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    Chapter One

    “Whoa there, little lady.”

    Maria stopped, scrabbling to hang on to the tray loaded with beer bottles and glasses, to find the asshat who’d been bugging her all night standing in front of her. He was human, annoying, and in the Shifter bar for kicks.

    Maria had labeled him asshat the second he’d walked in the door, for two reasons. First, he’d strolled in with his friends in his greasy jeans and baseball cap, unshaved whiskers, and attitude. He was human; he was superior—he thought—over these Shifters and the little human Maria who was there to serve him.

    Second, Maria called him asshat, because Ellison liked that word, and she liked Ellison.

    “You bringing those to my table?” the man said, raising his voice over the rollicking country song playing on the old-fashioned jukebox. “None of that Mexican beer crap, right?”

    “Your order’s coming,” Maria said with cool dignity. “This is for them.” She jerked her chin at a cluster of Lupine Shifters in the corner, one family—brothers, sisters, father, and mother, all having a good time.

    “Don’t think so. We’re tired of waiting. Take it to our table.”

    Maria stood her ground. “Not yet.”

    “You talking back to me, bitch? Someone needs to teach you a lesson.”

    With a practiced hand, the man banged the tray upward from the bottom. Maria tried to hang on to it, but the tray became a vertical plane, and bottles and glasses slid off to land in a spectacular crash on the floor. Beer fountained over Maria’s black leggings, glass skittering past her sneakers. The asshat danced back, laughing . . .

    Right into a tall Shifter in jeans and a button-down shirt, with honey-colored hair, wolf-gray eyes, and a body that bulked above the human man’s. His large hand, tanned by Texas sun, landed on the human’s shoulder.

    The music from the jukebox ran down, and the Shifter’s slow drawl sounded over the last strains. “I think you need to apologize to the lady, son.”

    Ellison’s grip on the man’s shoulder looked loose and relaxed, but Maria saw the asshat flinch, his pale eyes widening. “Stupid clumsy bitch dropped beer all over me.”

    Ellison’s fingers tightened. “Wrong answer,” he said in his fine Texas baritone. “You go on over to the bar and pay for what was on that tray, then you and your friends get on out of here.”

    “Screw you. I ain’t paying for that. She dropped it. Take it out of her paycheck.”

    His stupid trick hadn’t angered Maria much, but his last words made her fury rise. She needed every penny of her paycheck and her tips for the goal she’d determined as soon as she’d moved back to the Austin Shiftertown six months ago. Every day she worked for it, saving everything she could, so that one day, she’d not have to put up with asshats like this, or live on the charity of the Shifters who’d rescued her.

    Another Shifter, a scary-looking Feline with a shaved head and body full of tattoos, was already coming up behind Ellison. His name was Spike, and when Maria had first seen him, when she’d arrived scared and broken from Mexico, she’d wanted to run the other way.

    Asshat didn’t notice him, and he didn’t notice the tall, black-haired, blue-eyed Shifter who ran the place coming up behind Spike. The man did see the Shifter Maria sensed behind her—Ronan, a giant of a man who could turn into a Kodiak bear. Hard to miss Ronan.

    The human man paled. Liam Morrissey, the black-haired Shifter, stepped into the man’s line of sight. Liam flashed his Irish smile that could melt paint off a building, and the asshat looked uncertain.

    Shifters did that—they charmed and terrified you at the same time. They could gaze at their prey with half-closed eyes, like animals dozing in the sun. The next moment, they’d be awake, alert, focused right on you, while your animal brain yelled at you to run, run, run . . .

    Shifters might wear Collars, but they weren’t tame, and they sure as hell weren’t safe.

    “Now then, lad.” Liam moved around the man with his lanky grace and stopped a foot in front of Maria and a little to her right.

    This forced the human man to turn slightly, moving his line of attack away from Maria. Ellison adjusted so that he was now half behind the human and half on his left side, a position from which he could grab said man if he tried to go for Maria. Spike and Ronan moved in to cover any remaining gaps in the circle.

    Maria had seen the same tactics during her three years of absolute terror living with a pack of feral Shifters. No, not living with them. They’d stolen her from her family and imprisoned her in a warehouse basement with other females.

    She’d watched those Shifters form similar circles around intruders or with dissidents within their own pack. They’d surround the victim, not threatening, not attacking. Just intimidating.

    Shifters had intimidation down to an art. The Shifters in Mexico had finished their circle of fear by killing the intruders and the dissidents. Maria had never seen the Austin Shifters kill anyone, and they wore Collars made to shock them if they grew violent, but she knew the potential for destruction was there.

    Something deep in the asshat’s drunken brain knew it too, but he tried to brazen it out. “I’m not paying for shit.”

    “Nor will you be,” Liam said smoothly. His Irish lilt was musical and deep, despite twenty and more years living in Texas. “You’ll leave this bar on the moment, and you won’t be coming back again. Not ever, I’m thinking.”

    He smiled when he said it—the smile of a lion who knows the gazelle is within paw’s reach. Didn’t hurt the lion to be nice to the gazelle.

    “You don’t own this bar, you piece of Shifter turd,” the man said. “You can’t throw me out, or my friends.”

    “It looks like your friends have already left. Fine men they are for deserting you, aren’t they?”

    The man looked around, blinking when he realized he stood alone, surrounded by Shifters. His friends, who’d been loud and obnoxious in the corner, had quietly walked out when Ronan had left his post.

    “Ellison,” Liam said, looking over the asshat’s head. “See that he gets out, will you? I’ll put you in charge of his safety. Spike, go with him.”

    Ellison’s grin flashed. It was a wolf’s grin, matching the large gray wolf Ellison became when he shifted. His was a fine-looking beast, with silver gray fur that shone in the moonlight, and a long-legged grace that went with his strong face.

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