanted to see what enticed his former Alpha and Mate away from the pack for short periods of time. No, that was over. What he was looking for was a better class and therefore, more profitable mark. He was a rogue now and that’s how rogues earned their living. He hadn’t forgotten his early lessons. He was good at those, too, but this time, there was no band to take it from him. There never would be, either.
As far as he could see, the better part of the city wasn’t better at all. Though the odors weren’t as offensive, there were too many of them and the exhaust fumes were worse. The concrete and glass made the place feel cold. The noise bothered his ears, and the lights blotted out the night sky.
He saw what he needed to see and thought about testing his rusty skills on a young and well-dressed couple making their way through an unguarded parking lot. Their gait was unsteady and he could smell the alcohol on them as they passed. They were easy prey, but he decided against it. Though it was several hours away, Alpha Goodman considered this city to be his turf and Ryker would rip River a new one if he got a whiff of what he’d done. The only prey those two believed in was the kind you could eat.
Shit! Why did he care about Charles’ or Ryker’s fucking moral code? He was two blocks away when it hit him that their opinions no longer mattered. He pulled a U-turn in the middle of the block and sped back, but he was too late. He arrived at the parking lot just as driver’s door closed. The anger boiled up inside him again until he thought he would explode with it.
He needed to run, free and wild. He needed to run until his body burned off the madness, but the full moon was still a few days off. He felt her call, an insistent lover willing him to find the power within himself to follow her, but shifting wasn’t something you could do in the middle of a city street. Instead, he followed his nose and let his innate memory system take him back to the motel by the shortest route which included two wrong turns onto one-way streets and one blind alley. His anger was somewhat abated by the reckless ride, but his room felt more like a cage.
He took to the streets again, this time stopping two blocks away at a bar he’d passed earlier in the evening. Then, there had been six bikes parked in the small lot. Now, there were two dozen. Built like a wooden shed addition on the end of a short row of older brick storefronts, the place was long and narrow. It was decorated with peeling paint and a wide plate glass window that held two neon signs. One advertised a popular beer, the other said OPEN. River wondered how many times the window was broken before the owner came up with the idea of boarding over the window from the inside with plywood. To River, that plywood said welcome.
River liked the taste of beer, and more than a time or two he’d sat with packmates tossing back tequila and lime around a fire, but like most wolvers, he didn’t get drunk. Wolver metabolism ran too high and the alcohol burned out of the system too fast. It could be done, but it took a lot of booze in a short amount of time. River wasn’t about to waste his hard-earned money on that when there were faster and more satisfying ways to burn off steam.
He parked the Roadliner, and then circled the lot on foot, taking in the scent of each bike and its rider and committing it to memory. About half carried the scent of a female companion. He would try to avoid those riders if he could. His goal was to blow off steam, not embarrass some poor dumb fuck in front of his woman. He’d also avoid the owners of the three-wheelers parked in the handicapped spaces by the door. There was no fun in that.
All eyes were on him when he entered through a door of cracked glass held together with a web of wire mesh between the layers. It was obviously a local place where few outsiders ventured. Halfway down, River found an open stool and ordered a beer on tap and two hamburgers, plain and rare.
“Or whatever way the shit comes,” he said at the bartender’s blank stare.
The guy was beefy with a belly that overhung his belt, but his arms looked powerful from years of tossing cases of beer and the kegs below the taps. He nodded at River’s correction and bellowed the order to whoever was manning the small kitchen.
“Two flat ones. No green.”
River tapped the bar and sauntered to the back of the place where no sign was needed to indicate the restrooms. The odor made it obvious. He found his mark at the third table back sitting with two other guys and a woman who looked as hard and worn as the old oak floor. The mark was big and old enough to show some wear, but young enough to take the bait.
He finished his burgers, which were remarkably juicy for being well done, and half his beer before making his play. He turned on his stool. His smile traveled around the room to each of the women, noting that half of them looked pretty good while the other half made the oak faced woman look pretty good, too.
“Which of you lovely ladies owns the Forty-eight in the parking lot?”
“What’s it to ya?” The big guy at the table asked.
“Oh, I was just going to compliment them on their good taste. It’s such a pretty little bike.” River sounded innocent enough until he added. “For a fucking pussy.”
Actually, the bike was a pretty sweet looking ride, but Ryker had told him once that Harley owners tended to be touchy about anyone badmouthing the name of what they considered the god of motorcycles. He was disappointed when only the big guy and his two buddies stood up.
River shrugged. “Although now that I think about it, most Harleys are. For fucking pussies, I mean.”
Four others rose to their feet. Now that was more like it.
Wolvers weren’t that much larger than their human cousins, but they were a helluva lot stronger and faster, and Ryker had seen to it that River had more training than most. In spite of the older wolver’s prowess, River was almost ready to take Ryker to the mat. Ryker had said so himself.
“If it weren’t for that damned temper and that skinny ass of yours, you’d be ready to challenge my position in the pack. But until you lose the piss-assed attitude and gain the pounds, you’ll be what you are.”
What he was, was a rogue pup whose mother hadn’t cared enough to give him a real name. They both knew that physical maturity would bring him the bulk. Ryker must have finally figured out that the piss-assed attitude was all River had.
The seven men coming at him were about to figure that out, too.
Twenty minutes, one split lip, one torn ear, and one blackened eye later, River’s anger was spent. Two of his opponents were down for the count, one was on his knees puking up a bellyful of burgers and beer, and the other four were exhausted and nursing more cuts and bruises than they’d probably seen in years. By the way one of them was holding his wrist to his chest, River thought the guy might have broken it when River spun away from the punch and he’d hit the edge of the bar instead. Too bad, so sad.
The young wolver finished off the last of the beer from the only glass left upright and unbroken on the bar. He placed a few bills on the counter, enough to cover the breakage, and handed the baseball bat back to the bartender.
“Sorry I had to take it away,” he said, “But you need to be careful with that thing. You could kill somebody if you’re not careful.”
“Who the hell are you?” the bartender asked.
River shrugged. “A Yamaha lover.”
The scent of six more bikers struck him as he exited the bar. They dropped the stands on their bikes, all Harleys he noted, and six pairs of eyes moved to him in wary recognition. The leader nodded, wolver to wolver.
He wasn’t much older than River. Tall and lean, blond hair swept back from a clean shaven face, the wolver was a blue eyed Adonis who looked more college boy than biker. His boots looked new and his leather jacket looked too stiff. The men flanking him looked more like the real thing; older, scuffed, and scarred. Behind them was another blond, this one built like the proverbial brick shithouse, big, muscle-bound, and square. His face was too pretty for his build and when River looked him over, he flexed his shoulders as if he had something to prove.
Next to muscle man were two cubs, older than Dakota and Ranger, but not by much. Any bar but this one would have turned them away at the door. They were both working hard not to smile.
“How’s the beer?” Adonis asked and enough power rippled off him to prove he was an Alpha.
River lowered his head enough to show respect for the Alpha’s position, but not a half inch more.
“It’s beer. Burgers are good, though don’t bother asking for rare.”
“You got a reason for being here?” the Alpha asked, like he was looking for a particular answer.
“Nope, just stopped in to blow off a little steam.” Whatever their game was, River wanted no part of it. “And now I’m headed out.”
“We’re headed to a Chase,” one of the cubs blurted. He bounced with excitement. “Alpha’s got himself a Mate.”
River offered a congratulatory nod. “Good luck.” Finding a Mate was a big deal for an Alpha. It solidified the pack and enabled pairs to breed.
“Yeah, thanks,” The Alpha accepted with a nod of his own. “We were supposed to meet someone here. One of our own,” he added. “Is he in there?”
“Nope, just some busted up bikers. Hope you find him, though.” River started to move away when the Alpha called him back.
“You’re welcome to come with us.”
River kept moving. “Sorry, but I’ve got someplace else to be. Enjoy the party.”
Parties after a mating chase could last for days with plenty of food and music. Outside packs might be invited and under the full moon, unmated females would be hot and looking for company. What the hell, he had nothing better to do, but by the time he changed his mind, the wolvers had already entered the bar and he didn’t want to look like he was begging.
He pulled out the ramp and rolled the bike back on the truck as soon as he got back to the motel. Deciding it probably wasn’t a good idea to spend the night so close to the bar in case some pissed off biker came looking for him, River stayed only long enough to shower and shave. His cuts and bruises were already healing, one of the advantages of being born wolver.
He found the nearest Wal-Mart and parked between two monster RVs that were also parked for the night. He pushed the seat back to its limits. Laying his head back on the rest, River slept until the rising sun shining through the windshield awakened him.