Buried and Shadowed
Book 3 in the Branded Packs Series
Gibson Barton knows his Pack is on the verge of something they will never be able to prepare for: a chance at freedom. Yet when he’s finally able to open his eyes to what might be his fate, it could be too late.
As a submissive wolf of her Pack, Mandy Calhoun has always only watched Gibson from afar. Because of her fears, she hasn’t let her intentions toward him—or the other in her sights—be known.
Oliver Dare is the Foreseer of the Ursine Pack, and knows with each vision, his death is that much closer. Yet he cannot see his own future—or that of the two wolves who have been thrust into his path.
There is danger lurking in the den, and as the three learn to process their emotions and navigate their temptations, they’ll have to fight for something they never knew they had—or sacrifice it all for a purpose far greater than their own destinies.
Sinclair, Alpha of the Unseen Pack, is determined to destroy the Shifter Accommodation Unit. He understands that his people will never be free until the truth is revealed and their enemies are brought out of the shadows and exposed to the public. Unfortunately, the human female who has been secretly working with him has disappeared, and his priorities must shift slightly. He’s resolved to track her down, and not just because she has the information he needs.
Mira Reese isn’t stupid. She’s painfully aware that the sexy shifter she’s been working with has been using her fascination for him to gain access to the CDC computer system. But that doesn’t stop her from helping Sinclair. Not when it allows her to be close to him. But after the CDC kidnaps her, she realizes that this isn’t a game. She’s a potential savior for the future of the shifters—and perhaps especially the loner wolf who stirs her passions.
Buried and Shadowed
Sometimes covering a scar, a brand, didn’t feel like a thousand needles pressing into flesh and tearing through a person’s soul; sometimes, it added something new and precious. Something with promise.
At least that’s what Gibson hoped.
A breeze slid his hair in front of his face, and he blew on it before pulling away from his friend’s arm and knocking his head back so he could see again. His bangs were getting too long, but he didn’t have the time or inclination to cut them.
Anya, the mate of his best friend Cole, stood behind him with a hair tie and pulled the strands back. “You need a haircut, Gibson.”
Cole, the man he was currently tattooing, watched Gibson with narrowed eyes. They might be best friends, but Anya was a little too close to Gibson for comfort apparently. That’s what happened at the start of new matings. The males—and hell, the females, too—got a little territorial when it came to what was theirs. Gibson couldn’t really blame Cole for wanting to rip out his throat right then.
“You might want to take a step back there, momma bear,” he said casually.
Anya, a slender, decently tall woman, stood back and moved so she was in Gibson’s line of sight. Her two cubs from her disastrous first relationship bounced around her feet in bear form. They were seriously adorable.
She looked between Gibson and Cole, her brows raised. “Seriously, lazy cat? I was just putting his hair back so he didn’t mess up your mating tattoo.”
Cole blinked up at her, a smile lazily forming on his face. There was a reason Anya called her mate lazy cat, the man moved slowly and with a sense of ease Gibson never understood. Of course, that was only when there wasn’t danger to Anya, the cubs, or the Pack. If someone came after them like they had before, well, no one would ever call Cole lazy then.
“I just love watching you get angry,” Cole said before he winked. “You get all hot and bothered.”
Anya snorted but didn’t look angry at all right then. Their cubs, Owen and Lucas, rolled around on the floor around them, oblivious to the current conversation. At least he thought so, since the cubs were oddly observant when he wasn’t paying that much attention.
Since the newly mated pair was currently in a deep conversation about nothing, Gibson set his tattooing equipment down and rubbed the back of his neck. Of course, he probably could have redone his hair in a new ponytail, but he liked the fact that Anya had done it, merely because it rankled Cole. That’s what best friends did, after all, bugged the shit out of each other.
Before the three Packs—Canine, Ursine, and Feline—had been forced together in the single compound a few months ago, Gibson never thought to find friendship with a Feline Tracker. Now, he couldn’t imagine his life without the other man.
Cole understood Gibson in ways others didn’t because he didn’t push. The other man let him be; let him breathe. Gibson liked being alone, watching from afar. He didn’t get too close to others, and other than his Alpha, Holden, he didn’t speak to the other wolves much.
He never felt like he could honestly. Because he was the one in the Pack, and now the entire compound, who had the ability—and responsibility—to mark those who had already been branded.
When the Verona Virus had hit the human population a quarter of a century ago, his people had been forced out of hiding in order to save the human race. He’d only been ten at the time, but he remembered it vividly. He remembered the fear, the death, and the entrapment. When the humans found out about the existence of shifters, they created the Shifter Accommodation Unit, aka the SAU, and forced everyone not like them into compounds.
Gibson’s family had died in the ambush, and he’d been forced to find a way to live without them in this new world. Until recently, he’d only seen the SAU guards and wolves. Now with the bears and cats with him, he had a little more variety, but it was still a solitary existence.
Mostly because it had to be for him.
When the humans took their freedom, they’d also forced the shifters to wear collars like animals and bear the brands of their species. And because those in the SAU were sadistic weasels, they forced the wolves’ Alpha, Holden, to be the one to brand them. His friend and Alpha was made to burn the flesh of his people in front of the Pack so the humans could feel superior. As children were born in the den, they were forced to wear the brand, as well. Thankfully, the humans didn’t understand Pack magic, and didn’t know that Holden was the one who felt the pain with each brand. Holden had to hold back the screams and teach the children to play at being in pain so they wouldn’t get caught.
Gibson knew he’d never fully understand the depth of his Alpha’s love and loyalty to his Pack, but he’d do anything he had to in order to protect those bonds.
And that was why he’d been the one to learn to tattoo, to be the one who made each brand special, rather than something from the SAU. He learned to trace over raised flesh with ink so the brand looked like something they’d want, rather than something thrust upon them. He also added to one side of the tattoo with a special design that spoke of the individual Pack.
There were dozens of compounds littered around major cities in the US and the world. Through their own spy network, the shifters had been able to come up with a way to make their own designs for ink around the brand. It was Gibson’s job to make sure each and every Pack member had it. Of course, he waited until each shifter was of age and sound mind to do it, but he was the one who tattooed each and every wolf in the den.
And because the cats and bears had no one with his talent, he did theirs, as well. In the past decade, he’d been the one to sneak off the compound to the cats’ and bears’ places to do their tattooing. While he could have taught others to do it, he felt like he was the one who had to. It seemed ridiculous in retrospect that he’d risked so much to do what he did, but at the time, he knew he had to. And the Alphas of the other two Packs had been welcoming—even if some of the others hadn’t wanted his kind to touch them.
Yet every single one had his ink.
Hundreds of shifters wore his mark, his work, and yet he felt closed off from them. As if he were on the outside looking in because he was the one who had to cause them more pain.
“You okay, Gibson?” Cole asked, his voice low.
Gibson looked up at his friend and nodded. He didn’t speak much since there wasn’t a reason to. His work would speak for itself, and not just the Pack tattoos. He also did other work for any shifter who wanted a tattoo that was theirs and not the Pack’s or the SAU’s.
That meant he was always busy. But he liked it. As long as he didn’t have to think too hard about why he wanted to stay busy, he was fine.
“Want to finish this another time?” Cole asked, worry on his face.
Gibson shook his head. “I’m good,” he grumbled, his voice rusty from lack of use.
“If you say so,” Cole said wearily. “We can do Anya’s mating tattoo tomorrow if you need a break.”
“Really, Gibson, I’m good with waiting.” Cole wrapped his arms around her hips as she stood next to where her mate sat. Gibson held back a sigh.
He was happy for them, truly. If anyone deserved a mate and a happy ending, it was these two. They’d been through hell for one another and their Packs, and this mating would ensure the Packs’ health as well as their own.
So Gibson would complete the other part of his role and work on the mating tattoo for them. It was the least he could do. On the other side of the brand, opposite the Pack symbol, when a couple or triad mated, they had their own design inked on their flesh. That way, once it was completed, they held a full circle: of shifter, Pack, mating, and future. Without all of it, the design looked unfinished, as if it needed more for a person to stay whole. He stole a glance at his own design, one he’d inked himself, though he knew he could have probably found another to do it for him.
He didn’t have the mating mark and knew it might never come. Matings were few and far between within the compound. There just weren’t enough people for each person to find someone they wanted to spend the rest of their lives with. And while it might have been a bit easier to…settle if they were human, their inner beasts would never allow that.
So while Gibson might have wanted another, unless his wolf agreed, it would never happen. Of course, in Gibson’s case, it was a little more complicated than that.
For Gibson, it always was.
Owen patted his knee with his little paw, his claws sheathed, and Gibson smiled. He loved these two cubs like his own, and since he was their honorary uncle, his wolf felt like they were family. In fact, his wolf stretched out, giving a big yawn before bumping up against his skin, wanting contact.
Soon, Gibson thought. He’d shift to his wolf and go on a run in one of the few areas the SAU allowed him to hunt within the compound. One day soon, he had a feeling their kind would be able to hunt and roam in any of the forested areas around here, free and on their own four paws.
The time was coming for a revolution, though Gibson wasn’t sure it would be from tooth and claw, but maybe mental ability and policy instead. That was so unlike the past they’d grown up in, the histories they’d been taught. But as long as his Pack could live, he would do anything for them.
Gibson sighed and roughed up the fur on the top of Owen’s head before stretching. “Okay, let’s get this last part done and I can work on Anya’s. It’ll be quicker with hers because I already have the design done and it’s always easier the second time.”
Cole blinked at him, and Gibson was aware he’d spoken more then than usual, but he was trying to get out of his funk and get his mind on the task at hand. He could brood on his own later. It was what he was best at.
“Thanks for doing this,” Anya said softly, Lucas snuggled in her arms.
“It’s what I do,” Gibson said just as softly. And that was true. He wasn’t the kind of fighter Cole was, even if he could hold his own. So he did his best to be a master at the one thing no one else wanted to do.
A scent hit him straight on, and he gripped his machine harder before forcing himself to relax. Thankful the needle hadn’t been in Cole’s skin. But it was damn close. He hated that scent. Hated it as much as he craved it.
Though they were inside his little studio, he had the door open to let out some of the intense heat. It wasn’t as if they had air conditioning or heating within their little homes. They took whatever offerings the SAU gave them and built what they could. There were some genius carpenters and builders within the Packs, but even they couldn’t magically produce equipment that didn’t exist.
And because he had the door open, Oliver’s scent filled the home quickly as the large grizzly bear in human form lumbered inside to watch his sister get her mating tattoo.
“Oliver!” Anya called out with a smile. Still carrying Lucas, she left her lazy cat mate to Gibson’s devices and moved toward her brother. “You came. I didn’t think you would.” She cupped her brother’s face and that big bushy beard of his, and though Gibson couldn’t see her features, he knew she would look worried.
She always looked worried when it came to Oliver.
“I just needed a nap, Anya,” Oliver growled. And though Gibson’s attention was on Cole’s arm, he could still watch out of his periphery as Oliver picked Lucas from Anya’s arms and lifted Owen up from the floor. The large man held both bear cubs in his embrace and looked like he did it every day.
Of course, he probably did.
Since there weren’t that many buildings to house every new member of the compound, people were forced to double up on families. However, since Oliver was the Foreseer—a member of great distinction and sacrifice—he had a house for his family alone.
Gibson also lived alone since he resided in his tiny studio. It was hard enough to do tattoos for people who might not want them without other people looking on. Though he hated when others came in with their newly healed brands and looks of defeat in their eyes. Thankfully, it had been a while since he’d seen that since the adults had been branded years ago. Now those that came in had been born into a world where it was part of their rites of passage.
One day, things would be different. They had to be.
Gibson finished up Cole’s ink and went through aftercare instructions. Though they were different than the instructions he’d give to a human since they were shifters and could heal quickly. Oddly enough, the only human he’d ever had to tattoo was Holden’s mate, Ariel, and she hadn’t been fully human at the time. She’d been the first human transformed into a shifter since the Verona Virus had hit the world and the shifters’ secrets had become paramount. Claire, a wolf who had wanted Holden for her own, had broken the Pack’s trust when she’d told the SAU of their ability to create shifters, not just birth them.
Her betrayal had started the path to redemption and fundamental change they were on. His Pack had changed dramatically in the past few months, and Gibson could only hope it was for the better.
When Anya sat down in his chair after Gibson had cleaned up the area, his wolf was on edge. Oliver hadn’t left his spot near the door as the cubs napped in his large arms. There was something soothing and yet off-putting for Gibson in the sight of such a large man in a flannel shirt even in this heat, decently tight jeans, and two cubs in his arms. He carried them as if they weighed nothing, and yet Gibson knew the two kids were heavier than they looked in that form.
He hated that he couldn’t keep his focus when Oliver was in the room. Of course, if he were truly honest with himself, it wasn’t just Oliver who did that to him. There was another, as well.
There was truly something wrong with his line of thinking if the two people who couldn’t be more wrong for him were the ones that finally let his wolf come out of hiding.
Without another word, he did Anya’s tattoo. This was about her connection and mating to Cole, not about the fact that Gibson couldn’t keep his mind off Anya’s brother and another soul out there who he couldn’t have. This should have been something a little more special than his needing to find a hole to hide in.
Which was just like him these days apparently.
He just needed to run, to let his wolf out. And once he did that, maybe he’d get a clue and remember that Oliver was the Foreseer and not for him. The Foreseer didn’t mate, and even if they did, it was to another bear, not to a wolf with no family or title. As for the other? Well, she was already taken, wasn’t she? Gibson had been too late for her and was too wrong for Oliver.
He finished up Anya’s ink, knowing there were more important things out there than his needs. He didn’t need anything. As long as he kept his Pack happy, he’d figure out his own happiness.
And it wouldn’t be with Oliver or her.
With one last look at the new family of bears and cat, he patted Cole on the shoulder and gave the others a chin lift. The cubs were still napping, or he’d have said goodbye to them, at least. But as they were out of it, he left his studio and home without another word and jogged toward the den center. It was still too light for him to shift and change with the SAU guards on high alert, so he’d find something to do in order to get rid of this excess energy of his.
He turned at the sound of his Alpha’s voice and jogged toward where Ariel and Holden stood. The big wolf had his arm draped casually around Ariel’s shoulders while she leaned into him, her wolf in her eyes as she smiled. She was still new at learning to control her base instincts, but Gibson thought she had a better handle on it than some of the adolescents learning their place in the dominance structure. He figured the only reason he could feel her wolf just then was because the pair had just come back from their home, scenting of a mating of their own. Between that and the fact that Holden seemed to have missed a button while getting dressed quickly, Gibson had a fair idea what they had been up to.
If he’d been any other wolf, he’d have called them on it, jokingly or not. But that wasn’t who he was.
“Holden,” Gibson said softly as he made his way to their sides. He nodded at Ariel. “Ariel.”
“Hello, Gibson,” Ariel said sweetly. She smiled up at him, and he had to blink quickly. Not many people smiled at him. In fact, not many noticed him at all. He was there when he was needed, but people tended to forget he existed any other time.
“We’re going to work on some of the new builds,” Holden explained. It was getting later in the day, though they tended to work at night anyway. It kept the SAU off their backs and allowed them to work faster. It wasn’t as if the darkness was an issue for them.
They were predators, after all.
“What do you need me to do?” he asked.
Holden studied his face. “Is something wrong?” he asked, his wolf in his tone. There was a reason Holden was Alpha, and this was only part of it. The other man knew when his wolves needed him, knew when something was off. Yet Gibson wasn’t about to lay his needs at his Alpha’s feet. They were for him and him alone.
Gibson shook his head. “I’m fine. I just finished Anya’s and Cole’s mating tattoos.” It wasn’t a lie, but Holden would be able to take what he needed from that.
Ariel put her hand on Gibson’s forearm over his brand and studied his face. “You’ll let us know if you need us? If you just want to talk?”
Gibson slowly removed his arm, her touch too much for him. Unless he was working on someone’s tattoo, he tended to keep to himself. He might be a wolf, but he’d always known he was different.
“Okay,” he lied. “Tell me where you need me,” he asked Holden.
His Alpha let out a sigh. “On the building next to us. We’re working on a few new housing units for the bears, though it’s going to be a snug fit.”
“We just don’t have the room,” Ariel said sadly. “We didn’t have the room before the bears and cats arrived, and now it’s that much worse.”
Gibson studied her face as she frowned. Holden brought her close. “It’s not your fault.”
Ariel gave him a sad smile. “It kind of is, but the more I wallow, the more annoying I get. So how about we work on what we can fix and let me sulk later.”
Gibson sighed but followed the Alpha pair as they made their way to the job site. Since the heat started to suffocate, seeping into his pores, he stripped off his shirt and began to work. He needed the release of tension, and beating his body into tiredness would have to be the thing that did it.
He was well into an hour of hard work when the sweet scent of wolf and sugar filled his senses. He tensed and did his best not to look over his shoulder.
Of course, he failed.
He turned as Mandy made her way to Ariel’s side, her best friend and future mate, Theo, close by. The other wolf always watched her, cared for her, did everything a mate should do except mark her.
As Mandy was submissive, her wolf required more time and care than other wolves would. She was an integral part of the health of the Pack, even if not everyone understood that.
And she wasn’t his.
He swallowed hard and forced his gaze away. She wasn’t his. Same as Oliver.
He was alone, right where he should be. He couldn’t do what he had to do for his Pack if he had others, if he had someone to share the burden. They wouldn’t understand, and he didn’t want them to have his burden. It was what he had to do.
And Mandy would be happy with Theo.
And Oliver…Oliver would find his peace one day with his role as Foreseer.
He felt Mandy’s gaze on him, as well as Theo’s glare. He pushed himself into his work, lifting and hammering until sweat coated his body and his lungs burned. By the time he looked around again, they were gone, and he could finally breathe once more.
Gibson bent down to reach for his bottle of water and the hairs on the back of his neck stood on end. He rose slowly, ready to lash out at whoever had put his wolf on edge. Yet as soon as he turned, claws out, someone else came from the other side.
The last thing he remembered before something smashed into the back of his head was a sharp pain radiating from his skull, pulling all thoughts of matings and confusion from his mind.
“Gibson,” a voice growled. “Wake up, wolf. The bleeding’s stopped, but you need to wake up.”
Gibson blinked his eyes open and promptly shut them at the blinding light. He growled, trying to remember what had happened, but could only focus on the fact that his wolf couldn’t stay still.
It prowled within him, lashing out and nudging at him. It wanted something, but he couldn’t quite figure it out. Rage filled him, followed by relief, and an overwhelming sense of unease and responsibility. Before he could navigate through the emotions, his wolf howled within and he opened his eyes.
“What happened?” he gasped.
Holden knelt over him, his eyes wide, though not his own. Rather his wolf’s. “Omega,” he whispered.
Gibson swallowed, trying to catch his breath, but the emotions assaulting him wouldn’t let him do anything except lie there and try to remember how to be him. “What?”
“You’re our Omega,” Holden whispered. “I have no idea how it happened, but, Gibson, we’ve been waiting for you for a lifetime.”
Gibson looked into his Alpha’s eyes, then around him at the other wolves who knelt in a semi circle, awe in their gazes. He couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think.
He couldn’t be the Omega. That was a place of power and great pride. They were the ones who helped heal the Pack from within and brought them together while the Alpha and Beta protected.
He couldn’t be the lost wolf Omega.
Yet as rage, happiness, awe, fear, sadness, angst, and nervousness assailed him, he knew it had to be true.
He was the Omega.
His Pack was screwed.
“Who hit me?” he asked, his voice raspy.
Holden’s eyes narrowed. “That is something we’re going to figure out, Omega,” he growled.
Omega. Yes, Gibson thought, his Pack was screwed.