·SERIES: Masters of Maria #5
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Sheena Esposito has never rocked the boat in her father’s repressive Coyote pack, but when she learns of his intentions to further antagonize a rival alpha, she can’t stay quiet. She must warn the good guys that trouble is headed their way.
When her search lands her outside Maria, New Mexico, a surly ranch hand pegs her as an annoying stray dog. Desperate to keep his new job, cowboy Austin Stuart plans to get rid of the distraction. Yet, according to his little brother, the dog is really a human, and she’s on the run. Could this get more ridiculous? But he soon finds out shapeshifters are very real…and all signs point to Austin being Sheena’s mate.
After a lifetime spent recovering from one embarrassing social gaffe after another, Austin is open to trading his solitude for a chance at having a partner who’s kind about his rough edges—and no one’s sweeter than Sheena. Unfortunately, Sheena is still under her abusive father’s thumb, and she knows he’s waiting for her back in Sacramento.
It’s up to Austin to convince her that the bravest thing she can do is stay in Maria—not only for him, but so she can incite lasting change in Coyote culture as well.
“Austin! Austin! Come see what I found! Hurry!”
Baffled by his younger brother’s excited shout from the back door of the bunkhouse, Austin Stuart finished looping the stretch of rope he’d salvaged and made his way outside. Todd had probably found another rock that wasn’t actually gold, but in Todd’s mind, everything had potential. He was, at twelve years old, an optimist at heart.
Austin would humor him. Soon enough, after four busy weeks together, Todd would be leaving Maria, New Mexico, and heading home to Kansas, and Austin would be on his own again. He’d missed the kid—after all, Todd had become Austin’s shadow by the time he was six—but Todd’s energy was the kind that was healthier when consumed in small doses.
“What’d you find this time, kid?” Austin asked drolly. “Big heavy one? Maybe it’ll make a good paperweight.” Austin chuckled at his indignant brother’s expense, only for his breath to catch at the sight of the squirming dog in Todd’s skinny arms. It was nearly as long as Todd, with mud caked in its fur and some kind of cord tangled up around its neck.
“What the heck are you doing with that thing? Leave it alone.” Lunging into action, he tried to extricate the snapping beast from Todd, but for such a skinny kid, he had one a hell of a grip. Still, mind reeling, Austin tried to get his arms around the dog’s writhing midsection.
As he pulled and swatted at his brother’s hands, his thoughts splintered to consider countless possibilities. That dog could bite. Todd would get scratched up and need stitches. That ugly T-shirt he loved so much with the picture of Groot on it could get all ripped up. Or maybe he’d decide he wanted to keep the damn dog, and their mother would probably want to fly down personally to wag her finger at Austin for not being proactive enough, because obviously, it’d be all his fault if Todd got attached.
Austin didn’t need that kind of stress in his life. That was why he’d left Kansas in the first place. Twenty-five years of growing up couldn’t do it, but those nine hundred miles between him and his parents had been just enough to make the umbilical cord finally fall off.
“Todd! Let go.” Austin wedged his arm between the dog’s front legs dangling over Todd’s right arm and tried to get his fingers into his armpit for a warlike tickle.
Cruel, maybe, but in his mind, all was fair when saving prepubescent airheads from needless acts of stupidity.
Todd let out a squeal of resistant laughter as Austin worked his fingertips faster under his arm. “Can’t just…let it go, Austin. Think there’s—hee! Quit doin’ that! There’s something wrong with its foot. Look, will you?” He bent and set the dog on the ground. As he reached for the animal’s back paw, it bared its teeth and then barked repeatedly—so fast that the noises almost melded into a single scream.
As though the potential danger of the situation had finally dawned on him, Todd let go and backed the hell up.
Austin was usually the one to act on a delay, but he was on the ball then and got between Todd and the wild dog. “Shoo!” He flapped his arms at it and stomped in warning.
The dog flinched and took off. It didn’t get far, though. Todd had been right about the back foot. The leg gave out beneath the beast three steps from where it’d started. It got up and tried again to run only to meet the same result.
The last thing Austin needed was an injured dog hanging around terrorizing them when he had a job to do. He’d taken a break from installing cattle fencing to give Todd lunch, and now that stinking mutt was probably going to set him back hours.
He didn’t like that. Didn’t like having his routines busted up when it took him so long to figure them out in the first place.
“See, Austin? Something’s wrong with it.”
“Yeah,” Austin said through clenched teeth. “I see.” Considering the limping beast that had only managed to cover a span of about ten yards, he lifted his Stetson and ran a hand through his sweaty hair. Common sense said nature was intelligent and should run its course as far as the animal went. Common sense had been hard for him to come by, so he never ignored it. He hadn’t been born knowing where to find it or how to use it. Special education had taught him that. “You’re a smart kid, Austin,” his mother had told him at eleven. “You’ve just got to learn how to learn with ADHD.”
Took him two years to figure out what she’d meant by that. By that point, she’d had a second Stuart boy—one who was, by all accounts, perfectly neurotypical. He was the one with the right instincts, supposedly, and innately “knew better.”
She was so busy training Todd up to be the perfect spy that she didn’t notice sweet-faced Todd was a gifted fibber and operated on the “see nothing, snitch nothing” philosophy of sibling diplomacy. For whatever reason, he looked up to Austin. In turn, Austin just tried to do his best for him.
“Listen,” Austin told his brother. “Sometimes, you’ve just gotta let an animal be an animal.”
Giving the dog a doleful look, Todd asked, “What’s that mean?”
“That it probably didn’t want your help.”
“But look at it!”
“I’m looking,” Austin said with his teeth still clenched. “And I think you’re a dope.”
“Maybe I am, but at least I’m a nice one.” Todd huffed and shoved his hands into the pockets of his shorts.
“Yeah, you are. Too nice, maybe.” Austin had to concede that the dog was showing some real grit in trying to get away from them. It’d tried walking on three legs and favoring the injured one, but apparently both back feet were injured. It was more dragging itself along than walking.
“Where’d you find it?” Austin took a few tentative steps toward the animal. It had stopped to lick one of its back feet. “Pretty sure it didn’t just run up to you.”
“No-o-o,” Todd drawled, avoiding his brother’s glower.
Austin sighed. “You were out by the creek bed again, weren’t you? Even though I told you to stay away?”
Todd shrugged in the way kids always did when they were going to pass off their actions as no big deal. Austin knew better. Everything was a big deal back at home. He’d certainly gotten into trouble enough as a kid for the stupidest shit. “Redirection,” his therapist had called it, but Austin called it nagging.
“Are you trying to flood the neighborhood with all that water, or are you going to wash those dishes, Austin?”
“You can listen to that awful music for hours on end, but you can’t stand there for thirty seconds and tell me what you did at school today?”
Austin took a deep breath and let it out.
It was stupid to get upset about that stuff, but even being so far removed from adolescence, the constant corrections still seemed so acute. He kept hearing his parents’ voices in his head. “Austin! Austin!”
Maybe they meant well, but he couldn’t even listen to their phone messages without his blood pressure spiking the same way it always had when they knocked on his bedroom door.
“I wanted to get some of those soap things Alex told me about,” Todd said. “From that plant.”
“So why didn’t you just ask her to give you some? Quit the adventuring, kid. You’ll stay out of trouble that way.” Grimacing, he took another step toward the distressed dog. Mud caked the fur from snout to tail. He couldn’t even tell what color its fur was supposed to be. No collar, just that twine with a bit of burlap stuck to it.
The Foye family owned the Double B ranch where Austin worked. They had plenty of cows and horses, and one mean old Persian cat that sometimes escaped, but no other pets as far as he knew. The dog was probably just a wild stray. Plenty of those around Maria.
“I don’t think Alex told you about those yuccas expecting that you’d try to dig some up,” Austin told his brother. “That’s just what she does. She educates folks about the things that grow around here. She grows plants for a living.”
“I know that, but Ma would want some, right?” Todd’s pale eyebrows danced upward playfully. “You know how she is with her arts and crafts and making them soaps all the time. Could try something new. Dude, I’d get so many cool points if I took those roots back.”
Scoffing, Austin rolled his eyes. Yeah, he knew exactly how she was.
“Listen, and listen good,” he said to his brother, keeping his voice soft as he eased toward the dog. Austin could do his good deed for the week by checking it out and seeing if it needed a bandage or something, and then he had to get back to work. He’d only been living at the Double B ranch for a few months and was still in his probationary period. He still wanted to be there during the winter lull. He was getting comfortable out here on his own and hoped like hell not to go back to Kansas. He was through with his parents treating him, at twenty-five, like he couldn’t remember to take a piss standing up.
“They want you to reach your full potential. They mean well,” his therapist had always told him, and Austin mostly believed that, but sometimes people’s good intentions still managed to stifle the same as other people’s bad ones.
“Stop bothering Alex,” he murmured. “I know it’s easy to walk over and see what she’s doing in that greenhouse, but she’s got a huge list of things to get done every day.”
“Wasn’t bothering her, Austin. I help her put seeds in pots and stuff.”
“If you say so. Second of all…” Austin took another step toward the dog. It was back on its feet. Austin tilted his head and squinted. No dangly bits. That was a girl dog. She was back on her feet, and limping toward the south. She’d have to turn soon, unless she planned on shimmying under that fence wire and traversing through the herd. She was likely to get trampled running through that skittish bunch. “I want you to stay back. I’m gonna grab that dog, get her into the bath to get some of the mud off, and check her out. That’s all. Not keeping her, so don’t even open your mouth to ask.”
“But way out here, you should have a dog.” Todd turned his hands over pleadingly. “Why not that one?”
“Because I don’t want a dog. I want to be by myself.” Austin cringed the moment the words passed his lips. He was a chronic blurter and usually didn’t mean to be offensive, but Todd tended to be overly sensitive.
“Well, okay then,” Todd said with the expected note of dejection. He even hung his head a little. “Just wanted to help.”
Groaning, Austin reached for the struggling dog and scooped her up by her belly.
She started up that staccato barking again and gnashed her teeth at his arms as he carried her. He could tell she was tired, though, and for the moment, his will was greater.
Into the tub she went.
Sheena Esposito stood beneath the pelting water of the shower with her canine head lowered, teeth bared, and throat vibrating with a growl.
Who does that? she thought as the grumpy cowboy tortured her with a constant spray of lukewarm water. Who grabs wild coyotes like that?
They may not have been able to tell the difference. She would have thought it was obvious she wasn’t a run-of-the-mill dog, but apparently, they’d never seen a coyote before. That didn’t make a heap of sense to her, though. Coyotes were all over the West. Perhaps her shapeshifter DNA muddled her animal appearance somewhat, but still, she didn’t look like anyone’s pet.
“Calm down,” the guy muttered, pouring a bowl of soapy water over her head. He reached for the waterproof pouch dangling from the cord around her neck, and she snapped at him.
Her ID was in there, along with a couple hundred bucks in cash, her earrings, her rental car’s key, and the key to the motel room she’d rented up in Grants. What was supposed to be an organized mission to deliver a critical message to Maria’s Coyote alpha had gone FUBAR thanks to Sheena’s limited map-reading skills and getting the pad of her paw cut up in some kind of vicious cactus.
He reached for her pouch yet again, and she barked at him.
Swearing, he snatched his hand back. “So much for me doing a good deed. Maybe I’ll toss you out and leave you to your fate.”
She wasn’t worried about the wild outdoors. She was more worried about the ranch hand who’d apparently forgotten to put his brain in that morning. He was wasting her time, and she didn’t have much to spare. Once her father found out she’d left Sacramento, he was going to have half the pack scouring the West and Southwest for her. He’d gone out of town on business on Monday. She’d left Monday night, knowing she had four days max to get to Maria and back.
Because she’d never traveled on her own, much less devised a plan to tread into an enemy pack’s territory, she’d had to take a day to figure out how to approach the alpha Blue Shapely. There were customs to be observed, in spite of the fact they’d once been engaged to be married. Of course he was going to be suspicious. She couldn’t just drive into Maria and tell Blue that her father and his were both plotting ways to take him down. If she walked in on two legs, the local Coyotes were going to bite first and ask questions later. Shifters couldn’t walk right into the heart of a rival group’s territory without permission. They had to be circumspect but respectful. Most would just call and ask—there was a hotline for that purpose—but Blue wasn’t going to believe anything she said over the phone. He’d think she was setting him up, and she wouldn’t blame him if he did. Most women would feel a certain kind of way about being ditched on their wedding day. She didn’t, though. She’d never wanted to marry him in the first place. That had been her father’s idea.
She tried to slip past the cowboy and over the tub’s ledge, but he got his arms around her squirming, thrashing body and set her firmly back in place.
“Todd must be out of his mind, even thinking I’d need a dog like this,” he groused.
She huffed and wrenched her foot out of his grip when he lifted it.
“I’m trying to help you, you know.”
She didn’t need his help. Her foot would heal in a day or two, as long as she stayed in her coyote form and didn’t tax herself too much. Supposedly, anyway. Shapeshifters were renowned for their healing abilities, but Sheena wasn’t a born shifter. She’d been raised in a shifter family and then was bitten to be turned into a Coyote the day after her eighteenth birthday. Other than on full-moon nights, which she spent in secure, controlled environments with the rest of the city Coyotes in Sacramento, she didn’t spend much time in her animal form. Basically, she was a Coyote only on paper. She didn’t contribute much to the NorCal pack except for being known as the alpha’s only daughter…and she wasn’t even his. That was evident to everyone with functioning eyes because white and white didn’t make brown, but nobody talked about it. Not even her mother, who’d just pat Sheena on the head and shush her whenever the subject came up. Shushing was her mother’s love language. “Don’t worry about that, darling. The stress isn’t worth it,” she’d say before holding some pretty new bauble up in front of Sheena’s face. “Gold suits your complexion, I think.”
“Coyote parents make Coyote kids, don’t they? If I’m not a born shifter, then you must not have been a Coyote when you had me,” Sheena had mused at thirteen. The woman was obviously her biological mother. If people looked past the difference in coloring and hair textures, or the fact that Sheena’s nose was a bit wider and lips fuller, they’d see they had the same face. Same body shape. Same posture.
Back then, her mother had laughed nervously and changed the subject to whether or not Sheena wanted to give that salon that had butchered her kinky-curly hair twice already another try, because they were the only option in town. Sheena had dropped the line of questioning because there was a bodyguard too close, and Esposito women didn’t get to speak candidly.
Until she was eighteen, Sheena had always thought the guards were there to protect them from outside threats, but she’d figured out after stumbling onto some security logs that wasn’t entirely true. They were there to keep Sheena and her mother from saying too much or straying too far from home, because Bruno was a mobster who couldn’t trust his own family to toe the line.
Maybe he was right not to, given that Sheena had sneaked away to New Mexico and was trying to carry intel to a rival alpha. She hoped Blue would see the gift for what it was, because she was desperate to get her mother out of that cesspool and to see her have a personality again. A personality that was more nuanced than “terrified.”
The cowboy gave her back and haunches a brisk scrubbing and moved to wash her belly.
She had to draw a line somewhere. Using speed she didn’t know she had, she set her teeth against his bare wrist, not biting, just warning. She’d bite him, though, if she had to—even if it meant Blue might end up having a brand-new Coyote to collect by the next full moon. A lady had to have some dignity, even when she was on four feet instead of two and didn’t have her good earrings on.
“Calm down,” he murmured. He thought he was slick, trying to slowly pry his arm from her mouth like she wouldn’t notice, but in spite of the way she looked at the moment, she still had a mostly human brain in that furry head.
If he wanted to play a game, so would she. She bit down a little harder.
Nostrils flaring, he held very still.
He forced an exasperated snarl through his clenched teeth and reached to shut off the water. “Suit yourself, then.”
Fine. I will.
She needed to go. He was wasting her sunlight hours. Time was of the essence. She’d lost time because apparently Google Maps had lied to her. Blue lived in a subdivision called Arroyo Ranch, but it had steered her to an actual ranch.
The cowboy tossed a towel onto her and gave her a minimum drying—just enough for her to not drip water all over the bunkhouse’s unfinished floors, probably.
Then he got out of her way.
She made tracks for the front door, but apparently, he’d had a different plan all along.
He’d gotten in front of her somehow and curved her. He slammed the front door shut, and she bounded the opposite way, thinking there was a secondary door on the other end.
There wasn’t—just the entry to a very small, almost empty closet that she’d stupidly run into.
He shut the door behind her.
When she caught up to that cowboy, she was going to tear a chunk of flesh off his ass so large that he’d never be able to sit again.
“Todd, see if you can find me a number for animal control,” the guy called out. “Mangy little brat is a menace.”
Indignant, she barked at him, because she most certainly did not have mange. She’d heard that was an infliction of those ruffians in the pack up in Oklahoma, though.
“Aw, Austin,” the boy responded, seemingly from nearby. “You shoulda been nicer to it.”
I’m not a freakin’ it!
In spite of her frame at the moment, Sheena was still a lady and wanted to be treated like one. Somehow, being locked in a dank, musty closet that probably hadn’t been swept since Billy the Kid had been alive didn’t count as proper.
“Some things just ain’t worth it,” Austin said. “Gotta get back to work, anyway, before Belle decides she needs to swing by and check on me. I’ll deal with her later.”
“Well, okay, then. I’ll try to find the number.”
Sheena growled quietly as her gaze landed on a window set three feet up—one that was just big enough for a woman about her size to squeeze through.
She needed her thumbs to open that window, so she started the painful process of shifting back into her human body. The bones reconfiguring and skin stretching felt like hell, but she wasn’t going to be anyone’s pampered princess anymore. She was going to be someone’s hero, even if that someone was only herself.
Go on and find that number, Todd, she thought as she fondled her neck pouch with human fingers. I’ll be gone.