·SERIES: Set in the same world as Shrew & Company
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Jim West, the New York Coyote pack alpha, has successfully defended his territory from external threats for almost fifteen years. Pack politics may be a pain in his ass, but his command has never been doubted, his authority never questioned.
Until Teddy, an argumentative pancake-house server, challenges more than his patience.
The lithe, pretty human calls to Jim’s baser instincts. He knows instantly Teddy is his mate—but the timing couldn’t be worse. Tension within his pack is growing, and adding a human mate to the mix could spark an uprising, with Teddy as the target.
Teddy’s smart mouth may heat Jim’s blood, but with a full moon only days away, getting Teddy to let down his guard and accept him—the man and the beast—is his main priority. There’s no fighting the pull of a mate, but learning his lover is a literal predator might make Teddy run right into the danger Jim’s desperate to control.
Excerpt — Chapter One
Noting that the credit card receipt line marked “Tip” had been filled in with “CASH,” Teddy Gaines snatched the slip off Table Seven and muttered, “Rat bastards.”
If the “CASH” was the handful of nickels, dimes and pocket lint that his group of eight guests had left on top of the slip, then Teddy had been shafted.
He’d lost count of how many times they’d stiffed him in three months. Every other time, they’d at least given him a dollar for his trouble. Usually that dollar had pancake syrup or sausage grease on it, but it had still spent the same.
“Why do you keep seating them in my section?” he spat at the hostess as he approached the front of the pancake house.
Willa blinked at him in her usual “Don’t care” way, set down the menu she’d been scrubbing and pushed her glasses up her nose. “They always want the same tables.” Her voice was ravaged by years of cigarettes, hard liquor and throat-clearing. If Bea Arthur had regularly lunched on thumbtacks and also swallowed fire in her free time, she would have sounded like Willa.
He groaned and peered through the double doors at the dark parking lot.
The cheap bastards were huddling by their motorcycles, probably planning what they’d next plunder. “When they come in again, tell them I have too many people in my section already or something.”
She scoffed and swished her rag over the spot of pancake syrup on the plastic menu cover. “No can do. Boss says the customer’s always right.”
“They left me a seventy-three-cent tip!”
She winced. “Okay, that sucks.”
“You know what else sucks? Serving assholes for two hours and earning minimum wage for the privilege. That’s what sucks.”
“Hon, I don’t know what to tell ya except the same thing as always. Find a new job.”
Teddy rolled his eyes and jangled the change in his palm. He thought all the time about moving on to greener pastures, but there was nothing else as potentially lucrative in Chesterton besides stripping, and the only strip joint in town didn’t serve the sort of clientele he’d prefer to take his clothes off for.
Contemplating, he rubbed his chin. They might pay me to keep my clothes on. Worth looking into.
The familiar bark of laughter pealed from the parking lot through the doors, and Teddy turned slowly toward the exit. Looking through the glass, he narrowed his eyes. “Trolls,” he muttered. “They spend two hours in here taking up space, and now they’re gonna spend another two in the parking lot.”
“And? There’s no one else here this time of night. It’s three a.m.” Willa cleared her throat and picked up another sticky menu.
Every Wednesday, the restaurant offered bottomless pancakes to anyone who ordered more than five dollars’ worth of food. Willa spent every Wednesday night scrubbing syrup off plastic. Unfortunately for both Willa and Teddy, their boss considered the wee hours of Thursday morning to be Wednesday, too. The pancake action didn’t stop until five a.m. Fortunately, Teddy’s shift ended at two, before the worst of the bar crawlers turned up.
“Do you know how many pancake orders they plowed through?” he asked her and propped his elbow atop the podium.
She stared at him over the tops of her bifocals. “What do I get if I guess right?”
She pursed her lips and made a hmm sound. “Okay. I’ll add it to my cigarette fund. Let’s see. They did twenty last week, so I’m gonna guess twenty-five. A couple of those guys were lit when they came in. Gotta have something to sop up all the booze, I guess.”
“Twenty-seven. Close enough.” He slammed the change down on the podium and started for the doors. “Be right back.”
“Where are ya goin’?”
“Gonna give those guys an economics lesson.”
“You sure you wanna do that, Ted?”
“No. Going to anyway.” By the time Teddy had yanked open the heavy outer door, he’d actually mustered up enough courage to open his mouth. “You know,” he said to the dark-haired beast leaning onto the seat on one of those two-wheeled, chrome-glinting death machines. “I don’t get paid, really, unless you people tip.”
Some leather-wearing dill weed in the crew scoffed.
The beast in front of Teddy slanted an eyebrow.
Teddy crossed his arms over his chest and tapped the toe of his black sneaker with impatience. “Don’t tell me I didn’t earn a tip. Twenty-seven pancake orders. Thirty-two eggs between the lot of you, six of which were sent back because they weren’t—” he gagged “—raw enough. Eight pounds of bacon. Enough sausage to build a log cabin. One bowl of applesauce.” He glanced at the only lady in the beastly congregation, and she at least had the decency to look contrite. “And you complained about the coffee.”
“The coffee was weak,” Chief Beast said.
His name was actually Jim. Teddy knew that because the beasts kept saying it as if they’d die if he didn’t pay attention to them.
Jim, Jim, Jim.
“I don’t make the coffee,” Teddy said, crossing his arms. “I just pour it.”
One corner of the beast’s lips quirked upward. The same disrespect as always. “Liar. I’ve seen you filling the brew baskets.”
Unrepentant, Teddy narrowed his eyes at him. “I stand by my comment. I drop in pre-measured coffee disks. Take up your dissatisfaction with my boss.”
“I don’t care that much,” Jim said, rocking back on his black leather boots’ heels. “So, what do you want from me?”
“Fifteen percent of the order would be a nice start. I can help with the math, if you need me to. I’m good with figures.”
“Are you, now?” Jim’s nod was slow and his smile gentle, yet somehow predatory.
Not somehow, Teddy decided. Satan had likely mastered a similar combination, and Teddy didn’t know what it meant for his eternal soul that he’d fantasized many Wednesday nights about the sorts of things a devil like Jim might make him do.
He shouldn’t have gone outside. He should have gone into the bathroom and splashed his face with cold water, the same as every other time Jim paid his check and left, but apparently he’d had a moment of foolhardiness.
“This has to stop. You stiffing me.” And the stiff cock he always got for his trouble. Every damn time. The man must have put some kind of erotic spell on him. Teddy had gotten good at resisting men who were bad for him, but Jim had a magnetic allure. Teddy closed his eyes and pinched the bridge of his nose. “Lead me not into temptation,” he muttered.
“Hey. I know that prayer.”
“I’m banking on the ‘delivering from evil’ part.”
Jim’s chuckle was low and teasing, and made heat creep up Teddy’s neck and face. If he flirted the way he tipped—all lead-up, no satisfaction—there was probably a gaggle of women waiting to string him up by his balls.
Teddy had dealt with cheapskates plenty of times before, but those times had all been before Teddy had run out of student loan payment forbearances. The money-grabbing sharks had started calling him at work. “Will you be making a payment this month, Mr. Gaines?”
Tuning out the sounds of heckling from the rest of the crew, Teddy massaged his temples and forced himself to meet Jim’s frank gaze. Teddy was an actor. Eye contact usually wasn’t so damn hard, but most people didn’t stare back the way Jim did.
And most people didn’t wear scruff so nice.
Teddy hated himself so much right then. He hated his penchant for messy jerks who needed fixing and for pale brown eyes that reminded Teddy of things he loved. Autumn leaves. Caramel. Really good beer.
He settled for looking at Jim’s thick eyebrows, instead. He could actually think that way.
“With tips,” he said haltingly, “all you have to do is…move the decimal over to the left one place. That’s ten percent. Then, add half of that to make fifteen percent. Or, double the ten percent. This is a pancake house, not the Russian Tea Room. You can afford twenty percent, especially if you’re gonna sit in my section for two hours chewing the cud or shooting the shit or whatever it is you…” he swished his hand in their general direction “…people do. The tip you left was rude.”
“That’s all you have to say? Nodding is all you’ve got?”
“Maybe I like seeing you mad.”
Teddy was certainly getting there, and he preferred anger over lust. He was the poster boy of lust making people do stupid shit.
He drummed his fingers against the sides of his arms a little harder and tapped his foot some more. There were security cameras outside, and Teddy happened to know his boss reviewed them at quadruple speed as he balanced the books every day. The last thing Teddy needed was to get fired for going berserker on a guy who probably knew all the best places in town to hide bodies.
Jim reached into his jacket pocket.
Teddy took a big step back.
The crew laughed.
“Take it easy,” Jim said to them. He strode over to Teddy in three easy lopes, turned Teddy’s hand over and pressed a wad of bills into it. Closing Teddy’s fingers over the cash, he leaned in close. “Call me if you want the rest.” His voice was rough as cheap whiskey—like sin distilled into sound with enough bass to make Teddy’s knees go weak.
Teddy willed his trembling body to still and took a deep breath.
That was a mistake.
Jim’s scent was old leather and maple syrup, and something else, too—some earthy note Teddy couldn’t quite put a finger on but had him turning his nose toward the bend of the taller man’s neck and breathing in deeply.
Swallowing, Teddy furrowed his brow and realized what Jim had said. “The rest?”
“You know how to use a phone, right? Or do you dance your fancy thumbs over a screen and send cute little emoticons instead of actually communicating?”
Teddy looked at his hands. He was a farm boy. There was nothing fancy about him, but he could see why Jim might have thought so. “Polish keeps them from getting stained.” He worked with the drama kids at the community center. Sometimes they painted sets, and paint was easier to get off slick nails than porous ones.
“Who’d care if they were stained?” Jim asked, holding up his own grease-stained fingers. Of course on his big hands, the remnant smudges from a day’s work were sexy. Teddy would probably look like a leper with the same.
“I would care. And why are you standing so close to me?” He needed Jim to be the one to back away, or the crew would laugh again, and the next Wednesday night serving them would be an even more demoralizing trial.
“You can move.” Jim put on that crooked grin again, and Teddy looked pointedly away. “Go wait tables. Earn some tips from people who won’t make you work so hard.”
“There’s no one else here.”
“Maybe you should shift to daytime hours, then.”
“I tried,” Teddy said sourly.
“Even if I didn’t have to work nights, no one would switch with me. They don’t relish serving you, either.”
Jim’s chuckle was warm as a tongue against Teddy’s ear.
He stopped tapping his foot because he had to curl his toes. The thought of that beast snaking the tip of his tongue against Teddy’s ear should have made him recoil. Instead, it made him clench in that anticipatory way he always did when a man undressed in front of him. He rubbed his palm roughly against his thigh, wanting to slake his arousal but unable to touch. He imagined the cold water he’d be splashing onto his face as soon as they left, but that didn’t help.
He didn’t want to think about Jim undressing. Didn’t want to think about the landscape beneath the layers of leather and cotton. Didn’t want to think about how he’d look as he kicked off his boots and tossed his wallet onto Teddy’s dresser. Didn’t want to think about whether or not he wore underwear under that tight cowhide, but Teddy did think about it, and he throbbed.
“Remember what I said.” Jim backed away, taking his warm breath and his virile scent with him.
Teddy’s mother had told him to set his sights on an accountant or a schoolteacher—someone safe and reliable, but apparently he was a masochist. He liked shopping on Black Fridays. He liked running 10k races in winter. And he liked jerks who looked that damn good when they threw their legs over their motorcycles.
He rubbed his temples again and sighed inwardly.
There was a cacophony of engines all starting at once, which should have been too loud for a mere mortal to endure, but it barely mattered. Teddy hardly noticed that the other bikes were backing out and rolling toward the road, because Jim was pulling his helmet on over his mop of uncombed hair, and that dark visor of his concealed his beautiful golden-brown eyes.
He flipped up the visor and stared at Teddy.
Teddy couldn’t be sure, with the bottom of Jim’s face obscured, but the creases beside his eyes deepened and his eyes narrowed a bit. A smile.
Jim let the visor down and backed away.
Teddy stared until the big death machine was out of sight, and then finally looked down at the wad of cash in his fist. He unfurled his fingers slowly and held his breath.
Anger mounted and just as quickly abated. In the middle of a collection of fives and tens was a W. Company sticky note that had the business address and contact information listed at the top.
He had that all ready? He furrowed his brow. Why?
Teddy knew what W. Company was. The auto supply retailer was right on Main Street and took up half a city block. It was the largest employer in Chesterton.
W. Company was also the business name on Jim’s credit card. It dawned on him that the W may have stood for the first letter of his last name: West. The after-hours cell phone number circled on the sticky note must have been Jim’s.
“Holy shit.” Teddy tucked the cash into his pocket and opened the restaurant door.
If Jim had a stake in that company, he could certainly afford a hundred-dollar tip…and then some. The scruffy bastard might tip like he was broke, but he was making bank.
“He’s just a jerk, then. Why am I always attracted to the jerks?”
Willa grunted. “You’re young. You’ll learn better.”
Teddy thought he had. He’d managed to not get unbalanced by insensitive men like Jim for five whole years since graduating from college. Apparently, his luck had finally run out.
He headed to the bathroom to splash his face and think about whom he could beg to trade for his next Wednesday night shift.