The sound of fiddling pierced the cold November air as Captain Elias Sobol hesitated outside the bar’s heavy wooden door. The flickering neon sign in the bar’s window was making his head swim, and the air had a crackly feel that told him a storm was coming. Even his inner seal was jittery, vibrating with anticipation like that moment right before he plunged into the ocean. It’s just being in a new town. He didn’t like encroaching on another selkie clan’s territory. But the entire crew of the Utkin was gathering to support Bobby’s first band gig, and Elias didn’t want to let him down.
His first mate, Jacob, pushed open the door from inside. “You coming? We’ve got seats up front.”
“Yeah, be right there.” Elias adjusted his pelt—to humans it appeared as a duster-length sealskin vest—and stepped inside. Warmth hit his face, carrying with it the overwhelming scent of humanity and spilled beer. Despite it being past the season for tourists, the bar was packed with people, faces lit by strings of Christmas lights criss-crossing the ceiling. Elias immediately spotted Walton’s sealskin hat at the front near the low platform where Bobby and his band stood belting out a fast-paced tune.
Turning, he slid sideways through the crowd, weaving between bodies like swimming through long fronds of kelp. Maybe after the band finished playing, he’d go to the beach and shift. Letting his seal out to swim would help clear his mind. As he approached the long bar, a delicious scent reached him—cinnamon and mocha with an underlying hint of what he could only describe as sex.
His heartbeat kicked up, and a single thought consumed him. Mate. His eyes came to rest on a short figure with brown curly hair sticking out beneath a pink winter cap. She sat on a bar stool with her back to him, but he could see her delicious womanly curves filling out the sweatshirt and jeans she wore. A true Alaska girl. He couldn’t hold back his seal’s low growl of approval.
She swiveled in the chair to glance at the band, revealing her profile. Her cheeks were flushed as if she’d just come in out of the cold, and her broad smile shot straight through Elias’s heart. The smile wasn’t directed at him, however. She was talking to a weathered man with shaggy, dirty-blonde surfer hair sitting beside to her.
Elias rolled his shoulders, shaking off the possessive aggression settling over him. Not all shifters found their true mates, but when they did, the physical attraction was supposed to be instantaneous and undeniable. He only hoped they had human things in common, as well.
He silently chided his inner seal, You knew she was here all along, didn’t you?
His seal responded by filling his mind with lusty thoughts.
Feeling his body respond in embarrassing ways, he shook his head but couldn’t help the smile tugging his lips. They said meeting one’s mate for the first time was something you’d never forget. I’d prefer she didn’t remember our first meeting as me being a perv who approached her at the bar. Elias straightened his shoulders, pulled his vest closed over his front, and nudged past a group standing between him and the woman.
His mate didn’t appear to have sensed him yet, and as he drew near, he understood why; her cinnamon scent grew stronger, but it also told him she was human.
Damn. That put a kink in things. Humans weren’t as in-tune with their instincts—he was going to have to woo her now and find a way to reveal his true nature later. He paused a few bar stools away, taking a moment to plan his new strategy. On stage, Bobby was playing his heart out on the fiddle, the guitarist strumming an accompanying beat while the vocalist shouted something about gambling away his heart.
Elias’s future mate bobbed her head in time to the music.
I could ask her to dance.
His seal laughed at him, knowing full well Elias didn’t dance.
Someone at a table near him reached out to tug his sleeve. “Hey, Elias,” a woman shouted above the music. “What are you doing in Kenai? Buy me a drink?”
He pulled back and it took him a second to recognize her. He’d met her in Homer last year, and they’d spent a few enjoyable nights together, but hell if he could remember her name. He forced himself to smile but shook his head. “Not tonight, love.”
The woman stuck out her lip in a pout, but he moved past without another glance. At least she’d had the right idea. Start by offering to buy a drink.
He was within arms length of his mate when he spotted the metallic glint on her left hand. Married?
He glanced once more at the man next to her. She was totally out of that guy’s league. Was the ring a ploy to keep guys from hitting on her? He’d met women who did that. He started forward again. Suddenly, the man next to her grabbed her chin in one hand and kissed her. Not a peck, but a deep, satisfying, intimate kiss.
Elias’s spine stiffened. Before his brain had time to catch up, he’d grabbed the guy by the back of his collar and yanked him off his stool, tossing him onto the floor.
The crowd surged back, giving the fallen man room.
“What the hell?” the guy shouted, face dark with fury.
“The lady doesn’t appreciate being mauled,” Elias answered, peripherally aware that the woman had risen to her feet behind him.
The guy sat up, drawing his feet under him to stand. “She’s my wife, you asshole.”
A lead weight settled to the bottom of Elias’s stomach. “Shit.”
He turned to find the woman gaping at him, brown eyes wide. Then she turned her lovely face away to look at her husband on the floor. Husband. Wife. The ring wasn’t an act.
If there was one boundary Elias wouldn’t cross, this was it; he wouldn’t steal another man’s wife.
Something hard slammed into Elias’s cheek, rocking his head back. Stumbling, he turned in time to receive a second jab directly in the eye. Stars filled his vision, and his own fists flew up on instinct. The man was back on his feet, fists in front of him like a boxer. He jabbed again. This time, Elias dodged the blow.
Someone in the crowd yelled, “Fight!”
“Peter, stop,” the woman shouted, reaching with both hands for her husband’s arm.
Elias seldom started brawls—at least, not without good reason. But he also wasn’t one to back down from one. Still, the guy had a right to be pissed. Elias forced his fists open and raised both palms in front of him. “I thought she was someone else. Honest mistake.”
The man danced forward. “Honest my ass. Come on and fight, you pussy.”
The band had stopped playing and the crowd had formed a surging ring around the area. A grizzled bouncer shoved into the open space. “Break it up, Peter.” He held out both arms as he stepped between them and glared at Elias. “Both of you, take it outside.”
Above the crowd, Elias felt Jacob’s eyes on him and the telepathic bond he shared with his selkie crew surged to life. Need backup?
What a fiasco. He didn’t need his crew knowing he’d found his mate. If they did, they’d do everything they could to break up her marriage, and if they did that, he may as well just steal her away right now. Keeping all thoughts of his mate out of his mind, Elias shook his head and sent back, Nope. I’m done. Tell Bobby I’m sorry.
Turning, Elias jetted out the door and into the cold night air, ignoring Peter’s drunken taunts as he climbed into his pickup. He was halfway home before he cooled down enough to realize he hadn’t even learned his mate’s name.