TAYLOR looked at the three men who sat with him at a table inside one of Juneau’s coffee shops. He’d thought he’d never see their faces again. Not after being kicked out of his cougar shifter family group. He’d been banished, never to be welcomed home. Or, at least, that was what he’d been led to believe four years ago.
He looked at his younger brother, Blaise. There was only a year between them in age. “How did you know where to find me? And how did you get my cell phone number?”
Blaise shrugged. “You’d be amazed at what you can find on the Internet as long as you know how to go about it. Luckily, I have a friend who does.”
Taylor shook his head. It figured his brother would have the means to track him down. Blaise always “knew” someone who could fix whatever problem he had. Taylor looked at Blaise. His brother hadn’t changed over the years Taylor had been gone. They had the same tawny-blond hair, though Taylor’s was shaggier and Blaise’s was on the long side, but more controlled. They also had the same light brown eyes that verged on gold, a mark of a cougar shifter.
He looked at the two other men at the table, his cousins, Grady and Jase. “You two decided to just tag along?”
Jase smiled and nodded. “Of course. We’re here to give Blaise support, and to make sure you don’t brush him off.”
Grady nodded, as well.
Taylor took a sip of coffee, then sat back in his chair. “All right. Why did you come looking for me when you know you’re supposed to act as if I no longer exist?”
Blaise met his gaze. “You’re aren’t banished anymore.”
He snorted. “Really? I’m supposed to take your word for it? There’s no overturning banishment.”
“Maybe not in the past, but yours has been. It was Father who made that decision.”
Taylor schooled his features not to show any of the emotions he felt. The mention of his father had all the old anger he’d thought he’d left far behind rising to the surface. As the head of their family group, his dad was the one who had made the ultimate decision to banish Taylor and send him on his way. All because Taylor had gotten into a fight with a werewolf who had attacked one of his human friends. It wasn’t as if he’d set out to kill him while in cougar form, risking the close-guarded secret of what he was to the outside world.
As the oldest son, before he’d been kicked out of his family, he’d been in line to take his father’s place once he died. “Why would he do that?” Taylor asked in a low voice.
It took Taylor a few seconds to get over that bit of news and regain his composure before he spoke again. “I’m sorry to hear that. I hope you didn’t come all this way just to tell me. You could have called or even sent a text.”
Blaise scowled. “You really don’t care that our father is close to dying?”
“What do you expect? The man turned his back on me, not caring what happened as long as I stayed away.”
“You know he had no other choice. You broke one of the laws of our kind. His leadership would have been brought into question if he hadn’t done what had to be done.”
“Yeah, well, that makes me feel so much better about it all. I can now overlook the fact he kicked me out in the middle of fucking winter with nowhere to live and no clue where I would end up. It wasn’t as if he gave me any money to start a new life, either. With no job and used to earning my living working with the family, I wasn’t prepared for anything.”
“You don’t look the worse for wear.”
Taylor glared at his brother, his anger no longer at a low simmer. “You have no idea what I went through before I ended up where I am now. I thank my lucky stars that Meadow—the woman who gave me a job and a place to live—took me on to look after her place. Since my banishment, I count her as my only family.”
“She no longer needs to be,” Grady said. “You have to come home.”
He turned his attention to his cousin. “The hell I do. I like the life I have. I don’t have to answer to anyone but myself. I sure as shit don’t have to worry about archaic laws that say we have to remain hidden from humans and werewolves.”
“You have a responsibility to the family,” Jase said.
Taylor shook his head. “Haven’t you been listening? That ended when my father banished me. I’m no longer in line to take over.”
Blaise sighed. “That’s changed. Father wanted me to take his place, and I refused. You were always better suited for the position than I’ll ever be. It didn’t take much for me to convince Dad that you were still the one up for it.”
He met his brother’s gaze. “That’s too bad. I don’t want it anymore. So that means you’ll have to take it, Blaise, or some other member of the family will have to.”
Blaise slammed his fist on the table, drawing the stares of the humans around them. His brother took a deep breath, then said in a quiet tone, “This is not something you can just say no to. There is no one else. After Dad decided you were once more in line to take his place, no one else in the family would dare to step up.”
Taylor cursed under his breath. Once the head of the family made a decree, it was final. That was why Taylor couldn’t understand why his banishment had been overturned. It put him in a spot he didn’t want to be. Blaise was right. Taylor couldn’t tell them to fuck off and go on as if they’d never spoken to him. Now that he’d been found, others would come and take him to Anchorage where his family lived, by force if necessary.
Having lived in close proximity to the werewolf sentinels, the very first werewolves, Taylor preferred the wolves over the company of his kind. Edensaw, the alpha of the sentinels, didn’t rule over his wolf brothers with an iron fist. He also didn’t think humans needed to be kept in the dark about them at all costs. Christ, all the wolf brothers’ mates had been human—or mortals, as they called them—before being turned.
A cougar shifter having a human as a mate was unheard of. Taylor had no idea what would happen if a male or female of his kind ended up with one. That human sure as hell wouldn’t be welcomed with open arms like the Sentinels’ mates.
His brother and cousins wore determined expressions. They weren’t willing to let him walk away. He had a feeling they were more than ready to drag him to Anchorage, no matter how he felt about it.
“You’re not going to walk away and leave me to live my life the way I want,” Taylor said as a statement rather than a question. He already knew the answer.
“We can’t,” Blaise replied. “Father wants you back home…before the end.”
“He’s that bad?”
His brother nodded. “Yes.”
“How? He isn’t close to his time.”
They weren’t as long-lived as modern-day werewolves who could reach the age of three thousand, but they lived longer than humans. A cougar shifter’s life didn’t end until he or she was close to two hundred years old. His father was only sixty-five.
“Caleb doesn’t know. It’s some kind of illness he’s never seen before. It makes Father grow weaker almost by the day, and nothing Caleb does counteracts it. Father is wasting away before our eyes.”
Caleb was another cousin and a doctor. Taylor scowled. An illness? Their kind never got sick. Ever. Human ailments like cancer and other diseases of that nature didn’t affect them, either. “How can he be ill to the point of dying? It shouldn’t be possible.”
“We don’t know. We just know he is and has been for over six months now. So, you’ll come home with us?”
Taylor sighed. “You really haven’t left me much choice.”
Jase smiled as he placed his now empty coffee cup on the table. “Let’s go to your place, pack up your stuff, and be on our way home. We should be able to catch a flight later this evening.”
He held up his hand. “I never said I’d go with you right now. You three can fly to Anchorage. I’ll drive.”
“Why would you want to do that?” Grady asked. “It takes a little over twenty-one hours to drive from Juneau to Anchorage. That’s if you don’t include any rest breaks.”
“I don’t mind.”
Blaise shook his head. “You might not, but we do.”
Taylor sat up straighter. “What? Are you afraid I won’t show up if you let me do this?”
“I can’t say the thought hasn’t crossed my mind.”
“Well, you can stop thinking that way. I go back on my terms, which means all three of you will fly home and I’ll arrive by myself. It’s not as if I can up and leave where I live now on such short notice. Plus, I have my things to pack. I promise I’ll be on the road sometime tomorrow. You either accept it or don’t expect me at all.”
His brother slowly nodded. “Fine. Have it your way. If it were me, I wouldn’t want to make that long-ass drive.”
“Then it’s a good thing it isn’t you,” Taylor said as he pushed back his chair and stood. “I’ll see you in Anchorage in a day or so.”
He turned and walked out of the coffee shop without a backward glance at his brother and cousins. Taylor continued down the sidewalk to where he’d parked his pickup truck. He shook his head as he thought over the conversation he’d had with Blaise, Grady, and Jase. When he’d first been banished, he would have been more than happy to be welcomed back into his family group. Now, not so much. He was used to being on his own and liked it. Since he was content with the way his life was, of course someone had to come along and fuck it up for him.
* * * *
The next day, Taylor was on the road headed for Anchorage as promised. Leaving Meadow behind had not been a thrill ride for him. She hadn’t taken the news of his departure very well. He was just glad she had her mate, Durlach, to lean on. She wouldn’t be alone and, as part of the Sentinels’ werewolf pack, she had more than enough family to look after her, which was one of the reasons he found himself able to walk away. Meadow was like a sister to him.
He’d spent the rest of the day after leaving his brother and cousins packing up his belongings and preparing for the long drive to Anchorage. While he’d done that, Taylor had found himself thinking of what he would be getting himself into.
At one time, he’d been prepared to eventually take his father’s place as the head of their family group. He’d been groomed for it since he was old enough to remember. It was something he’d taken pride in and had strived to learn all he could from his father so one day he’d be just as capable. That included Taylor following all the outdated rules that came with the life he’d been born into.
He hadn’t dated humans and definitely hadn’t gone near any female werewolves. He’d stuck with his own kind, though none of the women he’d slept with had ended up being his mate. Unlike werewolves, a male cougar shifter couldn’t tell if one of the opposite sex was his mate with a single sniff of her scent. It took more than that.
Each male, once he hit adolescence, was given a cougar-head pendant hung on a gold necklace that was made with a bit of magic embedded inside. If a female was meant to be his mate, the ruby eyes in the male cougar’s pendant would glow. That occurred once the male had accepted the female as his, even if only he knew it subconsciously, which caused an increase in his testosterone level. It wasn’t something that took place with a first meeting or even the first time the couple had sex. It sometimes took months before the eyes revealed the truth. Once it happened, it was the female’s decision to accept the necklace as hers, which would create the mating bond, joining the mated pair’s souls.
If the female didn’t take the necklace after the eyes glowed, the male ended up walking a fine line. He’d be unable to eat or sleep, basically only able to think about having sex with his newfound mate to hopefully tie her emotionally closer with each bout of lovemaking.
After being banished, Taylor had taken off his necklace. Being kicked out of his family meant he had no chance of finding a female cougar shifter who would want him. Plus, it was part of the old life he’d left behind. It now, once again, graced his neck. It would be expected of him.
Taylor had put more than a few miles between him and Juneau when he decided to take a break. He’d been driving for hours and his butt felt as if it was asleep. He pulled off the highway into the parking lot of a truck-stop diner. A cup of coffee was in order. He planned to drive for as long as he could, then spend the night in a motel. He was in no hurry to get to Anchorage.
He sat in a booth that was set against the large glass window, facing the parking lot. Taylor ordered a cup of coffee and a burger, knowing he wouldn’t be stopping to eat again for quite some time.
He was just finishing his food when he happened to look outside. A woman walked across the lot, carrying a suitcase. Taylor couldn’t help noticing how pretty she was. He took a sip of coffee as he took in her long, light brown hair that fell over her shoulders. Her body was slim. His gaze dropped to her shapely ass that was hugged by a pair of skinny jeans. Before his brother and cousins’ visit, Taylor would have considered going after the woman to see if she’d be interested in a one-night stand. That wasn’t an option today.
Taylor pulled his gaze from the window and drained the rest of his coffee before signaling to his waitress that he wanted his bill. He’d better get back on the road. He had a lot more miles to go before he called it a day and found a motel.
* * * *
Aspen angrily watched the back of her friend’s car disappear out of the diner’s parking lot and merge with the traffic on the highway. Cindy, whom she’d thought was a really good friend, had just abandoned her in the middle of nowhere with no way of making it home.
They’d been in Skagway for the summer, working in the tourist trade. During the warm months, since its port was a popular stop for cruise ships, there were more jobs that needed filling during that time. It had been Cindy’s idea for both of them to look for work in the borough. In between positions, Aspen had thought it was a great idea.
The job aspect had worked out, but the trip back to Anchorage left her in desperate straits. Her so-called friend had turned on Aspen. Because of a man. Cindy had met a guy who worked on a cruise ship. He’d come into port in the middle of the summer and started a whirlwind romance with her friend. They’d only been together for a couple of days before he’d had to leave, but he and Cindy had talked all the time on the Internet.
Then he’d returned to Skagway two days before Aspen and Cindy were due to head home to Anchorage. He hadn’t wanted Cindy to go, and had arranged for her to work on the same cruise ship he did.
Aspen had been happy for her friend and had been all prepared to travel to Anchorage alone by bus. Then, the night before she was to leave, Cindy and her boyfriend had a big fight. Cindy decided to go home, after all.
They’d been well on their way when Cindy had gotten a call from her boyfriend, who managed to make up with her and have her, once again, ready to take the job on the cruise ship.
Aspen had tried everything to get Cindy to at least drive her to the closest bus station but, oh no, Cindy hadn’t wanted to take the time to do that. With no care as to what Aspen would do, her traitor of a friend had dropped her off at the truck-stop diner before heading back to Skagway and then drove away without a backward glance.
So there Aspen was, alone and abandoned in the middle of the highway with no way of getting to the bus station. She didn’t think she’d even be able to get a taxi to come out for her.
She picked up her extra-large suitcase and turned around to face the diner. She needed to find a ride. Surely there was someone who wasn’t an axe murderer inside and wouldn’t mind dropping her off at the bus station. It was either that or hitchhike, which wasn’t something she felt comfortable doing.
“Are you needing some help?”
Aspen looked in the direction of one of the semis parked off to the side. A man who appeared about ten years older than her stood at the back of it, smiling. It wasn’t exactly a friendly smile. More like one that said she was a morsel he’d like to eat. Considering he had a pot belly and needed suspenders to keep up his pants, she wasn’t flattered, by any means.
She did her best not to make eye contact and shook her head. “I’m good.”
“Are you sure? I couldn’t help noticing the girl you arrived with just left you. From the way she was driving, I’d say she ain’t coming back.”
“I’m perfectly okay. Thanks for asking.”
Aspen turned in the direction of the diner again and started walking. She heard the sound of the man’s footsteps a short distance behind her, but forced herself not to look over her shoulder. She didn’t want to encourage him.
She’d made it almost across the lot to the diner’s entrance when the man closed the distance between them. “I think you’re not being truthful,” he said behind her.
She spun around, not liking how near he was to her. There was no mistaking the look of lust in his eyes. Aspen tried not to gag when he eyed her up and down and licked his fleshy lips.
“How would you know that?”
“Well, I heard the argument you had with your friend as she got your suitcase out of the trunk of her car. You both had your voices raised. If you want, I can drive you in my semi.” He looked her up and down again. “I wouldn’t mind the company.”
She and Cindy had been having a heated conversation as her friend had kicked her out of her car, but there was no way Aspen was going to let this idiot know she was stranded. He more than gave her the creeps.
“Thanks, but no thanks. Despite what you thought you heard, I’m meeting my boyfriend here.” Aspen looked around the parking lot until her gaze landed on a black pickup truck parked off on its own. “He’s already here. He must be in the diner. I’ll wait for him at his pickup.”
Aspen turned in the direction of the truck and hoped like hell it wasn’t a woman who owned it. To her, the pickup looked as if it belonged to a guy and that it was used as a working vehicle.
The man followed her. “Why aren’t you going into the diner to meet him then?”
“I told him I’d be at his pickup when I arrived. Since I’m on time, he should be out in a minute or so.”
At the passenger side of the truck, the he reached out and grabbed her arm, turning her to face him. “Come on, admit you’re alone. There’s no one waiting for you.”
Aspen tried to break free of his hold, but he held her too tight. “Let go of me,” she said in a loud voice, fear slowly rising to the surface.
“What the hell is going on here?”
She looked to her right. A drop-dead-gorgeous man was a short distance away, walking toward them. Aspen sent up a silent prayer that the hunk would play along before she said, “Hi, honey. I told you I wouldn’t be late.” She looked at the him holding her arm. “There’s my boyfriend now.”
She yanked out of his grasp and quickly walked to the hunk. Once she stood in front of him, Aspen went on her tiptoes and kissed him. She only thought to give him a quick peck on the mouth, but it turned into a lot more than that when the man put his arms around her waist and tugged Aspen against his chest. He proceeded to kiss her thoroughly, his tongue pushing between her lips and exploring her mouth.
It only lasted all of five seconds, but it was enough to have a jolt of desire shooting through her. Once the hunk ended the kiss, she could only stare at him as her heart beat rapidly against her ribs.
“Babe, tell me what’s going on here,” the he said in a deep voice that made her toes curl.
It took Aspen a few seconds to get her brain functioning enough to understand what he’d asked. “He thought I lied when I said I was meeting you here. He saw Cindy drop me off and figured she’d left me here against my will.”
The hunk took her suitcase and put his free arm around her shoulders, turning her so she was tucked against his side. His body was hard with muscles.
“You were harassing my girlfriend?” he asked the man.
The guy shook his head. “It’s just a misunderstanding. I thought only to offer her a ride. I didn’t mean anything by it.” He appeared to be scared shitless, which didn’t surprise her since the hunk had to be around six-foot-two and was all solid muscle.
“Good, because if it was more than that, I’d have to set you straight.” He looked at her. “Let’s go. It’s getting late, and we have a lot of miles to go before we can stop for the night.”
Aspen let out a silent sigh of relief that he was willing to play along and nodded. He turned her toward the pickup and unlocked the passenger door for her. She got inside the cab and then shut herself in as he went around to the bed to put her suitcase there before getting into the driver’s side.
As they drove out of the diner’s parking lot and then merged with the highway traffic, Aspen looked out the cab’s back window to see the man watched their departure. There was no question in her mind that he wouldn’t have stopped harassing her if the hunk hadn’t come along. Just another reason Cindy was no longer considered a friend.