“You need to check out the tent on the outskirts of our land.” Dixon Meade cornered his half-brother, Grove. “It hasn’t caused any trouble, but I think someone’s living there.”
Grove tried not to groan. As the resident tech geek of the Meade wolf pack, it wasn’t his job to worry about who was or wasn’t on the pack lands. He hated fighting, disliked confrontation and tended to shy away from attention. “Why me?”
“Because you look the most non-threatening.” Dixon folded his arms. “And you’re better at talking to people.”
“Send Daniel.” His other half-brother was much better with conversation. Daniel could con anyone into doing whatever he wanted.
“He’s up to his eyeballs with his fiancé.” Dixon crooked his brow. “Just do it. You’re heading to the library and it’s on the way.”
“How…” He didn’t bother to finish his question. He wasn’t sure how, but Dixon knew everyone’s business.
“I keep an eye on everyone. It’s my job.” Dixon nodded once. “I can’t tell what’s going on there, but I know it’s not one of our wolves. Someone infiltrated our land.”
“You said there was nothing wrong,” Grove replied. “And how did you know I was headed to the library?”
“You always go to the library on Thursdays.”
He couldn’t argue there. He liked the library. The silence, the books, the atmosphere and knowing there was so much information for anyone to use all within a short grasp.
“Go by the edge of the property and check out what’s happening. It can’t be anything too bad or the scouts would’ve turned the person in.” Dixon rounded his desk. “Please?”
“Daniel’s too busy?”
“I wouldn’t ask if I had him as a possibility, but I doubt they’ve left the bedroom in a week.” Dixon rolled his eyes. “Isn’t your wolf twitching to get out?”
“A little.” His wolf stirred within him and paced. The animal had been pent-up for too long. He hadn’t gone for a proper run in weeks. Then again, if the wolf had wanted out, it would’ve let him know.
“Then use the wolf to sort this out. He’ll have the best instinct for what’s going on.”
Grove walked with Dixon to the door. “I’m more of a tech guy. I don’t approach people.”
“But you can do this.”
He stared at his half-brother. “You’re trying to get me out in public more.”
“You spend a lot of time behind the computer and it’s not normal. The wolf has to be suffering and you’re not happy,” Dixon said. “And don’t tell me you’re fine. I can see it in your eyes. You’re lonely.”
Dixon had him there. Damn it. “Okay.”
“Thank you.” Dixon shook hands with him. “I thank you and so does the pack.”
“Uh-huh.” He turned on his heel and left his half-brother’s office. He never should’ve let Dixon talk him into this, but whatever. He wanted to spend time with something that didn’t talk back and wasn’t his computer screen–books. If he’d built a bigger home, he could’ve had the library of his dreams, but what did one man need with a huge house? He had what he needed, plus just a little more.
It was enough.
He strode out of the mansion to his car, then slid behind the wheel. The wolf growled within him. The animal did need out.
He’d worry about it when he got home.
Grove backed into the turnaround, then drove away from the mansion. Dixon’s words rang in his ears. He needed to get out more. He spent too much time behind his computer screen.
The truth sucked.
He drove across town to the library. His brothers might not know or care that he’d donated enough money to add the addition to the building. When he saw the larger children’s space and meeting rooms, his heart skipped a beat. The patrons had plenty of space for new materials, meeting and story time…all because of him.
He parked at the end of the lot near the bushes, then left the car and locked up before heading into the building. The librarians waved as he went to the periodicals. He liked the silent reading nook where he could browse the various print media. He subscribed to them all in digital format, but there was something about holding the pages in his hands that pleased him.
“Hi.” CJ, one of the other patrons, joined him in the nook. “You’re here.”
“I am.” His heart skipped another beat and a smile pulled at the corners of his mouth. He liked CJ. The young man was a little rough around the edges and appeared dirty, but he always smiled and had manners. “How’s things?” He looked forward to their time together. CJ might not appear to be much of a conversationalist, but he’d impressed Grove. He wasn’t the kind of guy who gave in to flash. He liked brains and CJ seemed to have them.
“I have to leave the library.” CJ sat beside him. “They think I’m a vagrant.”
“Are you?” If he had to guess, CJ sure looked like he could be one. “Where do you live?”
“Here and there.” CJ grinned and fiddled with his backpack. “I finished the latest Harwood mystery. Did you read it yet?”
“I haven’t.” He had it loaded onto his e-reader to start later. “I forgot you liked that series.” He appreciated having someone to talk books with. His brothers didn’t give a shit about books. All they cared about was the pack and making money.
“It’s one of my favorites.” CJ hugged his bag. “I picked up a new Mulcahy mystery, too.”
“Nice.” He hadn’t started that series yet.
“Mr. Gold, you have to leave.” The librarian stopped in the doorway to the nook. “You’ve been here all day. Hi, Mr. Meade. Is he bothering you?”
“I’m fine and he’s not bothering me. We’re having a nice conversation.” Grove stood, then held up his hand a moment. “I’ll be right back.” He left the room with the librarian in tow.
“I’m sorry. I didn’t realize you knew him.” She blushed. “He’s been here all day using the computer.”
“That’s what they’re here for.” He glanced over his shoulder and listened for CJ’s movements. “What’s the story? You don’t usually toss people. What’d he do?”
“Nothing, per se, but we have to be mindful of the other patrons. Some have questioned what he’s doing here and others think he’s…dirty.” She rubbed her arms. “I’m sorry. This is a space for everyone and he’s fine. He hasn’t caused trouble. Some of the patrons just think he looks…rough.”
“He does.” Grove nodded once. “I’ll try to get him cleaned up, but he should be able to use the facilities as he needs. That’s only fair.”
“Agreed.” She smiled. “Thank you.”
“Welcome.” He waited for her to walk away before joining CJ in the nook again.
“She wants me out, right?” CJ stood. “I’m sorry. I’ve been here for a few hours.”
“That’s okay. You’re permitted to be here.” He stared at the younger man and his wolf stirred. How had he missed this before? CJ wasn’t just a potential vagrant. He was a wolf. He also seemed a bit lost. Sweet, but lost.
“Thanks for the intervention. It’s the only place I can get work done. I don’t have Wi-Fi at my place.” CJ held on to the strap of his bag. “I should get going.”
“Why? We’re having a good conversation.” He swept his gaze over CJ. He’d never considered part of the reason he liked visiting the library had little to do with books and more with seeing CJ. He enjoyed their friendship. “Why don’t you have lunch with me?”
Asking the question was impulsive and against his usual nature, but he didn’t care. CJ seemed to need the help. Grove also wanted to spend more time with the wolf. His own wolf noted the crackle between them.
“Really?” CJ’s shoulders sagged and his hands trembled. “You’re serious?”
“I am. Why don’t we head to the diner?” He could afford something more expensive, but with the crust on CJ’s jacket and the unkempt appearance of his hair, he’d fit in better at the diner.
“Yeah?” CJ’s eyes flashed. “I’d love that.”
“Good.” He hadn’t bothered to pick up a paper or read a magazine. “Let’s go. I’ll drive.”
“I hope so. I don’t have a car.” CJ followed him through the library to the side exit.
“You don’t?” In his world, everyone had a car. Everyone had a home and belongings, too. He opened the passenger door for CJ. “Then it’s a good thing I drove.”
CJ said nothing and placed his bag on his lap.
“You can put that on the floor of the backseat.” He closed the door, then rounded the hood to the driver’s side. Once he settled behind the wheel, he withdrew his fob from his pocket. “You don’t have to hold it.”
“My laptop is in there.” CJ’s eyes widened. “Sorry.”
“It’ll be safe on the floor or the seat back there.” He waited for CJ to buckle up, then engaged the engine and backed out of the spot. “I keep my tablet back there while I’m driving.”
“Oh. On the bus, it’ll get stolen if it’s unattended.” CJ’s blush started at his hairline and crept beneath his thick collar.
“I won’t steal your stuff.” He drove to the diner on pack lands and parked in front of the building. Anyone could visit the establishment, but only with a Meade pack member.
CJ followed him into the diner. “Are you sure my bag is okay?”
“It’s locked in my car. It’s fine, but we can see it from the table.” He stopped at one of the front booths with a window and perfect view of the vehicle. “See?”
“I guess so.” CJ sat across from him. “I’ve never been here.”
“It’s good. I like the food and I know both the owner and cook.” He knew everyone that worked there, too.
“Most of my belongings are in that bag.” CJ’s hands trembled as he accepted the menu.
“They are?” He nodded to the server. “She’s here. What would you like to drink?”
“Oh.” CJ froze. His Adam’s apple bobbed as he swallowed. “I’m sorry. May I have a regular coffee and water?”
“Sure.” She grinned. “Look over the menu and once I get your drinks, I’ll take your order.” She turned to Grove. “And for you?”
“Coffee and water is fine. Thank you.” He didn’t bother to look at the menu. He knew what he wanted, but first he had a thousand questions for CJ.
“Sure thing.” She left them alone at the table.
“So your belongings are in that bag?” Grove folded his hands on the menu. “You seem lost. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing.” CJ picked at the edge of the menu.
“You’re lying.” He could detect fibs a mile away. “Talk to me. Where are the rest of your things?”
CJ didn’t answer and instead fidgeted again.
“I don’t have many belongings and I don’t have a place to live. I’m a vagrant like they keep calling me at the library.” CJ bowed his head. “Want me to leave?”
“No. I’d like you to stay.” He folded his hands on his lap. “Do you have anywhere to go?”
“I have a tent. I’m at the edge of the old Waterford Reservation. It’s out in the middle of nowhere and no one can see me,” CJ said. “I’m still on pack land, but not my pack. Probably yours.”
The server brought the cups and pot of coffee. “What can I get you?” she asked and poured the coffees.
Grove nodded to CJ. “Get what you want.”
CJ flattened the menu on the table. “I’d like a cheeseburger and a side of battered bacon.”
The wolf must be hungry. Probably famished from hiding.
“And you, sir?” the server asked. “What can I get you?”
“I’ll have a grilled chicken sandwich and a salad.” He needed to feed his wolf, too, but he also preferred to keep in shape.
“Perfect. I’ll put that in right away.” She smiled, then left.
CJ wrapped both hands around his cup. “Am I living on your land? Your pack hasn’t bothered me.”
So he knew Grove was a wolf. Nice. “Whose land do you think it is?”
“Meade land. They bought up the old reservation.” CJ shrugged, then met his gaze. “I know I’m not supposed to be there, but I don’t have anywhere else to go.”
“You don’t have a pack?”
“There aren’t any more Johns wolves but me. I’m the last of my pack.” CJ massaged his temples. “They threw me out because I’m gay, then they tried to fight off the Simpkin pack and most of them died. Those who didn’t left the state. I’m the only one left.”
“There were Johns pack lands.” He knew so because he’d monitored them.
“We don’t have them any longer,” CJ said. “The Darke pack took what was left.”
He should’ve guessed. The Meade pack hadn’t gotten along with the Darke pack. The leader hated Dixon for being powerful and diplomatic. “And they didn’t accept you into the pack?” Even knowing he’s the last of his own pack?
“They don’t know I exist. The rest of my pack is gone, so no one cared to look for me. If they find out I’m around, they’ll probably try to execute me, too.”
“It’s a power play.” His pack hadn’t done that, but they’d had to intervene in a few situations close to it.
Well, shit. “Do you have anywhere to go that’s not the tent? It’s supposed to storm tonight. You can’t sleep in a tent during a thunderstorm,” Grove said. “The forecaster said it’ll be bad.”
“Then I’m going to have to hunker down. The tent is all I have.” CJ smoothed the menu on the table and picked at the edge of the faux leather.
He had to help CJ. No one should have to spend the night in a tent. “Why don’t you come home with me?”
“With you?” CJ froze. “What would I do?”
“How about just stay warm and safe? That’s the biggest thing.”
“I should work or something.”
“Where do you work now? Do you have a job?” He’d said he was a vagrant, but maybe he had a job. It was possible.
“Why?” Besides, he was essentially homeless.
“I can’t exactly do computer coding in a tent without electricity.” CJ blushed. When he half-smiled, his dimple showed.
“I do art—book covers, internet art, posters and stuff. My work is sold on my website and through a site where people buy images and I put them together. They buy the images and send me what they want done with them and I do it, then send it back to them. Most of the time, they’re happy. When they aren’t, I end up spending a lot of time at the library using the internet.”
“Yeah, they turn my work into prints, logos, artwork for dinnerware and such.” CJ shrugged and his grin widened. “It pays okay and when I can’t go to the coffee shop to work, I work at the library. I used to have an apartment, but when I couldn’t pay the bill, I lost my internet, then my home. I also used to live on the pack land, so that didn’t help. The pack died and I lost my place. That and no one wants to hire someone who lives in a tent.”
That wasn’t true. “I want to hire you.”
“Right.” The server brought the food and CJ rubbed his hands together. “Thank you.”
“Can I get you anything else?” she asked.
“I’m good. CJ?” He arranged his plate to work on his salad first.
“This is perfect.” CJ separated his fork from his napkin. “Thank you.”
“I’ll be back to check on you shortly.” She left them alone again.
“I meant what I said. I want to hire you,” Grove said. “We’ll get your stuff and you’ll live with me. I need someone to handle a few tasks for me.”
“What kind of tasks?” CJ asked between bites.
“Don’t want the job?”
“I do, but I’d like to know what I’m doing before I accept.” CJ stuffed a piece of bacon into his mouth.
“Cleaning up, some laundry, stuff like that,” he said. “Are you interested? I’ll give you a place to live and clothes, plus food and internet. You’ll be able to do your artwork, too.”
CJ ate a bit more and seemed to mull over the opportunity. “You’re not afraid of me? I shift.”
“So do I.” He thought they’d established that they were both wolves.
“Oh yeah.” CJ put his fork down. “I’m so used to dealing with people who are just humans, not shifters. Sorry.”
“Don’t apologize.” He cut up his salad. “How long has it been since your last shift?”
“Six months.” CJ finished the bacon. “Do you shift a lot?”
“I’ve tried to tamp down my wolf.” That sounded so silly. Why restrain the wolf? He had a power few others had and he didn’t seem to want it.
“I did, too. If no one knew, then no one would try to kill me.”
“Well, if you come with me, I’ll protect you. Promise. You’ll have space to relax, exist and run if you want to shift in return for hard work.”
CJ cut his burger in half. “You’re serious?”
“Deadly. I can’t let you get hurt in the elements and since you don’t have a pack, you’ll need protection. You should be part of a pack and we have space. Why not join us? I can help you and I want to.”
CJ rested his hands on his lap “I do want to belong.” He hesitated. “Can I leave at any time?”
“If you want to.” He didn’t see why that should happen, but he’d give CJ his freedom if he so chose.
“Can I bring my pet?”
“Pet?” A wolf shifter with a pet? “What kind?”
“My cat.” CJ didn’t move. “I can’t leave her behind.”
“Sure.” He’d never had a pet and wasn’t sure how hard it’d be, but he’d give it a try. “I’ll ensure you’ve got supplies for her, too.”
CJ nodded. “Then I’ll work for you. I’ll put in honest work for honest pay.”
It wasn’t the most eloquent way to put it, but he didn’t care. “Then we’ve got a deal.”
CJ frowned. “It’s starting to rain harder.”
“Sure is.” He nodded to the food. “Why don’t we get it to go and we’ll eat at my place? We’ll retrieve your things and your cat, then head to where it’s safe.”
CJ’s smile returned. “Deal.”