IT WAS only halfway through his workday and his blood was already close to boiling. Derek hated humans. He hated the whole lot of them. What they did to animals was utterly disgraceful. Maybe he had lived a sheltered life with his pack, and maybe he hadn’t known what the world was about when he left home at age eighteen. Maybe he hadn’t been as fully prepared for the grief life could throw at him as he thought he had been.
But that was no fucking excuse for abuse and neglect of an animal that was bred to serve and love its owners.
Derek glowered as he drove his official humane officer car through the streets of Seattle, Washington. He had been horribly naïve when he had taken this job. He thought he would not only be helping animals but also helping humans understand how they could properly take care of the animals in their lives.
He had been wrong. This job had become a slow torment. Derek never would have imagined just how horrible humans could be to their pets and farmyard animals. He had grown up quickly and hadn’t been allowed much time to be a rookie.
His very first call on the job had been for a dog near death. Complete neglect and carelessness had led the animal to become a bag of bones, and dehydration had begun to take its toll. And the Washington weather didn’t help matters. The dog had been shaking with cold when Derek had pulled his vehicle up to the curb.
He had tried everything he could, and still it hadn’t been enough. The dog had died.
Derek’s dark brown eyes flashed with rage that hadn’t dimmed in the passing years. The rage, in fact, only seemed to build more and more each day as he saw the results of careless humans.
Right now, Derek had a cat in the cage in the back of his car that looked to be pregnant and close to birth. She looked dehydrated and malnourished, and the fur around her neck was gone. But in the skin he could see markings that might have been caused by a collar once upon a time.
Looked like she got pregnant, and the owners decided to abandon her instead of seeing her through the pregnancy.
A wolf-like growl issued from Derek’s throat, and the muscles under his skin rippled with anticipation. He shook his head once, hard. Not here. Not now. Shifting would not help the cat.
She was skittish enough as it was.
He couldn’t blame her; he was a wolf shifter after all. Cats and wolves didn’t have the best relationship. But that didn’t matter. He would have saved a cat from a flash flood without blinking. It was his job.
It was who he was.
Derek pulled up to the Pet Rescue center and got out of the car, slamming the door harder than he needed to. He walked around to the back and opened the door. The cat hissed, but Derek knew she had to be in pain, and her terror wasn’t helping.
“Easy there, girl. I’m only doing what’s best for you. Easy.” Derek continued to talk to her as he grabbed a small portable carrier and opened the cage door. He set the carrier on the floor and threw a cat treat into it. The cat, despite her terror, wanted food. Her nose lifted in the air and sniffed before her body heaved itself off the floor and waddled to the carrier.
Derek closed the small door and gently lifted her. She was much too light for a cat carrying a litter of kittens.
Shutting all the doors and locking the car, Derek walked quickly to the main doors of the Seattle Pet Rescue. The clinic was in the back, and he hurried past the waiting room and behind the counter through a door that read “Employees Only.”
Derek had been with the Pet Rescue for about four years now, beginning right after he finished several years at a community college. This was the only job he had ever wanted to do. The rest of his family was into saving the environment, wildlife preserves, and PETA. He had wanted to do something different, something that would help pets, not wild animals.
It was his opinion that pets were often the most in danger of human cruelty.
His anger flared up once more, and Derek growled.
“I agree,” said a voice behind him. Derek had just passed the clinic doors without knowing it.
Derek turned around, and his bad mood vanished almost instantly.
Here, Derek thought. Here is the one exception to the human species. Here is the one human who could restore the honor of the entire human species with a single gesture.
Brian O’Donogue was the best veterinarian the world had ever seen. At least, in Derek’s opinion. Brian had joined the Pet Rescue only two years before, and his presence had made a marked improvement in how many animals survived when brought in. He had a gift; it was that simple. The staff had also dubbed him “the animal shrink” because in the two years he had been with them, they hadn’t put an animal down for bad temperament.
He was somehow able to get into their heads and knew how to heal them, mind and body.
“What have we got here?” Brian came over and took the carrier from Derek’s hand.
“Female cat. Pregnant. Abandoned.”
Brian clucked his tongue and gestured for Derek to follow him into the clinic. They walked back to Brian’s workstation, and the vet put the carrier on the long operating table in the center of the room.
Brian bent down until he was eye-level with the opening of the cage door. A hiss could be heard.
“Poor thing,” Brian said, so many emotions riding on those two words.
Derek watched, leaning against the wall, as Brian tried to coax the cat out of the carrier once he had opened the door.
Brian was older than Derek, but he didn’t know by how much. He was blond with long hair that came down to the middle of his back. He always wore it either in a braid or a ponytail. He had a thin beard that didn’t do much to detract from his boyish face. Derek figured that was why he grew it. His eyes were a startling green that always caused a newcomer to look twice.
He was fit, and the long white coat didn’t detract much from his rather impressive figure. Derek also couldn’t help noticing how perky his butt looked in those blue jeans.
For two years, he had debated whether to ask Brian out, but had held back. It wasn’t because he was afraid Brian was straight, oh no. Brian was a flamer from the top of his blond head to the bottom of his red sneakers. He didn’t have the lisp or the limp wrist, but he had that feminine air about him and timidity that most straight men didn’t have. He also liked ABBA and would play Celine Dion as often as he could.
No, it wasn’t fear of rejection that kept Derek from asking. It was the fact that he was a wolf shifter, and what he wanted with Brian was more than just a night of pleasure. He wanted a relationship, which meant he would have to make the fateful decision whether to reveal himself or to keep it forever a secret. Two years and he still hadn’t made up his mind.
Brian finally got the cat out of the carrier and gently checked her over.
“Well?” Derek asked, pushing away from the wall.
“She’ll be due soon. We need to get some food and water down her. Not much, though. Too much will make her sick.”
“That pup you brought in this morning is looking well.”
Derek blinked. He had completely forgotten about the Labrador puppy that he had found in a storm drain.
“Shit, I feel like crap now. He’s going to live?”
Brian grinned and patted his arm. “I guarantee it. Other than fear and a bumped head, he’s doing fine. The staff’s already fallen in love with him.”
Derek took a deep breath of relief. “Good. Good.”
Brian looked at him a moment before speaking. “You were in a mood when you came back. Wanna talk about it?”
Not only was Brian the animal shrink, he was also the staff’s shrink. If anyone had any problems, he would be the one they went to. His quiet and nonjudgmental nature made people want to open up to him.
“I hate people,” Derek blurted.
“I know,” Brian said, nodding. He rubbed his hand up and down Derek’s back. It sent shivers of pleasure shooting to his groin.
It is amazing, Derek thought. This is the only person who can get me out of my bad mood just by looking at me. No one has ever done that.
He looked at Brian, and the vet removed his hand. Derek regretted the loss of contact.
“You should get back out there. I’ll take care of her now.”
“I know you will.”
“Don’t hate all humans, Derek. You only see them at their worst. They have a best. Remember that.”
Derek nodded mutely and walked out of the room.
BRIAN took a deep breath and looked down at the cat. “He’s a complicated one, I know.”
He and the cat stared at each other a moment longer before he snorted. “What do you mean he smells funny? How else is a human supposed to smell? He doesn’t wear cologne.”
Brian’s smile widened, and he continued to send calming thoughts to the cat. He imagined a warm and soft bed with fresh water and some tuna.
He couldn’t “talk” to animals, nor could they “talk” to him. But he could communicate on a level other humans couldn’t. He could give and receive images and that was how he could be an animal’s “shrink.” No one knew about his gift, not even his family. Whenever he had mentioned it, they would only think he was kidding, and when he got older, they told him to grow up. So he had grown silent.
The cat meowed in pleasure at the thought of the comfort coming, and when he put his arms around her to pick her up, she didn’t resist him. He carried the tawny beauty to the animal holding area and nodded to the staff as he passed.
People called him the animal shrink. He didn’t mind that. He was, in a way. His gift had always been used to help and soothe animals. He had also learned how to transfer his gift to humans. He couldn’t project calming images to them, nor could he read their minds, but he had good experience on how to soothe.
None of his techniques on humans worked better than on Derek. He was still puzzled by that. When he had been hired on, he had been warned about the humane officers and their territorial natures. The vet he had replaced, an old woman in her sixties named Lisa, had specifically taken him aside and told him about Derek.
The man was like a wolf, she explained to him. He was territorial, persistent, and loyal to a fault. He was dedicated to the job and took it very personally. The cruelty inflicted on animals was, to him, a personal insult. No one knew exactly why he took it so personally, but there it was.
Brian had listened to all Lisa had to say and had tried to prepare himself for the battle to come. Of all the officers he was to work with, he had been terrified of meeting Derek.
But when the meeting had come, it had been… uneventful. Derek had simply come into the clinic on his first day, introduced himself, and after giving Brian the once over, told him he could expect that day to be busy because of all the rain.
Only after that day did Brian loosen up. He still kept an eye on Derek, and realized that what Lisa had said had been the truth. Derek was utterly passionate, close to obsessive, about his job and the animals he rescued. He wanted punishment toward cruel and neglectful humans and was never satisfied with the fines most got slapped with.
Brian gently set the cat in a small kennel and gave her food and water. She thanked him with deep-throated purrs, and he smiled. He gave her head a thoughtful scratch before closing the kennel door.
He stood up, and, because today was slow, he figured he would get a lunch break for the first time that week.
But as he walked back to his workstation he began to puzzle over what the cat had “told” him. She had thought that Derek had smelled weird for a human, and it had put her on edge.
She couldn’t tell him what she had smelled or what it meant. Derek was definitely one of a kind, but why would his smell put a feline on edge?