His happiness isn’t complete until he finds the missing lynx.
Kodiak Point is a place where shapeshifters can hide and heal. No one needs that more than Rilee. She’s not a people person. Heck, most of the time, she’s running around on four feet. She’s had it with the world and isn’t interested in the big, brash man who thinks she should smile more. If he pushes the issue, her claws will come out.
Mateo’s been banished to small-town Alaska while a certain situation settles down. The sleepy town is a change of pace from his overbearing mother, especially after he meets his perfect mate. Better woo her quick, because once his mother arrives, she’s sure to sabotage his plans.
Talk about boring. Banished to small-town, middle-of-nowhere Alaska. Mateo sighed. When his boss suggested he should lie low—because apparently someone had shot a video of a tiger entering an alley and a naked man walking out—he’d hoped to spend it on a beach. Maybe take his mother to Italy for a visit, which would earn him some pasta points. No such luck.
Instead, the big boss had said, “You’re going to Kodiak Point.”
Which, according to the internet, only possessed a paved road to civilization a few months out of the year. Once winter hit, they relied on the dangerous ice highways.
And this was to be his home for the next little bit.READ MORE
Mateo whined a little. “Send me anywhere but there. How about Afghanistan? Surely you have someone I can spy on there. Kill? Maul?” The last emerged hopeful.
Bitching didn’t fly with his boss. “Are you defying a direct order? Which, I will add, came about because you were dumb. As a rock. And not an interesting rock, but the boring kind you use in ditches because it’s not even good enough for the driveway.”
The mouthful had Mateo blinking. “Uh.” He’d been so roundly insulted there was only one comeback. “Wait until I tell my mother.” It emerged as a threat. A valid one. No one wanted to deal with her.
“I’ll handle your mother. It won’t be so bad,” his buffalo of a boss said. But don’t call him Bill. Terrence could get huffy and stamp his foot when that happened.
“And what are you going to tell the hicks in charge of this town?”
“Nothing, yet. You’re not going there in an official capacity.”
“Little confused, boss. I thought you wanted me keeping an eye on this place.”
“I do, but on the down-low. I don’t want to possibly tip anyone off about our concerns. When the time is right, I’ll talk to the alpha in charge. So relax. Try and enjoy yourself. I hear the fishing and hunting is excellent.”
“In the winter?” he said rather doubtfully.
“Worst case, you sleep most of the day and find yourself a cushiony companion to play with while you wait for spring.”
Put in those terms, it didn’t sound horrible. And he did like playing in the snow.
“Who knows, maybe you’ll love it and want to stay,” Terrence added.
“Why would I want to stay?” The exclamation burst from him.
“Maybe you’ll meet ‘the one.’ Pop out a few cubs. Live happily ever after.”
“You forgot the yelling and the shoe throwing.” He remembered what it was like at home growing up. But it was even worse when, for a few months after his father’s death, the house became deathly silent except for late in the night when he’d hear his mother cry.
“Don’t knock it until you’ve tried it,” his happily married boss said.
“No way. Not happening.”
I’d rather die than get hitched.
Unlike many, he didn’t believe in a fated mate. As if he could look at someone and know they were the one. His mother claimed to have had it with his father. A widow since Mateo was nine, she’d never brought a man home for him to meet.
She clung a little tight to her only son. She also overcompensated, hence the amount of baggage that went with Mateo to Kodiak Point. He’d made sure none of the bags was large enough for her to climb in. She’d done that once on a trip to Peru.
She’d emerged from the massive trunk that was supposed to contain field supplies and smiled. “Surprise.”
He’d refused to talk to her for a week after that stunt.
The ride into Kodiak Point proved sketchy, with winter just setting in. The ice roads, spanning over lakes, showed few signs of cracking and moisture. A crisp layer of snow covered most of the area except for the hard-packed ice they travelled over.
He wouldn’t deny it made him nervous when they went over bodies of water. If the ice happened to fail as they crossed, he’d be in for a polar swim.
But they made it to Kodiak Point, along with their cargo. The small settlement was not quite big enough for the word town, and just as rustic as expected, with a caribou trotting down the icy road, pulling a sled with a woman and child riding inside.
He’d never embarrass himself like that.
“That’s Kyle and his family. He’s practicing for the Slush Races,” his driver, Boris, said. The name suited his demeanor. The big burly man wore a perpetual scowl.
“Do I dare ask what that is?” he asked.
“Yearly event during the spring melt when shit turns to mud and slush.”
“And what’s the winner get?” he asked, leaning against the truck, which was backed into a squat building within sight of the main hamlet.
“The satisfaction of beating people.” And not said but implied: Duh.
A side-by-side, also called an ATV depending on who you chatted with, whipped in their direction, a single guy behind the wheel of the utility sport vehicle.
Boris said, “That’s the alpha.”
Greeted by the clan leader himself, who turned out to be a large man with dark hair and a matching beard. “Reid Carver. Clan Leader of Kodiak Point.” Reid held out his hand to Mateo, a very human gesture. Shifters relied on scent for greeting.
He shook it. “Nice to meet you.”
Reid gestured to the ornery driver. “I see you’ve met my second, Boris.”
“You forgot to add enforcer if your ass gets out of line,” grumbled the moose, who’d probably give him a run for his money in a bare-knuckle fight.
“I’m sure Mateo knows better than to cause any problems,” Reid stated.
“The first rule of shifter club is there is no shifter club. Yeah. I know.” Although that rule was being bent quite a bit lately. They’d had issues since some twisted fellow down south, by the name of Parker, had exposed them. While they’d managed to more or less contain the fallout and convince humans he’d lied about shifters existing, they now had dragons to contend with.
Fucking dragons, which was kind of cool since he’d never suspected they actually existed. It also helped because it meant the human world focused on the cool creatures and not their possibly furry neighbors.
Not that dragons had meant to come out. It all happened by accident because of some kind of dragon skirmish that caught the attention of the world. No amount of scrubbing could erase the many videos, but so far, people were handling it. After all, everyone loved dragons. It gave him hope that when humanity realized shapeshifters existed too, they’d accept it and not try to hunt them to extinction.
“The secret that is not so secret anymore.” Reid sighed with a shake of his head. “So now, at this point, it’s more about protecting us from outside backlash.”
“Because a bunch of people living in relative isolation isn’t suspicious at all.” Mateo rolled his eyes.
“Watch your mouth, kitty cat,” growled Boris.
“Or what? Does the truth bother you?”
Before the moose could bristle further, Reid stepped in. “He’s right.”
But Boris wasn’t convinced. “I don’t see what’s so suspicious about a thriving community.”
“Thrive too much and you’ll have outsiders trying to get in,” was Mateo’s reply. “I’ve seen it before. Shifters pushed out of their towns and homes because humans rushed in thinking they’d found the next fool’s gold.”
“So it’s bad the town is prospering?” Boris shook his head. “That’s dumb.”
“But easy to fix,” Mateo said.
“What would you suggest?” Reid began walking back to his side-by-side, obviously expecting Mateo to follow.
“Hold on a second,” Boris snapped. “Why the fuck are you asking this stranger?”
“Because this stranger is only saying aloud something I’ve been worrying about. Problem is I’m not sure how to keep us viable while not drawing attention. Maybe an outsider can see the solution I can’t. So?” Reid eyed Mateo.
He had to think fast. “Quickest and easiest, lose a shipment or two.”
Reid grimaced. “That kind of waste just hurts me.”
“Who says it has to be wasted? You could have it stolen.”
“Steal our own cargo?” Boris snorted. “Then do what with it?”
“Sell it on the black market.” Mateo almost rolled his eyes at the obviousness of it.
“We’re not crooks,” Boris huffed angrily.
“No, but you are people trying to fly under the radar. So you have a few shipments either hijacked or lost. The how doesn’t matter, nor what you do with the stuff. Just make it seem like there’s a bit of an economics issue.”
A pensive expression appeared on Reid’s face. “That’s actually not a bad idea.”
“Except for the fact we don’t know any black-market operators,” Boris pointed out.
“I do.” Mateo had contacts.
“Ain’t that a surprise,” grumbled the moose-headed man.
“I’m interested. Once you get settled in, come talk to me,” Reid said.
Things were looking up. Planning a heist would certainly pass the time, and the place wasn’t completely horrible if you could ignore the fact that winter meant only a few hours of daylight each day. This time of year, night reigned. Given he thrived in the dark, he didn’t mind it as much as expected.
The local amenities weren’t exactly stellar. A general store and a few small establishments, many run out of people’s homes, were the extent of the shopping. Yet, for its size, it still carried just about everything a guy could need, and shipping of what they didn’t have could be arranged. Pretty much every day there was someone travelling into Anchorage or other towns on that icy road either with the big semi or one of the winter-equipped vehicles.
The remote nature of Kodiak Point made it ideal for hiding. The settlement was carved out of the wilderness, and it took only one trip into the woods to experience the top-notch hunting. He had to admit it was nice to get back in touch with the wild. He’d been city living for much too long.
Less fun? Dealing with his mother. His first video call had her practically trying to crawl through the screen.
“Don’t you ‘hi’ me. Breaking my heart. Moving so far. After all I did for you.” His mother started her harangue, and he sighed. He’d had to endure a daily dose of it until he left.
“It’s only temporary.” And also not the first occasion he’d left home. Each time, she made a fuss.
“You will be nothing but skin and bones by the time you return. People will think I’m a poor mother,” she lamented as if he didn’t have a suitcase full of supplies, including real Parmesan and a grater. Because that was what he needed in the boonies, freshly grated parmesan.
“There is plenty of food here, Mamma.”
“Packaged pasta and canned tomatoes.” She sniffed with disdain.
“I won’t lie. It’s not going to be even close to as good as your food, but there is fresh fish, and the caribou steaks are apparently really good.”
“Hmph.” She complained a bit more. Then regaled him with stories of her work. Because sewing had such excitement happening on a daily basis. Still, he was thankful she had a job because that was the only time he’d gotten away from his mother growing up.
When her babbling turned to her friends’ eligible daughters, he finally managed to say goodbye and hung up.
Being a mamma’s boy wasn’t always easy, but it did mean the next mail run from town had a massive care package with not dozens but hundreds of different cookies, which he gave to Reid to distribute around town. The package also contained jars of his mother’s Bolognese sauce. Those he didn’t share.
He ate. He planned some heists. Called some people he knew to make deals. And napped. A lot.
It was perfect.
Disrupted less than a week after his arrival.
The snowmobile wasn’t one he’d seen before. A place this size, it didn’t take long to recognize people and vehicles on sight.
The machine was old, the windshield cracked. The rider was swathed in a patched snowsuit. The helmet came off and was placed on the seat, revealing a woman he’d never seen.
Someone new. How curious. Where did she come from?
She entered the general store, and he headed in that direction, only to skulk outside, peeking through the front window. Standing with her back to Mateo, she conversed with the guy behind the counter. When she wandered off to do some shopping, he entered, his great height giving him a visual advantage over the rows of shelving. He spotted the top of her head. If he wanted a clear glimpse of her face, he’d have to get closer.
He just had to see her.
He took one step. Then stopped. What was he doing?
Being weird, that’s what.
He pivoted, walked a single pace, and halted again.
Surely her sudden appearance merited investigating. He whirled again. Time to stop fucking around and confront her. It would satisfy his curiosity as to whether she was old, or hideous. Not that it mattered. If she was cute, then it seemed unlikely she’d be single.
Even if she didn’t have a significant other, he wasn’t looking to settle down no matter how good Francesca’s eggplant Parmesan was or how flaky Marisol’s pie. His mother tended to rate potentials on their cooking abilities. None of which, of course, came close to his mamma’s skills.
Mateo turned the corner and into the next aisle, only to realize the woman was gone. He frowned and glanced at the next row. How had she disappeared?
He nearly jumped a foot off the floor when a soft voice said, “Is there a reason why you’re stalking me?”
He whirled and gaped. “Fuck me, you are quiet on your feet.”
A single brow lifted. “And you’re not. Nor are you very discreet when spying.”
“I wasn’t spying.” At her pointed stare, he grinned. “Okay, maybe I was a little. What’s up with your scent?” Had she been human, this would have sounded odd, but face-to-face, he had little doubt he spoke to another shifter. The familiar feline was almost masked by the stronger scent of pine. Given her silvery coloring, a cougar, perhaps? A young one.
“I’m sorry, is bathing something you’re unaccustomed to?” she queried. “Perhaps I could introduce you to some soap.”
His grin widened at her sassy retort. “You know what I mean. Why do you smell like car air freshener?”
“Because I like it?”
“Interesting choice. So what are you when not pretending to be a tree?” Because he thought her really cute, if tiny, compared to him at least.
“What I am is none of your business. I don’t owe you an explanation.”
While he couldn’t understand why she’d keep it a secret, he let it go. “I’ve never seen you around before.”
“Because I don’t live in town.”
“Where do you live?” he asked. A study of the surrounding maps hadn’t shown any other settlements nearby.
“You don’t need to know. And I don’t appreciate being interrogated by strangers.” Her lips pinched.
“Name is Mateo Ricci.” He held out his hand.
She eyed it but didn’t shake. “You’re new,” she stated.
“Yup. I arrived about a week ago.”
“Did no one explain that some of us come here for privacy?”
“I won’t tell any of your secrets. We’re all friends here.” Because the second rule of shifter club was everyone supported shifter club.
“I don’t need friends.”
“I do. Don’t suppose you’d like to go for a beer? Maybe throw some darts?”
“Do you prefer wine? I could cook you a feast. Just don’t tell my mother.”
Her lips flattened, and then as if she couldn’t help herself, “Why can’t your mother know you cook?”
“Because then she’ll cry and claim I don’t need her anymore, and then I’ll have to eat twice as much for the next month to prove I do, and the last time I did that, I gained twenty pounds.” He couldn’t help a rueful peek at his gut. He struggled at times with his weight. Amur tigers were prone to storing fat.
“You’re a mama’s boy?” she said, almost incredulously.
“Yup. And proud of it. You close to your mother?”
“No. She’s dead. And before you ask, so is my dad. My grandparents. Everyone.”
“You’re an orphan? That sucks.”
“Wow, this is...” She shook her head. “I’ve got to go. Goodbye.”
“Already? But you haven’t even told me your name.”
“Because it’s not important.” She turned and walked away.
He found himself blurting out, “Can I see you again?”
She paused in her departure to glance at him over her shoulder. Then stated very clearly, “No.”
Then she left.
And Mateo laughed and laughed until he almost cried.
The confused boy behind the counter just had to ask, “What’s so funny?”
More like ironic. Fate bitch-slapping him for what he’d said to Terrence just a week before.
“That little lady is gonna be my wife.”
This tiger had found his mate.COLLAPSE