Chapter 6

Zephyra handed the older woman her order with her polite business smile in full force. Upon seeing the next customer, she shuddered mentally. Jack Donalds, the wannabe Don Juan to all aberration women and one of the few people Zephyra tried hard to avoid. It wasn’t that Jack was a bad guy. He was polite and his rough voice had that Southern twang, which gave him a bit of rustic charm.

He wasn’t unpleasant to look at either, with messy, light brown hair that he wore short. Jack had a surprisingly muscular build despite his lean frame, and he had a bit of a beard on his chin. He had that whole clean-cut, white-collar, good ole boy look to him. No, none of those were the reason she and many other women avoided him. It was that, despite his looks and Southern charm, Jack somehow managed to make everything that came out of his mouth sound sleazy. Today was no exception.

“Hey, Zeph, you look pretty today,” Jack said as he walked up to her, grinning. Amazingly, he managed to make it sound like he was asking for a lap dance rather than complimenting her. The sad part was he probably didn’t realize he was doing it.

“Hey, what can I get you today, Jack?”

He gave her a smirk with a hint of appreciation, and Zephyra was afraid he was going to ask her out again. Instead, Jack looked over the glass display case and asked for a variety of ground meats. He said something about getting together with the boys.

“That sounds like fun,” she replied while preparing his order. Upon hearing the musical tinkling of the little bell, Zephyra looked up to see the shifter alpha walk in. Jack turned and gave her a not at all subtle appraisal as she walked up to the counter.

“Good mornin’ miss,” he said in the same tone he’d used when he’d told Zephyra she looked pretty.

“Excuse me,” Billy Jean said, giving him a look of disgust.

“Good mornin’,” he repeated, giving her what Zephyra could only assume was meant to be a friendly smile.

Before the alpha could say anything more, Zephyra gave the alpha a small shake of her head and a shrug to explain that he wasn’t as bad as he sounded. Billy Jean’s expression was still fierce, but not so much that she looked ready to punch Jack in the face. She took a sharp breath through her nose and let it out. “Good morning,” the alpha replied sharply.

Jack seemed a little unsure, apparently picking up on the hostility coming from her. Deciding to intervene before he said something that the alpha might not be willing to ignore, Zephyra handed him the white plastic bag with his order. “Here you go, Jack. Have a good day.”

He looked back at her, taking the bag. “I would if you’d agree to have dinner with me,” he said, giving her a sly smile.

Zephyra couldn’t help but laugh at how he’d slipped that in there. “And leave the boys hanging? No, I couldn’t do that to them.”

He turned to give Billy Jean a wink before asking her.

“You don’t know me,” she snapped.

“So?” He replied. “We’d get to know each other eventually.”

Zephyra covered her face with a hand, not sure if she wanted to laugh or to sigh.

Billy Jean stood straight and looked down at him. “No, I don’t think we will.”

Jack frowned, looking a little putout. He messed with his ball cap before leaving the store. Zephyra almost felt sorry for the guy.

“I hope not all the norms are like that,” Billy Jean said once he was gone.

“No, Jack is one of a kind and a bit persistent, but he’s harmless. You’ll get used to him after a while,” Zephyra told her and leaned on the counter. “Now, seeing as you’re my last customer, what can I do for you?”

“Your last customer? It’s barely ten in the morning,” she said, looking at her as if she had gone crazy.

Zephyra laughed and winked much like Jack had done, causing her expression to grow more exaggerated. “Wednesdays I just help my boss open up, then I duck out to go hunting. Pun intended.”

“Cute,” Billy Jean replied with a grin.

So she did know how to smile and take a joke—at least somewhat. There might be hope for her yet.

The alpha turned her attention to the display case. “I was thinking of some good steaks. How about you give me twenty of your best.”

Twenty? Why not the whole cow? “I think that may be all we have, period.”

Billy Jean laughed a hearty laugh. The amusement lighting her eyes took Zephyra even more by surprise. “We shifters tend to eat a lot, especially protein. You think I could talk to your boss about taking special orders if it’s possible?”

“Sure. I’ll get Tommy so you guys can talk.”

“That’d be great, but first, I wanted to thank you for meeting with my brother and working with him. I think you helped me avoid a lot of headaches,” she explained.

At first, Zephyra was confused. Then she realized the alpha was talking about the bad boy shifter. A hint of warm pride replaced her confusion, but Zephyra downplayed it with a grin and a shrug. “No problem. I was glad to help.” She wrapped all the steaks they had and handed them to her in a large bag. “I’ll send Tommy out to talk to you.”

Zephyra wiped her hands clean with a moist cloth and then headed to the back to get her boss, Tommy Apolea. His boyish face twisted in concentration as he cut the slab of beef before him. His tall, lean frame bent over the machine in a way that Zephyra was sure had his back screaming at him.

“Hey, Tommy,” she shouted to get his attention. “Billy Jean, the shifter alpha, wants to talk to you about taking special orders for the pack. I’m out of here unless you need something.”

His face fell, and he glanced at the door. The look on his face was as if she’d told him he had to clean up three-day-old vomit. “Okay,” he said with the resignation of the damned, standing up. His back audibly popped as he stretched straight.

“It’s okay,” Zephyra said, knowing how he hated to speak to the customers. “She’s a nice woman, and I’m sure she won’t bite.” She winked. “Unless you want her to.”

His eyes grew wide for a second before he shook his head at her. “Go on and get out of here, Zephyra!”

She laughed lightly and offered him a grin. “Alrighty Boss.” She slipped out the back door and to her jeep.

Since Zephyra was eager to get out and hunt, it only took her a little over an hour and a half to get in the woods and on her way to her spot. The bow was a comfort in her hand as she walked.

The majority of the trees weren’t very large widthwise but reached high up into the sky. There weren’t many branches low enough to block her path thanks to the state keeping the trees well-trimmed. Of course, that meant Zephyra had to step around, and over the branches, the workers didn’t bother to clean up. That, along with fall littering the ground with leaves, which were slippery and soggy from the humidity, meant that most of her attention was focused on avoiding a slip or twisting her ankle.

Zephyra was almost to her spot when she noticed the unnatural silence of the woods. It was so quiet that the soft breeze through the trees sounded loud to her ears. Zephyra slowed her pace and took a few glances around, looking for any signs of trouble or the cause of the silence. She couldn’t see anything out of the ordinary besides said silence. Something was wrong. Zephyra wasn’t sure what it was, but she could feel it. Zephyra wished she had super-heightened senses like most of the aberrations.

Zephyra continued to walk, keeping her senses as alert as she could manage. A rancid smell hit her nose and made it wrinkle. The stench was familiar. Zephyra smelled it sometimes when her mother did her taxidermy thing. It was the scent of death and rot. Zephyra’s throat tightened with a gag, and she pinched her nose. Please, don’t let it be a person. Please.

She didn’t want to get closer, too afraid of what she might find, but she forced herself to keep going. When Zephyra entered a small clearing, she gasped with horror and shock. There was a large pile of dead animals. They stacked up on top of each other, their bodies ravaged brutally. Many of them had been shredded into gooey, bloody chunks. Zephyra wasn’t sure how many animals there were thanks to all the gore.

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