Chapter 1 of 'Tempering Steel'
“Here we go again.” Margarete sighed loudly and spoke to the empty house while she scowled out her window.
Watching Connor Manning AKA Big Bad Coyote-Shifting Sheriff pull into her parking area brought a flutter to her stomach and a flush of heat to her panties. She hated her body’s response to the jerk. Didn’t it know she despised him? That he was the bane of her existence and had been causing her enough anxiety to require medication?
Her hormones didn’t care. They craved him, his nearness, his minimal touch and the zing of energy that sprang between them anytime they brushed against each other. She burned with a horrible need for him, leaving her weak in the knees, breathless and internally swooning every time he was around. And she hated it even more that he knew the reaction she had to him.
Stupid shifters and their senses.
Now that she knew shifters were real, and her suspicions about the town of Coyote Bluff had been substantiated, Margie looked at everything with different eyes. Connor’s movements were smooth and fluid, like those of a predator. He climbed out of his truck with a grace only exotic dancers should have, all loose hipped and sensual. His six-foot frame didn’t hamper him or cause him to lumber like most large men. No, he stalked, glided from the vehicle to the steps of her porch. A slight sigh of longing escaped her lips when his flexing denim-covered leg muscles caught her eye.
Damn, the man can wear a pair of jeans. She groaned.
And every shirt he owned looked as if it’d been tailored for him. The fabric stretched perfectly across wide shoulders and bulging pecs. If he raised his arms up she’d see the bumps and valleys of his amazing abs. She clenched her thighs together to stem the heat building in her clit.
It wasn’t his body that so captivated her, though. Although she liked watching him walk and had chided herself a few times for obsessing about his ass. His eyes were what drew her. Her heart was like a freaking bat sensing a tinfoil ball, diving and dipping anytime their gazes met. His gorgeous dark eyes were surrounded by long eyelashes and deeply set in a manly, work-hardened face. The depth of his stare dug right into her soul, seeing things she dared not show anyone.
And this is where you jump off the train, look around and realize he’s an asshole.
She snorted. Maybe “asshole” was too harsh. But he wasn’t the kindly backwoods sheriff either. The man had made it his mission to make her life hell. Her body would heat with each eye popping fill of his wide, muscular shoulders, or when he’d bend just right so she had to bite her lip instead of the butt he inadvertently displayed. She felt as if she were a sex-craved man stalking a virtuous teen, the pervert on the street corner hoping for a gust of wind to lift some maiden’s skirt. And the worst part was he really had no clue what he did to her. Sure, his senses would catch her heartbeat racing, or the light change in her breathing, but to know she ached deep in her bones for a single touch? No. Or if he knew, he’d been doing a damn fine job of ignoring her.
With the scuffle at Cammie’s house and the injury to Zeke, Margie had seen more of the sheriff than she’d ever wanted. Okay, that wasn’t true either. She’d have liked to see him naked and spread out on her bedspread, but with him not giving her the time of day she was left exasperated and frustrated. When Zeke had been relocated to her home, Connor had deemed it necessary to drive her insane.
Every day for the last week he’d shown up, gruff and non-communicative, grunting one-word answers to her numerous questions and ignoring anything he didn’t want to respond to. He spread his grumpy aura all through her house one heavy-booted step at a time. And for what? He never really said anything. He’d come in, tip his hat at her like some gentlemanly cowboy, and stare at the coyote curled up in her kitchen.
Glancing over at the empty corner reminded her she needed to call Zeke and check on him. Although now that he was able to get into his human form, she didn’t need to be his doctor anymore. Strange and wondrous things had been happening for days. Months, really, if she thought back on it all. Shifters, Alphas and packs were all real, living and existing in their little town. She’d been treating some of them for over a year, guessing something was different about the animals she’d been caring for. Zeke, Ian…even Connor had been under her careful vet hands a time or two.
But the biggest revelations had all come crashing down around her shoulders seven long days before. She’d lived in relative certainty that some of the animals she’d treated hadn’t been just animals, but surmising and knowing were two completely different worlds to her. The moment Margie’s friend Cammie happened to have a wolf run into her car, the entire structure of the women’s lives had changed.
A knock at the door ripped Margie from her thoughts. She’d been doing that often—staring off into nowhere, deep in thoughts of shifters and Connor. Wrinkling her nose at the idea of him once again wandering around being a Grumpy Gus didn’t improve her mood.
A deep, fortifying breath helped to steady her nerves and cool the banked fire in her gut.
Damn hormones and traitorous body.
With a quick shake she settled her hair back from her face and steeled her nerves. The squeak of the doorknob turning sounded loud even as her heart started beating faster and blood pounded in her ears.
Couldn’t she just hate him for a minute? Long enough to open the door and make him go away? Her body laughed at her as it merrily warmed, her skin sensitizing under the outpouring of endorphins. Good grief, she was living like a pod-person in a body not her own.
“What’s up, Connor?”
Good--voice is steady.
She held on to the door frame and door, blocking his entry into her kitchen.
“Came by to check on Zeke.”
His voice stroked her nerves and a fresh rush of warmth pooled in her belly. If she could have smacked herself in the forehead, she would have. She didn’t want to want him. He’d made it blatantly clear he didn’t have any intention of dating her. But her damn body—and if she was perfectly honest, her heart—wanted Connor Manning like she wanted a hot fudge sundae. Covered in chocolate and whipped cream, maybe melting down her throat.
Was that a moan? Margie winced as the heat of a blush worked up her neck.
Great. You’re thinking about Connor and sticky sex, and now you’re blushing.
It didn’t matter how upset she became with herself—every time she ran into him it was the same thing. Her body went on notice and she ended up blushing because of some internal monologue.
Climbing back out of her head, she found piercing brown eyes watching her with an intensity she feared.
Get it together, punkin, you’re making a fool of yourself. Like she didn’t know that. Zeke. Answer the question about Zeke.
“He’s not here. I cleared him this morning after he shifted. So you can run along back to town and do whatever it is you do.” Margie flipped a hand out and flopped it around, watching the irritation slowly register on Connor’s face. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from smiling.
“Did you see him shift?” His words were tinged with something close to anger.
“No. Why? Is that against the all-powerful shifter rules? Hmm?”
Connor’s eyes narrowed minutely before he shook his head.
Margie couldn’t help but smirk at him. For once she had the upper hand, and if he was going to stand at her door and let her release some frustration on him, who was she to question it?
“No? So, why the clenched jaw, sheriff? He wasn’t under house arrest was he? I don’t remember being asked to keep him leashed while he recuperated here. What he’d do? Chew your favorite slippers? Piss on your truck tire? Bark too long at the moo—”
“Damn it, Margie. Shut up. We aren’t fucking dogs.” Mr. Cool-and-Collected shoved a hand across his short, military-length hair. “Is he coming back here tonight?”
Mysteries and sneaky behavior were two of her triggers. Puzzles, no matter how difficult, had her nose twitching and her fingers itching for a pen and paper. What had the sheriff so fired up? She’d guess he was angry, but why?
Zeke had been shot at Cammie’s house, taking a bullet for her. The shooter, Asshole Ron, had died and had been taken care of according to the Alpha’s orders. There wasn’t anything left open. Zeke had been the hero. What could possibly be going on to have Connor standing on her porch, looking pissed off and edgy?
“Is there another crazy ex-boyfriend in the woods? Is that what this is? Christ, Connor, if it’s some idiot wandering around with a gun or something, just say so.”
“No.” He looked away, and that move alone had her on edge. He never broke eye-contact first. Ever.
“All joking aside, what’s going on? You’re starting to freak me out.”
His gaze swung back immediately, and she could see the resolve gleaming from the dark depths of his eyes. “Sorry, Margie. I don’t mean to worry you. I came by for two reasons. First I was going to check on Zeke, but as you’ve said, he’s gone. I also wanted to know if you’d accompany me to Cammie and Ian’s mating ceremony on Saturday.”
Her mind froze. Mating ceremony. Go with him? Together? “Um.”
“You don’t have to, but I thought seeing I’d be driving by your house and you don’t know the way to the farm, I could pick you up.”
The small flutter of hope died a tragic, fiery death in her chest. “Right. You’re going to be driving by anyway, and I, being a woman and all, might have a tough time following directions. I see.”
Something that sounded close to “stupid moron” fell from his lips, too quiet for Margie to hear. It didn’t matter. She’d taken as much shit from the man she’d craved for over two years as she could.
“Connor Manning, you will leave my property right now, or you’ll be held responsible for my actions. I’ve had enough of your redneck, condescending, male-chauvinist bullshit to last me a lifetime. I have a fucking GPS in my car and know damn well where the farm is. I’ve been treating you people ever since I moved here. Hell, Skip has a tab account now because I spend so much time out there. And anyway, Zeke already asked me if I wanted to go with him. You don’t need to take care of lil’ ol’ me.”
She took a breath and tried to close the door, but Connor’s hand snaked out faster than she could move and stopped her from slamming the heavy wooden door shut in his face.
“God damn it. What do you mean Zeke already asked you? And you agreed? No way in hell are you going with him. Look, I’m sorry I pissed you off. I didn’t mean it that way. Christ, whenever I’m around you I sound like a country bumpkin. I really want to take you to the mating ceremony.” He pushed the door open a little, stepped close to her and lowered his head. His voice changed and softened. “Please?”
If he’d just left it there, she would’ve been able to turn him down. But when she caught a glimpse of the puppy-dog eyes and the lower lip stuck out, she couldn’t help but laugh. Her anger evaporated under the gleam of laughter in his eyes and the hint of dimples in his cheeks.
Scowling even as her lips trembled with a suppressed smile, she said, “I can’t believe you pulled that look on me. Fine. I told Zeke I was driving myself anyway. I’ll go with you, but I’m drinking and you’ll be making sure I don’t molest anyone.”
The growl that vibrated deep in the man’s chest nearly had her melting into a puddle at his feet. She was sure it would’ve been terrifying to anyone else, but it was the sexiest thing she’d heard in a long time. The reminder of his animal nature, the fact that his coyote rode so close to his skin, made her pussy throb. Bad boys always had drawn her in like a moth to a flame, and the results usually ended up the same. Burned or at least singed when the guy walked away.
“Down, puppy, I’m kidding.” The ugly glare she received after chuckling was well worth the comment. Her pussy-wetting nemesis headed to the door and she couldn’t help one more dig. “See you in a couple of days. Remember you’re my DD. I tend to get handsy when I’m drunk.”
The door slammed behind a muttering sheriff and she shivered. An image of them plastered together, swaying next to a bonfire after a few drinks, played like a soft porn flick in her mind. She’d have to be careful on Saturday or she might find herself doing things to her reluctant date that she’d only dreamed of.
Connor needed to get a grip on his responses to Margie. He slammed his truck door and snarled at the woman as she watched him from her kitchen window.
She knew every button and gloried in pushing them. But the image of her coming on to one of his packmates made his blood boil. The human was his.
No. Damn it, she wasn’t his, even if he felt the fever, the spark between them, every time he was close to her. He couldn’t, wouldn’t take the leap of faith again. Not after Lisa. He growled again and swallowed the sound immediately.
Fucking women. Nothing but problems.
The attraction to Margie was intense and terrified him. His reaction to Lisa hadn’t been as intense but it had been close. Connor rubbed his chest when the pain started. Sighing, he pushed away the memories, the betrayal and the shattered heart. He needed to go see Zeke and he needed to get away from Margie.
His cell phone was in his hand before he even made it onto the road. He tried to keep his strength contained and his anger under wraps while he punched in the mechanic’s home number.
“Yeah. Zeke here.”
“You fucker,” Connor growled.
“Connor, buddy. Keep it down. I just made it home and my head is killing me. What’s the problem?” Zeke’s voice sounded tired and a wisp of regret wound through Connor’s mind.
“You asked Margie to the mating?”
A pause hung between them. Connor maneuvered his vehicle around a tight turn and headed toward town.
“Um. Yeah. I shifted and thought I’d take her to the ceremony as thanks for taking care of me. What’s the deal, C?”
Connor sighed. “Sorry, man. I’m all twisted up over that woman. She’s like…a thorn in my side. I don’t particularly like her, but I want her. And to hear her tell me you were taking her to the ceremony…” He thumped his head against the headrest. “I sort of lost my shit. How you doing? Do you need anything?”
The sound of laughter was loud enough that Connor was forced to rip the phone away from his ear. Even from that distance he could hear Zeke’s hysteria. “Fuck, Connor, you’ve had it bad for Margie since she moved here. We all know not to touch her. Shit. You’re killing me.” The coyote continued to gasp and laugh. “I was…I was just trying to be friends with her. Dude. My ribs hurt. You’re so deep over her. Ow, fuck. Laughing hurts.”
Connor pushed the end button and let loose a vicious snarl. He didn’t need his friends rubbing it in that he’d been so blatantly obvious about his attraction to Margie. His lip curled and he tossed the phone onto the passenger seat. “Fucker.”
Margie was like the finest wine and the worst curse. The first time he’d seen her in Coyote Bluff, dressed in nothing but a pair of worn jeans and dusty T-shirt, he’d been drawn to her. Connor had hoped that with the passing of time the attraction and potential connection would melt away and leave him free. If anything it’d grown stronger, to the point where he’d found himself driving by her home daily to assure himself she was safe.
She was so different from other women he’d known. Vicious of tongue, she’d cut down anyone who she felt deserved it. Shit, even the Alpha had felt the sting of her words a few times when animals had been harmed. At the time she’d still believed them to be wild, and even then she’d cared for the wounded with the softest of touches while her words were laced with venom.
Connor respected her as well. She was strong, brave, fierce and had the heart of a lioness when it came to those she cared for. The memory of her trying to get to Cammie when Ron had been about to fire his pistol still stole the breath from his lungs. Margie would easily have sacrificed her life for that of her friend without a blink of her pretty green eyes.
Pulling into his Alpha’s driveway shook Connor from his thoughts. Once again he hadn’t come to an agreement between his head and heart about the only woman he craved. Snorting at his own thoughts, he parked his truck next to Ian’s.
“Great, the newlyweds are here. Like I want to see all that googly-eyed crap now,” he muttered.
“What’d you say?”
The quiet, feminine voice had him spinning on the gravel. Behind his tailgate stood Libby, the pack’s financial whiz. She always reminded him of a mouse. Short brown hair bobbed around a pixie face dominated by soft brown eyes. Libby was timid around everyone, but nearly became mute in large groups. Connor knew some of her background, and nothing he’d learned was good. The woman had barely survived an attack by her fiancé after running away from an abusive father. The fact she’d stopped to speak to gave him some hope she’d come out of her shell a little.
“Hey, Libs. How are you?” Connor softened his voice. He hated scaring the woman.
“I’m fine, thank you for asking. Alpha sent me out here to get you when you arrived.” She ducked her head and kept her eyes averted. “They are in the barn.”
“Thanks, hon.” He felt as if he should say something else to make her comfortable around him, but she’d lived in town for three years. Nothing ever seemed to make her relax around other shifters. And men really made her uncomfortable. If he could track down the asshole who had hurt her, he would. Show the man a little shifter justice and revenge the loss of Libby’s freedom.
The thing that struck him as ironic was the size of her cougar. She ran every month with the pack of coyotes and could easily take on every single one of their animals without a thought. A strike from her powerful paw would knock the toughest of their males on his ass, but her animal seemed to be as submissive and timid as her human side.
Libby nodded quickly at his words and turned, walking silently toward the big red barn behind the farmhouse. The building worked as the normal pack meeting location. Challenges were given and fought within the space, along with more festive gatherings. It was where Cammie and Ian’s mating ceremony would take place.
Connor loved the Alpha’s property. The house was an old plantation-style farmhouse complete with a whitewashed wraparound porch. The land was bordered by woods and backed onto a large pond. The man who led the pack had made a home out of the old place. The entire pack had gathered earlier in the year to repaint the house and barns. All had matching red siding with white trim.
The only thing the place seemed to be missing was a female’s touch. Everything about the farm screamed family until you wandered into the main building. Then you realized the only person living there was a single man. Electronics, bare walls and cases of beer were the decorations throughout the lower level. Connor hadn’t been on the upper floors, but he assumed the same type of stark decor could be found up there as well.
“Connor, hurry the fuck up. We’re waiting on you.”
Skip’s strong voice pulled Connor into a jog. He could ignore most people, but when the Alpha bellowed for someone it made good sense to get moving. Confusion sped him as he covered the rest of the yard at a quick lope.
“Yeah, what? I’m here.”
“We’ve had a report come in about a wounded animal, something big and pissed off, up on the mountain. A couple human hikers heard it off in the distance and called 911. The call got routed to me because dispatch couldn’t reach you.”
Connor’s eyes adjusted quickly to the dim light within the barn. His nose told him that Ian, Cammie, Skip, Amie and a few other pack members were already inside. After blinking a few times, he found everyone standing around a large table strewn with topographical maps.
“Fill me in. When did the call come in?” Connor cringed inside. He’d probably broken another phone when he’d thrown it into the seat after talking to Zeke. Damn, technology needs to get sturdier.
Skip stood and the men gripped hands. Connor tilted his head and gave his Alpha his neck. It wasn’t a hardship to show deference to the man. Skip was a great leader and had proved time and again that he was the strongest shifter around.
“Actually, I just hung up. It sounds like a bear or something has gotten caught in a trap up past Billy’s place on the mountain. A couple of hikers heard what they called a ‘pained animal cry’ before turning tail and heading back down to the trailhead.”
“Why didn’t you call—” Before Connor could finish his question, the sound of a familiar vehicle caught his attention. Margie. He sighed. “You did call her.”
Skip smiled and winked. “Of course. Someone needs to take a ride up and wander through the woods. If we’re looking at trappers working this close to us, we need to know. If it’s a wounded animal, we’ll need her there to help with injuries. And I didn’t think you’d let one of us go with her alone into the woods.”
Great. Even his Alpha was giving him shit. Instead of growling and flashing teeth at the man, he nodded and swallowed his irritation. Skip would accept a little disrespect, but Connor knew he’d be treading on thin ice if he showed too much ire.
His anger with the Alpha slid away and was replaced by anticipation as the indications of Margie’s arrival became clearer. She threw her little pickup truck in park before climbing out and slamming her door. He could hear her grumbling to herself, and his lips twitched with the urge to smile. She really was adorable when she was angry. Like a ruffled lion cub, all growls and tiny claws.
As a chuckle rumbled in his chest, the woman came striding around the barn door. She’d changed after he’d left her house. She was adorable in the jeans and hooded sweatshirt she called her uniform. Denim hugged her legs and ass so well that he was jealous of the material. The sweatshirt, though, was many sizes too large, hanging loosely from her shoulders. She rolled the sleeves until they were mid-forearm and left the hood down.
She looked soft and comfortable in the outfit, perfect for cuddling in front of a fire. Her skin would be all warm under her shirt. Connor could pull her into his arms and snuggle her deep into his embrace. Her hair would tickle his neck as she wiggled to be closer to him. And her scent would be heavy with arousal.
A fist slammed into Connor’s upper arm, breaking his line of thought.
“What the fuck?” He rubbed his arm and turned to find Ian silently laughing at him. “What?”
“You were growling, all sexy-like.” The other man chuckled and leaned closer to Connor. “And your eyes were starting to change. Whatever you were thinking, you need to stow it.”
“Fuck you.” Connor could feel the heat of a blush creeping up his neck. Had he lost it so much that his eyes were starting to shift around Margie?
Ian laughed. “I’m not the one you were thinking about there, man. And I’m perfectly happy with Cammie.”
Connor couldn’t help but laugh with his friend. “Shut up, ass.”