The Wolf’s Forbidden Mate by Layla Silver
Chapter 1 — Travis
Water sloshed at the edges of the riverbank, lapping at the evergreen grass and eroding dark patches of soil that broke off in various places. I stepped tentatively into the water while bracing myself against a nearby rock, hissing at the initial sting of chilly water against my bare feet. The sound of frightened mews echoed in my ears and commanded my focus, distracting me from my sense of temperature. When my foot reached the bottom of the slimy riverbed, I wiggled my toes and sighed. I slipped farther into the water, waist-deep, cool liquid bathing the edge of my shirt and soaking my jeans.
“The bank is slippery here,” I called over my shoulder. “Be careful, Oliver.”
“You think I’m getting into the river with you?”
I chuckled. “I was hoping you would help.”
“Yeah, I’m good. I can be technical support from here.”
“Alright, you can haul me out of the river when I get back.”
I faced the source of the desperate mews. A tattered brown bag clung to a fallen branch that was stuck on the other side of the river. It wasn’t far, maybe ten feet, but the current was moderately strong and I knew those kittens wouldn’t last very long if I didn’t rescue them. I shuffled through the shallow end of the water and then swam to the other side, forgetting about Oliver’s statement of support—or lack of support.
“Hey, it’s okay,” I said to the bag as I freed it from the broken branch. The frightened creatures shuddered under the scratchy fabric as I raised it over my head and swam back to the bank. I held the bag up to Oliver who eagerly accepted it. His mitt-sized hands could likely break every bone in my body, but he handled the bag as if it were a newborn baby. Technically, there were a few newborns, maybe four of them. “Who knows how long they were in the water?”
“They’re shivering. We need to get them back.”
I held up my hand that he readily took, hoisting me from the river in a swift motion. His strength as a human always surprised me, but then again, he was built like a fortress, all muscle and mass packed into a height that could have rivaled a giant. His dark, umber brown hands handled the bag with the utmost care.
When he opened the top, I heard another frightened mewl. I cooed into the opening as I began pulling the kittens out. As I had thought, there were four of them. While they were soaked and terrified, they seemed to be alright at first glance. If hanging out in a river in Boston in April is alright for anyone.
Oliver clicked his tongue. “A shame for someone to leave these babies out here.” He cuddled two of them into his coat. “You want to put the rest of them in here? That way you can drive.”
“That’s a good idea.”
I handed him the other two kittens and grabbed my sneakers, not bothering to slip my socks or shoes back on as we cut through the brush to the car. Time was of the essence. It was chilly, the kittens needed to be checked, and they needed to be fed. By the time we got back to the shelter, my toes felt like ice.
That was not how I wanted to start my day, I thought as I walked inside the building. Warm air coated my body and coaxed an uncontrollable groan from my lips. I shook my head, droplets of cool water splashing the tile. I held the door open for Oliver, ushering him ahead of me into the examination room. But the kittens are safe. I hope they’re okay.
As soon as Oliver opened his coat, the four kittens spilled onto the exam table, shivering and crawling over each other while turning their heads up toward the light. Three of them had their eyes closed to slits. One of them, a rather shabby orange kitten, had his eyes wide open, emerald green marbles staring up at me with equal parts curiosity and defiance.
I nodded with a smirk. “We’ll start with you.”
The kittens were receptive to me. I could only assume they picked up on the panther that was hidden beneath my skin, the animal with sharpened senses and heightened abilities that could put Oliver’s super strength to the test. After a quick check-up, I smiled as I leaned against the table.
“They’re all in good health,” I stated. My smile quickly faded. “Crap, that’s four new mouths to feed.”
“We’re out of room for new cats.”
My expression twisted from disappointment to concern as I looked at my coworker. “And we’re up to our eyeballs in debt.”
“It just keeps getting better every day, huh?”
“Sure does, buddy. Sure does.”
His nostrils flared for a second, a clear sign he was thinking. I watched him tinker for a moment until he nodded and said, “Let me make some space in the back. I think I have an extra kennel the four of them can share in the kitten room.”
The orange kitten nudged my hand. I stroked his fur, noting that most of it was matted. Whoever had them before hadn’t taken very good care of them, so I was shocked that they were in good health.
And they survived nearly drowning, I reflected. Which means they’re strong. They can easily survive here.
“Can you make a note for us to clean the orange one’s fur later?” I asked Oliver. “Actually, they all need baths.”
“Have fun with that.”
I pointed at him while a playful smirk quivered on my lips. “You’re definitely helping with that one, buddy.”
“Whatever you say.”
I sighed as Oliver lifted two kittens and motioned for me to lift the other two. I scooped the orange kitten up with his brother and cradled them to my chest while following Oliver into the hallway. We passed a few exam rooms, a small kitchenette that acted as a break room, and then past the back office where the hallway expanded into the rest of the shelter. While there were a few access points to the back, we generally tried to keep foot traffic to a minimum unless people were seriously considering adopting a cat.
I should talk to Allegra about getting more funds. We need help now more than ever.
My thoughts were met by meows of greeting. One of the cages hosted a gray and white Maine Coon that pawed at her kennel door. She puffed up as she realized there were kittens in my arms. A low growl vibrated in her throat, causing me to laugh.
“Minx isn’t the maternal kind, I see,” I teased.
“She doesn’t like anybody except you. You know that, man.”
I shrugged. “I just have a way with cats.”
He focused his chestnut brown eyes on me while arching his right eyebrow. “Gee, I couldn’t tell, Travis.”
“Hey, I could fire you with that attitude.”
“If you were my boss, maybe.”
I laughed as I followed him toward the kitten room. There were kittens in each kennel lining the left wall, too many for comfort, almost too many to keep up with were it not for my capable skills as a vet, and my shoulders sagged as I realized just how small the kennel was that Oliver had referenced earlier.
“I know it’s small,” he said as if expecting my reaction. “But it’ll do for now. We can rotate them on the floor.”
“That’ll take alternating shifts.”
“We can do it. We’ve worked under worse conditions.”
I chuckled as I set the two kittens inside the kennel with their siblings. Three of them sniffed around while the orange one kept his eyes on me. I nodded at him, sending him off with his siblings to explore the space. I grabbed a couple of cans of wet food, anticipating the entire room plunging into chaos as soon as the crack of the can cut through the silence.
Oliver stepped back and went to the sink to fill a bowl with water. Once the kittens were fed and had water—and the other kittens were calmed with treats of their own—we returned to the office, passing dozens of cats, old and young, of various sizes, shapes, and colors. As soon as I sat down, my legs ached. I stared at my muddy feet, the soil from the riverbed now dry and flaky in between my toes.
Oliver chuckled as he left the office. He returned with a towel and a pair of socks. “I’ll check messages and emails. You get settled in.”
I saluted him silently as he left. I shook my head as I wiped my feet, cringing against the rigid fabric of my jeans that I finally registered as being wet. I sighed as I went to the locker on the other side of the room. Experience taught me to keep extra clothes at work. I practically had an entire closet in here—Oliver, too—in case we needed to change.
“I have to call Allegra.”
Surely our panther Alpha could spare the funds, but I wasn’t feeling confident. The shelter had been struggling for a long time and it was difficult to allocate support, even though cats were one of the most adopted creatures in the Boston area. I shut the office door, grabbed a fresh pair of boxers and a pair of jeans, and quickly changed. I wiped down the office chair and sank back into it while reaching for the office phone.
The least I can do is get an appointment, I thought. That should move things along.
I called the number, punched through the proper channels, and reached Allegra. Her sharp voice came clawing through the phone as if she had been interrupted. That was possible. She was a busy woman. “Yes, hello?”
“Allegra, it’s Travis. I’d like to meet with you today to talk about the shelter.”
I choked back the sarcasm that threatened to spew from my mouth. I could practically taste the bitterness residing in the back of my throat. “Yes, the cat shelter.”
“You’ll have to wait a few days.”
“A few days?”
She hummed in agreement. “Yes, I can meet with you in a few days. In the afternoon. I’ll send you a reminder.”
“Can we do sooner?”
“I’m awfully busy today, Travis.”
I sighed, though I did my best to do it as quietly as possible. That was probably useless considering she could hear my every breath. I nodded and said, “Alright, thank you. I’ll see you on Tuesday.”
“See you then.”
The line clicked before I could say anything else. She didn’t tell me a specific time or a location, so I just assumed going to her office after lunch would suffice. The dial tone echoed in my ear and reminded me that I was still holding the receiver. I hung it up and plopped my chin into my right palm, sticking my elbow on the desk to hold myself.
My muscles ached from the chilly water. I glanced at the clock, realizing our day had just begun and that I had much more to do before I could even think about going home. It was expensive running a shelter with little support and gaping debts. We hardly had enough supplies to go around, but we made do with local donations. Still, we shouldn’t need to do that. We had a panther Alpha. She had access to plenty of resources. It just didn’t seem fair.
It feels like she doesn’t care, but I’m trying to be positive here, I thought as I played with the top button of my shirt. I glanced at the front, noticing the fading paw prints all over the blue fabric. I have to stay positive or we’re going to sink.
I perked up, focusing on the door. “Yeah?”
“You’re 10:00 AM is here. Mr. Chuckles.”
I nodded and crossed the room. I took a few deep breaths before opening the door, putting on my best customer service grin as I walked past the exam rooms toward the reception desk to greet Mr. Chuckles. And I hoped today he would make me laugh. I desperately needed it.