It was hard to think about death at a wedding. Yet he was managing it pretty well. And it wasn’t because he was bored or the bride didn’t look beautiful or the venue wasn’t amazing. It was because of that damn call. One call and his mind was filled with images of death. His death. But it wasn’t every day a man got a call that informed him there was a two-million-dollar bounty on his head. All that money for his big lion head. He should be wallowing in depression. He should be having one of his panic attacks when he couldn’t breathe or see straight. He should be doing what any normal human being—normal being relative since he could shift from human to feline in about thirty seconds or so—would be doing when finding out someone wanted him or her dead so badly. But he couldn’t be depressed, he couldn’t panic. Not now. Not with that staring him in the face. Okay.
So it wasn’t right in his face, but if he dropped to his knees and crawled over to it…his face could be right there. Now that was something worthy of wallowing in. Happily wallowing. “You’re staring at my ass again, aren’t you?” Normally when coldbusted this way by a woman, Mitchell Patrick Ryan O’Neill Shaw would begin some serious lying. He knew females well enough to know there were times when a man had to lie or risk losing important parts of himself. But every once in a while, if a man was lucky enough, someone would come along who went past the whole male–female flirting dynamic. And that someone was Sissy Mae Smith. They didn’t start off as friends. Not surprising since she stole his damn jacket. He’d lent it to her underdressed friend—at least she’d been underdressed at that moment—and Sissy had done what scavenger wolves did…she took it for herself.
But Mitch was feline—king of the jungle and all that— so he took the damn thing back. That led to Sissy wrapping herself around Mitch like a monkey and demanding he, “Enjoy your taste of nirvana, bitch!” To be honest, he really hadn’t known what to make of her at that point, but Sissy had a way of making people feel like they’d known her for twenty years. She’d walk into the security office where they both worked for her brother—a job that kept him busy and out of trouble until he had to go back to Philly to testify—and drop into Mitch’s lap like she belonged there. Then she’d say something along the lines of, “I know my beauty is enthralling, but do you think men realize I have substance, too?” or “Would you take me more seriously if I weren’t so pretty?” But it was when she would find him wandering his brother’s hotel in the middle of the night that he realized how much he liked her. She’d never ask him questions like, “Why are you sweating and jumping at everything that remotely sounds like a gunshot?” and instead, she would drag him off to some late night diner for what she referred to as “breakfast and mocking.” And it was over one of those breakfasts that Mitch realized Sissy had become one of his best friends. “Yes, I’m staring at your ass,” he told her as plainly as she’d asked, “but I can’t help it. It keeps talking to me.” He wasn’t kidding either. It was the way that stupid bridesmaid dress hung off her that was making him crazy.
It was a millimeter too tight around her ass, and he couldn’t do anything but stare. Like most shifter females from the Smith Pack, Sissy was a lot of woman. Strong, powerful, built. She could take down perps better than most linebackers could take down a quarterback. He’d seen her take a punch to the face and then kick the living shit out of the guy who’d done it. He’d also seen her whine over her stubbed toe. Sissy would never be a supermodel but that’s what Mitch liked about her. You took Sissy to bed, you never had to worry about breaking her. She was pretty, too. She looked a lot like her big brother, but her features were softer, her fighting scars a little less dramatic.
She kept her dark hair in a shaggy layered cut that teasingly covered and illuminated sharp, light brown eyes and well-defined cheekbones. The hairstyle appeared casual and easily maintained, but Mitch had grown up in a house with women, and his mother, a former registered nurse, now owned her own salon chain. He knew a three-hundred-dollar cut when he saw one. But the designer shoes on her feet were her first and only pair. Same thing with the designer gown. Sissy liked to be comfortable and look comfortable, and she wasn’t afraid to put in a little work to get that across. Yeah, Mitch liked that she was a walking, talking contradiction. A backwoods hillbilly who’d traveled the world and understood more cultures than some PhDs. A woman who’d barely finished high school but still managed to earn and keep the respect of people with multiple degrees. A shitstarter who lived to torture anyone stupid enough to get caught in her web but who would die to protect her family and friends.
Sissy had turned out to be everything he expected and nothing like he’d thought. So it seemed inevitable they’d end up in bed together, at least for one night, but then Sissy had suddenly looked at him one day and said in her straightforward way, “You know, I like you too much to ever fuck you.” Sissy wasn’t much for vague euphemisms. In her world, if you were “sleeping together,” you weren’t doing something right. “Sex” was for prostitutes. And “making love” was for people who never got out of the missionary position. And in some bizarre way, Sissy’s blunt pronouncement made complete sense to Mitch, and he’d shockingly agreed. They’d been best friends ever since. Of course, that was before she put on that damn dress. Now he was all distracted and horny, and Sissy had no one to blame but herself and her good-size ass.
“Did you say my ass was talking to you?” “Yup.” It had talked to him all through the ceremony and now while they were being forced to take pictures under the burning Long Island, New York, midday sun. A simple thing like taking pictures had turned into a good hour for Mitch to stare at her ass some more. The whole event was out of control really. Such a huge wedding for two people who could care less about marriage. There were fifteen people on the groom’s side and fifteen on the bride’s, an interesting mix of males and females—and breeds. Cats and canines comingling. Maybe not happily but politely. Sissy stood up with her brother, and Mitch had ended up on the bride’s side. It had taken him by surprise when the bride had asked him.
Why would she want him in her wedding? And that’s exactly what he’d asked her. She’d smiled up at him, those big, brown wild dog eyes of hers making him feel all protective of her, and then she’d told him, “Because, dude, you’re our karaoke king, and we worship at your altar.” The bride was an odd girl. But adorable as only a canine could be. But really, how many shifter weddings would he ever be invited to? Unlike many full-humans, his kind kept their commitments once they made them so wasting money on a big wedding or bothering with all the paperwork usually amounted to a complete waste of time. Of course, getting shifters—male and female—to make the commitment was often like pulling teeth, but once trapped, they were in for the long haul. Of course, Bobby Ray Smith, Alpha Male of the New York Smith Pack and local hillbilly, wasn’t marrying just anybody. He was marrying Jessica Ann Ward, Alpha of the Kuznetsov Wild Dog Pack and worshipped geek hottie. And a wedding like this didn’t happen every day…or millennia, for that matter. So to be part of it was kind of an honor for Mitch.
Add in that Jess’s Pack was as rich as Bill Gates, and you had a wedding on par with a Kennedy event. In fact, the wedding was taking place at an actual castle. And Mitch didn’t even have to pay for anything. His tux, shoes, the attempted haircut—already grown back out to his full mane in less than twenty-four hours—all paid for. Rooms in seriously expensive hotels down the road had also been booked. He knew the food would be stupendous, and there was apparently a room called the Chocolate Room. Chocolate was the theme for the entire wedding, but there would be desserts of all kinds in that one room. There was also the Gambling Room, the Gaming Room, and the Sing Your Heart Out Room for the karaoke fans. Yeah. He liked how these wild dogs lived.
They knew how to enjoy life and felt no shame when caught chasing their tails. But now he had to get through all these pictures. One after the other with a goofy smile on his face. While the bride and groom took pictures with the groom’s parents, Sissy Mae turned to face him. “Did you just say my ass was talking to you?” “Again. It’s talking to me again.” “Again. I see.” Standing next to him, Sissy leaned her shoulder against his. With those heels on—that she’d been complaining about for days—she was nearly as tall as Mitch.
“And what does my ass say to you exactly?” “I don’t know. It’s speaking in tongues.” Sissy’s laugh rang out across the Long Island acreage surrounding the castle. But it quickly faded when a voice snapped beside her, “Sissy Mae, try not to embarrass your brother today. If you can manage that for once.” Yup, there went that twitch. It was a small one, right in the corner of her left eye, and most people probably never noticed it. But Mitch had been hanging out a long time with Sissy, and he’d learned her facial expressions because a certain expression would probably be the only warning he got before she started some shit. But that twitch was new and only seemed to happen when her mother was around. “Think you can do something useful,” her mother went on, “and help Jessica Ann change her gown now that we’re done with the photos?” “Why? Has she lost the use of her arms?” The thing that was kind of scary about Sissy’s mother was that she didn’t get hysterical and mad like most mothers who fought with their daughters.
Instead, she got this frightening little smirk on her face and stepped close so that she was only inches from her daughter. Softly, she said, “Get up them steps and help your sister-in-law before I make you wish I’d left you at the pound.” Sissy sighed. “If only not being your daughter was remotely true, there would be a reason to live.” “Well, Lord knows I wouldn’t want to give you that spark of hope.” “I’ll take her,” Mitch volunteered, grabbing Sissy’s hand and pulling her toward the door the rest of the females had gone through. Most of the time, Mitch loved watching family strife from a distance. But he knew when two deadly predators were squaring off, and if someone told him to put money on who’d win between Sissy and her mother…well, Mitch wouldn’t know. Sissy had youth, and she was wicked fast when she wanted to be. He’d worked with her long enough to know the damage she could do.
Especially if you pissed her off. But there was something in her mother’s eyes. Something hard and dangerous that Sissy didn’t have. At least not yet. And since Mitch had actually been invited to the bachelorette party, he felt a certain loyalty to making sure Jess’s day stayed perfect. He didn’t want her having to worry about blood on the walls of her lovely wedding venue. “Explain to me again how matricide is illegal in some states,” Sissy growled from behind him as he pulled her toward the enormous staircase. “In all states. Plus, I think there are some moral restrictions around it, too.” “That’s not fair.
Clearly, these lawmakers haven’t met my mother.” “I wouldn’t know. Besides, this is all so foreign to me,” he explained once they hit the top step. “My mother loves me and would do anything for me, so I’ve never had a desire to kill her.” Light brown eyes abruptly narrowed. “Throw that in my face again, and your sweet momma will be nursing your mauled body back to health.” “Sweet talker.” They neared the set of rooms that had been set aside for the bride and her bridesmaids. Mitch heard all the giggling and felt right at home. He’d been raised by women.
His mother’s Pride had taken good care of him throughout his childhood. They had taught him a lot over the years, and what they couldn’t teach, there’d always been a male or two around the house to help out. Then the day after he’d turned eighteen, one of his aunts walked into the kitchen where he stood leaning against the counter, downing a bowl of cereal. She stared at him like she’d never seen him before and demanded, “Are you still here?” He knew then it was time to move on. He’d always be welcome in his mother’s house, but it would never be his Pride. And Mitch had never done the Pride thing. He’d been the only male offspring in a house run by hard-core Philadelphia girls who spoke pretty freely. So he’d known at a young age how Pride females really felt about the males who ate their food and got them knocked up, and Mitch didn’t want that. But being a nomad had its benefits, and he liked that the only enemies he had were the ones he made himself. Joining up with a group was a little too “gang mentality” for him.
How these Packs of canines did it, Mitch had no idea. The wolves seemed to tolerate it as their lot in lives. The wild dogs seemed to love it. Mitch stopped short when Sissy refused to go any farther. “You can’t make me go in there,” she said as the giggling and laughing became louder and more hysterical. He turned to face her. “Not still holding that punch over her head, are you, Sissy?” “No. And stop reminding me about that.” Sissy and the bride had a colorful history from years past, and Mitch took delight in torturing Sissy with it. She stepped closer and whispered, “They’re all so…so…” “Girly?” “Golden Retrievery.
” Mitch laughed and continued to drag Sissy toward the door. “You guys are family now. That means you help out.” They stopped in front of the open double doors and stared in fascination at the suite full of wild dogs chanting, “Jess! Jess! Jess!” And Jess, in wild dog form, chased her tail in circles over and over and over again. Mitch glanced at Sissy, and she didn’t even bother to hide her embarrassment. “Well,” he pushed. “Get on in there.” She pulled her hand away. “There has got to be a bar around here somewhere.” She walked off, and Mitch turned back to Jess.
She’d stop spinning, but now she stumbled all over the room because she was dizzy. As she sat down hard, her legs going out from under her, the other wild dogs caught sight of Mitch. “Mitch!” they all cheered, and grinning, Mitch walked inside. Sissy walked up to her best friend, throwing her arm around Ronnie Lee Reed’s neck. “Did you scout the area?” “Yup. Two full bars in the front of the ballroom, two in the back, and three others scattered near the gaming and karaoke rooms.” “Karaoke?” Sissy shuddered. “Make it stop.” “Yeah. But there’s Texas Hold ’Em and blackjack in the gaming room.
” “Thank the Lord for small favors.” She glanced around. “Seen the old heifer?” “I haven’t seen either old heifer in a while. But you know how they like to stalk their prey, waiting until we’re at our most vulnerable before pouncing.” “I’m in hell, Ronnie Lee. Absolute hell.” Her momma had been in town for three weeks…three of the longest weeks in Sissy’s entire life. She didn’t know what was up her momma’s ass, but the woman had been riding Sissy from the day she’d arrived in New York, and Sissy’s patience was running thin. “At least your momma clearly states what her problems are with you. Mine just keeps sighing at me and shaking her head.
” “I don’t know. After the last three weeks of constant Janie Mae chatter, disappointed sighs sound pretty good. And when’s dinner? I’m gettin’ hungry.” “Another half hour at least. Maybe you could go back up and gently coax the bride to dress faster.” “I am not going back up there. You’re asking too much. Besides, Mitch is up there. He’ll get her to move along.” Mitch held one end of the rope, and the wild dogs held the other.
With one leg crossed over the other, he rested his left elbow on his knee and studied his nails. “Pull!” They did, and Mitch didn’t budge. “Ladies, aren’t you getting a little embarrassed by this?” “No!” they all yelled. He wasn’t exactly surprised. African wild dogs had high embarrassment thresholds. Jess, who hadn’t participated—this time—in the game of tug, sat down next to Mitch. She wore a satin robe and not much else. “How you doing, beautiful?” “Fine. Glad that part is over.” He glanced at her flat belly and asked his daily question since finding out she was pregnant with Smitty’s love child, “And how’s Mitch Junior?” Jess shook her head.
“You have got to stop calling her that. Smitty will have your head.” “But I love watching how red his face gets.” He looked at the clock on the wall. “You better get dressed. There’s still more to your day.” She rolled her eyes. From what Mitch could tell, Jess hadn’t had much to do with arranging this wedding other than to insist on the Karaoke Room and no real flowers at the ceremony or the reception since she was violently allergic. From the flowers on the tables to the bride’s bouquet, all were fake flowers but so artfully done, he wouldn’t have known if someone hadn’t said something about it. “I haven’t seen the other dress.
Put it on, and I’ll see if I can give it the Mitch seal of approval.” “Okay.” She glanced longingly at the rope and the She-dogs still attached to it. “No, Jess. You can’t play tug.” She gave a cute little growl before storming off. “My day my ass!” “I knew you’d be back here. Hidin’.”