Doctor Nathan Farriday, known as “Doc” by every Arrowtown resident, pasted a professional smile on his face as he ushered Mrs. Dash and her daughter out of the treatment room. The smile was more for Rosie, the sweet little fawn who was forever having trouble controlling her wee legs. Mrs. Dash, like most of the other adults in town, was well used to his grumpy ways.
“No climbing, running, or lifting anything heavy for at least a week and no getting that cast wet,” he warned as he led them to the front door.
“We know the drill by now.” Mrs. Dash managed a tired smile of her own. “Come along, Rosie. We’ll get that ice cream I promised you for being so good for the Doc.” She leaned towards Doc and whispered, “I half think she gets into so many scrapes, just so she can have ice cream.”
Doc thought it was more likely Rosie was trying to emulate her six older brothers who thought their baby sister was a nuisance, but it wasn’t his place to say so. His smile lasted until the door closed behind them then his shoulders sagged, and he let out a long sigh. Flicking off the lights, he locked the door and made his way upstairs to his open plan apartment.
Shrugging off his shirt, Doc scratched absently at the gray leather skin coating his stomach as he bent down to see what was in the fridge. Mrs. Hooper from the store had already been over and stocked his shelves. She was worth every cent he paid for their little arrangement. Doc had long since lost the urge to cook for himself. He pulled out a large container – lamb stew by the smell of it. Doc’s stomach rumbled appreciatively. Mrs. Hooper had a tongue like an acid bath and an attitude to match, but she was a damn fine cook.
Five minutes on a slow heat in the microwave and Doc’s dinner was ready. He sat at his two-person dining table, watching out the window at the night life of the town. Not that there was much to see at seven in the evening. The library and the main shops were closed, although Cam’s bar was already doing a steady trade. Open seven nights a week, the place was always busy. His heart jumped as he saw a bike peel away from the sheriff’s parking lot, but it quickly slowed again. He recognized the bike. It was Liam, on his way home to his mates and baby. Rocky, the new sheriff, and Mal, his sidekick, were already at Cam’s. Doc could see their bikes parked outside. Doc sighed. Rocky was prone to getting into trouble when he drank, although he’d been a lot more responsible since he’d been voted into the Sheriff’s job.
That means Deputy Joe is working alone tonight. Doc hated that he knew that. He hated the quickening rush of blood to his dick and the worry that flooded his mind. For all his sneers at the boy in person, Doc was confident Joe could look after himself. A cousin of the last police chief, who’d been run out of town due to his corrupt actions, the deputy was a buffalo shifter and built like the young bull he was. The problem was the boy was just too nice, too decent, and too fucking young for the likes of you.
Annoyed with the way his thoughts were running away from him, Doc hurried through his meal, washing the single bowl in the empty sink before turning off his lights. To the outside world, it would look as though he’d gone to bed early – although, as the only doctor in a fifty-mile radius, no one would hesitate to knock on his door if he was needed. Using the benefit of his shifter-enhanced sight, Doc crept back down stairs to the basement.
Shoving his pants down his thighs, Doc kicked them off and let his shift flow over him. Shifting was something he never dared to do in front of others. His kind were venomous to anything walking on two legs or four. Although, the snake shifter Simon seemed to cope with living with others and shifting among them – even with his little mouse mate, Darwin. But Doc never dared take the risk. He’d only ever shifted once in front of another person. He shuddered when he thought of the result.
Do no harm, he reminded himself. It’s why he became a doctor after all. Don’t think about deputy Joe. Don’t think…don’t think…don’t….
Joe sighed as he looked at the clock on the wall, while slamming the filing cabinet drawer shut. 7:25 pm. It was the quiet part of his shift. The time when most good folks were enjoying meals with their families and curling up for an evening of watching television or going for a run in their shifted form. The trouble makers weren’t usually around yet, probably drinking in a car or disused barn somewhere, getting up the courage to do something stupid. That’s when he’d get called out, but that wouldn’t happen until a lot later in the night.
Looking around the office, Joe tried to find something else to do. He could divert the phone and go home, but he didn’t have anything to do there either. Usually at this time, he’d be patrolling the streets. Joe always got a feeling of pride as he wandered around the streets at night. Arrowtown wasn’t a big town. It had everything a body would need. Many of the shifter families that lived there were second and third generation and Joe knew most of them by their first name.
But lately that pride had been dimmed and tinged with guilt. Since talking to Liam a month before, Joe was more conscious than ever that his mate – his unclaimed mate – lived just down the road. Oh, he’d known about Doc for ages and who they were to each other. He’d been shy at the time, hopeful that the man would approach him. His cheeks flamed as he recalled the one time he’d broached the topic of their mating with the grumpy older shifter.
“Young, dumb, and well hung. Three things I don’t need in my life. Now, get the hell out of here and never speak to me again unless it’s in your professional capacity.”
Fuck. Joe rubbed his chest. Those words still hurt, months later, and it wasn’t the sort of sentiment he could just shrug off and ignore, like he could when he got similar comments from his family when he was younger. He considered himself an honorable man. He would not push himself where he wasn’t wanted, and Doc had made his sentiments very clear.
Which led to his current predicament. Prior to his chat with Liam, and lord knows why he confided in the young lion of all people, he used to patrol the streets, keeping a close eye on the Doc’s house. But now the words “he’s my mate” were out there – had actually been spoken to another person, the pain he felt at being separate from the sexy older man increased. What was worse, he now felt like a pervert for all the times he’d kept the Doc and his house under surveillance. It felt wrong to do it now, even though his animal demanded no less, and in fact wanted a whole lot more.
“Damn it, fuck it all to hell!” Joe grabbed the night stick laying on his desk and threw it across the room, lodging it into the wall. “Oh, fucking brilliant,” he announced to the empty room. “Now Rocky’s going to take the cost of repairing that hole from my wages.”
Striding over, he pulled his night stick from where it was sticking out from the wall and rubbed his hand over the hole. It was noticeable. There was nothing he could do about that. Although, he thought as an idea came to mind. I’ve got some plaster at home. It’s going to be a different color than the wall, but a patch job is better than the hole.
Pleased he had something to do, even if it meant getting teased by Rocky and Mal in the morning, Joe grabbed his keys, diverted the office phone to his cellphone and headed out the door. It was only a twenty-minute walk from the precinct to his home, but Joe took the patrol car. If he got called out, he didn’t want to get hell from Rocky for being late to an incident, on top of the damage he’d caused. It was definitely preferable to shifting. Joe didn’t dare shift; hadn’t done in months. His animal half thought his horns and solid head would make a useful battering ram against the Doc’s door.
The drive was quick, and Joe was back at the Sheriff’s Office before anyone noticed he’d gone. Stuffing paper into the hole, to give the plaster something to stick to, Joe was mixing the plaster into a smooth consistency when his phone rang. Cursing, because the plaster was the type to harden quickly, Joe put on his professional tone as he answered the call. “Arrowtown Sheriff’s Office, Deputy Joe speaking.”
“Joe, thank goodness I caught you.” It was Mal, and he sounded rushed. “Are you still in the office?”
Joe looked at the paper stuffed hole in the wall. “Yep.”
“Get over to old man Forest’s place on the edge of town. He claims he’s got a buffalo terrorizing his sheep.”
“Shifter?” Joe was already moving.
“Has to be. No natural buffalo would chase down sheep. There isn’t…you are….” Mal trailed off.
“I’m the only buffalo shifter currently allowed to live in Arrowtown if that’s what you’re asking. But you know that sheriff Quincy had a big family and none of them took too kindly to being kicked out or losing everything they owned.”
“Damn it. I should have known something like this would happen.” Mal sighed. “I’ll drag Rocky out of here and we’ll back you up, but….”
“Bring guns,” Joe said shortly as he got in the car and turned the key. “You know darn well this is a trap to pull us out there. No shifter in his right mind would tamper with natural sheep. If I can’t run this guy off, then there’s no way two wolves can, even a mad-house like Rocky. Bring guns and be prepared to use them. I’m on my way.”
Shutting off the phone, because he really didn’t need any further details, Joe pushed the cruiser at full speed, his lights flashing. There was no need for sirens. There was barely any traffic, but his lights would warn shifted animals to get off the road. Rabbits were the worst, loving to play chicken with cars. Joe didn’t mind most of the time, but they knew if the lights were going he wasn’t going to stop and they’d better get out of the way.
Two minutes out from the Forest farm, Joe saw two individual headlights coming up behind him fast. Mal and Rocky were on their bikes, offering back up as Mal had promised. Part of Joe wished they hadn’t arrived as fast. He hated shifting in front of other people after being teased constantly as a teenager about the size of his cock. You’re here to do the job you’re paid for, he reminded himself firmly as he swung his vehicle into the Forest driveway. Parking, he stepped out of the car as Mal and Rocky pulled up.
Old man Forest, no one had a clue what his first name was, was standing on his porch in a pair of white long johns that had seen better days and an unbuttoned red checkered shirt. Joe’s eyes narrowed at the rifle he held in his hand. Forest was a wolf shifter – a lone wolf who kept to himself most of the time. He took a lot of ribbing from town members for running sheep on his land, but he barely spoke to anyone except Mrs. Hooper.
“That four-footed lump is up there in the back paddocks.” Forest waved his rifle towards the back of the house. “I shot over his thick head and he charged me. He fucking charged me. I want him taken in.”
“Mr. Forest.” Rocky put on an alpha voice Joe had never heard before. “I can understand you’re upset, but if you let me and my men handle this….”
“Handle it how?” Forest stumped down the porch. “Don’t go waving your alpha mojo under my nose, boy. I was tackling alphas like you when you were still in diapers. If a wolf could’ve done the job, I wouldn’t have had to call you. Two of my best sheep are caught in the fences. They don’t deserve this shit.”
“Deputy Joe is going to do his best to run the shifter off, Mr. Forest,” Mal said smoothly as Rocky growled.
“Him? He’s still wet behind the ears from when his mama washed him.” Forest spat on the gravel.
“Mr. Forest,” Joe seethed. “I’m getting really tired of people still treating me like a calf. I’ve been a deputy for five years and I know how to do my job. Now, are you going to stand there and bleat all day or let me do what you called us in for.”
Rocky burst out laughing, slapping his thigh. “Don’t look at me like that,” he said when Mal glared at him. “It was funny. Wolf, sheep, bleat.” Rocky cracked up again.
Wondering just how many beers his boss had had, Joe headed around the house on his own. It was fully dark, with only a sliver of moon inching its way up the night sky. But even so, the terrified bleating of the sheep in the top paddock and the looming mass standing in front of them were easy to see. Noting the two fences between him and the buffalo, Joe strode up the hill, not taking his eyes off the shifter. Climbing over one fence, he walked until he reached the second.
“It’s a lot easier to talk if you shift,” he said, not bothering to yell. The shifter could hear him easily enough and the sheep were traumatized enough as it was.
All he got was a stamping foot and a swinging head from the shifter. Damn it, gonna have to do this the hard way. He couldn’t shift on his side of the fence, or he’d wreck the fence getting through it. There was also a risk of getting caught up in the wires, much like the sheep Forest was complaining about. But shifting on the same side of the fence as the buffalo also came with its share of risks. Joe would be vulnerable in the time it took him to morph into his animal side.
Realizing he didn’t have a choice, Joe climbed the second fence, jumping down lightly on the other side. The buffalo was watching warily, snorting heavily. “You’ve got no right terrorizing old man Forest’s sheep this way. If you’ve got a grudge against someone in the sheriff’s department, then man up and come and talk to us. This is just bullshit and you know it.”
The buffalo bellowed. Joe lifted his head and sniffed the air. Fucking Sheriff Quincy. I should’ve fucking known. Flicking open the top two buttons of his shirt, Joe quickly dragged it over his head. “As a duly deputized officer of the law, I’m ordering you to shift and surrender yourself.”
Yeah. Like that was going to work. Quincy didn’t take kindly to orders even when he was sheriff. The shifter lowered his head and pawed the ground. Joe couldn’t work out what the old man wanted. He was banished from Arrowtown for life. Forest wasn’t one of those who benefitted from the sale of his goods. Forest had nothing to do with any of the trouble in town…but…. It came to Joe in a flash. Old man Forest was the only sole land owner around for miles.
The perfect place for a fight. Fuck, this is personal. I should have known he’d come after me sooner or later. Joe was the only man currently on the force who’d worked for Quincy while he was sheriff. He was the only one found not guilty of corruption and the only buffalo who hadn’t had to forfeit his goods. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you, Uncle Robert. You of all people should know I’ll do my job whether you like it or not.” Joe kicked off his boots. “As a banished person I have every right to take you in. You’re trespassing.”
The buffalo snorted and charged as Joe shoved his pants down his legs. His buffalo answered the call quick enough, but Joe had barely shifted before his uncle came crashing after him. Dragging his pants that were caught on his back hoof behind him, Joe whirled around and lowered his head. Buffalo fights were all about strength, not speed. During the rut season in the wild, two male bulls would clash their heads, pushing against each other, trying to get the other to yield. At just over three thousand pounds in his shifted form, Joe was a third larger than the largest of his natural counterparts, but his uncle was a shifter too and not much smaller than Joe.
This is going to hurt. Joe had barely fought in his shifted form. When he was young, he and his cousins used to mock fight and as Joe slowly pulled away from his family, some of those fights got more intense. But that’d been years before. Joe’s only hope was his uncle was no more capable of fighting than he was.
Horns clashed as they came together. Joe dug in with his hooves, using all the strength in his shoulders to push against the older animal. Instinct took over. They might not be fighting for the right to mate, but Quincy was threatening the town he cared about. The old man had taken bribes, ran the department into the ground, and cared little for anything except his power base. Now that was gone, and the older Quincy was frantic to get it back. Joe would’ve told him he was wasting his time if he could find the breath to do it. Fueled by his rage, the banished shifter was immensely strong.
Again, and again, they clashed. Joe managed to gain some ground, seeking to trap his uncle with the fence, but time and time again he got pushed back. As he twisted away, his uncle’s lowered horn seared his flank. Joe’s legs almost buckled under the pain. But pain could be his friend. He’d lived with it long enough and Joe was already angry. Oh, his anger wasn’t directed at his uncle, but to his animal half it didn’t matter. Any target would do.
Conscious of the blood pouring out of his side, Joe lunged and pushed hard. His uncle was caught off guard, probably mentally celebrating his win. Powering with his back legs, Joe drove his uncle into the fence causing the older buffalo to become tangled in the loose wires. He became aware of Mal and Rocky yelling at each other. Mal wanting to shoot and Rocky swearing he didn’t know which animal to point the gun at.
“Use your fucking nose,” Mal yelled.
“All I can smell is sheep shit,” Rocky complained. Joe willed the man to stay away, but Rocky wasn’t blessed with commonsense. Strangely enough, that same quality made him an excellent sheriff, but the last thing Joe wanted to see was Rocky’s wolf form creeping closer. And yet, there he was, sniffing closer, his teeth bared.
Smelling his chance, Quincy pushed his head through the fence, one of the wires digging into his neck, but he was too enraged to notice. His horns were swinging wildly in Rocky’s direction and Joe saw red. A buffalo’s horns weren’t overly long like an antelope’s, but Quincy’s curved outward and if Rocky got caught by one it would do a lot of damage. Backing up a couple of steps, Joe lowered his nose until it was brushing the grass and lunged for Quincy’s underbelly. As his horns met fur Joe wrenched his head up, toppling his uncle onto his side, the fence crumbling underneath his bulk. The smell of blood filled the air and this time it wasn’t Joe’s. Thrashing his head back and forth, his uncle tried to get up, but Joe must have hit a major artery because in less than a minute, the older buffalo stopped moving.
Stumbling back, his chest heaving, Joe tried to catch his breath. Blood ran down his horns, churning his stomach and the gash in his side burned. “Joe?” Mal was approaching slowly, his hands spread to show he wasn’t carrying. “You have an amazing shifted form, but you’ve been hurt. You need to shift so we can get you to the Doc.”
Fuck no. The last thing Joe needed was to face his mate’s disapproving glare. Pulling on the last of his strength, he shifted, collapsing on the cold grass. “I’ll be fine,” he panted. “It’s just a scratch. Need to free the trapped sheep.”
“Forest has already done it.” Mal held out his shirt and pants. “They’re covered in mud, I’m afraid. Shall I get a blanket from the cruiser?”
“I’ll be fine.” Pulling on his pants, which were ripped beyond repair, Joe was glad to see they covered his bits at least. He was in no mood for Rocky’s brand of humor. “You’ll be needed to help Rocky with my uncle.”
“So, it was the ex-sheriff Quincy, I thought I recognized the stench.” Mal grimaced. “Huh. There’s nothing left to deal with. See for yourself.”
Glancing over to the fence, Joe saw Quincy had shifted, his corpulent form still caught up in the fence wires. His unseeing eyes and the way his tongue lolled out of his mouth told Joe all he needed to know. “It wasn’t intentional,” he muttered as a wave of nausea hit him. “He went for Rocky….”
Mal’s hand landed on his shoulder and Joe hid his flinch. “You did what any other man would’ve done. Quincy had no right to be here and he deliberately created a nuisance, so we’d be called in. I hate to ask this, but is there any chance this was a personal attack on you?”
“If he was going for you, he’d have used his gun.” Joe swayed and put his hand out to stop himself from falling. “Can you give me an hour? I need to get home, clean up and get some food down me. Shifting has taken it out of me. I’ll be back in the office in an hour.”
“Take the rest of the night off. Liam’s already covering for you.” Mal leaned down and whispered. “Between you and me, I think he was grateful to be called in. Their little one is teething, and he’s got lungs like a banshee.”
Joe stretched his lips in the facsimile of a grin. At least he hoped that’s what his face muscles were doing. “Thank him for me. I’ll come in tomorrow to do the paperwork. Oh shit. I’ve got the cruiser. I’ll….”
“You’ll take it home and stop worrying about it. We can do without it for one night,” Mal said firmly. “This is not your friend talking now, but your boss. Get your ass home and if those ribs aren’t any better in the morning, you’re going to the Doc and I don’t want to hear any macho objections.”
Joe knew when he was beat. He had no intentions of going to see the Doc, but home was a damn good idea. Staggering to his feet, Joe managed to hold himself upright long enough to walk past Rocky and Forest who were arguing about who was responsible for the cost of the smashed fence. Forest did stop haranguing Rocky long enough to call out, “you did good, young ‘un. I didn’t think you had it in you, but good job.”
Lifting his hand in reply, Joe kept on heading down the hill. Every breath was a struggle and he knew he was on the verge of a breakdown. It was sheer force of will that stopped him collapsing. A force of will that lasted until he opened the door of his own home. Slamming it behind him, Joe fell on the floor, his teeth clenched against the pain in his side and the heavy ache in his heart. Quincy was his first, and Fates willing, his only kill. Shuddering, Joe curled around his wounded torso and let his tears fall. There’s no way my mate will want me now. I’m a murderer.