Dark Heart: Storm Moon Shifters #2 (PAPERBACK)
Dark Heart: Storm Moon Shifters #2 (PAPERBACK)
A past that won't die. A betrayal that cost him everything.
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Maverick Hale, alpha of the Storm Moon Pack, studied the river card, his own hand of cards, and then his three opponents.
He was playing poker in his spacious flat above Storm Moon, his club in Wimbledon, London. The lighting was dim, the corners of the room lost in shadows, and the fire in the wood burner blazed, keeping the chill February weather at bay.
His opponents were friends and employees, and one of them was a new member of his pack. Hunter, another wolf-shifter, had recently moved to London from Cumbria. He was tall and cocky with an undeniable flare for poker, and a brawler, if given half a chance. Grey was the Deputy Head of his security team; he had a shaved head, was packed with muscle, and was ex-Forces. As such, he was watchful and resourceful, and very good at poker. And he could drink—a lot—without it hardly ever seeming to affect him. The other poker player was Jet, a petite, dark-haired waitress who was also a spy in his club, paid to find out secrets. Nothing nefarious, of course, just things that would enable his pack to keep Storm Moon running smoothly, and life in general settled in their area. Both Jet and Grey were human. All looked at him now, expressionless.
Maverick weighed the options of possible hands, then slid his chips into the middle of the table as he stared at Jet. Her bet was ridiculously high, and he was sure it was because she had nothing of value in her hand and was hoping to bully out the opposition. He didn’t have much either, just three of a kind, but that was hardly the point. “I’ll match your bet.”
Her dark red lips pouted as she leaned back in her chair, studying Maverick just as intently. “Are you sure you want to do that?”
Maverick smirked. “I just said so, didn’t I?”
“Oh, I think it is. You are far too calm.”
Maverick refused to break eye contact. “I’m always calm.”
Grey snorted and almost spit his whiskey out. “That is not true! But,” he slid a sideways glance at Jet, “let’s not upset the boss too much.”
Hunter laughed. “I thought Maverick was always in control.”
“That’s because you haven’t been around long enough yet,” Grey said. “Trust me, when he loses it, it’s big. And I’m out. That bet is too rich for my taste.”
Maverick glared at Grey. “I do not lose it. I express anger when necessary. It’s healthy. Hunter, are you in or out?”
“In, obviously.” He counted out his chips and pushed them forward. “Show us your cards, then, Jet.”
She smiled as she placed her cards down. “Straight flush.”
Maverick groaned. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
Her smile broadened. “I warned you. Hunter?”
“Bollocks. I have a flush.” He eyed her appreciatively. “Well played.”
She leaned forward and dragged the chips towards her. “Thanks. I know.”
Grey threw his cards onto the table and eased his chair back. “It was an insanely risky bet, and could easily have backfired.”
“But I’d still have won, just with less of Maverick and Hunter’s money.” She checked her watch. “Well, seeing as it is now almost three in the morning, I’d better get home. Money, please!”
“But we’re not done yet!” Hunter complained.
“Yes, we are,” Maverick said as he stood and reached for the cash. “It’s been a long day, and a longer night, and I need to run before I sleep. Let’s cash up the chips.”
By run, he meant he wanted to shift into his wolf and race across Wimbledon Common, and maybe Richmond Park beyond it. He’d been cooped up all day in the club, ironing out issues with the pack, and then stayed all Thursday night, one of the busiest nights of the week—and they had a full weekend ahead, too. They had a big band booked for Saturday night.
“You want company?” Hunter asked, standing, stretching, and cracking his neck.
“Thanks, but no. I need some head space, too.” Maverick pocketed his meagre winnings. “You need a hand getting home, Jet? I don’t like you walking on your own at this hour.”
“All sorted,” Grey said. “I’m dropping her off. Hunter?”
He shook his head. “My flat is just down the road. I’ll be fine.”
In a few more minutes, Maverick was alone. As the alpha, he was quicker and stronger than the other shifters, and he needed to stay that way. Part of that role meant he needed to argue his way out of things—or into things—and be able to control a large group of shifters, all with big egos, and keep their respect. It was a hard job, but he did it well. Playing poker with friends was a good way to decompress, and to get to know the newer members, like Hunter, in a more relaxed setting.
He was impressed with Hunter that night. He was easy going and didn’t lose it when he lost—especially to Jet. Not all shifters were comfortable being bested by a woman. Maverick was just as his name implied. He was not an old-fashioned shifter alpha who demanded subservience from everyone, especially women, and his pack knew it. If they didn’t like it, they could leave. And yet no one did, which meant he must be getting something right.
Besides, he was already impressed with Hunter. He’d first met him a few months before, in November, when they were investigating the death of his friend, Kane. At that time, Hunter was living in Cumbria, part of the pack there. However, after a breakup with a witch, he needed a change. It seemed London and the Storm Moon Pack was it. He’d arrived just after the New Year, bringing his crazy shifter friend Tommy, too. Maverick wasn’t sure what he thought of Tommy. He was a beast of a man, definitely a brawler, and some kind of demolitions addict. But he had no aspirations for leadership, only a good time. So far, both of them were working out well and had settled into the pack as part of the security team.
Did he really want to go out? It was mid-February and cold outside, his apartment was warm, and his bed beckoned after barely four hours of sleep in the past twenty-four. But he was also wound up and needed fresh air, and if he didn’t shift now, he wouldn’t be able to until Friday night.
Maverick shook off his introspection and headed downstairs to check on the last of the staff that were tidying up the club before they locked up. Then he would hunt.
Domino, Head of Security at Storm Moon and senior member of the pack, watched two of her security staff stroll through the darkened club, checking the toilets and small seating areas to make sure no one was still there before they locked up. In another few minutes they would be finished, and then they could secure the exits and go home.
There were three floors to the building, and Maverick owned all of it. His flat was on the first floor, the bar was on the ground floor, and the club was below it, in the basement. Domino was in the office that overlooked the club’s dance floor. It was elevated above the main floor, with a large, one-way glass window that enabled the staff to watch the customers unobserved. The bar was at one end, the stage at the other, and a huge dance floor stretched between them. Out of sight was a series of seating areas in small rooms off a corridor that led to the office. They had security cameras everywhere, and the feed led to a few monitors in the corner of the room.
She turned away from the window to watch Arlo, Maverick’s second in command, count the cash they’d taken for the night, ready to put it in the safe. “Good night’s takings?”
“Very. I thought tonight would never end.”
Domino laughed. “It’s not even the end of the week yet! Saturday will be big.”
Arlo rolled his shoulders. “I’m just tired. Saturday will be great. Mystic Banshees is the biggest band we’ve booked for a while. Are you putting on extra security?”
She nodded. “Another half a dozen. I thought it would be wise. An extra couple on the doors and through the club and pub.” She was looking forward to the band, but the place would be packed, and that undoubtedly meant a higher risk of trouble from a crowd they wouldn’t normally get. “Fortunately, Tommy and Hunter are happy to take on extra shifts at the moment.”
“Good. I like them. They fit in well.” Arlo made a note of the cash before placing it in the safe. “Done, and now I’ll sleep like a baby.”
“Snore and grunt, more like.”
“Want to find out?”
“No! Besides, it’s hardly like you make me feel special.”
Arlo flirted with everyone. It was like breathing to him, which was why no one took it seriously. He stretched and winked, revealing a glimpse of flat, toned abs, and then ran his hand through his dreaded locks. He had a Jamaican dad and an English mum, and had skin the colour of milky coffee, with dark dreads that fell to his shoulders. “Dom, you know you’re special!”
She leaned against the window, arms across her chest. “Be still my beating heart! You’re cheesy, and your flirting is meaningless.”
“But so much fun.”
She laughed. “Idiot.” She wanted to add that his heart still belonged to Odette, one of the Moonfell witches, but decided not to sour the moment.
Arlo, however, was not averse to teasing, and he smirked. “Besides, I wouldn’t want to step on Hunter’s toes. Working out all right with him, is it?”
“We have a perfectly good professional relationship. Are you insinuating something?”
“Just noticed that you seem to like his flirting, that’s all.”
“It’s banter. Just like this is.”
“Sure it is.”
There was only so much she could say. Arlo was right. So far, Hunter wasn’t making any obvious moves, but he definitely flirted with her more than anyone else. He’d made his interest clear while they were investigating Kane’s death in November, but he wasn’t part of the pack then, and now he was. That changed everything. She could do without messy relationships in her pack. Plus, she had her position of authority to consider. She was effectively Hunter’s boss. So, he could flirt and she would enjoy it, but that was it.
The door opened and both turned, knowing it was Maverick before they even saw him. His alpha dominance radiated around him, and Domino had scented him from halfway down the hall.
Maverick brushed his hair away from his face as his long strides ate up the room. “All good here?”
Domino nodded. “We’re almost ready to lock up, and the money is in the safe. How was poker?”
“I lost. Jet is annoyingly good.”
“What about Hunter?” Arlo asked. “Can he play?”
“Very well.” Maverick poured a shot of rum and knocked it back. “I’m going to have to up my game.”
“Competition’s good though,” Domino pointed out. “It’s better than getting complacent.”
“I never get complacent.”
Domino just laughed. That was true enough. Maverick never presumed anything, never dropped his guard, and was always fitter and faster than everyone else. His position depended on it.
He rolled his shoulders, “I’m going for a run, but I was thinking we should all head out tomorrow night. It’s a full moon.”
He didn’t need to qualify that. There were no formal arrangements, but it was common for the pack to run together every full moon, depending on availability.
Domino collected the glasses and headed to the sink in the kitchenette. “Works for me. Richmond Park, I presume? We’ll have more space there. I was thinking we should make it fun. Split the pack and have a hunt, of sorts. I could hide some steak or chicken in the daylight tomorrow. It will give the adolescents something to focus on.”
The younger wolves who had only just started to shift needed to hone their hunting skills, and setting targets and making it a game was a good way to do it. If there was live prey available, like rabbits, badgers, foxes or birds, that was better, but it was sometimes a bit ambitious for the teenagers. At the moment, there were only seven of them, but they needed a firm hand.
“Great.” Maverick headed back out the door. “Get the word out, Arlo, and let’s make it happen.”
The door slammed behind him, leaving Arlo and Domino alone again. Domino grinned. “Need help organising it?”
“I am very used to Maverick’s requests. I have texts and email and messenger apps! I’m Pack Second, Dom. It’s what I do. Do you need help burying bait?”
Only half-joking she said, “I’m Head of Security. Burying things is my job.”
Hunter didn’t want to go home yet. Maverick might not have wanted company, which was fair enough, but Hunter wanted to hunt, too.
He’d found it harder than he thought to move from Cumbria to London. He missed the familiarity of home, and the wide-open moors that stretched around Keswick. The wildness of the landscape was soaked into his bones after generations of his family had lived there. He had taken his first tentative steps as a shifter on those hills.
He missed the place more than he did his family, which was a terrible thing to admit. Of course, he missed the easy comfort of being around them and his lifelong friends. Although unexpectedly, Tommy, his big, brawny shifter friend, had moved with him. In his usual, brusque Tommy way, he just said he wanted a change too, so why the hell not. For all that he’d dreaded it at the time—Tommy was large, loud, and occasionally annoying—he was also funny and reliable. And so, for the first time in years, Hunter was flatting. With Tommy. It was all taking some getting used to.
Fortunately, Maverick and the Storm Moon Pack had lots of contacts, and finding a flat hadn’t been hard. One of the shifters managed properties, and always prioritised renting to pack members. The flat wasn’t cheap, but it was a decent size, and in Wimbledon. Hunter had money coming in from the family business, and both he and Tommy were paid as part of Storm Moon’s security team. All in all, it had been a good move. The late hours and easy camaraderie suited him. Plus, there was Domino, the hot, sexy Head of Security who was doing a very good job of keeping him at arm’s length. That was fine. He could wait.
After Hunter exited the club, he walked through Wimbledon Village to the green space around Rushmere Pond, stripped and hid his clothes under a bush, then shifted to his wolf. The night air was crisp and sharp, and he inhaled the scent of damp earth and grass, and the myriad scents that carried to him on the breeze. He immediately raced towards Wimbledon and Putney Commons, his long legs covering the ground easily. Hunter was a big wolf, his pelt dark grey. Beyond the commons, over a main road, was Richmond Park, extending to almost two and a half thousand acres, and filled with ancient woodland, wetlands, and grassland. There were lots of ponds, birds, wildlife, and even a herd of deer—although hunting the deer was strictly forbidden by the pack. It would attract far too much attention. In general, it was perfect. It was enclosed by a wall, but there were plenty of gates, and it was easy for a wolf to enter. Storm Moon Pack had chosen their base well.
Throwing off the close confines of Maverick’s luxurious flat, he raced onwards, relishing the landscape unfolding around him. He ignored the time. It would be dark for hours. He zigzagged back and forth, investigating new scents, then hunting rabbits and foxes, mainly for the pleasure of it rather than to actually catch them.
Until he caught the scent of something quite different. Something foul, rotten even.
Hunter scanned the area and dropped low to the ground, hackles raised. Whatever it was smelled unnatural, and was certainly very different to the odd fey-shifting Pûcas they had come across only a couple of months before. Keeping low, he tracked it, following the scent across grass and into a stand of ancient trees. The scent of blood was strong there, and beneath all of it was a whiff of sulphur. He paused, ensuring that it wasn’t a trap, and then edged forward again.
Ahead, there was a dark shape against the shadowed trunks, and he waited for it to reveal itself. For long minutes, nothing changed, and Hunter wondered if it had seen him. Then, with startling swiftness, the shape vanished. Hunter waited, scanning all sides, but whatever he had seen had gone.
When he reached the spot, the only thing to show for its presence was a dead fox.