Chapter One

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"Shots, shots, shots!"

I purposefully muted my bear's sharp hearing. The Cody, Wyoming bar was loud and dirty and full to the brim of smelly, drunk humans and shifters. The speakers pulsed out classic rock music and the early spring twilight view of the Rockies through the large plate glass windows glowed pink and hazy.

I winced again as the screechy woman on the stool next to me crowed over her beer, jabbing her finger at the hockey game on TV. I loved this place, but that didn't mean I'd willingly go deaf for it. I grabbed my shot from the sticky surface in front of my stool and knocked it back, swallowing the sour-sweet taste with a grimace. Tequila. Not my favorite.

Next to me, Frank breathed alcohol and jalapeno fumes into my face. "Darcy," he slurred. "Can we get more nachos? My treat this time."

I shook my head at the thin, quivering coyote shifter. I knew he didn't have a job after he lost his last construction gig for missing too many days, and his cash hoard had to be getting thin. Coyotes had a hard time with steady work. They loved to roam and find secret places, forgetting about human responsibilities. I tried to feed Frank every time I ran into him, but I didn't get to Cody that often.

It boiled my blood that a pack shifter would be reduced to drunk charity for his next meal, and Frank's job predicament only reinforced what I knew in my heart. The pack system was broken. Men like Frank were out of work and struggling and rather than help him learn new skills, the Cody wolf alpha, Vasily, just propped him up with handouts. Frank would fall deeper and deeper into debt to the pack until Vasily owned him. Then he would do whatever Vasily ordered. It made my skin crawl.

"My treat, Frank," I said. "I'm off tomorrow and no one makes nachos like this place."

Frank nodded at me seriously. "This is true."

I flagged down the server and made an expansive gesture over our decimated nacho plate. He waved at me and turned away.

I patted Frank on the back and bent my head to his, ignoring the stench of coyote musk. "Did you hear from Blake's pack in West Yellowstone? I know they've got a lot of construction contracts booked for the spring. Or the Gardiner pack—there are new hotels getting built up there."

Frank shook his head. "Vasily said it's only a rumor. Everyone knows the states have no money for construction right now and Gardiner's struggling just as hard as Cody to get the hotel bids."

I swallowed a sharp retort. Frank was only repeating what his alpha told him.

"Okay," I said gently instead. "It was only an idea." I tried, I told myself. I can't make him listen.

Frank's watery blue eyes beamed at me before focusing on the server carrying the steaming platter of chips, beans, and salsa toward us.

I stood, stretching the kinks in my back. I'd had a rough few days at work getting things ready for the spring opening at Yellowstone Park. I worked as a ranger in Mammoth Hot Springs, at the northern entrance to the park, and though part of our campus stayed open through the winter, the spring always brought lots of clearing and cleaning jobs.

I'd driven into Cody to take a breather from my park shifter friends, though I'd never tell them that. Things had gotten intense lately and I didn't deal well with intense, especially intense shifter politics. Big changes were coming, I knew, and I wasn't sure yet if I wanted to be a part of those changes. I swallowed the nasty taste of acid that rose to my throat at the idea of ditching my friends. But I didn't sign on for a territory war, or to be part of a pack again, and they knew that.

As I rolled my neck, I watched Frank dig into the nacho plate, his shoulder blades sharply pronounced in his thin, worn shirt. I wondered when he ate last. The worry made my stomach churn even more and I swallowed harshly. Not my responsibility, I reminded myself.

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⏰ Last updated: Sep 21, 2021 ⏰

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