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Tiger's Triumph (Veteran Shifters Book 4) by Zoe Chant (1)

Pauline

Pauline was worried.

She had to be at work in half an hour, but she wasn’t getting ready. She was nowhere near her home or her job, in fact.

Instead, she was way on the outskirts of town, coming up to a road that would lead to a run-down house nestled far back into the trees.

She parked her car on the town road, long before the turn where it became obvious that she was driving up to the house. Then she got out, made her way through the tangled, scratchy underbrush until she was hidden by the trees, and shifted.

Feathers sprouted all along her sides, then spread to cover her body. The world sharpened: the smallest sound, the tiniest bug, all sprang into sharp detail.

With a running start, Pauline’s owl form took flight.

She cruised slowly through the trees, flapping hard to make up for the lack of an updraft here deep in the woods. It wasn’t long before she was at the house. She perched on a branch, peering down at the crumbling home.

Pauline’s cousin Marsha’s car was still in the driveway. But her bedroom window was dark. Pauline fluttered down a little further, until she could peek in the window. Empty. No one asleep or awake.

The kitchen was brightly lit, though, and through the window, she could see her cousin’s son Drew making breakfast. The gangly seventeen-year-old poured cereal into a chipped bowl for his brother Troy, who was six, and set some dry Cheerios onto his sister Valerie’s high chair.

The house was small enough that a quick circuit around it showed that no other rooms were occupied. Marsha wasn’t home.

So where was she?

Pauline had gotten into the habit of scrounging leftover food from the diner and giving it to Marsha’s family under the excuse that they couldn’t sell it, anyway, and otherwise it’d just go to waste. Drew had been working at the Safeway in town, and the small income had seemed to stretch just enough.

But Drew had been the only one showing up lately. Pauline hadn’t seen Marsha in a while, and she was starting to wonder if her cousin was all right.

So today, she’d given in and come by to check in her owl form, so no one would know. And she wasn’t reassured by what she saw.

Sure enough, as she watched, Drew got everyone fed and dressed, then hustled them out to the car, buckled Valerie into her car seat, and drove Marsha’s beat-up old Corolla down the road to their nearest neighbors, the Bowmans.

Pauline flapped after them.

Troy’s voice echoed through the woods as they piled out. “I don’t wanna stay with Mrs. Bowman anymore!”

Ssh,” Drew said fiercely. “Mrs. Bowman is really nice to be letting you guys stay. We don’t have a lot of money to give her.”

“Can’t we just stay home?” Troy grumped. “She doesn’t have any toys.”

“That’s why you’ve got your Hot Wheels,” Drew pointed out, hoisting Valerie onto his hip and leading the way to the door, which was already opening.

“Hello, kids,” said Mrs. Bowman, sounding resigned. “Come on in.”

“Thank you so much, Mrs. Bowman,” Drew told her. “I’ll figure something else out soon, I promise.”

“I don’t want to leave you in a lurch, honey,” Mrs. Bowman said to him, “but George and I are real set on moving south this year. It’s too cold up here for my old bones. Arizona’s calling our name. We got the RV and everything, and come September...”

“I understand,” Drew assured her, handing Valerie over. “Mom’ll be home by then. Don’t worry about it.”

Mrs. Bowman jounced Valerie a few times. “Of course she will, honey,” she said finally. She didn’t sound convinced.

Drew forcibly propelled his little brother into the house, and fortunately the resentful expression on Troy’s face didn’t erupt into a tantrum. When the door shut behind the kids, he trudged back to the car, got into the driver’s seat...and sat there.

Pauline watched him take a deep breath, and then another. After a long minute, he finally put the car into gear, pulling out onto the road. Headed to work.

Where Pauline needed to be, too.

But she was weighed down by what she’d just seen. Where was Marsha? Was she coming home?

With a heavy heart, she winged her way back to her car. How could she just go to work, wondering if Drew and his siblings had been abandoned by their mom? How could she forget the way Drew’s thin shoulders had shaken, and just go about her day, serving customers with a smile?

She couldn’t forget.

But she had to go to work anyway, because losing her job wasn’t going to benefit those kids at all.

Damn Marsha, anyway. Why couldn’t she have asked for help?

Growing up, Pauline’s parents had always been disdainful towards Marsha’s family. They’d been poorer; Pauline’s mom had married a man with a decent job, and the lower-class relatives had been ignored whenever possible.

When Marsha had had Drew, Pauline had been captivated by her adorable baby cousin, but the damage had been done long ago. Marsha hadn’t wanted anyone she’d perceived as looking down on her to spend time with her baby. She’d refused any help that Pauline had offered.

Had that refusal finally resulted in some kind of consequence? Where was she?

Pauline resolved to figure out how to help these kids. Maybe her waitress’s income wasn’t much, but it would be more than Drew was making part-time at Safeway. If she couldn’t figure out where Marsha was, she could at least chip in somehow.

With renewed determination, Pauline went to work. She needed that paycheck if she was going to make a difference.

***

Carlos

Carlos had followed the signs from the airport, snug in his climate-controlled rental car. His immaculate suit was protected from the August heat.

He was starting to think he’d overdressed a bit.

Here around Glacier National Park, everyone was ready for the outdoors. He saw locals in baseball caps and denim, tourists in shorts and sneakers, everyone sun-kissed and maybe a little dirty.

It had been a long time since Carlos had spent much time out in the sun. He only got outside in snatches here and there. Every time he had a day off, he’d take a few hours to get out of New York City into the wild forests upstate, somewhere so sparsely populated that no one would notice a tiger and report a zoo breakout.

But those days off were few and far between, and it was only his tiger’s paws that touched the dirt. Otherwise, his days were spent in tall, glittering office buildings, or sitting in a cab, making a call or typing on a tablet until he got to the next meeting.

He had a feeling his life was about to change.

Carlos had been feeling stuck for a while, now. The problem was, his entire life he’d been playing a game: get out of the run-down neighborhood where he grew up, get into college, get into the business world, make a hell of a lot of money.

Now, guess what? He’d won.

He was standing victorious on top of a lot of prize money. And he kept going to work every day...for what? He had what he’d wanted.

The question was: now what did he want?

He had no idea. The closest he’d been able to come was something different.

And three—no, four, if Colonel Wilson counted—four of his oldest friends, good men he’d served with in the Marine Corps, had found something different out here in the wilds of Montana. So far up that Canada was about three blocks away.

Carlos was going to give it a shot, too. He was mentally labeling it Carlos’ Summer Vacation in the Great White North.

He figured if he hadn’t found a good, fulfilling purpose up here in a month or two, he could move on to something else. Bali, maybe.

Okay, probably not Bali. Maybe some kind of humanitarian mission, digging wells or building houses. Helping inner-city kids. Studying with Buddhist monks.

Something. Something more than money.

For now, though, it was Carlos’ Summer Vacation in the Great White North. He had friends to catch up with, mountains to climb, sunsets to admire, and forests to explore. And family to get to know.

He’d been to Glacier twice before, but once had just been briefly, for their old Gunnery Sergeant’s wedding. The second time he’d still only been able to get away for a couple of days—just long enough to help his old platoon buddy Nate with a problem that his mate, Stella, was having.

Together, they’d gotten her old stalker ex-boyfriend arrested, and hopefully put away for a good long time. Men who spent their time terrorizing innocent women and children didn’t deserve to see the light of day.

There was the turnoff. The car purred down a road that slowly got bumpier, until trees surrounded them, and Carlos pulled up in front of the house where two of his oldest friends now lived.

As he turned the car off, he was struck by a sudden attack of nerves. What the hell? He wasn’t in the habit of being afraid, and certainly not of seeing men he’d known for years.

Determinedly, he opened the door and strode up the walk to the house. Before he could press the bell, the door flew open, and he was looking at the smiling faces of two men he’d known since they were all dumb teenage Marine recruits.

“Carlos!” Ken Turner said, a broad grin on his face. “I can’t believe you’re actually here.”

“Why not?” he asked, coming forward for a backslapping hug. Ken was always exuberant with his affections.

“I would’ve bet you’d never leave the Scrooge McDuck lifestyle behind,” Ken said seriously. “Does swimming through rooms full of gold coins really get old? You can tell me.”

“You have a severely twisted idea of what it was I did all day,” Carlos told him, and turned to Nate.

Nate’s embrace wasn’t quite as energetic, but it was just as heartfelt. He tapped his fist lightly against Carlos’ shoulder and pulled back to look him over. “You ready for the retired life?”

“That’s what I’m here to find out,” Carlos admitted. “I’ll have to find something to do, or I’ll go crazy.”

“Plenty to do around here,” Ken said, and motioned him in. “Come inside, I think Stella’s making tea. And when you don’t want that, we have beer.”

Nate rolled his eyes and led the way back to the kitchen.

Lynn and Stella were waiting—Stella, Nate’s mate, had indeed made tea. Carlos took the offered cup with a smile, not deigning to look back at Ken. “It’s good to see you,” he told her. “No more problems with those wolves?”

She shook her head with a smile. She seemed more confident than she had been when he’d last seen her, standing taller, smiling wider.

Which made sense, because the last time he’d seen her, Nate had called him in to help scare off her ex, who’d been stalking her for months.

“You and Nate made a real difference,” she told him. “He was arrested and he pleaded guilty. He’s going away for quite a while.”

“Good,” Carlos said, heartfelt.

He turned to shake Lynn’s hand. He hadn’t spent as much time with Lynn when he was last here, but he remembered her being a solid, reliable woman. Her handshake was firm, and she said, “Welcome back,” in a low but musical voice.

Ken took up a position next to her, just barely touching. She must be a good grounding influence on him, Carlos thought.

“Happy to be here,” he said. “Ready to see the sights, take in the Park, all of that.”

“We got sights,” Ken said. “The Park is something else.”

“I remember.” He’d seen it briefly when he’d been here for Cal’s wedding; they’d all taken a quick hike through some of the fields and forests. But he was eager to explore it more. Mountains stretched around them, rising alongside the road as he’d driven in, and he could see how a man—even a shifter—could spend a lifetime here without running out of new territory to explore.

“How about dinner before we go on any runs through the woods?” Lynn suggested practically.

“Absolutely. My treat,” Carlos said. “As a thank you for putting up with me while I’m here. There’s a diner we went to before,” he pushed on, overriding any protests that the others were making. “Where Stella was working. I forget its name, but the food was excellent.”

“Oliver’s,” Stella confirmed. “Let’s go, then.”

***

Pauline

It had been an unrelentingly horrible day so far. After the bitter truths of the morning, Pauline had found it almost impossible to concentrate on work. She’d dropped a plate—she never dropped things—which had shattered in the middle of the room, leaving all the customers staring at her. She’d misheard two orders, which had cost her a tip from a tourist couple who were probably leaving a bad Yelp review right now.

Then she’d gotten chewed out by Ethel, the manager, which had made her feel like she was an irresponsible teenager instead of an experienced forty-five-year-old woman.

So when the big party came through the door and was seated at one of her tables, she groaned silently. Another opportunity to screw up had just been handed to her.

But when she ventured out with her notebook, she realized that it wasn’t a group of strangers—it was Stella, her former coworker, with her sister Lynn and their mates, and a man Pauline felt like she recognized, but couldn’t put her finger on how.

He was big, and Hispanic-looking, with warm brown skin and dark hair in an expensive-looking cut. He was one of those men who had eyelashes that women would kill for, long and dark and surrounding deep, liquid brown eyes.

And he was big.

It was the first thing she’d noticed, and she had to circle around to it again, because it was so apparent. Even next to Stella and Lynn’s mates, who were big enough guys, he was tall and broad. It was somehow even more obvious because he was wearing a very, very nice suit. It fit him perfectly, and it must have cost a ton of money.

Then he looked at her, and with the expression that came over his face, she remembered.

It was a focused, intent look. Not quite predatory, but there was a laserlike intensity to it. As though she was the only thing he could see.

He’d looked at her like that once before. He’d come in when Stella was having that trouble with her ex, as part of the troop of handsome men she’d had protecting her, just before she’d quit.

He must be friends with Stella’s mate, then. Visiting from out of town? He’d only come in the one time, before. Pauline knew because she’d looked for him, the next day, and the day after that.

And he hadn’t come back. She’d hardly been able to hold the details of his face in her head, because she’d been too caught up in that stare. She’d known, then, that she’d recognize it instantly if she ever saw it again.

And here it was.

Pauline almost tripped as she approached the table. She was having a hard time keeping her eyes on anything but that thousand-yard stare.

“Hi, um,” she stammered, “my name is Pauline, and I’m going to be your server today—”

“Hi, Pauline.” Stella smiled warmly. She looked a lot happier, and a lot steadier, now that she wasn’t working at Oliver’s anymore. She’d always been a little twitchy, a bit forgetful, and she’d struggled a little with the attention that was necessary to keep orders straight. Ethel had always been on her case.

Now, though, she was relaxed, smiling, her shoulder brushing her mate’s arm as she leaned into him.

Pauline tried not to be jealous. It was good that Stella was happy, that she’d found a mate. It was certainly good that her awful ex was going to jail.

And if she got to go on fabulous vacations with her mate while Pauline was still working here as a waitress, well, envy wasn’t a flattering look on anyone. Pauline summoned up a return smile and said, “Good to see you, Stella. How are you doing?”

“Wonderful.” Stella glanced over at her mate—what was his name? Pauline couldn’t remember—and their gazes caught as they smiled at each other.

It was adorable. Adorable, Pauline told herself firmly. She was happy for Stella.

“Nice to meet you, Pauline,” another voice rumbled.

Stella, Stella’s mate, and anything to do with Stella dropped right out of Pauline’s mind like the bottom had fallen out of it.

The big man in the expensive suit was still giving her that look.

But now he was holding out his hand.

Pauline fumbled her notepad, caught it, then dropped her pen. It bounced on the floor and skittered away, and Pauline’s face lit up red as a fire engine.

“I see it.” The man slid out of the bench seat with a grace that was startling, given his size. He crouched, catlike, to retrieve the pen from underneath another table. When he rose to his feet to hand it to her, he towered over her by at least eight inches.

“Thanks.” Her blush was never going away. Ever. She was going to be red-faced for the rest of time. “Sorry. Clumsy of me.”

“Not at all.” He smiled for the first time, and it transformed his face. His eyes crinkled, and Pauline realized he must be at least as old as she was. He was handsome enough that he looked younger.

“How about we try that again.” He was holding out his hand. Pauline blinked, focused, and reached out—without dropping anything this time, hallelujah—and shook.

His hand was warm and dry, and something sparked when they touched. Static, probably. Pauline tried not to jump.

“I’m Carlos,” he said.

“Very nice to meet you,” she managed. “Are you in town visiting friends?”

“Sort of,” he said, which didn’t quite make sense. But Pauline wasn’t about to make this any more awkward by interrogating him while they were introducing themselves.

“Carlos is an old friend of ours from the Marines,” Lynn’s mate Ken put in from behind her. She was momentarily startled—she’d forgotten there was anyone there but the two of them. “He’s been in New York City all these years, but we’ve finally tempted him to come check out the countryside.”

“Well, I hope you have a lovely time here,” she got out, without stammering or dropping anything or even blushing any more.

Oh, but she was now standing between him and his seat at the booth. Great job, Pauline. He probably just wants to eat dinner, but he can’t while you’re in the way.

Hastily, she stepped aside, and addressed the whole table. “Can I get everyone started with some drinks?”

Stella’s were the only eyes she felt comfortable meeting after that stunning display of ineptitude. The other woman was giving her the most inscrutable look, though. Pauline couldn’t tell what that expression meant.

“Just water for me,” Stella said after a long moment, which prompted the rest of the table to put their orders in.

Carlos slid back into his seat, again with an ease that seemed unlikely, given his size. He didn’t look like he was squeezing himself in at all—more like the space just magically became comfortable for him.

Pauline took all of their drink orders with careful attention, digging her pen into her notepad, forming each letter like it was a message for the President. When Carlos’ turn came, he said, “Water for me, too, thanks.”

How could those five innocuous words—words she heard every day, from all sorts of people—hit her right in the chest like that? His voice wasn’t even loud. Though it was incredibly deep, every word he’d said so far had been quiet.

But they’d all struck as deeply as if he’d shouted.

“Coming right up,” she said, her voice as steady as she could make it, and speedwalked away from the table.

Once out of sight of the customers, she leaned back against the wall and took a deep, shuddery breath.

What had that been?

She’d never had that kind of visceral reaction to a man before in her life. Heck, she’d been married, and her husband’s voice hadn’t ever thrilled her deep in the pit of her stomach like that.

And what was she even doing, paying attention to a handsome man while Drew and Troy and Val were in trouble?

Maybe it was a defense mechanism. Her brain was fleeing all of the worry and anxiety she was suffering from, and it was doing it by focusing on the first pretty thing that she saw.

Well, she had to admit that it had made a good choice. Carlos was probably the most attractive man she’d laid eyes on in the last...she didn’t know how long.

But he was a customer, and he was only in town for a few days, and Pauline sure wasn’t the type of woman to have affairs with the tourist men who were always drifting in and out. That was the sort of thing that ended with regret if you were lucky.

So she was going to take a deep breath or two, get the drinks all ready, and keep herself under control for the rest of the evening. If her heart fluttered in her chest at the sight of that very handsome man, well, no one else needed to know, and it wouldn’t matter after tonight anyway.

Maybe it was good that she was distracted from Drew’s troubles. She couldn’t do anything while she was at work, and if this made the time pass more quickly, then that was all the sooner she’d be able to go home and think about what she could do to help those kids.

That was fine. A distraction. A temporary distraction.

***

Carlos

Carlos remembered Pauline the waitress from the last time he’d come to Glacier Park. She’d struck his attention then, although he couldn’t quite have said why—they hadn’t even spoken, really.

There was just something about her. The way her dark hair, streaked with silver, was pulled back into a no-nonsense braid, with little wisps escaping. The snap in her bright brown eyes. Her oh-so-feminine curves.

It was more than looks, though. Pauline came across as tough, strong, capable in a way that had nothing to do with boardrooms and hostile takeovers, and everything to do with working on her feet and with her hands, day in, day out.

But then she’d turned pink and gotten flustered when she dropped her pen, in a way that made Carlos want to catch her hands, maybe kiss that blush on her cheeks.

He wasn’t usually this captivated by a woman he’d hardly spoken to. It was strange.

Carlos wanted to ask her out, get to know her better. See if this attraction, this draw that he felt to her was based on anything real.

But she was already off-balance, it was clear. She’d been embarrassed—maybe because she felt a similar attraction?—and probably wouldn’t thank him for putting her on the spot at her job, in front of a ton of people.

He considered simply leaving his number on a napkin after they left, but he didn’t like that plan at all. It seemed cowardly, as though he was too intimidated by the idea of rejection to stick around and see what she said. And there was no guarantee that she’d actually see it.

No, he’d have to come back alone. Order a meal, leave a good tip, and only then ask her out, as he was leaving. So she wouldn’t feel pressured to say yes to a customer.

Satisfied with his plan, he settled back into his seat and smiled at Pauline when she returned with their drinks. She smiled back, her cheeks flushing a little once again, and then took their orders with strict professionalism, no more embarrassment to be seen.

Carlos really wanted to get to know her.

***

After they ate, Nate said, “So, ready to check out the local scenery?”

Carlos looked around. The sun was starting to set, lighting the mountains up with a gorgeous golden-orange glow. The rocky forests seemed to stretch out for eternity around the town.

“More than ready,” he said.

Stella and Lynn parted ways with them—wanting to get home, or politely giving the men time to catch up alone, Carlos wasn’t sure. But he was grateful for the chance.

He hadn’t shifted with anyone else in...well, if he didn’t count that time he and Nate fought off Stella’s ex’s wolf pack, it had been years.

And while that had been exhilarating, it hadn’t been fun, precisely.

Now, though, Ken was giving him that devil-may-care grin that Carlos remembered on a much younger face, years ago, and Nate was scouting ahead for a good spot far enough into the trees that no one would see them shifting.

Carlos rolled his shoulders, loosening up, ready to shift and run. He could feel his tiger riding close to the surface, eager to come out.

Too long asleep, it rumbled in his chest. Too long in bright lights, close spaces. Time to get out, run free.

Carlos couldn’t have agreed more.

Together, the three men walked into the forest, and when Nate nodded, judging them far enough, they shifted.

A tiger, a panther, and a lion padded forward together. Carlos remembered this feeling of invincibility from long ago—not even from their time overseas, because then there was always the awareness that a bomb could go off, a hail of bullets could appear.

But earlier, during training, when they were all cocky young idiots, a whole unit of shifters—the four of them, with Ty alongside, had been the largest, most dangerous animals in the unit. And when they all shifted together, it felt like they could take on the world and no one could stand in their way.

Well, they weren’t cocky young idiots anymore. But there was still a hint of that feeling as they flowed silently deeper into the forest, higher up the mountain.

The scents were mind-blowing. Animals that didn’t live out east, forest smells, decomposition and growth and rich life all around him. The masculine musk of a lion to his left, a panther to his right.

Carlos broke into a run, finally letting his tiger out to play. The built-up energy in his muscles seemed to explode into motion. Stealth was no longer a consideration as speed took over; he bounded through the trees until he reached a rocky outcropping. Without pausing to think, he crouched and leapt straight up to the top. Surveying the terrain, he took off once again.

He could hear the swift movement of the lion and the panther behind him, but his tiger only had eyes for what was ahead. Miles and miles of unexplored territory, of exciting prey and new things to smell—it was like waking up from a dream, and finding reality waiting for him.

Carlos felt like he could’ve run like this for hours, but tigers were sprinters rather than marathon runners. Eventually he slowed down, and Nate and Ken came up alongside him. Ken nudged Carlos’ shoulder and set off to the west, so Carlos followed along until they came to a series of wide, flat rocks in a high, open area where the setting sun slanted down, illuminating everything in warm orange light.

Ken flopped down on a rock, and Carlos followed suit. This was another thing he missed—lying out in his cat form, absorbing the sunlight and warmth as only felines really could. The fast-paced businessman’s life didn’t leave a lot of room for relaxed sunning.

They lazed for a while, and then, as the sun finally dipped down below the horizon, Nate stretched, yawned, and shifted back to human. Ken and Carlos followed suit.

“So what do you think of our forests?” Nate asked Carlos with a grin.

Ken snorted. “Our forests, he says. He’s lived here for all of a couple of months.”

“You haven’t been here much longer,” Nate answered mildly, “and you talk about these woods like you’ve lived here your entire life, and your grandparents before you.”

Ken waved a hand, acknowledging the point. Then he glanced at Carlos. “Well?”

“This place is something else,” Carlos said, heartfelt. “I can see why you guys like it here.”

“Well, it’s more than just the forest that keeps me here,” Ken said with a grin. “The fact that Lynn would hunt me down and kidnap me home if I left—”

“You love it.” Nate aimed a kick at Ken’s leg.

Ken kicked back. “Sure I do. Go for a woman who knows what she wants and doesn’t take any bullshit,” he advised Carlos. “It improves your life like you wouldn’t believe.”

“You don’t feel—held down?” Carlos asked tentatively.

He’d never pursued any kind of serious relationship, because he’d never wanted anything to get in the way of his goals. And he’d known that he wouldn’t be good for any woman, not with the way he’d always thrown himself into his work.

First deployed with the Marines, then working sixty-to-eighty-hour weeks in the cutthroat business world—he wouldn’t have made a good partner for anyone, and he’d never wanted to have to sacrifice his professional life for anything.

Ken, though, had a demanding job as an environmental scientist, a job that put him out in the field for days or even weeks at a time, and seemed like he was happy with his relationships.

Although they were mates. That must mean something—that Lynn was the right person to be in the situation with him. Didn’t it?

Ken shook his head decisively. “Lynn has her own life, her own job, and her own self. She doesn’t need to waste any time holding me down.” He grinned. “Unless I ask her to.”

Nate rolled his eyes. “I never thought I wanted a mate,” he told Carlos, his tone serious. “But what I didn’t realize was that having someone else to take care of, to think of, all the time—it opened my life up. Made it richer, rather than shrinking it down. Stella and Eva are my family, now, and that means that I’m ten times the man that I used to be—I’m a mate and a stepfather, a provider, a protector. I had no idea the change it was going to bring, but I’m grateful as hell for it all.”

“Same,” Ken said, in much more sober tones.

Opened my life up, made it richer.

Richer. That was a word that Carlos was extremely familiar with. But he’d never used it the way Nate was using it.

A richer life.

That was exactly what he wanted. Exactly what he’d come here looking for.

Would he find that if he found the right woman?

Suddenly, he wanted to try it and see.

***

Pauline

After Pauline got off work, she started making the rounds.

Marsha didn’t have many friends in town. But she had her usual haunts. The library, where she went to use the computers. The convenience store, where she slowly counted out pennies for baby shampoo or toilet paper.

She didn’t frequent any of the several dive bars in town. Pauline had never known her to drink heavily or use drugs at all. She just kept to her little routine, and it slowly, slowly ground her down.

Until she couldn’t do it anymore and...what? What had happened? Where was she now?

Pauline asked the librarian, the convenience store clerk, and anyone else she could think of if they’d seen Marsha recently—pretending she had something to give her, trying not to look too concerned, in case anyone started thinking about reporting her as missing.

Probably they wouldn’t. The large shifter population meant that this town had a long, treasured tradition of minding one’s own business. Unless you were part of a pack, and Marsha had been a lone wolf.

A lone wolf with three kids, who could’ve used a pack’s support system right about now. Maybe if Pauline had been a wolf...but neither of their mothers had been shifters. They’d gotten their shifting genes from their dads. And apart from the kids, Pauline had a hard time thinking of any wolves who weren’t really, really bad news. Most of them were the boys who’d been running with Stella’s stalker ex. She’d never heard a good word about them.

Speaking of Stella—

Pauline hesitated. Stella and Marsha had been friends, once. Back in high school. They’d been about the same age, while Pauline had been a few years ahead. And they’d been the same wild type, chafing against rules, wanting to get out and do something more interesting than small-town high school.

Maybe Stella had kept in touch. And her sister, Lynn, knew these woods better than anyone. And they were both shifters. If anyone might’ve gotten a hint of where Marsha had gone off to...

The problem was, Pauline realized, that she didn’t want to go over to Stella’s house and see her happy with her mate for the second time that day. Didn’t want to see her with her happy, healthy daughter, who was probably going to go to college next year, and didn’t have to worry about feeding herself or any siblings.

It was a combination of frustration and envy, and it did not reflect well on her, Pauline thought firmly. Stella had never done anything to her, and there was no reason to want to stay away from her.

She wondered if Carlos was staying at the house with them.

Well, that was just getting ridiculous. Pauline set her jaw and got in her car. She was going to go over to Stella’s house, sit down with her, and ask her about Marsha, and if any attractive men showed up, they were just going to have to wait until she was done talking about what really mattered.

***

“Marsha?” Stella frowned, thinking. “No, I haven’t seen her in a while. We don’t hang out anymore—haven’t in years, not since I left town when Eva was little. Her little boy was just Eva’s age, though...”

“They’re friends now,” Pauline confirmed. “I see them together at the diner sometimes.”

Stella’s eyebrows rose. “That’s Eva’s friend Drew? Marsha’s little boy, Andrew?” She shook her head slowly. “I had no idea.”

“Teenagers,” Lynn sighed. “Never tell you anything.”

Stella rolled her eyes. “Eva’s under no obligation to tell me everything about her life. As long as she’s not getting into trouble or doing anything dangerous, she can keep things to herself if she wants to.”

Her sister grumbled something under her breath that Pauline suspected might have something to do with Stella’s own wild behavior as a teenager. Lynn was several years older and used to have a really tough time trying to keep Stella under control.

Now, though, they seemed closer, and happy about it. They were all three sitting in the front room at the old Davidson house, where Stella and Lynn both lived with their mates, and Stella’s daughter Eva. Pauline was perched on an antique armchair, but Stella and Lynn had both relaxed on the couch next to each other.

It was a far cry from the times Pauline could remember a twenty-year-old Lynn trying to drag a teenaged Stella home from a disastrous date or an alcohol-heavy party. It was a small enough town that everyone had heard about it when the sisters faced off. It looked like time really did work wonders for some people.

Not for Marsha, though.

“I’m worried about the kids,” Pauline said on a long outbreath.

Maybe this was a mistake. She didn’t know if Lynn, in particular, was the type to simply insist that they call CPS. That could result in the kids getting taken away and split up, and then who knew where they’d end up, if they’d be okay?

But she was pretty sure Stella wasn’t going to do that. And something about the concerned look in Lynn’s clear topaz eyes, the way she leaned forward at Pauline’s words, made her confident that the three of them might be able to solve this together.

“I’m worried about Marsha, too, but I don’t know where she is or what she’s doing, and I do know that Drew’s been trying to take care of his siblings all by himself. He needs help. Either we have to find Marsha and get her to come back and take care of her kids, or...” Pauline trailed off.

Lynn raised her eyebrows. “Or? Or what?”

“Or someone else needs to step up,” Pauline said. Like me.

Before she could go on, though, the front door opened, and the unmistakable sounds of a teenager shedding her stuff all over the front hall echoed through the house.

“Eva!” Stella called. “Can you come here for a second, please?”

There was a pause, and then a blonde head poked through the door. Blonde with a streak of blue, Pauline noted. That was new since the last time Eva had come into Oliver’s.

Stella didn’t seem surprised, although she sure wasn’t the type of woman to get irritated over a little hair dye.

“What’s up?” Eva’s eyes caught on Pauline.

“I wanted to come by and ask about your friend Drew,” Pauline said cautiously. “I’m a bit worried about him.”

Eva immediately rolled her eyes to the ceiling and came in to drop down on the couch next to her mother. “Please be worried about him. He’s got this whole schtick where he insists that he’s totally fine and nothing is wrong and his mom is just out of town for a few days. I could practically recite it for you by now.”

She was trying to sound cavalier, but her shoulders were tense, and her hands twisted together. Stella tugged her in closer. “Do you know where his mom is? Has he mentioned it?”

Eva hesitated. “I—have a guess. But he wouldn’t want me to tell you. And if I’m right, you won’t be able to get her to come back, anyway.”

Pauline sat forward. “Eva, I really want to help Drew. Whether we can get his mom to come back or not, I just want to make sure that he and Troy and Valerie are all okay.”

Eva nodded vigorously. “Yeah. I want that, too. Whenever I talk about going to school in September, he gets all dumb and cagey, like he’s not going to be there. I asked him if I could help, and he said no. Someone needs to help.”

“I’m going to help,” Pauline said firmly.

“Well, don’t tell him beforehand, that’s my advice.” Eva sighed. “He’ll probably just run away or something.”

Pauline was struck by this sudden and unwelcome possibility—could Drew decide to take his siblings and go somewhere else? Surely not. Their house, as run-down as it was, was here in Montana. Did Marsha own it outright, or was there a mortgage to pay?

Her thoughts were interrupted by the sound of the door again, and the sudden noise of several masculine voices, all heartily pleased with whatever they were doing. Lynn and Stella both looked toward the hall with almost-identical expressions of pleasure. Normally, it was hard to see the family resemblance between them, apart from their coloring, but at that moment, they couldn’t have looked more like sisters.

Before Pauline could make her excuses and leave to think about what to do next, the men were in the doorway. They piled into the room like big dogs, noisy and warm and seeming to overflow a space that had barely been taken up at all by three full-grown women and a teenager.

Nate and Ken were uncomplicatedly happy to see their mates. Carlos, though—he stopped short, looking at Pauline with a piercing, assessing gaze.

“Is everything okay?” he asked her quietly.

Pauline stood, smoothing her hands down her skirt, trying not to seem too off-balance or abrupt. “Everything’s fine.” She tried a friendly smile. “How are you?”

He looked at her for a second longer, a frown wrinkling between his eyebrows. But then he smiled back and said, “Doing great. We went for a—ah—a run. Very exhilarating.”

Pauline glanced around; none of the men were in running gear. In fact, they were all dressed the same as they’d been when they came into the diner—including Carlos’ expensive suit. Add that to the fact that none of them were sweaty or panting...they’d probably gone for a shifted run.

Pauline knew that Lynn’s mate was a lion shifter, and Stella’s mate was a panther. Small-town gossip had informed her that both men had served in the Marines with the head ranger at Glacier National Park, who was a snow leopard shifter.

Was Carlos a wild cat, too? Eyeing him, she wouldn’t have been surprised. He was big and graceful like one.

“I guess you saw some of the scenery, then, out in the woods,” Pauline said politely.

His face warmed with understanding: she wouldn’t have phrased it like that if she’d thought he’d gone for an ordinary run along the streets. “Gorgeous scenery.” His tone was heartfelt. “The mountains, the trees, the sunset—I can see why people love it here. Makes me never want to leave.”

And when are you planning to leave? Where are you going when you do?

None of her business.

“I’ve lived here all my life,” she found herself saying. “Hardly been anywhere else, and hardly wanted to.”

His eyes kindled with interest. “Really? When I was a kid, all I wanted to do was get out and see the world. But now that I’m older, I’ve started to realize that having somewhere to really call home, where your roots are, might be a good thing, too.”

Had he seen the world? Judging by his clothes, it looked like he had some money. Maybe he’d traveled all over. A little embarrassed, Pauline admitted, “I’m a homebody. I like having my own home in my own familiar territory.”

Besides, anytime she wanted, she could shift into her owl form and fly into the sky, where it felt like she was skimming the edge of the world. Why would she need to go anywhere else, when she had that?

Carlos was smiling softly, his eyes still lit with that warmly interested spark. Pauline had to look away.

“I’d like to learn more about you, Pauline,” he said quietly. “Would you go to dinner with me?”

Pauline meant to say no. She really did. She never dated tourists, and she had far more important things to think about right now than a handsome, smiling man.

“All right,” she said instead.

His smile broke free into a beautiful, happy grin. “Great. Are you free tomorrow night?”

She was working the opening shift tomorrow. She nodded, caught up in a weird combination of excitement and misgivings.

“Six-thirty?” he offered.

“That works.” She couldn’t believe she was actually doing this.

At that moment, the happy family by the couch broke up from their hellos and turned around, Ken and Nate offering their greetings to Pauline and Stella and Lynn standing up as Eva escaped the crush of adults to thump upstairs.

“I was just leaving,” Pauline told the men. “If you’ll excuse me.”

“You’re welcome to stay,” Nate offered, glancing over at Stella and Lynn. “We have tea—”

The big, tough-looking security specialist offering her tea gave her a moment of pause, but she shook her head. “Thank you very much, but no. I have a few things to take care of. Have a good evening.”

They said their goodbyes, and she watched, bemused, as Carlos skillfully maneuvered everyone so that he was walking her to the door while the rest of them decamped to the kitchen.

“I’m looking forward to seeing you tomorrow,” he said, taking her hand. “Can I pick you up somewhere?”

Pauline hadn’t thought of that. Should she give him her address? She’d just met him. He seemed so kind, and safe, but years of being cautious made her hesitate.

“Actually, here, let’s exchange numbers,” he said, just before her hesitation would’ve become awkward. “Maybe you can help me pick out a place to go.” He grinned, already pulling out his phone.

Grateful for the rescue, Pauline quickly rattled off her number. “See you tomorrow,” she told him.

He kissed her hand. Kissed her hand. And somehow it wasn’t weird or old-fashioned; it seemed entirely and completely natural. She shivered when his lips brushed her skin.

“Tomorrow,” he agreed, and she somehow pulled herself together enough to trip outside to her car.

She had a date. A date. With a handsome, thoughtful world traveler.

Who would probably be sweeping his impressive self back out of town in a few days.

That thought sobered her. She took a deep breath as she got back into her car, reminding herself that this wasn’t the start of anything. They’d have a nice dinner, maybe kiss a little bit—maybe more? her traitorous body tried to suggest—and then go their separate ways.

Carlos back to his glamorous, suit-wearing, jet-setting lifestyle, and her back to the problem of Marsha’s children.

Just one night of distraction. That was all.

It gave her a pang in her chest. Her owl was fluttery and dissatisfied at the thought of Carlos flying away.

Sometimes people do that, she reminded herself.

Pauline knew better than to expect any kind of long-term commitment, after all.

***

Carlos

She’d said yes.

Carlos hadn’t realized how tense he’d been about her answer until he knew it. As he closed the door behind Pauline, his shoulder relaxed and his tiger purred in relief.

He’d have to take her to the nicest restaurant in town. Maybe Stella or Lynn could recommend something; he wouldn’t trust Ken or Nate to know a nice restaurant if it bit them.

And he’d meet her there. It didn’t quite feel right to do that—he’d rather pick her up, make sure she didn’t have to put any effort in at all.

But giving out your address was a different prospect out here than in New York, he realized. There, all a woman had to do was name an intersection, and she’d be coming out of a building filled with anonymous apartments, maybe with a doorman between her and the street.

Here, a house might be out in the woods without any neighbors in sight. It might not have any security measures at all.

Well, Carlos was just going to have to show Pauline how trustworthy and safe he was. As he turned to rejoin the others, he had the thought that the process would be a pleasure.

Carlos had barely reached the doorway to the kitchen when Ken said, “So, Pauline, huh? That was fast.”

It was funny. Normally, with Ken teasing him about some woman he’d asked out, Carlos would either tease back, or just roll his eyes.

But this time, before his brain had any input over his mouth, he heard himself say, “Don’t talk about her like that.”

There was a long moment where everyone in the kitchen just blinked at him. Carlos stood his ground and refused to blush.

Finally Ken said slowly, “I didn’t mean it like that. I just meant—uh—”

“Pauline doesn’t date much,” Stella cut in, and Ken let out an obviously relieved breath. “I’d be surprised to see her out with anyone, much less someone she just met. So be careful, all right? Since you’re not sure if you’re sticking around.”

Stella’s voice had a hint of steel that was surprising from a woman who’d so far seemed cheerfully nice.

The warning should have made him defensive. But instead, Carlos found himself feeling pleased that Pauline had someone looking out for her.

“I promise,” he assured Stella. “She seems like an impressive woman. I really do want to get to know her better.”

Stella sat back, looking thoughtful. “All right,” she said.

Next to her, Lynn poked Ken in the side. “Besides, you’ve got no room to criticize anyone for moving quickly,” she chided. “How long was it before you asked me out? Five minutes? Four?”

Everyone laughed, and the mood lightened. Stella got up to make them all something to drink, and Carlos got to sit back and think about what he’d just done.

A date with a local woman. A local woman who didn’t date much, apparently—he tried not to let himself be satisfied by that, but it was a lost cause. Because if Pauline didn’t date much, but she’d agreed to a date with him

—Well, then what? What did that mean? Was he going to settle down here in Glacier Park and marry Pauline?

Was that what he wanted?

God, it was frustrating not to be able to define his goals.

And he did need goals. That was the issue, he decided. Carlos disapproved of complacency. That was his whole problem—he’d gotten everything he worked for, and now there was no goal to work for any longer.

He had a feeling that even if Pauline turned out to be the woman of his dreams, and he married her and moved to this gorgeous town and watched the sunset with her every night, he still wouldn’t be satisfied, because he wouldn’t have anything to accomplish.

Well, that was something to figure out, then, wasn’t it.

Because frankly, the rest of it was starting to sound pretty good.

***

Pauline

Pauline went through the next day in a haze.

She couldn’t believe she had a date.

She couldn’t believe Carlos had asked her on a date—handsome, successful men didn’t tend to notice her, unless they were the sort of jerks who noticed everyone with an XX chromosome and expected them all the be grateful for the attention.

Carlos didn’t seem like that type. Unless she was blinded by how handsome and charming he was.

But no, she had a feeling that the Davidsons—especially Lynn, who did not have a reputation for putting up with egos—wouldn’t have invited him into their house if he were that kind of jerk.

Maybe it would be all right to have a fling with him.

Pauline didn’t do flings. She’d hardly dated anybody apart from Gary, her ex-husband, who’d been her high school boyfriend.

Maybe it was time to start? Forty-five was probably too old, though. And it wasn’t like the men were pounding on her door.

Except for one.

God, she didn’t want to fall for him. He would leave town and break her heart, and then everything would be the same as it had always been, except she’d be missing a man she barely knew.

But she’d already said yes, and anyway, she didn’t want to say no. She wanted to go out with this man.

Yes, her owl trilled. This man. This one.

Don’t get too fixated, Pauline instructed sternly. Both to her owl and to herself.

The day dragged on and on. Carlos texted in the middle of an extremely dead shift to say that he’d love to take her to Nourish, the new tourist place that had opened up right near the Park a couple of years ago. Pauline had never been, because—well, because it was a tourist place, but also because she’d glanced at the menu once online and the prices were well out of her range.

She’d never been too wistful about it, because who wanted to go to a tourist place? And a place that probably had weird fusion organic gluten-free everything, at that.

But—well, it might be fun to try some weird fusion organic gluten-free something-or-other, just this once.

And that was the best way to look at this, she decided. A fun, one-time experience. Going to a restaurant she’d never normally go to, with a man she’d never normally be with, for a nice break from her life and her worries.

She’d do a quick check on Drew and Troy and Valerie after the date was over, just to remind herself what her real priorities were. Yes, that was a good idea, and the decision kept her from feeling guilty about obsessing over what the evening would be like instead of thinking about the kids.

One night. That was all.

***

Carlos

Carlos was nervous.

Which was crazy. He was never nervous. He’d stood in boardrooms engaging in hostile negotiations with some of the richest, scariest businessmen in the world. As a Marine, he’d faced down enemy forces trying their best to kill him and his platoon. After that, most of the regular things the world had to throw at him seemed like a nice sunny afternoon with nothing to do.

But he was nervous about meeting up with Pauline.

He knew hardly anything about her, but somehow he was convinced that she was a woman who wasn’t too interested in the wealthy businessman’s lifestyle. She seemed tough, and working as a waitress in a restaurant next to a national park probably meant that she’d seen it all.

Seen a lot of men come and go, that was for sure. And hardly dated any of them, from what Stella said.

So it was important that he treat her right.

He arrived early, so that he could be waiting for her when she pulled up. Her car was an older model, inexpensive, but it was spotless and seemed well-maintained. That fit with his impression of her: careful, not the type to take risks.

The business world was full of ostentatious waste, and Carlos had always been a bit disgusted by it. He appreciated the opportunity to have nice things—expensive clothes, luxury cars—but that only made it more important to take care of those things, appreciate them, make them last, so that he could enjoy them for the full extent of their lifetimes.

He’d grown up having to make things last. It was a hard thing to learn, but not one he ever wanted to forget.

Pauline got out, wearing a lovely cotton dress that accentuated her mouthwatering curves, in a deep red that flattered her tanned skin and dark hair and eyes. She met him on the sidewalk, and hesitated, clearly not sure what to do for a greeting. Carlos took her hand, and for the second time, brushed his lips against it.

And for a second time, she blushed, hiding a smile. He smiled back. If she’d looked taken aback or put off the first time, he wouldn’t have tried it again...but it was clear that she enjoyed it.

This was a woman who worked hard at a tough job; she could probably use some pampering, some thoughtful attention. And Carlos was here to give that to her.

He gestured to the door of the restaurant. “Shall we?”

Pauline’s cheeks pinked a little more, but she let her smile through and said gravely, “We shall.”

He offered his arm, she took it with a little laugh, and they went inside together.

***

Pauline

Pauline knew this was ridiculous.

The hand-kissing, the arm-offering, the fancy restaurant, all of it.

It was just...trappings. Silly window dressing, that men used to impress women. It didn’t say anything about the substance or the character of the people underneath all of the games.

And yet.

It was fun.

Pauline didn’t have a very fun life, most of the time. She worked, she volunteered at the church, she spent time with a couple of friends she still had after the divorce, mostly talking about their kids. She cleaned her house, she worked in her garden, she read novels.

All of it was fine, and all of it could be fun if she was in the right mood.

But she was never playful like this.

Carlos pulled out her chair for her when they got to the table. Almost laughing, she sat down. He sat gracefully across from her, and smiled at the hostess as she handed them menus.

“All right,” he said to her, once the hostess had left, “now that we’ve done the dance of sitting down—”

Pauline snorted.

“—we can turn our attention to more important matters. Like food.” He opened his menu.

Pauline opened hers, and tried not to blanch at the prices. He was paying, right? He was certainly paying, given how he’d been acting with her so far.

Soon enough, her attention was caught by the menu items, though. A Korean burger? Sweet potato fries with sriracha aioli? Dumplings wrapped in prosciutto?

“I’ve never eaten any of these things,” she said, fascinated.

“Should we order one of everything?” Carlos asked, eyes glinting.

“I’m hungry but I don’t think I’m that hungry,” Pauline retorted.

“Maybe we’ll have to come back, then.”

Startled, Pauline looked at him. Did he not think that this was a one-time thing?

Maybe he meant that they could go on a few dates while he was here. A real fling, and not just a single fun date.

And even though she’d resolved against it, Pauline found herself weakening in the face of his hopeful smile.

“Maybe,” she murmured.

“For now, though, what looks the most interesting?” He raised his eyebrows.

Pauline thought everything looked interesting, but her attention was caught by the braised-goat ravioli and the Korean burger the most.

“They just keep putting things together that I would never think to put together,” she said. “I want to see what it’s like.”

Carlos was smiling. “Well, how about we each get one of those and we can share.”

“Oh—but—you should get what you want,” Pauline objected, feeling suddenly flustered. The way Carlos was looking at her...

“I want to try both of those, too,” he insisted. “And I want you to get to try them. We both win.”

Pauline sighed. “Well...if you’re sure.”

“Absolutely.”

“I suppose you must eat at restaurants like this all the time, in New York,” Pauline said before she thought about it. As the words came out of her mouth, though, she heard how naïve they made her sound. Like some ingenue in an old movie. Of course they had weird expensive restaurants in New York City.

But to her surprise, Carlos shook his head. “Once in a while, for a business meeting, but most of the time I was too busy with work to get out and try new places.”

“What a shame,” Pauline said sincerely. She’d never thought about that—having the money and the opportunity to do things, but not the time.

“It was,” Carlos said, looking regretful. “I suppose now that I’m retired, I could’ve just stayed in New York and experienced all the things I didn’t do when I was working seventy-hour weeks.”

She blinked. “You’re retired?”

Unless he was twenty years older than he looked, this was a startlingly early retirement, wasn’t it?

Before he could answer, though, the waiter appeared. They ordered—Carlos asked if she wanted wine, and Pauline declined, because she wasn’t much of a drinker. “Just water for me, too,” Carlos said with a smile at the waiter, and Pauline couldn’t tell if he was trying to make her comfortable, or if he genuinely didn’t want any himself.

Either option was nice, she had to admit. She didn’t like men who drank too much, and there were plenty of them around.

When the waiter disappeared, Carlos turned his smile back to Pauline. Was it her imagination, or did it warm a few notches when he focused on her?

“I’m taking early retirement,” he told her. “I’ve done all I wanted to in the business world. I worked hard, I got lucky, and I’ve come out of it with plenty of resources, invested in ways that’ll keep them working for me.”

His tone was matter-of-fact. It didn’t even sound like he was boasting, just stating the truth.

“So now I don’t really know what to do with myself,” he continued with a rueful laugh. “I took this vacation as a way to connect with my old friends, see if they could give me any ideas about how to make myself useful, find a fulfilling way to live the rest of my life.”

“Wow,” Pauline said after a second. “That’s really...admirable. A lot of rich guys would just go live on an island somewhere, drink fancy cocktails and chase beautiful women.”

Carlos laughed. “I’d get bored in a hot second. I always need to be doing something. I’d drive all the beautiful women crazy, because they’d want to relax on the beach with their cocktails, and I’d be prowling around looking for responsibilities.”

What a dream. A man who actually looked for responsibilities.

But now that he said it, Pauline could see what he was talking about. Carlos didn’t relax into a chair; he sat up straight, fiddled a bit with the silverware, glanced around the room. He wasn’t quite fidgeting, but she could see the energy in him, like he was just waiting for the chance to jump up and do something.

A lot of women probably would find that crazy-making.

Pauline, though...Pauline had spent her entire marriage trying to motivate Gary into wanting to expend more energy than it took to sit on the couch and watch TV. With very little success. The idea of a man who’d be out ahead, looking for something to do on his own...

“So you’ve been married to your job all these years?” she asked tentatively.

Carlos laughed and nodded. “Never took the time to look around for a woman to settle down with. I felt like it’d be doing her a disservice, anyway, since I spent so much time at the office. No one wants a partner who can’t ignore an emergency email at eleven PM.”

True enough. That might be going a bit too far down the other side of the road to responsibility.

“What about you?” His eyes were penetrating.

“Oh—I was married.” Pauline waved a hand, as if she could dismiss the whole thing as though it had never happened at all. “It was a mistake. We were twenty, we’d been dating for four years and we thought that that meant that getting married was inevitable. Turned out we wanted totally different things from life.”

“Oh?”

Pauline hesitated. Talking about kids on the first date was usually a bad idea. It could send a man running for the hills, make him think that you were trying to latch onto him as a potential dad as fast as possible.

On the other hand, they were both past the age of having kids, weren’t they? Besides, so what if it did spook Carlos? It wasn’t like he was sticking around for the long haul no matter what. She had nothing to lose here, really.

So she steeled herself and said steadily, “I wanted a family. Very badly. But Gary didn’t. He put me off for years and years by saying that it wasn’t the right time, that we were too young, that we had to wait until he got a better job...but eventually it became clear that he just didn’t want to raise a child. So we got divorced. By then I was thirty, and there weren’t any other men around here whom I could see myself raising kids with at all.”

Put that way, it sounded pathetically bleak. And as though Pauline just couldn’t get it together...which was true, she supposed. She’d been a complete doormat in her twenties, hesitantly trying to steer Gary in the direction of what she wanted, and totally folding whenever he put her off.

“You didn’t think about moving somewhere else?” Carlos asked tentatively. “A bigger town or a city?”

Pauline shook her head, semi-regretfully. “I could never live in a city. I need the countryside. And I grew up here by Glacier, I love it more than anything. I tried to live elsewhere for a bit—I was in Missoula for a year when I was thirty-two—but I hated it, and I missed home so much. So I came back here, and—” she shrugged, “—here I am.”

“Are your parents here? Your family?”

“My parents passed away a couple of years ago,” Pauline told him. “My mother had cancer, and my father just—wouldn’t take care of himself after she died. He had a heart attack a year later.”

It had been a slow, sad decline, and it had taken all of Pauline’s time and energy, first taking care of her mom through her illness, and then trying to convince her dad to take better care of himself. Which he’d refused to do, until it killed him.

“I’m sorry.” Carlos’ face was troubled. “It sounds like you’ve had kind of a rough time of it.”

Pauline shrugged uncomfortably. “No rougher than most people. I’ve had my problems, but they were all...normal. No great tragedies or terrible suffering.”

Not like some of the people in town. Stella had been stalked by her ex. Mavis, who had come to town recently and was mated to Carlos’ old commanding officer Colonel Wilson, had been separated from her daughter Nina for seven years before they were reunited. Pauline couldn’t even imagine that kind of pain.

No, her life had been hard at times, but she’d just...kept on trucking. Like people did.

“Divorce is terrible suffering, I think,” Carlos said softly. “Losing both your parents in a year—that’s terrible suffering, too. Just because there weren’t, I don’t know, explosions or police cars doesn’t mean that you haven’t suffered.”

Pauline shook her head, feeling tears prick unexpectedly at her eyes. She didn’t know what to say to that.

Fortunately, the waiter arrived at just that moment with their food. “Oh, look at all this,” Pauline said gratefully. “I can’t wait to try it.”

***

Carlos

Carlos shouldn’t have pushed, he knew. It was a first date—he had no business prying into Pauline’s unhappy history, much less pressing her to admit how painful it had really been.

So he was lucky the waiter had saved him.

But he still just wanted to enfold Pauline in his arms and tell her how brave she must have been, how hard he knew it had to be to care for your dying parents, or to wait out a slowly failing marriage.

Kids. Carlos had never really thought about them. When he’d been younger and poorer, he’d been determined that he’d give any potential kids a better upbringing than he got, so he’d set the whole concept aside until he had more money. Then in the Marines, then married to his job—it was the same problem as it would have been with a wife, except much, much worse. Kids needed their parents around, helping them, supporting them, playing with them, going to their games or their concerts.

He would’ve been a terrible dad, and he knew it. So he never really thought about it.

Now, though—

Well, now it was probably too late. He was looking at fifty in a few years. That was too old for a baby, to be sure.

He looked at Pauline, who was surveying their food with obvious delight. She’d be a good mom, he bet. Responsible, thoughtful, willing to put years of effort into taking care of people whether they were grateful for it or not—

What are you thinking?

He didn’t know. Surely he wasn’t considering having kids with a woman he’d just met. When he’d never even wanted kids.

Shaking his head, he let the thought go and focused on the food. He cut the burger in half and slid half of it over on the little plate the waiter had provided. “Here, try it.”

Pauline surveyed it, smiling. “What’s this? Coleslaw?”

“Kimchi.”

She lifted it to her mouth and took a bite. Her eyes went wide. “It’s spicy!” she said through the mouthful.

Carlos couldn’t take his eyes away. How long had it been since he’d seen someone be so delighted by something new? Businessmen were always trying to prove how jaded they were, talking about how they’d seen it all. How anything that was trying to impress was really nothing special.

Out here, though, everyone seemed to be...ready to be delighted. Even by stuff they saw every day, like the Park and the mountains and the sunset.

And especially by new stuff, like kimchi burgers. Pauline swallowed her mouthful and grinned wide. It lit up her face, crinkling her eyes and making her twice as beautiful. “That is a taste I’ve never experienced before in my life,” she said.

“Do you like it?” he asked.

“I can’t tell!” she laughed, and took another bite.

You should have new things to delight you every day of your life, Carlos thought, and took a bite of pasta to hide his confusion with himself.

***

Pauline

This food was crazy.

Pauline still couldn’t even quite tell if she liked the burger or not. It was a bit spicier than she was used to, but the flavors were just so interesting. She finished off her half in record time, and then glanced guiltily over at Carlos, who’d only taken a few bites.

“Not to be a pig or anything,” she half-laughed.

He grinned. “I love watching people enjoy things. Eat as much as you want.”

There was a while, then, where everything was about the food. Pauline almost wanted to ask if they could have another date here tomorrow night, because she wanted to try everything else on the menu to see if they would all introduce her tongue to such new and odd sensations.

When they’d slowed down to the point of picking at the last of the fries, Carlos leaned back and asked, “So, what was it like growing up out here, in the middle of all this wilderness? I was a city kid, and the only time I’ve ever spent a lot of time out in the wilds is when I was in the Marines.”

Which must have been a very different experience. One Pauline was incredibly curious about herself, but she wasn’t going to ask about it unless he volunteered, because she knew it might be painful to talk about.

Instead, she said, “I’ve never been as much of an outdoorswoman as some of the people here—not like Lynn, for example.”

Carlos chuckled. “I don’t think anyone’s as outdoorsy as Ken and Lynn. They made it their jobs.”

“I can’t imagine that, really,” Pauline confessed. “I like having a home, being in the home, taking care of it. But I also just...” She struggled to explain.

“Just?” Carlos asked softly.

“In the mornings,” Pauline said, “I make myself a cup of coffee, and I take it outside. And I look at the whole vista around me, the trees and the mountains. If I can swing it, depending on the time of year, I watch the sun rise. Even in the winter, I’ll step out for just a minute and breathe in the air. It’s like I’m soaking in the mountains, and that gives me the strength to get through the rest of the day.”

“That sounds lovely.” Carlos eyes were far away. Imagining doing it himself?

“When I was living in the city, I’d step outside and there’d be people and cars and concrete, and—” Pauline shook her head. “I couldn’t do it. I need the mountains around me.”

“A lot of people around here seem to be...connected to nature.” Something in Carlos’ voice made her look at him. He had a careful expression on his face. “Sort of a family thing. Lynn and Stella have it, and so do the men who were in my unit.”

Pauline smiled. “You’re talking about shifters.”

Carlos grinned. “You cracked my code.”

“I did.” She set her fork down and leaned back in her chair too. “Yes, I’m a shifter, too. An owl.”

His eyes widened. “An owl. I’ve never met an owl shifter before.”

Pauline shrugged, a bit uncomfortable at his sudden scrutiny. “There aren’t too many of us. A few around here. My dad was one, too.”

“But not your mom?”

Pauline shook her head. “She was afraid of heights.”

Carlos laughed, surprised. “I guess that wouldn’t work out so well.”

“Nope.”

The laughter faded, and Carlos looked at her consideringly. “So you fly through the forests here?”

Pauline nodded. “I try to get out a few times a week. It’s refreshing.”

“A few times a week,” Carlos sighed. He looked...wistful.

“It must have been hard to shift, in New York City,” she said tentatively. “I mean—you are a shifter as well?”

“Oh, my manners,” he said, looking a bit flustered, and she bit her lip to hide a smile. “Yes. A tiger.”

A tiger. “Oh,” she said on a let-out breath.

He raised an eyebrow. “Oh?”

“I just—I feel like I should’ve been able to guess,” Pauline admitted. “I can’t imagine you as anything else, now.”

Carlos smiled. “I’ll take that as a compliment, thanks. And I can’t imagine myself as anything but a tiger, either. Even though you’re right: it was almost impossible to find time and space to shift, in my old life. Between the sprawl of the city and the demands of the job...” He shrugged. “I managed it every month or two, usually.”

Pauline felt cold. “I can’t imagine only being able to shift every month or two. I think I’d go crazy.”

“I got used to it,” he said quietly. “I couldn’t shift much as a kid, either—we lived in New Jersey, where there’s not a lot of open wilderness, so we were mostly confined to little woods, with my mom constantly watching for people.”

“That sounds really hard.”

He hesitated. “I didn’t think so at the time—it was the most exciting thing I got to do. But now, looking back...I wish we’d had space to run.”

“Kids need space to run,” Pauline said firmly. “Whether they’re shifter kids or not. Shifter kids just need different kinds of space.”

Carlos smiled. “Well, when you’re a big predator that no one expects to see outside of a zoo, that space can be hard to find.”

“I can imagine.” Pauline felt the force of how lucky she was, living out here—and in a form that no one would remark on if they saw it.

“Now I’m talking about me again,” Carlos said with an air of realization. “I wanted to hear more about you.”

Pauline raised her hands. “There’s not really much to tell! My life has been pretty boring. Grew up here, went to high school with Lynn—she was a year behind me—got married like a lovestruck teenager, got divorced like a smarter adult. I’ve worked a few jobs, but mostly it’s been waitressing.”

“Do you like it?”

Pauline hesitated. “Some days. I like seeing all the different kinds of people who come and go, and I like that Oliver’s is still a hub for the locals. I like my co-workers. Being on my feet all day is hard, and sometimes it’s tough to smile and give good customer service when you’re not feeling it.”

Carlos nodded. “Did you ever have a dream job?”

Pauline sighed. “A mother.”

Carlos reached out, and after a second, Pauline gave him her hand. He squeezed it, and for just a moment, Pauline felt like she could just let go, cry about it like she hadn’t in years—certainly not in front of anyone else.

But they were in public, so instead she breathed, blinked, and focused on the feel of his warm, rough hand against hers.

They sat together for a long minute. Carlos didn’t try to say anything, just held her hand, and somehow it was better than anyone’s placating words had ever been.

***

Pauline was amazed at how much of a rich asshole Carlos wasn’t.

Gary had loved the sound of his own voice—which had been great when they were teenagers, and Pauline loved it too. He was funny and smart, liked to read and talk about what he’d read, and she’d always enjoyed listening to what he had to say, what he’d learned and thought about.

It had taken her a long, long time to realize that Gary was not, actually, that interested in what Pauline thought. He enjoyed telling her things, correcting her when she was mistaken, and having her ask him questions, but he’d never quite managed to care about her opinion. Certainly not as much as he cared about his own.

Carlos, on the other hand—

Carlos asked her what she wanted to order, and got that for both of them. Carlos wanted to know about her life, her experiences, her wants.

And as they were leaving the restaurant, Carlos let out a breath, looked around at the moonlit forest stretching out from the parking lot, and asked, “So what do you think I should do with my life?”

“Me?” Pauline asked, half-laughing. “Why should I know what you want to do?”

“It’s not about what I want to do,” Carlos said, with a thoughtful line between his brows. “Or, rather, I don’t know what I want to do. So I’ve graduated to asking smart people what they think.”

Smart. Who had ever called her smart? Not Gary, that was for absolute sure.

“I think,” Pauline said slowly, “that you should find a way to—to help people while connecting with them.”

“How do you mean?”

Pauline tried to unpack what she was thinking. “You have a lot of money, right?” Then she heard herself and had to backpedal. “Sorry—that was rude—”

“No, no,” Carlos said firmly. “You’re right. I have a lot of money. More than I know what to do with, and it’s all invested in a way that’s making me more money without me even doing anything. It’s all a bit excessive.”

Pauline laughed a little at that. “Okay. So, you could just give your money away to charity, and that would be helping people. But I don’t think that that would be fulfilling for you. And it probably wouldn’t take up much of your time.”

“You’d be surprised,” Carlos murmured, but he motioned for her to keep going.

“So I think,” Pauline said firmly, “that you should find some project that takes a lot of money, but also needs you to be there on the ground, with the people that it’s helping. That way you can see what you’re doing, make a community, and so it’ll help you as much as it helps them.”

“That sounds perfect,” Carlos said quietly. “Any ideas for candidates?”

Pauline shook her head. “I think that’s the sort of thing you have to figure out for yourself.”

“I suppose you’re right.” They’d reached their cars.

“And make it somewhere you can shift and run,” Pauline added sternly. “It sounds like you’ve gone far, far too long without being able to do that.”

Carlos laughed. “You’re right. You’re absolutely right.” And he reached out to cup her cheek.

Pauline stilled, her breath caught in her chest, her entire body focused on the place where his hand touched her skin.

If she’d thought that feeling his hand against hers was profound, well—her entire body thrilled at this touch.

He leaned in, slowly, as if to give her time to object. Pauline wanted to do anything in the world but object.

Carlos’ kiss was soft at first, his lips warm against hers, his thumb slowly caressing her cheekbone. Pauline kissed back, their mouths moving gently together. A spark lit in her chest.

Then Carlos caught her up with his other arm, pulling her against him, and the spark fanned into a flame.

His body was huge, hard and strong against hers. Warm and solid, like she could just press herself against him and let go, and he’d hold her up and keep her safe.

He teased her tongue with his, drawing her out, and she found herself leaning into the kiss, opening her mouth and tasting him. Her arms went up around his neck, one of her hands threading through his thick dark hair.

A passion was awakening inside her, something she hadn’t felt in years. She wanted to get her hands inside his clothes, feel all that hard muscle, see what he looked like naked. Have him strip her naked, put those big hands all over her body—

Pauline tore away with a gasp. Her eyes were wide and shocked, she knew, staring up at him like he’d appeared from nowhere, a sexy apparition.

He stayed very still. “Too much?” he asked softly.

Pauline realized that she was panting, catching her breath. She closed her mouth. “A...little,” she admitted, feeling shamefaced.

A rich city guy like him probably dated all sorts of wild, sex-positive women, right? Women who knew what they wanted and grabbed it on the first date. Women who knew tons of crazy positions and had a collection of toys in their nightstand.

And here was Pauline, scared shy after one street-appropriate kiss.

But Carlos didn’t look disappointed. And he said, “Then we stop.”

“I don’t—I’m not—” Pauline said, hearing how confused she sounded. She wanted some way to communicate, I’m not a prude, I promise, without sounding defensive and childish, and it wasn’t there.

“Hey.” Carlos reached out, and after a second, Pauline took his hand. He held it softly, his thumb running over the knuckles in a way that made her breath catch. “You shouldn’t feel obligated to do anything you don’t want. I definitely wouldn’t want to do anything that we weren’t both totally on board with. Okay?”

Pauline took a deep breath. “Okay.”

“Can I see you again?”

She should say no. She was already completely out of her depth, and falling fast. If they went out again, she was afraid she’d be half in love with the man. “Yes.”

His smile was a gift. “Good.”

***

Then, of course, it was time to fulfill her promise to herself.

She went home first, and then shifted and flew out to the kids’ house in her owl form, wanting to be as discreet as possible.

The woods were bright to her owl eyes, but she knew that in her human form, they’d be a black mass, almost entirely unlit. The thought of three kids living on their own out here made her heart ache.

Before she reached the house, though, she spotted headlights.

She dipped down immediately—was Drew going somewhere?

But no, it wasn’t Marsha’s car. It was a truck, a beat-up old truck that she didn’t recognize. She didn’t recognize the man at the wheel, either, even though her owl eyes picked out his features without any difficulty in the darkness.

The truck was turning out of the driveway to the house. There was nowhere else this man could’ve gone.

Pauline hesitated—and then hurled herself forward as quickly as she could, flying like mad to get to the house. She just wanted to see—

The house was fine. Quiet. A quick circuit of it showed that the two younger kids were asleep in bed, and Drew was sitting at the kitchen table, staring at his hands.

What had that man been doing there?

Well, Pauline was aiming to find out. She wheeled around and flew as fast as she could back towards town. Fortunately, she didn’t have to follow the roads, so—guessing that the truck was going back to town and not further off into the woods—she cut over the forest in the hopes of catching up.

The shortcut worked. Scanning the roads from high up in the air, she caught sight of the old truck up ahead, just about to hit a winding, bumpy patch that went over a hill. Pauline didn’t have to care about the hill, the bumps, or the winding, so at last she was able to catch up.

She stayed even with the truck from then on, as high up as she could manage, so he didn’t catch sight of her pacing him and get suspicious. It was always best to assume, in this town, that everyone knew about shifters and that any suspicious behavior in an animal would be marked and responded to as though it were a human.

Eventually, on the other side of town, the truck pulled into a driveway. Pauline frowned. Whose house was that?

She spiraled down and landed in a tree outside one of the windows. It was open, and she could hear male voices from the inside. A second later, the door opened, and another voice joined the crowd.

“Well?” demanded a harsh voice. Pauline recognized it, and it chilled her. That was Ryan, the leader of a wolf pack a town or two over. Stella’s ex-boyfriend Todd had been part of the pack before his arrest, and from what Pauline knew, they were up to no good.

Were they trying to expand out here? Hadn’t the way Todd had been humiliated, defeated, and locked up taught them a lesson?

But maybe it hadn’t. Maybe it had only made them mad.

“He’ll do it,” said another voice. The man who had just come in? Pauline thought so. The background conversation was otherwise still going on.

“Good,” said the harsh voice, sounding satisfied. “And you made it clear what would happen to him if he punked out?”

“Sure did,” said the newcomer. “He’s not going to be straying one step out of line. Not if he cares about what happens to those two little babies he’s taking care of.”

They all laughed.

Pauline’s wings felt frozen. Her feet were locked in place, clutching the branch she stood on.

What had Drew gotten into?

It had to be something criminal. The threats made that clear. Maybe drugs. Or something even more illegal.

He was trying to find a way to provide for his siblings, she knew. And maybe this was the only way he could see.

Why hadn’t she acted earlier? Drew always insisted he was fine, taking after his mother, but she could have insisted. She could have made him let her do—something. Give him money. She didn’t have much of anything left over from her parents’ medical expenses, but she could’ve gotten a loan or something, enough to cover the cost of whatever this was going to get him.

Right?

Maybe.

If only she’d taken action sooner.

Shaking herself, she forced her wings to work. The air felt freezing around her as she took off.

What was she going to do?

***

The question echoed through her mind all night, invading her dreams and interrupting her sleep.

In the morning, though, she had an answer. It wasn’t a very good answer, but it was all she had.

She needed to get help.

Pauline couldn’t stand up to a bunch of criminal wolf drug dealer gang members all on her own. She was just a waitress. She couldn’t use any weapons. And her shifter form wasn’t strong enough to take on even one wolf, let alone a pack.

Well. She could probably claw the eyes out of one wolf. She could even think of a very suitable candidate.

But no. She needed more than just her claws.

Just then, her phone buzzed. She frowned—who would be texting her this early in the morning?

When she picked it up, though, a warm flush spread through her body. It was Carlos.

Thinking of you this morning, it said. How are you?

Pauline realized she was just...staring at her phone and blushing, as though someone could be looking through it and see her all aflutter like a teenager over a cute boy.

She shook herself. She needed to focus. She had a real problem to solve.

And she needed some help.

And Carlos had helped with Stella’s stalker, hadn’t he?

No. Carlos was here on vacation. He wanted to take her to silly fusion restaurants and watch the sun set over the mountains, not tackle a possibly-insurmountable problem involving motherless children, hostile wolves, and...drugs or stolen goods or whatever it was.

But as Pauline stared at her phone, she realized that this might be her best option.

At the very least, she should go to Nate. He was an actual security specialist. He’d know what to do.

But there was no way to go to Nate without also talking to Carlos. At least—no way that didn’t immediately devolve into a comedy of errors. Pauline pictured trying to secretly plan to take down a wolf pack with Nate while smiling innocently through dates with Carlos, and let go of the idea with a snort. Nope.

So maybe this was more important than what Carlos wanted. And what she wanted from him. Because the more she thought about it, the more she realized that this was the best solution. She didn’t want to go to the sheriff until she could be sure that Drew hadn’t done anything he might be arrested for, and she didn’t know any other people who were both capable enough to deal with a group of shifter criminals and kindhearted enough to want to help a desperate seventeen-year-old boy.

So she bit her lip and texted back, Struggling with a problem. Maybe you can help me?

This was the death knell for their fun dating, and she let herself mourn it just for a second. Maybe Carlos would even think that she’d only gone out with him to try to get into his good graces so he’d help her.

She hoped not. But...as long as he did help her, that was the most important thing. She couldn’t focus on a few fun dates with a man she’d just met when kids’ safety was at risk, for God’s sake.

The text came back instantly, as she’d known it would somehow. Of course. Want to meet up and tell me about it?

***

Carlos

Carlos was surprised at how happy he was to hear that Pauline had a difficult problem.

Wait, that wasn’t the right way to think about it. He wasn’t at all happy that Pauline was struggling—in an ideal world, he thought, Pauline would be blissfully happy all the time. She seemed like the type of kind, hardworking woman that deserved it.

And being the cause of that blissful happiness sounded pretty good to him, too.

Which brought him around to the problem again. He was suddenly presented with an opportunity to help Pauline with something important, and he was realizing...he wanted that. He wanted to get involved, to solve her problem for her—or with her, at least—and to see that sweet smile on her face when it was over.

“What’s up with you?” Ken asked as he came into the kitchen. “You’re looking at your phone like Siri suddenly developed independent intelligence or something.”

“How soon did you know you wanted to be with Lynn permanently?”

The words seemed to just fall out of his mouth without any input from his higher brain functions. He had to fight a flush off of his cheeks—fortunately, his skin was too dark to really show it. He straightened his back and met Ken’s eyes, refusing to back down.

Ken’s head cocked to the side, and he gave Carlos a penetrating look. “Huh. It wasn’t instantaneous, exactly—I felt, I don’t know, drawn to her from the second I saw her, but my brain didn’t catch up to the truth until we’d spent a little time together.” He raised his eyebrows. “Why do you ask?”

“Gathering data,” Carlos said blandly.

Gathering data, he says,” Ken muttered. “All right. This data wouldn’t happen to work at Oliver’s, would it?”

“None of your business.”

Ken grinned, not put off for a second by Carlos’ threatening tone. “Sure it isn’t. I’ll just be over here spectating, then.”

Carlos had to roll his eyes. Ken was mellower these days than he had been back in the Marines, more mature, but he still had that irreverent spirit. Probably he’d have it even when he was ninety.

His phone buzzed. Pauline was asking, Can you meet me at Oliver’s after my shift? I work until 3 today.

See you there. I promise I’ll do whatever I can to help, he texted back.

He stared down at the words after he sent them. That was the sort of thing a person should never say in the business world. An open-ended promise to do whatever he could? That would just open you up for exploitation. And in a situation where he didn’t even know what he was committing to—it was downright stupid.

But he didn’t regret it. He didn’t feel a single hint of worry about what Pauline might be asking him to do. If it was something she thought was important, he trusted that it was something that needed to get done.

He’d never felt this certain about another person in his life.

And it was starting to wake up a tiny, niggling suspicion in his mind.

***

Pauline

Carlos, good as his word, was at Oliver’s by 2:30, sipping coffee in a booth and giving Pauline a reassuring smile when she glanced nervously over. For once, he wasn’t wearing a fancy suit: he’d managed to dig up jeans and a plaid shirt from somewhere.

It made him look less imposing, but no less attractive—it was a lot easier to imagine getting her hands inside that shirt than one of his crisp, expensive suit jackets.

Pauline didn’t want to draw him into her problems. She wanted to keep him a fun, exciting fantasy, sexy and rich and somehow interested in her.

But really, even their date hadn’t been like a fantasy at all. It had been lovely, and outside of her normal activities for sure, but...they’d talked about real, serious things. Carlos had wanted to know about her life, her problems, and had told her some about his own in return.

Maybe he wouldn’t mind getting involved with this.

Pauline shook her head at herself. She minded being involved in this, and she was the one who’d made the choice. Of course he would mind.

She just hoped he’d help anyway. Because this was more important than any fantasy could be.

Finally, after what seemed like ten years, her shift was over. She came over and slid into the booth across from Carlos. She desperately wanted to lean in for a kiss, or to sit on the same side as him, lean into his warmth, but her coworkers were already giving her looks, and she didn’t want to start any rumors when Carlos was going to leave town soon.

He was giving her the calmest, warmest smile. “So, what’s up?”

Pauline took a deep breath and said, “My cousins are in trouble.”

She explained about Marsha’s ongoing problems holding down a job or being there for her kids, and finally her apparent disappearance. Pauline’s own worries about what might happen to the kids if they went into foster care—and now the sudden appearance of even greater worries about what might happen if they carried on like this. What she’d seen last night.

Carlos’ expression became graver and graver as she spoke. As she was finishing, he reached across the table and took her hand.

Pauline hesitated, but—to hell with rumors. She closed her hand around his, feeling his warmth soaking into her chilly fingers.

“And you haven’t told anyone else about this?” Carlos asked her quietly. “You’re all by yourself?”

“I’ve asked quite a few people if they’ve seen Marsha,” Pauline defended herself. “That’s why I was over at the house the other day, talking to Stella and Lynn and asking them to keep an eye out.”

“I wasn’t criticizing,” he said quietly. “It just seems like a lot, to take on yourself.”

“Well,” Pauline said, “I may not always know when I’m out of my depth, but last night really cinched it. I can’t do anything about this wolf pack by myself—definitely not when Drew keeps on refusing my help. I need someone else.”

“Why do you think he’s pushing you away?” Carlos asked thoughtfully. “Pride? Fear?”

“Both of those,” Pauline said heavily. “I’m sure he’s afraid of what will happen if anyone finds out his mother is truly missing. And he’s right to be. I couldn’t promise him that the kids would stay together. Maybe if I’d been approved as a foster mom, I could get someone to agree to let me take them all in, since I’d want to keep them together. But I wasn’t.”

Carlos’ eyebrows went up. “You applied to be a foster parent?”

Pauline nodded emphatically. “After Gary and I divorced—well, I couldn’t find any other man I’d trust to be a father to my children.” Gary, if she was honest, probably shouldn’t have made the cut either, even if he’d wanted kids too, but she’d been young and in love. “So I thought I’d try to do it myself. I didn’t have the money for IVF or anything like that, and there’s so many kids in the world who need parents, anyway...but they said no. Single, too low of an income.”

She’d been hoping that saying it quickly and matter-of-factly like that would make it hurt less, but it didn’t. That final dashing of her hopes had been a deep stab in her heart since it had happened, and it wasn’t lessening anytime soon.

“I’m sorry.” Carlos’ voice was low, and when she looked up, his eyes were dark and compassionate. She felt suddenly, oddly warmed with the thought that he might understand.

“Did you ever want a family?” she asked impulsively.

He sat back a little, though not far enough that their hands slipped apart. “I—I never thought I could do one justice,” he said after a minute.

Pauline frowned. “Why not? You’re—kind, hardworking, well-off...”

He smiled. “I wasn’t always well-off. I grew up very, very poor. My dad left when I was young, and my mom didn’t have nearly enough to really provide for me and my brothers. I joined the Marines to have the kind of security I’d never known growing up, and I promised myself I’d never do that to my own kids. And that didn’t just mean money—my mom worked long, awful hours. She was never around, because she needed to be making money to put food on our table.”

Pauline tried to imagine that. Single mom to—brothers must mean at least three kids.

Was that what she’d be doing, if she somehow managed to get custody of Drew, Troy, and Val?

It would be different, she told herself. Drew was old enough to work, too, or to take care of his siblings while she was at work.

But still. The idea sent a little bit of a chill through her. She didn’t have an extensive family here. She knew how Stella had struggled when she was young, taking care of Eva.

She’d never been able to reconcile that real problem, the knowledge that single motherhood was incredibly tough on everyone, with the crawling need inside her to be a mom.

“So,” Carlos continued, “I couldn’t put my imaginary kids in that same situation. When I was in the Marines, I was overseas for months at a time, and there was always a risk I’d get killed. When I went into the business world, I went with the full intention of working every hour God gave me to succeed as well as I possibly could. It wouldn’t have been right to start a family, not if I’d be prioritizing something else ahead of them.”

“Plenty of men do,” Pauline said quietly.

“I’m not plenty of men.” Carlos spoke with an air of finality.

No, you aren’t, Pauline couldn’t help but think.

“So the way I see it,” he continued after a minute, “no matter what else happens, this kid needs to get away from these wolves. And there’s no way we can make that happen without knowing how he’s involved and what he’s doing for them, and it’ll be a lot harder to do anything at all without his cooperation. So we have to talk to him.”

Pauline let out her breath. Relief was filling her like warm sunlight. Not only was Carlos going to help, she could already tell that his practical, get-things-done attitude was going to be invaluable.

“His shift at Safeway is ending in just a few minutes,” she said, checking her phone. “We can meet him as he comes out.”

“Great,” Carlos said. “Let’s get going.”

***

Carlos

When Pauline had said she had a problem, Carlos had been expecting money troubles, or issues with a pushy customer, or something that was causing her difficulties.

He hadn’t expected to hear about three kids who needed a parent.

But the passion in Pauline’s voice when she’d talked about them, about how they’d been abandoned, the help that they so clearly, desperately needed—and how much Pauline wanted to provide that help—it had moved him more deeply than he knew how to admit.

He was going to help Pauline help these kids. There was no question about it—they weren’t going to be in trouble anymore, not once he was done here.

Pauline directed them to the Safeway, just a few blocks away from Oliver’s. Carlos surveyed the territory.

“This is probably going to feel like an ambush no matter what we do, since we didn’t set up a meeting beforehand. But let’s keep it low-key. Sit there, maybe, and wait?” He nodded to a bench by the side of the parking lot.

Pauline nodded. “That’s his car right there, so we’ll definitely see him.”

The car, to Carlos’ experienced eye, was likely on its last legs. A ticking bomb for someone without a lot of money, a job too far to walk to, and two little kids to tote around. This wasn’t New York, where he could’ve taken the subway.

They sat on the bench together. Carlos reached for Pauline’s hand again; he was finding it harder and harder to keep any distance between them.

That niggling suspicion that he’d had back at the house was starting to grow. And if he was right, helping Pauline with these kids was more important than ever.

“Oh, I don’t know what I’ll even say to him,” Pauline sighed, squeezing Carlos’ hand. “I’ve tried a million times to get him to accept more help, and he won’t.”

“Be honest and sincere,” Carlos advised. “Teenagers can smell it when you’re lying.”

Pauline laughed a little. “I wouldn’t lie.”

That much was already clear. Pauline was a woman of integrity.

Her small fingers clenched on his, and he looked up to see a teenaged boy coming out of the building.

He made his way over towards them, shoulders slumped, a dejected expression on his face. When it became clear that he was about to walk right past them without seeing them, eyes only on his car, Pauline stood up. “Hi, Drew.”

He stopped short, and Carlos saw a quick vulnerable look flash over his face before he covered it with sullenness. “What do you want, Pauline?”

“I just want to talk to you,” Pauline said gently. “I’m worried you’re in trouble and I want to help. That’s all.”

His eyes flickered from Pauline to Carlos. Suspicion settled in. “Who’s that?”

Carlos stood up. “Hi,” he said easily. “Carlos Gonzalez. I’m a friend of Pauline’s.”

“I’ve never seen you before,” Drew said warily.

“I’m from New York. I’m just here in town visiting some old friends of mine from the Service.”

“He’s friends with Nate, you remember him? Carlos helped Eva and her mom with that trouble they were having with Todd,” Pauline said.

Her tone was encouraging, but at the name Todd, Drew backed up a few steps. “I can’t stay,” he said. “I have to go pick up the kids.”

Carlos held up his hands. “We’re not trying to make you stay, or make you do anything,” he said. “We just wanted to let you know—if you need any help, with anything, you can call us. You’ve got Pauline’s number?”

Drew hesitated, and then nodded.

“Or talk to Eva if you need anything,” Pauline added. “She could get in touch with me if you wanted her to.”

“Eva doesn’t need any of my bullshit,” Drew muttered, and backed up a few more steps.

“Eva’s probably smart enough to help you with some of your bullshit, if you’d let her,” Pauline said sharply. It was the first time Carlos had heard her really swear, and it was unexpected, coming out of her well-bred mouth.

That might have been the intention, because Drew looked up, startled. Then he scowled. “I don’t need any help,” he said. “We’re fine.”

“I think you do need help,” Pauline said gently. “I think you’re looking for it from people who don’t care what happens to you. Who could hurt you.”

“How did you—” Drew snapped his mouth shut.

“If you want help from people who do care what happens to you, give us a call,” Carlos broke in gently. He caught Pauline’s eye and twitched his head away.

Pauline looked like she wanted to protest, but she followed his lead. “Anytime, Drew,” she said. “Day or night.”

The two of them walked away together, leaving Drew standing alone by his car. Carlos waited to see if he would call them back, but he didn’t.

Pauline was biting her lip. But she waited until they were well out of earshot to burst out with, “Why did you want to leave? It looked like we were making progress.”

Carlos was incredibly touched by the fact that she’d gone along with his implied suggestion even though she had her doubts.

“Thank you for trusting me,” he said, and Pauline blushed and glanced away.

“I thought you must have a good reason,” she said quietly. “And—well, nothing I’ve been doing has done any good, so.”

“I wanted to leave him on a positive note,” Carlos explained. “If we’d pressed until he clammed up and left, then he’d be thinking defensively, and he wouldn’t want to hear I told you so if he gave in. This way, he’s not resentful, we’ve given him something to think about, and if he contacts us it’ll feel like his own decision.”

Pauline was silent for a minute, thinking. “That’s very smart,” she said finally. “I’ve been chasing him too hard, I think. This way is more effective, I bet. Where’d you learn how to do that?”

“Business,” Carlos said frankly. “You learn a lot about managing people—sometimes people who start out feeling hostile to you. In the best business deals, everyone feels like they had a say and everyone goes away having gained something.”

“Sounds like those sorts of skills would translate really well to managing kids,” Pauline said thoughtfully. She glanced at him with a little bit of a smile.

“It’s true, businessmen are often indistinguishable from children,” Carlos agreed solemnly. “Clearly my talents are being wasted.”

Pauline laughed, pure as a bell. “I certainly would say so.”

It was a joke, but Carlos could see how it could easily become serious. Could we raise kids together?

It seemed like such an enormous thing. Like the prospect of it was too big for any one human to contain.

But people did it all the time. It was the most normal thing in the world. How could those two facts coexist? And yet, it was clear that they did.

“Can we go somewhere?” he asked suddenly. “Somewhere private.”

Pauline’s eyebrows went up, her cheeks turning pink.

“Not for—I didn’t mean—” Carlos shook his head and started laughing at myself. “Please excuse me while I put my foot in my mouth. I’m sorry.”

Pauline started to laugh, too. “It’s all right. I think—well, the fact that I went there so quickly probably shows where my mind is at.” Her blush deepened, but she kept her chin up, meeting his eyes.

Carlos took her hand. “I meant what I said last night,” he said, more seriously. “I don’t want to do anything that we’re not both totally on board with. I just want to go somewhere and talk.”

Although if she did want something more...and it looked like she might...he was ready to taste her all over, make her body thrum with pleasure, and see what she looked like when all that politeness fell away.

Pauline held his gaze, a smile still lingering on her lips. “All right,” she said. “Would you like to come over to my house for some coffee?”

“I would love to,” Carlos said with absolute sincerity.

***

Pauline

As they pulled up, Pauline realized that she hadn’t thought about the fact that she was inviting a probable-millionaire—billionaire?—to her tiny, slightly run-down house at the edge of town.

She’d just been thinking about Carlos, and his warm smile, his big laugh, his soft hands, his kind eyes.

Now, though, she was a little self-conscious. Everything was clean, at least—Pauline spent a lot of time keeping her home exactly how she liked it (or, at least, as close to how she would like it without any little feet running around). Now that her parents were gone, she sometimes had more free time than she really knew what to do with.

It was strange—when she was younger, and when her parents were sick and she was spending all her energy on taking care of them, she could remember yearning for time just to herself, to do just as she wanted. But now, when she was at home, looking around at her clean floors and her bookshelves stuffed with paperbacks, it often just felt...empty.

Then she moved further into the house, and Carlos came in behind her, and nothing felt empty anymore.

Carlos filled any room he was in. He was just so big, and he had such a presence. The whole downstairs suddenly felt warmer, brighter, happier.

He was looking around, and if Pauline had been afraid that the rich man would judge her shabby furniture, it was clear she’d had nothing to fear. He was smiling, and he said to her, “What a lovely home.”

“Thank you,” Pauline said. “I’ve lived here for fifteen years, now.” Since her divorce. Gary had wanted to keep their house, and she hadn’t wanted to live there anymore, anyway. So she’d bought this little one-story place, and had scrubbed the floors and tended the garden and mourned the future she’d thought she’d have.

“A long time.” Carlos was still looking around, examining the bookshelves, picking the picture of her parents off the mantelpiece. “I’ve lived in my apartment in New York for about that long, and it’s never looked as much like a home as this does.”

“Should have put some work into it,” Pauline murmured, and then immediately regretted it—it sounded like she was admonishing him. Of course he could treat his apartment however he wanted.

But he just laughed. “You’re right, I should have,” he agreed.

“Are you going to move somewhere, now?” she asked tentatively. “You said you wanted something new to do. Do you have any idea where that might be?”

“Well,” he said. “That’s what I wanted to talk to you about.”

“All right,” she said slowly. “Should we sit down?”

It was strange. We need to talk was the bogeyman of the romantic world. It heralded breakups, it’s not you it’s me, confessions of cheating, and all sorts of terrible consequences. She should have been filled with dread from the moment Carlos had said he wanted to go somewhere private just to talk.

But she wasn’t. She was sure, somehow, that this wouldn’t be anything bad. In fact, she was filled with a sense of—whatever the opposite of dread was. Anticipatory joy. She knew, down to her bones, that something wonderful was coming.

Which was ridiculous. Pauline had never believed in psychics or precognition or anything like that. There was no way she could know what was ahead.

But she did.

They sat down on the couch together. Carlos was close, warm, his thigh against hers. He took her hand, enveloping it in his big fingers.

“When I was here before,” he began, “helping Nate and Stella, I saw you at the restaurant. And I felt—drawn to you, somehow. I couldn’t look away. I didn’t understand it at all.”

“I felt the same,” Pauline confessed, her voice low. “I kept watching to see if you’d come back.”

Carlos winced. “I should have said something then. It might have saved me some—but I hadn’t figured it out.”

The joy-bubble that was building in her chest grew a bit larger, a bit brighter. “Figured what out?” she managed.

“I’ve never felt anything like this before,” he said, his voice warm and low. “This connection. I know how to read you. I know you. That doesn’t seem possible, after so short a time. And I think you feel the same.”

“I do,” she said quietly. “I don’t—trust people like this. I’ve been a loner for so long, because I learned that I couldn’t depend on people like I wanted to.” People turned out to be different than they’d pretended to be. People grew old and sick, and died. People drifted away. “But you—I know I can rely on you.”

“You can,” he said immediately. It was like a shock of pleasure, of comfort, right to her chest. Because she knew it was true.

“I know that you mean what you say,” she continued. “I know that you want me to be happy. I don’t know how I know it, but I do.”

“I never thought I’d find a mate,” Carlos said. At the word mate, a thrill went through Pauline’s whole body. “It just didn’t seem to be in the cards for me, with the life I’d chosen. But I guess I was wrong, because it’s you, Pauline.”

Pauline had a second of wondering what was even happening to her—she was so happy, but her heart felt almost bruised. The power of joy, when you were only expecting more pain, she thought dizzily, as her eyes overflowed.

Instantly, Carlos had her in his arms. Pauline’s breath hitched, and then she was simply crying, the way she hadn’t let herself do for so long. Tears of—of relief, coming out of some place inside her that had been hardened into stone for so long, to let her keep going. And now it had broken open, and all of the pain inside it had come flooding out.

And Carlos was there. He was like a warm, comforting wall, holding her up while she broke. “I never thought—” she gasped. “I was so sure—”

“Me too,” he said. She could hear the pain in his own voice. “I was certain that this was it. But it’s not. There’s more for us.”

Pauline shuddered. What was this that she was feeling? It was like pain, but it wasn’t, quite. But it had overwhelmed her as surely as the worst pain could.

Carlos held her through it. His hand moved slowly up and down her back, and it was like strength flowed from him into her. Gradually, she was able to breathe again, and her tears slowed down, and she felt a sense of...peace.

It was odd. Before this, she would’ve claimed to anyone who asked that she was at peace. She’d reached a peace with her parents’ death, and she’d forced herself into peace with the fact that she would never have children of her own. She had a decent job, a good home, and a nice little peaceful life.

That hadn’t been peace, though. Because the frustration, the despair, and the fury that she’d felt about the loss of her dreams had still been there. She’d just locked it away.

This, though—this was peace.

She pulled back, finally, and met Carlos’ eyes. “You’re my mate,” she said. Just to hear the words out loud.

He nodded. “I am.”

She smiled. And then the smile grew, until it felt like it was ready to leap off of her face and take on a life of its own, spreading joy throughout the world. “We’re mates!”

He was grinning back. “We are.”

And then he kissed her, and it felt like he was touching her soul.

Pauline kissed him back, wanting him to feel every ounce of joy inside her. His mouth was warm and sweet; she thought she could spend days exploring the taste of him.

His arms came around her, and she blinked a little again, because she could tell how strong he was—goodness, anyone who saw him could tell how strong he was—but he was being infinitely gentle with her.

She thought, suddenly, that she might not mind if he was a bit less gentle. Maybe.

The thought gave her courage, and she leaned in, deepening the kiss, wrapping her arms around his neck. He sighed, a low rumbling sound, low in his chest, and the kiss turned fierce. His mouth devoured her, his tongue exploring, his lips catching hers, releasing, catching. It felt like he was melting her, like her entire body was being replaced by a pulsing desire.

He slipped a hand up under her shirt. It was a button-down, and there was plenty of room for him to get up there and touch her skin, his hand rough and hot, making her shiver. “Is this okay?” he asked softly, against her mouth.

Pauline nodded helplessly. She wanted to say something about everything being okay, but he caught her mouth again before she could, kissing her deeply as his hand worked its slow way up her spine. Tingles ran out from the spot he was touching her, all the way to her fingertips, and she shivered. He found her bra strap, and slid around to the front, cupping her breast. The fabric of her bra was thin, and she could feel the heat of his hand. Her nipples were tight and sensitive, wanting to be touched.

She suddenly flashed to the memory of the halting, exploratory sex she and Gary had had early in their relationship. Honestly, the actual acts hadn’t looked much different from this, but somehow these first kisses and touches with Carlos were inflaming her with want, instead of leaving her feeling kind of awkward and self-conscious.

Carlos suddenly pulled back from her mouth, leaving her to pant for air as he leaned down and pressed a kiss to the hollow between her collarbones. The warm, damp touch thrilled her all the way down between her legs. She’d never known that was a hot spot.

He kissed down her sternum, one hand coming up to undo a button. “All right?” he murmured against her skin.

“Yes,” Pauline gasped. “Yes, yes, all right. More than all right.”

He chuckled quietly and kissed down into the warm gap that had just opened up. Then he undid another button and kissed further down. His stubble rubbed the sensitive curve of her breast, making her gasp. He kissed the spot right between her breasts...and then pulled back again.

“Are you—”

“Fine,” Pauline interrupted. “Fine, I’m great, let’s keep going!”

He started to laugh. “I was going to ask, are you okay with taking this to the bedroom?”

“Carlos,” Pauline said seriously, “the faster we get to the bedroom, the happier I will be.”

“All right, then,” he said, and the next thing she knew, he’d stood up and taken her with him.

Pauline yelped in surprise, finding herself plastered to his body, his big hands firmly under her butt. Her legs spread, her clit suddenly pressed against his belt, sending sparks of pleasure through her. She fought the urge to just rub against it.

“Which door?” he rumbled.

It took her a second to get her brain together enough to point. He moved with alacrity, and a second later, they were in her comfy, familiar bedroom.

Carlos laid her gently on the bed, and she looked up at him. He filled this room like he did every room, and it was crazy how the homey room where she’d slept alone for fifteen years suddenly seemed darker, more exciting. Filled with his scent, and now a showcase for her, laid out on the bed with her shirt gaping open for him to see.

And he was looking his fill.

Feeling suddenly bold, Pauline unbuttoned her shirt the rest of the way—then hesitated, and started on her jeans. The button, the zipper...she could see Carlos’ eyes darken with desire.

She started inching the pants down her hips—and then Carlos was there. He stripped her jeans off without the slightest difficulty, catching her underwear and her socks—no, just one sock—as he went.

And then he looked at her, a hint of wickedness in his eyes...and Pauline’s head tipped back as he went in tongue-first.

He licked a long, full line up from below her entrance to the very top of her clit, first thing. It felt like he was gathering all of the desire that had been building inside her body, centering it on that one point and dragging it up to combustion-level. Pauline made a noise she’d never heard come out of her own mouth before.

Carlos didn’t slow down. His tongue was clever, and he caught every noise, every hitch of pleasure, learning what she wanted almost before she knew she wanted it. He sucked hard at the base of her clit, his fingers teasing the outside of her entrance, while she twisted and writhed above him. Sweat was building on her forehead, and she was panting for breath. Each exhale made a little breathy noise.

The pleasure built on itself, more quickly than she’d ever experienced, even by herself. He was breathing sensation into her, filling her body with it, then tasting it on her. He hummed in satisfaction when she moaned, and the vibration of it made her moan louder.

When the whole area between her legs was a mass of pulsing sensation, he pulled back just for a second—the sudden lack of pressure was, somehow, just another added layer of sensation in itself, everything so sensitive that she could feel the very air currents against the tip of her clit—then thrust one finger inside her as he went back down, tonguing relentlessly at the base of her clit until she couldn’t take it any longer, and shrieked out loud as she came.

And he didn’t stop.

He didn’t stop even for a second, just licked a bit more gently, his finger moving inside her, and Pauline’s orgasm lingered, and lingered, the last spasm just continuing to lightly rock her body...until they weren’t the last spasms of orgasm any more, they were the ramp-up to something new.

Jesus God, she’d never felt anything like this before.

Carlos kept licking her steadily, building her up and up and up again. His finger inside her was joined by a second one—his hands were huge, and his fingers thick. Even two felt like a little stretch.

But it wasn’t enough.

Pauline clenched as he sucked at her, and reached down, grasping, trying to get hold of his shoulder. “Up here,” she demanded. “Come on, up, I need you—”

At the words I need you, Carlos immediately pulled away, coming up over her, his whole body bracketing hers. Pauline tilted her chin up, and he kissed her—God, he tasted like her, smoky and rich.

“What do you need?” he murmured.

“Inside me,” Pauline gasped. She was open and aching and she needed him.

Carlos kissed her again, deep and intense, and pulled away again—Pauline was about to protest, but she realized that he was still fully-dressed.

That was a first, she thought dizzily. A man who would give you one orgasm and have you halfway to another without taking a single item of clothing off.

Then she was distracted by the fact that he was taking every single item of clothing off. He looked just as big naked, maybe even bigger—the broadness of his shoulders was now clearly not a result of a well-tailored suit, and his muscles were well-defined, his stomach rippling. Could this all really be hers? Her mouth watered.

Before she could change her mind and tell him that really, she needed to lick him all over, he came forward again, almost looking like the tiger he was. He caught her thigh in one strong hand. Parting her legs—while Pauline cooperated, tilting her hips up eagerly—he pressed his tip against her entrance.

“This?” he asked, with a hint of a smile.

Pauline didn’t waste any time. “That,” she agreed, and pushed up herself, getting the first inch or so inside her.

Carlos’ teasing expression dissolved into hunger. His hand slid up from her thigh to support her lower back, and he thrust in hard.

Pauline made a strangled sound, her fingernails gripping at Carlos’ back as her whole body convulsed with pleasure. God, the feeling of him inside her...! It was like there was a fire at her core, and that fire was him.

He pulled back, and thrust again, and then he was moving in her, and it stroked over every nerve ending in her, it felt like. She never wanted it to end.

And gradually, as he made love to her, as she gasped and cried out and pulled him closer, closer, she felt something.

Not where they were joined, not that fiery ecstasy that kept spiraling up and up and up. No, this was a spark inside her chest. A knowledge, a reality.

Mates.

She’d known it was true, beforehand. But she hadn’t known it like this. Hadn’t felt it like gravity, like the knowledge that she was Pauline.

She was Pauline, Carlos’ mate.

She shuddered again, this time not with pleasure but with pure joy, and kissed him.

“Pauline,” he whispered when he pulled back. “God. Pauline.”

He was so close now, neither of them wanting to pull away, that they were rocking together, riding the high of pleasure as long as it would last.

It broke for her first. She crested, and climaxed. Tears leaked from her eyes as she quaked and spasmed, clenching so hard around him, feeling every inch of him inside her, bringing her pleasure, making her his.

God,” he ground out, and followed her, pulsing deep inside her, and collapsing with her still in his arms.

There followed a long, warm, happy, sweaty silence.

Pauline treasured the new feeling in her chest. How had she ever lived without it? What had she even been, before now?

Then she shifted her attention to her mate. She was struck by a burning, atavistic possessiveness. That man was hers. Every muscle, every gleam on his skin, every touch of his hands. All hers.

It felt like she’d swallowed the sun, there was so much light inside her.

And it would be for forever.

***

Carlos

Carlos held his mate in his arms, listening to her breathe, and wondered how the hell he’d never realized he was missing this.

His life, in retrospect, had been so incredibly lonely. The closest he’d come to family, as an adult, was his platoon. And he’d left them behind to go...make money.

Which didn’t mean a single thing without someone to enjoy it with.

It was terrifying. Carlos wasn’t afraid of much, but he was struck with a deep thrill of fear at the thought that he might never have come here, might have decided to just go to Bali, or pick a charity and devote his life to it, rather than lingering in Glacier Park. And then he would never have known this feeling.

This woman.

This woman who was his. This loving, generous, beautiful, smart, capable woman. Carlos wanted to find her ex-husband and give him a beating for treating her like she wasn’t worth keeping.

Although...he couldn’t imagine having come here and found out she was married. No. That was unthinkable.

Better to focus on the present. On her warm body in his arms, the sweet scent of her hair. The flush on her cheeks from their lovemaking.

She’d been so passionate. She was reserved, out in public. And now that Carlos knew that this was hiding inside her, he’d be holding that knowledge close and taking pleasure in knowing something that no one else would. God, the way she smelled when she came. It was like the scent bypassed his brain entirely and just filled his body with desire.

He couldn’t wait until he’d made love to her so many times that he knew her body inside and out. And at the same time, he wanted to draw that process out as long as possible, because he knew the discovery would be a pleasure and a joy.

***

Pauline

Pauline drifted awake from a nap, to the most luxurious feeling of warmth and light that she could remember. When had her bed gotten so comfortable?

No, she realized, it wasn’t the bed—it was the way she was pressed up against the side of the man next to her. Carlos was a quietly breathing furnace, giving off a delicious heat that warmed her to her core.

“Mmmm,” she sighed, and he stirred. When those dark eyes blinked open and focused on her, he smiled.

“Good evening,” he said.

“Good evening.” Pauline leaned in for a kiss, and got one in spades. Wow. She might just melt into the mattress and stay there forever.

Her phone buzzed.

“Hold that thought,” she sighed, and reached for it.

It said, Marsha. A thrill went through her. Was Marsha back?

But when she answered it, the voice was Drew’s. “Pauline?”

“Drew,” Pauline said. “Is your mother back?”

“No,” he said, and her hopes fell. “She left her phone behind.”

That didn’t bode well at all.

“Were you serious?” Drew was saying. “That you’d do anything to help me?”

“Of course I was,” Pauline said. “Drew, what do you need?”

“I need you to take the kids for a little while.”

Pauline caught her breath. “Drew, what are you—”

Just a little while,” he interrupted. “I promise. I just—I can’t leave them with the Bowmans for this, in case—I just can’t. Will you take them?”

“Of course I will, but Drew—”

“Thanks, I’ll be there soon.” He hung up.

Pauline stared down at her phone. “Well.”

“He’s meeting the wolf pack tonight, then,” Carlos said quietly next to her. “Or carrying out whatever it is they’ve gotten him to do.”

Pauline nodded miserably. “And I don’t know what to do! It’s not like I can kidnap him. And I won’t call the police on him—God knows what might happen.”

“If he went to them voluntarily, it might be fine,” Carlos said thoughtfully. “Unless he’s been labeled as a troublemaker somehow already.”

Pauline shook her head firmly. “No. He’s never been in trouble with the law, or even at school. Everyone understands that he’s been doing his best in the bad situation. I don’t think the sheriff would have any prejudice against him—I just don’t want her to come into a scene where he’s obviously doing something illegal, and have to take action.”

“If he goes in himself, then—especially now—then she’ll likely jump at the chance to get a line on these wolves. Unless there’s some kind of internal politics I don’t know about.”

“She doesn’t like that pack at all,” Pauline said positively. “She comes into the diner sometimes, and I heard her talking after Stella’s ex was arrested. They weren’t able to make anything really stick on the rest of his pack, and she was frustrated about it.”

Carlos nodded. “There you go. Now all we have to do is convince Drew of it.”

“It’s going to be difficult.”

“I think we’re halfway there.” Carlos took her hand. “He was wavering, and if he’s asking us to take the kids, he’s on his way to trusting us. Now all we need to do is get him to realize that he’s got better options.”

Does he?” Pauline could hear the bitterness in her voice. “I’ve never been able to do anything real.”

“Because you didn’t have the resources,” Carlos said quietly. “There’s no shame in that. But one thing I have in spades is resources.”

Pauline blinked. She hadn’t thought about that.

“And now we’re mates,” Carlos continued. “So what’s mine is yours.”

Oh.

Pauline was left with the dizzying understanding that she was suddenly capable of much, much more than she’d ever dreamed of.

She fumbled with her phone and dialed Marsha’s number. It rang and rang, and eventually informed her that the voicemail box was full.

“I have to tell him,” she said urgently. She threw off the covers and stood up. “He doesn’t need to do this at all. We can provide for him!”

She glanced back at Carlos, suddenly self-conscious. “Not to—not to make statements about what you’re going to be doing with your money.”

Carlos stood up, too—every glorious naked inch of him, and despite the seriousness of the situation, Pauline found herself momentarily distracted—and took her hands. He kissed her knuckles and said, “Pauline, from this moment forward, I’m telling you: it’s your money. I trust you one hundred percent to do what’s right with it. And taking care of three kids with no parents seems like a great place to start.”

“Well, I’m certainly not going make unilateral decisions without even talking to you,” Pauline said tartly. “It’s not my money, it’s our money, how about that.”

Even that was difficult to understand. She was going to have to sit down and process through this sometime soon. And then sit down with Carlos and some financial statements and really work out what it meant, this is our money. And probably try not to faint in the process.

“That, right there, is why I trust you with it,” Carlos said, smiling.

“Okay.” Pauline blew out her breath, then looked around. “Clothes. Drew’s going to be here soon, and I’m going to have to try to convince him—show him—”

“He might not listen,” Carlos cautioned. “I bet that kid has a lot of reasons not to believe in fairy tales. And I’m not carrying a wand and summoning a pumpkin coach. He’s going to need some time to think about it, to reach a point where he trusts that what we’re saying is true.”

“But he’s going into something dangerous now!”

Carlos was getting dressed, quick and efficient. “And we’re going to do everything we can to prevent that,” he said. “But we can’t make his decisions for him.”

“Maybe kidnapping is an option,” Pauline grumped, pulling on a sweater.

Carlos kissed her forehead as it emerged from the neckline. “That probably won’t help with the trusting part of the equation.”

It was so frustrating. A solution existed. She just needed an independent, stubborn, scared seventeen-year-old to realize it.

She took a deep breath. “Well, this is what parenting would be like, I guess.”

“Frustrating and terrifying?”

Pauline nodded. “And more rewarding than anything in the world, eventually. I hope.”

She hoped.

The doorbell rang.

“He’s here!” Pauline yelped, and galloped out to answer it. But when she opened it, she was faced with a sleepy-faced Troy, holding a yawning Val’s hand—and Drew was halfway to his car.

“Wait!” she called. “Drew, wait, you don’t have to do this, I promise we can make is so that you don’t have to—”

Drew looked back over his shoulder, then shook his head. “I said I’d be there. If I don’t show up, they’ll come find me, and they’ll hurt the kids.”

“They might hurt you,” Pauline said desperately.

“Better me than them,” he pointed out. “But they won’t. They want me to do something for them. They’re not going to hurt me before I do it, that’d just be dumb.” He turned back to his car.

“No—” But he was already getting in, and Val was starting to cry.

“Hey.” Carlos squatted down and smiled at her. “Hi.” He waved.

She paused, blinking. Then, hesitantly, waved back.

“I’m sleepy,” said Troy, his lower lip pushing out. “I didn’t want to go out.”

“We’ll get you into bed in just a sec,” Carlos said seriously, and then looked up at Pauline. “He’s right, you know. They’re not going to hurt him.”

“They’re just going to make him do something that might hurt him.” Pauline looked out at Drew, who was fighting the car’s recalcitrant starter. “What if I followed him?”

“Pauline, another car would—”

“No,” she interrupted. “As an owl.”

Carlos stilled, staring at her. “I couldn’t go with you.”

“No,” she whispered. “They’d smell you. They’d know a tiger didn’t belong. An owl? There are hundreds of owls around here. And I could get help if something happened. He wouldn’t be alone.”

You’d be alone.” Carlos was visibly working to keep calm. “And there’s no guarantee they wouldn’t hurt you.”

“They won’t know I’m there. I promise you, Carlos, I’ll stay an owl no matter what happens.”

She would, too, because there was no way she could claw a wolf shifter’s eyes out as a human woman.

But even that would only be necessary if it looked like Drew was going to get hurt. She really didn’t think it was going to be dangerous.

“But I have to go now,” she said, as Drew finally got the car started. “Carlos, I don’t want to do this if you genuinely think it’s too dangerous, or if it’ll put Drew in danger, but—”

“No, you’re right,” Carlos said. He squeezed his eyes shut and repeated, “You’re right. There’s no real danger. They won’t suspect an owl, they won’t know it’s you, and you’ll be able to learn what exactly Drew’s doing for them, and when, and where. And if he does it tonight, you can follow him. Yes. I hate it.”

Pauline leaned down and kissed him quickly as Drew pulled away, the car trundling slowly down the street, as though he was hesitating to leave them behind.

“I don’t wanna sleep here!” Troy interrupted the moment. Val was sniffling again.

“Thank you,” Pauline whispered to Carlos, and shifted.

She flapped into the air as fast as possible. She had a car to follow.

***

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