"Who the fuck are you?" Gabriel Anderson, sheriff of Halle Pennsylvania, and Marshal's Second of the Halle Puma Pride, was one tired, cranky kitty. He stared at the stranger sitting in his living room and tried to remind himself that jail was a bad place for a cop to wind up in. The intruder had his feet up on Gabe's coffee table, his cowboy boots twitching in time to the video game he was playing on Gabe's Wii. Gabe kept his service revolver steady, the safety off, aimed at the intruder. To top it all off the man smelled like a shifter. "Because I like to know who the hell I'm arresting for breaking and entering."
"Wondered when you'd get in." The man's face lit up, his hands waving the remote frantically. "Hah! Gotcha, you son of a bitch." The man paused the game and set the remote on the coffee table. "Name's James Barnwell. And you're Sheriff Gabriel Anderson, Second to the Marshall of the Halle Puma Pride."
Gabe's revolver dipped slightly. "Yeah. So you know who's sticking your ass in jail."
The man stood up, and up. His dark blonde head easily towered a good six inches over Gabe, and at six foot two Gabe didn't consider himself to be a short man. "You really don't want to do that."
The man smiled, the expression warm. His gray eyes twinkled merrily. "Because I don't think the Senate would take kindly to having one of its own in jail."
Gabe lowered the revolver but didn't relax completely. "Senate?" Why would the Senate send someone to Halle?
The Shifters' Senate was a loose conglomerate of all of the shifter species. It was traditionally headed by a Leo. The main purpose of the Senate was to see to it that humans did not learn of the existence of shifters, with the only exception being human mates. Over the years the Senate had also instituted certain laws that all shifters abided by, one of them being the sanctioning of new Packs and Prides. Every six years the different races would elect one of their own to a seat on the Senate. The current Puma Senator was an older man by the name of Harry Kirland who lived somewhere in the Midwest. Gabe had never met or spoken to the man. Max's rule was too damn new, and the Senate had a habit of giving a new Alpha a settling-in period before more than congratulatory contact was made.
It was rare for a Senate representative to visit Halle. In all the years the Halle Pride had been here there'd only been two. One was for the Puma Senator's representative to sanction the newly minted Pride. The other had been a Hunter stalking the rogue the previous Halle Marshal had eventually destroyed. Both times the man in question had been a Puma.
This man didn't smell of Puma. He smelled of Bear. "Shouldn't you be talking to my Alpha?"
"If I was here to speak to Mr. Cannon I'd be at his house, not yours." The man's smile turned to a grin. "Besides, he doesn't have a Wii."
Gabe closed his eyes and prayed for patience. "Tell me you didn't break into my Alpha's house."
"I didn't break into your Alpha's house," the Bear parroted.
Gabe shot the man a look and holstered his weapon. "How can the Halle Pride be of assistance to the Senate?" Thank God his gran had filled his head with proper etiquette, so he knew what to say even if his tone wasn't properly respectful. He'd have no clue how to deal with a Senate representative otherwise. Even if the one standing in his living room wasn't exactly the kind of person he would have expected the Senate to send.
"By giving us their Second."
Gabe blinked. He must be more tired than he thought. "Excuse me?"
"We need you to come with me."
What? No. No fucking way. He'd just come home after working in Philadelphia for years, gaining enough experience to take over the spot of sheriff in his beloved hometown. The town's council had been thrilled to have one of their own in the position when Adrian Giordano's father had retired. Gabe had discovered his mate only a week before, but trying to ensure that Sheri, Adrian's mate, stayed safe had eaten into all of his spare time. They'd just finished cleaning up after the rogue Wolf who'd been stalking Sheri and making her life a living hell. Now that he actually had time to breathe he wanted to settle down and claim his mate. No way in hell was he leaving Halle even for a minute. Not unless he could take Sarah with him.
Just thinking about sweet, tempting Sarah was enough to stiffen his resolve. Images of the dark-haired beauty had been haunting him all week. Whatever the Senate wanted they'd have to find someone else to do it. "They can't have me."
The man shook his head. "I don't think you understand, son." He headed into the kitchen like he owned it. "You need more coffee, by the way."
Gabe held back a growl. "I have a mate to claim."
The man stopped and looked back at him. "I promise you, the task I need you for will take no more than six months. After that, you'll return to Halle to live your life and claim your mate." The smile was gone. The gray eyes were somber. "We lost a Hunter, Gabriel."
"My condolences." Gabe was sincere. In a lot of ways the Hunters were the elite cops of the shifters. Their main purpose was to ensure that rogues were taken out before they could do damage to the human or shifter population. If the situation with Rudy Parker hadn't been taken care of so quickly by the Poconos Pack Alpha, Gabe would have insisted that a Hunter be called in to deal with Parker and the Wolves who followed him. He probably should have from the start. If he had, Belle Campbell would never have gotten hurt and odds were Sheri wouldn't have been kidnapped.
"Thank you. Daniel was a good friend of mine." James headed towards the kitchen again. "But that means that this region is short a Hunter."
Oh fuck. Gabe's shoulders twitched. A part of him was eager to hear more. This was like a small-town cop being picked out of the blue to become a US marshal. Another part of him wanted this man gone so he could take a shower, rest and fetch his woman home. He had plans for that sweet ass of hers, damn it. "Why me? Why not one of Rick's Wolves?" Or even another Puma, like Adrian, the current Marshal?
James smiled again. "Because they wouldn't be you. You're the one who's meant to be this region's new Hunter."
"I'd have to leave Halle." Gabe was surprised the words even left his mouth. He couldn't seriously be considering this.
"Halle would be your hometown, your base of operations. And really? Being a Hunter doesn't affect your standing in your Pride, other than you have to go when the call to hunt goes out. If that's an issue with your Alpha, and I don't think it will be, then you might have problems."
"That still doesn't answer the question." He opened the fridge and pulled out a beer. "Why me?"
"Can I have a Coke?" Gabe handed James one. "Thanks. Do you remember when you tried to shoot out the tires on Parker's car? When you figured out it was an RF jammer that was keeping Ms. Montgomery's call from reaching Dr. Giordano? And when you got the Pride together to make sure Parker and his rogues didn't get away?"
Gabe blinked, shocked. How the hell did this man know all that? "Yeah. It happened only two days ago." Two long, exhausting days ago. Gabe yawned, not caring how James took it. He was fucking tired.
James took a long drink from the can. "Damn, that hits the spot. You started barking orders and the Wolves and the Pumas followed them."
"So?" He belatedly twisted the cap off his beer and tossed it onto the counter.
The look James was giving him was full of amusement. "Do you think the Wolves would have listened to you if you'd merely been Marshal's Second? A Puma Marshal's Second?"
The bottle paused halfway to his lips. He'd sent one of the Wolves to check Max's car and sure enough they'd found a radio frequency jammer. They were highly illegal, but not impossible to make, especially for a man who'd studied electrical engineering the way Rudy Parker had. Rudy had used it to keep Sheri from contacting Adrian, convincing her that he had Adrian and luring her out of the house. The Pack Alpha, Rick, had been shot trying to protect her. Gabe had tried to stop them, but it was too late. His shot missed the getaway car's back tire and Sheri had been kidnapped.
The rogue Wolves were dead now, killed by Rick and his Pack Marshal, Ben Malone. Gabe had just finished disposing of the evidence. He was bone weary and not in any mood to deal with this shit. "I repeat. So?"
"Son, you were acting as a Hunter."
Gabe snorted and took a swig of his beer. "I was not."
"I think I know a fellow Hunter when I see one. Only a Hunter could make someone outside his species obey a direct order and only when hunting Rogues."
Gabe pointed at James with the beer bottle. "That's not true. An Alpha could make someone obey using their power."
James shrugged. "An Alpha's power is... different." He toyed with the tab on top of the can. "How did you know to look for the RF jammer?"
"Logic. The cell phones of all of the men were on, but not a single call got through. There had to be a reason."
"But an RF jammer? That's pretty specific."
Gabe shrugged. He was beginning to get irritated. "Look, I just knew, okay?"
James smiled at him like a proud papa. "Exactly."
Gabe rubbed the glass bottle across his forehead. He was getting a headache. "This makes no sense. Either you're part of the hierarchy or you're not. I'm Second. That means I'm part of the hierarchy."
James chuckled. "Is that all? Of course you're Halle's Second! That won't change."
"How could it not? You said I'd be gone for six months and when I came back I'd be a Hunter." And probably out of a job, damn it. He loved being sheriff.
"How many rogues do you think actually exist?"
"As many as there are criminals."
This time it was James who looked confused.
"The majority of the populace is law-abiding citizens. A percentage of them are not. Some places have more, some less. It would be the same with rogue shifters." He took another swig of beer and headed back into the living room. "Some of them are like the local college kids, looking for a good, illicit time. Some of them are stone-cold killers who need to be taken down."
"Daniel was taken down by a killer."
Gabe stopped. He set the beer carefully on the coffee table. He felt on edge, just like he did when he saw a really bad case cross his desk. Fuck. In the background the video game's music began playing again. "How?"
James picked up the remote and sat on the sofa, starting the game back up. "Want to find out?"
Yes. Damn it, yes, he did. "What about Sarah?"
James smiled. "She's your mate, Gabe. She'll still be here when we're done."
Gabe relaxed. It meant holding off on claiming his woman, but the urge to, well, hunt was on him. "Could this guy be a threat to Halle?"
James shook his head. "He's been killing up by Yonkers."
"New York?" He'd have to go to New York?
"That will be part of your territory."
Hell. New York City alone probably needed a Hunter. "How many Hunters are in this region?"
"Including you? Three. And your territory includes Pennsylvania, New York state and New Jersey."
Well hell. Add one for Atlantic City. "So I get everything that's not New York City and Atlantic City?"
James pointed at him and crowed. "Ha! Gotcha."
Gabe realized how he'd phrased that and groaned. "Fuck." He picked up his beer and finished it. "Let me at least claim my mate."
James raised one eyebrow. "Do you really want to do that to her? Claim her and leave her for six months?" He shook his head. "Better you leave her unclaimed, for now. The mate dreams will be hell, but trust me, boy. You'll want time when you claim her." His grin turned heated. "Don't you want to be able to love on her until you're done, rather than bite her and run?"
Gabe thought of all the things he wanted to do to Sarah. The way he'd tie her to the bed, wrists bound to the headboard, eyes blindfolded. The spankings he wanted to administer to those lily-white ass cheeks, watching them turn red under his hand. He longed to feel her mouth on him, to taste her essence until he was glutted.
"I'll need to ask for a leave of absence."
"Claim family reasons." James pulled out a piece of paper. "Your maternal grandfather is ill and you need to care for him."
Gabe looked at the forged papers. His maternal grandfather had died before he'd been born. "You're kidding me, right?" He couldn't turn in forged papers. It was against the law. He handed them back to James.
James took them. "Sure. Go ahead and explain to your bosses that you're hunting a killer Wolf. Tell them that you'll be gone for roughly six months, barring holidays because we're not complete bastards, training to take up the duties of a Senate Hunter. They'll be fine with it, right?"
Gabe groaned. He just knew he was going to get fired. "Give me the damn papers."