Excerpt: Risk It All

Kipling loaded the additional sleeping bag, blankets, pillows, and clothes he’d bought into the Jeep, and made certain it was all secure before he closed the Jeep up and locked it. Shoving his keys in his pocket, he walked back across the parking lot to the long row of shops. There wasn’t much on offer, but it was enough. The little strip, a couple of restaurants, and one big grocery store clearly catered to people who spent most of their time tucked away in their mountain homes, hikers, and campers.

He shivered, wishing he’d thought to get out the scarf he’d just bought, but it wasn’t worth going back to the Jeep for it. Pushing his hands into his pockets, he hastened his step, eager to get his last errand over with so he could go back to the cabin and finish trying to make it into some sort of home.

His fingers curled around the scraps of paper in his pocket—lists he had painstakingly copied from books in the little bookstore at the opposite end of the strip, with food, supplies, recipes, and tips that hopefully would enable him to survive the winter and not be totally miserable while he did it. Kipling had never really done the “roughing it” thing, and had always lived in the city that formed the heart of Blue’s territory. Werewolf or not, he would much rather have city blocks and coffee shops and the comforting sounds of people. The smell of pack.

Best not to think about it. He buried his fingers deeper into the soft shearling that lined his pockets in addition to the jacket itself, mentally going back over everything he still needed to do once he got back to the cabin.

A flashy display caught his eye, and Kipling stopped in front of an electronics store to stare wistfully at all the fancy music players. He didn’t even know for sure what all of them were. Roughskins didn’t exactly have much use for the tech, and they sure as hell didn’t have the money for that kind of luxury. Even cell phones were something he’d always seen but never used—never even touched. He only recognized the music players because some of the other pit fighters, the ones treated better than werewolves, had had them.

All he’d ever had was an old radio tucked into his bunk. But even a radio wasn’t possible at the cabin. It was a miracle he’d gotten the water working—and he wasn’t convinced the water was safe. Electricity had proven impossible. Not that he had the money, anyway.

“So which one are you after?”

Kipling jerked, snarled, ripping his hands from his pockets as he turned and bringing them up—and realized it was just a regular person trying to chat like normal people did. He forced his hands to uncurl but kept them at his sides.

If the man noticed his strange behavior, he gave no sign of it. Kipling tried not to stare, but it was hard because the man practically begged to be stared at, he was so beautiful; jeez. He had never seen someone that hot. The man was big, but still on the lanky side, with lightly-tanned, white skin, dark brown hair in a short, fancy sort of cut that reminded Kipling of all the assholes who came to the pits to bet on the fights. He wore a suit like they did, too, which made Kipling nervous. Suits were always trouble.

His eyes were warm, though, not cold and mean. They were the color of rust, which was odd, but not the strangest Kipling had ever seen. The barest smattering of pale freckles dusted across his nose and the tops of his cheeks, which struck Kipling as… cute, which was not a word he had ever associated with someone who had such an Alpha presence. The man radiated that commanding energy, stronger than any Alpha or Candidate Kipling had met. “Sorry, what?”

The man smiled and nodded to the display. “You were studying the mp3 players pretty hard. Did one in particular catch your eye?”

Kipling shook his head. “No, I just like music. I’m not buying, just looking. I wouldn’t know where to start.”

“Looking isn’t nearly as much fun as touching,” the man replied, giving Kipling a slow perusal. Normally those kinds of looks made him want a really hot shower and an especially abrasive scrub brush. Alphas only ever looked at him like that when they were gauging how long he might last in the pit, how much money to spend, and if he was worth a post-fight fuck. Not that Kipling had ever agreed to that. He might be a roughskin, but he wasn’t anyone’s fuck toy. He and Peyton had taken a lot of abuse, as all of the roughskins had, but being whored out had been one step too far. If only the other roughskins had stood with them, he might still be in Blue and the pack might be working toward becoming a true pack instead of a miserable pile of abuse and greed and cowardice.

The man met his eyes again, and Kipling blurted, “Are you a trap?”

Surprise and confusion flickered across the man’s face. “What?”

“Nothing. Sorry.” Kipling bolted past him, head down, arms at his sides, and hurried toward the grocery store.

“Wait!” Fingers lightly touched his shoulder. Kipling growled and whipped around, fingers flexing as he barely kept back his claws. Once a roughskin, always a roughskin. Or, as his Alpha had loved to say: once a pit dog, always a stupid, ugly, barely-civilized pit dog.

“Leave me alone.”

“I’m sorry,” the man said quietly, raising his hands. When Kipling didn’t turn away, he slowly lowered them, and for the first time, Kipling noticed the tattoo: on the back of his left hand was an elaborate, gothic-style cross in dark blue ink. The back of Kipling’s neck prickled. On the surface, the tattoo seemed harmless enough. There was no way to know for sure why the man had it—but Kipling trusted his instincts, and his instinct said that tattoo marked the man as part of something. But part of what? The suit, the tattoo, the Alpha mien… Was he a Boss? A pit spectator? Or just an ordinary, used to being in charge type?

Kipling started to turn away again, but the rust-colored eyes caught him, held him, because they just didn’t fucking mesh with the rest of the man. He looked like every Alpha Kipling had ever hated, but those eyes… Those eyes looked like the Alpha he’d always wanted. “What?” he finally asked, still tensed to run, fight, whichever it came to.

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