I thought the name the Bear Trap was meant to be ironic. I should have known better. Every decision I’d made since leaving my clan lands in Wild Ridge had turned out wrong. This one was about to turn ugly.
“I said, you lost?”
I had my hands on the copper-topped bar. The bartender stood at the other end cleaning a glass with a dingy towel. His eyes flicked over my left shoulder, then he turned his back to me like that would make any difference if shit went down how they might. Slowly, I curled my hands into fists. I felt my bear stir; my nails threatened to turn into claws as I dug them into the flesh of my palms.
The asshole’s breath tickled the hairs at the back of my neck. I could feel his wolf vibrating just below the surface of his skin. When I flicked my eyes up to the mirror behind the bar, he hovered behind me. Big dude. Jet black hair and a thick beard that hid his snarl. His eyes flashed silver and a low growl ripped from his throat.
“Just hoping to get a drink, pal. I’m not here to cause any trouble.”
When he barked out a laugh, a drop of his spit hit my neck. My vision went dark and I knew if he bothered to look in the mirror, he’d see my bear eyes, large and brown with wide, black pupils. His rancid wolf scent poured off him; it was musk and menace mixed with wet dog.
“Well, look around,” he said. “You see anyone else here that looks like you?”
I slid my fists off the bar and finally turned to face him. He was barely keeping his wolf at bay. His nose twitched and his ruddy skin shivered. The leather fabric of my own jacket creaked at the shoulder seams. Fuck it all, I couldn’t afford to shift right here. I didn’t have another change of clothes. I’d left everything behind when I lit out of Wild Ridge. It hadn’t been my choice to go.
“Like I said, I came in for a drink. Nothing else, man. It’s a free country.”
“Not for bear scum like you.”
“Last time I checked, Indiana wasn’t wolf territory. Maybe I should ask you if you’re lost. Don’t you belong in Kentucky?”
He straight up growled. My skin quivered as I struggled to contain my bear. In a one-on-one fight, he had to know I’d rip him to shreds. One swipe of my paw and I could crush his spine and tear off half his skin. A lone wolf was no threat to me, especially one that reeked of liquor as much as he did. But, where there was one wolf, there were others. I didn’t sense his pack, but they couldn’t be far. That begged the question right there. What the fuck was he doing over the border?
He snapped his teeth and let his wolf eyes flash again. “Listen, asshole, consider this your one warning. Take your shit out of here and don’t come back. We don’t serve your kind.”
“Oh, yeah?” I turned toward him and stood up. I enjoyed watching his damn silver eyes go up and up as I rose to my full height. Though his wolf hovered just below the surface, his jaw dropped for a second before he recovered. I doubt this asshole had ever been this close to a full-blooded bear shifter before, even in human form. At six foot seven, I towered over him. This shitheel would just make a nice snack if I let the bear out. When I locked eyes with him, I think he finally understood that.
“I came here for a drink,” I said. I looked over at the bartender. He held the bottle of Bud I ordered in his hand but looked to the wolf for direction. I didn’t wait for it. I leaned over, grabbed the bottle from him, and threw a ten dollar bill on the bar. “Now get the fuck out of my way. This place smells like a kennel anyway.”
He growled after me but didn’t follow when I brushed past him and headed for the exit. I chugged the beer, wiped my mouth with the back of my sleeve, and handed the empty to the waitress standing closest to the exit. I slammed my palms against the swinging doors and stepped out into the street.
The cool air hit me in the face as a north wind kicked up. I took a deep breath, scenting my way back toward Hoosier National Forest. These weren’t my lands. Far from it. But, for the last few weeks, I’d found a place to blend in and hunt. At night, I found a den or even a freeway overpass to hide under. I’d stayed away from cities and towns until tonight hoping to avoid exactly this kind of attention. So much for that plan.
I stuffed my hands into my pockets and let out a slow breath. My bear claws retracted and the dark spots clouding my vision faded. I knew my bear eyes had dissolved into just my normal browns. Looking both ways, I headed south toward Main Street. It was after ten and all of the shops had closed for the night. Walking through downtown Blackfoot, Indiana was like stepping out of a time machine. They still had old-style 1950s streetlamps painted red and an abandoned Woolworth’s on the corner. I thought I could just slip through. No one would look for me here. No one knew my name. Now every fucking werewolf in a thirty-mile radius would know I’d rolled through town.
Great. Just great. So much for blending in.
Well, if the asshole at the bar had called to his pack, they weren’t following me now. It was just me and the streetlamps. In another two weeks, these streets would be covered with a blanket of Thanksgiving snow. I was headed to the Yukon territory and had taken this foolish detour south. It seemed like a good idea at the time and a way to shake off anyone trying to tail me. Nothing to do now but go back to the forest and disappear for a few days until I could come up with another plan.
At least, that’s what I would have done, if I hadn’t turned the corner at that exact moment. But, I did. I don’t remember anything special coursing through me. I felt no prickling of my spine or pounding of my heart. I just made a left at Third Street, intending to take the walking trail back to the park. From there I would have followed the river back to the woods and found a place to bed down for the night.
I took about three long strides before I heard her voice. It pierced through me, short-circuiting my brain. My vision went instantly dark and I shuddered from the force of the bear inside me. I didn’t let him out though. I just ran toward the sound.
I rounded one more corner and saw her. She hadn’t screamed, though I swore that’s what it felt like. I pressed my back against the brick wall of a barber shop and stuck to the shadows.
She was just talking on her phone. She wore a camel-colored trench coat and black leather riding boots over tight jeans. I don’t know why I knew it, but she was pretending. There was no one else on the other end of that phone. Maybe it was because her laughter seemed too forced. She gestured too wildly with her hands; it didn’t seem natural. She clutched her purse close to her chest with her free hand as a large shadow fell over her back.
There were three of them. Their scent flooded my brain and nearly drove me to my knees. I took deep, slow breaths to quiet the bear. If I shifted now, it might get both of us killed. The three men followed her, staying about a half a block behind her. They walked shoulder to shoulder with their hands stuffed in the pockets of their wool coats.
Dammit, they were huge. Almost as big as I was. The one in the middle was the leader. He gave a signal with two fingers pointing down, telling the others to hang back and wait for his move. When one of them turned, his eyes glinted and his nose twitched as his own bear struggled to get out. The leader gave off a powerful scent unlike any I’d ever smelled. Bear, definitely. All of them were. But this guy had a shock of white hair. His eyes flashed red when he turned to his companions and I saw him in profile.
Shit. I ran a hand across my jaw. Who the fuck were these guys? As much as wolf shifters didn’t belong in some backwater town in Indiana, neither did any of the bear clans I knew. My blood ran cold as the three of them reached into their pockets in unison and pulled out ski masks. They pulled them over their faces and closed the distance between them and the girl.
“You know it’s not nice to follow so close behind a lady.” Her voice was smoke and steel as she let her hand fall to the side and turned to face them. What the fuck was she thinking? Her eyes widened when she saw the ski masks and her step faltered. They just about had her cornered. She had an alley to her left, the street to her right, and nothing in front of her but the end of the sidewalk and a footbridge crossing the river.
The guy in the middle, the polar bear, let out a low, wicked laugh. I expected them to taunt her, to tell her what they wanted. They didn’t though.
She planted her feet into a wide stance and slipped her hand into one of her pockets. Keeping my back to the brick wall, I edged forward, staying in the shadows. I was downwind of them. With any luck, that would give me a few extra seconds before they scented me. As I took a deep breath, I knew the other thing working in my favor was her. Her scent filled me, bleeding through every cell in my body. My knees nearly buckled from the intoxicating power of it. No wonder they were drawn to her. There was something different about her. She didn’t smell like any human woman I’d ever been close to.
She took a tentative step back, putting herself directly under the flood of the streetlamp. She was stunning. Her coppery hair spilled over her shoulders, matching the fire in her green eyes. Color rose in her high cheekbones as she jutted her chin up, defiant, trying to act unafraid. She was scared to death though. I felt it pouring off her. I could almost feel her fluttering heartbeat.
But, she slowly took her hand out of her pocket and pointed a small black pistol straight at Polar Bear’s chest.
Shit. Oh, God.
On any other night, confronted by any other men, she would have been tough and smart enough. It made me strangely proud of her. She clutched her gun two-handed and cocked it.
There was no time. These bears squared their shoulders, and the polar bear in the middle just laughed. They weren’t after her money; they were after her. They recognized she was different, just as I had. She couldn’t know how dangerous they were. She thought these were normal evil men. But they were something much, much worse.
I moved. In the back of my mind I knew this would probably be the last thing I ever did. There were three of them. I could take on a lone wolf and destroy him. I could probably even take on one bear. Maybe two. But three and this was a kamikaze mission. Maybe though, just maybe…it would give her enough time to run. That would be worth it.
I didn’t shift. I think if I had it would have ended quicker. Because they would have shifted almost instantly and we’d tear each other apart. I stayed human, save for the claws that erupted from my hands. I slashed across the back of the polar bear’s neck. He whirled on me, signaling to the other two to step back.
The girl screamed. She shot into the air, and I think that’s what saved my life. For as much as these assholes wanted to put their hands on her, they didn’t seem to want to draw a crowd.
The polar bear and I tumbled end over end. His bear eyes flashed, and so did mine. He saw me for what I was and reared back. His companions stood fists at the ready at the end of the alley as we fell back into the shadows. I landed hard on my back behind the dumpster. The polar bear lunged for me. I got my feet up just in time to shove him back against the wall. I heard a bone crack, but he quickly recovered and came at me again. He fisted the front of my leather jacket and pressed his forehead against mine. Snarling, he gave me his warning.
“I’ll kill you for this.” He had a thick, clipped accent. Russian, probably.
I spit in his face and landed a glancing blow across his temple.
“You’re a dead man,” he said, bouncing back up to his knees. He got close enough to sniff me. His eyes widened and his face broke into a hollow smile. Well, shit. His nose told him the most vulnerable thing about me. Lone bears far away from clan lands don’t usually last very long.
I looked over his shoulders. The other two bears had already started to run. I heard the quick bleep of a police siren, drawn by the sound of the girl’s gun. She must have run too. Good girl.
“You’re a long way from home, I think,” he sneered.
“So are you,” I said then turned my head to spit blood.
He laughed and rose to his feet. “How long do you think you’re going to last out here by yourself? A bear like you, with no clan, no safe place to hunt. And the first chance you get you pick a fight you can’t win.”
“Better than picking on girls, asshole.”
He sniffed the air and closed his eyes. He had the scent of her still; so did I. My heart raced behind my ribcage. God, I prayed his companions hadn’t taken off after her.
“Think long and hard about your next move. You got lucky today. Next time, you won’t be.”
Another bleep from a police cruiser’s siren cut the air. The man cocked his head to the side and gave me one last wicked smile. I was pretty sure he’d broken my damn ribs as I clutched my hand to my side and grabbed the edge of the dumpster to pull myself up. Give it ten minutes, and the bones would reknit themselves.
“Fuck off,” I said. “You and your boys just keep on moving.”
He laughed and lunged at me one last time. Before I could dodge, he swiped his claws, tearing through my jacket and about an inch of flesh. Three red stripes opened up on my chest. My breath went out of me in a whoosh and I staggered forward. The polar bear turned and ran out of the alley and into the shadows as I crumpled back to the ground. Fuck, broken ribs were one thing. Deep claw wounds were something else. I’d leave a scent trail a mile wide, plus bear-inflicted wounds took longer to heal.
The police sirens moved far away. I held my jacket together as cold air stabbed through me. I hauled myself back to my feet and took a step toward the streetlamp.
“Oh my God, are you all right?”
The girl stood at the end of the corner. My vision blurred as blood poured out of the fresh gash in my chest. I meant to tell her to turn around and run. Before I could, she came toward me and slid her arm around me, steadying me. When she saw the wound, she screamed.