Zoe King was screwed--in the least fun interpretation of the word.
You break one little rule and it bites you on the ass. Every. Damn. Time.
She glared at the white smoke billowing out from under the jeep's hood. Lately, her luck sucked donkey balls.
So much for her secret, back-before-anyone-knew-she-was-gone trip into town. She hadn't even made it out to the main highway before the jeep decided it would rather be a fog machine.
Stranded on a dusty country road. Zoe King, kickass rock-star goddess of the lioness persuasion, had been reduced to a Texas Chainsaw Massacre cliche.
She could've hoofed it back to the ranch, but she'd still have to explain how the jeep had come to be broken down on the side of the road, four miles outside the property boundaries. Confess later or confess now--at some point there would be shit hitting fans.
Zoe wasn't the kind of girl who put things off. She lived her life by the motto: now or never, preferably now.
So she called her brother and admitted she left the ranch without permission. Permission. As if she was an infant who couldn't take care of herself. She was a grown woman and a shape-shifter, for Christ's sake. A lioness lived inside her skin and on a good day she could even kick her big brother the almighty Alpha's ass. How much trouble could she possibly get into?
Of course, Landon didn't see it that way. She had to listen to a solid ten minutes of her brother playing Master of the Pride before he finally got tired of bitching her out--or decided he'd have more fun doing it in person--and told her he'd already sent out the cavalry.
And she knew just who he'd sent. Dammit.
Zoe propped a hip against the dented side of the old jeep, folded her arms and tipped her face back to soak in the sun, trying for a Zen state as she waited. The heat crawled over her skin, thick and heavy, but at least it hadn't reached the please-God-kill-me-now levels of midsummer yet. They were still a few months and a dozen degrees shy of that lovely experience.
And, if there was a God, she'd be long gone before the summer heat hit. Off to greener pastures. Independent again. Free.
Of course, she needed more than God. She needed a car that could make it more than four miles from the ranch before breaking down.
Goddamn useless mechanic.
Zoe shifted her weight against the jeep's dented door and closed her eyes. Think Zen, dammit.
The heat from the metal bled through her jeans. She didn't have a lot of experience with Zen states, and she had a feeling she was sucking at this one, but luckily she didn't have long to wait.
Zoe barely had time to perfect her I-don't-give-a-shit pose before she heard the distinctive coughing roar of a truck's engine speeding toward her, sounding eerily like the pissed-off lion she knew would be sitting behind the steering wheel. She didn't open her eyes to watch him approach. Her other senses were a fraction sharper with her eyes shut, and she wanted to focus on the little sensory details so she wouldn't think about the asshole bearing down on her in the tow truck.
He already got too many of her stray thoughts as it was.
Gravel scuttled beneath the truck's tires as it pulled off onto the shoulder behind the jeep. Zoe's nose twitched as a whisper of a breeze carried grainy dust particles to tease her nostrils and stick against the sweat-kissed skin of her temples.
The constant dust was just another of the joys of living in west Texas. She couldn't step two feet outside her bungalow without feeling like every inch of her exposed skin had been coated in a fine film of dirt. How Landon could actually like it here, she couldn't imagine.
Well, actually she could imagine. But Landon's affection for Bumfuck Nowhere, West Texas had more to do with his mate Ava's manifest charms than it did any driving need to be bathed in dust on a daily basis. If Zoe had gotten laid once over the last goddamn year, she might be in a slightly better frame of mind herself. But the pussified lions at the pride wouldn't lay a finger on the Alpha's baby sister. The cowards.
The truck's engine gave one last coughing roar before it cut off abruptly. Zoe held herself perfectly still. Zen, she reminded herself as she drank in her surroundings from behind closed eyes.
The groaning squeak of the truck's door opening. The soft scrape of footsteps on gravel. The teasing, musky scent of male lion mingling with engine oil and the dry dusty scent of earth on the breeze. The slam of the truck's door. Then the sound of his voice, the low, rumbling growl coming from deep inside that broad chest.
"What did you do to it?"
Zoe ground her molars. God, he was an ass. Why couldn't she just hate him? It would make things so much easier.
"I didn't do anything to it," she snapped, leaving the asshole implied. "Other than try to drive it. I had no idea that was such an unreasonable thing to demand from a car."
She tipped her chin down so the wide brim of her cowgirl hat hid her eyes before she opened them. The sight of him hit her in the gut like it always did. And that was why she still couldn't seem to hate him. Goddamn chemistry.
He strolled past her toward the smoking hood of the jeep with the rolling, liquid gait that would have been equally at home on a cowboy or a cat--which was only fair, since Tyler Minor was a little bit of both. He was tall, as all the Minor brothers were tall. Corded with muscle, as all the Minor men were strapped. But he was the only one of the Big Bad Minor Foursome who'd ever made her heart gallop just by walking into a room.
Tyler had presence, that indefinable awareness of a man who knew he was the ruler of all he saw. It was the unmistakable aura of an Alpha--but Tyler had never been, nor did he appear to ever want to be, the Alpha of the pride. Instead her lummox of a big brother got to boss everyone around while Tyler watched it all with stoic eyes.
And while he watched her with barely banked heat.
Tyler Minor had been watching Zoe, owning her with his damn eyes, since the day she arrived at Three Rocks Ranch over a year ago. The heat behind the liquid gold of his gaze never failed to call up an answering spark low in her belly. He could make her wet with just a look--and as keen as his sense of smell was, the bastard had to know it--but he'd never once acted on the lust burning behind his eyes.
She knew he wanted her. She knew it. But he never touched her. Just looking. Always looking. Stepping back when she stepped forward. Circling around and dodging her every advance. He would look at her with naked hunger and then just shut it off and walk away. Running hot and cold until she wanted to scream at him to just fuck her already.
It was almost enough to give a girl self-esteem issues.
If anyone else had ever managed to make her half as hot and bothered without so much as a touch, she'd have written off Tyler Minor months ago. But no one else got under her skin and made her writhe the way he did. She couldn't control or contain it. Like the motion of the planets, it just was and there wasn't a damn thing she could do about it.
Damn the man for being the sexiest hunk of masculinity--shifter or human--she'd ever laid eyes on. He practically projected a field of testosterone. And damn if that didn't turn her crank in a big way, though she'd chew off her own tongue before admitting it to him. Even if he could probably smell it on her.
Tyler propped open the hood and bent to poke at something inside. Zoe's eyes locked on the faded denim stretched lovingly over his ass. She licked her lips and wandered over to stand behind him for a better angle on her favorite body part.
"You shouldn't have left the ranch unescorted," he said without taking his eyes off the engine. "You know how things are right now."
Things was a nice way of referring to the epic shitstorm at the pride lately, but Zoe didn't particularly want to talk about the fact that she'd broken The Rule and left without permission. "What are you, my keeper?"
"Honey, you couldn't pay me enough to take that job." Still bent to show off his best side, he flicked a look at her beneath the arm he'd propped against the hood above him.
It was that look. The one that made her breath come faster, her heartbeat picking up in a helpless response only this imbecile seemed to inspire. She took half a step forward.
Then his eyes dismissed her, locking back on the engine block. "I'm just here for the car."
Zoe's temper flared like a sparkler on the Fourth of July. Damn but she hated it when he ignored her. Almost as much as she hated it when he made her want him with a look.
She needed a reaction--any reaction--to prove she owned him as much as he owned her.
"Anyone ever tell you you're a shitty mechanic?"
"Only you," he grunted. "Repeatedly."
"Well, it bears repeating. Cars are supposed to run. FYI."
Tyler growled without looking up from the engine. "This car wasn't supposed to be taken off the ranch until I replaced the radiator. That's why the keys were in my office and not hanging on the board with the others."
Zoe shrugged, unrepentant. "Landon padlocked the board. You didn't lock your office."
"A mistake I won't be repeating."
"A smart man would leave a set of keys out so I wouldn't have to break into his office to get them. Or try to teach myself how to hotwire a car on one of his precious jeeps."
"A smart woman would listen to her damn Alpha and stay the hell on the ranch like everyone else until things calm down in town."
Zoe smiled sweetly. "Then I guess neither of us has much in the way of intelligence."
He twisted, his eyes locking on her again. There was a subtle threat in that look, filled with his need to dominate her. Her heart rate accelerated.
"There's a reason none of us are supposed to leave the ranch right now, Zoe. It isn't just your own life you're risking with your recklessness." The muscles in his neck were corded with anger--which, perversely, just made her want to lick them.
Which, even more perversely, made her want to punch him. The constant compulsion to push him until he pushed back couldn't be healthy, but she needed to break through his reserve and feel the reckless heat beneath that calm, controlled surface like she needed to keep breathing. It wasn't even conscious anymore--fighting with him, goading him. It had passed habit and become reflex.
"It wasn't my recklessness that got us into this position in the first place," she countered. "I believe that was your baby brother and his floor show at the Bar Nothing."
A muscle jumped in his jaw as his gaze retreated back to the engine. "Michael's apologized for that."
"Aw, that's sweet. But maybe Michael shouldn't have gone into a bar and half-shifted in front of two dozen humans in the first place."
The muscles in his shoulders tensed, and Zoe felt a dim flicker of guilt. Tyler's family was his only weak spot--a weak spot she'd been poking at ever since she discovered it. Never let it be said that Zoe King didn't fight dirty.
She wasn't even really annoyed with Michael. Yes, he'd fucked up by showing too much of his animal side in a human bar, but it hadn't been on purpose and as yet the world hadn't come crashing down around their ears.
In fact, not a damn thing had happened.
It had been over a month. A month of battening down the hatches and bracing for the worst. A month of waiting to see if the humans had seen enough to call in the media and the scientists--the media to turn them into a freak show and the scientists to turn them into lab rats.
Humans didn't tend to react well to things that were different and a bunch of men, women and children who could shapeshift into giant predators at will definitely fell into the different category.
Zoe was inclined to give their homo sapiens cousins the benefit of the doubt--there hadn't been a witch burning in centuries--but she was in the minority at the pride. The fear of what might be done to them if their secret was exposed, as well as the tradition of zealous secrecy, had kept the scattered shifter prides and packs all over the world from revealing themselves to the humans long ago.
When Michael inadvertently let the cat out of the bag--so to speak--Zoe had momentarily thought Landon, her forward-thinking brother, would take the opportunity to come out to the humans. Instead, he'd called in all their nomads and strays, commanded everyone to stay on the ranch indefinitely, and held his breath, waiting for the humans to lay siege.
And nothing had happened.
Tensions had been at DEFCON One for weeks now. After a month of isolating a bunch of cranky lions on the ranch, Zoe wasn't the only one going stir crazy. She was just the only one fearless--or, as Tyler accused, reckless--enough to break the rules.
"I don't see what difference it makes if I go into town to buy tic tacs. What are they going to do? Stone me in the Stop 'N' Shop?"
Tyler straightened suddenly, turning his back on the jeep and facing her, his gold eyes blazing. "Tell me you weren't going to put us all at risk for some tic tacs," he demanded. "You aren't that stupid."
Zoe's hackles went up at his icy growl, even as a thrill of victory shot down to her core now that she had Tyler's undivided attention. She dug in her heels as he prowled toward her, holding her ground. Excitement sizzled in her blood, but she rolled her eyes, feigning scorn and an indifference she'd never felt around him.
"I wasn't actually going to buy tic tacs. I was just going to roll into town and see if there was anyone suspicious hanging around. Do some reconnaissance. I'm sick of waiting for the bad guys to strike without even knowing if there are bad guys in the first place."
His golden eyes darkened. "We're being cautious."
"We're being ostriches," she snapped. "It's idiotic. And I for one am sick of being afraid of my shadow. I want to see if the Big Bad Wolf is actually in town before I hide inside my straw house and wait for him to huff and puff at me."
"There's been an increase of trespassers."
"High school kids. Pranks. It's the end of the school year. Has anyone gotten anywhere near the main buildings? No. And even if it is the boogeyman, don't you want to know what he looks like?"
Tyler stopped advancing. He rocked back on his heels, the heat in his eyes cooling. "Huh."
How did he do that? Just shut off all that gorgeous fury from one second to the next. Why did he do it, dammit? Zoe narrowed her eyes at him and planted her hands on her hips. "Huh what? What does huh mean?"
"You have a point. We should know what's going on in town. Just hiding out isn't going to keep us safe." Then his eyes darkened again. "But you should have told Landon what you were up to. What if something happened to you and no one knew where you'd gone?"
Zoe pursed her lips. "If I told Landon I wanted to check out the town, he would have sent you or Caleb instead. I brought my phone in case I ran into any trouble." She pulled the cell out of her pocket and waved it in front of him. "And even if I did run into trouble, I'm not helpless. I can take care of myself."
He arched an eyebrow toward the broken-down jeep. Damn supercilious bastard.
Zoe glared. "Just because I can't repair a busted radiator doesn't mean I'm a damsel in distress. I could kick your ass any day of the week, Tyler Minor." She put a rumble of a growl into the words, a challenge for supremacy and dominance. Just try to take me on, big boy.
The challenge caught something primitive and instinctive inside him. He stepped forward, looming over her, trying to use his size to intimidate her. At five ten in her bare feet, Zoe wasn't the kind of girl who was easy to loom over, but when a man could manage it, it never failed to make her toes curl.
Tyler didn't just manage it. Tyler loomed like an angry Greek god. Mouthwatering and imposing all at once.
His eyes held hers and her heart began to pound. Do it. Push back. Touch me. Zoe swayed forward.
And Tyler shut off.
Just like that. Between one heartbeat and the next, Tyler went from looming Greek god to aloof and disinterested. His gaze slid away from her, focusing on some vague point behind her left shoulder for a moment before he turned away.
"Wait over there until I have the jeep on the hitch." He pointed to a dusty patch of grass off the side of the road without looking back at her or breaking stride as he walked back to the tow truck.
Frustration built in her throat, but she managed to keep from screaming. Or roaring her rage. She'd had a lot of practice.
Running away again. In the last year, Zoe had seen Tyler in retreat more than any other sight. Her gaze rolled over the tense muscles in his wide shoulders down to the lean hips and that God-almighty-gorgeous ass. She couldn't seem to stop scaring him off, which sucked a little more every day.
But at least the view was nice.