·SERIES: Masters of Maria #4
***Click here to read the bonus epilogue! (Contains spoilers.)***
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For coyote shifter Blue Shapely, becoming the new alpha of Maria’s pack is his long-awaited chance to be his own man and eliminate chaos from the town. Unfortunately, the pack’s patron is thwarting him at every turn.
After being magically attached to the Coyote group for more than a century, demigoddess Willa Matheson has a soft spot for them—even the dangerous ones threatening to expose them to humans. She may have hired Blue to rein in the pack, but the two constantly disagree on strategy. She doesn’t want to upset anyone, whereas he’ll do whatever it takes to get his Coyotes in line. And to make things worse: all signs point to the anxious demigoddess being his mate.
But developing a tenderness for Willa will be an obstacle to Blue’s determination to be as ruthless as he needs to be. If the duo can’t find a way to retract their claws, and soon, it may be too late to protect the pack’s secret—and their own hearts.
TROIBLE @ QATERIMG HOOLE
“Oh no.” Breathing out a quiet groan of frustration, Willa Matheson gave her trembling right hand a squeeze with her left and then tried to tap out that text message again. There was a bar brawl brewing at The Watering Hole, and the group of reckless shapeshifters she was chaperoning were on one side of it. If there was a fight, there wouldn’t be anything Willa could do to help them. If she couldn’t get her brain to cooperate with her fingers, there was going to be fur, and possibly a few bullets, flying.
Distracted and on edge, she’d hit Send prematurely, and the message’s recipient—Blue Shapely—wasn’t the kind of man who had patience for people wasting his time. Not even her, and she’d hired him to manage the New Mexican Coyote pack she’d haplessly inherited more than a hundred years ago. She wasn’t a shifter. Her being a pack patron didn’t make good sense, but she was bound to them through her father’s magic. As far as demigoddesses went, she wasn’t all that impressive. The only magic she had was what kept her from aging at a normal rate, and she didn’t think looking like a chronically fatigued thirtysomething was that great of a trick.
TROULBE @ WATEING HOLE
After reading back her second attempt at an SOS, she shook with barely repressed, nervous laughter at yet another late typo detection.
“Rare form tonight,” she whispered, rubbing her burning eyes. There was always so much smoke coming off the grill at The Watering Hole. It permeated the entire bar, but no one else seemed bothered. They always behaved as though it wasn’t even there, clouding up the air and teasing of fire.
Willa hated fire.
Doing her best to ignore the stench, she hovered her fingers over the screen again, closing them into a fist and shaking them out as the Message Read indicator popped up on her screen.
Oh no. A cold flash of fear shot through her and jolted her more erect on her barstool.
She could imagine what the Coyote alpha would say if he’d been scanning his phone screen while standing in front of her. He’d look up slowly and level his best corporate stare on her. “That supposed to be English?” Blue would probably ask, and her comeback would likely be something like, “I would know. I’ve been speaking it longer,” and then, mortified, she’d flee.
As the child of a Greek god, she was somewhat more physically resilient and certainly more long-lived than her fully human peers. She’d discovered within five minutes of meeting Blue six months ago, though, that verbal sparring with him was dangerous for her blood pressure. Usually, stupid Coyotes were the most dangerous ones. Her problem with Blue was that his brain was too quick…and he was too unyielding once he’d made his quick assessments.
TROUBLE “ WATERING HOLE
Her eyes were burning too much for her to see the screen clearly. He’d figure out what she meant, and if not, she could always say she tried. Calling might have been easier for some people, but she never could get her words out quite right when she was nervous. A lingering effect, perhaps, of growing up during the Spanish Inquisition, where the smallest conversational slipups could get people investigated.
Not that it’d mattered for her in the end. It wasn’t what she’d said that had gotten her condemned. It was what she hadn’t even done.
Stop it. You survived.
Forcing the memory of pitiless staring crowds and lit torches out of her mind, she risked a glance up to the mirror behind the bar. A few of her known troublemakers were pushing back from their tables, puffing up their chests, making their presences known—not that they could be ignored. That was the biggest problem with the Coyotes. They didn’t try hard enough to get the largely ignorant-to-paranormal human locals to ignore them. They just didn’t care anymore.
“Don’t do this, Mac,” she murmured when he brought his beer bottle to his lips and smiled behind it at a cocky ranch hand seated two tables away. The bottle had been empty for ten minutes. She knew Mac McConnell, and that was a threat. The notorious Coyote troublemaker’s favorite weapon was glass.
Two more Coyotes stood, swaying drunkenly and signaling their intent to enter the fray.
She knew the signs of the inevitable, so she put her cell phone’s screen to sleep, crammed the device into the back pocket of her jeans, and dropped a five-dollar bill onto the bar top for her club soda with a twist. Her presence was futile. The Coyotes never listened to her. She needed to get out of that powder keg before it combusted. There were sixteen Coyote shifters, twelve out-of-town bikers, and a bachelor party of seven reckless cowboys in the crowd behind her. Once they started swinging, they were going to keep swinging until they won, and she was tired of being collateral damage.
Tired of being unseen, although she’d been there all along.
The bartender, Matty, barely glanced down at the cash. With his brawny arms folded over his chest, he locked his stare toward the cacophony in the back corner and gave a precise nod of acknowledgment. “Bastards must be bringing it in with them,” he pondered aloud. “No way in hell I served the idiots that much.”
She offered a grim smile and set her feet on the floor. “No. I don’t believe you did,” she managed over the din. Her pocket buzzed with her phone’s acknowledgment that her last message had gone out, and there was a response. She didn’t bother reading what it was.
Time to run.
She’d hired Blue, a strong dominant Coyote and an outsider, to help her manage the pack because she couldn’t do it. Because she wasn’t a shifter, and didn’t have any magic to keep the dogs in line when they got wild, she hadn’t had a choice. She hated to ask Blue for backup. Hated to ask him for anything, really. Communication was often an exercise of fight or flight for her, especially when she had to initiate it to request help from people she’d otherwise evade. She’d been successfully avoiding Blue for the better part of the six months since he’d arrived in Maria, because when they met, they argued, and she always lost. He had ways of twisting her brain into knots and making her forget what her moral authority had been.
“You got shit for brains?” came a slurred shout from Mac. For a moment, Willa thought he’d been speaking to her. “I told you to get your stinkin’ hands off me.”
Willa closed her eyes and girded herself for a crash, and there it went. A seemingly unending amount of glass shattered against the floor. Chair legs squealed against the wood as a bunch of drunks began to choreograph what would surely be a fracas to be remembered.
The yelling was the worst part, even more jarring than the violence, because that would have to end at some point. In Willa’s distant past, when the dins of torture ebbed, the Inquisition had claimed one more soul. No one was going to die at The Watering Hole, but her stupid, anxious brain didn’t get that.
Unsteady from nerves and fear, Willa braced a hand against the bar side and forced her eyes open.
Her phone buzzed again, and she ignored it, hoping Blue’s response was the right one. If it wasn’t, it didn’t matter. There wasn’t anything she could do in that bar that wouldn’t publicly connect her to the troublemakers. She was a schoolteacher, and she couldn’t afford that.
“You bumped my table like you were looking for a problem,” a stranger shouted back at Mac. “You got one now.”
Being from out of town, that man couldn’t have known, but Mac lived for a fight. It didn’t matter if he won or lost, as long as adrenaline was high. When it was done, he was going to drink to celebrate his victory or drink to soothe himself for his defeat.
A win-win situation for him.
“Quit talkin’, and do somethin’ about it, then,” Mac taunted.
Willa drew in some air and squeezed the outline of her phone in her pocket. There was going to be a lecture from Blue whenever he caught up to her again, and she hated that. Hated being spoken to like she didn’t think. Like she didn’t try.
She did try, and had been putting her sweat and tears into the pack for more than a hundred years. She simply didn’t have the constitution to lead.
A woman like her, whose constant companion was apprehension, was born to hide.
“Best you get going, Willa, huh? I might have to make a little noise to break that up.” Matty shouldered his shotgun.
Grimacing, Willa backed away from the bar.
“Want me to walk you out?”
“N-no, Matty,” she stammered, “but, thank you.”
He had his eyes on the evolving fracas near the jukebox. A few Coyotes were drunkenly arguing with a couple of mundane locals about how they’d parked their motorcycles in “their” spots. The elevating pitches of the rebuttals were veering dangerously close to the realm of vocal violence.
That was the only reason she’d texted Blue.
Her gut overturned with shame.
This is my fault.
She should have told the Coyotes “no” more forcefully—should have ended the Wednesday gatherings for real once Blue took over, but instead, she’d let the pack hold them in secret without their alpha’s supervision. She’d been too soft. Blue was a “my way or else” kind of alpha, and she was afraid things had been changing too fast for them. He wanted order at the expense of their freedom and dignity, and she had strong reservations about being subjected to an outsider’s idea of order.
“You gotta quit coming here on Wednesdays,” Matty said. “The worst shit seems to always happen on Wednesday for some reason.”
I can’t do this.
She tried to smile, but suspected the muscles didn’t follow through. Her face burned so hot that she couldn’t feel it to know for sure.
Matty didn’t know she was there with them—that the Coyotes were hers and that in over a hundred years of being the “grown-up,” she’d never had a grip on them.
Matty would try not to hurt anyone. He always did, but when the Coyotes were out of control, it was inevitable that someone would catch a bit of glass shrapnel to the flesh.
Hurry up, Blue, before Matty pulls that trigger.
If he fired that shot, perhaps the fight would stop, but it could potentially startle a few of the less-restrained Coyotes into shifting into their animal forms. If they did that, Matty would start shooting for real. As far as he knew, shapeshifters didn’t exist.
Blue would corner her about the Coyote outing later. He’d get in her face and scold her for abetting them in the breaking of the curfew he’d established. As always, she’d go on the defensive before retreating into her turtle shell. He treated her as though she were a child and not a woman who’d witnessed some of the worst atrocities the world had to offer.
In a rare moment of courage, she wrestled her phone out of her pocket and read the screen.
I GUESS YOU’LL LET ME RUN THIS THING MY WAY NOW, his responding text read.
Exhaling a manic-sounding scoff, she put the phone back and started for the door.
That walking, talking splotch of testosterone would never earn her trust, and he probably didn’t care. He was going to do what he wanted regardless.
With a yelp of fright, she ducked hurriedly beneath the stool Dean Aaronson swung at Javier Garcia’s head and skulked to the exit to the accompaniment of shattering beer bottles, slamming tables, and shouted swear words that made even a 500-year-old demigoddess grimace.
Willa had been foolish to believe the pack would be on their best behavior. She’d wanted so badly to extend the trust to them that adults deserved, but they were apparently far too codependent for their own good. They supported each other in their rough-and-tumble lifestyles that were far too often about doing what felt good instead of doing what was right, and that wasn’t all their fault. They’d had bad alphas, and then no alpha, and for more than a century, she’d stood on the periphery of the pack and done nothing because she didn’t know what she could do.
Her father had given the pack to her in the way some fathers gave their children toy soldiers or doll sets. The Maria Coyotes were Willa’s to organize and play with, but having no leadership abilities, she’d become little more than an observer. Guilt over her incompetence fed into the anxiety that kept her up late every night, fretting.
She just wasn’t enough.
Someone tugged the bar’s heavy steel door open the exact moment she pushed her shoulder against it. Instinctively, she took a step back because people always walked into her as though she were invisible, rarely bothering to apologize. After all, she’d been in the way.
Reclaiming her space as the sounds of fighting escalated, she squeezed through the opening. Then, catching a whiff of familiar orange and cedar notes, she recoiled and surged ahead.
She didn’t have to look up at the newcomer to identify him. The imposing figure in pressed slacks and Burberry brogues was Maria’s wealthiest and most maddening shapeshifter.
Before Blue could open his mouth to tell her, yet again, “Told you so,” she marched into the parking lot holding up her Jeep’s key fob and pushed the unlock button.
With chaos mounting inside the bar, he wouldn’t follow her. She could say a lot of disparaging things about him, but she could also give credit where it was due. He generally had his priorities straight.
She looked over her shoulder in time to see Blue’s lieutenants Kenny and Lance disappear through the doorway and Blue’s head shake as he watched her leave.
He stepped into the bar. The door closed behind him.
She put her head against the steering wheel, allowed herself thirty seconds to steady her breathing, and then she turned the key in the ignition and left.
There was a morality clause in her teacher’s contract. If her name got written into another article about a brawl at The Watering Hole, she’d probably be out of a job. Contrary to what people might have thought, the job market wasn’t so hot for middle school band instructors, and certainly not ones with fake IDs and questionable employment history.
Near immortality was such a trap.
Lately, she been wondering more and more, why her? Why not someone who could be a leader? In spite of her father’s prominent position in the Greek pantheon, she was never going to be important. She’d very nearly convinced herself that she didn’t need to be.
But Wednesdays lately made her second-guess.
She was a joke. Given her father’s penchant for exacting exquisite punishments on people who didn’t worship him, her being miserable and in over her head was probably exactly what he wanted.