Werewolves of Singer Valley - AJ Tipton - ebook
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For the werewolf pack living in the small town of Singer Valley, family is everything. But when one of their own turns against the pack, they’ll have to use all of their bravery to survive. Follow the magical adventures of the Huntington family as they stand up against evil… and find their true mates.Stolen by the Werewolf: Jim is an outsider trying to prove he has what it takes to be Alpha. Osric is a shameless con man who ran away from Jim over a decade ago. Can these werewolves steal a second chance at love?Enchanted by the Werewolf: Jared is a small-town werewolf trying to save his pack. Tony is a witch-for-hire searching for something more. Together, they must go up against a dangerously incompetent magic user or Jared's family will be cursed forever.Avenged by the Werewolf: Ty Collins is a private investigator hunting the man who stole his family’s most precious possession. Morgan Huntington is a small-town mechanic caught up in forces beyond his control. They must face off against a powerful foe, or say goodbye to all they hold dear.Saved by the Werewolf: Adam is a dreamer determined to save his home town. Charlie is an impulsive gym owner trying to rescue his kidnapped family. Can these two unlikely heroes save the day?Buy the Werewolves of Singer Valley series to fight for true love today!

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Werewolves of Singer Valley

A M-M Shifter Romance Collection

AJ Tipton

Copyright © AJ Tipton 2017 The right of AJ Tipton to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted by her in accordance with the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 (or other similar law, depending on your country). All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise) without the prior written permission of the author, except in cases of brief quotations embodied in reviews or articles. It may not be edited, amended, lent, resold, hired out, distributed or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s written permission. Permission can be obtained from a.j.tipton.author@gmail.com

This book is for sale to adult audiences only. It contains substantial sexually explicit scenes and graphic language which may be considered offensive by some readers.

This is a work of fiction. All characters, names, places and incidents appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, organizations, events or locales is purely coincidental.

All sexually active characters in this work are 18 years of age or older.

Cover art photos provided by BigStock.com, Morgue Files, Flickr.com, and Upsplash.com.

Contents

Stolen by the Werewolf

Enchanted by the Werewolf

Avenged by the Werewolf

Saved by the Werewolf

Meet AJ Tipton

Stolen by the Werewolf

It had been a difficult winter for the mountain town of Singer Valley. The roads were more pockmarked than a pre-teen at prom, and they had to close off one of the main bridges because too many of the supports had worn away under the blizzards' relentless assaults. But werewolves were survivors, and the Singer Valley pack even moreso.

The scent of fresh bacon, tabasco omelets, and the musky tang of a large pack of werewolves drifted through The Howl Cafe. Jim Stewart took it all in with a satisfied breath and sighed with stuffed contentment. Spring was just starting to arrive, bringing with it the first waves of repairs for the crumblingtown.

The remains of a once-towering stack of pancakes littered Jim's plate, along with a thick piece of rhubarb pie. Jim's adoptive family, the Huntingtons, had Jim pinned in the back of their booth, the "place of honor". The twins, Charlie and Morgan, boxed him in on either side, with their mom, Jodi and other brother, Jared flanking the booth’s exits.

"You are going to accept this honor, or I will bite you," Singer Valley's Alpha werewolf, Jodi Huntington, declared. In her early sixties, Jodi was a striking woman, with fine lines of expression around her eyes and mouth which emphasized her elegance. She rapped two fingers against the center of Jim's chest. "Don't give me shit about this. I know you want to be Alpha just as much as I want this foryou."

Jim shifted in his chair under her stare, regretting eating that sixth pancake, which had hardened into a heavy ball in his stomach. The woman had a way of always being right that was downright scary.

"Jodi, you're years from retirement. Is it really necessary to make everything so official-?"

Jodi laughed. "Of course it is. Sit up straight, Jimmy."

Jim smiled. It was the same thing she'd said to him the first night he arrived at the Huntington house over a decade ago, a gangly fifteen-year-old with his face still wet with tears. Jodi had taken him straight home from the vigil besides his parents' graves, and she sat with him long into the night as he’d tried to articulate the vast emptiness surrounding him. At the time, he had been so sure it would never be filled.

The largest of the Huntington brothers, Jared, slapped Jim hard on the back. "Come on, Jim. You've earned this. It's not like any of us misfits would ever want the job." Jared's smile, so similar to his mother's, was dimpled with pride.

"You're hardly a misfit," Jimsaid.

As owner of The Howl--the beating heart of Singer Valley and the only restaurant in town--Jared was as indispensable as the Alpha, and everybody knew it. The blond beast of a man who hosted nearly everyone's birthdays, wedding receptions, and bar mitzvahs drank in gossip like a sustaining force.

"Yeah, but I'm no Alpha. I love knowing everybody's business, not having to fix it," Jaredsaid.

Jodi silenced her sons with a look and sprung up to stand on the table, positioning her feet between Jim's plate and somebody’s half-finished eggs Benedict.

Jared snatched the plates out of the way muttering, "If you break it, you bought it," as his mother held up her hands for the pack’s attention.

The Howl Cafe was teeming for Saturday brunch, the fifty or so gathered pack members giddy to finally feel the sun’s warmth once more. At Jodi's clap for silence, everybody surrounding the dark, wooden tables quieted and turned their attention to their Alpha.

Jim forced himself to sit up straight in his chair. He'd known the announcement was coming for the last few months, ever since Jodi declared she didn’t want to deal with cranky contractors by herself any more. As the next in line to be Alpha, Jim would be just as responsible as Jodi for ensuring the town was safe. He just hoped that someday he might feel equal to thetask.

"Wolves of Singer Valley, I have a long-overdue announcement to make," Jodi declared to the room of upturned faces.

Jim's hands trembled with nervousness, shaking enough that he quickly hid them under the table. It wasn't that Jim didn't want the job. Jim had been training with Jodi for the last five years to succeed her, ever since he finished up his graduate degree in public administration. But, now that the moment was here, the full weight of responsibility felt heavier than he had anticipated.

Jodi beamed at everyone. "We've survived the winter with no casualties.” A smattering of applause surrounded them, along with a couple of celebratory hoots. “To help us rebuild, I have chosen a successor, one who will lead you all when I decide it's time to retire. My son, Jim Stewart." She pointed down to Jim, and the room broke out into thunderous cheers and whistles. It took all of Jim's willpower to hold back a wince. "Jim has been the best right-hand man I've ever had. He’s smart, caring, and dedicated to the safety and prosperity of our community. Three cheers forJim!"

Cheers erupted anew all around the cafe, shaking the rafters enough that Jim eyed the ceiling with unease.

Jared, Charlie, and Morgan slapped Jim on the back, shouting encouragements over the roar. Jim found himself pushed to his feet, pulled up by Jodi to stand beside his adoptive mother on the table, his head almost scraping the ceiling. From the heat on his face and chest, he guessed a furious blush coated his skin. Being in front of so many people was his least favorite part of thejob.

"Speech!" Jared cried, and Jim would have happily throttled his brother rightthen.

"Speech!" Charlie and Morgan took up the chant, clapping their hands in rhythm. The rest of the cafe joined in until the restaurant shook with stomping feet and calls.

"All right! All right!" Jim waved them to silence. They're going to bring down the place. His mind raced to come up with the right words. "Thanks, guys. It is a huge honor and privilege to serve the people who have been so good to me. Singer Valley is a magical place, andI--"

The front door of The Howl burst open, and an enormous woman stomped through holding a scrap of paper in one hand and a mattock axe large enough to splatter skulls in the other.

"I demand to see the Alpha!" the woman bellowed.

Everyone in the cafe turned as one from the fuming woman to where Jodi and Jim stood on top of the table.

Jodi hopped to the floor in one, fluid movement. "What is it, Beatrice?" Jodi demanded, striding across the cafe to pull the woman back outside, out of earshot of the fifty pairs of curiousears.

Jim scrambled after Jodi with slightly less grace, the sounds of his brothers' footsteps following close behind until the Huntington men stood behind Jodi facing Beatrice in the town square outside the restaurant.

"It bounced." Beatrice breathed heavy with fury. She pushed the scrap of paper toward Jodi, and the Alpha read it carefully before mutely handing it over to Jim. Jodi's face had lost a lot of its healthy color. The paper was a check made to Beatrice's construction company, who had been hired a few weeks ago to fix the bridge into Singer Valley.

"What are you trying to pull, huh?" Beatrice yelled. "What am I supposed to think when a check from the town's account just bounces?"

Jared and Jodi rushed to assure Beatrice it was surely a mistake, while Jim whipped out his smartphone to check the town’s bank account. The blood drained from Jim's face at the blinking zeros on his screen.

Holy crap. Jim’s stomach churned as he mentally ran through the massive list of repairs the town needed. He turned his phone so Jodi could see it, and her lips pressed into a thinline.

Jodi reached into her purse, pulled out a checkbook, scribbled down the originally-promised amount, and handed the check to Beatrice. "Here. This is from my personal account, and it won’t bounce. Keep working. I'm sure this was just an accounting error. We'll get everything sorted on our end, but you make sure that the town's bridges are safe. Okay?"

Beatrice frowned at the check, but turned on her heel and stomped away toward the bank. Jodi let out a deep breath and turned to hersons.

"Theories?" she asked.

"It was all in there yesterday," Jim said. "I remember looking before I wrote out the check for the new generator for the clinic." His pulse galloped up a notch as he thought about all the checks he'd written just that week. The town would crumble around them if they couldn’t pay for repairs.

"You know exactly who did this," Jared growled. "This has Brad written all overit."

Brad Huntington. The oldest Huntington son. Clever, charming when he wanted to be, and the most selfish, entitled ass Jim had ever known. Jim was grateful he wasn't the first to assume his estranged adopted brother was behindthis.

Jodi quickly pulled out her phone, cursing when they all heard the ring go straight to Brad's voicemail a moment later. "Damn. You're probably right." Jodi's shoulders slumped, and heavy lines deepened along her forehead. Charlie and Morgan jumped forward, wrapping her in a twins-hug sandwich. She smiled and kissed each of the twins on the foreheads, gently escaping their embraces. "I'm fine, I'm fine. I know my boy has a selfish streak, but I never thought Brad could be capable of something likethis."

"This is classic Brad," Charlie said with a snarl. "We should never have thrown him a bone and let him be town treasurer." Morgan, always the quieter of the twins, nodded in agreement.

Jim looked between the Huntington siblings, hesitant to join in. His rivalry with Brad was well-known in the family and the town. When Jim first moved in with the Huntingtons, he had just lost his family. Brad, resentful of the attention Jim received, went out of his way to be an asshole to Jim every chance he could find. Jim retaliated by replacing Brad’s packed lunch with a toothpaste sandwich, and their feud had only grown worse sincethen.

"When was the last time anyone saw Brad?" Jodi asked hersons.

"Two, three days ago?" Jared said. "He came into The Howl for pie, all pissed off about something. I’ve never seen anybody so angry with a mouthful of bourbon pecan."

Jodi ran her fingers through her short hair, tugging at the ends. “I told Brad a few days ago that Jim was going to be the next Alpha. I didn’t want him hearing it from anybodyelse.”

"We all knew Brad wanted the job, but this is insane. How the hell does he gain anything by taking the money we need for repairs?" Charlie asked. “Well...besides money, I guess.”

"Brad was never much of a planner," Morgan replied.

But Jim could see Brad's twisted logic. If Brad was never going to be Alpha, then he would at least prove to Jodi that Jim couldn't handle a crisis.

"Why don’t we just call the cops?" Morgan asked in his low voice.

Charlie jabbed him with an elbow. "The cops don’t know how to deal with a pissed-off werewolf. Besides, this is a matter that should be handled within the family." Charlie cracked his knuckles, lookinggrim.

Jodi clicked her tongue. "None of that. Brad is your brother. We will deal with this with compassion, not brutality. Rememberthat."

"We need the money back. If Brad has it, I'll go get it," Jimsaid.

Jodi looked like she was about to argue with him, then nodded. "Confirm who took the money, and get it back. If you can bring Brad home too, all the better, but our top priority is making the town whole again. I'll stay here to make sure that everything is taken care of until the money is returned."

"Yes, mom," Jim said. She smiled at that, and nodded to her othersons.

"Follow Jim's orders and help where you can. Otherwise, it’s business as usual. No one else needs to know about this." She turned on her heel and returned into the cafe where the anxious faces of the rest of the Singer Valley werewolf pack awaited her return.

Jim watched her return to her duties, his chest tight. Why is it the days that start out the best always turn out the worst? The day the mine collapse took his parents, Jim was sure he'd experienced the worse that life could throw at him, but today’s events impacted so much more than his small life. This was the security of the entiretown.

How the hell am I going to dothis?

"So, what's the plan, boss?" Charlie tried a smile, but even his jolly nature seemed to have taken a hit since they’d all seen what Brad did to the town's bank account.

Jim took a deep breath, nodding to the twins. "The account shows the entire amount was closed out as cash early this morning from the west branch office. I need you two to go check the security cameras at the bank. I know we all have our suspicions, but we need to confirm it was Brad. Text me once you know for sure who cleaned out our account." They nodded their identical blond heads and ran toward the parking lot where their cars were parked, leaving Jim with Jared.

Jared raised an eyebrow at Jim. "Is that even necessary? We know Brad tookit."

Jim nodded. "We actually don’t know. He deserves the benefit of the doubt. He's our brother."

Jared nodded, his expression thoughtful.

Jim paced along the narrow alley that ran alongside The Howl. He halfway hoped there was just a glitch in the bank’s computers or maybe the money was taken by a mysterious hacker. Anything besides trying to get Brad to be a decent person for five minutes. If Brad really did have the money, they were in trouble. Brad was a selfish jerk. He would want them to suffer.

The only way to get the money was to steal itback.

Inside the cafe, the murmur of voices had picked up again, people returning to their lives, no idea that one of the Alpha's sons had ripped away the funds necessary to make them whole. The mantle of responsibility that had been an awkward fit in the cafe felt even more cumbersome now. Jim couldn't believe that this was going to be his first assignment asheir.

Jim didn’t have the first idea of where to start. This whole situation was outside the skillset of everyone he knew. The twins ran a boxing gym and an auto-repair shop. Jared owned a cafe. And Jim was basically a glorified bureaucrat. What did any of them know about larceny?

"Jared, how am I going to steal the money back from Brad?" Jim asked.

Jared stroked his chin. "As your humble gossip guru, I really wouldn't know. What you need is someone with experience with this kind of thing, but it would have to be somebody who won't rip us off…" His voice trailed away, and Jim studied Jared's thoughtful expression, getting a little worried. That particular smile of Jared's was one Jim recognizedwell.

"Osric Tan. Remember him?" Jared's expression was entirely too sly. "Rumor has it Osric's been on the wrong side of the law since he ran away back when you two were...what? About fifteen or so? Word is, he's been working jobs downtown for the last few months. Weren't you two close back in theday...?"

Jared phrased the last like a question, but Jared obviously already knew the answer. Jared's memory for scandal was brighter than magnified rays burning up an ant. Osric and Jim's friendship, the budding romance, and then the disastrous fallout were well-known to almost everybody in the smalltown.

Jim looked away before his expression betrayed his feelings. Osric had been Jim's best friend since before they could walk. He'd lived in Osric's house as much as his own, the two of them running in and out of each other's living rooms and plundering each other's fridges with the ease and familiarity of family. And when they hit puberty, the intensity of what Jim felt when he looked at Osric's beloved face sent him sprawling. He'd fallen hard and fast, and Osric--in a moment Jim thought was their happily ever after--declared that he felt the same. The night they first kissed, Jim had felt certain it would be the best night of his entirelife.

And then the earth shook, the mine crumbled, Osric and Jim's parents were buried deep in the ground, and nightfell.

Osric disappeared the next day without saying goodbye, leaving Jim utterly alone.

Jared, enamored with gossip even then, had pushed Jim to go find his vanished love, but Jim had refused.

If Jared is matchmaking at a time like this..."We can't trust Osric." Jim almost didn't recognize the harshness in his own voice. "He's even more selfish thanBrad."

Jared shrugged, his expression too innocent. "I always thought he was a nice kid, and his rep is very gentleman thief these days. Con man, not a thug, only rips off the rich, that sort of thing. So, unless you have any better idea about where to start…" Jared's voice trailed off, and he lifted an eyebrow atJim.

Damn.

Jim walked down the strange city blocks, trying not to think about how Jodi and the rest were holding up. Had Beatrice’s crew started work on the bridge? It would need to be repaired before they could move in the heavier machinery for the road repairs. He stopped himself from checking his phone for the third time in as many minutes. Jodi and Jared had promised to keep him informed, but he hadn't realized how accustomed he'd become to being constantly surrounded by friends and family in their small town. To Jim, the crowds of people in the city were just a massive hive of loneliness.

It had taken two whole days since he arrived in the city to find Osric's scent, finally tracking it down at the only restaurant in the city that made authentic guobaorou, an amazing Chinese pork dish Osric's mother used tomake.

In the thirteen years since they'd last seen each other, Jim had worried he'd forgotten Osric's scent. But at the first whiff of that unique, spicy musk that was only Osric, Jim fell careening back to all those nights playing cops and robbers in their old tree house (even then, Osric always insisted on being the robber), stealing a bottle of whiskey from Jim's dad, and giggling up secrets under the stars. Memory after memory flooded back of those high-hormone high school days as lab partners in the back of chemistry class, Jim bending over to grab a beaker and sneaking a quick sniff at Osric's neck as he leaned pasthim.

What am I even going to say to him? Help us, Osric Tan, you're our only hope? If the adult Osric was anything like the teenage one, he would fall down laughing and throw a quip over his shoulder as he wandered off to a new adventure.

Jim followed the trail from the Chinese food restaurant to an apartment building where Jim assumed Osric was staying, but the scent around the front door was days old. Damn. Jim stretched his shoulders, looking around for inspiration. He could wait here, but if Osric was on a job, he might never return.

Unless... A hunch led Jim to the back door of the apartment building. If Osric was conning folks, he probably wouldn't be using the more heavily-surveilled frontdoor.

Jim stopped himself from laughing when he picked up a scent of the new trail--only hours old!--heading down the street. Jim shifted to his wolf form in an alley to take advantage of his wolf's enhanced nose, stuffed his clothing into the magicked pack around his waist that shrank around his smaller body, and headed down the street.

It was an effort to keep his wolf shape's friendly: tail up and tongue hanging out, trusting that anybody who spotted him would dismiss the sight of a random stray.

Meanwhile, Jim's heart hammered in his chest.

OsricTan.

Every step brought him closer. Jim had spent years thinking of what he wanted to tell his dearest friend if he ever saw him again.

Why did you leaveme?

Why didn't you trust that we would have gotten through the pain together?

Scents bombarded Jim on all sides as he trotted down the street: trash cans and animal droppings, car exhaust and the winding trails of hundreds of pedestrians who passed by the busy, metropolitan sidewalks. But in between all of these, like a glittering trail in the midst of the chaos, was Osric's scent. Its tantalizing promise of answers led Jim in a path through the maze of gridiron streets and to the steps of the city's largest art museum.

Jim circled the massive stone building twice to confirm the trail didn’t continue out one of the many exits. Osric was still in there.

Jim shifted back to his human form and pulled on his clothes, his hands shaking. Jim's confidence was fading as quickly as Osric's scent on theair.

Memories he'd thought he'd forgotten came rushing back in Technicolor. The nightmare. For years following his parents' death it came. Jim would sit in bed for hours after Jodi tucked him in, gripping the hem of his pajama bottoms, trying to fend off sleep. But he would always succumb eventually. Then he’d be in the mines, stone walls closing in on him, closer and closer, entombed in the suffocating darkness where his parents died. He'd scream out and Jodi would come running, rocking and soothing him, telling him that he was safe, that everything was going to be okay. And he'd lean into his new family's embrace, letting his fear be pushed away for anotherday.

But part of Jim always wondered...was Osric out there screaming from the same nightmares? Who heldhim?

Where are you, Osric? The question of so many nights, reaching out to someone who was no longer there.

And now an answer: Osric Tan was here. At a museum which, according to the signs on the door, was fifteen minutes from closing. Jim picked up thepace.

The trail of Osric's scent went through the main arching lobby and up into the galleries, crisscrossing itself several places. He must be spending a lot of time here. The freshest went upstairs, along a gallery of portraits of judgmental stares from the dead, and into the Middle Eastern Art section.

At this hour, there were only a few art students still lingering around the galleries, most moving towards the exits. Only one other person was moving in the same direction as Jim, deeper into the museum, a slim man with black hair, the cut professionally askew, walking with purpose and speed.

All Jim could see was the man's back, but he didn't need the slight breeze catching the man's scent to recognizehim.

"Osric!" The name escaped Jim's mouth before he could pull it backin.

The man's steps half faltered, but he didn't stop moving and didn't turn. Jim jogged to catchup.

"OsricTan!"

Osric barely glanced over when Jim leveled with him. Jim didn't know much about fashion, but Osric looked good. Jim had never put much thought into his own wardrobe of jeans and flannel, but one look at Osric made Jim reconsider putting in a little more effort. Osric's pinstripe suit fit his broad shoulders and slim waist so perfectly, it had to be bespoke. Gold cufflinks shone from the edge of his sleeves, and his shoes made authoritative clicks on the ground as he walked. Osric had always been attractive, but in these last years, he'd lost the slight roundness to his cheeks, and everything about him was honed and sharp. Gentleman thief indeed. Osric's dangerous air made Jim's mouth godry.

For a second, Jim would have sworn Osric's eyes fastened on Jim's with a desperate look. But Jim blinked, and Osric's face had returned to a neutral, blank smile.

He muttered, "Jim Stewart. You shouldn't behere."

"Osric, what's goingon?"

"Just shut up and wait." Osric made a small "stay" motion with his hand and kept walking toward a door at the back of the gallery marked "EmployeesOnly".

Osric nodded to the security guard standing at the door, his smile now pleasant and warm. "Miss Daisy, you are looking especially lovely today."

The woman returned his smile. "Why, thank you, Mr. Hutton. That's very nice of you. Are you enjoying the warm weather we've been having?"

Jim shuffled closer to the wall of paintings, trying to keep his confusion off his face. Mr. Hutton?

"Ah, yes, the weather has been lovely. The flowers out front are positively bursting into bloom." Osric's smile didn't waver as more words, each blander than the next, spilled from his lips, while he punched in a code into a panel beside the door. The keypad blinked, and Osric lay his palm onto the pad for a scan. The red light next to the keypad blinked green, and Jim heard the locks on the door slideopen.

"This should only take a moment. I'll be right out," Osricsaid.

"Of course, Mr. Hutton."

Osric disappeared into the locked room and Jim only had a moment to wonder what Osric could possibly be doing before Osric reappeared, this time carrying a slim, metal suitcase.

"You have a nice day, Miss Daisy," Osric said, nodding to the cheerful-looking woman.

"You too, Mr. Hutton. And I'm sure I'll be seeing you at the company picnic next Saturday!"

"Of course! I wouldn’t missit."

Osric's hands clenched around the handle of the suitcase, walking briskly back toward theexit.

"Hurry the fuck up, Jim," Osric muttered in a voice too low to be heard by someone without shifter hearing.

Jim half-ran to keep up with Osric's shapely back, winding through the exhibits and out an Employee's Only exit to the parking lot. Osric didn't slow until he swerved by a trash can. He pulled at the skin around his wrist and yankedhard.

"What the hell?" Jim yelped.

The skin on Osric's entire hand peeled away like dried glue, revealing a second, real skin beneath.

"Thank you, Mr. Hutton," Osric said to himself, and tossed the second-skin--which Jim could now smell was latex--into the trash. Osric grinned at Jim. "I haven't had my own fingerprints in years."

Osric pulled open the door to a black Dodge Challenger, threw the suitcase into the back seat, and said, "Get in if you don't want to get arrested."

Jim slid onto the leather seat. Osric revved the gas and peeled out of the parking lot like all the demons of hell were behindthem.

Osric Tan was a professional. He knew how to stay calm in the face of the unexpected. This job had required weeks of planning: developing his cover identity and building everyone's trust until the staff at the museum believed completely in Mr. Hutton, art historian and consultant. There had been some close calls, there always were, but Osric had maintained his cool and carriedon.

Because that was what professionalsdid.

And Osric Tan was a professional.

“WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU DOING HERE?” Osric pounded the heel of his palm against the steering wheel. “Do you have any idea how wrong that could have gone back there?” The streets were a maze of obstacles, and Osric handled the car with ease around each turn toward their swift escape from thecity.

Jim shifted uncomfortably in his leather seat. “What were you doing back there? Do you work for that museum?”

Osric glanced at Jim out of the corner of his eyes. “Yes, Jim. I work for the museum. I've developed a passion for paintings of dead, whiteguys."

Jim's eyebrows rose in the most adorable look of confusion Osric had everseen.

"No, of course I don't work for the museum. I was on ajob.”

“You were committing a crime,” Jim deadpanned.

“Like I said, a job.” Osric resisted the urge to take his annoyance out on the accelerator, but they were still too close to the newly-robbed museum to risk attracting police attention.

Jim Stewart was in his passengerseat.

It didn't seem real. Jim's scent filled the car's interior, the familiar smell of pine, pancakes, and that special musk that was quintessentially Jim. Osric kept his eyes glued to the road, trying not to stare at the impressive specimen Jim had become. Jim had been a lanky kid, always tripping over himself in a pile of limbs. Now, the guy's muscles strained at the fabric of his flannel button-down, and his thighs were prisoners inside his tight jeans planning an escape. Osric willed himself not to pictureit.

Wasn't I over this guy? I really thought I was over this guy, Osric thought to himself with a tinge of self-annoyance. He maneuvered his car into the fast lane, shifting gears with unnecessary fervor. The three-lane highway past the city was mostly abandoned at this time of day, and the setting sun cast dull halos around each vehicle as it sped onward.

“Can you pull over?" Jim asked. "We really need to talk, and I’m not interested in being an accessory to whatever felonious activity you have goingon.”

“No, I can’t just pull over. We’re fleeing the scene.” Osric pinched the bridge of his nose. His tone had come out more harshly than he'd intended. Jim sat back with an annoyedhuff.

Osric bit down a sudden smile. That noise was so familiar. It was the same frustrated snort Jim gave when their soccer team was down by a point and he was revving up to give a rousing speech to get the team's spiritsup.

Jim never gave up, always stayed positive. It had been one of the many things Osric used to love abouthim.

Osric pushed down the ugly cloud of guilt filling his chest. For a second, he was back home, being pulled out of class to be told the mine had collapsed, that there were no survivors. The roaring filled his ears, the ugly, world-shifting horror of it all, and he pushed it down, away, and turned on the radio.

I couldn'tstay.

It was for thebest.

He didn't believeit.

The transition from city to suburbs devolved around them, the larger skyscrapers giving way to malls. They drove past reminders of desolate loneliness on either side: solitary trees stood surrounded by low grasses, followed a half mile later by sad halls promising naked women behind their windowless walls. How many times had Osric driven down roads like this? They all blended together. The only difference this time was the soothing sound of Jim's breathing the next seat over. Osric relaxed. This far out, the police were unlikely to find them. Most of the danger at this point lay ahead rather than behind.

“Jodi’s named me as the next Alpha of Singer Valley,” Jimsaid.

Jim's voice after so much silence made Osric jump. “Mrs. Huntington was always a smart woman, of course she'd pick you." He glanced over at Jim, still keeping an eye on theroad.

“Not everybody thought so. Do you remember Jodi’s son, Brad?”

What does any of this have to do with me? Of course he rememberedBrad.

Osric shrugged. "There are gun runners more compassionate than thatkid."

“Brad expected to be the next Alpha, so when Jodi passed him over for me...” Jim trailed off. “Brad emptied the town’s accounts and bankrupted Singer Valley.”

Osric's fingers clenched the steering wheel. Who could be such a dick to Singer Valley? It was the most beautiful place on earth.