Zeus loves his job on the Mad Creek Search & Rescue team, and his inner Saint Bernard is finally being used to his full potential. When he sees a mysterious and wild-looking quickened—a dog shifter—at an earthquake site in Alaska, Zeus is compelled to investigate. Zeus falls hard for the primal beauty of Timo and of Alaska itself. Both call to his deep canine soul. But the Qimmig pack’s laws are as harsh as the Alaskan winters, and Timo is out of his reach.
Timo’s pack of dog shifters left their Inuit village generations ago and have lived wild ever since. Not trusting the “one-skinned,” and with their numbers dwindling, the Qimmig are on the verge of extinction. Timo is shocked to discover a whole group of “two-skinned” working as a rescue team, and he is particularly fascinated by Zeus, a gentle giant. He senses what Zeus feels for him… but it’s forbidden.
Can Mad Creek save this lost quickened clan? Perhaps—if they can learn how to run with the wolves.
Chapter 1 – Fault Line
“All right, guys. Remember: stay in your section and stay with your partner. No matter what. And make sure your radios are on so I can contact you. Check them. Are they on right now?”
Zeus knew his radio was on, but he obeyed Matt and checked it anyway, as did the other eight quickened in the Mad Creek Search and Rescue team. Yup, the red light was illuminated.
“Mine is on!” Sammy called out with barely suppressed excitement. Other voices rang out too. The team was eager to get moving, Zeus included. His skin itched with the need to run, sniff, find.
But their team commander, Matt, didn’t release them just yet. He had his hands on his hips and was giving them all a stern look. His glower was all for show, Zeus knew. You could see the pride behind it, wanting to break out. Matt was a good leader. He was a full-blooded human, so he was less likely to get distracted by the job than the rest of them, and he knew just how to coordinate with the other human relief crews at a disaster site. And if people thought the Mad Creek group was weird, Matt dealt with it somehow, keeping the secret of the quickened, well, secret.
“All right, team.” Matt clapped Sammy on the back. “Go save some lives!”
They scattered, everyone running. They looked like orange confetti, Zeus thought, with everyone wearing the Search and Rescue uniform—heavy neon orange canvas pants, orange T-shirts, black heavy-duty hiking boots, and small gray vest and packs with first aid gear and tools. Blood pumped hard in Zeus’s veins. Since joining Mad Creek Search and Rescue, Zeus and the team had been deployed three times, once to a flood and twice to help with wildfires. And even in his brief stint with the group, Zeus had found a sense of purpose and usefulness he’d never felt before.
He was born for this! And it felt incredible to let that part of him operate to its potential.
Zeus and his partner, Sammy, headed into the section Matt had assigned them. From their command post in Delaney Park, they ran north on G Street. They had the area from 3rd to 9th streets to the north and south and H to C streets west to east. Some of the street signs were down or hidden in rubble, but Zeus could still see the map in his mind, and he knew where to go.
The 7.5 earthquake had hit near Anchorage eight hours ago. It had struck just after nine in the morning when the downtown buildings and streets had been full of people. Since then, the city had been rocked by several large aftershocks. Roads were cracked and split apart, becoming stairsteps. Shattered glass was everywhere from windows that exploded under the pressure of buckling walls. Rubble made haphazard mounds that spilled into the street. Tall brick buildings had gaping holes that looked like missing teeth, and a couple had lost their heads entirely. The landscape was uneven, a building here and there in ruins while others stood tall and straight, unaffected or missing only a few panes of glass. And there were so many smells! There were dangerous smells like oil and smoke and sad ones like blood and fear and even death.
For a moment, Zeus hesitated, looking down G Street. Where to start? He wanted to go everywhere at once. A loud siren pierced the air, hurting Zeus’s sensitive ears, but he was too focused on the job to care.
Sammy stepped up beside him and pointed to a field of rubble on the right between two taller buildings. Big cement slabs stuck up and jagged ends of rebar were exposed like broken bones. A triangular slab stood into front of the pile, one pointed end buried in the asphalt as if it were a memorial statue. “Look, Zeus! I bet that was a parking garage. And I bet people are trapped in there. Let’s see if we can help.”
“Okay!” Zeus agreed, and the two of them ran toward the rubble. His blood sang in his ears. Find them, find them, find them.
They scrambled over cement and dust. Zeus could smell people here, people trapped under the collapsed parking garage—one, two, at least four people. The scent drew a mind map in his head of where they were located, how deep, how far from him in 3D. He sniffed around and around, moving in a circle, skin thrumming, every sense on alert. Yes, here, and here, far down.
Zeus pointed and rattled off his finds, interpreting the scent-pictures for Sammy, giving him distances and head count. Sammy wrote numbers on the little flags, planted them where Zeus said, and relayed the news to Matt over the radio. There were two older people, a man and a woman together, probably in a car. There was blood with them, but not much, and their heartbeats were strong. They calm one another, Zeus thought, an idea that entered his head and flittered away again with so much to smell and others to help.
A short distance away, he found two bodies both ten feet down. Near them he detected the faint smell of old urine, like you might find in a stairwell. Face sad, Sammy set a black flag with a “2” written on it.
Zeus sniffed around the perimeter he’d set for himself, three times, four, to be sure he’d caught everything, that the little flags matched the map in his head.
Sammy signed off the radio call. “Matt’s gonna let the fire department know. They’ll bring the big machines. It’s so sad. The ones who are alive, are they scared? I bet they’re scared.” He took a crowbar from his tool belt and banged on a piece of rebar sticking from the cement near the yellow “2” flag. “We’re here! We’re here and we will come for you! Don’t be afraid!”
Don’t be afraid. The words echoed in Zeus’s head. Don’t be afraid.
“Oh, those poor people. I wish we could dig! I wish we could dig right now! Are you sure they’re too far down?” Sammy leaned down close to a flag to sniff and listen.
Zeus just grunted. He was sure.
He loved many things about the Mad Creek Search and Rescue team.
He loved that everyone on the team—except for team-leader Matt—was a quickened and thus had a dog’s keener sense of smell and hearing and doggie instincts.
He loved that his teammates had boundless energy and enthusiasm.
He loved their compassion and can-do attitudes. They never got cranky and they never complained. Zeus had been born quickened, but he’d worked with many humans over the years, so he appreciated those traits.
He loved the sense of pack he was developing with his S-and-R brothers and sisters. The Mad Creek Search and Rescue team was made up of Sammy, a young chocolate lab, Goldy, a pretty and bouncy golden retriever in her twenties, a middle-aged German shepherd named Bacon, a somber young bloodhound named Watson, and a tough pit bull named Lola Blue who was thick and stocky with a square face, small gold eyes, grayish brown skin, and short hair the same amazing shade of blue-gray as her dog fur. Georgia and Roscoe, both mixed breeds, rounded out the team. Matt was the only human in the group. All together there were nine of them.
In short, Zeus loved this job. If Mad Creek had become too crowded to take, the S-and-R crew was small enough for Zeus to bear. Even if he sometimes felt he would never really be one of the Mad Creek quickened.
Zeus continued, picking his way over the rubble, scrambling on his hands and feet when the way got rough. The heavy steel-toed boots on his big arched feet enabled him to step anywhere, testing each foot-place for stability before settling his considerable weight on it. Despite his large size, he felt light and nimble with the adrenaline coursing through his veins.
He had Sammy place several more yellow flags. And then….
“Here!” he told Sammy, huffing the rich scent. “There’s a man buried right here. We can get this one. He’s not far down at all.”
Sammy sniffed the ground, his face lighting up. “He’s alive.”
“He’s alive,” Zeus agreed. He went down on his knees and began to dig with both gloved hands.
A scree hill of gravel and powdered cement had landed here, next to a fallen piece of wall. Zeus’s hands were faster than his tools for small material like this, and his heavy gloves were nearly as good protection as the thick pads of his paws in his dog form. Sammy joined in, and the two of them scooped out the loose material and pulled away small chunks of cement and metal, finally clearing a hole under the piece of wall.
The hole was dark for a moment as the cloud of debris settled. Then fingers reached up. They were a man’s fingers, rough-hewn and covered with gray dust.
“Hello,” came a voice, then a cough. “H-hello? Are you there? Help me, please?” His voice had an accent Zeus had never heard before.
“Hello!” Sammy called out, his voice happy. “Yes, we’re here to help you. Are you hurt?”
More coughing. “Oh, thank fuck. I’ve felt better. I think I’m okay, but I would like to get out now.”
“We’ll get you out. Don’t worry!” Sammy enthused, while Zeus examined the situation. They had to be careful, because they didn’t want to cause the rubble to collapse. But the piece of wall on top of the hole felt stable when Zeus tested it. It wasn’t going anywhere. With some more digging—the man helped from inside with his bare hands—they managed to enlarge the hole. Sammy shone his light inside and they saw the man’s face. He was a young man, maybe in his twenties, and he had skin deeply tanned by the sun, eyes with a slight epicanthic fold, black hair covered in dust, and a lop-sided grin. Zeus thought he might be Inuit.
Sammy passed the man a bottle of water, and he unscrewed it and drank it thirstily, water making tracks in the dirt down his blue T-shirt.
Zeus sat back on his heels. The man was not badly hurt. He and Sammy could pull him out and send him on to the hospital. Then they could keep working. There was so much work to do. So many more to find! And hopefully they’d find more survivors, like this one, maybe even more they could dig out on their own. It was so satisfying to see them climb out of the earth like newborns, to know he had saved a life. Zeus would never tire of it in a million years.
As he waited for the man to finish drinking, Zeus’s gaze scanned ahead over the field of rubble. They could probably scramble over most of it and….
And that was when Zeus saw him.
About thirty feet away, standing on the flat roof of a small building, was a man.
The sun was behind him, his form outlined in the glowing light. He was average in height but taut and whip lean in faded, low-slung jeans, wide belt, and a short-sleeved T-shirt that was molded to his muscles. His brown hair gleamed red where it was struck by the sun and was incredibly thick, straight, and long, falling to his waist. Strands floated around him in the cold breeze. His eyes looked pale, though it was hard to tell from this distance.
Zeus sniffed, catching the barest tease of a new scent. It broke through the cloying, heavy aroma of dust and oil and smoke as though someone had opened a window in a stale house. The new scent was fresh, like the wind off a glacier, and there was something wild in it, too, wild and free, like deer or elk or… or…
Zeus couldn’t see the man’s face very well, backlit as he was, but something about him took Zeus’s breath away. His posture was agile and proud. And he was staring at Zeus. Right at him. His body was rigid, and Zeus could swear he was scenting him too.
Why the sight should strike him so deeply, Zeus didn’t know. But the man didn’t look like a rescue worker. He didn’t look like an office worker. He didn’t look like anything Zeus had ever seen before. He seemed to be a mirage, like something pulled up from the buried depths of Zeus’s own mind.
There was a grunt and a scramble next to him. Zeus turned to see the Inuit man dusting off his shirt.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
“You have blood on your pants,” Sammy said worriedly. “Is your leg hurt? You can lean on me.”
The man shook his leg and stomped his foot twice. “Nah, I’m good. Just a scratch.”
Zeus looked back to where he’d seen the strange man—but he was gone. There was nothing there now but an empty roof and the bright glare of the afternoon sun.
“Did you see him?” Zeus asked Sammy and the rescued man. He pointed at the roof. “There was a man. Right there.”
Sammy looked confused. “Huh? I didn’t see anyone, Zeus.”
But the dark-skinned man grimaced, his face knowing. “Qimmig,” he muttered.
The man coughed, then wiped his mouth. “It’s a tribe. They’re around. They work on the big buildings. Construction, you know? Hey, thank you guys for finding me. My name’s Aput. You saved my life, dudes!”
Aput gave Sammy a hug, which Sammy was happy to reciprocate. Then Aput turned to Zeus, his arms held wide. Zeus wasn’t much of a hugger with strangers, but the man’s grin was infectious, so Zeus hugged him too.
“I have a wife and three little ones back in my village. They’ll want very much to thank you! Man, I thought I was going to die in there.” He wiped a hand across his sweaty brow, smearing dirt. And despite all his brave words, his hand was shaking.
Well, of course it was. It would be terrifying to be buried for—Zeus checked his watch—nearly seven hours since the earthquake struck.
“We’re so happy you’re alive!” said Sammy. “Are you sure you don’t need to sit down and rest?”
But Zeus was anxious to keep moving, anxious to find more people to help, maybe anxious to see that Qimmig again too. “There’s first aid and food and water at the convention center. Do you know how to get there?”
“Yeah, I do. Hey, where are you guys from?” He looked at Sammy curiously, then up at Zeus. “Not Alaskan, huh?”
“Nope, we’re from Mad Creek!” said Sammy proudly. “That’s in California. We’re the Mad Creek Search and Rescue.” Sammy turned around and pointed to his back where the name was printed in black on the bright orange T-shirt. “I’m Sammy and this is Zeus.”
“Well, Sammy and Zeus. I’ll look for you again. Okay?”
“Okay!” Sammy said. “Be careful walking to the first aid station. Watch out for glass! You wouldn’t want to fall on your ass. Ha ha.” Man, Sammy’s jokes. Zeus didn’t find them funny, but in this case, he was pretty sure he wasn’t the only one. He moved ahead, shutting out everything but the rubble under his feet.
Having been, at various times and under different names, a minister’s daughter, a computer programmer, a game designer, the author of paranormal mysteries, a fan fiction writer, and organic farmer, Eli has been a m/m romance author since 2013. She has over 30 books published.
Eli has loved romance since her teens and she particular admires writers who can combine literary merit, genuine humor, melting hotness, and eye-dabbing sweetness into one story. She promises to strive to achieve most of that most of the time. She currently lives on a farm in Pennsylvania with her husband, bulldogs, cows, a cat, and lots of groundhogs.
In romance, Eli is best known for her Christmas stories because she’s a total Christmas sap. These include “Blame it on the Mistletoe”, “Unwrapping Hank” and “Merry Christmas, Mr. Miggles”. Her “Howl at the Moon” series of paranormal romances featuring the town of Mad Creek and its dog shifters has been popular with readers. And her series of Amish-themed romances, Men of Lancaster County, has won genre awards.