Chapter One

Nothing surprised Max much anymore. He wasn't psychic but being an empath was apparently close enough to deny him the rare pleasure of blissful ignorance. However, the werewolf having a full blown temper tantrum and effortlessly batting cars halfway across the dealership was not a thing he or his bladder was prepared for when he went to work that morning.

Max had ran inside the stuccoed brick office building of Cedric's Auto Sales to grab a key when the werewolves pulled up into the lot with all the overdramatic theatricality he would expect from creatures with only half a human brain. The squealing tires of their blacked out SUV that narrowly avoided monster trucking over an entire row of coupes and the machine gun pulsation of blinding fury had given Max just enough of a heads up to fill a flimsy paper cone with water and sneak out the back door.

Safely pinned to the side of the building and downwind of any hyper sensitive noses that might catch his scent, Max could carefully assess the situation while determining precisely why he had suddenly found himself under twenty thousand leagues of crap. He did have a natural talent for pissing people off in the worst kind of way but he was usually mindful not to tick off any werewolves to the point where they would bother tracking him down at work and all but threaten to rip him open like a soggy piñata and feast upon his savory entrails.

And it wasn't just any old werewolf slinging cars around like an out of control pinball machine. It was none other than the big bad Alpha of the Southeastern Coast Pack himself huffing, puffing, and roaring Max's name. Domenic Santora was the type of man that would have had people calling him a monster (behind his back, of course) even without the Alpha werewolf status to back up the claims. If he was trying to hide the fact that he had been a mobster before he became all furry and fangy, then Domenic was doing a piss poor job of it between the subtly lethal threat in the way he moved and the overtly Mafia-esque style he used to keep his Pack in line.

Max hadn't seen the Alpha in his werewolf form before, which he considered a blessing. Except for rare circumstances, seeing a werewolf in all their horrific glory was a typical prelude to a vicious mauling, something Max wasn't interested in being on the receiving end of. In human form, Domenic was five foot five of compact muscle, unruly black hair, and proud Italian bone structure. Despite wearing a tracksuit that would have been more fitting for a high school gym teacher than the local Alpha, he had no trouble inciting widespread terror and panic, capitalizing on that bonus level of fear that only an Alpha werewolf with possible Mafia connections could truly inspire.

Max sipped his water thoughtfully, ignoring the prickle of cold sweat at his temples. He wasn't thirsty but the sipping helped keep his mouth preoccupied with something other than spitting out mouthfuls of four letter words. There was nothing Max could think of that he'd done that would have Domenic on the rampage and the quickest way to find out exactly what was going on required him to do something other than try to break his previous cowering record.

His roommate happened to be a werewolf, which should have made him the only human in the immediate area who was slightly better equipped to handle the Alpha's wrath. At least in theory. However, despite having a few brief encounters with Domenic in the past, he wasn't on the best of terms with him. As improbable as it sounded, their mutual dislike was almost entirely his roommate's fault, not his. Yet thanks to those previous encounters, Max was at least aware that - whether he was the cause of it or not - something dire had greatly distressed the Alpha and that typically meant Pack trouble.

The Alpha may have had the permanent scowl of the perpetually peeved for no good reason, but being the emotion absorbing sponge that he was, Max knew better. Under the veneer of surliness and simmering belligerence, Domenic possessed a cold edged composure that was not entirely human. He was the worst possible combination of man and beast: a clever predator and a patient hunter. Which made his current behavior all the more alarming to Max, even more so since Domenic's uncharacteristic violent outburst was directed exclusively at him.

Max chewed on the rim of the cup, considering his options. His most primitive instincts were telling him to run like the graceful T-rex in the opposite direction of the car shunting werewolf as fast as humanly possible… but if his strategic retreat caught the wolf's attention, he was dead. Besides the fact that running from a werewolf was always a bad idea. Just like dogs or any other predator, they would instinctively give chase and run down their fleeing prey.

Knowing that it would be the stupidest and possibly the very last decision he would ever make still wasn't enough for Max to consider it any less seriously than his even less appealing alternatives. Instead, it was the young couple that he had originally gone into the office to retrieve the key for huddling in terror against the side of a used truck that ultimately persuaded him to take action. Probably more out of paralyzing fear than any conscious effort on their part, the couple hadn't moved since the start of Domenic's tirade. Good for them, since they managed to not redirect his animosity towards themselves. Bad for them, because Domenic was not in the right frame of mind to pay attention to where he was slinging mid-sized vehicles.

Sooner or later, the nice little couple who only just recently moved to the city were going to wind up flattened by a parked car moving at crushing speed and Max had no idea how he was going to explain that to the dealership's insurance company. Max was no hero by any means, but given the choice between an emotionally unstable werewolf having a meltdown and dealing with the insurance company, he felt he had a significantly better chance at reasoning with the half-crazed beast.

Detaching himself from the wall, Max mentally braced himself and put on the best salesman face he could muster. He didn't know much about Domenic, but Max had dealt with enough intimidating preternatural types in the past to know that a good bluff was a mortal's secret weapon. Anyone, human or creature of the supernatural variety, could be nudged into sidetracking confusion if someone failed to behave and react like a sane, rational being. Werewolves, shifters, and certain fae were more difficult to fool since their keen noses could sniff out a varying range of emotions almost as well as Max could sense them, but he could usually count on his extraordinary gift of acting like a moron with a death wish to distract them enough to overlook what their senses were telling them.

His heart was pounding hard enough to leave bruises on his ribcage as he stepped out from around the building like it was the most perfectly natural thing in the entire world. Once Max was far enough out in the open to be clearly visible yet close enough for a futile mad dash for the office, he paused to kneel down and then pretended to tie his shoe. The urge to keep his eyes glued on the inhuman creature who could snap his neck with as little effort as bending a straw was overwhelming but he resisted. Max only had a brief moment to wonder if Domenic had spotted him.

"MAXIMILLIAN SHAW!"

The Alpha was in the center of the tiny car lot and Max could practically hear the enraged man's veins bulging against his skin. Although having his full name bellowed with such controlled effort to make human words when the voice was noticeably struggling not to go all guttural and growly unnerved Max more than he cared to admit, nonetheless, he stood up as if he had just noticed the raging wolfman and began his nonchalant stroll towards death.

The two male werewolves in human form that had shown up with Domenic had been attempting - with absolutely no success - to calm down their Alpha since the moment he flung the first car. But their efforts were hindered by their own sense of self-preservation which entailed not incurring the wrath of their pack leader, as well as complicated by their struggle to avoid unintentionally challenging his authority with either words or posture. It may have been a crappy start to Max's day for sure, but even werewolves had crappy days if the looks on their faces was any indicator. The infinitesimal amount of relief that at least he wasn't a werewolf with werewolf problems took some of the edge off Max's nerves, allowing him to put together a fully loaded smile that could charm bees out of their honey.

"Domenic! What a pleasant surprise," Max said, left hand still holding his paper cup and shaky right hand jammed into the pocket of his slacks. "I see you've already helped yourself to checking out some of our vehicle selection. See anything you like? Looking for something more fuel efficient than that gas guzzling behemoth of yours, I bet."

As expected, Max had the full attention of the wolves, the intensity of their focus giving him the uncomfortable sensation of an ant under a magnifying glass. And although Domenic was still vibrating from head to toe from suppressing the full magnitude of his wrath, he was no longer terrorizing the dealership. He started to open his mouth to speak but Max quickly cut him off with a snap of his fingers.

"Did we have an appointment scheduled today? I could have sworn that was next week."

He rubbed the back of his neck sheepishly. "You know, I always tell myself that I should set reminders on my phone. But then I'd also have to set a reminder to remind myself to set a reminder. What can ya' do? If my life wasn't a mess, I wouldn't know how to function."

He could just about smell the air start to burn as Domenic's fury cranked up a notch or two. Max was certain that he'd pay later on for interrupting him, but for the moment he simply tried to disregard the crossfire of emotions assaulting him from every angle. The Alpha's anger was bright and hot, like smelted iron ore, which easily overpowered the emotions of everyone near him. However, it was the lingering electric jolts of fear from the unfortunately human couple that Max focused on.

"I apologize," he said softly, as if speaking to a pair of frightened animals. "It completely slipped my mind that I have an appointment with this… gentleman."

Boldly, he walked past Domenic, (all the while expecting a hairy knuckled hand to shoot out and wring his neck) squatted down, and placed a firm, reassuring grip on the shoulder of the wide eyed man. White gossamer strands as soft and fine as silk snaked down the man's bicep before wrapping tightly around his arm like a tornado made of floss. The threads were only visible to Max, who released his grip when enough of the ghostly strings stretched across the man's chest and wound themselves around the man's girlfriend. He was confident that the cocoon of soothing calmness would last at least until they made it somewhere safer. Like the next county.

"Well, you have my card so call me in the next few days and I guarantee that I can get you two into something a little more within your budget." Max tried to sound positive but had to settle for halfhearted sarcasm instead. "Maybe something with decent mileage and that hasn't been sucker punched across the parking lot."

He helped them to their feet and turned them towards the direction of their car, adding encouragingly, "And don't worry about my friend over there. He gets cranky when his blood sugar drops too low, poor guy. A glass of good ol' fresh squeezed orange juice and he'll be fine. He doesn't like pulp so there's a pretty good chance he won't beat me into one."

That said, Max gave them both a little push and watched them shakily but calmly stumble to their car without as much as a glance over their shoulders. He couldn't help the twinge of envy he felt as they floored it out the dealership lot and down the quiet adjacent street. It took one long exhalation of breath before Max could turn around to face Domenic.

"I do have OJ inside if you want some," Max offered, carefully avoiding making direct eye contact with the Alpha, whose heavy breathing only intensified. "I made it myself. It's my own special blend of Tropicana and vodka. Has all the vitamin C and poor judgment you need to start your day off right."

Domenic lurched forward and slowly closed the distance between them, flanked on either side by a stone faced werewolf. He stopped just shy of arms reach in front of Max. It was in that moment that it finally occurred to Max that not only had he sent away the only customers on the lot but Cedric, his boss and one of the few preternatural creatures that might prefer him more alive than dead, wouldn't be in until lunchtime. If he lived through the day, he'd have to reconsider his stance on vodka and orange juice being a complete, balanced breakfast.

"Where is she, Max?"

Surprised, Max flinched involuntarily, his previously averted gaze darting up to meet the Alpha's before he could stop himself. Domenic had the eyes of a wolf, as did all werewolves, even in their human form. The almond shape and the eerie, softly luminous irises - a unique trait that was referred to as "moon-eyed" - made it easy to pick a werewolf out of a crowd.

Domenic's eyes were russet brown with smoldering undertones of red; however, in Max's honest opinion, they were currently the most beautiful shade of murder he'd ever seen. Although Domenic's voice had been deceptively low and coaxing, Max was convinced that the Big Bad Wolf probably used the same tone of voice when asking the little pigs to let him in, all the while hiding his true intentions of devouring them whole once inside.

Stalling because that was the only thing he could think to do, Max swallowed several mouthfuls of air from his empty cup. The "she" whose whereabouts Domenic was interested in had to be Desiree, his werewolf roommate and, arguably, his best friend. Judging by the fact that Domenic was sniffing around his job looking for her made him believe that the wolves had already been by her usual haunts and couldn't find her there either. Which then left Max as the next logical person to harass since he was their best lead for locating her and maybe just a little because his fragile human body was full of meaty chunks in red gravy.

Apparently, the Alpha knew a bit about his powers so as not to stand close enough for Max to touch him and play around with his emotional state. Max was fully capable of doing that without physically touching him but he wasn't about to share that little secret with Domenic. It hardly mattered anyway; since he had been trying to bind the irate werewolf in a web of tranquility since he sent the young couple out of harm's way but Domenic's anger was far too deep and volatile for his attempts to have any effect. His only other trump card was that he was under the protection of the Conclave, the council of preternatural big shots that presided over magical and supernatural affairs, yet somehow he didn't think that superficial tidbit of knowledge would prevent Domenic from chewing his face off.

Although Max had no idea where Desiree was at the moment, his abilities would have made it simple enough to find out. Except he couldn't just dump a pack of werewolves in her lap and hope for the best. For the most part, werewolves were temperamental creatures with exceptional amounts of self-control but get a bunch of them all riled up and there was bound to be violence. So Max couldn't tell them where she was, not without an abundant amount of unnecessary bloodshed.

And considering that werewolves were natural polygraph machines and would immediately know if he lied, he couldn't make anything up either. Max was painfully aware that they all knew that there wasn't any water in his cup and he had no choice but to appreciate that they were granting him a little time to fully realize just how screwed he was. That or they thought he might be a few eggs short of a full carton. So finding himself unable to respond in a way that would help anybody much less himself, Max lowered the cup from his mouth and said the first complete thought that came to mind.

"That big, throbbing vein on your forehead is making me very uncomfortable," he stated, not having to work very hard at trying to look uncomfortable. "I mean I'm flattered, but I just don't think I'm ready to take our relationship to that level yet—"

Next thing Max knew, his cup had mysteriously vanished and there was a snarling Domenic in his face. The Alpha wasn't a tall man but being toe to toe with him was just the right amount of intimidation to turn a grown man into a whimpering, invertebrate newborn. He had a rabid look to his wild eyes and his lips were pulled back to show impossibly white teeth. Wolves tended to only attack when provoked… and from Max's up close and personal perspective, Domenic seemed pretty damn provoked.

"Two nights ago, something killed and ate a human family of four," the Alpha growled from somewhere in his throat that was more wolf than human. "The police and the Conclave seem to think that it was a werewolf."

Stiffly, as if his body didn't want to fully comply, Domenic took a half step backwards, permitting Max to start breathing again.

"No one in my pack did it. I'd know if they did," he continued, "They accuse one of my wolves which means they accuse me. They're poking their noses in my business and I don't appreciate my Pack being dragged into something that we had no part in. But if they all think that a werewolf did it, I only know of one who lives in the area and isn't in my Pack."

Max slowly shook his head as if what Domenic was inferring was as preposterous as it was unlikely.

"Dez didn't do it. I know you have some kind of personal grudge against her, but you have to admit that what you're accusing her of isn't something that she'd do."

Domenic's eyes narrowed as he pointed at Max with more vehemence than necessary.

"You and I both know exactly what she is capable of doing."

Max didn't have an answer for that but it didn't change his opinion on the matter either.

"Well this all sounds like a 'you' problem, not a 'me' problem," he said with a shrug. "I guarantee you that Dez is innocent, which means that you and your Pack are still under suspicion of murder and the consumption of humans, and you and I need to have a serious talk about how you plan on paying for the damage to the cars you viciously attacked. It might tick off my boss, but I'll do you a favor and won't charge you for the paper cup you just crushed into nonexistence."

Max waited, expecting a loud, snarly response, but Domenic didn't reply. Instead, in an almost imperceptible movement that only his werewolf attendants would notice, Domenic nodded his head. With an unsettling synchronization, the pair of wolves stepped around their Alpha and took hold of Max's arms. And without a word, they began to escort him towards their SUV as Domenic turned and led the way. Max was quite certain that both wolves - who could probably deadlift him with their eyebrows - weren't needed to drag him along like a reluctant toddler but he was glad for it.

They were a little more than halfway to the van when the man to Max's right started weeping, quietly at first and then in body wracking sobs. The man to his left began laughing hysterically, bending over to hold his sides and to try to catch his breath between fits of cackling. Max was able to easily reclaim possession of his arms and step away.

However, he barely had time to admire his own handiwork before he felt his body slip the surly bonds of Earth and take flight. The first time impact with the ground felt like a full body concussion, a bone bruising shockwave that snatched the air from his lungs. The second time he hit the ground was undeniably more agonizing than the first.

And by the time he finally rolled to a stop, there was too much pain to even figure out where it was originating from. Max tried to move something, anything, just to reassure himself that enough of him was still intact to be able to move, but nothing responded to his feeble attempts. His head felt like it was detached and spinning in a centrifuge, yet even so, Max could have sworn he heard Domenic say, "And just so you know, I like the pulp," seconds before he sank under the murky currents of unconsciousness.