Alex bent down to shove some clean glasses back onto the shelf beneath the bar. They clinked and rattled, and she mumbled under her breath when one fell over and almost toppled the others. She righted it, and stood back up. She didn’t love bartending, but at least it was some extra cash flow. Plus, it helped her keep an eye on things in town and get intel on NuGen, both because it was a popular hangout for almost everyone at varying times of the day, and because NuGen owned the joint. In fact, NuGen owned quite a few places in town, and their influence just kept spreading and growing. She didn’t like it. It was also another reason her and Cat refused to get in the ring and fight. Nothing like accidentally revealing yourself in the one place that could get you in the most trouble.
She whipped out the towel tucked into the edge of her pant’s pocket and started wiping down the bar, watching the handful of patrons there as they shot pool and downed their beer. Most that came in during the day were regulars and didn’t cause too much trouble. Partial-shifters mostly, although a few came in that she suspected were full-shifter. She had a few that could get a little unruly, but she’d learned to nip any drama in the bud quickly and efficiently since she started working there. She’d also learned that the partial-shifters tended to be the most frequent trouble makers. Full-shifters were more prudent, less inclined to draw undue attention to themselves. Like her.
A guy in the corner shouted in laughter, drawing her attention. Alex sniffed, eyes flaring with a brief glow as she connected with her feline. She made a face. She couldn’t tell what he was, but whatever he was, he smelled horrible. Like a cross between rotting garbage and—she sniffed again—burritos? Gross. She didn’t have a clue what kind of animal smelled so foul, but whatever he was, she prayed he stayed on the far side of the room. For some reason, partial-shifters often smelled weird, if not downright bad. Like their genetic mutation didn’t just get mucked up on a macro level, but also mucked them all up on a more micro level, affecting the little things. Like body odor. Or hygiene in general. Maybe the dude just didn’t like to bathe.
She set out four glasses and started filling them with the dark ale-like lager they served at The Renegade—and just about anywhere else you could find a drink—stopping just before the glass began to overflow. She glanced up when she heard the door open and paled a little when she noticed a handful of NuGen soldiers enter. Her hands stilled in their movements, then resumed her task, filling the glasses to just beneath the point of overflow with a flourish. She slid them down to the end of the bar with a nod to the girl cocktail serving today, but kept a wary side eye on on the trajectory of the soldiers. She hoped and prayed they weren’t there for her, but couldn’t help the prickle of unease she felt.
She watched them make their way to the guy in the corner that stunk to high heaven, and breathed a sigh of relief. They weren’t there for her. There was a ruckus when they reached their target as they gave him a good shake down, shoving him against the wall. She wondered what his crime was, but knew better than to interfere. She continued to study the soldiers from the corner of her eye as she worked, noting they all appeared to be big and well-muscled. She’d bet money they were all full-shifters, though what kind was hard to tell. Full-shifters are highly prized by NuGen, after all. She knew a few partials worked for them, but they were mostly low-level lackeys, not soldiers.
She just turned around to slide another drink order down the bar and put some cash into the register, when the door opened again and her eyes locked with eyes that were oh too familiar. She froze.
She felt her feline sit up and take notice, and struggled to keep her contained. His eyes flared with a faint glow, and he changed directions. Instead of heading for the crew of soldiers, he headed straight for her. She realized his intention in the same moment she realized he was wearing a uniform. She curled her lip. A NuGen uniform. She glanced at the soldiers across the room, then back at him. What he was wearing was different, but clearly NuGen nonetheless. He must be of higher rank than the soldiers then. Maybe a general or something. Special forces?
Great Alex. Why, oh why must the first guy you’ve been attracted to in ages, be the enemy?
The fighter she’d been so gaga over the other night wove his way across the room with prowling grace, his gaze locked on her. She felt like a rabbit caught in a snare, while somewhere inside, her feline started purring. She frowned, disgusted with herself and her cat. Clearly her kitty didn’t understand the concept “no fraternizing with the enemy.”
He stopped on the other side of the bar, his gaze intense as he studied her. She stared back at him, feeling as though a cat got her tongue. Like, literally.
Get a grip, Alex!
She cleared her throat and attempted to speak something intelligible, but all that emerged was a throaty croak that sounded something like, “May I help you?” She may as well have meowed, because it definitely didn’t sound normal.
He seemed to understand her well enough though. His eyes crinkled as amusement lit their depths, though he didn’t smile. When he spoke, his voice was deep and tinged with a slight bit of gravel. The sound of it made the hair on her arms stand on end, and she rubbed them briskly, trying to rub the sensation away. His gaze tracked her movements like a predator tracking prey. Something else flickered in his eyes before they met hers again, something almost possessive and much more unsettling. She felt her hackles rise, the hair on the nape of her neck stirring. Inside, her cat was ready to leap across the bar and rub against the man’s leg like a scratching post.
“Hi. I’m Lester. Lester Ryan. And you are?”
Alex felt like snarling, she was so discombobulated, but managed to restrain herself. Instead, she asked in a bored tone she was quite proud of, “Who wants to know?”
“I just told you.”
She tore her gaze away from his long enough to direct a pointed glare at the signa on his uniform, and lifted a brow. “Really? Just Lester wants to know?”
This time a faint smile curved his lips. “Not a fan of NuGen Society I take it?” He shrugged. “Few are, I suppose. I’ve noticed we seem to be getting more hostility from several of the factions lately.”
That he was self-aware enough to realize the unrest stirring in people because of NuGen surprised her, though she guessed it shouldn’t. If he was special forces or something, he didn’t get there by being dumb. She studied his uniform again and wondered just how high up in the NuGen ranks he actually sat. His uniform was unlike any she’d seen soldiers wear before. Or special forces, for that matter. In fact, it almost wasn’t really a uniform. More like street clothes that merely bore the NuGen Society logo. She frowned.
“Can you blame them? No one likes oppression. And NuGen, despite the dubiously pretty trappings, seems to be getting rather heavy-handed in their dealings with the public, especially in the last year.” She jutted her chin in the direction of the soldiers hassling the guy in the corner. “Point proven.”
The man named Lester lifted his hands in the air, offering her a gesture of conciliation. “Hey, I get it. But someone had to step up and establish some kind of order after the Purge. You can’t deny it was basically a free-for-all that first year. And dangerous as hell, too. I’d like to think we’ve made things just a little safer since then.”
Alex snorted, crossing her arms and leaning her hip against the back bar. “Yeah, I’m sure that guy in the corner is feeling real safe right about now,” she drawled sardonically. “What’d he do, give NuGen a little competition somewhere? Lace his boots too high? Wear his pants too tight? Steal a few buckets of rainwater?”
Annoyance flashed across Lester’s face, and he pressed his lips together. “No, actually. He’s been on our radar for awhile. He’s been living down in the sewer system and using them to hide his “trophies.” Things like women’s panties, and polaroids of the females he’s been stalking and harassing.”
Alex’s skin crawled and her face blanched. “Oh.”
This time Lester snorted. “Yeah, oh. So why don’t you get a little more information next time before throwing around unfounded accusations. Besides, you don’t seem to have a problem taking a paycheck from there here a The Renegade.”
He glared at her, and she realized she didn’t like it when he glared at her like that. Why, she had no idea, she only knew she didn’t. She sighed and pushed away from the bar, moving to grab a mug and pour some beer into it. Touche. He wasn’t wrong, though he didn’t know her reasons for working this job. And he never would, if she had anything to say about it. She slid the mug along the bar in his direction and apologized.
“I’m sorry, I guess I’m little sensitive when it comes to bullies. And I see NuGen on a whole, as a bully. Maybe your team is different, but I haven’t had many good experiences, so I can get prickly.”
She glanced over his shoulder as his team began dragging the guy from the corner outside. He bucked and fought them the whole way. His frantic movements sent a wave of his horrible scent in their direction, and Alex wrinkled her nose again, almost gagging. She supposed living in the sewer explained his rank smell. And it meant he was probably a partial rat-shifter. There seemed to be a plethora of them, and they liked living in damp, dark places.
Lester gave a two fingered wave to one of his men, a huge, burly guy with wavy chestnut hair, before turning his attention back to her. “No worries, apology accepted.”
He lifted the mug of beer and took a few swigs, and Alex watched, fascinated. His throat muscles corded and bunched with each swallow and his eyes half-closed with pleasure. She was mesmerized. When he put the mug back down on the bar, he licked a bit of froth from lips that her fingers itched to reach out and touch. He met her gaze and she dropped hers in haste, her cheeks flaring with embarrassment. Her ears perked up at the low growl that rumbled in his chest, and her belly tightened. She looked up, snared by the glow that had flared up in his eyes again, revealing his inner Jag. Despite her control, her own cat surged inside her and she knew her eyes were flaring in response, but she couldn’t look away. His gaze held her pinned in place.
Slowly, as though hunting, he leaned forward and rested his elbows on the bar, his face dark, a mask of intent. She knew enough about their kind now to know that if she were to move in that moment, he would be on top of her, and she wouldn’t even make it out from around the bar. She stood stock still, her breathing ragged and uneven, struggling to keep control of herself. The feline in her was trying to wrest away that control, responding wildly to the feline in him. Seconds ticked by, and it was apparent they were both fighting to bring their beasts to heel. Though he seemed to be more adept at controlling his than she was.
Finally, after what seemed like forever but was really only seconds, he seemed to relax and the glow in his eyes faded. Alex relaxed too, unclenching her fingers from the back bar behind her and dragging in a deep breath. “Whoah,” was all she managed to utter.
He pushed himself up from the bar, standing straight once more. His own breathing seemed a little labored, but it was hard for her to tell. He definitely seemed to have his Jag on a tighter leash, and she briefly admired that. Until he spoke again, and all admiration and attraction flew out the window in a fit of anger.
“Look, I know a full-shifter like me. And Jag too, if your response to my cat is anything to go by.” His lips curved in a faint smirk, one she immediately wanted to slap off his face. “You have to know I approached you for a reason. You seem to be pretty up on your knowledge of the power players around here, so you have to know NuGen Society is largely made up of full-shifters. One of my jobs is to recruit them when I find them. I suspected you weren’t a partial the other night at the fight, but I had to meet you in person to be sure.”
Alex scowled, anger and a healthy dose of mortification pumping through her veins. She didn’t know if her anger was because he was only there as an attempt to drag her into the NuGen ranks, or because she was so embarrassed by her reaction to him. Never mind his snarky comment about it.
“Of course you’re here to recruit me. I would never have guessed.” Sarcasm dripped from her voice, and she sneered at him. “Well, Lester, you’ve wasted your time and your dubious “charms” on me. I’m not interested in being a NuGen lackey, now or ever.”
She turned her back on him and began to load dirty glasses into the sink to be washed, indicating their conversation was over. She could feel his gaze drilling holes into her backside, but she didn’t turn back around or give him any indication she knew he was still there. He remained silent for several seconds, but she could still feel his presence so she knew better than to turn back around and give him any more ground. She continued stacking, her movements sharp and jerky.
His voice rolled over her like a thunderclap, sending a shiver snaking down her spine and curling her toes. “Alright, Alex. You’ve made yourself clear enough. I’ll leave you alone. For now.”
It was several minutes later before she trusted herself enough to turn back around and face the room. It was thankfully empty except for her regulars. She released a shaky sigh, and slumped against the bar, scrubbing her hands across her face. Something was bothering her, something other than the nerve-wracking encounter she just had. Then it hit her.
She never told him her name.