Facing the crime scene, Kepler dragged in a breath, sniffing for clues. Blood. Garbage. Wolf shifter. Mate.
He shot to his feet and backed away. Mate? The smell wasn’t coming from the dead shifter—it was from the other wolf who’d been here. The one who’d most likely made the kill. Wildflower honey and musk. A scent that made his inner wolf come to attention and demand action.
He realized he was panting when his partner, Cal, offered the vapor rub again. “Change your mind?”
“I’m fine.” Kepler rubbed his palms against the front of his slacks uncomfortably. All shifters longed to find their perfect match, their destined mate, but this situation was about the least romantic he could’ve imagined. He didn’t have time to deal with a mate, especially not one who was also a suspect. “You don’t smell anything unusual, right?”
The back door to the bar swung open and a young woman wearing a plastic tiara emerged, phone in hand. Cal turned, one hand up to stop her. “Hey, you can’t be out here.”
The woman looked at the body with wide eyes. “My friend is missing and I’m worried about her.”
“Well, she’s not out here.” Cal hurried over and ushered the woman inside.
Kepler let his gaze follow the bloody paw prints circling the body. They led toward the other end of the alley. His wolf was urging him forward. Yearning to meet this woman. His human mind kept a tight leash on the beast inside him. He couldn’t let hormones cloud his investigation of the crime scene.
Heart thundering against his ribs, he walked down the alley, watching every footstep to be sure he wasn’t missing any clues. The prints faded quickly, but the scent of honey and female grew stronger.
He froze at the corner of a dumpster, nostrils twitching. She was here. Right here. His hormones were screaming at him. He called softly, “Hello?”
From inside the dumpster came a soft, breathy sob.
Throat tight, he cracked open the lid. A pair of glowing blue eyes met his.
“Don’t come any closer,” a woman choked out.
He lifted the lid higher, exposing a naked, amber-skinned woman cowering in one corner of the container, surrounded by crushed takeout boxes and empty alcohol bottles. Flowing pink and blue hair tangled across her round, anguished face, the bright colors completely at odds with the grim surroundings. She seemed familiar, but he couldn’t place her. She likely just felt familiar because his wolf insisted they were mates. “Are you okay?”
“I said stay back!” She bared her teeth, glowing blue eyes flashing. Drying blood marred her smooth skin, and her shoulder had a fresh crescent of puncture wounds.
He glanced down the alley toward the body, putting together the pieces. That mother-fucking rogue attacked my mate. His wolf was going crazy. Protect her. He extended his free hand toward her and spoke in his most soothing tone. “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you. What’s your name?”
Her delicate bare shoulders heaved with rapid breaths. “You don’t understand. I killed him. Stay back.”
Shit. Her wolf form must’ve taken over to defend her from her attacker. “It’s not your fault. My name’s Kepler. Detective Kepler Stone.”
She stared at him a long moment, wariness fading from her eyes. “Detective Stone?”
“Yes.” He leaned into the dumpster, hand still extended. She seemed to recognize him, but he’d met a lot of people since moving here and wasn’t surprised. “Let’s get you out of here before the humans start asking questions.”
Wariness flared in her eyes again, and she shrank deeper into the corner. “Humans? What are you talking about?” She choked on a sob. “I don’t know what’s happening to me.”
His blood turned to ice. Was she not a shifter? He inhaled deeply, sorting through the other smells to focus on hers. His wolf insisted she was both shifter and his mate. Definitely wolf. Something like ashes. Vomit. Perhaps she was suffering a form of post-traumatic stress amnesia. Every protective urge in his body surged to full strength.
Uncaring of who might be watching from the other end of the alley, he removed his shirt and held it toward her. “What’s your name?”
“Ashlyn,” she whispered. With a trembling hand, she accepted the shirt. “Ashlyn Reed. I run the bakery.”
He blinked as understanding flooded over him. He’d stopped by the bakery a couple of times to pick up a dozen bear claws to share at the office. Why hadn’t he scented her as his mate then? Hell, he hadn’t even realized she was a shifter. None of this was making any sense. A human shouldn’t be able to become a shifter without visiting the hidden glacial spring, and he doubted that’s what’d happened here.
He glanced toward the bar’s back entrance, where Cal and the Trooper were once more in conversation. The Trooper was human, and part of Cal’s job was to keep him engaged while Kepler investigated. Most humans didn’t know about shifters, and the Shifter Council wanted it kept that way. But what about Ashlyn?
She was choking back sobs and fumbling to put an arm in the shirt he’d given her. Her entire body trembled like leaves in a storm. Until he could figure this out, he needed to protect her. Protect his mate. “You’ve obviously had some shocking experiences tonight. Let me take you somewhere safe so we can talk, okay?”
With a shaky breath, she nodded and rose, giving him a glimpse of her naked body. The mating urge was strong, and he felt his body react, despite the sordid environment. Rein it in, he told himself, keeping his lips secured over his emerging fangs and his eyes cast down to hide their unearthly glow. The last thing Ashlyn needed was a horny mate she didn’t even realize existed.
As her bare feet settled to the dirt, she looked up at him. “I—I’m not supposed to say thank you,” she said with a hiccup, then started to laugh.
He had no idea what that meant, but she was obviously not in her right mind. He had to get her away from the scene and calmed down before asking questions. Before the Trooper or any other humans spotted her, he swept Ashlyn up in both arms. No way was he putting Ashlyn into human law enforcement custody. He could trust Cal to come up with an excuse for his disappearance.
Heading toward the far end of the building, he circled the parking lot toward his Jeep. Ashlyn clung to his neck, her wildflower honey scent laced with tequila, garbage, and the ozone-like odor of magic. Does that mean she might be a rogue, too? His steps faltered as he examined her pink and blue tresses in the light of the moon. No indication of a telltale white spot.
Relieved, he buckled her into the passenger seat and jogged around to the driver’s side. He started the engine and turned toward home. Once he had her safe, he could plan out their next steps.
Ashlyn remained silent as he drove, staring out the windshield and clutching the front of the shirt closed. He pulled into his driveway, grateful for the tall wooden fence between his yard and the neighbor’s. As he turned off the Jeep, Ashlyn seemed to come to life. “Shouldn’t you take me to the hospital?”
“Shifters don’t need hospitals.” The words were out before he thought them through.
“Shifters?” she whispered, eyes round. The smell of adrenaline flooded the Jeep.
He ran a hand over his hair. Idiot. He needed to be more subtle. She didn’t know what she’d become. What her world was going to be like from now on. “You’re going to be okay. I promise. Let’s go inside so I can explain.”
She blinked at him, as if tempted to believe him, then glanced out the window. “Where are we?”
“My house. You can clean up, then I’ll answer all your questions.”
Her eyes narrowed. “Why don’t you take me to my house?”
“I can protect you better here.” He let a thread of his Alpha power infiltrate his words, hoping to reassure her he could keep her safe and also to compel her to obey. He generally didn’t use his power because it confused other shifters, making them think he was looking for a pack. Kepler preferred to run as a lone wolf, but now that he had found his mate, that was likely to change.
He opened his door and went around to open hers for her. Too late, he spotted the neighbor’s chihuahua taking a crap on his lawn as it had every day since he’d moved in three months ago. The little clucker had a complex and was in rivalry with the “big dog” next door—aka Kepler’s wolf. The chihuahua started barking.
With fluid dexterity, Ashlyn shifted into a gorgeous cream-colored wolf with an amber ruff. Canines bared, she leaped past him, lunging for the dog.
Kepler tackled her just before her jaws snapped over the smaller animal.
The chihuahua scurried around the fence, unharmed, but yipping in terror.
Twisting free, Ashlyn faced Kepler, front paws set wide. Then her wolf lifted her muzzle and howled, voice resonating with power.
His veins turned to ice. She’s a fucking Alpha? She didn’t even know what a shifter was, and her animal was an Alpha, the most difficult form to control. The ice became daggers through his heart.
His mate was in real trouble.
They both were.