Lion’s Choice

Vicky Burkholder

 

Chapter 1

ALPHA Stefan Wyemore stood at the expansive windows of the opulent office and gazed at the busy street ten stories below, hands behind his back. Though his knuckles were probably white from clenching them, he refused to let the toad standing at his shoulder see how much he affected him. Pure rage tore through Stefan, and it was all he could do not to let his beast loose on the idiot. Heavy traffic—both wheeled and foot—flowed back and forth in the endless dance that defined a large city. In the distance, he could catch a glance of the sound that fronted Seattle. As beautiful as Seattle was, he couldn’t wait to get out of the city and back to his canyons. There might not be as many attractions in Silver Falls as there were here in the city, but tall buildings couldn’t compete with towering forests, and wide avenues had nothing over quiet, moss-covered paths.

Stefan turned back to the corpulent man standing behind him. The space fit the man. All glass and chrome, it held no warmth or comfort. A bar—yes. A plant? No. “It’s nothing against you, Mr. Thompson, but I still want my own people to look over the files. Since taking over management of the family lands, I would like to get an idea of where we stand financially.”

“The previous manager trusted our firm to handle all the financial holdings.” The man wiped a bead of sweat from his forehead even though the AC had the room almost uncomfortably cool. Stefan could smell the fear coming off him in waves.

“I’m sure he did. But I’m here now, and I want a complete accounting of all holdings and transactions for the last five years.”

“F…five years?”

“Yes. Is that a problem?” Stefan let a bit of his panther leak through his voice. The toad scurried back behind his desk, collapsing into his chair.

“N…n…no, sir. No problem. But it may take some time.”

“You have until the end of business tonight. I’m staying at the Edgemont. Deliver the files there.”

“Yes, sir.” The man glowered at Stefan, a predatory smile taking over his face. Stefan had seen the same look on some of the alphas he’d overcome. Not a single one had survived. And this particular toad wasn’t even a shifter, just a shifty human. Shame he couldn’t kill him. “Mr. Wyemore…Stefan. How can I convince you to leave all this nasty finance work to our firm? The Thompson-Stanislav firm has been in this business for fifty years. We know the markets and the ways to make your money work for you.”

Stefan held back a snort. Fifty years? Hell, he’d passed fifty, five years ago, and some members of his pride still considered him a cub. He strode to the door, opened it, and turned his head to study the man. “The files, in my hands, by dinner tonight.” He pulled the ornate doors closed behind him and made his way out of the building.

Rather than take a car, he opted to walk the ten blocks to the hotel. He could smell the ocean, as well as the odors that went with cities—too many people, cars, strange foods, and more. What he didn’t smell was another shifter. Not until he literally ran into her, or rather, she ran into him, dropping her bag of groceries, and scattering them.

“Oh, I’m sorry, miss.” Stefan caught an errant orange with the side of his foot.

“No. It wasn’t your fault. I’m…” She gazed up at him with eyes the color of the deep forest. She was sunlight and moonlight all rolled into one with hair so pale as to be almost white and smooth skin touched by the sun. He kneeled to help her gather her things, his beast nearly purring in appreciation, something that had never before happened.

“I…um…thank you,” she mumbled as he handed her the net bag. He noted her clothes—comfortable jeans, loose top over a tight tank, sneakers. All of which suited her.

“You’re welcome.” He inhaled deeply and saw the blush creeping up her neck and face. “I’m Stefan.”

“New to town?”

“Just visiting.”

“Be sure you check in. There’s a new alpha in the canyons,” she all but whispered the words, low enough so he alone heard them and not the sea of people flowing around them.

“Are there others like us in Seattle?”

“A few.”

“Why?”

“Why what?”

“Why live in this concrete jungle?” Stefan asked.

She blushed again, but this time, not in embarrassment, more like anger. “Not all of us have the luxury of being able to live where we want. Excuse me. I have to go.”

“Your name. Please? At least, let me know that.”

She shook her head. “Why bother? We’ll never see each other again.” She turned and strode off. Stefan watched her, enjoying the swing of slender hips and long legs.

Without giving it conscious thought, he followed her, leaving enough room between them so she wouldn’t sense him, but he could still follow her scent. Unfortunately, too many odors got in the way, especially one woman who smelled as if she’d taken a bath in strong perfume. He started sneezing and couldn’t stop until several blocks later. By then, he’d lost the thread of the woman.

*

Malena Troutman blew out a sigh of relief, chewing her lip as she leaned against the door in her apartment. She regretted “suggesting” that woman head toward the man Mali knew was following her, but what else could she do? As part shifter, part witch, she had sensed him a block behind her and had to get away. Accepted by neither group, it was better to stop something before it got started. She was better off being alone.

The beast half of her snorted. Her lioness had reacted to the man, purring and wanting Mali to stay with him and she had been intrigued. Raven hair, sapphire eyes, well-built with sleek muscles—what was not to like? But she knew what would happen once he found out what she was. He’d shun her like everyone else she’d ever known and leave her.

Still…

Her phone rang, pulling her out of her dreams. “Dr. Troutman here…I’ll be there in fifteen.” She hung up, grabbed her jacket, and headed for the hospital. Enough dreaming. Reality was where she lived, no matter what her beast wanted.