The Beast in Him – Shelly Laurenston

True, he was drunk. Very drunk. His daddy’s idea of a proper send-off for his youngest boy before the United States government owned his ass for the next few years. But just because he shouldn’t have had those last four tequilas, didn’t mean he didn’t know they were tracking her. They were always tracking her. Always screwing with her. From what he could tell, she didn’t even stay at the house anymore. Her foster parents didn’t care as long as the checks kept rolling in. So she mostly lived out in the woods like a wild child. Except she wasn’t a wild child. Just a poor kid who’d had the unlucky misfortune of getting on the wrong side of his baby sister. He caught their scent and immediately knew where they were heading—to the high school. They’d find her under the bleachers. She hid under there a lot. She could hide anywhere when she needed to.

Unlike the brawnier She-wolves, her kind’s body type was small and wiry, like all wild dogs. By the time they made it into the gymnasium, he already stood in front of the bleachers. He didn’t have time to find her and get her out; he’d have to stop them here. “Hey, Bobby Ray,” Bertha, also known as Big-Boned Bertha, cooed. His sister, at sixteen and already six feet tall, was still smaller than Bertha. But she was tougher and Bertha learned early on not to mess with Sissy Mae Smith. She learned the hard way. Now she took it out on the smaller, weaker Omegas of the town. Yet, she seemed to have a special hard-on for this one girl. This one girl with no protection, no family, and no Pack.

A dog among wolves. The Lord could be cruel when He set His mind to it. “I know why you’re here, Bertha. And I want you to take your friends and go.” “Oh, come on, Bobby Ray. We won’t hurt her none.” Bertha squatted down to look through the slats of the bleachers. “Is she in there? Come on out, Jessie Ann. We just wanna say hi.” “I said you need to go.

” Bertha stood up, damn near as tall as he was, and tossed her hair back. “Why aren’t you at your party, Bobby Ray?” “Once my daddy starts putting my brothers into headlocks and telling them they only live ’cause he didn’t kill ’em in the crib, it’s time for me to go.” She stepped closer to him. “You really going to join the Navy tomorrow?” “Already joined, darlin’. Tomorrow I get on the bus.” And the hell out of here. “You’ll be missed,” she said low, for him only. “My momma says that too.” He put his arm around her shoulders and steered her back toward the doors. “Look, you take these guys out of here.

I’m waitin’ on somebody.” “Who?” “A friend who’s going to hook me up with the best ’shine in three counties. But he’s not coming in if he sees an audience. So why don’t you head back to the party and I’ll meet you there.” He forced a smile. “And then we’ll have a party of our own.” “Okay. See you in about an hour?” “Sure,” he lied, feeling almost guilty if he hadn’t known she’d come there to beat up a ninety-fivepound girl. Bertha kissed his cheek and motioned to the other wolves to follow her out. The bunch of them were already pretty drunk.

A few more drinks and they’d all pass out, and by the time they woke up in the morning, he’d be on a bus and gone from Smithtown forever. Once their scent faded, Bobby Ray turned around and headed back toward the bleachers. “It’s okay, Jessie Ann. You can come out now.” He waited for her to answer, but it seemed she was still scared. He caught her scent, so she was around somewhere. “Come on, Jessie Ann, you know you have nothing to worry about with me. I’ll walk ya home.” At least he hoped he could. That tequila was starting to hit him pretty hard.

“Dammit, Jessie Ann, I don’t have time for this.” He walked around the bleachers and crouched down to see under them. He felt a little wobbly from all the liquor, so he reached out and lightly put his hand against the metal of the bleachers. “Don’t!” Small brown hands grabbed hold of his shoulders and yanked him back. They both hit the floor as the bleachers slammed down like a set of dominoes. If he’d been under there, he’d have been crushed to death. The silence after the deafening sounds of all that slamming metal stunned him. “You did that.” Bobby Ray looked over his shoulder at Jessie Ann Ward. She was a cute little thing, but a tad innocent for his tastes.

Big, wide brown eyes, a cute little nose, and full lips that promised all sorts of things he felt pretty confident she’d never be able to deliver on. She kept her long curly hair in two ponytails, and you could easily see the many colors flowing through each strand. All wild dogs had multiple colors in their fur and, when human, in their hair. Brown, gold, blond, white, and black all on one head made it hard for Jessie not to be noticed. Still, he’d had the hots for her since the first time he saw her, but Jessie Ann was the kind of female who you mated with, not simply made out with. And he had no intention of getting trapped in this town. Another Smith male with a Pack of vicious sons and a mate who didn’t know if she loved him or hated him, probably both. “I could have gotten killed,” he growled. “Don’t snarl at me,” she growled back, pulling herself into a sitting position. “It wasn’t for you anyway.

” “No, it was for them. And do you think you would have ever forgiven yourself if they’d actually gone under there?” “They wouldn’t have. It was just to scare ’em off. I’m tired of being hunted like a gazelle.” He stared at her and finally saw all the bruises on her face and neck, probably going well down her torso and legs. They’d caught up with her again. Dammit. He did try to protect her, but there was only so much he could do, and Sissy Mae simply wouldn’t call off her She-wolves. Not even seventeen and she already had her own Pack. The females her own age followed Sissy around town like the Second Coming.

He had no idea what happened between them, but Sissy made it clear she thought of Jessie Ann Ward as their own Pack Omega. Problem was, Jessie Ann didn’t much like that position. So she fought back when most Omega wolves would have taken it until it was over. But she wasn’t wolf. She was wild dog. And if she had her own Pack… but the wild dogs were dying out. The young adults had been hit by a vicious strain of influenza that could only be passed between them when shifted. It had wiped out more than half of the adult breeders before their own doctors could get a handle on it and come up with a vaccine to stamp it out. The damn thing had left a lot of elderly grandparents raising pups and a lot of orphans. Orphans like Jessie Ann.

Tragically, like the full-blood wild dogs in Africa, Jessie’s people were becoming extinct. Which meant she had no one except him watching out for her. And once he got on that bus tomorrow, she wouldn’t even have that. “Jessie, you’ve gotta learn to take care of yourself.” Without thinking, Bobby Ray reached out to touch her cheek and she reared back from him, which hurt his feelings. Especially his drunk feelings. “I wouldn’t hurt you.” She scrambled back from him. “I know that.” If she did, then why did she keep moving away from him? Annoyed, he grabbed hold of her ankle, holding her still.

“If that’s true, why are you running from me?” “I’m not running.” But she desperately tried to get him to release her leg. “Then stop fussin’!” he snapped. When she didn’t, he yanked her over and somehow yanked her right onto his lap. She gasped in surprise, her arms around his neck, her thighs on either side of his hips. For a little thing, she sure did feel good there. He rested his hands on her hips. Bobby Ray knew he should push her off, but all he wanted to do was bring her closer. She stared down into his face, those brown eyes devouring him on the spot. Yeah, he knew when a female wanted him, and to his utter surprise, Jessie Ann Ward wanted him.

He watched her gather her courage; then she moved in, her lips lowering toward his. He could feel her sweet breath against his mouth and he could easily imagine how hot the kiss would be. He knew she’d taste wonderful and would respond to him like no one ever had before. He also knew kissing her would be the dumbest thing he could ever do. So, too drunk to temper his actions, he shoved her off his lap, wincing when she hit the floor hard. Bobby Ray ran his hands through his hair. Sometime tomorrow all his hair would be gone. “We… we can’t.” “We can’t what?” she snarled, pushing herself to her feet. “You grabbed me.

” She stood and he could see she wore one of her Star Wars T-shirts. She must have ten of those and ten of her Raiders of the Lost Ark tees. A real nerd, Jessie Ann. “Don’t be mad, Jessie Ann. It’s not—” “Forget it.” She glanced at the small watch on her wrist. She had a weird thing about time, which he found fascinating since no one else in town did. “I gotta meet my friends at Riley’s.” A comic-book store in the next town over. “I’ll walk with you.

” He didn’t like her being out there on her own. “No, I don’t need you.” She practically spit that in his face; then she grabbed her oversized backpack filled with her nerdy books and papers and hauled it onto her shoulders. For such a small thing, he had no idea how she managed to haul that bag around. “It’s too dangerous for you to walk over there at this time of night.” “I’m meeting my friends.” Her friends. All male. He often caught their scent lingering around her. He saw them once when he and one of his buddies went to the comic-book store on a whim.

She was in the back with five other guys playing some game that involved a board, paper, and many-sided dice. He sensed dragons were involved and that’s pretty much where Bobby Ray lost interest. Dragons, swords, fairies—all that stuff seemed pretty stupid to him. But he hadn’t liked her being around all those full-human males. He liked it even less now. She turned to walk away but stopped and glanced at him over her shoulder. “Good luck, Smith. You know, tomorrow. You’re gonna be great.” Then she took off running.

He didn’t bother going after her. Wild dogs were wicked fast, and he was way too drunk to keep up. Instead, Bobby Ray lay back against the floor and closed his eyes, figuring a few hours of sleep would have him right as rain. Of course, all those dreams about one small She-dog with innocent eyes and a wicked mouth only managed to drain him and make him wish things were different. But they weren’t. Not until he got out of Smithtown and changed his life for good. Then maybe, just maybe, he’d have something to offer a spunky little wild dog who could haunt a man’s dreams and his heart. CHAPTER 1 Sixteen years later “Well, how bad is it?” Smitty asked, handing Mace Llewellyn a hot cup of coffee. “Bad. Really bad.

I can’t sleep. I barely eat. I’m terrified they’re going to come in the middle of the night and burn the house down.” He shook his head and sipped his coffee, unable to continue. “How much longer?” Mace took a deep breath. “Another month. But she’s talked about not going back. A few months ago I thought that would make me happy; but not now. It horrifies me.” Smitty winced.

“Isn’t there something you can do?” When his friend only looked away, Smitty bumped his shoulder with his own. “Fess up, hoss. What did you do?” “You don’t understand,” Mace stated desperately. “I had to do something. It’s not just us I have to think about, but the baby.” “What did you do?” Unable to look Smitty in the eye, “I called her father.” “And?” “They’ll be calling her back to duty next week.” Shaking his head, “I had to do something, Smitty. It was out of hand.” “I understand, hoss.

” “No, you don’t. She’s turned friend against friend, neighbor against neighbor, wives against husbands. Husbands against tennis coaches. She’s started fistfights in the middle of Saks Fifth Avenue. When she’s bored—I fear for the world.” Smitty sipped his coffee and marveled at how one cop on maternity leave could destroy an entire Long Island town. Before Dez gave birth, Mace put her in a four-bedroom house in Northport with the hope that if she liked it, she’d rethink living in Brooklyn and, even more important, risking her life every day as a New York City Police detective. But soon after the baby was born, Dez started acting strangely. She never spoke about work, and Mace would come home to a full-cooked meal and a smiling wife more than happy to cater to his every whim. Then the long walks around the neighborhood with the baby and the dogs started.

By the time Dez returned home, thirty-year-old marriages were over. Tennis coaches shot at or slapped around at the country club. Dez wouldn’t say anything when Mace asked her about it, but she’d offer him a slice of home-baked lemon meringue pie. That was around the time the man stopped sleeping. “Does she know?” “I don’t know. They were going to call her today, give her the weekend, and bring her in on Monday —but I’ve been afraid to call home.” Smitty didn’t blame his friend. Sure, they may have been Navy SEALS together, caught in the middle of firefights, invading foreign countries, doing whatever their government asked them to do. But not once had they ever felt a fear equal to having a smiling Desiree MacDermot-Llewellyn ask you if you wanted salt for your potatoes. “Well, we’ve got a few more hours here at least.

” Mace finished off his coffee. “Thank God. I can’t go home… She made me pot roast last night.” He crushed the empty coffee cup. “Inhuman. The woman is inhuman.” Smitty finished off his own coffee and tossed the remainder in a trash can. He glanced at the TV screens. They’d set up cameras everywhere they could think of. This being their biggest job to date, Smitty wanted it going off without a hitch.

So far, the team had stopped at least fourteen people trying to sneak into the party. When Mace told him a couple of months before they’d been offered a job as party security, Smitty’s head nearly exploded off his body. Security for a party or rave were for guys who had criminal records and couldn’t become cops. It sure wasn’t for the well-armed team they’d assembled since Smitty and Mace opened their business. Then he heard about not only the party but the party throwers. This wasn’t some bullshit event, but a computer geek’s wet dream. The major players in computers—millionaires to billionaires—from around the country came to the party and had for the last five years. Getting an invitation something you could almost put on your résumé. The amped-up security was to protect the serious heavy hitters that even Smitty, who could give a shit about PCs except when he needed to send an e-mail or download some porn, recognized. Within a few days it went from “that bullshit job we have to do” straight into an all-hands-on-deck event.

Thankfully, they now had the manpower—former military-trained shifters looking for a new life among the civilians. So far they’d hired only three full-humans, and they were Dez’s best friends. “We better go back inside.” Mace pushed open the back doors. “You guys okay?” he asked the two males and one female monitoring the screens and keeping in close contact through headphones with the entire team. “Yup,” the female answered as she quickly flipped through channels, those gold leopard eyes picking up everything. “Good.” Mace slammed the doors after Smitty jumped out and the two headed back to the party. They quickly checked on front-door security and walked inside the building, a four-story brownstone the company that hired them owned. They weren’t a big company but apparently quite powerful.

Computer and database security specialists or whatever. To be quite honest, Smitty really didn’t care. Their money was green enough, and they had lots of it. Smitty and Mace stepped into the main ballroom and glanced around. These people definitely knew how to throw a party. This wasn’t some mere—and boring—black-tie event. This was a geek party to the nth degree. Hardcore tech music, old-school video games lining the walls, an insane amount of food and liquor—all free—and a hot waitstaff dressed up like those disturbing Japanese animation girls. He’d never seen so many girl school dresses paired with garter belts before in his life. Yeah, these people definitely knew their audience.

“Smitty?” Smitty faced his business partner. “This is Sierra Cohen. Miss Cohen, this is my business partner Bobby Ray Smith.” Smitty shook the female’s hand and sized her up at the same time. Yum. Jackal. There weren’t a lot of jackals in the world, but the few he’d met were damn cute. Using his most charming smile, Smitty asked, “So, this is your business, Miss Cohen?” “Oh, no. No, I’m just a hard-working employee. The owners aren’t very comfortable with the general public.

So I’m kind of the face of the company.” “I can see why, darlin’.” She gave a throaty laugh and took a step closer. “I have to say, Mr. Smith—” “Smitty, darlin’. Everybody calls me Smitty.” “Smitty, I have to say I was very glad to find… uh… our kind with a security business. I know my employers felt much safer with your team than with the full-humans we usually hire for this event.” “Well, we are available for any security needs you may have. Actually, any needs at all.

” He had to bite the inside of his mouth to keep from laughing when he caught Mace rolling his eyes in disgust. Before Detective MacDermot came along, it would have been an ugly fight between the two friends to see who got this little honey into bed first. But now that the big-headed lion had mated and married the lovely and big-breasted cop, poor Smitty was all on his own. “That’s very good to know. I’m sure there’s something you can take care of for me later tonight.” “Any chance,” Mace cut in, “you two can put a hold on this lovefest until the job is done?” “Don’t mind him, darlin’. He’s married.” Mace snarled and Sierra looked at him in confusion. “Married? Why?”

.

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