Shifting Into Midlife (Book Two)
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An Alpha dragon wants me, but my hands are full with a pack of shifter jerks…
Since becoming a shifter, my life has turned upside down. Gone are my days of solitude, enjoying an empty nest while my daughter is off at college. Instead, I’m juggling a new job, a new pack of friends, and a hot dragon shifter making eyes at me. That’s enough to drive me crazy—in a good way—but now I’m also worried about my daughter accidentally swearing an oath to an evil alpha.
My friends and I have a plan to free her from the alpha’s ruthless control, but the process might be a little reckless. We can use both magic and death, right?
I sure hope so.
As a mom, I was prepared to let my daughter live her own life. But I’m not about to lose her forever to a pack of shifter miscreants.
Well, that’s not going to happen. What a bunch of bullsh—Well, you know what I mean.
I imagined my house burning down as I pulled onto my street with the radio blaring some annoying top forty tune. What in the world had possessed me to try my hand at baking? Lord knew I could burn water. And believe me, that was an impressive feat.
Sure, I could make my mom’s famous oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, but that was because I’d made them with her hundreds of times before she moved to Florida. Too bad she couldn’t have been here to help me bake.
Beside me, Tilly sang the words to the upbeat song, belting them out in a way that made me smile despite her choice of music. This was the girl I was used to. The happy one. It was almost like all of our trouble with Holly and her pack had been left behind us and now all we had to worry about was not burning down the house.
However, and unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. Holly and her pack were trouble, and we would have to deal with them, eventually. But not today. Today was all about Tilly and me and rebuilding some of our somewhat broken relationship.
My gaze went to the backseat and the two large bags of groceries with all the supplies to bake brownies and some extras that my daughter had thrown into the basket as we’d browsed the store. Tilly had reassured me she knew how to make them and that our house wouldn’t go down in a blaze of glory, but I wasn’t so sure. My baking abilities were… bad, and that was being kind. The idea of making brownies from scratch had me a little wound up. Well, wound up wasn’t quite right. Even anxious felt like an understatement. Baking should not be this nerve-wracking. I would’ve rather taken on another shifter pack.
Tilly bumped my shoulder with her fist. “Relax.”
Easy for her to say. I glanced at her and frowned. “I am relaxed.”
“You so aren’t,” she said, followed by laughter. “They’re just brownies. A little chocolate, sugar, a pinch of flour. We won’t die.”
Yeah, so she said. “The last time I made brownies, I had to call the fire department,” I grumbled.
My daughter laughed harder, throwing back her head. Her brown hair, now woven with purple highlights, blew in the breeze from the open window, and I stared at her for a moment as we sat at a stop sign right by the house, no longer caring so much about the baking. I’d do anything to continue to see her smile and laugh like this. Bring on the flames! Maybe I could shift into a gigantic bird and flap the fire out. Whatever it took to keep her this carefree.
We pulled into the driveway of our little house, and I felt oddly proud as we climbed out and unloaded the groceries. With the extra money I was making working for Esther Hallowood as her event planner, I’d been able to afford to fix up some of the things about the house that had been bothering me for years. The building had been recently painted white with a gray pop-out color, and the shutters were hung straighter. Tilly had even helped me plant some new flowers under the windows. Overall, I no longer cared that I had the smallest house in the neighborhood because I was proud of our home.
To my surprise, I managed to unlock the door while balancing one of the paper bags on my knee. The bag started to slip as I fumbled with the keys and the lock, but I got it open before the eggs could slide off the top and hit the porch. Using my foot, I pushed the door open wide and secured the groceries in my arms. The only reason I was halfway coordinated was because no one was looking. If Tilly’d been paying attention, it all would’ve gone kerplunk.
Tilly walked past me, still humming the song from the car.
“So, we’re resting for a few minutes, having another coffee, then baking?” I asked her, already tired from our long day shopping, but I was also excited to spend more quality time with my daughter.
“Well—” Tilly froze and sniffed the air. Tingles of awareness skittered over my skin and my newly heightened senses. I inhaled, taking in all the scents in my house. We weren’t alone.
And our guest was… cooking?
What in the world was that scent? Steak for sure, but there was something else. It made the hair on my arms stand on end. It was wrong. It didn’t belong here. But what was it?
Cam walked out of the kitchen, cracking open a beer while plastering a grin on his face. “Great, you guys are finally home,” he said, like he’d been waiting for us. Like we’d expected this terrible man to break into our house. And cook. What the eff?
I glared at him as the urge to shift into my dragon nearly overcame me. I did not like this guy.
He was the scum of the earth. I was surprised his baggy, low cut jeans didn’t have holes in them. OR dirt. He wore a heavy metal t-shirt of a band I didn’t recognize. One of those that the font was so hard to read, I didn’t know how any of their fans recognized the logo. Then again, I wasn’t exactly on the up and up of the latest bands. The hair bands of the eighties? Now, they were a different story.
Cam was no friend to me or my daughter. He was a volatile bear shifter and part of Holly’s pack of rogues. He was also the one who had talked my daughter into binding herself to Holly. And that was our current predicament.
“Get out,” I told him, my voice a low growl as I moved to stand in front of my daughter. Like me, she could shift into any animal, but Cam didn’t know that. If she shifted into anything but a bunny, they’d know. At this point, I wanted to keep it a secret.
“What are you talking about?” He actually had the audacity to look unsure of why we wouldn’t want him here. “I made steak for dinner and everything.” His bottom lip inched out. “I even got the good steak sauce from the gourmet store.”
I leaned around him to look into the kitchen, and my annoyance and fear morphed over into anger. Sure enough, Cam had taken the steaks I’d been marinating for dinner, cut one of the large ribeyes up to make two small ones, no doubt planning to keep the big one for himself, and was cooking them in my cast iron skillet on the stove. Seriously? I’d been planning on grilling them. They were really good cuts of meat! He probably hadn’t remotely cooked them correctly.
My mouth was still hanging open, so I closed it, then chose my words with care. I had to get a handle on my emotions because every time I was overly anxious, I shifted, and it wasn’t always into my dragon. When I anxiety-shifted, it was random.
Tilly and I had the unique ability to shift into any animal at will, where most people had only one type of animal they turned into every time they shifted. We had our theories on why but weren’t a hundred percent sure. “You need to leave.”
Absolutely unperturbed, Cam sipped his beer and leaned against the counter. “Why? Aren’t we all going to have dinner together?”
This guy was either stupid or crazy. I was going with both. And mean. Definitely mean.
It was Tilly’s turn to speak to the deranged shifter. “Don’t you remember that we’re enemies?” she asked from behind me. “That we just had a big fight?” Her voice came out all shrill and nearly squeaky. She looked like she wanted to scream at him, but couldn’t decide if the man was serious, or if this was some new game. She, too, was trying to control her emotions.
He laughed as he stood upright and waved her off. “Oh, I forgive you for that! Don’t even give it a second thought!”
Don’t give it a second thought? Yep, he was definitely crazy. Totes psychotic. I gaped at him, then shook myself out of my shock at his behavior. “Enough!” I barked. “We don’t want you here. We don’t want you near either of us. You need to get out now, before we make you leave.”
The amusement and good mood drained from his face, and his beer can crunched a little. The liquid came out the top and slid down the sides, dripping onto my floor. “Shut your bitch mouth,” he said in a low, severe voice.
Okay, so this was the Cam I knew. For whatever reason, he’d thought he could come to our home and pretend Tilly hadn’t dumped him, and our pack hadn’t beaten his. He seemed to now understand that we weren’t going to play nice and let bygones be bygones. Not happening.
“Don’t call my mom a bitch,” Tilly said, and her voice held a threat. She was furious.
He crushed the can in his hand, then threw it against my wall. “Why? That bitch has caused us enough trouble. We’re in love, but she can’t seem to accept it. She does everything in her power to come between us, and I’m done with it. You and I are going to be together, whether your mother accepts it or not.”
Love? My assessment of his delusional state was correct. My Tilly had never loved him. She’d hung out with him for a few days because he and his pack—if they could even be called a pack—were the first shifters she’d met who could help her understand what she’d become. The fact that he thought it was anything more than that would have made me feel bad for him, if he hadn’t been calling me names and behaving in a threatening manner toward my child.
“Cam—” I said in what I hoped was a reasonable tone. I wanted to talk him out of here at this point and avoid violence if at all possible.
He cut me off and stepped forward. “You women need to learn your damned place. If a man says something, that’s that.”
Oh, no. My fury rose to the point of hilarity. I had to fight back the furious laughter.
I set my bag of groceries gently on the floor, eyeing Cam as I did so. He stared, chest heaving with anger, glaring at me as though I was the source of all his problems. I was about to show him he was right.
Shifting intentionally before my fury and anxiety forced it, I knew what form I was going to take before I even ended up on all fours. His eyes widened as I threw back my head and roared like the glorious lion I became. Cam let out a shriek that sounded like it should’ve come from a young child, not a man, and I leaped forward, knocking him to the ground before he could begin his shift into his bear. Standing over him, I roared again, then snapped my teeth near his face.
He screamed again, rolling over onto his stomach, seemingly trying to make his way to the back door. I watched him with narrowed eyes. I really didn’t want to take a bite of the man. I imagined he tasted like old socks and sweat, but Tilly, in her bunny form, leaped past me, hopping onto his butt, which was the closest thing she could get to, and bit down. Hard.
Again, another extremely unmanly scream left his throat, and Tilly dropped to the ground, tearing his jeans in the process and revealing the used-to-be-white stained boxers underneath. Cam barely made it to his feet before he was out the backdoor and running across the lawn, hollering at the top of his lungs, apparently too panicked to even remember he could shift.
Big bad bear my left butt cheek. Or rather, Cam’s left butt cheek.
When I was satisfied he wasn’t coming back through the kitchen door, I shifted back to my human form and went to the door, closed it and locked it. Ignoring my torn clothes on the floor, I snatched a pair of sweats I kept hidden in a drawer for occasions like this one. I’d learned it was just smart for a shifter to have clothes all over the place.
After I was dressed, I turned to see that Tilly was in her skin and clothed again too. Only her clothes hadn’t been destroyed since she’d shrunk down instead of bulking out.
For a moment, I smiled at her, proud that we’d chased the man away, and prouder of the amazing woman my daughter had grown into. Then, reality intruded, and my smile faded. I loved having Tilly here, but this was a glaring, crushing reminder. Nothing had been solved. If Holly commanded Tilly to come back to the pack, she’d have to, because Tilly had foolishly sworn her allegiance to Holly’s pack. A bond with an Alpha was unbreakable. At least, that’s what Esther and the other ladies I’d become friends with said. As much as I loved having my daughter home from college, she wasn’t safe here, and wouldn’t be, not until we dealt with Holly, Cam, and their pack.
“Tilly.” My voice came out soft.
She picked up both bags of groceries from the floor with a smile on her face. “That was amazing, huh? Who would’ve known that being a shifter could actually be fun instead of scary?” I followed her as she went to the counter and started to unload the groceries. “We sure showed Cam. I doubt he’ll be back to bother us any time soon.”
“Tilly.” I tried again, but she yammered on. Her adrenaline must’ve been sky high.
She moved the meat around in the skillet. “I guess our steaks are already ready to go. At least the jerk was good for something.” Tilly paused in the act of moving them from the pan to a clean plate. “Unless he poisoned them or something. Do you think he poisoned them?” She finally turned back to me and froze when she saw my face. “Mom, what’s wrong?”
“Remember what we talked about.” We had a long talk just yesterday.
It hit her. She knew where I was headed with the conversation. “Mom, I don’t need to go anywhere. I’m fine.” The happy relief in her voice faded and the word fine came out in a squeak as tears filled her eyes.
Oh, my sweet girl. How I wished I didn’t have to do this. “You’re not. It’s not safe here for you, not until we get things squared away with that rogue pack.”
She got that stubborn look on her face. The one that reminded me entirely too much of myself. “I’m not going to hide out while you clean up my mistakes. I’m not a child anymore, Mom. This whole thing is my fault, and I’ll be a part of fixing it.”
I crossed the kitchen and stood in front of her, taking her hands in mine. “You know, I would do anything in this world to have you close to me. So if I’m telling you it’s time to leave, it’s time to leave.” And because her stubborn look only got more intense, I added the words I’d held back until now. “Having you here is more dangerous than having you gone, for me as well as you. Cam might be a little unhinged, but he isn’t half as dangerous as Holly and some of her other pack members. If you stay here, they could show up, she could command you to kill me, and you would.” I grabbed her shoulders and beamed my gaze deep into her eyes. “You wouldn’t have a choice.”
Her face fell. “Mom, I would never hurt you.”
“You might do worse than hurt me. You’ll do whatever your alpha commands. That’s the power of an alpha bond.” No matter how much it broke her to do it. She truly wouldn’t have a choice.
I watched as it hit her. “I just want to help fix this,” she whispered.
Pulling her to me, I wrapped her in my arms, and she squeezed me right back. “The best way to help right now, I’m afraid, is to go where they can’t reach you.”
We held each other for a long time, neither of us speaking. But we didn’t have to speak. Our decision had already been made, and we knew it, no matter how hard it was for both of us. Our whole lives it had been Tilly and me against the world, at least until she pulled away in college, and now we would be apart once again.