Blackwing Defender (Kane's Mountains Book 1)

 

 

 

BLACKWING DEFENDER

(KANE’S MOUNTAINS, BOOK 1)

By T. S. JOYCE

Blackwing Defender

Copyright © 2016 by T. S. Joyce

 

Copyright © 2016, T. S. Joyce

First electronic publication: September 2016

 

T. S. Joyce

www.tsjoyce.com

 

All rights are reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews. The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be scanned, uploaded or distributed via the Internet or any other means, electronic or print, without the author’s permission.

 

NOTE FROM THE AUTHOR:

This book is a work of fiction. The names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the writer’s imagination or have been used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to persons, living or dead, actual events, locale or organizations is entirely coincidental. The author does not have any control over and does not assume any responsibility for third-party websites or their content.

 

Published in the United States of America.

 

Cover Image: Kruse Images & Photography

Cover Model: BT Urruela

Other Books in This Series

 

Kane’s Mountains can absolutely be read as a standalone series, but if you would like more of these characters, check out
Blackwing Dragon
(Harper’s Mountains, Book 5), the prequel to this series.

Chapter One

 

Mornings here were unlike anything Winter Donovan had ever seen. She’d been born and raised a city shifter, but then everything had gone sideways and she’d landed in the middle of nowhere, in the Red Havoc Crew. Kind of. She wasn’t an official member, but she could be if she wanted.

It was minutes before dawn, the ones where the sky was still navy and dotted with stars. The moon was low and looked tired, and on the horizon the dark blue faded to gray where the sky kissed the earth.

Today would be the worst day of her life.

She smelled him before she saw him, and her body reacted, the traitor. A wave of excitement took her before she remembered, but that one second of hopefulness made the devastation even deeper.

Brody strode out of the shadows, his face somber. It didn’t suit him. He’d always been a happy man, or perhaps just with the others. With her, his lips thinned into a grim line, and his soft green eyes pooled with pity. She’d fallen in love with those eyes. There was something to that old saying about the eyes being the windows to the soul.

Brody used to have a beautiful soul.

He sank down beside her as she avoided the hell out of his gaze and tied her hiking boot.

“You going for a walk?” he asked, ripping up a blade of grass.

More like an all-day hike through the wilderness. “Yeah, I’m not exactly invited to the party today.” She wished she could help the bitterness in her voice, but she couldn’t.

“Probably best you aren’t around.”

She huffed a heartbroken breath at the pain his words caused. “Why are you here? You haven’t talked to me in a month, and now you’re here to what? Break more of me? Hurt me until I can’t climb out of the goddamned hole you put me in?”

“I’m here to say I’m sorry.”

She stared at him, utterly shocked. He looked like he wanted to retch, and she understood that feeling. She’d had it ever since he’d gotten Lynn pregnant.

“You don’t think this apology came way too late, Brody? I’ve waited for this for the last five months, and you denied me. You never admitted you were wrong, and here I’ve sat, pushed to the outer edge of the crew, pushed away from you, from the others. This was supposed to be my day, Brody. I was supposed to wear white and pledge to you, but you gave it to her behind my back.”

“Well, you’ll have to move on—”

“To who, Brody?” She hated him. She hated the pathetic woman he’d molded her into. “No one in Red Havoc calls to my bond like you, and now I have to watch you with her, day in, day out. Laughing, kissing, touching. I guess I’m supposed to be glad you’ve found happiness, but I thought you were happy with me.”

“I was, but it’s different with Lynn.” Brody shrugged, and his puppy-dog eyes begged her understanding. “It’s just…better.”

Pissed at the streaming tears that dampened her cheeks, Winter stomped her boot on the ground and slammed her back against the stair behind her.
Better.
Story of her life.

She was the best at being second place.

Brody buried his face in his hands and sniffed hard as if he actually had a heart. “This wasn’t how it was supposed to be,” he murmured in a cracking voice. “We were practically made for each other. You were supposed to be it, and then I…I don’t know…my animal just picked someone different… Fuck, Winter, I’m sorry.”

“Please leave,” she said, her face angled away to hide her pain. He didn’t deserve to see how hard this was on her.

He rested his fingertips on her shoulder, but she jerked out from under his touch. His comfort was for Lynn now.

Brody sniffed again and stood. As he walked away, Winter forced herself not to watch him go. She was better than that, but not quite good enough to wish him a happy wedding day. She could tell when he’d gone, though, because his scent was replaced by another. It was replaced by Benson Saber’s.

“Alpha,” she whispered in a shaky voice as she exposed her neck.

Ben sat down beside her. “No use calling me that, Winter Girl. You and I both know you won’t be pledging to my crew now.” He handed her a metal flask.

Winter frowned at his offering. “It’s six in the morning.”

When Ben arched his ruddy eyebrow, she gave in, took it from his hand, unscrewed the cap, and took a long, burning drag. The alpha of Red Havoc liked whiskey.

“Remember when you first came to me?” he asked, his attention on the woods.

“Yeah, you were so lucky to land me.”

Ben snorted. “You were such a little shit, and stubborn. Tough.” He cast her a gold-eyed glance. “Broken.”

“And three years later, and I’m the same damn person.”

“No. You’re different. You met Brody a few days in, and you used him as your anchor. You got your shit together for him, but maybe that was the problem, Winter. You didn’t do it for you.” Ben pulled a folded piece of paper from his back pocket and handed it to her. “This was posted on Air Ryder Croy’s social media late last night.”

Winter handed him the flask and took the paper, unfolded it, and read silently.

 

New Crew Announcement:

Dark Kane, the mother fuckin’ demon dragon himself and my fourth best friend will be holding interviews for his Blackwing Crew on September 21. Be there or be a boring asshole, makes no difference to me. Wear short shorts for bonus points. Come ready to party.

Love and Penises,

Air Ryder

 

Realization blasted through her, and she shot Ben a horrified glance. “You’re kicking me out of Red Havoc?”

“Winter, you were never Red Havoc, and you know it. I wanted you to be. I waited for you to tell me you were ready to pledge, but you never pulled the trigger. And I can see your future if you stay here. You’re so fuckin’ loyal. Your heart latches onto someone and doesn’t let them go. Brody’s moving on, but you won’t. You can’t when you’re this close to him. You’ll watch him with Lynn, watch him as a newlywed, watch them bring that little panther into the world, watch him parent, and wish it was all happening to you. You’ll regress to that little shit that came to me three years ago begging a place to stay for a night. Your story doesn’t end here, Winter. This was just a bump in the road.”

“But with the dragons?” she whispered. She’d seen the battle in the sky between Dark Kane and his mate, Rowan. They were monstrous and had burned the Smoky Mountains. Winter was just a panther shifter and no match for a crew of fire-breathers.

“Listen, Kane’s hard. He’s intimidating. He’s quiet and tough, but he was my friend once, and deep down, he’s one of the good ones. If Kane is setting up a crew, I want you in it. Do you understand? You’ll be safe under the dragon’s wing.”

“Like I was safe here?” she rasped, clutching the paper to her chest. She’d come here for sanctuary, but somehow Brody had made her trust even less.

“This ain’t me choosing Brody over you. I want to claw him a dozen times a day for what he and Lynn did to you. This is me saying it’s okay to move on and get back on the right path.” Benson ran his hand roughly over his cropped hair and stood. “Pack your shit, Winter. You’re gonna do big things someday. Just not here.”

Ben turned away fast and strode off, but she’d seen it. She’d seen the alpha’s eyes were rimmed with moisture. This hurt him, too. He’d been her friend. He’d invested a lot into pulling her from the brink. He’d refused to put her down when he probably should have, and now he was admitting he couldn’t do anything more for her. It hurt deep in her chest, but not because she was being pushed out.

It hurt most because Ben was the strongest man she’d ever known, and he was admitting defeat with her.

Just like everyone else did.

Chapter Two

 

Winter cast a quick glance at the surveillance camera camouflaged in the branches of a white pine. It was aimed right at the full mailbox and dirt-road entry to Dark Kane’s territory. Someone was paranoid.

Right now, the dragon was probably sitting in his big, fancy cliff mansion sipping his Bloody Mary or whatever the fuck fancy people drank and watching as she drove her junky old two-seater truck past the No Trespassing sign. She missed Red Havoc already. Not Brody, though. Brody could sit on a tack with his ball sack.

The road dropped steeply. The angle was so harsh she had a moment of panic when the road disappeared from under her, and she had to trust the truck to dive nose-first down the gravel lane. It wasn’t so bad once she got over that first drop-off, but the road curved this way and that. Dark Kane had picked one mountainous, treacherous territory. One last curve through the forest, and a small bridge appeared. She gasped and jerked her truck to a stop behind a green Mustang with black racing stripes. There were cars jammed all along the road as far as she could see and parked between trees in the woods.

“What the fuck?” she muttered, squinting at a pair of giant men making their way over the one-lane bridge. Up ahead, another trio of bright-eyed shifters cast her a calculating glance over their shoulders, then disappeared into the woods.

She fought the urge to throw her truck in reverse and escape this place. The dragons were bad, but being in a small territory with a bunch of other shifters when her panther wasn’t the most dominant creature on the planet would’ve normally been a hell no.

Get back on the right path.
She could hear Ben’s voice so clearly, as if he sat in the seat next to her, telling her not to chicken out. Her options were limited. Go back to Red Havoc and accept the pain that would always sit on her heart, or cast her net for happiness a little wider.

Clearly, she wouldn’t be accepted in the Blackwing Crew if there were so many to choose from, so what could it hurt to spend the day seeing what was what? At least she wasn’t in Red Havoc, hiding in her cabin with her music blaring as Brody and Lynn honeymoon fucked—loudly—two doors down.

If nothing else, the Smoky Mountains were beautiful. She hadn’t even known a place this stunning existed just a six-hour drive away from Ben’s crew. The trees stretched up to the sky, and the ground alongside the road was covered in ivy, moss, and ferns. What sky she could see through the thick canopy was such a vibrant blue, it was breathtaking.

Mind made up, she shoved her door open and didn’t bother locking it because she was the only one who knew the tricks to get old Rusty started. It was burglar proof, and besides, if she locked it, she might not be able to get back in without climbing through the sliding rear window. The lock was touchy. She liked that old Rusty was such an asshole, though.

Winter caught a glimpse of herself in the window and froze. She looked sad. Somber. Her eyes were tired and empty, and her mouth was set in such a grim line she couldn’t even see a hint of the dimples that usually sat on her cheeks. Or used to sit there before Brody slowly sucked the light from her. Her black hair hung limply around her shoulders, the honey-colored highlights half grown out. No make-up, no expression, she was a ghost of her former self. Winter ripped her gaze away from the reflection and made her way to the bridge. She avoided mirrors, and this was why. The bottomless disappointment in herself was soul-wracking. She should’ve never given Brody power over her. Ben was right in that she was too damn loyal, and Brody, the cheating rat, hadn’t ever earned that kind of devotion.

She shouldered her purse and made tracks in the gravel to put space between her and the ghost reflection.

There was arguing up ahead in the woods. In the center of a loose circle of muscled-up shifters, there were two men pummeling each other’s faces. And they were smiling, the psychopaths. Typical dominant shifter shit. Winter rolled her eyes and kept trekking. The river flowing under the bridge made a pretty sound that combatted the noises of grunts and snarls. She made her way up the winding gravel road, but as she hit a steep incline, her boots slipped on the loose rocks.

She trailed the pair of shifters she’d seen earlier. They seemed to know where they were going, and really, there was only one road. The interviews were probably being held in the lair of the dragons. Just the thought blasted chills across her arms. Winter had watched the news footage of their battle a dozen times at least. Kane had a suppressed dragon, and when his mate Rowan had set it free, they’d gone to war and leveled the surrounding mountains with fire. It had been a few months, but still, she could smell the lingering smoke that had saturated the Smoky Mountains.

They were enormous beasts, and Kane’s black dragon looked like some ancient scarred-up monster with gargoyle wings. Rowan Barnett’s gray dragon was much smaller. She was sleek and beautiful, but a ripper, apparent from the way she’d dragged Kane’s dragon into the clouds, slashing and biting and spraying him with fire and lava. When they’d crashed back down to earth, the tourist who had been videoing the battle was rocketed backward against a tree with the force, and the footage had cut out.

And here was Winter, waltzing into the territory of the deadliest beasts that inhabited the earth. Maybe she had a death wish. Or maybe dying by dragon’s fire would still be better than ripping her own goddamn heart out every time she saw Brody lean in to kiss Lynn. She didn’t know why, but she didn’t even have nervous flutters as she made her way into a clearing. She just felt numb, like she wasn’t really here, and this was all a dream. Her life had been planned in Red Havoc. Marriage, cubs, happily ever after, yet here she stood in the shadow of a towering yellow buckeye tree, hoping for the chance to change her stars, while forty shifters milled about the yard in front of a small cabin, hoping for the same.

Meandering on the parameter wouldn’t get her close to the dragons, so she picked her way through the crowd. Her senses were overwhelmed with the smells and snarls of animals as she passed. Fur and dominance mingled to make the air thick like water in her lungs. Holding her breath, she dipped her gaze to the ground and put one foot in front of the other until she reached a circle of logs that surrounded a fire pit to the left of the cabin.

“Girl,” said a lithe looking man with sandy-blond, shoulder-length hair from his seat on a log. “Pay up asshole, there are three now. Told you this wasn’t going to be a boy’s club.”

A stocky man with piercings all down one ear and blazing blue eyes slapped a ten-dollar bill in the man’s hand and spat on the dirt near Winter’s feet. He stood and brushed by her, bumping her hard in the shoulder as though it was her fault he made a bad bet. He smelled like a bear shifter.

She hissed before she could stop herself.

“Whoa, down kitty,” Long Hair said.

When she dragged her pissed-off attention back to him, she froze. His eyes were bi-colored, one blue and one seafoam green, both glowing. Despite his smile, whatever animal he harbored was just as worked up as hers. “You’re in luck, kitty cat. A seat just happened to open up. It’s all warmed up for you and everything.” He twitched his head toward the bear’s empty spot then offered her a bright smile. “He was a farter.”

When some of the others chuckled, Winter looked around the circle. There were, in fact, two other females, one in all black with smeared mascara and a foundation three shades too light. Her dyed black hair was up in pigtails, and her lipstick matched the dark hue of her messy tresses. Winter would’ve assumed her a vampire if it wasn’t broad daylight. Next to her was a honey-haired beauty who looked frail as a mouse and wore hearing aids. She was scribbling something into a journal and ignored the scuffle that was happening right behind her. Sitting on her other side was a giant the size of a Viking ship with broad shoulders, a buzzed head, and tattoos down his arms. His profile was to her, but as if he felt her studying him, he turned and locked gazes with her. A tiny gasp left her lips before she hurried across the fire pit next to Long Hair. The beastly giant was still staring at her. He had a neatly trimmed blond beard, pretty blue eyes, and a straight nose. Perfect, full lips, too, but someone, or something, had ruined his symmetrical features by raking its claws down the side of his face and scarring him to hell. The man’s eyes tightened at the corners, and then he turned on his log and gave her his massive back.

She scented the air, but they all smelled terrifying. No way in hell could she differentiate between their smells now. The fine hairs on the back of her neck were standing straight up, and when she settled onto the log, it only got worse. She’d sandwiched herself between Long Hair and a man she hadn’t even noticed before. He was a huge shadow in her senses. The kind that screamed for her not to turn and look him directly in the eye. Oh, he was a bear, of that she was sure. A grizzly likely, and she’d accepted the wrong damn seat.

“Breathe,” the man murmured, the sound of his voice gravel and silk.

Winter gripped her jeans at the knees and sat there panting, wishing she could stand and leave without giving any of these psychos her back.

With a sigh, the man stood. And stood and stood because he was as tall as a mountain.  “Don’t show anybody your neck, kitty. You don’t have an alpha here. Not yet.”

As he walked to the other side and gave her some space, she straightened her neck back out, shook her head hard, and sucked in a deep breath of relief. Two of the men across the circle inched away from the monster bear and then stood and slunk away from him completely. He was massive, but not in the physical sense. He felt everywhere, as if he took up every air molecule, every inch of space, and she hadn’t even looked at his face yet. How had he been the last one she noticed? How had he hidden until she’d sat down beside him? There was nothing more terrifying than a monster so easily disguised.

She could see him out of her peripheral, could feel him watching her, but fuck if she was going to be the prey. Swallowing down her yellow-bellied fear, Winter dragged her gaze to his. She froze at the breathtaking, masculine beauty of the man. Tall, yes, broad shouldered, yes, but his face gave her such an odd sense of déjà vu, even though she’d never laid eyes on him in her life. She would’ve remembered. His hair was dark brown, matching the scruff on his chiseled jaw. It was his eyes that held her though—dark, broody, hard, seeming to take in everything with a glance. Right now, he could’ve been looking straight through to her soul. His dark brows lowered slightly, and he took a step back, angled his chin down, and looked at her suspiciously. “Do I know you?” he asked in that deep velvet voice of his.

Winter forced her attention anywhere else other than his mesmerizing eyes. It was cool outside, but the man wore a dark gray T-shirt with forest green writing too faded to read the logo. Black tattoo ink trailed down one arm, while the other was bare and tan as though he’d spent a lot of time outdoors. He crossed his arms over his defined chest and murmured, “I’m Logan.”

Logan. He even had a sexpot name. It was perfect for a man who was pretending to be normal when his inner animal clearly was not. More camouflage.

“Winter,” she said with a nod.

“Winter?” Logan asked. “You a snow leopard?”

She huffed an uncomfortable breath. The real story was her mom was probably high as a kite when she named a black panther cub Winter. These strangers hadn’t earned real stories though, so they could have the surface one instead—the one Mom had told her when she’d been slumped over in a corner with a needle hanging out of her arm. “I was born during a blizzard. So…Winter.”

“Names?” Long Hair asked. “We’re finally doing introductions? We’ve been sitting here for three hours, and it takes this haggard-lookin’ chick to get us to open up.”

The giant scar-faced man beside him snarled and snapped his teeth at Long Hair like a psychopath, but the smaller man only ducked out of the way and lifted two fingers. “Dustin Porter, the next and best member of the Blackwing Crew.”

The goth girl snorted and leaned back on locked arms. “Look around, Fido. The dragons aren’t going to choose everyone. They’ll pick ten, maybe. Hate to be the one to crush your dreams, but you wouldn’t make the shortlist.”

“Fido? So you guessed what I am… What are you? Make an actual introduction, Princess Emo,
or
I can guess all the animals here. I’m good at this.” Dustin sniffed the air and jerked his attention to the goliath beside him. “You’re a werepussy for sure.”

The giant let off a low rumble and neatly collected Dustin’s neck in his clenched fist.

“Pussy as in a cat! A big cat shifter,” Dustin wheezed out, then gasped as the titan released him. “Fuck,” he muttered rubbing his throat. “You almost popped my head off like a champagne cork.”

The giant curled his lips back over his teeth and offered Dustin a feral look before he gave them all his back again. “People call me Beast. And fuck your labels. You don’t know me.”

There was a loaded moment of silence before Logan saved them all from the awkwardness. “I’m a bear.”

“Yeah, I think we could all tell that,” Winter muttered.

“Not her,” Dustin said, pointing to the quiet girl with the hearing aids. “She smells pretty fuckin’ human to me. Here for a pity-bite, love? I don’t think the dragon will stand for it.”

“Hey, she could be a flight shifter,” the goth girl said.

“Emma, human,” the girl clarified carefully in a thick voice. She rolled her fist, flipped off Dustin, and then went back to scribbling in her journal after she fiddled with the little device on her right ear.

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