Real Men Bite (Soren Pack | Paranormal Werewolf Interracial Romance) (Real Men Shift Book 4)
Valerie Logan wrapped her fingers around the bar’s jiggly doorknob. Exhaustion pulled at her, her shoulders curving forward and steps heavy as she moved forward. The engine of her decade-old Jeep ticked loudly behind her, cooling and relaxing after hours—days, really—of driving.
Val had long thought of her Jeep as more than just a vehicle. She knew its quirks like a best friend, and for many years, she’d poured out all her secrets while comfortably tucked behind the wheel. To anyone else, it would have looked like any other Jeep on the road, but to her, it was both a comrade and confidante.
She almost felt guilty leaving it parked in the small lot under the flickering red and yellow neon sign that read “The Wolf’s Lair Bar & Grille.” With an E. She’d never understood why establishments tried to fancify their business names by tacking on a British-style E—especially a tavern in the shitty little Georgia backwater of Tremble.
Any irrational guilt she felt about her car evaporated when her stomach rumbled for the fifteenth time in less than an hour. The moment the door cracked open, though, she wondered if going hungry might not have been the safer choice. The stink of stale beer, body odor, and fried food hit her like a fist. Then she caught the faintest hint of piss. Or maybe it was puke. Probably both.
“Ah,” she muttered, “eau de dive bar. Lovely.”
The door clicked shut behind Val, but she stayed put and allowed her eyes adjust to her dim surroundings. Just getting the lay of the land. The Wolf’s Lair was fairly crowded—no surprise considering its small size and that it was probably one of the few places open so late.
Apparently, the name wasn’t the owner’s only homage to wolves. Posters of wolves baying at the moon—faded and curled—sagged on the rough wood walls. A couple of velvet paintings featured stylized wolf heads that glowed under blacklights. Every time the front door opened, a fake wolf’s head that hung over it activated. Its jaws opened and closed as a badly recorded snarl was nearly drowned out by the sound of people having a good time. The flashing red lights in its eyes were a nice touch.
The decor didn’t matter to Val. She’d been in plenty of nasty little watering holes in her life. Just by the looks—and smells—of this one, she knew she’d get what she sought—a beer and a cheap basic American burger. Exactly what she needed after a long day’s drive. Committed to her plan of action, Val shouldered her way through the crush of bodies toward the bar, holding her new Burberry bucket bag close to her chest.
Far from being a girly girl, Val had only one vice—designer purses. She couldn’t give two shits that her Jeep was on the beat-up side or that most of her clothes had been found at thrift shops or on clearance racks. Her makeup kit consisted of a tube of dark red lipstick and some black mascara, for those nights when she wanted to get really dolled up.
And her hair… forget about it. She’d learned long ago that her dark, coarse curls could never be contained by mere hairspray. Besides, her job didn’t really look kindly on loose lips or loose locks. So, she’d kept hers tucked into a tight bun, or a bouncy, puffy ponytail on her days off. Valerie was a woman of particular, but simple tastes, more concerned with getting the job done than looking pretty while doing it.
Her purses were a whole different story. She’d always envied the bags her college classmates’ parents had bought them. She’d scrimped and saved—not easy for a poor college student—and eventually bought her first Coach purse as her graduation present to herself. It had escalated from there. The rich pink Burberry was a “treat yo’self” reward to soften the blow of being forced to take a “vacation.”
Val shrugged out of her leather bomber jacket and draped it over one of two empty stools at the bar before taking a seat. All the bodies in the bar had raised the temperature so she was quite comfortable in her tank top and jeans. She stole a few cocktail napkins from a holder and carefully wiped down the polished and chipped wood-grain bar top before setting her bag in front of her.
A tan and white ball of fluff popped out of the bag’s opening, its black eyes blinking up at her while its pink tongue curled and lolled in a happy pant. Val scratched the teacup Pomeranian under her chin and smiled.
“Hey!” called out a gruff voice from the end of the bar.
The burly bartender scowled as he hurried toward her. His scruffy wild hair, bushy beard and excessively hairy arms gave him the appearance of a werewolf. Whether he intended to blend in as part of the bar’s theme or just because he was a hairy dude, Val couldn’t say.
“Hell no,” he rasped, flapping a slightly grungy rag at her purse. “Nope. Not happening.”
“Is there a problem, sir?” Val spoke through clenched teeth and struggled to hold on to the sudden surge of rage pulsing against her temple.
Before he could answer, someone down-bar from them shouted, “Hux, I need a beer!”
“In a minute, Newman!” the bartender—presumably named Hux—shouted back. Then he turned his attention back to her. “Lady, you can’t bring a rat into my bar. It’s unsanitary and against the law.”
Val’s eyes narrowed to threatening slits and every muscle in her body tensed. “She’s not a rat. She’s a dog. A service dog, to be precise. As far as sanitation goes,” she wrinkled her nose and stared at his rag, “I think you’ve got bigger issues to worry about.”
Hux blinked at her sassy response but recovered quickly. He slapped his palms on the counter, leaned in and practically growled at her. “No pets of any kind are allowed in a restaurant, not even service rats!”
Val snorted with feigned amusement. “Cute, calling this joint a restaurant. But I’ll give it to you, if only to prove that as a—” she coughed her disbelief “—restaurateur, you should know you can’t kick out service animals. I know the law, buddy, so let me give you a friendly piece of advice. Don’t even try fucking with me on this…Hux.”
The man frowned as he sized her up, but he obviously knew when he was beaten. It was pretty clear from his scowl he didn’t like it, but as long as he didn’t give her any more shit, they’d get along just fine.
With a resigned sigh and a grunt, he moved on. “Fine. What do you want?”
Okay, so customer service flew out the window. Whatever.
“A burger and a brew. I don’t care which kind,” she replied with a light tone, to let the guy know she had no hard feelings. If that even mattered to him. “Oh, and a bowl of water for Fang.”
Hux rolled his eyes and wandered off, grumbling under his breath. Fang watched him go, her entire tiny body vibrating as she growled quietly at the perceived threat to her mistress. Val kissed the pup’s head, which set the dog to panting again.
The tiny hairs on the back of Val’s neck stood on end and goosebumps prickled along her arms. Even Fang stopped panting, her dark eyes darting around the room and her nose sniffing the air in search of this unseen source of anxiety for her mistress.
Val had learned that her instincts were usually spot on, and those instincts screamed that someone watched her. She felt it. Hell, she’d been trained to feel it. Not wanting to tip off her would-be attacker, she let her gaze slowly drift down one side of the bar and then the other. It paid to sniff out trouble before it could find her, and it didn’t take long for her to spot the lumberjack-looking dude at the far end of the bar. It was the same guy who’d called to the bartender a minute earlier.
Even though he was seated, she could tell he was tall. And strong, judging by his broad, red flannel-covered shoulders. He kept leaning forward, trying to catch her eye. Not an attacker, just a horn-dog.
He was handsome enough, but she’d never really cared for guys who leered at her in bars. She just wanted a drink and a burger, not whatever meat that guy packed. Hoping to cool his jets, she shot him one of her patented death glares—guaranteed to shrivel even the hardest cock—and turned her attention to Hux, who set a foaming mug of beer in front of her.
Ignoring the one-night-stand wannabe, she smiled up at the bartender. “Thanks, man. Sorry about earlier. It’s just been a rough week.”
Hux visibly relaxed. “Don’t worry about it. Hux Davenport, owner and proprietor of The Lair.”
“Val Logan. Interesting name you have, Hux.” She took a long cool sip of beer, sighing happily as bubbles slid down her parched throat.
“It’s actually Huxley, but I like Hux better. New in town or just passing through?”
Val was accustomed to this particular game of Twenty Questions, but she wasn’t quite sure how to answer this one. “A little of both, I suppose. Regardless, I’m not from around here, and something has been bothering me since I pulled into town.”
“What’s the deal with all the weird business names in Tremble. The Wolf’s Lair, Canine Cafe, Lupine Inn. They’re all wolf-themed. What gives?”
Hux chuckled and leaned on the counter, ignoring a nearby woman holding up her empty wine glass. “Yeah, it’s a bit of a running gag. No, not a gag. It’s too serious to be a gag.”
Val took another swig. “What do you mean?”
“The entire town caters to a very specific kind of tourist, those fascinated by cryptids and local lore.”
Hux leaned in a little closer. “Yeah, you know, animals whose existence hasn’t been proven yet. Bigfoot, Yeti, Chupacabra. In the case of Tremble, it’s werewolves.”
He waggled his eyebrows at her as if he was letting her in on a big secret. She smirked.
“Okay, that’s random. Why?”
“Because a while back some morons claimed to have seen werewolves in the woods outside town. When the internet became a thing, word spread about Tremble. The town elders, in their infinite wisdom, decided to capitalize on the notoriety—” he lowered his voice to a murmur “—not to mention the idiots who spend tens of thousands here every year searching for mythical creatures.”
Val let her gaze land on every kitschy, wolfy piece of decor in the place, finally landing on a cocktail napkin emblazoned with the bar’s logo. When she met Hux’s gaze again, she raised a curious eyebrow.
As unimpressed as he tried to appear, a touch of pink colored what she could see of his bearded face. He shrugged and pushed away from the bar.
“Yeah, well, I have a family to feed so…” He trundled off to fill more orders before she could tease him any further.
As she sipped her beer, Val’s fingers found their way to Fang’s fluffy little head and she scratched the spot the dog loved, right behind her left ear. Time to figure out her next move now that it looked as if Chloe had moved.
Val had met Chloe Soren on their first day of college when they were randomly paired as roommates. On paper, they couldn’t have been more opposite. Chloe was a relatively short, pale-skinned, curvy redhead who was as sweet and caring as a soul could be. Valerie, on the other hand, was a towering mash-up between her white trash mom and some nameless, African American aerobics teacher. She couldn’t recall ever having been called “sweet” in her life. The most common adjective used to describe her over the years was “bad ass”—sometimes “bitch.” They were synonymous, as far as she was concerned, and she took them as high compliments.
But the more Val got to know Chloe, the more she liked her. Though Chloe was thoughtful and kind, she wasn’t a pushover, and Val respected that. They also bonded over their shared poverty throughout school. While all of their classmates had moved to off-campus housing their junior year, the roommates had remained in their same dorm room, year after year. To say they were best friends minimized their connection. By the time graduation had rolled around, Val had taken to calling Chloe her “sister from another mister,” and she meant it.
Over the past decade, they’d only visited each other a handful of times, but they wrote old-fashioned letters and spoke on the phone at least a few times a year. Every time they did, they picked up right where they’d left off, as if no time at all had passed. Most women probably talked to their besties daily, but Val wasn’t just any woman. Neither was Chloe, for that matter.
The thought brought a soft smile to her lips, but it was whisked away almost instantly. She’d called Chloe’s number a dozen or so times over the last several days, but she hadn’t been able to reach her. Desperate for some advice from the sanest person she knew, Val decided to just drop in unannounced. Chloe would be delighted—or would have been, if she hadn’t moved. The small rental house Chloe had lived in just a few months earlier sat completely vacant, with a “For Rent” sign in the front window.
Chloe was gone and Val had no idea where to find her.
So instead of crashing on her friend’s couch as she’d planned, she’d been forced to check into a local motel—which, to the surprise of no one, was also wolf-themed. In fact, her room at the Lupine Inn was devoted to the horribad ‘80s flick Teen Wolf, complete with a poster of a young and very furry Michael J. Fox, as well as a yellow-and-blue basketball jersey with the number “42” on the front mounted and framed on the wall. Kitschy as hell, but far from the worst accommodations she’d ever slept in.
A shiver of warning shimmied down Val’s spine and she stiffened on her perch. Even Fang’s upper lip pulled back in a tiny snarl. Someone was closing in on them and they both felt it. Ready to attack if necessary, Val whipped around on her stool, only to find the lumberjack guy from the end of the bar displacing her jacket and sliding onto the open stool next to her, a smarmy grin on his face. Good lord, couldn’t a girl just have a few minutes of peace?
“What’s a pretty little thing like you doing in a shit hole like this?” he held out a large, calloused hand for her to shake. “Name’s Newman. Yours?”
He wasn’t used to being ignored by women, that much she could tell. Once he set his sights on his prey, he wouldn’t relent, so ignoring him wasn’t going to work. Since beating the living shit out of him wasn’t an option either, she took her doctor’s advice and took five slow, deep breaths to clear the red fog from her brain. Forcing a hard smile, she turned to Newman and did her best to speak calmly and clearly.
“Listen, Newman. Thanks for the compliment, but I’m not interested in whatever it is you’re selling.” He opened his mouth to protest, but she talked over him. “I just want to sit here, eat my burger, and drink a beer. Maybe even have a shot. But not with you, or anyone else for that matter. Now, if you don’t mind…”
She left the rest of her dismissal unspoken and returned her attention to her nearly empty beer. Newman stared at her for a long moment, probably not believing she’d meant what she said, and then finally sighed in disappointment and returned to his old barstool, utterly defeated.
With that distasteful chore completed, Valerie drifted back into her own thoughts. She’d wake up bright and early the next morning—assuming she didn’t stay up all night with nightmares about Michael J. Fox—and head over to the school where Chloe taught. Surely someone there would know how to track down her friend.
She was jolted out of her thoughts when Hux set her greasy burger down in front of her, followed by a shot of amber liquid. Confused, she looked up at the bartender. “What’s this?”
“Tequila,” Hux answered brusquely.
“I can smell that much, but I didn’t order it.”
He jerked his head toward Newman, who was holding up his own identical shot in a grinning salute. It was a nice gesture, so instead of sending it back, she gave him a neutral nod of gratitude and downed the shot without so much as a grimace. It wasn’t top-shelf, but it wasn’t remotely close to the nastiest she’d ever tasted. That honor was reserved for the homemade rotgut she’d shared with some locals in Guatemala a few years earlier. That shit had burned all the way down… and through!
As warmth spread through her body, Hux moved to refill the glass, but Val grabbed the top of the glass. She preferred to keep a relatively clear head, even when she was supposed to be on “vacation.” Safer that way.
Hux shrugged and ambled off, and just as Val loosened her fingers to release the shot glass, Fang snarled. A split second later, a very large hand grabbed Valerie’s shoulder. What happened next came from pure instinct.
Without taking even a moment to think, Val’s right hand tightened its grip on the shot glass as she jabbed her left elbow up and back, connecting hard with someone’s nose in a satisfying crunch. In one fluid motion, she spun around on her stool and smashed the butt-end of the shot glass into the broad forehead of…Newman! The guy let out a yelp of pain and then toppled to the floor like a fallen tree. Wide-eyed and heart pounding, Val winced when she saw he was flat on his back, knocked out cold.
Uh oh, not good.
When Newman fell, he’d bumped into another patron, who’d spilled his beer on the guy next to him. That guy didn’t care for that one bit, so he took a swing at the guy Newman had bumped. In a matter of minutes, the entire bar had erupted into an all-out brawl. And it was all her fault.
“Shit, not again!” she muttered, grabbing her bag and tucking Fang deep into its recesses.
Digging a twenty out of her pocket, she threw it on the bar, took as big of a bite from her burger as her mouth could hold, and ducked as a chair flew over her head and into the mirror behind the bar.
The sound of shattering glass was her cue.
Using her training, she looked for the safest route out of the bar and edged her way around the room, ducking and side-stepping as needed. When she reached the back door, she didn’t hesitate to push it open. She’d dash to her Jeep, race back to the Lupine Inn to grab her bag, and then hightail it out of this godforsaken town. Chloe would understand.
But the moment the chilly night air cooled her overheated skin, she stopped in her tracks. A large man in a cop uniform blocked her escape.
Behind her, Hux shouted, “That’s her, Levi! She’s the one who started all this!”
How in the hell had Hux gotten the cops to the bar so fast? Dammit.
Valerie knew better than to resist a police officer. She sat quietly and safely ensconced in the back of his cruiser—handcuffed and completely pissed off—until he finally managed to break up the fight. Once they were on the road for the station, she asked for her phone call.
His dark brown eyes glanced at her in the rearview mirror, a smirk on his face. “Let me guess. Your lawyer?”
“No,” Val snapped. With Tremble being so small, she figured everyone knew everyone’s business and hoped the cop knew how to get in touch with her BFF. Chloe would bust her out even if a few hundred miles separated them. “Chloe Soren. Ever heard of her?”
She caught the wince as it crossed the man’s face. “Shit.”