For weeks, Ryker was tortured. Poisoned with silver to prevent his ability to shift, his wolf retreated, leaving his confidence as bloody and broken as his body. Ryker was starved, kept in darkness, beaten, whipped, stabbed, and when he returned home, Ryker found himself unable to trust himself around people, so he retreated into the woods. His groceries are delivered — what he can’t grow himself — and he contents himself with the peace and silence of the woods. Until that peace is broken by the sound of a doorbell.
Chess has known Ryker most of his life. He also had a crush on him in school, but Ryker was three years older and joined the marines before Chess graduated. It’s because of that past relationship — and the fact that both men are wolf shifters — that Chess is the one sent to take a look at Ryker. Shifters are disappearing, only for their bodies to be found, marked with the same silver scar Ryker carries on his hand. Is Ryker reliving the nightmares of the past? Or has someone come looking for the escaped alpha?
When Ryker sees Chess again, it isn’t like he thought it would be. Chess doesn’t cause Ryker to feel stress or agitation, and Ryker’s wolf seems comfortable in the other man’s company. And when Ryker has a panic attack on seeing the pictures Chess shows him, Chess is calm, quiet, and patient. He doesn’t flutter about or protest or try to touch Ryker. Instead, he sits and waits and gives Ryker the chance to calm down and decide when, and if, he’s ready to pick up the conversation again.
Ryker may doubt his own strength and ability, may worry that he’ll lash out and hurt someone, but Chess doesn’t. Because Ryker’s an alpha, and because Chess is pretty sure that he can at least — in human form — defend himself long enough for Ryker to find himself again, should he get lost. And in wolf form, he’s pretty damn fast, and should be able to get out of the way if something really goes wrong. It’s the trust and the lack of fear — and the fact that Ryker was interested in Chess even back then, not that he’d make a move on someone three years younger and still in high school — that gives Ryker the calm he needs to go into town with Chess, to speak to the police in a crowded office of people who know who he is and what he went through.
For all that this is a fairly short story, the author manages to get in a lot of character building. The comparisons of Ryker, damaged and uncertain, to Alpha Medcull — Chess’s uncle — show what alphas are like in this world. Not so much growly and dominant as much as in control, always aware of the duality of shifters and the balance needed to keep from being overwhelmed by either the human or the animal needs, to not put one over the other. Ryker’s wolf and his bond with his wolf were damaged in Afghanistan, but where his body broke, his inner core didn’t. It’s something Chess sees in him, and helps him bring out.
Ryker has heavy PTSD after what he’s been through, and I appreciated that everyone involved, from Ryker to Chess and even the human chief of police understood that Ryker needed those moments to collect himself, that his reactions were colored by what he’d been through. And, at the end of the story, he’s not healed just because someone loves him. But he’s better, because he’s allowing himself to finally lean on the support system of a pack, of friends and family.
So far I’ve enjoyed all of the stories I’ve read by this author.