Dutch Harbor Protector by CD Brennan

Chapter One

Ephraim Johnson’s wolf lifted his muzzle and let out a long, low howl. The music built and carried across the meadow until it hit the nearby mountain and bounced back to him. He lowered to the ground and let the reverberation of his responding yips rattle his chest and belly.

Dang, it was great to be a wolf shifter on a night like this.

Everything was better, brighter, thanks to the glow of the huge moon overhead. It was full, a fat, bright globe in the sky, changing the night into day. Ephraim’s normally not-so-great human vision was vastly improved whenever he was shifted into his wolf form and, in this light, each blade of grass was visible. Each twig of the low scrub trees dotting the landscape stood out as he and the rest of the crew from the Night Shifter played on the tundra. The smell of the fireweed going dormant created a sharp tang in the back of his throat. And over that, the familiar aroma of terrified rabbit scented the air. Ephraim’s paws sank into the soft soil as he advanced toward the bunny, his wolf guided by the staccato beat of the critter’s heart.

But then the outraged roar of a bear ripped through the night. The rabbit burst from its hiding spot and zig-zagged across the field until it disappeared into a rocky area about five hundred yards up the hill. The noise drew Ephraim’s attention away from his quarry, and he let out a menacing growl at the disruption to his hunting. He sniffed deeply, noting the general location of the bunny’s scent for the near future and then dropped to his haunches to watch Benjamin and Adam’s bears wrasslin’ in the creek. Ben’s brown bear was smaller, but sneakier, which is why Adam’s polar bear had roared. Adam was on his back in the creek, his white fur glistening with moisture in the moonlight. Ben’s coat was slick with the water dripping off him.

What a bunch of dopes they were. The only time Ben was going to get the better of Adam was while in animal form. Adam was the alpha of the clan, and they’d all pledged loyalty to him. He was a good sport to let Ben pin him down that way. Ephraim saw the glint of Ben’s teeth in the fur on Adam’s neck, but he knew there was no way that Ben would clamp down hard enough to break their leader’s hide.

Ephraim rose on all fours and shook himself like a dog before launching toward the pair in the creek. He wanted in on this action. With a jolt of speed, he lowered his head and rammed into Ben’s side, knocking him arse over toenails into a deep depression in the creek. Ben’s snout submerged in the cold water. When he surfaced, he blew snot and water directly at Ephraim’s head as he cleared his nostrils.

If Ephraim was in human form, he might have called Ben a stankface. Instead, he just snarled right before pouncing on Ben’s back, acting like he was going to ride him like a pony. The brown bear reared up on his two hind legs, throwing Ephraim free. He landed on his backside in the same deep well as Ben had, cold creek water flushing over his neck and head. As Ephraim dog-paddled his way to the bank, he heard Sarah and Caleb’s eagles screeching high above him, laughing at the silly antics of the earth-bound animals. Eph wasn’t a rude gesture sort of man, but he wished he could have flipped off the two eagles. If only he had hands instead of paws right now.

Adam lumbered over to the creek bank Eph had paddled to and nudged Eph’s paw with his snout. See there, this was exactly what made Adam a great alpha; he was always concerned about his crew, in human or animal form. Ephraim nodded his head and then lifted his hindquarters in the air with his paws stretched out in front of him on the muddy bank.

Adam moved away, following Ben toward a deeper part of the creek where they’d be sure to find pike or trout for a snack. Ephraim headed the other direction in search of the rabbit he’d lost earlier.

The crew had finished the initial preparations for the king crab season, starting to get everything in ship-shape on the trawler in order to head out in October. Ephraim had overseen the examination and repair of the lines they’d attach to the crab pots, and he’d worked closely with Caleb on repairing some of the buoys they’d use to mark the drop locations for the large pots. Normally, it would have been Daniel doing that with him, and they’d have butted heads the whole time with Daniel cutting up and slacking off while Ephraim did most of the work. In fact, they might have competed over the rabbit Ephraim now stalked. In the past, Ephraim might have felt put out and competitive with Daniel, but now he was sad that Daniel’s wolf had been harmed by the guy’s excessive drinking. Daniel wasn’t part of the boat crew any longer, his choice, but he was still part of the clan. He’d resigned from the boat to work with his mate, Liza, to help her reopen the saloon she’d bought. Daniel had moved in with Liza, was working hard on staying sober, and getting his wolf to heal and come back.

Ephraim knew it wasn’t an easy road for Daniel, and in spite of their past differences, he was danged proud of how hard the guy was working. He spent most of his time laboring to spruce up the bar for the grand opening. But in the evening, Daniel and Liza came over to sit around the firepit and discuss their progress on the Elbow Room. Or rather, The Night Shift, as Liza had rechristened her pub.

He lowered his snout into the scrub grass, trying to catch the scent of his quarry again as he moved up the hill. If Ephraim were honest, he’d have to admit he kind of missed hunting with Daniel. The guy might be a flapdoodle, but he was good company, and occasionally fun to be around. When he wasn’t drinking. Ephraim’s wolf wanted Daniel to heal soon so they could romp the wilds of Unalaska together with the other guys.

Although, with most of the crew now mated up, Adam and Millie, Ben with Cassie, Caleb (who still couldn’t sing worth a darn) and Sarah, and Daniel and Liza, Ephraim was finding himself hunting and romping solo more than usual. Frank, the enigmatic New Zealander, never joined them when they shifted and had never really explained why. But they’d let him be. The big-hearted man would share his shifter story when he was ready.

Ephraim dropped to his hindquarters and lifted a back paw to scratch the spot where some darn flea had nibbled his neck. While he itched away, he resorted to his favorite game: guess what critter Frank harbored inside. He tried to picture him as a gorilla or panther, but couldn’t see it. Based on the guy’s bulk, his animal had to be big. Maybe a dragon. That would be super cool. But then again, he could be a tiny gopher. The man was a puzzle for sure.

Ephraim had always been somewhat of a loner when he’d shifted. His adoptive mom and dad weren’t shifters, so when it came time for his first shift, they couldn’t do much more than be supportive as he went through it. They’d paid an old-timer named Bobbin from the foothills outside of Fairbanks to help, but Bobbin had stopped shifting himself about ten years earlier. The fella had kept Eph company through his first shift but wasn’t there in animal form with him. Just talked Eph through the terrifying, painful experience, promising him it would get better each time. The shift back had sucked as well, especially when Bobbin smacked him on the snout to get his attention. When Eph shifted back, sobbing and screaming, Bobbin had draped a smelly old horse blanket over him and told him to suck it up.

Bobbin hadn’t lied. It had gotten easier. Shifting with his crew the first time had been a rush like none other.

Shaking away the memories, Ephraim stopped scratching and shook out his pelt. The others had all wandered or flown away, so Eph trotted down the hill that led to the shack he’d called home since the beginning of the year. That first month or so had been rough with the guys arguing the whole time. And the god-awful cramped living space. But as soon as they voted for Adam as alpha, life had turned a corner toward normal. Well, almost normal. They’d become a true crew, fighting like brothers still, but working harder at getting along. Slowly, as the guys started finding mates, they all became more grounded. Ben had quit talking about leaving and Caleb had started taking lessons on the guitar so the noise coming from the instrument was less like cats mating and more like music. Daniel had stopped drinking like he expected the world to end.

Ah, the things the love of a woman could do.

The wolf lowered his head as he slogged along. He’d felt lonely and blue the last few weeks. It wasn’t in his nature to be depressed, but darned if he didn’t feel a little melancholy. Especially when he sat like a dingleberry with the other couples around the fire. He doubted he’d ever find a woman he could love that way. He’d always been awkward and shy around females growing up. It was easier to bury his nose in a book and live in a make-believe world than it was to talk to a girl. To be fair, it was still easier. Even talking to Millie who, swear to God, had to have kissed the Blarney Stone, could be grim. He secretly wished for cotton to stuff in his ears whenever she trimmed his hair. She didn’t stop talking, but it was usually okay. She didn’t really require him to answer.

It wasn’t only that he couldn’t converse with girls easily. It was his utter lack of confidence in his ability to be a protective mate if he ever found the right woman.

A breeze ruffled his fur, bringing with it the scent of the bay and the water…and something else. The fur on his neck stood up, and a shiver rushed through him. That smell, a scent familiar from his days in high school in Fairbanks. One he’d never forget because, well, it was something a guy never forgot. He lifted his snout and inhaled deeply, so deeply he got a bit dizzy.

Why here, in this place, that smelled like the tundra, fresh air, the harbor, and fish? The smell of wild violets and vanilla didn’t belong here.

With his nose in the air, he followed the scent, eager and nervous at the same time. The aroma tickled his hackles and made his ears quiver.

He trotted through the deserted downtown streets, sticking to the shadows, chasing the scent toward the harbor. He passed the general store and Amelia’s Restaurant. The smell grew stronger as he turned toward the Grand Hotel.

His entire body was vibrating with memories and a need so intense it stole his breath. He’d never felt this before, not as a wolf or a man. It was as if the scent, so sweet and delicious, was consuming him. Just beyond the front door of the fanciest hotel in Unalaska, the smell was so strong it washed away all other scents, lingering in the air like perfume.

A light flared in an open window on the second floor, and movement flickered behind the flimsy material fluttering in the breeze that had carried the scent to him and drawn him here. A hand appeared from within the room and slid the window shut, diminishing the scent slightly. Then heavy drapes were dragged across the gauze curtain, dimming the light and closing out the world.

But Ephraim didn’t need to see to know.

It was her.

His first love.