Midlife Wolf by Ruby Knoxx

Chapter 1 - Will

The bonfire blazed, its flames burning up massive logs in tune to the loud rock music blaring out of a set of old speakers. Too many drunk voices sang along to the rush of lyrics and the rhythmic beat, almost all of them belonging to the young wolves who were prancing around in the sand and dirt. They screamed to the song and danced as they went, as if tonight was their last day on earth. Will’s sister was one of the wild ones—arm in arm with her mate, faces painted to match the wilderness burning inside them.

Will grinned, beer in hand, from his seat on one of the logs along the edge of the bonfire. The Pit was chock full of dancing bodies, and couples that weren’t dancing away their energy and enthusiasm draped themselves over each other, mouths suctioned together. The more alcohol that disappeared, the fewer places Will could look without seeing some evidence of lust, love, or passion in the form of breathless kisses or classless groping.

It was hard not to look upon all of them without a bit of envy, being one of the few single ones in the crowd.

The rest of the log Will was perched on was empty, reserved for him, his younger sister Holly, and her mate, Finn, who happened to be Will’s best friend. Will tossed back the rest of his beer, letting the cool, bitter liquid soothe his worries and bring him to a state of bliss along with the others. Out here with his family and friends, they were all that mattered. Them, their friendship, and having a damn good time.

Once finished, Will sent his empty beer spinning into the accumulating pile of bottles in the grass, then reached for the cooler to grab another.

“Will! Come dance with us!” Holly cried out as she and Finn spun around this side of the bonfire again. Her black hair fanned around her, just as wild as her and her dancing.

It wasn’t the first time she’d asked, but like last time, and all her previous attempts, he waved a hand that said ‘nah’ and stayed put. He was happy right here, watching everyone else. That was his version of a good time.

It was tradition in Silvercoast that, on the first night of summer, the wolf shifters gathered at The Pit for the first, and usually the biggest, party and get-together of the summer. Those who had found their mates in the previous year were the first to dance, usually in an erotic display of lust through hunter and prey, love and lust.

Will knew it was only ceremonial, but it was kind of hard for him to watch his little sister and his best friend chase after each other, hunting and being hunted through the throes of sweaty bodies that were set at completing the same task and getting in each other’s way in the process.

Beside Holly and Finn were several other couples that got together that year: Ryel, their alpha, and Mia, as well as Don and Brooklyn. Other couples had tired out from the dance already, or had already been captured and retired to love-nests already. And as the mated pairs phased out of the dance, the unmated wolves were invited to take their place in the sand.

“Come on, Will!” Holly cried out when she came around again, but this time she released her hold on Finn, spinning practically face-first into Will, a wild grin on her face.

Will stood and caught her before she went spinning out of control or landed on her face, but forcing him to catch her must have been part of the plan because the instant she was in his arms, she was tugging him toward the fire.

“Come oooonnn.” She yanked on his arm, but it was comical how small she was compared to his bulky, muscular form, as she barely made him budge. His laughter made him move more than she did. “Don’t you know how to have fun anymore?”

“I’m plenty of fun, I just don’t like dancing. Nothing wrong with that,” Will said, raising his beer above her so she didn’t spill it all over her in her attempts to drag him toward the writhing mass of dancers, which had grown in size since others had been allowed to join in now.

“There’s plenty wrong with that. Doesn’t the fire just make you feel so alive? Like you want to hawwwwoooool at the moon?” She broke into a fit of laughter. “Arooooo!”

A couple of the other inebriated wolves took her call to heart and all started mock-howling in response.

Will smirked. “Jeez, how much have you had to drink?”

“Not nearly enuff, I’ll wressssle you and beat your ass if you don’t come daaaaance with me.”

“Only ‘cause I would let you win. I couldn’t hurt you, little sis.”

“Pshhaww, yeah right. As if you could beat me even if you wanted to. So, let’s just pretend that we wresssstled and I won, and since I won, you have to come dancing now.”

“That’s definitely not how that works.” Will looked behind his sister, spotting Finn still moving through the crowd, but at a much slower pace now that he had a chance to rest while his mate was preoccupied with Will. “Go on, get back to having fun instead of worrying about me. I’m pretty sure Finn is disappointed that you’re not out there dancing with him anymore.”

Holly pouted. “I’m just worried about you. Don’t you want to find your mate? This is your year. I bet you haven’t found yours yet because you’re so crotchety and never dance like the rest of us working so hard to make the old magicks work.”

Although Will rolled his eyes dismissively seeing as she was drunk off her ass, Holly had managed to stab right at his biggest fear. So many of the shifters in their pack had already found their mates, and he was one of the few left in their circle of friends who was still single. It wasn’t that he hadn’t tried dating since coming back to Silvercoast … he just hadn’t had any luck with the women he met. They weren’t compatible, as had been the case with the countless women he’d been with or dated throughout his life.

He was at the point where he didn’t think he would find his mate anytime soon. Quickly approaching the age of 45, you could say he was a bit jaded toward the concept of love and romance, even when he couldn’t dismiss it outright because those like his little sis and his best friend were lucky enough to find each other. Right now, he just had to assume that his mate wasn’t in Silvercoast, and if he was ever going to find her, he either had to leave or wait for her to come to him.

Maybe love like that, a mate just meant for him, wasn’t in the cards. And Will had to live with that because he couldn’t see himself leaving Silvercoast so long as his sister was here, and so long as his pack needed him.

But he always feared that, like Holly was suggesting, he was liable for self-sabotage. Almost all of the shifters who danced at the Summer Solstice every year had found their mates, and Will always refused to. What if his stubbornness was the reason he hadn’t found his match so far?

The reason he never would?

That was ultimately why, when Holly renewed her tugging on Will’s arm, along with another chorus of begging, he lessened his resistance and let her struggle to actually pull him into the throng. Just because he was going to finally break down and dance didn’t mean he wasn’t going to make his sister work for this victory.

“All right, all right,” Will laughed as he stumbled after his sister. Her dark eyes glittered mysteriously in the firelight. “Just one song.”

“Aw, that won’t be enough for the magicks to kick in.”

“It better be because”—Will exaggerated an animated yawn—“I’m not young like you anymore, I have to get an early sleep to make sure I’m up early to get to work.”

“Pfft, you think I don’t put in early mornings at the café just because I’m young? Besides, look around. You really think any of these chumps are gonna be going anywhere fast tomorrow?”

Will let Holly pull him around the fire, moving his feet to the natural rhythm of the music. Everyone was either plastered or on their way to being there, stumbling around the fire or nodding off near the log benches. He chuckled to himself. “No, I suppose they won’t be.”

“So get your ass in gear, get your boogie on, and stop thinking about your next excuse to ditch early.” Her tight hold on his wrist slackened as the tempo of the music increased, their feet forced to move faster than their bodies. “Tonight, you’re going to dance so damn well, the magicks won’t have a choice but to find your mate.”

To Will’s surprise, he didn’t find himself thinking of the fastest way out of the mess his sister had dragged him into. Rather, he found his breaths deepening to match the pace of the music, his heart rate increased, the primal energies of the dance and music’s rhythm beating through him as if it was a living force.

One foot after the other, one arm swing—dodging someone else’s sloppy dancing—shuffling from stance to stance. The rhythm of the music dropped, and everyone’s stances shifted and, at once, a dozen of them all fell into a crouch, necks extending, heads thrown back, and they all let out howling cries, mimicking their wolf selves.

The howl burned through Will’s throat, leaving him like part of his spirit had severed from his body and leaped into the sky, searching for his missing half. Adrenaline unlike anything he’d felt before pumped through his veins, leaving him crouching there, lungs heavy, head spinning, exhilarated as if he’d just taken an hour long run through the woods as his wolf.

The music picked up again, and the dancers resumed their galloping pace, but Will wasn’t ready to move yet. Wow. He was still reeling inside and out from the first part of the dance, his muscles clenched and he was unwilling to move or let go of that feeling. All this time, he’d thought his sister and friends were all just drunk lunatics for dancing so much, but it wasn’t an exaggeration: this dance made him feel alive in more ways than one.

It was like, up until this moment, he’d been sleeping, and he had only just woken up for the first time. He would keep dancing if it meant getting to feel like this again.

Will stayed crouched despite the annoyed glances the other wolves gave him. Finn was the first not paying enough attention and practically tripped over Will, and Will had to reach out to keep his friend from face-planting in the dirt.

That was when Will stood—to laugh at his friend, who was also laughing. “Gods, you’re just as bad as my sister. If I’m not here to watch over you two, you’re liable to tripping and snapping your necks.”

“To be fair, you were the one still on the ground in the middle of the dance floor.” Finn pointed out casting a glance at the blazing fire beside them, and then wiped the beads of sweat accumulating on his forehead. “Come on, Holly’s not watching, let’s take a break. I need another damn drink.”

“Same.”

They wove out of the hazardous track of the remaining dancers and back to the stash of cold beer. Finn took one out of the cooler, then pressed another into Will’s hand.

“Holly sure is something,” Finn said as he took a swig, followed by a satisfied ‘aaahhh’ sound. “I swear she has the energy of five professional dancers combined, we’ll never tire her out.”

Will’s eyes drifted back to the bonfire, where Holly had taken to dancing with some of the other women who had so far survived the music, although it was doubtful that they would survive her breakneck pace.

“If that’s your goal, you’ll die first—she’s always been like that,” Will said. “You just kinda gotta work around her sometimes.”

“So I’m learning.”

In the corner of his eye, Will spotted a pretty young wolf staring at him intently, her gaze suggestive. With the wilderness still pumping through his veins, he was tempted to hurry over to her and see just how far that tempting gaze of hers was willing to go.

“Oooh, fresh on the line,” Finn said. “Go say hi, why don’t you? Holly said you’re going to find your mate this year, so that means you better put some effort in, ya hear? Don’t disappoint her because then I’ll be the one dealing with the consequences.”

The logical side of Will kept him rooted in place, staring back at her without a clue what to do. She was a pretty, curvy blonde with bright blue eyes, but she was too young for him. Will wasn’t the kind of guy to get caught anywhere suggestive with a young woman who looked like she was still in her twenties. He didn’t like the prospect of being with someone half his age.

“Too young for me, I can’t.” Will pulled his gaze from hers, scanning the crowd instead. “My mate, whoever she is, ain’t in this town, and she ain’t below thirty.”

Finn clapped him on the shoulder. “That’s all right, whatever you say. There’s lots of time in the year still. Maybe we’ll talk to Ryel and get leave to take you on a hunting party in the big city.”

“That sounds stupid. Why can’t it just happen naturally?”

“Because you’re actively going out of your way to make finding her as difficult as possible. So, it’s time to tip the scales in your favor for a few days. What do you think?”

“I don’t know…”

Before Will could go much deeper into his thoughts on the subject, a heavy hand landed on his shoulder. He looked up to see Ken, another one of the wolf shifters who seldom partook in parties like these. His long brown hair was tied out of his eyes in a messy pony.

“Yo, Will, Finn, you two sober?” Ken asked.

“Not even close,” Finn answered as he tossed his bottle into the pile, “but I think we’re both still functional. Been taking it easy. What’s up?”

“We have some hostile action on the edge of down, Rick and Lucy are calling for backup.”

Will was on his feet in an instant—any excuse to ditch the party early. “What’s the situation?”

“Let me grab Ryel and I’ll tell you on the way.”

***

“Four bear shifters, never seen them around these parts before,” Ken explained as they jogged from the Pit and to the northern edge of town.

“And you’re absolutely sure they’re being aggressive?” Ryel asked. “We can’t attack unless we know for sure. Don’t want any issues down the line.”

“Well they’re definitely not being friendly. There’s something off about them, though. Last I saw ‘em, three were still human, one had shifted, and they were being incoherent and confrontational. You’ll see. I’m just worried that if we take too long, Rick and Lucy’ll get attacked.”

Will pumped his legs harder, opting for silence and speed instead of engaging with the curiosity of the situation in front of them. He had all the information he needed for now, but his head was spinning in circles with just those pieces. What would four bear shifters be doing in Silvercoast?

There weren’t any bear clans nearby that Will knew of, which meant they must have traveled far to get here, or they were roaming around, searching. Neither made sense. His wolf side took more dominance over his physical form; he stayed human for the time being, but he and the others hurried onward with supernatural strength and speed to make sure they made it to their pack members in time.

But then they passed the last row of residential houses near the edge of town and followed the road farther north, where Ken directed them off through the bushes to the small clearing that the patrols checked every day. That’s where Will saw the scene unfolding for himself: Lucy and Rick were huddled close together, wolf claws extended protectively for each other as the bears advanced from different angles.

Two had shifted into their bear forms now—both of them wearing the dark, shaggy brown coats of grizzlies. There was something rabid and haunted in their eyes, like a sinister apparition had taken hold of their minds and sent them spiraling toward violence without any thoughts about the consequences.

One of them lunged toward Lucy with his thick claws, snapping at her. She held her ground, ready to defend herself, but the attack was just a feint. He shouted something at her that was indistinguishable when the encounter was so far away.

“Looks pretty aggressive to me,” Finn said with a growl. “Come on.”

Will slowed his approach when they neared to group and the two strange men. It was easier to see how off they were as humans, arms and legs jerking around unnaturally, eyes glowing with fervor. And he was pretty sure he wasn’t seeing things just because he was mildly intoxicated, and that it wasn’t caused by alcohol or drugs.

Bad magic stunk in the nearby forest, coming straight from those bears.

“There’s something wrong with them,” Will said.

Ryel and Ken ignored him, hurrying ahead to join the confrontation and stand by Rick and Lucy, who had managed to hold their own so far. Will came up from behind, hovering nearby, muscles taut and ready for whatever happened next.

“I’m the Alpha of the Silvercoast wolf pack,” Ryel growled with a rise of enviable authority in his voice, his stance widening to look more threatening. His muscles flexed, bulging against his jacket and blue jeans as if his wolf would break free at any second. “First you trespass on our territory, then you come threatening my pack? Declare yourselves and your intentions or get out. And if you refuse to comply …”

A growl reverberated in Ryel’s throat, which was then echoed by all of the other wolves nearby. Will’s growl cut in above all of them, fiercer and angrier than the others because he wasn’t just wary of their intentions … he was worried whether there was some other force controlling them. Whatever happened next, he was ready to protect his pack and his town.

The larger human man buffed himself up and approached with a growl of his own. “Where is it? I can smell it. We can smell it. Where are you hiding it?”

“What is ‘it’?” Ryel demanded. His hands shifted to reveal wolf claws, but he couldn’t hold his shift permanently part way. Snow white fur began to slowly creep up his arms. “Answer me, or I will declare you a threat.”

“The treasure, where is it?” the second man growled out.

Though his words were barely distinguishable as human language, Will was sure that he heard ‘treasure’ in there. Which made him and Finn share a concerned glance, wondering if that meant what they both thought: goblin treasure.

“We know you have it. WHERE IS IT? WHERE? WHEREISITWHERE WHEREGRAAWW—”

The bear shifters lost their repetitive speech to an incoherent series of grunting and growls as they launched themselves forward in sync, their clothes ripping off their backs as dark brown fur burst over their limbs and their bears took over completely. Their hands became sharp claws, one swipe heading straight for Lucy’s throat before he even finished his transformation.

She jumped to the side and out of the way, shifting under an impressive speed and cutting at the first bear’s human side before he had even completed his shift. He roared angrily as the rest of his fur covered his body, then they began their deadly dance of claws and teeth, with Rick jumping in soon after to help her.

Meanwhile, Finn, Ryel, Ken, and Will took on the other bears. They shredded their clothes as their transformations took over, aggression rumbling in their chests. Will roared as he landed on all four paws, lunging at one of the bears that had already shifted before he got there.

The bear was distracted by trying to go after Ryel, but Will got his attention quickly by raking his claws along his flank, blood spurting into the grass. The bear roared and whirled after Will, but he rushed out of the way, making for his other side. But then the bear stood up on his hind legs, slamming down at Will’s side before he could get another attack in.

As he fell back down, his claws snagged Will’s tail. He growled and yelped when he pulled himself free from the bear, snarling and turning back around, seeking payback for the injury. And Will was going to take it tenfold simply because these bears came to Silvercoast, making demands, threatening his people, and that was unacceptable.

His wolf’s spirit was enraged and needed to be satiated. With another snarl, Will lost himself to battle frenzy, his sides heaving as he attacked in a relentless assault on the bears, taking his opponent down and sending him fleeing into the trees, then following him up with the others.

Once all the bears were scrambling back into wherever they came from, the wolves grouped together and threw their heads back in a series of wild howls.

Adrenaline was still burning through Will when he shifted back into a man, and the others soon followed. He glanced around in the grass, finding the only jacket that had survived the shift and tossed it to Lucy so she could preserve herself.

“Thanks,” she said and wrapped it around herself.

The rest of them stayed nude—but they were so used to it by now that it didn’t bother Will. His eyes flicked through the rustling trees where the bears had disappeared into, eager to follow their departure, but he stayed put, at least to talk with his Alpha first.

“We should go after them,” Will declared once they had a moment to breathe and let the cool night air eat away at the excitement of the encounter.

“There’s no point, they’re gone now,” Ryel said. “Everyone’s okay?”

“Yeah.” Rick had a scrape along his arm, but the claw marks were already fading away as his skin stitched back together. “Don’t think we sustained any major injuries.”

“Clear here,” Finn agreed, “but I think Will’s right. We should go after them while we still can, take them back for questioning. Didn’t you hear what the guy said before he shifted?”

“It sounded like a bunch of jumbled nonsense to me. Probably tweaking out or something and got confused. I’d say poor guys, but they attacked Lucy, so fuck them.”

Lucy spat on the ground. “That’s right, fuck them.”

Will and Finn shared a concerned look—were they really the only two who heard what the bear had said?

“But the bear said something about treasure. Couldn’t that mean—” Will started.

“Absolutely not. All the goblin treasure was destroyed, I saw to it myself. Whatever they’re looking for, it has nothing to do with us,” Ryel interrupted. “If they needed help, we would have helped them. That’s what we do around here. But if they’re going to attack first? Yeah, fuck ‘em.”

With that, Ryel turned back toward town, with Ken, Rick, and Lucy following him. Finn and Will lingered behind a while longer. It wasn’t like they could argue with their Alpha; they couldn’t pursue those bears even if they wanted to, but it was a missed opportunity to get answers, and potentially dangerous if they turned out to be wrong.

There were few things more dangerous than goblin treasure, at least in Will’s experience. He thought it was a mistake to let it be, just in case Ryel was wrong. But it was impossible to tell for sure based on just one encounter, it’s just after seeing how badly the treasure had affected Finn for years … it was difficult for him to look the other way.

“The longer we hang back, the more likely I am to run off after those bears.” Finn crossed his arms over his bare chest and followed the other wolves. “Come on, let’s find some clothes and find us a couple more beers. Think we deserve ‘em.”

“You can say that again.” Will followed, too, but he searched over his shoulder after he started off toward Silvercoast. In the darkness of the night, he swore he saw a pair of gold eyes staring back at him.

He blinked, and the eyes were gone. Just his imagination.