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Aug 27

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The Bulldog Breed

Summary: Sequel to “Barking Mad,” featuring the English canidae pack that shows up in Dogs of War. In the aftermath of the pack’s sexually adventurous night together, the individuals are left trying to make sense of the encounter. This story takes place prior to the events in Underdogs: Beware of Wolf. (includes m/m, m/m/f, f/f, and m/f pairings as well as sexual situations in wolf form)

 Chapter 1

In the days since the pack’s impromptu orgy, things had been less than ideal between everyone involved. Owen wasn’t answering his phone despite multiple attempts to get in touch with him. Ant said the poor guy probably felt emasculated by discovering his girlfriend was cheating on him with another woman and suggested they give him a few days for his emotions to settle down. Meanwhile, Paige and Milo were bunking together since Paige had effectively moved in with Owen after they became engaged and she had nowhere else to go.

Things had stabilized between Eileen and Ryan as well, their breakup going much smoother than anyone would have expected. Tensions evaporated, and soon they were able to share a booth with the others and have breakfast without any awkward silences. Ryan was still obviously smitten with his professor, but he’d accepted the fact they weren’t going to end up together. Eileen, for her part, realized she could have been more tactful with her refusal and dismissal, so she tried to make retroactive amends by being especially kind to him. The result was a relaxed feeling from both sides.

The pack had just come back from a run on a rainy morning, most of them looking like half-drowned rats when they trudged into the mud room to transform. Milo emerged first having spent the least amount of time drying herself off and dressing. She slid into the booth wearing a tight V-neck shirt and a pair of baggy cargo shorts, immediately grabbing the ketchup and pouring a healthy amount onto her eggs.

“You got a call while you were out,” Ant said.

Milo blinked in an over-dramatic way, leaning back as the bar’s owner dropped a piece of paper next to her plate. “Ben Moss? Who the hell is Ben Moss?”

Ant held his hands out helplessly. “Everything I know, I put in the message. Sounded like he thought you should know.”

Milo shrugged and put the note into her pocket. The others began filtering out of the changing room in various states of undress, bringing to mind a hostel that offered free breakfast if you made it downstairs by a certain time. Owen was conspicuously absent, since no one could get in touch with him about their arranged meeting times. According to Ant and Tarun, Owen hadn’t even been in the pub since That Night. Mia and Hannah came out together, of course, with Mia fully-dressed in a red blouse and charcoal-gray slacks. Hannah was less composed, wearing a tank top that hung open to reveal her bra, as well as most of the tattoos that had spread from her arms and into the center of her back.

“Got to go to work early?” Ryan asked.

Mia nodded. “Yeah. I want to go over the witness statements again. Exhausting, but I know the answer is there. I just gotta sniff it out.”

Hannah put an arm around her partner and kissed her neck. “I have faith in you. Putting the bad guys away. My hero.”

Mia smiled and snuggled against her partner. Milo was still surprised to see how well they fit together. Mia was by the book, never with a hair out of place, rarely with a smile (except, of course, when Hannah was nearby). She was always well-dressed and perfectly coiffed, her idea of casual dress was to leave the tie at home and undo the top button of her blouse. She was a homicide detective and she tended to take herself extremely seriously. Or she did, until the day she walked into a tattoo parlor with Owen. He wanted a wolf paw print just under his navel and he found the shop through canidae word of mouth. Hannah Milsap was the proprietor and showed him a few designs before she started work. Mia lingered by the door and watched the heavily-tatted artist do her work. Eventually she had looked up and raised an eyebrow.

“How about you, Easter Island?”

Mia frowned. “Me?”

“Yeah. You got the strong jaw and… never mind. You gonna get ink?”

Owen had laughed and said, “Detective Cohen, getting a tattoo. That’ll be the day.”

“Shame,” Hannah had said. Her eyes lingered on Mia for a long moment before she went back to work on Owen. The position of his tattoo meant that her wrist was resting just over the bulge of his jeans, which he’d undone and pushed down slightly to give her more room to work. About halfway through her work the constant pressure of her forearm and the buzzing of the needle had caused a physical reaction.

“Sorry about that.”

“Happens all the time,” Hannah said. “Don’t even notice it anymore.”

Owen, acting the lothario since he had yet to get together with Paige, said, “Yeah, well, it’s kind of hard to miss.”

Hannah cracked a sardonic smile. “Trust me, Mr. Kiernan, doesn’t matter how big it is, it would be like a dog chasing a car. Even if I caught it, I wouldn’t have the slightest idea what to do with it.” Mia chuckled at that, and Hannah’s head snapped up to look at her. “Hey, I got a smile! Not so Easter Island anymore, eh? Look at that. Lovely.”

When they left, Hannah suggested they take a card if either of them needed another tattoo. Mia took it then, after a moment, turned it over and wrote her number on the back. She handed the card back to Hannah and said, “Better keep this. I already know how to find you so…”

Hannah took the card and flicked it with her finger, smiling as Mia turned and followed Owen out of the shop. He immediately put his arm around her neck and leaned against her.

“Little Mia gonna get laid?”

“Sod off,” she said, twisting away from him. “She’s interesting. Not my usual type. Might be good for a laugh.”

The laugh turned into dinner, which became a series of dates that culminated with Mia letting her hair down in Hannah’s slovenly loft apartment and leaving her clothes wherever they happened to fall. She learned to relax about things like her shoes lining up perfectly next to the bedroom door or whether or not her shirts were ironed before she hung them up in the closet. Hannah made an effort as well, cleaning up her apartment whenever she knew Mia would be coming by.

Somehow they not only made it work, they thrived. They complimented each other’s strengths and weaknesses just by being themselves. Mia brought order to Hannah’s chaos, and Hannah relaxed the rigidity of Mia’s strict way of life. She still dressed the part and she acted as severely as ever when the time called for her to be serious, but she was also able to let her hair down and just relax.

Milo finished her breakfast and wiped her mouth on a napkin. “Thanks for the brekky, Ant. Gotta get going myself.”

Mia said, “I’ll walk you out.” She kissed Hannah goodbye and freed herself from the booth. They walked outside into the drizzle and Mia flipped up the hood of her anorak, the faux-fur ringing her face as she looked into the sky to see if the clouds were clearing out.

“Everything all right?”

Mia nodded. “Yeah. But listen… I want your opinion on something.” They walked to where Milo had parked her bike and Mia nudged her. “Ant will let you leave that here. I’ll give you a ride.”

“Thanks.” They got into her car and Milo ran her fingers through her hair. It had almost gotten dry during breakfast only to be drenched again by the walk to the parking lot. “So, you want my opinion on… what, your case? Whenever it happened, I got an alibi.”

Mia chuckled without smiling and looked down at her hands. “Do you think Hannah would cheat on me?”

Milo was thrown by the question. “What, I’m suddenly the pack expert in infidelity? Shouldn’t it be Paige, since she was the one–”

“No, I just wanted an outside opinion. And you seemed like the only one of the lot who would give me a straight answer even if it hurt. So what do you think?”

Milo rubbed her hands on her thighs. “No. I slept with Paige knowing she had a boyfriend, but I could tell that wasn’t a dealbreaker. Sometimes you can just tell. It’s in a woman’s demeanor or the way she expresses herself to you. I’d never have gone after you or Hannah because I can tell that’s a brick wall. I look at you two… and I see…” She rubbed her lips together and watched the rain spattering the windshield. “I see what I want when I look at you. You two are meant to be together, and you’re smart enough to realize it. Hannah wouldn’t cheat on you any more than you’d cheat on her.”

Mia sighed. “I made some silly joke the other night about how we were an old married couple. She got real quiet. Later on she said that she didn’t plan on getting hitched and if I had a problem with that then we needed to talk.”

“So? Marriage doesn’t have to be the endgame.”

“But then what’s the point?”

“The point is to find someone you’re crazy about and spend the rest of your lives together. You see yourself ever leaving Hannah?”

Mia thought and then shook her head. “Never saw myself with her in the first place. All those tatts.” She laughed and rubbed her face. “I used to reject women at the pub because they had a Chinese character on their arm or a tramp stamp. Now I’m talking about spending my life with a woman who has two sleeves of the damn things up and down her arms. How’d I get here?”

“You fell in love. Happens to better people than us.” She leaned across the console and kissed Mia’s cheek. “Don’t worry about marriage. Just make sure that every day you make yourself worthy of her. And make sure she’s doing the same for you.”

“Thanks, Milo.”

She nodded. “Any time. Now, you gonna take me home like you promised, or do I have to get out.”

Mia grinned and started the engine, producing a burst of warm air from the dashboard vents. “I’ll even stop somewhere to buy you a cup of coffee for your help. And your silence.”

“My silence is worth a lot more than a cup of coffee. I’ll let you know how much you owe me when the time comes. The day may come when I ask you for a favor.”

“Just make sure it’s not illegal. Nothing more embarrassing than having to arrest myself.” She pulled away from the curb and made a U-turn so she could take Milo home. “So how about you and Paige? Things progressing on that score?”

That was a question Milo had been hoping no one would ask. “We’re still going.”

“Aha.” Mia smiled. “You lost the thrill of sneaking around and now–”

“Nah, it’s not that.” She was afraid people would jump to that conclusion. “It wasn’t the thrill of the chase. It was that now we’re together, she and Owen are on hiatus, so the pressure is on us to make it work. Like if we don’t end up married or if we even have a stupid fight, then she ended the engagement for nothing. So we end up having a lot of stupid fights even when we’re trying to be on our best behavior.”

“The pressure to make it worth the effort you took to get together. Yeah, I’ve known that pain. Look, don’t worry about what the pack thinks. Just focus on the things that made you want her in the first place. It’ll all work out.”

Milo nodded slowly and looked out the window. When they pulled up outside her apartment, Mia said, “Look, either it works out with Paige or it doesn’t. The relationship doesn’t change just because of how it started. Don’t make yourselves miserable just because you feel like you owe it to Owen. If you want to end things, do it early when there’s still a chance she and Owen might work things out.”

“Right. Thanks, Mia.”

“Hey, I owed you one.”

They embraced awkwardly over the console. “I got an umbrella in the backseat if you want to borrow it.”

“Nah, I’ll just change when I get upstairs anyway. Have fun at work. Catch a murderer.”

Mia saluted, and Milo ducked out into the rain. Mia watched her go and then took out her cell phone. She dialed Hannah’s number and closed her eyes as it rang.

“I’m about to leave right now.”

Mia smiled. “I’m not calling to check up on you.” Even though she was about to be late opening her shop, she confirmed with a quick glance at the clock. “I just wanted to say… I…” She wet her lips. “I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone. And if I ever have to fight to keep you, I will. I’m yours even without a ring, Hannah. I don’t need to get married as long as I know you know that I am crazy about you.”

She heard the squeak of the back door of the Bulldog, then Hannah’s quiet exhale. “You bitch. You nearly made me cry in front of Ryan and Ant. I’d have never forgiven you. I love you, too. I swore I’d never get married. Don’t care to. But if anyone could talk me into it, you’d be the one. You wouldn’t even have to make that good an argument. If you wanted to marry me, I’d be a fool to say no. I love you, babe.”

Mia laughed and squeezed her eyes shut. “I’ll take that over an ‘I do’ any day. Listen, if I can get out early, let’s go out to dinner. I’ll treat you right and proper.”

“You’d better. I love you, Mia.”

“Love you, too.”

Mia hung up and stared at the blank screen of her phone for a long minute before slipping it back into her pocket. If she wasn’t already at her desk pouring over witness statements by the time her partner showed up, he would spend the whole day mocking her for sleeping in.

#

Owen hadn’t been to work in four days, and hadn’t shaved in six. He spent the time in his apartment with the blinds closed, stalking from room to room in the nude. He shifted from human to wolf and back again without consciously being aware of the shift. His mind was too occupied with other thoughts. Thoughts like the fact his fiance and one of his best friends had been fucking behind his back for… how long? He didn’t even want to know. All the times he’d gotten home to find Paige fresh from the shower, driving himself crazy with the smell of her soap and bodywash. How many times had she only been so freshly-scrubbed because she didn’t want him to smell Milo on her? Now their engagement was on hold. Or at least he assumed it was… why would she stick around after he went AWOL?

As if that wasn’t enough to occupy his mind, he also had to deal with the fact that he’d fucked Ryan during the orgy. He hadn’t been thinking clearly, his only instinct being to find a warm and willing body to rut against. For some reason, even with Eileen right there, he had stepped behind a man and pushed inside of him. It had been shocking enough to snap him out of the wolf-think mentality, but it hadn’t been enough to stop him. Because, fuck it all, it felt amazing. It felt right. So he had sex with Ryan and he enjoyed the hell out of it.

So what did that make him, bisexual? If he really did want to be with a guy, maybe Milo had done him a favor by distracting Paige.

No. He still loved Paige, he wanted Paige. He loved her apple-cheeks, the way her eyebrows arched when she was trying to hide her amusement. He loved her tits, her big and beautiful tits that he could spend a whole afternoon kissing, licking, playing with. He loved her arms, which were lean and tight with muscles, the way they looked in her firefighter T-shirt, how her stomach and ass looked when she was in the navy blue uniform…

Her hair tucked under her helmet, her macho swagger. He thought of how many times he had flipped her over and pushed into her from behind, squeezing her ass with both hands. He remembered the whispered conversations where he asked if he could put it in another way, holding his breath and then hiding his disappointment when she said no.

Gay. Bisexual. The differences were vast, in his mind. He couldn’t imagine himself as one, and if he chose the other… well, wasn’t a bisexual married to a woman the same thing as being straight? If he stayed monogamous it would amount to the same difference. But fucking Ryan had felt fantastic. It was like losing his virginity all over again, that eye-opening and stunning moment of “So this is what everyone is talking about” combined with “Oh, so this is what everyone is talking about…?”

He walked into the living room and glanced at the TV. Football, but nothing he cared to watch. He turned it off and picked up his cell phone, dismissing the messages about how many calls he’d missed and went straight to his phone book. He considered calling Milo; she deserved to know he wasn’t planning to kill her. He definitely owed Paige a call. But instead he scrolled further down and dialed Ryan’s number.

“Hey! You’re alive. We, uh. We were all starting to worry.”

“Yeah,” Owen said softly. He sat down on the edge of the sofa and massaged the bridge of his nose. “Listen, mate… I’ve been thinking a lot about what happened the other night. There’s–”

“Hold up. Hold on just a second. Let me get out of the way.” Owen hung his head and rubbed his thumb against the side of his nose. It seemed ironic that he’d finally gotten up the courage to call only to essentially get put on hold. He heard the squeak of the back door and knew Ryan was going out into the alley. “Oka– shit. Sorry, Hannah.”

“Hannah?”

“She was out there crying.” Ryan had lowered his voice to a whisper despite the squeak’s echo revealed he’d gone back inside.

“Crying? Everything okay?”

“Yeah, she was smiling so I guess… happy tears or whatever.” He heard another door shut. “Okay, I’m in the loo. Listen, lots of shit happened that night. Just because we… I mean, I was with Eileen and she was with Tarun and we…” He took a deep breath and then said, “It was just the wolves getting up to no good with our bodies. We don’t have to talk about it.”

“I think we do.”

“Why?”

“Because I liked it.”

Ryan was quiet for a long time. “And, what, you think it’s ‘cause you’re in love with me or something?”

“No! I just think… fuck. I don’t know, all right? I’ve never buggered a guy before. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it that much, and now I’m wondering if it was just the wolf or…” He rubbed his face. “I think I want to do it again. And it’s not like I’m going to run down to a club and find a guy to start rubbing against so you’re the best candidate. If you want to, I mean, it’s… it’s up to you.”

Ryan was quiet for so long that Owen thought he’d hung up. But then finally: “I guess I’m not seeing anyone.”

Owen chuckled. “Right. And if my fiance gets to fuck Milo when I’m not around, well hell…”

Ryan laughed. “Um. All right. I only have a couple of classes today so I guess…” He paused as he thought. “I could blow off the afternoon class, come over then.”

“Sounds good. I’ll be here.”

“All right. I’ll call when I’m on the way.”

“Right. See ya.”

He hung up and stared at the phone and then dropped it onto the cushion next to him. He pressed the heels of both hands against his eyes. “What in the actual hell are you doing, man? This is absolutely mad.” He took a deep breath and leaned back, looking at the apartment before he dropped his eyes down to himself. He saw that his cock had responded to the conversation and was standing at half-mast. He moved his hand toward it but decided to hold off. He didn’t want to get in the middle of it just to go limp because he’d taken care of himself beforehand.

He got up and went to take a shower and get dressed. There was no reason he couldn’t be presentable for his first date with a man.

 

Chapter 2

Milo showered and changed into her work outfit, adding a surplus military jacket in deference to the weather. She went through the pockets of the shorts she’d worn to the bar and retrieved her wallet and keys, then felt the slip of paper Ant had given her. Benjamin Moss. The name was completely unfamiliar to her. And if he was someone she wanted to talk to, then why hadn’t he called her home? How had he even found her at the Bulldog? She considered just throwing it out but knew the mystery would eat at her if she did.

She took out her phone and dialed the number. Someone answered on the second ring. “Miss Duncan, I presume.”

She tried not to be freaked out. “That’s who you left the message for. Do I know you?”

“Not directly. My name is Benjamin Moss. I was married to your grandmother for the last years of her life. Do you remember her?”

Milo was stunned. “Uh. Yeah. I didn’t even know she had died.” Tears sprung to her eyes as she remembered the sweet old woman who spent summer evenings on her porch swing watching as little Millicent toddled around the front yard grasping with pudgy hands at whatever bugs crossed her path. When Milo’s parents died, she went to live with Grandma until she was old enough to come back to the city and make her own living. Grandma had been the one to explain to her what a canidae was and taught her how to deal with the transformation.

“It happened quite suddenly, and recently. She wanted you to know you were in her thoughts at the very end.”

Guilt slugged Milo in the gut. She’d emailed her grandmother a few times, little updates about her life and the pack, but they were few and far between. They were just brief little obligations, and she hated herself for how quickly she’d breezed through them on her way to do something else. She realized she had dropped down and was now sitting with her back against her bookshelf.

“Is there a funeral…”

“Yes. It’s set for this Saturday. I was hoping you and I could get together before then to have a conversation. Your grandmother left you a bit of an inheritance, and I’d like to discuss it with you in person.”

She wiped the cuff of her sleeve over her cheeks. “Yeah, okay. Uh. I have work today. But I can ask for some time off.”

“Excellent. Would Thursday be possible?”

“Yeah, uh… yes. Thursday would be fine. Here or–”

“I can come see you, and we can drive up together for the funeral.”

Milo nodded and softly said, “Yeah, yes. Okay. Sounds good. Thank you for calling me.” She furrowed her brow. “You were married to her?”

“Yes, I was. We were together for a very long time, but when she knew the end was coming she…” His deep, mellifluous voice finally betrayed a touch of emotion. “She wanted to make it official. We were fortunate to have three wonderful years of wedded bliss.”

Three years, Milo thought. Her grandmother knew she was dying for three years and hadn’t said a word. Milo would have gone up every weekend, would have written more, would have done something, but she suddenly remembered a discussion they had not long after Milo moved away. She’d called to apologize for missing some appointment and her grandmother had shushed her.

“You’re not just my granddaughter anymore, Millicent. You have a life, you have a pack, and your duty is to them. Live your life. Don’t walk backward with your eyes always on the past.”

She sniffled and smiled. “Guess I oughta call you granddad, huh?”

“If… you wish.”

“I’ll see you Thursday.”

They said their goodbyes and Milo hung up, resting her arms on her knees before burying her face into the crook of her elbow. No one in the pack had seen her cry. There were people in her life who assumed she was incapable of it. But now, thinking about her grandmother, she let the tears flow freely. She didn’t care if she was late to work, she didn’t care about anything but mourning the woman who had taught her everything she knew about being a woman, a wolf, and a person.

#

Paige was off-duty for the day, so she stretched out in one of the booths to take a little nap after finishing breakfast. Hearing the buzz of Tarun and Ant’s conversation, the ebb and flow as the rest of the pack checked their phones and drifted out to begin their days, calmed her enough to doze off. It reminded her of the bunks at the firehouse and made her feel safe. When she woke it was already close to noon, and the rest of the pack was gone. She checked out the window as she sat up and rubbed her eyes as Tarun came out of the back room with a tray of mugs fresh from the dishwasher.

“Hey, sleepyhead. About time you woke up.”

She made a grunting approximation of human sleep and slid forward until her feet were on the floor. “Where’s everyone else?”

“They all left. Ant’s upstairs taking a snooze. You want something to drink?”

“Nah… yeah. Water?”

“Coming right up.”

She stood and stretched, lifting her arms over her head as she walked across the bar. “Sheesh. I was really out of it.” She straddled one of the stools and accepted the glass of water Tarun gave her with a smile of gratitude. “Haven’t been sleeping too well lately.”

Tarun grinned. “You and Milo taking advantage of not having to sneak around anymore?”

Paige felt weird having an affair she’d hidden for so long so casually referenced, but she remembered that she and Milo had revealed it themselves in a particularly acrobatic moment. She flashed back to that night, the two of them thrashing against each other in the middle of the woods while the rest of the sex-scented pack stood around and watched.

“That, plus work, plus running around all night. It’s exhausting. Plus stressing about Owen.” She took a drink and rubbed her lips together. “Do you guys hate me?”

“What? No! Why would you think that?”

“You’re all tight with Owen and everything. I cheated on him. What’s the thing, bros before hos?”

Tarun laughed. “We don’t hate ya. We understand. It’s not like you set out to hurt him or anything. You were just, ah. Exploring, right?”

“I guess so.” She ran her finger up the edge of the glass. She really did like Milo, and the sex was unbelievable. She’d never imagined being with a woman but Milo made an excellent argument for the cause. The question was whether or not she saw herself with Milo for the long run or if she needed to cut ties and try to mend things with Owen.

Tarun said, “For what it’s worth, I think Owen might be open to a conversation. He reached out to Ryan this morning.”

That was surprising enough that Paige’s grogginess faded a little. “He did? What, did he call?”

“Yeah, called him up. Ryan went outside to talk to him, but it seemed like a good conversation. I dunno. He could be up for a talk.”

Paige nodded. If she wanted to have a real talk with him, it would have to be that day. The next two days she was going to be on-duty for twelve hours overnight, and her next opportunity to have a good sit-down chat would be in four days. She finished the water and wiped her hand across her mouth. She winked at Tarun and dropped a coin on the bar to pay for her drink – a convention that Ant had told the pack countless times wasn’t necessary, since he was more than happy to feed them for free.

When she left she saw Milo’s bicycle was still chained up outside. She saw the beads of rain on the metal and assumed someone had given her a ride home, but she would need the bike for work. She wondered why she hadn’t come back for it when the storm passed. She didn’t have time to worry about that right now. She planned to go home, take a quick shower, maybe grab a bite to eat, and then retrieve Owen from his funk if she had to drag him from his apartment by his tail.

#

They’d hardly said a word to each other since Owen answered the door and silently gestured for Ryan to come inside. They were sitting next to each other on the couch. Ryan was in jeans and a jumper over a gray T-shirt, and Owen had changed into shorts and a sweater. Owen rubbed his hands together and chuckled nervously. “Okay. This is kind of awkward. I mean, you ever done anything like this–”

“No! I mean, that night in the woods was the first time.” He took a deep breath. “I mean, sometimes Eileen would want to do… stuff. But I didn’t… I wasn’t too into that.”

Owen nodded. “Right. Paige is not really into, uh. You know, the whole backdoor thing either. I’ve done it before, though. With other girls.”

“What other girls?

“Remember Lauren?”

Ryan whistled. “Oh, right. She was… she liked that?”

“Well, she didn’t mind it too much. We didn’t do it a lot.” He sniffed and caught a whiff of Ryan’s arousal in the air. He shifted awkwardly and looked around the room. “Oh. Hey, a lot of times it depended on when I asked. Like, if I waited until we were already hot and heavy she was a lot more likely to go for it. So maybe the trick is if we get ourselves turned on, it’ll be easier to, uh… you know, take the…”

“Right! Right. I guess that makes sense.”

Owen stood up and went to the TV, crouching in front of it as he examined the row of DVDs. He took out the first season of Breaking Bad and opened it to reveal he’d hidden porn inside instead.

“Wait, so you don’t really own that? Shit, I was going to ask to borrow it.”

“Nah, I watch it on Netflix. Paige was never into it, so I figured it was a good place to hide my porn. What’s your preference?”

“Uh. Guess I don’t have one at the moment. Dealer’s choice.”

Owen put the disc in, turned on the TV, and returned to the couch. He hit play, cleared his throat, and arranged himself more comfortably on the couch as the menu popped up. He started the movie and put the remote control down between them. “If you want to skip ahead or do a sampler, it’ll be, uh–”

“Sure.”

Owen nodded, still nervous as he focused on the screen. Two women were in an office, pretending to type and sharing stilted conversation about their plans for the night. The redhead expressed dismay that she never had plans because no one ever asked her out, and the blonde was shocked and horrified at the revelation. After assuring the redhead she was beautiful and anyone would be lucky to have her, the two shared a meaningful look and then began to kiss. Naturally there was no awkwardness after the kissing began, no indication that this was anything but an ordinary Tuesday at “non-descript home office incorporated.”

“Damn, guess they’re going to get right to it.”

Owen chuckled. “Yeah, well, they know what the audience wants, I guess.”

Soon the redhead was bent over the desk with her skirt pushed up over her hips, meaning theatrically and gazing at the camera through her eyelashes as the blonde knelt behind her. There were a few unnecessarily-close shots of the blonde’s tongue at work, but the focus soon shifted to the redhead’s facial expression.

Ryan had moved his hand to the crotch of his jeans and was rhythmically squeezing. Since that particular ice was broken, and since they’d seen each other naked countless times in the changing room at the Bulldog, Owen sat up straighter and unzipped his shorts. He kept his eyes on the screen as he fished his cock out of his underwear, but he could see Ryan watching him in his peripheral vision. He tried to ignore Ryan’s presence and idly ran his finger along the underside of his shaft. He brought his hand up and wet the first two fingers, circling them over the head as he heard Ryan undoing his own pants.

Just like that, they were masturbating together. Owen felt the awkwardness slipping away and glanced over. He hadn’t gotten a good look at Ryan on the night they were together, but it was a nice-shaped cock, as far as they went. Thin but long, with a head like the tip of an arrow. Pink and wide. He licked his lips without realizing it and turned back to focus on the movie.

“Are… I mean, c-can we–”

“Whatever you want, man,” Owen said, sounding as breathless as Ryan did.

Ryan shifted his position on the couch and bent down. Owen realized his intention at the last moment and circled two fingers around the base of his cock, holding it steady as Ryan kissed the tip. He exhaled sharply and dropped his head to the back of the couch, jaw dropping open as Ryan explored tentatively with the tip of his tongue. He moved his fingers and unbuttoned his shorts, leaving them on for the time being. He looked down, tilting his head to the side so he could watch Ryan’s lips close around his shaft before dragging up to the ridge of the tip. He popped his lips off the head and then looked up.

“How’s that?”

“Good… it’s good, mate. Keep going.”

Ryan wet his lips and went back down. Owen rested one hand on the back of Ryan’s neck and closed his eyes. Inevitably he compared Ryan’s technique to Paige’s. She obviously had the upper hand, thanks to loads of practice – he could imagine her swatting his shoulder for that comment – but Ryan seemed to be doing just fine. He angled his hips so Ryan wouldn’t have to bend down so far, and opened his eyes just enough to see the TV screen. The negligent office workers had produced a strap-on from somewhere – obviously a must-have in any office supply room – and the redhead was between the blonde’s legs.

“Hold on, whoa,” he said suddenly. “Slow up. We don’t have to rush things.”

“Right,” Ryan said. He wiped the back of his hand over his mouth and sat up, his cock rising from his open fly. Owen stared at it for a minute and then gestured for him to take his pants off. Ryan slid them down and stood in front of Owen, his back to the TV, and Owen leaned forward and used his tongue to guide the tip of Ryan’s cock into his mouth. He closed his eyes and tried to figure out how he felt about the situation. His cock was obviously happy, and it felt odd to have a penis in his mouth, but bad? Did it feel bad or wrong or unarousing? Hardly.

He heard a rattle and assumed it was coming from the television, since those ladies had been treating the desk pretty hard, so he was still trying to figure out how to take more of Ryan’s prick into his mouth when the apartment door opened and Paige came inside. He heard Ryan say, “Ah, fucking hell,” and pulled back before he looked to see her staring wide-eyed at them both.

“Paige…”

“Owen.” She pressed her lips together and swallowed hard, eyes locked on Ryan’s wet penis before moving to the plump erection rising from her boyfriend’s lap. She was still clutching her keys in the lock, her entire body rigid as she tried to take in the scene before her. “I… still had your key. I wanted to make sure you were all rig–” Her attention was grabbed by a cry from the TV, so she turned and winced when she saw what was playing. “Oh, Jesus Christ, Owen!”

“Shut the fuckin’ door,” he grunted.

Paige pulled her key from the lock and shut it, leaning her shoulder against it as she faced them again. “What the hell is this?”

“Just testing things out,” Owen said. He realized he was still stroking Ryan’s cock to keep him hard, but he didn’t stop. “Figure you get to play with Milo… turnabout’s fair play, right?”

He decided there was only so much he could do by talking, and it wasn’t like she’d ever apologized for fucking a woman behind his back. So he lifted Ryan’s cock and started sucking it again. Ryan grunted and put a hand on Owen’s shoulder, the tension in his body implying he was very aware of Paige’s presence. Owen could see her from the corner of his eye and she inched forward, lifted the strap of her bag over her head, and dropped it onto the floor.

“I want to stay.” Her voice was different, almost meek.

Owen lifted his head, a strand of saliva connecting his mouth to Ryan’s cock. He severed it with a swipe of his thumb. “No one asked you to leave.”

“Yeah,” Ryan said. “Stay.”

She moved cautiously forward and then stepped quickly to the TV. “But we’re turning that shit off.” She silenced the hard working ladies with the press of a button. When she turned to face them again, she smoothed down the front of her T-shirt and then gestured. “Well, I mean… don’t let me stop you.”

Owen wet his lips and used his thumb to lift Ryan’s cock, taking it back into his mouth. Ryan grunted as Paige moved closer, her shadow falling across them until she took a seat next to Owen on the couch. For a long moment she just watched until she slid her hand across Owen’s hip and took him into her hand.

“Is that all right?” she asked softly. Owen couldn’t exactly speak, so he moved his free hand to cover hers. He guided her to start stroking, and she made a quiet noise of arousal before she took over. She leaned in and kissed his neck, her lips parted over the throbbing vein of his pulse. Her nostrils flared as she breathed in his scent, the whites of her eyes darkening just before she closed them. The animal in her came to the surface and she nipped his earlobe just a moment before she began whispering to him.

She spoke rapidly, in fragmented statements, telling him how hot it was and how beautiful he looked. She told him how turned on she was and moved her free hand between her legs to rub herself as she pulled her head back and looked up at Ryan. He met her gaze and chuckled nervously before reaching out to stroke her hair back away from her face.

“Christ, Paige. you’re beautiful, you know?”

She closed her eyes and leaned into his caress. “Thank you, Ryan…” She stood up slowly, never breaking eye contact until she closed her eyes to kiss him. He put his arm around her waist and took her tongue into his mouth as he rolled his hips forward into Owen’s mouth. Paige pulled back and looked into his eyes, and casually peeled off her T-shirt and dropped it. Ryan’s eyes dropped to watch as she took off her bra, and he exhaled sharply at the sight of her breasts in a non-change setting.

“I’ve seen you looking,” she whispered.

He smiled shyly. “Hard not to notice.”

She undid her belt and pushed her pants down. It seemed odd to Owen as she kicked her pants away, that she would be the first person completely naked. But she soon remedied that by taking off Ryan’s shirt and kissing his chest. She curled her tongue around his nipple and then bit down on it, making him hiss and tense up. Paige looked down and watched as Owen took more of his length in, her lips parted as she struggled to catch her breath at the beautiful sight.

“Thank you,” she whispered. Ryan cupped the back of her head in response, letting her know that she didn’t have to expand on it. She was thanking them for letting her watch, allowing her to be a part of this moment.

She put her hand on Owen’s head and pushed him back. He gasped, eyes locked on the glistening tip of Ryan’s cock before he looked up at Paige as if just realizing she was there.

“Bedroom.”

“Right…”

He stood up and Paige stopped him from walking away. She pushed the men together, running her eyes down their bodies to see how their cocks bumped and rubbed together.

“Kiss him.”

Ryan hesitated, and Owen stared at him for a moment. Paige rolled her eyes and turned Ryan to face her. She kissed him hard, swirling her tongue into his mouth before she broke away and kissed Owen. When she pulled away from him she touched his jaw and turned him to face Ryan. The men kissed, and Paige curled her fingers into claws in the small of their backs. She pressed tight against them both, her lips puffing out with each exhale, her eyes fully dark now as the wolf part of her brain demanded a front row seat. She curled her lip to bare her teeth as her boys – and that was how she already thought of them – grew more comfortable kissing each other.

Finally she pulled them apart and leaned against them, urging them toward the hallway to the bedroom. Owen pulled off the rest of his clothes as he went, leaving a trail that Paige and Ryan had to step over so they could follow him. She brought up the rear, taking the time to appreciate the view as the men went into the bedroom and collapsed onto the bed.

“C’mere,” Owen said to her.

“Uh-uh,” Paige said. She went to the desk chair and spun it around before dropping into it. She crossed her legs and rested her hands on the armrests, the picture of professionalism if she hadn’t been nude. “I’m just the audience right now. You boys do what you needed to do and I’ll cheerlead.”

Owen pushed himself up so that he was braced by the pillows, and Ryan straddled his thighs. The men kissed again and reached for each other, their arms crossed as they gripped each other. Ryan’s ass clenched as he perched above Owen, his slender frame spread across Owen’s more muscular body as they held each other. They whispered to each other and Ryan stretched across the bed to open the top drawer of the nightstand. Owen rolled over onto his stomach and, while Paige was disappointed that she couldn’t see his cock anymore, her breath became short because she knew what was about to happen.

Ryan retrieved a condom from the nightstand then leaned back so he could open the package and put it on. Paige leaned forward, elbow on her knee, and slipped her forefinger into her mouth. She sucked it as Ryan stroked himself to full hardness and then rolled it down his length. Owen bent his knees and Ryan took position, and Paige bit down on her finger as Ryan pushed inside with a grunt.

“Ha-ho-ho-leee shit.”

Paige couldn’t help but smile; all the times he’d tried to convince her to take it up the ass, and now here he was. Turnabout was fair play. She covered her mound with her free hand, lightly stroking with her middle two fingers as she watched Ryan slowly push into Owen’s ass. There was a moment of awkwardness where Owen nearly fell, and Ryan took a moment to reposition his legs, but after a hushed conversation Ryan took Owen’s hips in his hands and pushed the rest of the way inside of him.

“Fuck,” Paige gasped.

“Girlie likes the show,” Owen grunted.

“Girlie loves the show,” Paige corrected. “Fuck him hard, Ry. Show him what you got. All those times he teased ya? Payback time, Owen.”

Ryan chuckled and began to move. Paige squirmed in her seat, wanting nothing more than to be underneath Owen right then. She imagined how it would feel to have him driven into her by the force of Ryan’s movements and she squeezed her thighs around her hand. She lifted her hips up off the seat to meet her hand, unconsciously matching Ryan’s rhythm. The chair squeaked under her, and the bed squeaked under her boys.

“Shit, I’m going to come,” Ryan suddenly barked, pulling nearly all the way out before he pushed back in. Paige whimpered against the fingers in her mouth and tightened around the fingers between her legs, watching with wide eyes as Ryan tensed with his orgasm. Owen hunched his shoulders, his forehead on his crossed arms, and she knew he was close as well. She stood up and crossed to the bed, crawling onto the mattress before dropping down.

“Grab him, Ry. Stroke his cock, make him come. He’s close, aren’t you, baby?”

Owen grunted confirmation, and Ryan reached around to stroke him. Paige slid her free hand between his body and the bed, closing her fingers around the head of his cock. Ryan’s hand bumped against hers and, when Owen came, he filled her palm. She kissed his shoulder and ran her tongue up to his neck, then pulled her hand free. She lapped up her handful of thick come, then straightened up, grabbed Ryan’s hair, and jerked his head down to hers for a kiss. She thrust Owen’s come into Ryan’s mouth with her tongue, and he made a not-disagreeable sound in his throat as he pushed it back. They exchanged it back and forth until Paige closed her mouth and forced Ryan to swallow, then pulled back and leaned down to kiss Owen.

He stroked her hair, and Ryan stroked both of their bodies as he slumped backward with exhaustion.

Paige smiled at Owen and whispered, “We okay?”

He held her gaze for a long moment and then nodded. “Yeah. We’re okay.”

She kissed him again as Ryan’s hand slid lower, following the curve of her hip before easing gently between her thighs. She hissed in a surprised breath and then spread her legs to give him more room to play.

“Silly me… I thought we were done.”

Owen looked down and watched Ryan’s fingers move against her sex. He smiled, cupped her breast, and guided her hand to his slick cock. “Baby, I think we’re just getting started.”

Chapter 3

Eileen dismissed class without the foggiest idea how she had spent the past ninety minutes. The students didn’t appear concerned for her health or any more bored than usual, so she must have found some way to fill the time. She was just too preoccupied to focus on anything so her mind must have taken over by rote. From the moment she walked in and saw Ryan’s usual seat was empty, she had been thrown. They had been doing so well, or so she thought. The first day was bad, naturally, and she’d expected things to continue its downward spiral. But then the pack insisted on running, the night had turned into an impromptu love-fest, and their anxiety lifted like a curtain. Ryan showed up in class, they went out to lunch to discuss their relationship, and they even discovered they could still fuck each other without making it a big deal.

Then there was The News. Or the potential news. She still didn’t know what to think about it, so at the moment she was trying not to. It flooded her mind, though, when Ryan was conspicuously absent from class. She tried not to look at it as a sign.

Alone in her classroom she tapped her fingers on the desktop. It was a routine check-up. She had felt a little logey, a little queasy, but it was nothing to be concerned about. She hadn’t even thought about it when the doctor asked how she had been feeling, but when he suggested the symptoms she let him mark it down on his chart. When he asked how her transformations had been lately she admitted they were a little different.

“But I’m in my forties. Not a kid anymore.”

“Mm.”

He asked for another set of tests, tests that made her tense when he said their name. She decided to cancel her classes for the morning so she could wait for her results. They came back and the answer was exactly what she dreaded.

She was pregnant.

Canidae could still transform during the first trimester and most of the second, but at that point their bodies chose to protect the fetus. The act of transformation became nearly impossible, sparing the developing life the trauma of going from one host to another. It would mean at least four, possibly five months without changing. The thought terrified her almost as much as the thought of having a baby at her age.

She knew the proper choices. Abortion or adoption. There was no way she would be a single mother, no chance she would even be good at it. When she thought of how thoroughly screwed up her child would be…

No. She would never be a mother. Maybe a birth mother, some ephemeral non-entity the child would one day seek out for an afternoon of explanations.

She chewed her thumbnail and looked down at the front of her jacket, the buttons lying unassumingly flat against her abdomen. She still wasn’t showing, but judging from the doctor’s timeline it was only a matter of time. And that was another problem. If she was six weeks pregnant, then there was a chance… a tiny chance, but a chance nonetheless… that the baby wasn’t Ryan’s. One night at a faculty mixer, one drunken flirtation with another professor, one primal fuck in the hallway while the man’s wife danced in the ballroom.

It hadn’t meant anything. It was the wolf in her, the animal part that sought out prey and couldn’t rest until it had been brought down. She spent the night drawing the man into her snare, the man who had once sworn he would never cheat on his wife. She’d felt such a sense of pride when he tore her underwear away. Now she was paying the karmic balance in a big way.

She dialed Ryan’s number, but he didn’t answer. She thought about calling Jeremy, the other potential father, but she decided she didn’t want to bring him into things until she knew some more things for certain. Hell, if she decided to get rid of the baby then there was no reason he ever had to know. She just needed Ryan’s advice before she took the next step.

Where the hell was he?

#

“Mercy. Good lord.”

Paige fell to one side, arms outstretched as she lifted herself off Ryan. She was covered with sweat, sore in every way imaginable, but she was smiling like an idiot. She’d never been attracted to Ryan, had never even tried to sneak a peek at him in the changing room – although she had seen how big he was; it was hard not to see even by accident – but damn the boy could fuck. They had gone through most of Owen’s only box of condoms, so they had to quit for practical reasons as well as their own physical limitations.

Owen was sprawled on Paige’s other side, having observed her last orgasm (number four, for those keeping score) and she chuckled as he tickled the fine hair under her navel. Ryan rolled onto his side and stared at her, smiling nervously with his hair plastered to his forehead, and she stroked his cheek.

“So I guess that happened.”

Owen laughed and kissed Paige’s shoulder. “Yeah, it definitely did. It doesn’t have to happen again–”

Paige made a sad whimpering noise.

“–but I think we’d both be happy if it did.”

Paige grinned and stuck her tongue out, panting like an eager puppy. Ryan kissed her and her fake panting turned into a real moan. Owen pressed against her from behind and she broke the kiss long enough to look down and swipe his hand away.

“You’re almost out of rubbers. It’s like a hand stamp. You don’t get back in without one.”

Owen grunted. “Fine. There’s all sorts of things I can do with just my fingers.”

Paige grinned and closed her eyes as Ryan began kissing down her neck. Owen rearranged himself between her legs and she sprawled out to let them both get to work.

“That’s what I like in my pets… ingenuity…”

#

Mia used the side of her fist to knock on the apartment door, stepping back with her hands on her hips as she waited for a response. “Mr. Faulkner, this is the police. Open the door, please.” She looked down at the ground for a moment and waited the appropriate amount of time before knocking again. This time she was louder, more insistent. “Mr. Faulkner, we’d like a word. We know you’re in there… we saw your car in the lot.” She didn’t mention the fact her wolf could smell her nervous sweat through the door. He was pacing less than three feet away from her.

“I’ve said my piece!” he shouted from the other side of the door.

“Yeah, we’ve just got a few questions about your statement.”

“I don’t believe you. I think you’re stuck so you just picked someone at random and you’re going to frame me.”

Mia grinned at the officer standing beside her. “Someone’s been watching too many–” She stopped mid-sentence and glanced at the door. A new smell had been introduced: gun oil. She tensed and motioned for the officer to draw his taser, then stepped to one side of the doorway. “Mr. Faulkner, you don’t want to do that. Trust me.”

“I’m not trusting you. Not a damn thing you say. You just want to string me up.”

“You’re the one with the weapon, Mr. Faulkner. Just open the door and we can discuss this rationally.” She closed her eyes and focused her hearing. Faulkner’s footsteps sounded hollow as he continued to pace, and she heard the “tap-tap-tap” of the gun against his thigh. His breathing was ragged and uneven and she could smell the alcohol stench indicating he’d spent the past two days drinking in anticipation of this moment.

“This is not a difficult moment, Alexander.” She had lowered her voice to a soothing cadence, meant to calm and relax him. “You may think you have a myriad of choices, but you truly only have one. There’s only one choice here that can make things better, and that is opening the door to let us in. We know why you hurt Kara. We know that, in your way, you were just trying to protect her. That’s even what you said in your statement, isn’t it? How she was a sweet girl but she just kept getting involved with the wrong people? You wanted to protect her from that. You wanted to free her. But she was so far gone you thought the only way was if she was dead. That’s why you laid her out the way you did. You were honoring her. Don’t throw that away just because you’ve been caught. After everything else, doesn’t she deserve justice?”

Alex Faulkner sobbed on the other side of the door. She reached out cautiously and turned the knob, finding it unlocked. She nodded to the officer to be ready and pushed the door open.

“Alex?”

He looked up, startled, and brought the gun up. Mia ducked out of the way as the gun went off and took a divot out of the door frame. He dropped the gun and shouted, “I didn’t mean to do that!”, but the officer had already fired his taser. Faulkner tensed as the voltage passed through him, then dropped to the floor with his arms tucked in tight to his sides. Mia waited until he had gone still before she entered the apartment and rolled him over.

“Didn’t mean to… di-didn’t–”

“I know, Mr. Faulkner.” She drew his wrists together so she could secure them. “Alexander Faulkner, you are under arrest for the murder of Kara Matheson. You do not have to say anything, but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in court. Anything you do or say may be given in evidence. Do you understand?”

He sobbed and nodded his head. Mia patted his arm and gestured for the officer to help him stand up. She ran a hand over her hair and followed the officer outside, stopping only briefly to examine the mark where the bullet had missed her head. She gave a brief shudder and then stepped out into the hallway, shutting the door and ordering the room to be sealed until a crime scene unit could get their hands on it.

As she stepped back out into the wet morning, she took her cell phone out of her pocket and texted Hannah: “I love you.”

She returned the phone to her pocket and climbed into the car to ride with Faulkner to the station. She would get his official confession and then officially close the case. She might even be home in time to have dinner with her girlfriend. Wonders might never cease.

#

Paige left the boys so she could buy some lunch and more condoms, sore but giddy from what she’d just experienced. Being with two men, watching those men be with each other, was intoxicating. All of the apologies she’d planned explaining why she had strayed with Milo had evaporated when she walked in on her fiance blowing their friend. Even as her mind insisted on being angry, her body responded with pure lust and desire. The body won out, and she was glad it did. She and Owen had whispered “I love you” to each other more times that morning than they had for the past six months. All because another man’s cock was between them. Strange how things worked sometimes.

On the way, she stopped by Milo’s apartment on the off-chance she was playing hookie as well. As far as she knew Milo was totally straight, but she’d played around with the boys during the night everything came out. Maybe there was a chance they could turn their little rendezvous into a foursome. The boys had been so good about playing together, they had earned a little girl-on-girl performance.

Milo answered the door almost immediately after she knocked, startling her enough that she stepped back. “Whoa. What, did you smell me coming?”

“No. Sorry, Paige, I don’t really… I don’t really have time. I have to get to work. I need to ask for some time off and the boss already hates my ass.”

Paige fell into step next to her. “I’ll drive you back to the Bulldog so you can get your bike.”

“Thanks.” She glanced at Paige then, sniffed the air, and raised an eyebrow. “Threesome?”

Paige grinned. “Knew I should’ve showered before I came out.”

“Good for you,” Milo said with a weak chuckle. “Never figured Owen for the sort. But I’m glad you two could get things figured out.”

They were outside, halfway to Paige’s car, and she stopped Milo by lightly touching her hand. “This doesn’t have to mean you and I are quits. I mean, if Owen has Ryan then I might as well have a little fun on the side.”

She leaned in for a kiss, but Milo evaded. “Sorry. It’s not you, Paige, honestly, I’m just… I just got a call. My grandmother died.” Tears spontaneously appeared in her eyes and she spun away. “Fuck it…”

“Oh, God. Milo, I’m so sorry.” Paige hugged her from behind, knowing Milo wouldn’t want her to see the tears. “I know how important she was to you.”

Milo rubbed Paige’s arms. “Thank you.”

Paige rested her chin on Milo’s shoulder and kissed her neck. “Anything you need, the pack will be there. Don’t worry about anything, all right? This is what we’re here for. To prop each other up when we need it.”

Milo turned in Paige’s arms and sniffed close to her face. “Mm. You had a busy morning.” She dragged her tongue across Paige’s lips, tasting both Ryan and Owen on her breath. “I guess this means you and I are finished.”

“Doesn’t have to be.”

“But it probably should be.”

Paige stroked Milo’s hair. “We can put a pin in it. I’ve never wanted to be with a woman, Milo, but when I’m with you…? It feels right.”

“You and Owen are getting married.”

“And obviously he has a hobby I need to learn how to accept.”

Milo shook her head. “I don’t want to be a hobby. I don’t want to wait around for the nights you’re bored or he’s with a guy. I don’t want to be a replacement or a substitute.”

Paige pressed her lips together. “I guess that’s fair. I was trying to be selfish, I guess.”

“Well. A woman like you wants to be selfish by having sex with me, I’ll support that all day long. But for the sake of your marriage…”

“Right.”

“Okay.”

They kissed and Paige cupped Milo’s face before pulling back. “I mean it, Milo. Anything you need, the pack will be here.”

“Right now I’ll settle for the ride to pick up my bike.”

“Easily achieved. C’mon.”

Milo was silent for the ride back to the Bulldog, staring out the window as Paige drove. When they parked Paige put her hand on top of Milo’s to keep her from jumping out of the car. “You weren’t just a hobby. You weren’t an experiment or a phase. You know how much I love Owen. And if I was willing to risk that to be with you, even for a little while… I hope you can make the connection from that to understand how I feel about you. I love you, Milo.”

She leaned across the console and kissed Paige. “I love you, too. See you later. Have fun with your boys.”

“They’re my pets.”

Milo laughed and offered her palm for a high-five. “I love it. Keep ‘em in line. Okay. I have to get to work before they fire my ass.”

Paige wished her well and watched as she unchained her bike, slung a leg over it, and pedaled away. She knew there was an alternate version of events where she and Owen broke off their engagement and she’d have gone to Milo for comfort. And she knew in that universe, if she took off the ring Owen gave her, she would have eventually given Milo all her heart. Milo deserved nothing less.

With a quiet hope that Milo would get what she deserved, even if she wasn’t aware she wanted it, Paige pulled away from the Bulldog and went to pick up lunch and a few prophylactic essentials so she and her pets could continue exploring their new relationship.

#

Tarun looked up when the sun flashed off the windshield of Paige’s car. He saw her and Milo inside and assumed they would be coming in for lunch, so he made certain the pack’s usual table near the door was cleared for them. When he looked up again, Milo was riding past on her bicycle and Paige was backing out of the spot. He waved even though he doubted they could see him and turned his attention back on his customers.

He loved the pack, and he was extraordinarily grateful for his job. He’d spent weeks searching for work to help pay for college, but his overwhelming shyness and inverted attitude led many managers to apologetically decide he wasn’t right for their employ. At the time he couldn’t bear the thought of speaking to people, and the simple task of taking and remembering orders nearly made him break out in hives.

It wasn’t exactly a social anxiety disorder. It was the fact he’d spent the last few years feeling increasingly different from everyone else in the world. First he was Indian, the only family on his block, and that was enough to make elementary school… adventurous. He expected it to only get worse in high school but it was there he discovered that he was more interested in boys than girls. He fought it for as long as he could, he went on dates and lost his virginity to a sophomore girl who called him Hadji when they were finished, but in the end he kept coming back to guys. He finally accepted that he was Indian and gay around the time he woke up naked in a field and discovered there was just one more thing to separate him from the rest of the world.

He was a werewolf.

The technical term, his mother told him later, was canidae. She said that it came from her side of the family and it was actually very easy to control.

“I won’t have to lock myself in a cage on the full moon, will I?”

She laughed. “The full moon has absolutely no pull on us whatsoever. You can change any time you want, but it’s better if you don’t put too much time between transformations.”

It was her first lesson, one of many that would come over the next few years. When other parents were discussing college options, his mother was pushing him to find a pack. He’d met other wolves in school, but they weren’t really the kind of people he’d socialize with. He hung out with them because it was expected and because it was one thing he didn’t have to hide.

One night after transforming, he’d gotten caught staring at a packmate named Wesley while the were both still nude.

“Hey, Tarun’s getting a stiffy. I think he’s sweet on you, Wes.”

“Shut the fuck up, Nate.”

“Oh, my God, I was joking. But you are, aren’t you?”

Tarun threw the first punch, and Nate responded in kind, but soon the entire pack was in it. Wesley held Tarun down while the others pummeled him, chanting pretty much every slur that came to their fevered minds as they bloodied his nose and bruised him all up and down his sides. Finally Wes pulled them off and led them away, leaving Tarun alone in the woods to make his way back to civilization by himself.

At school the next morning, word had spread that Tarun was gay. He tried to deny it, but the words fell so flat and unconvincing that even he didn’t believe them. After a few days he finally just gave in and admitted the truth. He met another kid, Wayne, who had suffered being dropped off in the country wearing only a jock strap with “I LIKE DICK” written on his chest in lipstick. The culprits were kids he’d once considered friends.

He and Tarun started having lunch together, and eventually Tarun was smitten. When he made his move in Wayne’s upstairs bedroom, he’d put a hand on his chest to put him back.

“I’m sorry. My parents would kill me if they knew I was with a guy, but it would somehow be even worse if he was brown.”

That was when Tarun realized his myriad of differentness was so widespread that there would always be something that separated him from other people. He stopped socializing and focused on his studies with the intention of moving somewhere he wouldn’t be such a damned oddity.

He was close to giving up on the job front when he found the pub. The Bulldog. It seemed like a sign from on high, so he went inside despite the lack of a Help Wanted sign and looked around as his eyes adjusted to the darkness. In the booth right next to the door was a group of people he would later be introduced to as Milo Duncan, Mia Cohen, Benji Wood, Paige O’Brien, and Owen Kiernan.

Anton Clarke came out of the back room and spotted him by the door. “Sit anywhere. Be right with you.”

He moved closer to the bar. “Actually I was wondering if you were hiring.”

“Oh, you were? You ever work in a bar before?”

“No…”

Ant chuckled. “Well, you know how to pour a drink and wipe up a counter?”

“Yes, of course. And I can make change, too.”

“Well! Got myself a math genius.” Something about his tone made Tarun willing to tolerate the mockery. “I might have an application around here somewhere. Let me go check. Wait right here.”

He went into the back and Tarun sat at the bar to wait for him to come back. He was startled when someone slid up next to him and he leaned away from the intruder. It was Owen, the beefy and tattooed guy he’d seen looming in the booth when he walked in.

“Wolf?”

“What?” His heart thudded against his ribs.

Owen smiled and winked. “It’s fine. See them?” He pointed at the booth and Tarun turned to see the women watching him. He’d never had so many beautiful women staring at him with such interest. There was something eager in their eyes, and he saw it mirrored in Owen’s when he looked back. He finally allowed himself to sense what was right in front of him and he understood.

“This is… what, a wolf bar?”

“Unofficially. Ant will serve anyone, but the pack hangs out here.”

“Oh… you guys are a pack. I used to run with some for a while, but we kind of had a falling out. I mean, not that I’m… I don’t want to be presumptuous.”

Owen put a hand on his shoulder and squeezed roughly. “Could always use one more guy. Women have us outnumbered, which can be fun in the changing room.”

Tarun decided to get it out of the way. “Not really, uh, my interest, mate.”

“Oh, cool. Benji! We finally found you a boyfriend!”

The black man sitting next to the window tossed a handful of peanut shells at Owen. They didn’t even make it halfway across the bar, but Owen apparently took it as an invitation to war. He howled and launched himself across the room, and Benji leaped up and scrambled out the front door seconds before Owen caught up with him. Tarun would have been worried if not for the joyous grin on Benji’s face.

Ant came back with a sheet of paper held with both hands like it was the Magna Carta. “I have found a job application.” He looked at the booth, where the remains of the group were peering out the window and laughing at the display in the parking lot. “Okay, what happened? What did I miss?”

Paige turned around and lifted her chin at Tarun. “You just hired yourself a new bartender, Ant. Plus I think the pack just got a new member.”

He carried the dirty plates into the kitchen and deposited them into the sink. He could see Ant sitting at his desk through the office’s open door. “Milo came to pick up her bike. She looked kind of upset.”

“Was she alone?”

“Paige was with her.”

“Ah. Then I think she’ll be all right.”

Tarun had to agree. He knew from the start how great it was to run with a pack, but he never considered the benefits humans could gain from it. A pack could provide a sort of group-therapy approach to whatever you might be going through. Mia and Hannah helped him decide how to tell his mother he was gay, and despite his macho demeanor, Owen had proven invaluable in helping him study for finals.

That was the thing about being different. The secret of getting through was to find a group of people who were the same kind of different and holding on as tightly as possible.

Chapter 4

Mia was in the shower when Hannah got home. She opened the stall door and leaned in, feeling the warm spray on her cheeks, and smiled when Mia twisted to face her. She reached out, soaking her arm, and dragged her fingers down the bumps of her lover’s spine. “Wanted to let you know I was home.”

“Join me.”

“I’ve gotta work on a design for a client, and I’m famished. I want to grab dinner as soon as I can. But afterward…”

Mia smiled and turned around. “Hey. Stay here a minute.” She cupped Hannah’s face and leaned in to touch their foreheads together. She was in a wet, cool environment while Hannah was still dry, and it made her feel like she was stretching across a vast distance. Water dripped onto Hannah’s forehead, and she reached into the shower to stroke Mia’s arms.

“Baby, what’s wrong?”

“Someone shot at me today. He didn’t even come close, and it wasn’t intentional, but it could’ve ended… badly.”

Hannah stepped into the shower without reservation, soaking herself as she put her arms around Mia. They clung to each other under the spray, and Mia pressed her face against Hannah’s neck and let loose with a sob. She shed the tears she hadn’t allowed herself to cry at work, not even in the solitude of the locker room. Her body trembled with the released tension and she curled her fingers in the soaked material of Hannah’s shirt.

“What do you need me to do?”

“This,” Mia said. “Just this.” She sniffled. “Shit, is your phone in your pocket?”

“Nothing’s in my pockets. C’mere.”

They held each other under the spray until Mia leaned back and wiped her face. “Thanks.”

“Of course.” She brushed her fingers over Mia’s cheeks. “You need anything else?”

“No. Just you. Forever.”

Hannah raised her eyebrows. “Forever’s a long time, babe. You know what you’d be getting into? Cleaning up after me, for starters…”

“I don’t care. Even if we broke up, I’d beg you on my hands and knees to hire me as your maid just so I could be around you.”

Hannah shuddered violently. “Gah. You said break up and I thought I was gonna jump out of my skin. Don’t do that to me.”

“Sorry.”

Hannah smiled. “I’m yours as long as you can stand me.”

Mia kissed Hannah’s bottom lip. “I think that will be a very long time, ink girl.” She stepped back and dropped her hand to swat Hannah’s rear end. “Now get out of here and get out of those wet clothes ‘fore you drown.”

“Yes, ma’am.” She got out of the shower and began stripping so she wouldn’t drip water through the whole apartment. “What do you want for dinner?”

“Whatever you’re making will be fine.”

Hannah dumped her wet clothes in the hamper and, when she walked away, Mia took the opportunity to examine the tattoos on her back.

“Hey.” Hannah stopped and Mia pointed. “Tell me a story.”

Hannah twisted so that her back was to the mirror and then she pointed to a tattoo just above the dimple of her ass. It was a bright blue star shining out through a dark box, the beams of light extending well beyond the edge of the opening. “That’s a light shining through a doorway, casting out waves and waves of darkness. I got it two weeks after I met you.”

Mia smiled. “I love it.”

“I think the next one will be a cumulative commemoration of you. How you’ve made my life better since you came into it. I’ll even let you design it.”

Mia was touched; choosing something that would be permanently etched onto Hannah’s body said more than any ring ever would, and she’d just tossed it out there like it was no big deal. She licked her lips and worked up moisture in her mouth, but her voice was still rough when she said, “Yeah. I’d like that.”

Hannah winked at her. “Finish your shower. I’ll have something ready to eat by the time you get out.”

“Thank you, darling.”

Hannah kissed two fingers and held them out to her in a kiss before she left the bathroom. Mia closed the shower door and turned her face up into the spray. Marriage was scary. But a life with Hannah was, with each passing day, becoming more and more of a given.

#

When Paige got back to the apartment, she found the boys had carried on without her. The growls and yips coming from the bedroom prepared her for what she would find when she opened the door, so she was unsurprised to find the wolves wrestling on the floor. She tossed the bag of necessities on the bed and began to strip, drawing their attention as she watched them. “Don’t let me interrupt, fellas. Seems like you’re doing pretty well all on your own, but if you don’t mind someone lending a hand…”

Owen settled on the floor with his hindquarters raised, and Ryan mounted him. Paige stroked between her legs as she watched them for a moment, then she popped her shoulders and rolled her head one way, then the other, as her bones began to rearrange themselves. Her skin stretched and thickened and she widened her jaw to make room for the larger teeth of her own wolf. She shook her head, her hair flying wildly into her face as she dropped onto all fours and prowled to join her pets. Her body lengthened and became more slender, her spine extending out into a tail covered with almost-black fur.

By the time she squirmed underneath Owen she was fully wolf, and she tilted her back back as he pushed under her tail to enter her from behind. Her jaw dropped and her tongue fell free as Ryan and Owen fucked her together.

Not exactly what she’d dreamed of as a little girl when she thought about her fiance, but then again… she’d never exactly been an imaginative little girl. She was a tomboy, the only girl in a family of older boys. When she finally became old enough to get her own wolf she went through a rigorous hazing ritual before her brothers accepted her as one of their own. She was their little mascot, a tagalong.

When she moved away from her brothers and found the pack of her own, she allowed herself to shed the tomboy persona just a little. Yes, she was a firefighter (fourth generation) and she preferred trousers to skirts, but she could be just as girly as the next woman. She and Eileen liked to go shopping, they often set aside Saturday afternoons to visit the wine shop with Hannah, and she dreamed of having a beautiful white lace gown at her wedding.

Owen shifted his position and turned his head, closing his jaw around her neck. They did that a lot, and it never failed to make her tighten around him. She squeezed and he bit harder, growling a low rumble that seemed to surround her with its vibrations. When she met Owen she thought he was a brute. She saw his tattoos and listened to his crude jokes and decided he was just one of those idiotic wolves that were a sad fact of life in every pack.

She went from tolerating him to actually liking him as a friend one dreary morning when she woke up late, got a parking ticket and a flat tire in the same hour, and got into a fight with her best friend, the only other female firefighter at the station. She went to the Bulldog that night out of a sense of duty, a need to be there for the others, but she wasn’t eager to socialize. She got her own booth and put her head down on her crossed arms as a signal that she didn’t want to be disturbed.

Someone slid into the seat across from her after ten minutes. He was silent for another minute before he sincerely asked if she was okay.

“Piss off.” Her voice was turned hollow and echoed by the curve of her elbow. She was irritated by how close to tears she sounded.

Luckily Owen didn’t argue. But he did do something surprising. When he stood up, he bent down and kissed the top of her head. It was an unexpectedly gentle thing, like a balm, and it made her look up in surprise. He was already walking away with his back to her, but he’d left her another little gift: on the table next to her untouched glass of beer, he had folded a napkin into an origami rose. Granted it was green, but it was so beautiful she didn’t care.

When they changed she softly thanked him for checking on her, and for the rose. “It’s just been a really bad day.”

“I’ve had one or two of those.”

“Yeah, well… anyway. Thanks. It was appreciated.”

They ran together that night as wolves. Paige was the one who kissed him in the morning, and she was the one who decided their next outing should just be the two of them. She was delighted to discover that Owen the Boyfriend was a much different person than the guy he presented to the rest of the pack. Gone were the borderline offensive jokes, the loud antics, the macho posing. He was the kind of boyfriend who would take her hand on a whim, who left her folded paper flowers on the bed instead of a scribbled note.

When he finally proposed, her only question was what had taken them so long. Now she had an inkling of an idea. She needed to be with Milo to figure out her feelings, and Owen had to go through the same mental ordeal. She didn’t know if the end result would be a polyamorous relationship or a standard marriage with a little side benefit.

The side benefit in question lifted his head and howled as he came, pressing against Owen so tightly that Paige was driven down flat on the floor. She didn’t mind; she loved being pinned by both her beautiful men, loved feeling how they moved together on top of her. And even though she knew their bitchy fucking neighbors were going to complain about them having pets again, it was worth it for the way it made her mind flip.

Whatever they ended up being, she expected they would have a lot of fun figuring out the specifics.

#

The next morning Milo was waiting in her favorite diner with an empty plate in front of her. The waitress had come by to take her order but she just asked for a coffee. When the mug arrived and the smell hit her, she realized that she didn’t even really like coffee. It was just what she knew people in movies and on the telly ordered when they were waiting and nervous. She pushed it aside to keep the steam from blowing in her face and stared out the window. Every male pedestrian who passed was potentially her grandfather.

When he finally did show up, he was nothing like what she’d pictured. He was light-skinned black, with white hair and a neatly-trimmed goatee. He looked like a banker, not a grandfather, and suddenly a fear of being audited piled on top of Milo’s already-acute anxiety. She sat up a little straighter, regretted her hoodie-and-jeans look, and cleared her throat.

“I guess you’re, uh, Mr. Moss. Grandpa?” She winced at that.

He smiled. “We can save that until we know each other a little better. For now, Benjamin would be fine. And do you prefer Millicent or Millie?”

“Milo, actually.”

“Ah. Unique.”

She shrugged and rubbed her hands over her arms. “Yeah. So you and Gram were… together, huh? I’m glad. That’s cool, she… she always seemed lonely.”

Ben nodded. “Yes. I did what I could to help her with that. We loved each other very much.”

“Yeah, uh…” She reached up under her hair to scratch her neck. “How’d you two meet, anyway? Gram wasn’t exactly Miss Social.”

He laughed at that. “No, she definitely wasn’t. We belonged to the same…” He drifted off and thought for the appropriate word. “When you get to be our age, it’s not so much a pack as it is a social club. We rarely change except when it’s necessary.” Milo knew that; senior wolves were the reason the whole “only on the full moon” myth got started. “But we belonged to a group of canidae who shared common interests.”

She waited for him to elaborate and, when he didn’t, she said, “Cool. Uh, not to sound greedy or anything. I mean, I do want to get to know you. But I have to know. Did Gram leave me the house?” She wanted him to say yes, but she also wanted him to say no. She didn’t want to move all the way back home, but the thought of selling the house to a stranger was heartbreaking.

“Actually she left the house to me. I hope that’s not–”

“No, that’s perfect. That’s… yeah. I just wanted to know it was in good hands.”

Ben smiled. “And since we’re on the subject of the inheritance, I suppose there’s no time like the present.” He turned on the seat to open the leather bag he’d brought with him. Milo expected him to produce a document, maybe that cool doll Gram had in the kitchen with the head that reversed to turn the girl into a wolf – God she loved that creepy old thing – but she was thoroughly unprepared for the stack of money he put down on the table between them.

“Bloody hell! You can’t walk around with that kind of scratch!” She upended her menu over the pile, hiding it beneath the tent-like structure, and looked around to make sure no one had seen it. “What the hell are you thinking?”

“This is a nice neighborhood, isn’t it?”

“Yeah, but you’d get mugged at the bloody police station for that kind of money. How much was it, anyway?”

“Five hundred thousand pounds.”

The words didn’t register to her at first. She leaned forward, blinked, and then shook her head. “Gram didn’t have half a million pounds.”

“She most certainly did. She was a wise investor, Millicent… Milo, sorry. She owned the house outright, she had little to no extravagant expenses. She kept enough money aside to live comfortably and she played with the rest. She made cagey decisions, let the money earn interest and, in some cases, just ignored it. The end result is your inheritance.”

Milo took out one of the stacks and thumbed through it. Felt real, smelled real. She was shaking as she put it down on the table.

“Gram left me five hundred thousand pounds.”

“No.”

She looked up at him.

“That’s her mad money, the cash she had stashed in the house so she wouldn’t have to touch her savings. She stipulated that you should have that as part of your inheritance, the bulk of which is in Barclays. She didn’t have an exact accounting of the total when she died, but at the time she made the will it totalled eight-point-seven million pounds. I took the liberty of checking and it has since risen to nine-point-four.”

Milo lifted the menu again to look at the stack of money. “I have ten million pounds?”

“Nine-point-nine million, to be exact. There are some tax issues to be dealt with, of course, but on the whole… you just became a very rich woman, Miss Duncan.”

Milo exhaled sharply. “Fucking shit.”

Ben finally reached out and picked up her lukewarm coffee. “Are you going to drink this?” She shook her head and he took a long, slow sip. “There is one caveat. The money is certainly yours, no one is going to try taking it from you. Well, no one other than the government. All I ask – all your grandmother asks – is that you consider a small favor for the social club that led to our meeting.”

“A favor?”

He shrugged and held one hand out palm-up. “There’s a situation brewing. It may come to a head soon, and we have to be prepared to deal with it. We believe you could help us soothe tensions somewhat.”

“How much would I have to pay?”

“It’s not money. Like I said, we’re not going to ask you to give us any of your money. But it stands to reason with your newfound wealth you might want to take the opportunity to travel. See the world a little bit.”

She shrugged. It still seemed unreal that she now had the means to do literally anything she wanted to do. At the moment all she wanted to do was throw up.

“Yeah. Traveling,” she said softly.

He took a notebook out of his satchel and flipped it open. A computer printout was paper-clipped to the page and he turned it around so she could see the pictures.

“All we ask is that, while you’re out seeing the world, you visit America for a little while. Seattle, to be exact. We’ll need you to spend some time getting to know these women.”

Milo looked at them again. Pretty, a brunette and a redhead, both candid pictures. The brunette was crossing the street, holding one arm straight to keep her bag from bumping her hip as she hurried to beat the traffic. She wore glasses, but something about the way her head was tilted told Milo that she was a wolf. The redhead was adorable, human, and squinting at something to the right side of the camera shot.

“Dale Frye and Ariadne Willow,” Ben said, pointing at the redhead and then the wolf.

“Who are they?”

“They,” Ben said, “may just be the most important two people in America, as far as canidae are concerned.”

Milo looked at the money again. It wasn’t a payment or a bribe, and she knew that she could just tell Ben to get lost and walk out with it. Her Gram wouldn’t have held it against her. But if it was her social club making the request, then didn’t it count as a last request? The last thing her Grammy had asked of her. How could she possibly say no to that?

“What would I have to do?”

#

Eileen sat across from Ryan and waited for his response. They were in the booth farthest from the door, dissuading other members of the pack from joining them with quick glances and subtle headshakes. Benji, Hannah, Paige, and Tarun were currently looming in their regular spot, occasionally casting sidelong glances at the back booth. Eileen watched Ryan for some hint of what his reaction would be but he was a closed book. There was something different about him, though. He’d come into the bar with Paige looking every bit like a couple, their fingers linked and their arms bumping as they crowded against each other. And even now, with the bombshell she had just dropped, he still looked relaxed. But Paige was still wearing Owen’s engagement ring. She flared her nostrils and smelled sex, but unexpectedly it was Owen’s musk she picked up.

“Are you going to say something?” she finally whispered.

“Uh. A-are you sure?”

Eileen nodded, then stopped. “Wait, sure that I’m pregnant or that it’s yours?”

“Both.”

“Yes to both. The doctor confirmed this morning, the baby has the canidae gene. The other… candidate… wouldn’t have passed it on.”

“But it could have… I mean, you could have–”

“For it to be present this early in development, both parents have to be wolves. You know that, Ryan.”

“Right.” He rubbed his hands over his face and then dropped them to the table. “Christ. You think you have life figured out and then suddenly everything happens all at once.”

“What’s everything?”

He started to say something and then stopped, shaking his head. “It can wait. Look, I want… to be there for you.”

She rolled her eyes. “Ryan. I broke up with you because I didn’t want a domestic life. I don’t want the husband and the babies. I just want the life I have now. I just wanted to let you know because the decision is half yours. I can carry the baby to term and put it up for adoption, or I can…” She let herself trail off, unwilling to say the words. “There’s a bit of a time crunch on that option, though. I think. Not really sure of the specifics. I think it’s like a sweater. You have a certain window of time where you can return it and then it’s Jesus Christ what am I saying?”

“I think we’re both just rattled.”

“It’s big news.”

“The biggest.”

She exhaled and touched her tongue to her top lip. “We’d have to be sure the baby went to a canidae family. That’s just a given.”

“Of course. And… you’d be willing to carry a baby to term?”

“I… yeah. It would be difficult to not transform. I’ve never gone that long without changing. And the pack… I would definitely miss being with the pack. But for the sake of a baby, I’d make the sacrifice.”

He chuckled and shook his head. “I can’t believe we’re talking about this. A baby.”

She smiled. “If this had happened while we were still together, maybe I would have answered you differently when you… asked what you asked.”

“And you’d have been miserable. And I’d have felt guilty. Nah. It all worked out for the best.” He stood and leaned across the table. She accepted his kiss, and then touched his face. “I’m glad it was with you.”

“Me too.”

They stood and crossed the bar to tell the others their news. They had just reached the table when Mia and Owen came in. Eileen gave Owen a subtle sniff as he passed her and smelled both Ryan and Paige’s scents in his wake. Hannah scooted over and let Mia slide in next to her and looked expectantly at Eileen.

“So, you two were whispering a lot over there. Everything okay?”

“Everything is fine.” She took a breath. “I’m pregnant.” She cut off their reaction with her hand, shaking her head. “I’m going to carry it to term, and then I’ll give it up for adoption. I think it’s the best option, even if it means I’ll have to have a decreased presence in the pack for a few months.”

Ant had been listening from the bar. “Ah, balderdash on that. You can let them out and let them back in, give me a chance to sleep in once in a while.”

The front door swung open and Milo came in, looking stupefied and confused. She saw the gathering, looked at Ant, and gripped the strap of her bag where it crossed her chest.

“Hey. What’s up?”

“Eileen is pregnant,” Paige said. “She’s going to give it up for adoption, which I think is a very wise choice. It is. It’ll be hard, but I think you’re doing the right thing.”

Milo nodded distractedly. “Yeah. It’s good. Yeah. Congratulations, Eileen.”

Eileen smiled and touched Milo’s elbow. “Yeah, it’s going to be difficult what with all the doctor’s visits and the classes we have to take. God, how much does a lamaze class even cost?” She knew she could afford it, but the sudden expense of carrying a baby she didn’t even plan to keep was suddenly weighing on her.

Mia said, “You know, if you find someone who wants a child before it’s born, they might help with some of the financial things.”

Milo blinked as if she’d been slapped. “Oh. Or…” She opened her pouch and brought out a stack of money. She turned Eileen’s hand over and made her fold her fingers around it. “Donation for the baby.”

Eileen stared at it, and everyone in the booth went still.

Owen was the first to speak. “Bloody hell.”

“I gotta learn how to ride a bike,” Paige said. “Messengers are getting crazy tips.”

Milo grinned. “Nah, it’s… my Gram. She died, and she left me this ridiculous inheritance. I want to help you with the pup.”

“Thank you, Milo,” Eileen said. She grabbed Milo and hugged her tightly, then looked down at the handful of notes. “How much is this?”

“Uh… hundred thousand.”

“I don’t need that much. Not even… yeah, babies are expensive, but–”

Milo said, “Then give fifty of it to Ant.” She looked at him behind the bar. “You could probably use it, right?”

“Fifty thousand dollars? Hell, I could build a whole second bar on top of this one with that kind of loot. But if it’s your money–”

“I apparently have a lot more where this came from.” She looked at the others in the booths. “You lot… when I left Grammy’s house, I thought I was giving up the only family I’d ever know. Turns out I was just trading it for a bigger one. You all have been there for me. And it seems… I don’t know, it seems right that I use the money from my first family to help my second. I want to help all of you out. Paige, Owen… if you two are still on, I want to help pay for the wedding. Hannah… your shop. You’ve been having some cash flow issues–”

“It’s fine. Nothing I can’t work through.”

“No. I want to invest. I want to give you enough that you never have to worry about making rent or… anything.”

Hannah blinked back moisture, a rare public show of emotion. “Thank you, Milo. That means a lot.”

“I’ll find something to help each of you with. No strings attached, no debts owed. You lot… you took me in. You made me feel at home. This is just me repaying the debt I already owed to you all.”

Paige stood up and put her arms around Milo, hugging her hard before she pulled back and lightly kissed her lips. “Thank you, Milo.”

“No problem. It’ll… have to be soon. I have five hundred thousand pounds… well, four hundred now. And I’ll be getting the rest when everything clears. But when that happens, I have… I have to go away for a while.”

They all sensed the tension in her voice, but Benji was the one to comment on it. “Everything okay, Milo?”

She forced a smile. “Yeah. Last request type thing for my Gram. I want to travel, see the world. Then I gotta go to America for a bit.”

Paige laughed. “Our Milo, the world traveler! Who’d have thunk it?”

Owen lifted his mug. “To Milo and Eileen, and to their new chapters. We’re going to miss you ladies in the pack.”

Eileen said, “Well, I don’t have to stop transforming immediately. It’s a little awkward and uncomfortable, but I can still change while I’m in this trimester.”

Milo nodded. “Yeah. And I’m not leaving until I get the money and I’m sure all the tax shit has been taken care of. I don’t want to start spending like mad until it’s really real. We’ve got another few runs in us.”

Benji looked around the table and held his hands out. “Well… it’s almost nightfall. We’re all here now…”

Milo grinned. “I’m game.”

“Hell yeah.”

Tarun slipped out of the booth and began gathering the empty mugs. Benji and Ryan helped him, while the others made their way to the changing room. Milo put her bag in the only cubbyhole with a lock and proceeded to strip. Owen passed behind her and she caught a whiff of the mingled scents he left in his wake. She lashed out with her foot and kicked the back of his leg. “Hey! I’m not paying for two different weddings.”

He kicked her back. “No one’s asking you to. It’s just a… hobby.”

Ryan laughed. “Nice name for it.”

They finished stripping and then began to change. Hannah was the first one in full wolf form, her colorful tattoos transformed into swirls of peculiar color in her coat. Ant had just reached the door when she came trotting out, and he held it open for her. “Be careful out there.” She yipped and ducked outside, racing to the end of the alley before she turned to wait for the others to catch up.

One by one they left the changing room and ran outside until all nine were gathered at the mouth of the alley. Ant came outside to see them off, a pack of wolves in a swirl of different colors: black and white, gray, mottled brown, russet. He lifted his hand in a wave, and they took that as their signal to head out for the night. He watched the empty street for a long moment as he remembered his own nights spent running wild, how amazing it had felt to shed one form and take on another. He still changed, but it wasn’t the same. He was content with being the one who stayed behind and let the others in when they got home.

He went back inside, secured the door, and then checked to make sure Milo had secured her money-stuffed bag. He heard the front door of the bar open and hollered that he would be out in just a second. He tidied up the changing room and then shuffled out to greet his customer. It was a young man with untidy hair and a rough beard, his eyes wide as he looked around the empty barroom. Anton covered a sniff by rubbing his sleeve under his arm and knew that the customer was a wolf. The pack was large enough already, but there was no reason not to be friendly to a fellow canidae.

“Hi, there. Name’s Anton. Welcome to the Bulldog.”

The kid looked nervously back at the door as if he planned to flee. “I’m not sure I should be here.”

Ant smiled. “Then you’re in the right place. What can I get you?”

Permanent link to this article: http://underdogs.geonncannon.com/bulldog-breed/

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