Simon Conley was born a werewolf, making him one of a tiny minority in a sea of vanilla humans. The safety of the pack lies in absolute secrecy, sometimes violently enforced. In a species where pack-members are born and not made, being gay is considered a perversion. So when Simon falls in love with a human man, heâ€™s twice damned. Even his Alpha's grudging tolerance may not be enough to shield him from the hatred of the other top wolves. Then his lover Paul stumbles across pack secrets Simon was sworn to keep, and if the pack finds out, they may both end up dead.
Stepping out of the clinic door took Paul's breath away, in both senses of the word. It was winter in Minnesota, the night was clearing to reveal a glowing crescent moon, and it was cold. The snap of frigid air froze his breath in his mouth, even as the sparkle of fresh snow and the graceful curves of new drifts caught at his soul. There were five inches of new white powder since the parking lot had been plowed. The wind had whipped it into a fantasy of hills, interspersed with glistening black ice where the pavement was exposed. It looked like an Ansel Adams photograph.
Paul Hunter knew he should stop and appreciate the beauty around him. This was why he was still in Minnesota, after all. The impulse to leave his childhood home far behind had never been quite strong enough to make him actually go. He loved this place; the cold, clean whiteness made him believe in fresh starts. And a new snowfall like this could usually lift him into high spirits. Except he was so tired his eyes were nearly crossing. And the beauty of black ice under white powder meant an hour to drive home instead of fifteen minutes. And he was so damned tired.
He considered just staying at his veterinary clinic, sleeping on the floor. But he'd done that last night. Another day without a shower or a shave and his clients were likely to notice. He really needed to hire some help, another veterinarian or an office manager, someone to take a little of the load. But when he tried to work the budget to make it possible, the money just wasn't there. As he pulled his collar up around his chin and stepped carefully onto the glazed pavement, he considered his options again. Maybe he could get someone really part time, a woman with kids who only wanted a few hours a week.
He snorted as he unlocked the door to his old Explorer. While he was fantasizing, how about a beautiful woman who was brilliant with finances and just happened not to be dating anyone. And who had a thing for geeky veterinarians. Not happening.
At least his truck started. A blast of icy air from the vents blew across his neck, and he quickly switched the controls to defrost until the heat could come on. He reached into the backseat for the brush, hauled himself out, and worked his way around the vehicle clearing snow off the windows. There was a layer of ice on the rear he didn't bother to scrape. That's what defrosters were for.
Finally he got back inside, where the first wisps of tepid air from the vents were raising the temperature above cold as hell. He backed out carefully, feeling for the level of traction on the road. Slippery was the answer to that one. He eased the brakes, shifted and crept forward. Visibility wasn't bad anymore, although the snow was blowing across the road from the fields. At least it was late enough that there were almost no other idiots on the road to contend with.
He concentrated on staying awake and navigating lanes frequently concealed by mounds of snow. Moonlight and headlights cast conflicting shadows over the rutted slush. He mistook the dark shape on the road ahead of him for another drift until it moved and his headlights glinted off a flash of green eyes. Paul stomped on the brakes, heard the anti-lock chatter and felt the beginnings of a slide and spin. He steered into it, cursing. The truck turned, turned, slipped sideways, tilted slightly, and stopped. It was facing backwards and canted off the road, but the tires had caught the rough gravel verge just in time, and he wasn't in the ditch.
As he swung himself out of the door, the cold hit him again. The wind drove fine snow from the open fields down his neck, and the swirling flakes stung his eyes. The dark shape on the road was still there.
Paul approached cautiously. He couldn't make out what kind of animal it was. The right size for a deer, perhaps, but not the right eye color. Too big for a coyote, or a dog. Too small for a horse. The creature raised its head again and the red rear lights of the truck outlined a long heavy muzzle, pointed ears, and gleaming eyes. For an instant, Paul's heart pounded, and he thought wolf, but then common sense kicked in. This dog was bigger than any wolf, with a broader head. Anyway, while northern Minnesota had free-roaming wolves, this was the Twin Cities. There were no wolves in the Minneapolis suburbs, even this far out. It was just a big dog.
Paul began murmuring soothingly as he approached. "Hey, boy. It's okay. I'm not going to hurt you. What happened, baby? Did someone hit you and just drive off?" As he spoke, he pulled the scarf off his neck and twisted it into a rope. Just because this was a dog and not a wolf didn't mean it wouldn't bite if it was injured.
When he got close he dropped to a crouch, looking at the dog. It was hard to see much. The snow had started drifting onto the dog's hindquarters, which meant it had been lying out in the cold for a while. It was either badly injured, or so hypothermic it couldn't move. The dense coat suggested that it was a breed which should be able to withstand cold. The splayed position on the road screamed injury.
Murmuring, keeping his hands slow, Paul reached out with the scarf toward that broad head. The dog just looked at him, unmoving. He waited for a snarl, a lift of lip or snap that would send him back to the clinic for the rabies noose pole. He wanted to help, but not at the cost of losing an arm. The dog's eyes followed him as he shifted position, but he read no threat in it. Slowly, slowly, he lifted the scarf rope up, and in one practiced movement, snapped it tight around the muzzle, then back behind the ears and fisted it hard. And felt foolish, because the big dog didn't move a muscle in response.
After a pause, Paul eased his fist enough to knot the improvised muzzle into place. The dog might be tolerant now, but he was going to have to lift it, which was going to hurt. He rubbed his gloved hand across the head and ears. "Good boy. You're a good boy, aren't you?" Holding the knotted muzzle in one hand, he slid the other hand down the dog's neck and back, waiting for a pain response. As he brushed the snow away from the dog's flanks, he began finding it pink and then red, soaked with blood. The dog's fur was frozen to the road, but it neither moved nor whined, even when Paul's exploring hand found a gaping gash over the ribs.
"Jesus, baby," Paul breathed, keeping his voice calm. The dog would respond to the tone, not the words. "You're just cut to hell, aren't you? We need to get you back to the clinic now. Just hold tight, okay."
He straightened up and took two steps toward his truck. For the first time, the big dog whimpered. When Paul glanced back it was scrabbling its front legs, trying to get up. "No, boy," Paul said firmly. He went back and pressed over the dog's shoulders to hold it in place. "Down. Stay." Apparently someone had trained it well, because it subsided immediately and held still. Its head twisted around to look at him, that odd blue-green color reflecting from its eyes. "I'm going to bring the truck closer," Paul soothed, as if the creature could understand him. "I can't carry you that far. You're a big boy. Just stay, and I'll get you. Stay. Stay."
Slowly he walked backwards toward the truck, keeping his eyes locked on the dog, repeating the stay command. It seemed to hear him, and held still obediently. Paul breathed a prayer that it would stay put when he backed up toward it. The last thing he needed was to run it over.
The truck was askew on the shoulder but the engine was still running when he climbed in. The prickling rush of heat made him realize how chilled he was. Slowly, with a minimum of spinning tires, he backed up onto the road and toward the dog, peering intently at that dim shape in the rearview. Finally he was as close as he dared to get, and he put on the brake and the flashers, jumped out, and opened the back.
The dog raised its head as he approached. He noted that it was working to breathe, its neck strained and its mouth open the fraction that the scarf muzzle would allow. Paul rubbed its ears again. "Good boy. Sweet boy. I'm going to try to pick you up, okay. Try not to bite my face off."
He slid his arms under the dog's body, scrabbling with his fingers against the ice. The dog was frozen hard to the freaking pavement, and it was so big! He strained to move it, and the dog began pushing too, digging in with its hind legs. There was a lurch forward as it came free, and the dog whimpered, short and sharp.
"It's okay, baby. I know it hurts, but you're loose now. Just a little more." Soothing, murmuring, slipping on the ice, he dragged it toward the truck. He couldn't carry it that far. It had to weigh two hundred pounds. The dog pushed with its feet as if to help. It was breathing hard, puffs of air escaping from its lips around the muzzle that kept it from panting. But otherwise it was silent. The motion had to hurt, but it neither whined nor growled.
At the truck, Paul wrapped his arms around the wide chest and heaved. He didn't worry about where his face was in relation to those big teeth anymore. He just put everything he had into the lift. The dog's front paws scraped against the carpeted floor. Paul slid toward the furry rump and hauled upward. The big body lurched up and in, with Paul falling against it, his mouth full of hair.
"Good boy, good boy, brave boy." He pushed and shoved the dog forward enough to close the door, careful of the long plumed tail. And then he jumped back in the driver's seat, heading for the clinic as fast as was safe on the icy road.