Authors: Nicky Charles
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Nicky Charleson Smashwords
Copyright ©2011 by Nicky Charles
Other works bythis author:
SmashwordsEdition, License Notes
Thank you fordownloading this free ebook. You are welcome to share it with yourfriends but please do not post or archive without asking me first.If you like the story, please tell your friends, add the title toreading lists etc but direct people back to my officialdistribution sites. Please keep this book in its complete originalform, with the exception of quotes used in reviews. No alterationof the content is allowed.
Your supportand respect for the property of this author is appreciated.
This book is awork of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, orplaces, events or locales is purely coincidental. The charactersare productions of the author’s imagination and usedfictitiously.
This bookcontains mature content (language, violence, sexual situations)
and is intendedfor adult readers.
Many thanks toJan Gordon, my wonderful and tireless editor. Out of the goodnessof her heart, she rereads, advises, encouraged and prods methroughout the entire writing process. Without her my stories wouldjust sit on my hard drive. Also thanks to all of the ‘Gutter Girls’and my readers at Fiction Press who have offered their feedback,encouragement and allow me to practise my writing skills onthem.
This book is asequel to The Mating and The Keeping. You really should read themfirst for this book to make sense. Like all my stories, the ideafor writing The Finding began quite unexpectedly when Cassiesuddenly appeared in The Keeping. The concept grew in response tofeedback from my readers who were curious about what happened tothe young girl. This is her story, as well as that of my villains,Marla and Aldrich and my previous couples, Kane and Elise, and Ryneand Mel. I hope you enjoy visiting with them again.
Cassie stood atthe edge of an alleyway, staring out at the breaking dawn. A fewcars drove past but none of the drivers turned their heads in herdirection. Just to be sure, she stepped back a bit. The street waslined with stores and small businesses, and in the distance thereappeared to be a number of flashing, lighted signs. If she didn’tknow better, she’d think it looked like Las Vegas, but that wasridiculous. The bus she’d been on couldn’t have travelled that far!She tucked her hair behind her ears and furrowed her brow,wondering where she might be, and how she’d ended up in analley.
The last thingshe remembered was lying on a bed in a motel, having spent half thenight fleeing from the sight of her uncle’s death and the wolfattack. She’d taken her medication and tried to calm down bythinking of happier places; that was the last thing she couldrecall until waking up here, just a few minutes ago.
Blearily, she’dopened her eyes, at first too groggy to even wonder why her bodywas wedged between a brick wall and a dumpster, her muscles crampedand aching. Then she’d become aware of what had stirred her fromher sleep; a tickling sensation on her hand. Rolling her head tothe side, she’d discovered a mouse was crawling over her palm.Screaming, she’d snatched her hand back to her chest and skittereda few feet away, watching in a combination of horror and disgust asthe tiny creature ran into a hole under the metal bin.
She’d beenwiping her hand on her shirt, trying to erase the feeling of smallfeet and quivering whiskers when another shock hit her. Franticallyshe looked around, her brain suddenly acknowledging she wasn’t inher motel room. Her heart had been pounding, panic wrapping aroundher like an iron fist as she took in the fact that there was nobed, no TV, no faded curtains; just brick walls, utility meters,bits of garbage and graffiti.
The strap ofher bag had been clenched in her hand; amazingly enough, when shechecked, there was still money inside it, so she hadn’t beenrobbed. And her clothing, though filthy and wrinkled, was intactwhich probably meant she hadn’t been assaulted. Her skin crawled asshe thought of all the things that could have happened to her whileshe’d been unconscious. Obviously somethinghadoccurredthough, otherwise how had she arrived in this place?
Wracking herbrain, she had no recollection of the events that led to her beinghere. She glanced fearfully at the shadowed areas around her,wondering if the werewolf had something to do with this; if he waslurking, waiting to attack. There was no sign of the creature, butshe couldn’t relax. It might still be following her, ready to endher life as easily as it had ended Mr. Aldrich’s.
Just the memoryof the large black wolf and its blood drenched muzzle had hershivering, despite the relative warmth of the air. She stepped backinto the alleyway and, wrapping her arms around her waist, hunkereddown by the dumpster where she’d awoken. The smell of garbage andstale cooking grease assaulted her nose and she made a face.Striving to ignore the unpleasant odour, she leaned her head backagainst the brick wall and stared at the graffiti covered sign thatgraced the steel door straight across from her; Chinese and ThaiRestaurant, Deliveries Only. She furrowed her brow;hmm...apparently she was in a back alley behind a number ofbusinesses. Glancing to either side, she noted other similar doorsgiving support to her assumption.
Okay...a backalley, a restaurant, but where...?
At that momenta white delivery truck turned down the narrow passageway, roaringtowards her. Cassie pressed herself closer to the wall, feeling amoment of panic before realizing the dumpster provided her withsome protection. She exhaled in relief and adjusted her position soshe could observe the vehicle as it stopped a good distance fromher hiding place.
Eventually, aman got out whistling tunelessly. She watched him go about hisbusiness, taking cartons out of the truck and balancing themcarefully as he pounded on a door. The door swung open and hehanded the containers to someone who stood just inside the doorway.A few words were exchanged but she was too far away to make outwhat they were.
The man neveronce glanced in her direction, solely focussed on his early morningduties, but Cassie knew she had to move. No doubt other truckswould be through there in the near future and she didn’t want to befound crouched by a dumpster. People would ask questions; questionsto which she wouldn’t have any answers.
Cassie bit herlip, her mind racing, searching for possibilities. She’d never beenalone before; there’d always been someone with her; guiding her,smoothing the way. Knowing she needed to do something—to gosomewhere—but being solely responsible for the decisions and theconsequences all seemed so overwhelming. How she longed to be backin the security of her uncle’s home. To hear him blustering away;to see Franklin, the butler, pulling faces behind the old man’sback. To have Cook fussing and making her favourite meals... Herchin quivered. Oh God, how could her world have been destroyed soquickly?
A lone teartrickled down her face and she quickly wiped it away. Cryingwouldn’t help or change facts. Her uncle was dead and she was alonenow with a crazed werewolf chasing her. There was no one to leanon, no one to come to her rescue. She had to handle this situationon her own and that meant finding safe shelter and food; she neededto hide, perhaps even needed to establish a new identity.
As she tried tocome up with a possible course of action, she gave a short, wry,laugh, realizing that her private tutors had never covered topicsrelated to running for your life while being chased by a werewolf.How remiss of them! She’d really have to bring that point to theirattention...
Her briefmoment of levity quickly died at the sound of the delivery truck’sengine starting. It roared past her leaving a cloud of exhaust anddust in its wake. Coughing, Cassie forced herself to her feet,wiping her eyes and giving an inelegant sniff. Action was betterthan just staying in one place; at least it gave the impressionthat she had a plan. Still holding tightly to her bag, she walkedback to the end of the alley, resuming her earlier position in theshadows.
The sun was alittle higher in the sky and people seemed intent on getting totheir work or appointments, hurrying by her hiding place. No oneglanced towards the shadowed alley entrance. The relative anonymityof her position gave her some modicum of comfort as she consideredher options.
Cassie eyed thevarious businesses, her eyes skimming over dress shops and nailsalons before finally focussing on two; a restaurant on the cornerand the variety store beside it. She bit her lip and squared hershoulders. Maybe...
“Hey there,girly! What’re you doing?” A voice spoke from nearby and shejumped, backing away until her spine was against the opposite brickwall. Her vision blurred for a moment as fear washed over her. Hadthe werewolf found her? No, it couldn’t be the creature; itwouldn’t give her warning by calling out.
Blinkingrapidly, she forced her eyes to focus on the speaker. It was ayoung man, probably in his early twenties. He had brown hair, blueeyes, and was dressed in a respectable looking shirt and pair ofpants.
Cassie clutchedher bag tightly to her chest while staring at him warily.
“Are you okay?”The man had a faint look of concern on his face but didn’t attemptto approach her. “Are you in trouble? A runaway?”
She shook herhead and licked her dry lips. “No.”
“Funny, ’causeyou sort of look like life’s been treating you pretty bad.” Hestudied her for a minute, then smiled and held out his hand. “Myname’s Kellen. Kellen Anderson.”
Hesitantly,Cassie extended her own hand. “I’m...er...Sandra.” She heeded thevoice inside that told her not to reveal too much, so she switchedto another derivative of her full name.
“Pleased tomeet you, er...Sandra. Strange name, with the ‘er’ in front of it.”Kellen grinned and winked. “Never mind. I’ll just call you Sandy,okay?”
She nodded notsure if she trusted this jovial person.
“You look likeyou could use something to eat and maybe a place to stay? I’ve beendown on my luck before, so I know what it’s like. Actually, I’msort of the downslide right now since I just dropped a wad at apoker game up the road. Come on. Misery loves company. I’ll buy youbreakfast, no strings attached.” He gestured towards therestaurant.
“I...I havemoney.” Immediately after she spoke, she chastised herself. Tellinga complete stranger—one she’d met at the edge of an alleyway, noless—that she had money was not a good idea. Trying for some damagecontrol, she qualified her answer. “Not much, but enough to buy myown food.”
Kellenshrugged. “Sure. No skin off my nose. But at least we can sittogether, right? Eating alone is no fun.”
Her stomachchose that moment to growl and he laughed, holding his hands out athis side. “Hey, I’m completely harmless and you’re starving.There’s usually a crowd in the restaurant, so you don’t need toworry. You won’t be alone with me.”
Cassie bit herlip and then gave a brief nod. The idea of being by herself wasdaunting; the werewolf could be anywhere, but surely it wouldn’tattack in front of witnesses. Having someone with her, even astranger, seemed like a good idea. Besides, she needed informationand right now this person—Kellen—was her only source.
“Not much of atalker, are you?” Kellen quipped as he led her across the street.“That’s okay, though. It doesn’t bother me. Listen, no offense butyou might want to get cleaned up a bit. There’s a ladies’ roomright inside the door. I’ll get us a table while you use thefacilities.” He held the restaurant door open for her.
She gave him abrief smile. “Thanks, I wouldn’t mind washing up a bit.” As sheheaded to the washroom, she glanced back. Kellen was alreadysitting down, perusing the menu. Cassie allowed herself to relax alittle bit. He seemed harmless enough...
Three yearslater, in Stump River, Ontario, Canada...
Bryan sat infront of the computer, frowning at the screen. He drummed hisfingers on the desk and sighed then ran his hands through his hair,flexing his shoulders and arching his back.
Ryne looked upfrom the papers he was working on. “Let me guess; you’re stillbrooding about that girl, right?”
“Yeah, I keepthinking I’ll find something if I just look long enough.” TheCassandra Greyson case had become a bit of an obsession for him.Every time he vowed to forget her, something called him back totake just one more look. It was as if his inner wolf, having had abrief yet tantalizing scent of the girl, couldn’t relinquish thehunt for her.
“You’ve beenworking on it for the past three years. What makes you think todaywill be any different?” Ryne could be annoyingly practical attimes.
“I don’t know,but for some reason I can’t let her go. Maybe it’s the Beta in me,needing to protect the pack; you know the danger a rogue wolf couldput us all in.” Bryan swivelled his chair until he faced hisAlpha.
“But the factis, shehasn’tgone rogue or we would have heard about it,though how a young kid like that is keeping her wolf under controlall by herself, is beyond me.” Ryne narrowed his eyes andreiterated what they both already knew. “You traced her to thatmotel in Kansas—”
Bryan finishedthe sentence. It was a story they’d gone over many times. “And thenshe just disappeared. I realize almost two weeks had passed beforeI arrived at her last known location, but there should have been aresidual scent leading away. Instead, there was nothing; no scent,no trail, no one saw her leave town... There was nothing on thesurveillance cameras at the bus stop. She stepped off the bus,found a room at the motel across the street, and vanished. All Ifound was a trace scent on the pillows and that pill wedged betweenthe nightstand and the headboard”
“It was aprescription strength sedative, wasn’t it?”
“Yeah. Veryhard to get hold of and used only under strict medical supervision.Definitely suitable for a werewolf, but heavy duty stuff for ahuman. Whoever gave it to her knew something about Lycans.”
“That wouldhave been her guardian, Anthony Greyson. I’m sure that’s how hekept her under control during the full moon, though how he knew...”Ryne let his voice trail off.
”Well, thatpill was the only concrete clue I found in Kansas. Two days laterall her bank accounts were emptied from an instant teller inside acasino in Las Vegas and her credit cards were maxed out. Fromthere, it’s a dead end.”
“Hmm...exceptfor that anonymous personal ad someone tried to place in the StumpRiver Gazette. It’s a good thing Melody was working there the dayit came in.”
Bryan flippedopen a file and took out a piece of paper. Unfolding it he read,“To whom it may concern. Cassandra Greyson was last seen in LasVegas. She accessed her bank accounts at a casino ATM, thenwithdrew the maximum amount allowed on all her credit cards.” Heshook his head. Who places a personal ad like that?”
“Someone who’strying to lead us around by the nose.”
“Right.” Bryanrubbed his chin. “All I was able to determine was that the personwho sent this had to be elderly. It was written on an old manualtypewriter. I didn’t think anyone used those things anymore.” Bryanstared at the paper for a moment longer before carefully folding itand tucking it back in the file.
“Well, someonestill does and it gives me the creeps to think they know enoughabout us to send the note to Stump River.” Ryne growled softly, hisfingers clenching. “It’s kept us in a constant state of alertwaiting for the other shoe to drop.”
“It’s beennerve wracking.” Bryan agreed. “We could move, start over where wearen’t known.”
“But where?Finding a new territory isn’t easy. Stump River was a once in alifetime chance. No, until we know the source of the letter, wearen’t doing anything”
Bryan nodded.“The sender might have been trying to flush us out, watching forany sudden movement in the area.”
“And it’s toovague to enact the Keeping.” Ryne sighed heavily. “So we sit tightand keep our eyes and ears open.”
Bryan rubbedthe back of his neck and frowned. “Yeah, I guess. It’s just thatthis whole situation has me frustrated. After all this time, I’vemade no real progress.”
“Not true. Youconfirmed the Greyson girl was in Vegas at one point in time.Getting the hotel to let you look at their surveillance footage wasno easy task.”
Bryan laughedsoftly at the memory. “Thank heaven the head of security was femaleand she liked my eyes.”
“From the storyyou told when you got back home, I don’t think it was just youreyes she was interested in.”
“There mighthave been a few other features that drew her attention.” Bryangrinned for a few moments thinking of the sexual romp he’d hadwhile in the city; for some reason, his libido had been inoverdrive that weekend. He laughed softly, then leaned forward tostudy the screen again. “I was just looking at this footage thatshows someone using the ATM machine at the time Cassandra Greyson’saccount was emptied.”
Ryne stood upand moved to the computer, peering over Bryan’s shoulder. “Do yousee something new?”
“Not really.It’s just the same thing as always. Average sized individual,wearing jeans and a hoodie pulled up over his or her head and lowacross the forehead. Unisex sunglasses. Chin tucked into thecollar.”
“They knew whatthey were doing; knew there’d be cameras recording thetransaction.”
“Yeah, there’snothing here except... See that bit of a shadow?” Bryan turned hischair back to the computer and pointed to a spot on the screen. “Ithink someone was standing there, watching.”
“Hmm... Couldbe.” Ryne stood up straight and shrugged. “It doesn’t really helpus much, though.”
“Maybe not. Butit means she might not be on her own. I think she met up withsomeone and went with them to Vegas, possibly realizing it was aperfect place to get lost in a crowd.”
“But where didshe go after that?”
Bryan shook hishead. “Damned if I know. I checked every bus, train, and plane outof there from the day of this footage and for two weeks afterwards.There was no one matching her description.”
“So she musthave left by car or stayed in the area.”
“Uh-huh. Isearched all over that city but there was no sign of her. And I putalerts out to packs all over the country to contact me if they seeher, but no one has ever reported anything.”
“You’d thinkafter three years someone would have noticed a lone wolf—aninexperienced lone wolf at that. How has she stayed hidden andmanaged the lunar changes? Those pills must be used up by now.Someone must know something.”
At that moment,Melody called from the kitchen. “Ryne, did you buy chocolate icecream when you were in town earlier?”
Ryne grimaced.“Since she’s been pregnant and can’t have her coffee, she’sswitched to chocolate, but it’s not mellowing her mood.”
“Isn’tchocolate just as bad?”
“Are youvolunteering to tell her? I survived the no-coffee rants. I’m notinciting another one!” Both men winced as they recalled Melody’sreaction when Nadia, the nurse practitioner, e-mailed her to cutback on coffee until the baby was born.
“Hey, she’syour mate and you’re the Alpha. Go do your duty.”
“Thanks, Bryan.You’re a real pal.”
Bryan shook hishead, amused at his Alpha’s predicament, then returned to studyingthe image on the computer screen. Narrowing his eyes, he searchedfor clues, his inner wolf stirring restlessly over the long delayedhunt. Somewhere out there Cassandra Greyson was a lone werewolf andhe was determined to bring her in.
The air feltcool and damp against her face as she moved through the trees, thegreyish-brown trunks rising high on either side of her. Pineneedles littered the forest floor, deadening the sound of her feetas she padded along. Twice she stopped and searched the shadowydepths of the forest, before lifting her muzzle and sniffing,nostrils flaring as she took in the myriad of scents that driftedby on the slight breeze.
Suddenly,instinct had her hackles rising. Another presence was nearby.Cocking her ears, Cassie searched for a sign of the other one. Asalways, his scent eluded her; his paws made no sound. Inexplicably,he was just—there!
Like a ghost,he seemed to appear out of nowhere, standing in front of her,blocking her way. Thick light brown fur covered his massive body,muscles rippling as he shifted his stance and raised his head inchallenge. His beauty took her breath away each time she saw himand not for the first time, did she wonder what his name was.
Part of herwanted to submit, to expose her throat and belly. Her tail dippedbetween her legs, even as she fought the urge to roll over. Hishazel eyes narrowed and she quivered until, finally breaking awayfrom his gaze, she turned quickly and began to run.
Where she wasrunning to, she didn’t know, but the need to escape was strong. Sheflattened her ears and ran as if her life depended on it, her bodylow to the ground. The sound of him following her was easy todetect. He made no effort to hide his pursuit.
He wasbreathing hard, she could hear it. His bigger frame was at adisadvantage when it came to speed, yet with every stride hislonger legs brought him closer and closer.
Panic began towell within her and she dug deep inside putting on a burst ofspeed, twisting around trees, jumping over logs. It was all invain. Without warning, his body slammed into hers and they bothfell to the ground. She rolled, attempting to get to her feet, buteven as she tried to stand, he was on top of her.
Hot breathfanned across the side of her face. Her peripheral vision caught aglimpse of shiny white teeth, before she felt those same teethpenetrating her fur, biting her neck…
“No!” Part ofher was screaming in protest even as another voice, one deeperinside her, cried outyes, craving his domination, hispossession. She pushed that part of her aside and struggled. Thisbeast was just like the one that had killed that man, Mr. Aldrich.It was an unnatural creature known as a werewolf.
Her uncle hadsaid she was one as well, just before he died. But she wasn’t; shecouldn’t be. She wasn’t a wild animal. She couldn’t kill anyone...Could she? Even as she fought against the wolf that loomed overher, a part of her mind was acknowledging her four legs, her tail,and the brown fur covering her body… Closing her eyes against thehot tears that threatened to spill down her face, she screamed herdenial of the truth.
“No! Please,no! I can’t be a werewolf. I don’t want this!” Pushing andstruggling, she flailed against the beast that seemed to surroundher. She couldn’t get away. Her breathing became rapid and shallow;everything was growing dark and she felt herself slipping intounconsciousness, falling and then…
Her body landedagainst something hard and the breath whooshed from her lungs. Witha jolt, her eyes flew open and she looked at her surroundings.Relief washed through her as she realized it had been just anothernightmare.
Shaking in theaftermath of her nocturnal imagination, she disentangled herselffrom the blanket and pushed her hair from her face. She was in herbedroom, having laid down for a nap while waiting for Kellen to gethome. The dream had been just that—a dream.
Well, notexactly. As she stood and picked up the blanket, she acknowledgedthat the woods and the other wolf were non-existent, but her beinga wolf—a werewolf to be exact—was all too real. She hid from thegrim reality as much as possible, but her subconscious mindwouldn’t let the notion rest. It was in the dark recesses of hermind that the beast inside her roamed free and sought out others ofits kind.
But it wouldn’thappen in reality. She jutted her chin in resolve as she folded theblanket, then clutched it to her chest. She’d never seek out othersof her kind. The filthy animals were interested only in killing anddominating and…sex. Her mind skirted away from that last idea. Herdreams were always erotic, usually involving a lusty male who wasintent on tracking her down and taking her.
The memory hadher shifting uncomfortably as arousal stirred inside her. Shecurled her lip at the irony of the situation; her nightmares werehotter than Hades while her real life was…
No. She didn’twant to think about that right now. Setting down the blanket, shewent to the dresser to check her appearance. The turquoise top shewore went well with her Mediterranean colouring, even though shewas still pale as a result of her dream. Applying a bit of blush,she studied her eyes and decided the thick lashes and deep greenirises needed no enhancement. A touch of gloss on her full lipscompleted her makeup.
Grabbing acomb, she set to work on her hair, not for the first time wishingit shimmered with highlights instead of being a solid dark brown.The colour reminded her too much of the animal in her dream. Yes,she could try dying it, but she always wondered how the colourwould take, given her...unusual...genetic makeup.
Glancing at theclock, she realized it was time to start dinner. Kellen would behome soon and she wanted to surprise him. Setting the comb down,she headed to the kitchen, resolutely pushing all thoughts ofwolves from her mind. Tonight it would be all about her andKellen.
Stump River,Ontario, Canada...
Bryan gruntedand firmed his jaw, ignoring his protesting muscles. Sweat trickleddown his face as he lifted the weight, counting in his head, beforegiving a sigh of relief and lowering the heavy disks. They clangedagainst the metal stand, the sound echoing off the walls of theexercise room. He relaxed against the bench, breathing heavily andfeeling pleasantly spent.
“Done for theday?” A towel landed in his face as the speaker walked past.
Wearily hereached up and wiped the sweat from his face and chest while eyeingthe room’s other occupant. Daniel was chugging back a bottle ofwater, his body glistening from an intense workout.
Bryan sat up,giving his arms a shake and then stretching. His muscles achedslightly from the strain they’d be under, not tired, just wellused. “No. I think I’ll go for a run. Want to join me?”
“Nah. I’mwhipped. You Beta-types can exercise until you barf, but not me.I’m the intellectual in the pack, remember?”
Snorting, Bryanstudied his young friend. At twenty-two, Daniel might claim to bean intellectual, but his lean frame was still packed with muscleand had all the local ladies swooning. Well... Most of the localladies, he amended, noting that Daniel was staring out the windowwith a look of longing in his eyes.
The object ofthe younger man’s attention was Tessa, a doe-eyed, dark hairedSpanish beauty. Daniel had been following her around like alove-sick puppy ever since she’d joined the pack three years ago.Not that Tessa ever gave Daniel any encouragement, but that hadn’tstopped the man from wanting her.
Shaking hishead at the follies of young love, Bryan stood up and clappedDaniel on the shoulder. “Why don’t you make a move on her?”
Daniel firmedhis mouth and shoved his hands in his pocket. “She’s not readyyet...”
“Ready? She’snineteen; definitely time for her to choose a mate.”
“You know herhistory.” Anger washed over Daniel’s face and Bryan gripped hisshoulder.
“I do. But shecan’t live in the past forever. Someone needs to help her move on.Why not you?”
Shrugging,Daniel threw his water bottle in the recycling bin and picked uphis discarded t-shirt. “I don’t know. The time never seemsright.”
“If you waittoo long, you might lose your chance.” Bryan threw out the warningand headed for the door, knowing he’d pushed all he could. Danielhad to be the one to make the move.
Once outside,he debated about turning into his wolf form, but decided to finishhis workout as he’d started. His human body needed the exercisemore than his wolf did.
Bending totighten his laces, he heard giggling coming from the nearby gazeboand glanced that way. An exasperated sigh escaped his lips as hesaw two young girls peering at him. Becky and Emily were thedaughters of the newest family to join Ryne’s pack. At fifteen andthirteen respectively, they were harmless enough, but the crushthey’d developed on him was annoying and embarrassing.
As Beta, he wasthe second in command, the Alpha’s bodyguard, and the pack’senforcer. Being followed by giggling teenagers did nothing for hisimage, nor did he know how to deal with them. He didn’t want tohurt their feelings, but subtle hints weren’t having much effect indissuading them.
Knowing if hedelayed much longer, they’d actually work up the nerve to approachhim, he got to his feet and prepared to walk past them.
“Hi Bryan!” Thegirls spoke at the same time. One was attempting an exaggeratedmodel stance while the other settled for tossing her long blondehair over her shoulder.
“’Evening,girls.” He kept his eyes focussed straight ahead and didn’t slowhis pace otherwise they might decide to follow him. It wouldn’t bethe first time it had happened. As he continued on his way, hepicked up on parts of their conversation...
“Did you seehow his muscles rippled? And his butt...”
“Mmm. And hisvoice. It’s so deep it makes me shiver.”
“I like hishair best. Dark blond is so cool.”
“No. I thinkit’s more of a light brown.”
“Whatever. Hiseyes are dreamy.”
“Oh yeah, hazeleyes...”
Bryan winced.Geez, it was like he was some pin-up poster boy. It was nice whenthe ladies in town were all over him, but these two were just kids.It made him feel creepy, like he was some kind of pervert. He brokeinto a slow jog and headed around the curve in the driveway,catching a glimpse of the girls still staring his way.
He wonderedwhen he’d quit being a kid himself and why he felt he was so mucholder now. After all, he was only twenty-four. That was young,wasn’t it? Maybe it was the responsibilities of being Beta thatweighed him down and made him feel older. The pack was growing;Ryne was going to be a father... He chuckled at the thought of hisbad-ass Alpha changing diapers. He could never imagine himself insuch a position.
Breaking into arun, he veered off the driveway and headed deeper into the woods.Nope, a Beta had to be tough and ready to defend the pack or dealwith trouble makers. Settling down to family life just wasn’t partof his plan. Right now, he was a no-strings attached kind of guy.That’s how he liked it and that’s how things would remain.
Las Vegas,Nevada, USA...
“Hey, Kellen!It’s almost supper time.” Cassie called out happily from the stovewhere she was stirring a pot of pasta sauce. She hummed a Latintune under her breath as she worked, swaying slightly to the beat.Her singing was off key, but it didn’t matter. Her plans had goneoff without a hitch so far and she was feeling extremely pleasedwith herself.
Executing afancy little step, she paused and listened carefully. Kellen hadn’tanswered yet. Opening her mouth to call out again, she heard aboard creak near the front door. She frowned. Now what was hedoing? He’d only arrived home a few minutes ago.
Perhaps he wasplaying a joke on her as he sometime did. A mischievous grin spreadacross her face and she decided to turn the tables on him. She setthe spoon down and tiptoed to the archway that separated thekitchen from the living room. Peeking around the corner, she sawKellen was almost at the front door.
Stepping out,she cleared her throat loudly, planted her hands on her hips andspoke in a mock serious tone. “And where do you think you’regoing?”
Kellen froze,then slowly turned around to face her. Something about his posturegave her the feeling he’d been trying to sneak away unnoticedrather than trying to trick her. His expression, a combination ofguilt and exasperation at being caught, confirmed the fact.“Out.”
Her playfulmood rapidly evaporated at his evasive answer. She leaned againstthe doorway, suddenly feeling weary as she took in hisappearance.
His lithe bodywas dressed for a night out with the boys; nothing special ofcourse, but not his usual at home gear of sweats and a comfortableold t-shirt. Well fitting denim encased his hips, a band t-shirtshowed off his broad shoulders and a brown leather jacket wasclutched in his hand. The jacket was the same shade as his hair,which was one of the reasons she’d bought it for him lastChristmas. Since he often worked the night shift, and eveningtemperatures could be quite cool in the desert, she’d deemed it tobe a practical extravagance. He’d been duly appreciative of thegift, but those had been happier times...
“Out where?”She knew the answer already, but some devil inside prodded heronward even as she questioned her own actions. Why did she do thisto herself? Why did she set herself up to be hurt by asking stupidquestions? Cassie knew she should just let him go; turn theproverbial blind eye to his behaviour, but hiding from a problemwouldn’t solve anything.
Really?A voice inside her taunted.You hide every day; keeping melocked up, denying my existence. Your own secret is a living thing,struggling to get out, to make itself known...
Never mind, shehissed to herself. That’s not the issue right now. She pushed thevoice firmly away, refocussing on Kellen and wondering what excusehe might use this time.
Kellen’s mouthwas drawn into a straight line. She watched the blue of his eyesdeepen before he lowered his lashes as if trying to hide hisexpression. “Just out with friends. It’s no big deal.” Giving ashrug, he pulled on the leather jacket and adjusted the collar.
“I know thekind of friends you mean and—”
“You’re not mymother, okay? So lay off!” The angry words were flung at her andCassie fought not to respond in kind. Both of them shoutingwouldn’t solve anything. Someone needed to keep a cool head; asusual, it would be her.
Taking a deepbreath, Cassie steadied herself. “Kellen...” She stepped forward,her hand held out beseechingly. “Stay home. Please. Keep me companylike you promised.”
He winced atthe word ‘promise.’ She paused until he finally met her gaze, thensmiled tentatively, gently. “I...I made your favourite meal.”
The words hungbetween them; the bubble of hope like a palpable entity while shewaited for him to comment. She’d never been taught to cook, but hadmastered the basics over the past few years. Her lack of abilitywas a standing joke between them; Kellen gently teasing her abouther culinary disasters then helping her turn them into somethingedible. Spaghetti and meat sauce was one of her few successful,independent meals and he frequently claimed it was the best he’dever tasted. He could be so sweet sometimes...
Silencestretched between them and his lack of response forced the smile tofade from her face. She let her hand fall to her side andswallowed. Kellen shifted his weight before exhaling slowly. Hiseyes flicked towards her before lowering to stare at the floor.“I’ll just be a little while. When I get back, I’ll heat someup.”
Clenching herhands, she concentrated on the feeling of her nails digging intoher palms. Better to feel physical pain than to let the hurt settlein her heart. He was lying; he wouldn’t be a little while; he justsaid that to assuage his guilt.
Bitternesscrept into her voice. “No you won’t. I...I know you’re gamblingagain.” She watched his shoulders hunch as if to protect himselffrom her words. “I’ll not pay off your debts again.” The words weretossed out like a challenge.
“It’s just afew bets. You know, me and the guys playing poker. No bigstakes...” He brushed his hair from his eyes and gave a lightlaugh. “Besides, it’s not like you don’t have money—”
She was angryand let him know it. “My money, not yours. And I’m saving itin case of an emergency.” Kellen knew that—oh, not the exact kindof emergency she was worried about—but he knew she didn’t want tospend it foolishly. “We live on what we make from our jobs.” Cassielifted her chin and glared at him.
“Yeah, right.”He was using his snarky attitude now, his hands shoved in his backpockets, a sneer twisting his lips. God, she hated that tone. “Likethe money you earn as a cashier at a grocery store will ever makeus rich.”
“We don’t needto be rich!” The volume of her voice rose, even though she knew sheshouldn’t respond to his words. It was the same old argument.Kellen always wanted more.
Correspondingly, he spoke louder as well. “Maybe you don’t, but Ihave no intention of stocking shelves and mopping floors for therest of my life. I want more than this!” He swept his arm out toencompass the living room of their small rented home.
Cassie knewwhat he saw. Slightly worn furniture and an older style TV; tablesshe’d purchased at a second-hand shop and draped with colourfulfabric... It wasn’t much, but it was clean and it was theirs. Theyowed no one. She refused to acknowledge the stinging hurt of hisderisive words. While she was proud of how they’d managed thus far,Kellen wasn’t content with the life they’d forged together. He wasalways seeking that mythical pot of gold.
She brushed animaginary speck from the small table beside her, then looked at himout of the corner of her eye. Exhaling slowly, she tried to keepher voice calm and reasonable. “Gambling is a bad habit. You toldme you’d quit.”
“Just like youquit the drugs?” He fired the words back at her.
She folded herarms defensively and looked away from his accusing stare. Howtypical of him to try to twist the conversation around. “I neverpromised you I’d quit. Besides, it’s not the same thing.”
“No? I’ve gonefor months at a time without placing a single bet. Can you say thesame thing?”
Cassie wassilent knowing she needed her monthly ‘fix’ as he called it, thoughfor far different reasons than he suspected.
Kellencontinued, heaping blame on her. “Who else has a once a month habitlike yours? You lock yourself up for three days every month. Youwon’t let me see you or talk to you... Hell, you even tried to banme from the house while you’re off on some freaky drug inducedtrip.”
She knew he wastrying to draw attention away from his own shortcomings, but thetruth of his words left her with no defence, or at least not oneshe could share. Even after all this time, he knew nothing aboutthe three days from hell she suffered every month. Days filled withfear; fighting the raging voice inside, struggling not to convertinto a monster capable of killing any person who got in her way;hating herself and what she was. He had no idea of herself-loathing...
“I’ve heard youwhen I’m home; the crying, the thrashing about, babbling toyourself... And you look like shit afterwards.”
“It’s not yourconcern.” Cassie hugged herself even more tightly, trying to forgetwhat it was like; how with each month the struggle seemed to growharder, how the beast was becoming stronger...
“Sorrysweetheart, but itismy concern. I’m the one you call whenyou wake up God knows where with no idea of how you even got out ofthe house. I’m the one who covers for you at work. I’m the onerisking my neck and possible arrest every time I buy your illegaldrugs.” His face was ruddy with emotion by time he finishedspeaking.
She shifteduncomfortably, knowing the dicey situation her need placed him in.“I never said you had to. I can buy them myself.”
Kellen snorted.“Yeah. Right. Well, in case you’ve forgotten, the dealers don’tknow you. You don’t know how to talk to them and a pretty, naivelittle girl like you wandering the streets is just asking fortrouble.”
Giving a halfshrug, she knew he was right, but didn’t want to admit the fact.When she’d first run out of her migraine medication—well by thenshe’d known it wasn’t for migraines, but that was what she stillcalled it—she’d gone to a clinic in the hopes of getting more. Herrequest had been met with stunned silence and then a flurry ofactivity as the staff had started to make arrangements for bloodwork, urine samples, and a plethora of other tests. Realizing thatsomething she’d said must have made the nurse wary, she’d slippedout of the small clinic when no one was looking, fearful that hersecret might be discovered.
Once she washome, she began researching the medication on-line only to findthat it was a heavy sedative rarely used and only under strictmedical supervision. It had come as a shock to discover what heruncle had been pumping into her month after month, yet fear of theconsequences, should she not take the drugs, drove her to findmore.
Her previouslysheltered existence as the ward of a multimillionaire had left herexceptionally ill-prepared to deal with real life, let alone theseamier side of it. The first time she’d tried to buy hermedication on the street, Kellen had watched from a distance andnarrowly saved her from approaching an undercover narcoticsofficer. After that near debacle, he’d taken over the task.
“And do youknow how hard it is for me to get that stuff?” He ran his handagitatedly through his hair. “The dealers think I’m crazy; no onetakes that junk for fun.”
“That’s mybusiness.” The weight of her guilt made her snap at him.
“Just like theoccasional night of gambling is mine.” Kellen growled back beforestriding to the door.
“Kellen!” Hisname ripped from her throat as she called after him, not caringthat her voice betrayed her emotional pain. She hated parting thisway, hated how their relationship was falling apart.
He grabbed thehandle, but paused before opening the door. Seconds ticked past asCassie watched him standing there, his head bowed down. Hisshoulders rose and fell once then he turned and looked at her, hiseyes reflecting his internal grief. “Sandy, I...I’m sorry.”
He half turnedto her and her heart beat faster, hoping he would choose to stayhome, that he’d choose her over the thrill of gaming. She tried toput her heart in her gaze, begging him wordlessly, promising,pleading...
A car hornsounded from the street. He gave a start and darted a glance outthe window. “That’ll be Greg.” For a moment, he seemed torn and shethought she might stand a chance, but his friend beeped the hornagain, obviously impatient. His hand flexed on the door knob.“I...I have to go. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.” Quickly, he pulledthe door open and stepped onto the front porch. There was aminiscule pause in his stride and he spoke without turning around.“We’ll talk later. I...I love you.”
“I love you,too.” Cassie whispered, wondering if the words were even true. Itdidn’t matter though; he hadn’t waited to hear her reply. The doorshut quietly and she allowed her shoulders to slump. She leaned herhead against the wall; the smooth, coolness of the painted surfacefelt good against her flushed face. A single snort of sardoniclaughter escaped her. The fact that he called her Sandy—a fake nameshe’d given him three years ago—epitomized their relationship.Secrets and deceit were interwoven into their lives; he didn’t evenknow her real name was Cassandra or that her family had called herCassie.
Pushing offfrom the wall, she crossed the room. She hadn’t really expected tomake him stay, but she’d hoped. Insanely, ridiculously, she hopedthat this time... With a roll of her eyes, she cut off her ownthinking. Who was she trying to fool? The gambling was a sicknesswithin him. For periods of time, it went into remission, but italways came back; rearing its ugly head and destroying thehappiness and peace that had developed between them. Sure it washis pay cheque to waste, but it put an added burden on her to coverhousehold expenses and she resented the fact.
Cassie pulledaside the curtain to stare out the window at the car in thedriveway. Kellen was walking towards it, laughing at something oneof his cronies had called out to him. Even at this distance shecould sense the change in him; there was a bounce in his step; hisvoice indistinct yet full of excitement. Energy seemed to radiatefrom him as adrenaline pumped through his system.
He might berateher for her supposed habit, but gambling was his drug. She’d seenthe effects up close. His eyes dilated and overly bright as hescanned the gaming table; the trembling of his hands, the way he’dlick his lips and his breathing would quicken.
Kellen climbedin the car, his friend barely giving him time to shut the doorbefore pulling out of the driveway and speeding down the street.Letting the curtain fall into place, Cassie turned and wanderedback to the kitchen, her steps echoing in the quiet, lonely house.The meal she’d prepared earlier no longer seemed appetizing, butshe forced herself to eat a small portion. When she was finished,she put away the leftovers, dejectedly wondering why she evenbothered. Maybe she should be spiteful and just throw Kellen’sportion in the garbage... No, this wasn’t a silly childish game andshe wouldn’t stoop to such petty revenge. Besides, she couldn’tafford to be that wasteful.
As she preparedto leave the room, she took a moment to do a quick survey, checkingthe stove was off and the tap wasn’t dripping. Her gaze passed overthe table and the small bouquet she’d arranged. It was flanked bytwo candles, all ready to celebrate the anniversary of the daythey’d met. Three years ago today, she’d first set eyes on Kellen.At the time, she’d been scared out of her wits, not knowing whichway to turn and he’d been her knight in shining armour, showing herhow to survive. She sighed. Now... Well, she wasn’t sure what hewas anymore.
For some reasonshe decided to light one of the candles. The flickering flame castshadows across the wall and table surface, creating mysteriousimages. She squinted trying to determine what the shapes lookedlike, but they shifted too quickly. She smiled a little crookedly.It was a bit like her own life. Mysterious shadows and secretsseemed to dance around her and she...well...she was the lonecandle; her supposed partner was decidedly absent.
Reaching out,she let her hand hover around the warmth of the flame, feeling itsheat, mesmerized by its brightness. Then, firming her chin, sheblew it out and headed to bed.
The firsttentative fingers of dawn were streaking the sky as Kellen unlockedthe front door and let himself into the small house he shared withSandy. He closed the door as quietly as possible, the slight soundof the lock snicking into place making him wince. Standing in theentryway, he listened carefully, and gave a slow sigh of reliefwhen, hearing nothing but silence, he realized Sandy must still besleeping. There was still an hour left before her alarm was due togo off, but sometimes she was up before then and he really didn’tfeel like he could face her just yet.
He placed hisjacket on the hook by the door, and took off his shoes beforepadding into the kitchen in search of some water and pain killers.His head was throbbing and his body felt worn out, no doubtlet-down from the adrenaline rush he’d been on for most of thenight. A small smile graced his face as he relived the excitementof the winning streak he’d been on recently. Up twenty thousanddollars, he’d been hard pressed to contain his excitement believinghis mother-load was finally coming in. Of course, lady luck was asfickle as ever. Just when it seemed he couldn’t lose, his goodfortune turned and despite his best efforts, he ended up deeper indebt.
Rubbing hishand over his face, he wondered if he really was recalling eventsclearly. Greg had found a new group to play with and the stakes hadbeen higher than normal. Scott, one of Greg’s friends, had aliberal hand when it came to mixing drinks; and the women... God,he couldn’t believe the women that had been there. Gorgeous, milesof legs and scantily clad, they’d fawned all over him when he waswinning. Even after the tide had turned, they’d been there;encouraging him, sharing his frustration over his losing streak,consoling him...
His smile fadedas he contemplated his losses. Surely there hadn’t been as manyzeros after the numbers as he’d thought he’d seen. There was no wayhe owed fifty thousand. Fumbling in his pocket, he pulled out thenote that Scott had given him. Shit! It really was that much. Hecrumpled the paper in his hand and tried to think through thepounding in his head.
Kellen knew hisbank balance hovered around the hundred dollar mark; he’d withdrawnmost of his savings to get into the game, so there was no way hecould pay off the debt that way. He swallowed nervously. MaybeSandy...?
He lookedhopefully towards the hallway that led to the bedrooms and it wasthen that he noticed the kitchen table. A wilted bouquet and twocandles graced the centre while a lone place setting, complete withwine glass and a starched white napkin sat at his usual spot.
A sick feelingrose in his stomach that had nothing to do with the alcohol he’dconsumed or the money he owed. Sandy only set a fancy table forspecial occasions but what...? He quickly turned and stared at thecalendar, groaning when he noticed the date.
Damn! She’dcircled it in red and had been chattering away about it all week;it was their three year anniversary. How could he forget? Thinkingback, he recalled the argument they’d had before he left, only nowremembering the hurt evident in her eyes. She hadn’t said anything,never specifically hinting it was a special day, but... Damn! Heran his hands through his hair and cursed himself for forgetting,for not paying closer attention.
The sound of adoor opening made him look towards the hallway. Before Sandy sawwhat he was holding, he shoved the promissory note in his pocket.Now was not the time to ask her for money. Pushing off from thecounter he’d been leaning on, he straightened his shirt and steppedforward just as she appeared in the doorway.
Long dark hair,rumpled from sleep, fell around her face and her green eyes stillhad the adorable, vaguely unfocussed look of morning that he sodearly loved.
“Kellen?” Hervoice was husky with sleep as she furrowed her brow at him.
“Morning.” Hewrapped his arms around her and pressed a light kiss to the top ofher head.
She brought herhands to his chest and pushed away, her nose wrinkled, probablycatching a whiff of the alcohol on his breath. “Are you justgetting home?”
“Yeah.” Hegrasped her shoulders and squeezed them gently. “Hey, I’m sorryabout last night.” He flicked a glance at the table and then backat her.
Sandy gave ashrug, loosening his grip. “It doesn’t matter. It was just a sillyidea I had.”
“No. It wasn’tsilly. Celebrating the day we met is important to me. You’reimportant to me.” He put a finger under her chin and lifted it sohe could see her eyes. “The day we met was the best day of mylife.”
She searchedhis face with her eyes, obviously wondering about the truth of hisstatement. “Sometimes I wonder about that.” Her voice was soft andshe sounded...lonely. It cut into his heart. God, he felt like sucha jerk.
Clasping herhands in his, he gave them a little shake. “Never wonder about howimportant you are to me. You helped turn my life around.”
“Is that whyyou went out last night?” She cocked her head to the side and gavehim a considering look.
Kellen wincedand let go of her hands. “Yeah. Well...last night was a mistake.”In more ways than one, he added silently, thinking of the money heowed. He forced a smile. “I wish I would have stayed home withyou.”
She respondedwith a slight movement of her lips that could have passed for asmile, then looked down, idly playing with the hem of her tank top.“I wish you would have, too.”
There was asadness to her voice and he desperately wanted to erase it. Tryingto sound happy and hearty, he pulled her into a quick hug, thenjust as quickly, let go. “Listen. I’ll make it up to you. Tonightit will be just you and me. I’ll make dinner and rent one of yourchic-flicks. We’ll watch it together, have some popcorn... What doyou say?”
“Sure.” Sandyshrugged but didn’t meet his eyes. “Dinner and a movie fixeseverything, doesn’t it?”
Kellensuspected her words were more sarcastic than an attempt at humourbut he chose to believe the latter and chuckled briefly.
Sandy flickedan unreadable look at him then turned and headed down the hallwaycalling over her shoulder. “I have to get ready for work. I’ll talkto you later.”
As she walkedaway, he watched her slight form outlined in a tank top andsleeping shorts. A familiar stirring in his groin compounded hisguilt over the missed dinner. Could he sink much lower than this?Lusting for her, after last night’s events? He could still smellthe other women’s perfume on his clothes; still recall the feel oftheir fingers teasing his hair, their hot breath on his cheek asthey whispered encouragement to him...
Disgusted withhimself, he stomped down the hallway, pulling his shirt off andthrowing it into the hamper. Shucking his jeans, he tossed them inthe basket as well, then fell onto his bed and stared at theceiling.
God, why did healways screw up everything? Sandy deserved better than him. Herubbed the heels of his hands into his eyes. Letting his arms droplifelessly at his side, he sighed heavily; damn, but he was tired.His eyes felt dry and scratchy so he let them drift shut as hecontemplated the day to come, and how he could make amends for hismistake. Maybe he’d clean the house and do a bit of laundry; thatusually made her happy. Then he’d fix dinner and have it ready whenshe got home from work.
A yawn escapedhim and he rolled onto his side, listening to the hissing of theshower and the faint sounds Sandy made as she prepared for the day.He’d just rest for a few minutes and when she came out, he’d getup...
Kane pacedtheir private sitting room, reading the latest report from Chicagobefore crumpling the paper and throwing it to the ground.“Damn!”
Elise looked upfrom the child she was nursing and frowned. “Language, Kane. Littleears are in the room.”
He stopped inhis tracks and looked down at the toddler who was sitting on thefloor playing with a truck. The boy was the image of himself withdark hair and amber eyes.
Possiblyfeeling his father’s gaze on him, Jacob looked up at him solemnlybefore switching to an impish grin. “Damn, Daddy. Damn!”
Guiltily, Kaneshot a glance at Elise. Her eyebrows shot up almost to her hairlinebefore lowering in disapproval. “Sorry!” He mouthed the word beforehunkering down to talk to his son.
“Jacob, youcan’t say that word when Mommy’s around.”
“Or even whenI’m not around.” Elise added from her chair by the window.
“Right.” Kanelooked at his mate and then back at his son. “Damn is a grown-upword and I don’t want you using it.”
“Because...”Kane paused and sighed, knowing where this was heading; aninterminable conversation that featured him trying to explain andthe boy questioning his reasoning. Deciding on a new tactic, hespoke sternly. “You cannot use that word, because I am your Alphaand whatever I say is law.” He sat back on his heels and stared athis son.
For a moment,Jacob scowled back, his small chin lifting, his little browslightly lowered, but after a few seconds the look faltered and hislower lip trembled. Ducking his head, the child conceded. “Okay,Daddy.”
For a momentKane was pleased, both that his son had shown some spirit and thathe was learning the ways of the pack so quickly. But then, helooked at the little bowed head and the dark curls resting againstthe nape of the tiny neck. He swallowed hard, a pang of guiltwashing over him. Memories of his own father flashed before hiseyes; the bastard raging at him, hand raised to strike... Kaneshook his head to erase the image. Maybe he’d been too harsh. Jacobwasjust a little boy...
Reaching over,Kane scooped the child into his arms, stood up and tipped himupside down. Jacob squealed with delight apparently forgetting theconfrontation already. Kane blew raspberries against his bellymaking him laugh all the louder. The happy sound filled his heart;he never wanted his children to be afraid of him.
Tipping the boyback upright, Kane lifted him over his head. “I love you, Jacob,but you must listen to me and not always question my orders...” Helooked at Elise then continued. “...or your mother’s.”
Jacob nodded,still giggling.
Setting his sondown, Kane whispered in his ear. The boy grinned and trottedoff.
“Kane, what didyou promise him?” Elise gave him a knowing look.
“Just a cookie.Helen’s baking—”
“You know it’salmost dinner time.” Elise lifted the baby from her breast and heldit against her shoulder, gently patting its back.
“One cookiewon’t hurt him.”
“Jacob hasHelen wrapped around his finger, just like he has everyone else. Itwon’t stop with one cookie.”
Kane winced,knowing Elise was right. Helen, the previous Alpha’s widow, hadstayed on after the man’s death, eventually taking on the role ofhousekeeper and cook for those living in the Alpha house. She wasalso a substitute grandmother for many of the pups and had noqualms about spoiling them.
“Hmm... Perhapsyou’re right. Oh well, too late now.” Shrugging philosophically, hewandered over to where Elise sat. He crouched behind her, makingfaces at his daughter. She chortled and then burped loudly.Laughing, he tapped the infant’s nose. “You’re just like yourmother.”
“Kane, I do notburp loudly like that!”
“I meant inlooks!” He tried to explain his comment.
“Oh, so I’malmost bald and have no teeth?” He could hear the faint trace oflaughter in her voice.
Circling aroundthe chair until he faced his mate, he knelt in front of her and rana finger down the slope of her still exposed breast. “Of coursenot.” He leaned forward and kissed her gently before murmuringagainst her lips. “But even if you were, I’d still love you.”
“Mmm...” Eliseleaned into the kiss and swept her tongue over his, before easingback and shifting the child in her arms. She started to rock thelittle girl to sleep. “So what was making you swear?”
He stood andbegan pacing again. “The damn...er...the disappointing report fromChicago. There’s still no progress on that fellow Aldrich. It was asimple enough assignment. I asked the Chicago pack to deal with himand they still don’t have the job done. I can’t believe howinefficient they are; after all, they have a stake in this as well.None of us want to be exposed to the human population. Maybe Ishould just go and take care of the man myself.”
Elise rolledher eyes at him. “Kane Sinclair, you know perfectly well that youcan’t go traipsing into another pack’s territory like that.Besides, I’ve read the reports and you couldn’t do any better. LeonAldrich keeps himself locked up like Fort Knox. He never leaves hispenthouse unless he’s surrounded by guards and there's a carefulscreening process for all his employees. The Chicago pack has triedto get someone on the inside but they can’t make it through thescreening process. Face it, he knows you’re after him and he’s nottaking any chances.”
Kane growled ather matter of fact restating of what he already knew. Aldrich’scontinued existence was a thorn in his side. Three years ago, theman had stumbled upon the fact that werewolves actually existed andhad planned on abducting one of their kind, namely Melody Greene,and selling her as living proof of his discovery.
An ancientwerewolf law, known as the Keeping, dictated that any human whodiscovered their secret existence faced possible extermination.Ryne, Kane’s brother, had attempted to kill the man but desperatecircumstances dealing with Melody’s safety meant he’d had to leavebefore finishing the man off. Since that time, Aldrich had been atthe top of their ‘most wanted’ list. “The Chicago pack claims theyhave a new plan, but I’m not holding my breath. As long as Aldrichis alive, we aren’t safe.”
“There’s noguarantee on safety, Kane. You kept most of the pack in hiding forfour months when this whole thing first blew up, but nothinghappened. It’s been almost three years now. Aldrich has never madea move against us or given any indication that he plans too. Maybehe’s too afraid to do anything; maybe it’s time to let it go.”
He braced hisarms against the window frame and stared outside, considering hismate’s words. Idly, he noted the signs of spring appearing in theforest that grew around the homestead. “Perhaps you have a point.It’s just...” Pausing, he tried to find the words to expresshimself. “I just have this feeling in my gut that trouble is stillbrewing and it has something to do with Aldrich.”
Elise stood andlaid the now sleeping baby down in her crib, before walking over toKane and beginning to rub his back.
Kane rumbledappreciatively at the feel of her hands soothing the tight musclesin his shoulders, then sliding down his side. She wrapped her armsaround his waist and laid her head against him.
“You know,Kane, I have a feeling in my gut too, though actually it’s a bitlower. You could fix it, if you wanted to.”
His breathcaught in his chest as she accompanied her suggestive words byshifting her hand lower and using her finger to trace over hiszipper. Immediately, his flesh responded, growing harder andstraining against the material of his pants. He placed his handover hers and pressed her palm to the aching bulge. When shesqueezed lightly, he groaned in appreciation. “I might be able toaccommodate you.”
“Might?” Elisecircled around him and nipped at his chin, then pulled his headdown so she could tease his earlobe.
Kane ran hishands up her back and then down, cupping her enticingly roundedrear, pulling her closer. “Uh-huh. I’m Alpha, you know; a very busyman. But I suppose I could try to work you in...”
Giggling, Elisetook his hand and led him from the sitting room towards theadjoining bedroom. “Actually, from the feel of things, I think I’llbe trying to workyouin, big boy...”
Marla stood inthe office of the late Anthony Greyson, eyeing the contentscarefully. Gold pens, two silver letter trays, and an ivory letteropener were on the desk that dominated the room. Beside it, floorto ceiling shelves housed a collection of books; many were rarefirst editions, autographed and in mint condition. She trailed herfingers over the leather spines and then across the wooden surfaceof a nearby table, her mind ticking off its salient features;mahogany, cabriole leg, hand carved detailing, eighteenth centurydesign, probably an original Chippendale. It would fetch a tidy sumat auction. A picture arrangement caught her attention next. Eachone was a much sought after original oil painting, meticulouslymaintained. Her eyes gleamed; she knew exactly where she could getthe best price for them...
A regretfulsigh escaped her. They were much too big and certainly would bemissed should one or two of them suddenly disappear. A singlesilver letter tray however... A slight smile curled the corner ofher lips and she drifted over to the desk. Yes, the tray was lovelyand, thankfully, large purses were in style this year. Casuallylooking around the room to ensure no one was watching, she liftedone tray and examined it carefully, noting the elegant etching. Itwould do the trick nicely.
Setting herpurse down, she began to unzip it, when someone cleared theirthroat behind her. Her hand barely paused before she continued thetask of opening her purse, reaching in and pulling out a tissue asif that had been her goal all along. Turning, she leaned a hipagainst the desk top and surveyed the elderly man who stood in thedoorway.
“Yes,Franklin?” Marla kept her tone even and pleasant, her expressionone of bland inquiry. Nothing about her gave any indication thather actions were anything but respectable.
“Do you needany help, ma’am?”
“No, thank you,Franklin. I was just inspecting the Estate as per Mr. Aldrich’sorders. As usual, you and Mrs. Teasdale are doing a splendidjob.”
“Thank you,ma’am.” While Franklin’s voice was polite, Marla was sure shedetected a flash of loathing in the man’s eyes.
That was fine.It was game they’d been playing now for almost three years. On thesurface they were so cordial butter wouldn’t melt in their mouths,but underneath the polite facade... Ah! That’s where the truth wasfound.
She narrowedher eyes in annoyance at the man. He was always appearing atinopportune moments, always watching her... As he stepped furtherinto the room, she hastily rearranged her features into a pleasantbut mildly bored expression.
Franklin walkedover to the desk, his stride purposeful. Marla observed as hepicked up the tray she’d had in her hand just moments before. Heflicked a glance at her, then took a polishing rag out of hispocket and cleaned the surface before placing it back on the deskin its original position.
“Such a lovelypiece,” he murmured. “It would be a shame if it went missing likesome of the other small items have.” Marla knew he was watching herout of the corner of his eye, but remained calm and cool. If thebutler thought he could rattle her, he couldn’t be more wrong.
“Indeed.” Marlaraised one eyebrow. “Any progress yet on finding the supposedlymisplaced items?”
“Stolen, ma’am.Not misplaced.”
She waved herhand negligently. “Semantics, Franklin. Stolen, misplaced... It’sall the same in the end. The items are no longer where you claimthey used to be.” Pausing, she feigned a concerned expression. “Youknow, Franklin, this really is a large house to manage. I’m sureyou’ve done your best, but you must be getting tired. Three yearswith hardly a break, supervising the hired help, assisting with theinventory...”
Shaking herhead, she made a little moue. “I know I’ve mentioned it before, butit is possible that the inventory you conducted wasn’t entirelyaccurate. I don’t think the courts took your age into considerationwhen they gave you the job.” Reaching over, she patted his armlightly. “No one would think any the less of you, if youdecided—”
“I’m not in mydotage yet, Ms. Matthews, though I thank you for your concern. Theinventory was accurate, the itemsaremissing, and thepolice have been notified. Everyone has been questioned as to theobjects’ whereabouts and the local pawn shops have been alerted.”He pulled his arm out from under her hand, his voice reflecting hisaffront. “Of course, you know that already, seeing as how we hadthis same conversation during your last visit.”
Laughinglightly, she gave him a condescending look. “Of course we did,Franklin.” Ignoring his glare, she patted his arm again beforewandering over to the window and inspecting the glass. “Hmm...These windows seem to be rather dusty and streaked. It’s importantto keep the house in top condition at all times, you realize.Perhaps, if you put me in charge of hiring the cleaning staff,these problems could be avoided.”
“Perhaps. Butthe courts appointed Cook—Mrs. Teasdale—and myself as caretakersuntil such time as Miss Cassie returns. That includes the cleaningand maintenance of the Estate.”
“Ifshereturns.” Marla qualified the answer while turning to face the man.She pulled the strap of her purse over her shoulder in preparationfor leaving, resisting the urge to take one last look at the silvertray on the desk.
“Shewillcome back, Ms. Matthews. Cook and I are sure ofit.”
Marla moved herlips into the semblance of a smile, but made no effort to hide thecoldness in her eyes. It wasn’t worth the effort trying to sway theold man over to her side. She’d attempted that during the firstyear, but he was annoyingly loyal to his dead master and the truantyoung girl. “Your Miss Cassie’s return is what we all hope and prayfor, Franklin. Mr. Aldrich and I think of her often, wonderingwhatever became of the poor thing.”
“She’s outthere somewhere, biding her time until the right opportunity arisesfor her return.” The man spoke with confidence and, not for thefirst time, Marla wondered if he knew more about Cassandra Greysonthan he let on.
No, she quicklydismissed the idea. It wasn’t possible. There was no way a simplecook and an aging butler could accomplish what she and Leon Aldrichhad been unable to do. For three years, they’d sifted throughreports, followed up on leads, and hired private investigators inan effort to find the missing young heiress. If all their expertscouldn’t find Cassandra Greyson, then the old man wouldn’t havebeen able to either.
Nodding atFranklin, she left the library and exited the house. It was a sunnyday and she paused on the front step, squinting at the brightnessand making a show of donning a pair of fashionable sunglasses.
While she wasat it, she slyly scanned the area around the home, even sniffingthe air surreptitiously. She played the various scents through hermind, finally focusing on one. Damn! A werewolf had been in thearea again. Not recently, but still it gave her human half causefor concern. The wolf within her pricked up its ears in interest,but she ignored it. Absentmindedly rubbing her side, where an oldinjury still twinged on occasion, she moved briskly to the waitinglimousine.
As the doorshut behind her, Marla breathed a sigh of relief; the thought ofencountering one of her own kind made her edgy. Thechauffeur-driven car was reinforced to withstand an assault and notfor the first time, did she thank her employer, Leon Aldrich, forhis paranoia.
For somereason, which he never explained to her, the man was obsessed withhis personal safety, sure it was only a matter of time before anattack was launched against him. Exactly what the nature of theattack might be, he didn’t say, but his paranoia resulted inpersonal guards, alarms around his penthouse, security cameras, anda ridiculously intense screening process for anyone he came incontact with.
“Where to, Ms.Matthews?” Jeffries, the chauffeur, looked back at her through therear-view mirror.
“Back to thepenthouse. I’ll complete my other errands tomorrow.” She barely methis gaze before staring out the window, searching the massivegardens and the woods beyond for any sign of movement. Conflictedfeelings stirred within her as she considered what it would be liketo encounter a wolf again after all these years. The idea excitedthe animal inside her, but she paid the silly creature no mind.Life in a wolf pack was no bed of roses, despite what the creaturemight say...
Jeffriescleared his throat as if to speak, drawing her attention back tohim. He looked disappointed and it brought her mind back to anothermatter; a more personal one just between the two of them.
“I’m sorry,Jeffries. I’m no longer in the mood this afternoon.”
He poutedbriefly and she sighed. The chauffeur was good-looking, in aboy-toy sort of way. His white blond hair, perfect features, andwell-toned body were drool worthy but he was a bit more highmaintenance than she preferred. Still, he was a relatively goodlover and always available when she needed him, so some panderingwas warranted. Leaning forward, she reached over the seat andstroked his jaw. He hummed in appreciation, leaning back towardsher. She whispered in his ear. “Perhaps tomorrow? By theJacuzzi?”
A slow grinrevealed perfect teeth and his baby blue eyes heated with obviouslust. “Sure. Whenever you need me.”
“Anticipationsweetens the real thing.” She tickled his ear before leaning back,the soft leather seats moulding around her body. Jeffries shiftedin his own seat before starting the vehicle, but by then Marla hadlost interest in him and barely noted the action.
The constantpresence of werewolves was unnerving her. When she’d first come tothis area, she rarely scented one, but in the past few years, therealways seemed to be some about. She was almost certain they weren’taware of her presence. Aldrich’s screen of security ensured peoplewere kept at a distance and she was employing an old trick to maskher scent; a rare perfume that she’d perfected years ago whichallowed her to remain undetected by the keen noses of otherLycans.
Yet despitereassuring herself that it was all a coincidence, a niggle of doubtremained. A falling out with her old pack had made her a fugitiveand she didn’t doubt for a minute that they would kill her, if shewas ever found. The question was, had they somehow discovered shewas here and sent assassins to deal with her?
For monthsafter parting ways with her old pack, she’d lived in a constantstate of fear, but with the passage of time, she’d slowly startedto relax. Her logical mind believed an active search for her wasover, but she wasn’t taking any chances.
Her cell phonerang and she glanced at the number before answering. “Hello, Mr.Aldrich. What can I do for you?” She furrowed her brow and pressedthe phone closer to her ear. The man’s vocal chords had beenseverely damaged during a wild dog attack three years ago and as aresult, he could be difficult to understand.
“Yes, theEstate appears to be in good order ... No, Franklin had no newsabout the missing items. Of course, given his age, I still suspectthe inventory was faulty. Perhaps, we should reconsider mysuggestion of conducting another? ... All right, we’ll discuss itwhen I get back ... Yes, you’ll be with the nurse. I’ll see youafter your session with her.”
She ended thecall and gave a self-satisfied smile. Perhaps Aldrich was finallygoing to start listening to her suggestions. It gave her hope thatshe might actually be able to snag the fussy old goat. Jeffriesserved his purpose on a purely carnal level, but Aldrich had whatshe really wanted. The lawyer was well on his way to gainingcontrol of the Greyson estate and there was no way she was lettinghim, and all that money, slip through her hands.
All that wasneeded was to ensure that Cassandra Greyson didn’t reappear toosoon. The waiting period for missing heirs was almost half over.Through some skillful snooping, she’d learned that Aldrich had aplan in the works to ensure that significant portions of the estateended up in his own coffers.
She stretchedsinuously, taking a moment to appreciate the fine leather interiorof the vehicle, the small bar and entertainment centre. She wasenjoying the perks that came with being Aldrich’s personalassistant. Once she convinced him to marry her, she’d be able togain access to even more. Then her life would be perfect.
Notreally, her inner wolf murmured.We’re alone, without apack.
Marla scowledat the faint discontent that filled her. Having a pack didn’tmatter, she tried to assure herself. She was independent and soonto be wealthy. So what if there was no one to curl up with atnight, no one to go running with? She didn’t even enjoy thoseactivities. Sniffing, she wrapped her arms around herself andlifted her chin only to stare sightlessly at the passing scenery asmemories of youthful frolics with pack mates danced before hereyes.
Las Vegas,Nevada, USA...
Cassie sat downin the employee’s lunch room, ready to enjoy the relative peace andcalm the small space provided. It wasn’t much to look at; some oldfurniture, a refrigerator, and an array of notices posted on thewall, but at least it was a place to rest away from the constantbeeping of the price scanner and the rattle of grocery carts. She’dawoken with a headache, after spending a restless night listeningfor Kellen to come home, and was finding it hard to maintain apleasant facade for the customers.
Exactly why shehad wasted time listening for Kellen, she didn’t know. Her feelingstowards him ranged from anger to disappointment to sorrow; none ofthem suitable for sharing in the middle of the night withoutinviting a fight. Yet, underneath it all, she still cared for him.So, she’d tried to stay awake, wanting to know he was home andsafe; some of his gambling friends seemed more than a littledisreputable and she worried about him, despite his failings.
When sleep hadfinally claimed her, strange dreams had dominated her rest. Kellenhad been there, but when she tried to reach his outstretched hand,he’d backed away; his figure slowly fading into a cool, grey mist.Frustrated, she’d run towards him, but strong arms appeared out ofnowhere, and held her tight despite her struggles to free herself.Slowly, but inexorably, she’d been drawn backwards farther andfarther from where Kellen had disappeared. The arms around herwaist loosened and then eased her around until she was facing abroad, muscular chest.
For some reasonshe had been more curious than panicked, somehow sensing thisperson meant her no harm. But who was it that held her? And why washe keeping her away from Kellen? When she’d looked up, the man’sfeatures were lost in the shadows. He didn’t speak, but his handsbegan to stroke her, calloused fingers trailing over her skin in ahypnotizing rhythm that had her eyes drifting shut.
As she’drelaxed against him, his lips feathered over her forehead, acrossher cheek and finally brushed her lips. Over and over again, he’dteased her with butterfly kisses and soft touches that broughtevery nerve ending to aching awareness. Need built inside her andshe’d pressed closer to him; straining to wrap her arms around him,to pull his head down for a deeper kiss. Yet, even as she’d reachedout, he began to fade away leaving her achingly alone.
She’d turnedround in a circle searching for the man, then calling out forKellen, but no one had come. Despondently she’d sunk down on theground and curled up in a ball feeling lost and abandoned in thecool grey fog. Tears had dampened her cheeks as she wondered whyshe’d been abandoned. Everyone she loved was gone. Kellen, heruncle, the mother she never knew, even Franklin and Cook...
We aren’tmeant to be alone, the creature inside her had whimpered.Wehave to find him.But she’d stayed where she was, too afraid ofthe unknown to go searching. Danger lurked in the shadows thatsurrounded her. It was best to stay where she was. Yet even asshe’d pressed her forehead to her drawn up knees, the illusion ofsafety slipped away. The greyness darkened to black, the fogthickened and pressed down on her, threatening to crush her withits oppressive weight. Too late she realized staying curled up wasmore dangerous than moving. She’d tried to crawl away, but thedarkness invaded her body, choking her with its evil. Opening hermouth, she’d tried to call out, but the sound stuck in her throat.Her vision blurred, she’d fought to breathe, and then finally,mercifully, she’d passed out.
When morningcame, she’d awoken feeling spent and disinclined to face the day.Unfortunately, hiding under the covers wasn’t an option. Workawaited and she’d had to face Kellen as well; she’d heard himmoving about in the kitchen and decided to get the initial meetingover with. The encounter had been purposely low key; she decidedthere’d be time enough for talk and recriminations later. Scheduledto work the early shift, she had little time to waste listening tohis explanations and excuses.
With a sigh,Cassie decided that she needed to think of something else.Replaying earlier events over and over in her head wouldn’t changewhat had happened. She rolled her shoulders, trying to ease thetension that had settled there, then kicked off her shoes andpropped her feet up on a nearby chair. Giving her toes a wiggle,she closed her eyes and rested her head in her hand. For just amoment she’d rest.
Forcing herbody to relax, she kept her breathing deep and rhythmic. Randomly,the image of soft grass popped into her head; lush vegetation, talltrees, a gentle breeze ruffling her fur as she lapped from a coolstream... It was so peaceful. A contented smile spread over herlips, before she gave a start and scowled at her waywardthoughts.
Darn! The fullmoon was approaching and the beast inside her was growing stronger,pushing to come out, to gain control. Determinedly, she sat upstraight and took a juice box out of her lunch bag. She sipped thecontents with forced enjoyment, ignoring the chemical taste ofartificial colours and flavours. This was what she drank, notstream water. She wasn’t an animal, no matter what the troublesomecreature inside her might believe.
And it wasn’tas if she didn’t have enoughrealtrouble to deal with. Herthoughts returned to Kellen, his gambling and the pile of unpaidbills on the kitchen counter... again. What should she do about it?If she asked for advice, people would likely say she should cut herlosses and move on. But move on to what?
Kellen was allshe had. And he’d been there for her, helping her when she hadnowhere else to turn. She couldn’t just walk away, could she? Asshe tried to imagine such a scenario, her heart ached. Despite hisfaults, Kellen had her loyalty; he was her pack...er...family.Cassie grimaced at the animalistic term that had inadvertentlyslipped out.
The creatureinside stirred again. It—she—both of them—had been restless lately.It went beyond the approaching lunar event. The need for somethingmore was causing an emptiness inside her, a void that clamoured tobe filled through bonding with someone. She’d been hoping to easethe feeling by reconnecting with Kellen, trying to deepen theirrelationship, but after last night... Cassie shook her head at thefolly of that move.
The sound ofapproaching footsteps caught her attention moments before thelunchroom door swung open. Another cashier, Debra, entered. Theslightly plump redhead paused by the fridge to take out a can oficed tea and then plopped down on the old brown sofa that stoodnear the wall.
“Feet sore?”Debra quirked her eyebrow and nodded at Cassie’s feet before takinga long drink.
“Mmm. I wasstanding all morning.” Cassie leaned forward and massaged herarches before sliding her feet off the chair. Pasting a friendlysmile on her face, she attempted to make small talk. “So how wasyour weekend?”
Debra shrugged.“Okay. Bill called again, but I told him there was no way I wasgetting back together with him.”
Cassie pulled acontainer out of her lunch bag and made non-committal noises. Debraloved to share the drama of her personal life and Cassie knew thatthe next fifteen minutes would likely be filled with more detailsabout the other girl’s life than she really cared to know.
Surprisingly,Debra didn’t elaborate on the incident as she usually would have.“What about you? How’d your anniversary go?”
“Okay.”Shrugging, Cassie took a bite of her sandwich, not wanting toreveal the whole debacle and wondering how she could turn theconversation away from herself.
“Just okay?”Debra looked disappointed. “So it wasn’t all romantic and full ofhot, steamy sex with the oh-so-good-looking Kellen?” Her expressionshifted into a mischievous grin. “You know I’d switch to the nightshift just to work with him, if he wasn’t already spoken for.”
“Debra!” Cassierolled her eyes and threw a wadded up paper napkin at the othergirl, not really jealous, but knowing it was the proper response.No one knew the true nature of her relationship with Kellen and sheplanned to keep it that way. As much as possible, she kept herconversations at work general. Mentioning the anniversary dinnerhad happened by chance, when Debra questioned why she was buyingflowers and candles.
The celebrationhad been part of a failed attempt to kindle a spark between her andKellen. With the creature becoming more and more restless by theday, Cassie was starting to grasp at straws in an effort to placateits needs. Of course, the dinner hadn’t worked; Kellen had seen tothat, but even if he had been receptive, the beast inside her wouldprobably have balked at the last minute.
The animal’sattitude made no sense to Cassie. Throughout their relationship,Kellen had been her protector, her teacher, a big brother figure...Her face softened as she recalled their first year together.
When Kellen hadfound her, he’d immediately taken her under his wing. They’d shareda meal and, discovering she had nowhere to stay, he convinced herto use his apartment as a temporary base. There’d been no pressureon his part; Kellen gave her the bed and slept on the couch. Whenshe’d awoken that first night, screaming in terror, he’d comfortedher, gently encouraging her to tell her sorry tale.
It had been anabridged version—no mention of werewolves, lest he think hercrazy—just that she’d seen her uncle shot, another man killed andnow the murderer was probably after her. He’d wanted to go to thepolice, but she’d cried and begged him not to, until he relented.Kellen, it turned out, had a tenuous relationship with theauthorities himself, so he wasn’t too hard to convince.
Instead, hehelped her start a new life. The next day, she’d emptied her bankaccounts and withdrawn the maximum amount on all her credit cards.Using some of Kellen’s dubious connections, she’d acquired fake IDand established a new identity as Sandy Grant.
In gratitude,she’d paid off his gambling debts and they’d moved to the suburbs.She’d suggested a new city, away from the temptation of gambling,but Kellen had connections in the area and, if the man chasing herever found her, there were people here he could turn to for help.It made sense at the time, so they’d stayed and Kellen had spentthe next year teaching her how to function in the ‘real’ world.
Cassie had beenamazed at how sheltered her upbringing had actually been. Cleaning,doing laundry, cooking, even buying groceries, or using citytransit... Kellen had laughed himself silly over some of hermistakes and she had joined him in it. She smiled thinking of thelaundry incident with suds pouring from the washing machine, andthe time she’d nearly asphyxiated herself by mixing cleaners. Theruined dinners Kellen had bravely tried to eat...
Kellen said itwas like the story Pygmalion only in reverse; bringing her down tothe common level, rather than elevating her to the status ofrefined lady. His Professor Higgins accent had beenhilarious...
“Earth toSandy! Where’d you go, girl?” Debra’s voice interrupted her reverieand Cassie jerked herself back to the present.
“Sorry, whatdid you say?” She blinked at the other girl, wondering what she’dmissed.
“I said thatfrom the look on your face, your anniversary was more than ‘okay.’Your eyes got all dreamy and—”
The door swungopen and the manager walked in. “Isn’t break-time over, girls?”
Cassie lookedat the clock, gasped, and shoved her shoes back on. Jumping to herfeet, she started to apologize. “Sorry, Mr. Bartlett. We weretalking...”
“Don’t worry.You’re a hard worker. I can cut you some slack. Unlike other peoplewho work here.” He looked meaningfully at Debra who just laughed.Shaking his head, he put out a hand to stop Cassie from leaving theroom. “Before you go back to work, I wanted to talk to you aboutsomething.” Mr. Bartlett paused and stared meaningfully at Debrawho sighed and got up.
“I know. Iknow. I’ll leave the room. Geez, you’d think I was a big gossip orsomething.” Debra grumbled. Gulping down the rest of her iced tea,she dropped the can in the recycling bin then left the room. As thedoor shut behind her, Mr. Bartlett turned to Cassie and stroked hisgreying beard.
“I hate to askyou this, but... Is Kellen gambling again?”
A flash of fearshot down her spine and around into her gut as she wondered whatkind of a mess her partner was in now. Mr. Bartlett was aware thatKellen gambled, but had been willing to give him a chance. Cassieclenched her fingers and forced the tightness from her throatbefore speaking. “Umm... Why do you ask?
The manageravoided looking at her for a moment. It appeared he was regrettingstarting the conversation, but then drew a deep breath andcontinued. “Kellen’s been missing work, not showing up for hisshift or arriving late. It isn’t fair to the other employees thathave to do his share of the work. If he keeps it up—”
“I’ll talk tohim tonight.” Cassie interrupted, anxious to prevent the man fromspeaking the dreaded words. Her mind was already racing; if Kellenlost this job, they’d be in big trouble financially. Yes, she had alarge amount tucked away, but that was her emergency fund, in casethe werewolves ever found them and they needed to run...
Mr. Bartlettwas still speaking and she forced herself to focus on his words. “Aman’s also been around, asking about you.”
“Me?” Shesqueaked in surprise.
“Uh-huh. Thefellow wanted to know your name and where you lived, but of coursewe didn’t say anything. He showed up about a week ago and the otheremployees have noticed him hanging around the store. He tries toact like he’s shopping, but mostly he watches for you. MaryAnnasked him his name, but he wouldn’t say. Just paid for his thingsand left.”
Cassie shiveredand wrapped her arms around herself at the thought of someoneactually stalking her; watching her as she worked. Who was this manand why was he interested in her? A horrid thought popped into hermind. What if it was the werewolf? The memory of the huge blackbeast with its snarling bloody teeth, made her feel faint and shegrasped the back of a nearby chair to steady herself. Surely itcouldn’t be. Not, after all these years...
“I just thoughtI should warn you, in case Kellen’s in debt and someone is thinkingof using you as leverage.”
That statementgrabbed her attention and swung her thoughts in an entirelydifferent direction. Maybe it wasn’t the werewolf like she feared,but something to do with Kellen’s gambling. Cassie gulped. Talkabout out of the frying pan and into the fire!
Fear continuedto writhe in her belly as she contemplated this new scenario.Pressing her hands to her stomach she swallowed hoping to keep herlunch in its current resting place. She’d heard about loan sharksand what they would do if you didn’t pay up. Her skin prickled atthe very idea. Oh God, who did Kellen owe money to and what wouldthey do to her or him, if he didn’t pay?
This had neverhappened before, at least not since the first time she’d paid offhis debts, but that had been when they’d initially got together.Since then, Kellen kept his gambling associates away from her, onlytaking her with him a few times in the early days and it had neverbeen to anything high stake. He’d assured her he was done withgambling except for occasional small games at a friend’s home andthat he never mentioned her around the gaming tables, knowing shewasn’t comfortable with it. Apparently that was no longer the caseor someone had followed him and made the connection...
“Listen Sandy,I’m sorry to have upset you. Would you like to go home? I can getsomeone to cover the rest of your shift...?” The older man lookedat her kindly, his bushy grey brows lowered in concern. A wave ofgratitude washed over her. Mr. Bartlett was so nice to her, hiringher when she’d had no skills and then with only her recommendation,taking on Kellen.
She forced afaint smile. “No, I’ll stay.” Sitting at home, she’d just worry allthe more. It was better to keep busy. Besides, if she saw Kellenright now, she might be tempted to kill him! Squaring hershoulders, she tried to look unconcerned. “It might be nothing, butI’ll talk to Kellen tonight about missing work and see what’s goingon.”
The managergave her shoulder a friendly squeeze before opening the door. Asshe stepped back into the store, Cassie mentally berated Kellen.What the hell had he done now?
“Anything elseto report, Swanson?” Leon Aldrich rasped out the words to thesecurity guard that stood before him.
“I’ve changedthe access codes for the elevator and notified authorizedpersonnel. The surveillance cameras have also been repositionednear the parking garage, and I’ve completed the weekly report.”Swanson set the folder on Aldrich’s desk and then folded his handsbehind his back.
Picking up thereport, Aldrich quickly flipped through it before setting it asidefor closer scrutiny later on. He nodded in approval at Swanson’sstance; shoulders back, eyes straight ahead, quietly awaitinginstructions. The man was built like a tank—sturdy, all muscle, noneck—and with his military buzz cut and blank expression, he wasintimidating as hell. Perfect for the job.
Swanson wasformer military. His record while in the service was less thanpristine, but the man was effective. He also wasn’t above turning ablind eye to certain activities if the price was right. Aldrichcould appreciate that in a man; it was a quality he himselfpossessed and had used to his advantage throughout his life.
As a matter offact, it’d got him where he was today. As executor of the Greysonestate and the respected lawyer of the late Anthony Greyson, he hadpower and wealth; those two combined to open doors that led to theexalted realms of the socially elite. He’d learned that fromAnthony Greyson. True, society’s blue bloods might not approvetotally, but they didn’t want him as an enemy so they fawned andsimpered while turning a deaf ear to any of his less ‘sociallyacceptable’ dealings.
Swanson wasstill waiting patiently and Aldrich smiled inwardly while keepinghis face blank. It wouldn’t do to let Swanson know of his approval.Employees functioned most effectively when they weren’t completelysure of the employer’s opinion of their work. An edge ofuncertainty kept them on their toes. Greyson had taught him that aswell.
Quirking aneyebrow, he questioned Swanson, keeping his tone neutral. “And theissue with the neighbouring buildings?”
“We tested yourtheory about the surrounding rooftops and the chance of atelescopic rifle being used. The correct angle would be difficult,but it is possible. I recommend heavy blinds be installed and keptdrawn on all the windows facing to the north and east. Those on thesouth and west sides are safe since none of the buildings are tallenough to give a good shot.”
“Very well.Tell Ms. Matthews what's required and she will order it.”
“And what aboutMrs. Robinson, my latest nurse?”
“I’ve run asecurity and background check on her again, once a week as yourequested. It’s still clean. She’s exactly what she claims to be; aprivate nurse, widowed for ten years.”
Aldrich noddedpleased to learn that the woman who cared for him was astrustworthy as his gut was telling him she was. His instincts wereseldom wrong about people. “Excellent. She’s very good at her joband seems content to simply carry out her duties, unlike some ofthe other nurses I’ve employed.”
“Very true,sir.” Swanson kept his face expressionless. “You did seem to have astring of bad luck with the previous women.”
Rubbing hischin, Aldrich thought of the previous nurses he’d hired; annoying,lazy, money-hungry... None had lasted very long. It was nice toknow that finally there was someone suitable filling the position.Sylvia Robinson was a godsend in his opinion; almost too good to betrue. He allowed a faint smile to curve on his lips as heconsidered her before refocussing on the tasks at hand.
“Now, whatabout your report on Ms. Matthews? You indicated she had stopped ata house three weeks ago after leaving the Greyson Estate. Did youfind out who owns the home?”
“It belongs toAlbert Winters. He’s an antique dealer of some renown, though hismethods of acquisition have come under scrutiny at times. However,nothing has ever been proven against him; just rumours in certaincircles.”
“Indeed.”Aldrich made a moue, then nodded slowly. “Thank you, Swanson. I’llconsider this information and then let you know how I want you toproceed. Dismissed.”
Once the manleft the room, Aldrich leaned back in his chair, closing his eyes.The effort required to project his voice and regulate his breathingmade conversation tiring. He reached up, touching his throat wherethe tracheotomy tube was situated and adjusted the silk scarf heused to cover the opening.
Damnedwerewolf! He curled his fingers into a fist. The beast had nearlykilled him, but Leon Aldrich was a survivor. Despite having histhroat crushed and his vocal chords mangled, he was still around.True, he struggled when talking and needed a trach tube to breath,but it was better than being in a coffin.
Even afterthree years, he could still remember the feel of the wolf’s pawshitting him full force in the chest, knocking him to the ground.For a brief second, he’d locked eyes with the beast, sensing itsmurderous hate. Then, as if in slow motion, he’d reached up andgrabbed at its neck, trying to push it away. His efforts had beenfutile. The wolf had possessed unbelievable strength. Its breathhad been hot against his skin just before pain erupted as thecreature sank its teeth into his flesh, snarling and ripping...
Aldrich sat upstraight, shuddering at the memories that still haunted him.Running a shaking hand over his face, he forced himself to calmdown. He was safe in his self-made fortress. The guards he hadhired did an excellent job protecting him against any threat...Well, anyhumanthreat.
Life would besimpler if he could just inform them to be on the lookout forwerewolf assassins, but of course that wasn’t possible. Should heever reveal what he was truly afraid of, he’d be locked up in aninsane asylum so fast his head would spin. No one really believedin werewolves. Well, no one except himself and the late AnthonyGreyson.
Just beforeGreyson’s accidental death, the man had revealed an obsession forfinding a werewolf pack. Now, a lawyer of his repute would normallyhave scoffed at the old man’s preposterous idea if it wasn’t forone simple fact. He, Leon Aldrich, had observed a young woman namedMelody Greene actually turn into a wolf just hours before.
So yes,heknew werewolves existed, but he had no proof tosubstantiate his claim; the one picture that might have added someveracity to his story had mysteriously disappeared, much to hisire. Therefore, keeping his own counsel was the best course at thispoint in time. That wasn’t to say he was willing to forget thewhole incident. In fact, he was actively conducting research on thesupposedly mythical creatures; a thorough knowledge of an opponentalways made for the best defence.
That the wolveswould attack again, he had no doubt. Greyson had been babblingabout some werewolf law called the Keeping just before he died.Since then, carefully sifting fact from fiction had revealed such alaw did exist and called for the elimination of any human whodiscovered the truth. With this in mind, Aldrich took everyprecaution to keep the beasts at bay. If he now had to live thelife of a recluse, so be it. One day he would triumph over them; hehad plans in place.
A flashinglight caught his eye; he’d had all calls held while he talked toSwanson. Activating his voice mail, he picked up a pen inpreparation for taking any salient notes.
“Hey, Aldrich!This is Nate Graham.”
Aldrichgrimaced when he heard the voice, despising the casual manner inwhich the man addressed him, but willing to overlook the fact,since the fellow did seem to be making some progress instraightening out the mess in Nevada. Narrowing his eyes, helistened to what the man had to say.
Once the basicinformation had been delivered, Nate began his usual whining formore money. “I’ll get back to you in a few days and let you knowhow the situation develops. If you want me to keep working outhere, then you need to finance it. I’m not sitting on a pile ofmoney like you are. Talk to you later, Aldie.”
“Talk to youlater, Aldie—indeed!” Aldrich shuddered at over-familiarity of thephrase, but made a notation to have Ms. Matthews take care of thefinancial matter. He’d known Nate back when they were both stilllittle better than street rats. He’d risen above his lowlybeginnings, but Nate continued to swim in the sewer. Ah well, ittook contacts in all kinds of places to keep things runningsmoothly and Nate was good at leg work.
Turning hischair, he accessed his computer and pulled up the Nevada file; aleftover business venture from his early days. Several times, he’dconsidered letting the business go as it no longer suited hispresent image, but some quixotic bit of nostalgia had him hangingon to it. After all, Dollar Niche had been operating successfullyup until Greyson’s death and his own hospitalization.Unfortunately, about that time, he’d let things slide, thinking thecompany was in competent hands. He’d been wrong. A steady drop inthe profit margin had come to light during the last audit and Natewas investigating the source of the problem. Aldrich had hissuspicions, but knew better than to act without cold hardfacts.
He closed theNevada file and turned to the electronic chess game he was playing.Steepling his fingers, he narrowed his eyes and played out thepossible moves and countermoves he could take. He curled his lip ashe sent out a pawn, knowing he was sacrificing it to save a moreimportant piece.
Life was ratherlike a large chess game, he reflected, only the stakes were alittle higher. In real life, the pawns were people rather thanplaying pieces, but they served the same purpose; eventually beingforfeited in order to gain the main prize. And he would gain themain prize, no matter how many ‘pawns’ he had to sacrifice.
Stump River,Ontario, Canada...
Bryan sat inthe pack house office completely unaware of the bright sunshinethat streamed in through the window heralding the start of spring.Nor was he aware of the piles of paper work stacked on the side ofhis desk, the half eaten sandwich and now cold cup of coffee.Instead, he was transfixed by the e-mail displayed before him onhis computer screen. A mixture of excitement and disbelief washedover him as he finished scanning the text.
“Hey Ryne! Comelook at this!” Bryan called over his shoulder, knowing the Alphawas in the house somewhere.
A minute later,Ryne strolled into the room with Mel, his arm wrapped possessivelyaround her slightly thickened waist. He was nuzzling her neck.“What’s up?”
Bryan looked atthe two of them; watching as Ryne nipped Mel’s neck and she made anappreciative noise in her throat.
“Er...did Iinterrupt something?”
“Not yet.” Melgrinned and ran her fingers through Ryne thick black hair, thentrailed them down his chest towards his belt buckle.
The Alphagrowled and clamped his hand over hers. “Behave.”
Tugging at herhand, Mel tried unsuccessfully to free it. “I can’t help myself;raging hormones, you know. Besides, it’s your own fault for gettingme pregnant.”
“It had betterbe my fault.” Ryne rubbed the slight swell of her belly. “If I everfound out you’d—”
“Me? You’re theone who had women draped all over him when we went to that show inToronto a few weeks ago!”
“What can Isay? I’m a chick magnet.” Ryne waggled his eyebrows andsmirked.
“A chickmagnet? More like a bit conceited.” Mel finally freed her hand andstepped away, looking at him with narrowed eyes.
“Hey! I’m justaware of my strong points and as Alpha—”
Mel rolled hereyes. “Oh, right. How could I forget that whole ‘you’re my supremeleader’ bit?”
Ryne pulled hercloser and patted her on the head, then spoke in a condescendingtone. “That’s all right, Melody. From what I’ve heard, becomingforgetful is all part of making baby-brains.”
Bryan groanedinwardly sensing another one of their infamous arguments. The tworeally loved each other, but sometimes...
“So what’s up?”Ryne quirked an eyebrow at him as Mel sputtered at his side, nodoubt trying to think of a suitable retort.
“It’s aboutthis e-mail that just came in. I might have some information onCassandra Greyson.”
“Really?” Mellooked at him with interest, apparently forgetting her spat withher mate. Then just as suddenly, she winced.
Ever vigilantwhere his mate was concerned, Ryne immediately looked concerned.“Are you okay, Melody?”
“I’m fine. Thebaby just kicked, I think.” She blushed slightly and then beganbacking closer to the door. “I…I think I need to go to thebathroom.” With that she turned and scurried away.
Ryne watchedher, shaking his head. “Pregnant women seem to live in thebathroom, and she gets upset about the strangest things.” Hefrowned as if trying to fathom the problem, then shrugged andturned back to Bryan. “So what did you discover about the Greysongirl?”
Bryan gesturedto the computer screen. “Look at this. A werewolf named RobertWalker was on vacation in Vegas and thinks he’s found CassandraGreyson. He wasn’t able to get any information on her, but he didtake a picture using his cell phone. Does this look like her?”
Ryne leanedover, bracing his arm on the desk to examine the photo displayed onthe computer screen. It was grainy, but... “Hey, I think that’sher! Zoom in a bit... Uh-huh... Uh-huh...” A slow smile spread overhis face. “Yeah. I only saw her for a moment, but it looks like thesame girl.” Straightening, he shook his head in obvious amazement.“If it is her, we’re damned lucky. After all this time, and onlyhaving a description to post rather than an actual picture, it’samazing anyone made the connection.” He paused and rubbed his neck.“This was taken in Las Vegas you said?”
“Yep; in agrocery store of all places.”
“Hmm... Thatcould work to our advantage.” Crossing the room, Ryne rifledthrough some papers on a shelf, then pulled out a map and spread itout on his desk. Bryan followed, leaning his hip casually againstthe corner of the desk as he stared at a map of North America. Itshowed all the packs and their respective territories.
Tapping the mapwith his finger, Ryne indicated the area in question. “There areother packs in the area, but as you can see, Las Vegas isconsidered neutral territory. Being a major tourist destination, itwould be too difficult to constantly have wolves reporting in andsigning out. If Cassandra is there, it will be a lot easier for youto bring her home; no Alphas making you wait while they contact mefor confirmation and no paperwork to be processed, either.”
“And we allknow how efficient you are when it comes to paperwork.” Bryanquipped, trying to keep a straight face.
“I get the workdone...eventually.” Ryne scowled at him before relenting underBryan’s steady gaze. He gave a self-deprecating laugh. Everyoneknew his strength was in leading, not administrative paper-pushing.“Anyway, paperwork aside; it was a clever place for her to hide.With visiting wolves leaving their scent everywhere, no one wouldpay any attention to one more being in the area.”
“When I wentthere to check out the ATM security footage three years ago, Ithought I searched everywhere, but I never checked the suburbs orthe grocery stores. I never pictured a rich girl choosing that asher hideout.” Bryan chuckled softly. “If this guy hadn’t becomelost while sightseeing and his mate hadn’t made him stop to ask fordirections, we’d probably never have found her.”
Ryne sat down,folded his arms behind his head and propped his feet on the desk.“It’s probably one for the record books; an heiress worth millionsof dollars working as a grocery store clerk.” He paused and quirkedone eyebrow. “You know what this means, of course.”
Bryan couldfeel his wolf rising inside him, anticipation surging as the beaststrained to be set free. He couldn’t totally suppress the grin thatthreatened to spread across his face. “I get to go hunting?”
“Uh-huh. Findthe girl in the picture, determine if she really is CassandraGreyson, and if it is her bring her back here. Once we’re sure ofour facts, I’ll get on the internet and contact the Lycan Linknetwork. They’ll make arrangements to slip her through Customs.” Hegave a satisfied sigh. “It will be good to get this wrapped upbefore the pup is born. Rogue werewolves can be dangerous. Youshould have her in line by then.”
“She’s notexactly a rogue.” Bryan felt the need to qualify his Alpha’sstatement. Rogues were loners with no packs, out for themselves andpossessing no sense of duty towards the well-being of others oftheir kind. Some even teetered on the border of sanity, having nopack to keep them grounded. They could be unpredictable and oftenbecame a menace to those around them. Originally, that’s how he hadviewed the Greyson girl, but the longer he’d searched for her, themore his opinion had softened. He frowned inwardly, not sure whythat was.
Ryne frownedand began to enumerate the facts. “Cassandra Greyson might not be arogue yet, but I’m sure it’s just pure luck. From what we’ve beenable to determine, she was raised human. What does she know ourways? What type of control does she have over her wolf? You know aswell as I do she’s a recipe for disaster. The girl is like a timebomb waiting to explode. And, since we’re the ones who discoveredher, she’s our responsibility. The Finding clause is quite specificon that. It’s definitely a case of ‘finder’s keepers,’ whether youwant to or not.”
Bryan nodded.He’d studied that particular part of the law several times over thepast few years, knowing he would eventually be responsible fordealing with the young, untutored wolf. If a pack found a rogue ora lone wolf, it was their duty to deal with them in whatever waywas deemed most appropriate; integration, relocation or, at worst,eliminating those who refused to comply.
Usually, when awolf wandered into a pack’s territory, the newcomer automaticallyfell under that pack’s jurisdiction, but Cassandra Greyson was aspecial case. They’d found her in the Chicago pack’s district andit could have been a dicey situation since Ryne hadn’t exactlyasked permission of the local Alpha. Thankfully, the elderly Alphaof the other pack had been cooperative and willing to abide by theFinding, not wanting to deal with the problem himself. It had beendecided that the Greyson girl, if ever located, would come to livewith Ryne’s pack.
Bryan looked atthe map and eyed the distance between Las Vegas and Stump Riverwith trepidation. It was a long way to travel with an uncooperativeLycan and something was telling him, she wasn’t going to be happyto see him. He scrunched up his face and asked doubtfully, “If itis her, do you think there’s any chance, she’ll agree to come alongquietly?”
Ryne snorted.“She’s a female, what do you think? Do they ever do anything theeasy way?”
“I heard that!”Mel’s voice drifted into the room. It had a teasing quality to itand a gleam of interest sparkled in Ryne’s eye.
Standing, theAlpha stretched. “I think it’s time for a chat with my mate.” Hefolded the map they’d been look at and casually tossed it at Bryan,grinning. “Another thing about pregnant women; their libido goesway up.”
Bryan rolledhis eyes, but chuckled none the less. “I’ll start to makearrangements to head to Vegas.”
“Do whateveryou need to do. I’m putting you in charge of checking the girl out,and if it is Greyson, bringing her home.” Ryne started to leave,then paused and tossed out one more comment. “Oh, and Bryan? Fromwhat I recall, the girl’s quite a looker. Remember it’s businessbefore pleasure.”
Bryan snorted,then listened to the retreating sound of his Alpha’s footsteps.Wandering back to the computer, he stared at the grainy photograph.Yep, even in a sub-quality picture, her beauty couldn’t be denied.He reached out, and traced the curve of the girl’s face with hisfinger. “Hello, Cassandra Greyson. You and I are about to becomevery good friends.”
The nextmorning, Bryan ambled down the stairs from his suite of rooms inthe Alpha house, eyes only half open and rubbing his bare chest.The carpeted stairs were soft beneath his bare feet and he trailedone hand down the polished wooden railing idly noting it was a farcry from the rickety structure that had been there when they’dfirst walked into the house almost four years ago. The whole placehad been falling down around their ears, but Ryne hadn’t caredbeing more interested in the land that went with it, than thebuilding itself.
Still, they’dneeded suitable housing and over time the rambling monstrosity hadbeen refurbished. There were still two wings that needed work, butthe main living areas were habitable and provided enough room forall the pack members.
In a way, Bryanwished there was a big construction project underway at the moment.Wielding a hammer or tearing down walls would have gone a long wayin helping to work off some of the frustration in his body rightnow.
As it was, he’dhave to settle for coffee and paperwork to help shake the unsettledfeeling that had been with him ever since he awoke. It had nothingto do with the fact he was leaving for Las Vegas in just a fewhours to capture the elusive Cassandra Greyson. No, that would betoo sensible a reason. Instead, he was off kilter because of adream, the same damned dream that had plagued him at least once amonth for the last three years. It was a recurring scenarioinvolving him chasing a female wolf through the woods.
She waschocolate brown with green eyes, petite yet fast as the wind. Eachtime he had to strain the limits of his endurance in order to catchher, but a part of him knew she would prove to be well worth theeffort. He’d raced after her, inhaling her scent and quivering withthe need to possess, to mate. In the end, he always caught her,gripping the ruff of her neck and forcing her to submit. The urgeto claim her was strong; he’d nipped and licked her fur, rubbingagainst her to ensure his scent was on her and then they would bothshift to human form.
Last night hadbeen more vivid than usual. There in the forest, on a patch of softgreen moss, he’d made slow, exquisite love to her. Kissing hersoftly, trailing his lips down her golden body, inhaling her uniquescent, tasting her... Her moans of delight filled his ears and shecaressed him as he worshipped her. Gently, she’d teased his skinuntil every nerve ending was alert, until his body was aching witharousal. Then—his breath caught at the memory alone—she’d taken himin her hands and stroked his turgid flesh.
He’d almostcome undone then. His body trembled with the need to possess her,to feel her hot wet warmth squeezing him, yet he’d forced himselfto hold back. He had to see her face first; to know who thiselusive goddess was that teased him with promises of pleasurebeyond telling.
Kneelingbetween her knees, he worked his way up her body, taking in hercurved hips and slim waist. For a moment his eyes hesitated at herlush breasts with their dusky tips begging for his attention... Shereached out and took his hand, guiding it up to her face. Hertongue darted out and licked at his palm, before drawing his thumbinto her mouth. He dragged his gaze upward, but, just as his eyesreached her chin, her image dissolved and he was left staring atthe mossy green forest floor.
Bryan growledat the memory. Just like always, when things were gettinginteresting the dream would end leaving him aching with desire.He’d awoken more unsatisfied than ever and burning with the need tosearch out the mystery female. It was ridiculous. She didn’t evenexist, but his inner wolf wasn’t receptive to that line of thinkingand demanded action on his part.
He reached thebottom of the stairs and gave his pyjama pants a hitch from wherethey were sagging on his lean hips and turned down the shorthallway that led to the kitchen. That room too had been redone andsported gleaming hardwood, marble counters and stainless steelappliances.
“Bryan?” Marcocalled his name from the kitchen and Bryan bit back a snarl. Hedidn’t want to talk to the friendly Spaniard today. His wolf wasrestless and on edge, looking for a reason to snap at someone.
Forcing himselfto be calm, he entered the kitchen with what he hoped was a politeexpression and leaned on the counter, arms folded across his chest.“What can I do for you Marco?”
“I just wantedto tell you that Levi and I switched shifts. Levi is doing patrolstoday so I can take Olivia out for her birthday.”
“That’s finewith me. Give Olivia my best.” Levi was new to the pack, butreliable. Bryan nodded curtly and started to turn away, intent ongrabbing a coffee and leaving, when a thought occurred to him. He’dnever shared his dream with anyone. He was a Beta for heaven sake;foolish dreams weren’t part of his image. Still... Marco was asensible sort and somewhat of an expert on werewolf phenomena.Bryan frowned and poured himself a cup of the dark brew andconsidered his next step. It couldn’t hurt to ask, could it? Hesipped the coffee and walked over to the table, sitting down acrossfrom where Marco was reading the newspaper.
“Can I ask yousomething?” He cradled the warm cup in his hand, staring at thedark liquid rather than the other man.
“What’s on yourmind?”
Bryan heardMarco fold the paper. He looked up, meeting the man’s gaze thenlooked away, already regretting his decision to talk about hisdream. However... Taking a deep breath he began. “I’ve...er...beenhaving this dream over and over again and...” He rubbed his necknot sure how to continue, then glanced up sheepishly.
“Ah! And youwonder what it might mean?” Marco’s eyes twinkled with amusement.“Let me guess. It’s about a female.”
Feeling hischeeks start to flush, Bryan forced down his embarrassment. “Yeah.Always the same one. I chase her, catch her and then...” He let hisvoice trail off. Clearing his throat, he started again. “The nextday, I feel...half there... As if a part of me is missing.”
“Hmm...” Marcosettled back in his chair. “Have you heard about the concept ofpredestined mates? Or how for some the inner wolf already knows itssoul mate in some other dimension?”
“I’ve heard ofit, but figured it’s just a bunch of crap. Sure some wolves meetand click right away, but that’s random chance. Most just meet andgradually fall in love. Anything else is folklore left over fromthe old days when the ‘magick’ of werewolves was still pure.”
“To some extentyou are right, but there are few ‘blue-blooded’ werewolves left whopossess this ability. For most of us, the ‘magick’ has been dilutedthrough careless breeding, not that it really matters. We arecontent to have increased sensory acuity, strength and, of course,the ability to shift into a clothed state. Naturally, those ofmixed parentage can seldom magick their clothes back on, but thatis another matter all together.”
Bryan chuckled.“Poor souls have to keep a stash of clothes around somewhere orrisk being arrested for public nudity. Mel’s always griping abouthow unfair it is that she’s only half and ends up nude after a run,scrambling to get dressed in the bushes while the rest of us simply‘think’ the word clothes and we’re ready.”
Marco smiledsoftly, sharing his amusement. “In the ancient days, they say thata wolf could mentally find and connect with a mate years beforethey physically met or blood bonded. In addition, they could appearand disappear at will, move objects with their minds...” Heshrugged. “A fascinating array of rather unusual skills existed. Itis rumoured that some royal families in Europe still practiseselective breeding in an effort to preserve these abilities, thoughit’s all kept hush-hush.”
“So, you’resaying that maybe my perfect mate is some blue-blooded werewolf whoseeks me out in her dreams?” Bryan screwed up his face, trying towrap his brain around the concept.
“Perhaps. Ormaybe you just have a very strange, very vivid fantasy life.” Hestood and slapped Bryan on the back. “Either way, there is nothingyou can do about it. If your mate is out there, you will find eachother eventually. In the meantime, enjoy the dreams.”
“Yeah, right.”Bryan muttered under his breath as Marco left the room. He’d had araging hard-on when he awoke, just like he did each time he had thedream. There was no relief to be had with the nebulous female.
He took a sipof coffee, and grimaced. Damn. It was cold, and with Mel on ano-caffeine diet, Ryne was only allowing them to make one pot aday, fearing Mel would go off the wagon. Well, there was no wastingof coffee around this house. Using the microwave, he reheated itand headed for the office, intent on getting some work done beforeit was time to leave. Income tax season was almost upon them andRyne had no skill when it came to numbers.
As heapproached the office, he noticed the door was open and winced.Hopefully Ryne hadn’t taken it into his head to try to deal withthe accounts. He recalled the mess his Alpha had made last time hetried to help and shuddered. Pushing the door open, he was ready tochastise Ryne when he noticed that it was Mel in the office, nother mate. She was hunched over the computer and seemed to befrowning at whatever was on the screen.
Thinking shewas writing an article for the local newspaper where she worked, hehad just stepped back, deciding to leave her alone, when she gave alittle cry.
“No! Dammit,no!” She hit the desk top. “I don’t believe it!” Her voice soundeddistressed; not just the usual frustration she showed when anarticle wouldn’t flow properly. There was actual anguish in hervoice. “This can’t be happening! Not now...”
Concerned, heturned back. Was something wrong with the baby? No... She wasn’tclutching her belly, but she was definitely troubled. Hisprotective instincts came to the fore and he stepped into theroom.
Her hand flewto the computer mouse and she quickly closed whatever program she’dbeen working on. His senses immediately went on alert. What was shehiding?
“Oh! Hi, Bryan.What are you doing here?” Her face bore a fake smile, but he couldstill see the little lines of worry around her eyes, hear thestrain in her voice.
“I was justgoing to work on the books.” He knew she was trying to avoid hisquestion, but the Beta in him wasn’t allowing that. “I asked you aquestion. What’s wrong?”
“Nothing...”She pushed her hair back from her face and he noted the slighttremor of her hands.
Bryan steppedcloser, his gaze steady and she lowered her eyes. If she wasn’t theAlpha’s mate, he’d force a response from her. As Beta, it was hisjob to protect the pack and he couldn’t do that if he didn’t knowwhat the problems were. But since she was the Alpha female, he tooka gentler approach.
Sittingcasually on the edge of the desk, one leg swinging freely, hestudied her for a moment sipping his coffee before speaking. “Youlook upset. Are you sure you don’t want to tell me? I’m a goodlistener.”
“I’m fine.” Sheshrugged, still not looking at him. “It’s just something I wasresearching about...ah...childbirth. It sounds painful.”
He was sure shewas lying, but didn’t want to overstep his bounds. The Alpha femaletechnically outranked him, but Mel had never really acted on thatfact...if she was even aware of it. He made a mental note to askRyne how much she knew about werewolf hierarchy and history. Rynehad a bad habit of neglecting to share certain bits ofinformation.
For a fewmoments he didn’t speak—silence was a great way of forcing peopleto talk—but she didn’t fall for his gambit, instead she played witha loose thread on her shirt. He exhaled slowly and decided ifsomething was really wrong, she’d tell Ryne. Standing up, he letthe matter drop. “All right, I’ll let it go this time, but rememberif you ever need anything, just ask. As Beta, that’s my job.”
Mel smiled upat him, then stood. Pressing a light kiss to his cheek, she laidher hand on his arm. “Thanks, Bryan. I’ll keep that in mind.” Shepaused and looked down at the floor before glancing up at himagain. “Um...you don’t need to tell Ryne about this, okay? He’salready worked up enough about impending fatherhood.” She gave whatsounded like a nervous laugh and looked at him entreatingly. Herbig brown eyes framed by incredibly long lashes still had theability to make his heart thump a little faster and he could feelthe warmth of her hand pressed against his arm.
At one point intime, Bryan had half fancied her for himself, but once Ryne madehis interest in Mel known, he’d backed off. As a matter of fact,falling for the wrong woman seemed to be the story of his life, hethought ruefully. First it was Elise, but she ended up with Kane.Then Mel with Ryne. He cleared his throat.
“I won’tmention it to Ryne...for now. But if I thought something wasseriously wrong—”
“I know,” sheinterrupted. “You’d have to do your duty. Trust me, nothing isseriously wrong.” Mel patted his arm again and stepped away. “I’llleave and let you get to work.”
He sighed as hewatched her walk out of the room and then moved to the desk and thestack of paper work that awaited his attention.
Las Vegas,Nevada, USA...
Kellen lookedaround the house one last time, pleased with his efforts.Everything was spotless; papers put away, floors swept, furnituredusted, pillows plumped, he’d even lit one of those scented candlesshe liked so much. Dinner was staying warm in the oven and he haddessert in the fridge. He rubbed his hands together in gleefulexpectation. Sandy was due home any minute and he couldn’t wait tosee her reaction when she walked in.
Checking theclock, he positioned himself near the window so he could watch forher. The bus should be letting her off about now, then a quick walkfrom the corner to their place... Yep, there she was.
He frowned asshe came closer. She looked a bit out of sorts... His stomach gavea slight nervous quiver; maybe her mood had worsened from thismorning as she contemplated his sins. Kellen took a deep breath andexhaled slowly, flicking a glance over his shoulder at thewelcoming ambiance of the room. All the work he’d done around thehouse should fix that, shouldn’t it?
Stepping awayfrom the window, he positioned himself just inside the door. Hispalms suddenly felt damp and he rubbed them against the legs of hisjeans. He hated it when they argued or when she was mad at him; notthat she ever really yelled, but the hurt in her eyes was hard tohandle. Hopefully he could cajole her into a better mood...
The door swungopen and Sandy entered, head down as she bent and set her purse onthe floor, then turned slightly to slide the deadbolt intoplace.
“Hi.” Kellenspoke softly as he slipped up behind her and snaked his arms aroundher waist to give her a hug.
“Oh!” Sandygave a start, then looked at him over her shoulder, her eyes filledwith suspicion. “What’s this all about?”
“Nothing. Ijust wanted to give my girly a friendly greeting at the door.”
She gave him afunny look and then twisted to break free of his grasp. He took herby the shoulders and turned her so she was looking into the room.“What do you think?” Kellen couldn’t keep the pride out of hisvoice.
“Um... It looksnice.” She shoved her hands in her pockets, sounding less impressedthan he’d hoped. “You cleaned, right?”
“Yep. Madedinneranddessert. He ducked his head a bit so he could seeher expression better. For a minute she just looked at him and hefelt the smile slipping from his face. Had he forgotten something?His mind raced. Cleaning, dinner, dessert... Ah-ha! He knew whatthe problem was! “I...uh...cleaned the bathroom, too. Even thetoilet.”
For a heartbeatthere was silence then Sandy gave a snort of laughter, closing hereyes, and shaking her head. Opening them again, she looked at himand he was relieved to see the familiar fondness in her eyes. “Oh,Kellen. That was sweet of you. I’ve never gotten the hang ofactuallylikingcleaning the bathroom.”
He flicked afinger over the end of her nose. “No one does and, since apparentlyyou never had to do that sort of stuff growing up, I understand whyit grosses you out.”
She raised herbrows, a teasing note creeping into her voice. “Then why do youusually leave it for me?”
Pleased thatshe was getting into the spirit of the evening, he adopted asuperior tone. “Practise, my dear. Practise. I’m way ahead of youin experience when it comes to cleaning, so that’s why I usuallyleave it for you. I want you to get caught up to me.”
“Kellen, Ithink after almost three years of cleaning up after you, myexperience is on a par with yours.”
“Well,technically the first year we were together doesn’t count, since Ihad to show you how to do most of the stuff.”
Sandy rolledher eyes at him and stepped further into the room. “Mmm... What’sthat I smell?”
“Chickenstir-fry. It’s in the oven keeping warm. You go change and I’ll putthe food on the table.”
“All right.”She hesitated and then leaned up to kiss him on the cheek. “Thanksfor the surprise.”
He shrugged.“It’s the least I could do after messing up last night.”
“Yeah...” Sandygrew silent for a moment, almost pensive, but then smiled again,though it wasn’t as bright as before. “We’ll talk about it later.Right now, I’m starving. I’ll change my clothes and be rightout.”
Kellen watchedas she walked down the hall towards the bedrooms. He shoved hishands in his pockets and rocked back and forth on his heels. All inall that had gone well, he thought. For a few minutes they’d evenbeen joking back and forth like they used to do. God, but he missedthat. They used to have so much fun. Now...well... He lowered hiseyes to the floor and sighed. Like Sandy said, they could alwaystalk about it later. Right now things were good between them againand he didn’t want to spoil the mood.
Sandy stood infront of her bedroom mirror, combing her hair before pulling itback into a ponytail. She could hear Kellen working in the kitchen.It was obvious what he was up to; trying to ease back into her goodgraces after totally screwing up last night. She should be angrywith him, especially after what Mr. Bartlett had told her.
But then, he’dcalled her ‘girly’—a silly word he’d used when they first met. Itwas his term of endearment for her and it always found a soft spotin her heart. And he’d even cleaned the toilet! She gave an amusedsigh and shook her head, thinking of how much fun it had been tojoke with him a few minutes ago. They didn’t do that often enoughanymore. Perhaps now wasn’t the time to mention what she’d learnedat work. The matter could wait an hour until dinner was over.Ruining the mood right now wouldn’t serve any purpose other than towaste a perfectly good meal.
“Sandy? Are youalmost ready? Food’s on the table!” Kellen’s voice drifted down thehall.
“Just a minute!Don’t start without me!” She called back while setting down thecomb and hurriedly pulled on a clean top and sweat pants beforemaking her way to the kitchen.
Kellen reallywas a nice guy. Generous to a fault, funny, always looking for thepositive. He was even willing to admit when he made amistake...eventually. Sometimes his conscience was a bit slow, buthe usually came around, just like tonight; making amends bycleaning and cooking.
Yep, they’dhave a nice normal evening together and then they’d talk
By the timedinner was over, a faint hope stirred in her again. Everything wasgoing so well. The creature inside her had been silent for achange; the restlessness blessedly absent. Perhaps, this was allthat was needed; for her and Kellen to spend more time togetherlike a real couple. She hummed happily to herself as she carriedtwo cups of coffee into the living room and set them on the tablein front of the sofa. Kellen was sprawled out and taking up most ofthe seating area. “Dinner was delicious.”
“But of course.I am a chef extraordinaire.” Kellen grinned at her whileflourishing his hand. He shifted slightly as she prodded him withher foot, giving a mock groan of annoyance. Once there was room,she sat beside him. As was his habit, he draped his arm casuallyacross the back of the sofa and began to absentmindedly stroke herpony tail, tugging at the strands, and sliding them through hisfingers. It was a comforting gesture that lulled her into a halftrance-like state.
“I’ve put oneof your chick-flicks in for you, girly.” He commented as he workedthe remote with his other hand.
She smiled atthe term ‘girly.’ It wrapped around her like a soft blanket andmade her feel warm and comfortable. “Good. And remember, no rudecomments allowed.” Cassie cast a fierce look of warning his waybefore picking up her coffee.
“I promise tobehave.” He followed the statement up with a Scouts’ honour sign.Cassie narrowed her eyes, knowing full well he’d never been aScout—it was one of the few tidbits of information she knewconcerning his past. Kellen wasn’t one to share much about hisbackground and that suited her fine. She wasn’t keen on sharing herpast either. There had been some type of falling out with hisfamily, she knew that much and she’d told him her mother was deadand her uncle murdered. It was enough. The past was just that, thepast.
For awhile theywatched the movie in companionable silence. Cassie relaxed thinkinghow nice it was to spend time together again, like a realpack...er...family.
“Here comes themushy stuff.” Kellen whispered teasingly in her ear and she hit himlightly across the stomach. He clenched his belly as if in pain anddoubled over only stopping when she rolled her eyes at him.
“Remember, youpromised to behave.”
He sobered andsat back to watch again, his arms crossed casually behind hishead.
On the screen,the female lead was studying her secret love interest, enumeratingall his good qualities to a friend. Cassie glanced at Kellen out ofthe corner of her eye, trying to see him as the actress on thescreen might. Kellenwasgood looking, no doubt about that.His brown hair was stylishly long and fell appealing over his brow.Laughter sparkled in his blue eyes and often curved his mouth intoa mischievous grin. Good shoulders, a few muscles, trimwaist...
Biting her lip,she sighed and Kellen murmured softly, pulling her closer so hischin rested on top of her head. She inhaled his familiar scent,felt the warmth of his body creeping into hers, and waitedexpectantly for some sign, some stirring of excitement withinher...
Of course, itdidn’t happen. Nothing ever happened. The only thing to occur was alow rumble of discontent from the beast inside her.No. He isn’tfor us.
Cassie curledher fingers into fists, frustrated at the trap she found herselfin. The beast inside was anxious and needy, pushing her to findsomething or someone, but it wouldn’t consider the human she wasliving with. She’d learned that lesson two years ago...
The first timeshe and Kellen had been...intimate...was about a year after theyfirst met. In all the months they’d been together, Kellen had neverpressured her for sex. That he was interested, there was no doubt,but he’d never pushed her.
“You can staywith me as long as you need to,” he’d offered generously that firstday.
She’d enteredhis small apartment warily, not sure if he really was just a niceguy or if he had an ulterior motive. Her uncle might have kept hersheltered, but she’d read enough to know what could happen to younggirls who were alone on the street.
“I won’t sleepwith you.” She made the statement boldly, throwing it out like agauntlet and then watching his reaction carefully.
“Sometimes,it’s polite to wait to be asked.” He’d responded mildly and shefelt her face flush in embarrassment. Kellen has studied her for amoment then put her out of her misery. “Listen, you’re a prettygirl and maybe I will sleep with you one day, but not tonight, notuntil you’re ready.”
When she’dfolded her arms and given him a disbelieving look, he’d floppeddown on the sofa and laughed. “Look, you’re wise to be wary of me.There are a lot of creeps out there, but I’m not one of them. Iknow what it’s like to find yourself on the street with nowhere togo and I made a promise that I’d never let anyone else go throughsomething like that if I could help it.” He gave her a sheepishgrin. “You’re my way of making amends for some of the stuff I’vedone in my life, okay?”
Eventuallyshe’d realized that Kellen was speaking the truth, and as themonths passed he never made any demands on her. Naturally, therehad been hugs and brief caresses, even a few kisses, but he neverexpected more than she was willing to give. It was one of thethings that made her love him; the way he’d gently kiss her as iftesting the waters and then drawback to study her expression. Whenthere’d been no answering passion in her eyes, he’d smile softlyand squeeze her hand or shoulder before moving away.
He was sopatient with her and at times Cassie had despaired of herselfwondering why she didn’t respond. She wanted to; she wanted to givehim something back after all he’d done for her. That probablyexplained why, when a sudden rush of need inexplicably developed inher, she hadn’t questioned the abrupt change too deeply.
It had beennear a full moon, a time she always dreaded for fear the wolfinside her would break through the drug induced cage it was in. Hersupply of ‘migraine’ pills was almost gone and she was trying tomake them last by stretching the interval between each dose.
Looking backnow, and given what she’d learned through her internet research,she knew what had happened—she’d let the medication get too low inher blood stream and her wolf had come to the fore, in fullheat—but at the time that possibility hadn’t occurred to her.Waking from a vague, but incredibly erotic dream involving awell-endowed man, she’d been sweating and restless. Tension hadcoiled low in her belly and an aching need was growing between herlegs.
Unsure as towhat was going on, she’d thrown back the covers and crept down thehall, intent on getting a glass of water. Her skin felt as if itwas crawling and she’d rubbed her hands up and down her arms,trying to ease the sensation. As she passed by Kellen’s room, apain had stabbed her belly and she’d gasped, inhaling deeply. Thatwas when it hit her; Kellen’s enticing scent had drifted bytickling her nostrils and sending her senses into overdrive.
Instinct tookover and she found herself in Kellen’s bed, crouched beside him,nuzzling his neck, kissing his jaw, easing the covers off hissleeping body.
“Wha..?” He’dgroggily opened his eyes, raising his hands to her shoulders.
“Sandy...?”He’d blinked at her owlishly, obviously confused.
She’d stoppedany further comments with a kiss, for once enjoying the wet slideof his lips against hers. He’d responded briefly, before breakingthe embrace and capturing her face in his hands and holding heraway even as she struggled to get closer. “Sandy, what’s goingon?”
“I need you,Kellen.” Unable to break from his grasp, she’d run her hands overhis chest feeling his muscles twitch in response. Her palmsrevelled in the feel of the smooth warm skin and her body achedeven more, wanting to feel him pressed against her full length.
“This isawfully sudden. Did you have a bad dream or something?” God blesshim, Kellen had done his best to try and figure out her suddenabout face, but she hadn’t relented. Need had driven her tostraddle him, to grind against him. She recalled how excited shefelt to be finally responding to him like he deserved.
Turning herface in his grasp, she managed to nip then lick his wrist. “I...Ijust want you, Kellen. I can’t explain it, but I need you, now.Please? I...I hurt.”
“Sandy...” Hername was a groan on his lips. She wiggled against him, feeling hisbody responding despite the material separating them. Slowly, he’dloosened his grip on her face, sliding his fingers through her hairand bringing her face closer to his. He’d searched her eyes for anexplanation, but then gave in and crushed her to him.
A cry of reliefhad escaped her and then it had been all frantic hands and lips,gasps and groans. Clothing disappeared, and somehow their positionsbecame reversed. She’d felt his manhood pressing hot and firmagainst her thigh. At that moment, a warning had sounded in herbrain; something wasn’t right, but she couldn’t focus on thethought. Part of her was craving his possession while another partwas protesting that he wasn’t the right one for her.
Need had wonout and she’d spread her legs, guiding him to her aching core. He’dpaused, breathing heavily, his forehead pressed to hers.
“Are you sure?”She could hear the strain in his voice.
“Yes, yes,please!” She’d arched her hips and felt his tip press into her.Need clawed at her, she couldn’t believe how empty she felt. Kellencould give her relief...
He resisted amoment longer. “It’s your first time. It’ll hurt. I’ll try to goslow...”
“I don’t care.Just take me.” Grasping his buttocks she’d pulled him closer,whimpering at the feel of her flesh parting to accommodate him, atthe slight burning sensation as her barrier stretched. She didn’tcare though. Shifting, she had dug her nails into him, her bodycraving more.
Kellen relentedthen and had driven himself into her. The sudden pain had shockedher into stillness for a moment and a voice howled within her.He isn’t the one!She’d stiffened, part of her rejecting theact, but then he moved inside her and the need returned.
After that itwas a blur of shifting bodies and panting breaths. Kellen whisperednonsensically to her, but she could never recall what he said. Asoft wave of feeling swept over her, a slight tightening of herbody, though nothing spectacular like she’d heard would occur. Atleast the intense craving inside her eased.
Kellen hadcontinued to move within her until he found his release and thencollapsed. She’d felt him pull out, then roll to the side and wraphis arms around her, tugging her close to his body. Numbness hadcome over her then, followed by a slight sick feeling in herstomach. What had she done?
Tears hadwelled in her eyes and she’d tried to stifle her sobs, but Kellenmust have noticed the shuddering of her body. He’d rocked herslightly, making comforting noises.
“Shh... I’msorry. Did I hurt you? Was I too rough?” The concern in his voicemade her cry all the harder and he’d cursed softly, obviouslyblaming himself. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have...” He’d forced herto look at him and had used his thumb to wipe the tears thatspilled down her cheeks.
She’d managedto shake her head and tried to calm her tears. “No. It’s not yourfault. It’s—” Cassie paused, and licked her lips tasting thesaltiness of her own tears. She wasn’t sure what to say, not evenknowing exactly what was wrong. Just moments before she’d wantedthis so desperately and now...
“Oh...” Kellenwas silent for a moment then cleared his throat. “Is it one ofthose female things? Because it was your first time?” He clearedhis throat awkwardly again, his face a study of male confusion.
Cassie hadhidden her face against his chest and nodded even though she didn’tbelieve it was a emotional response to losing her virginity, butwho knows? Maybe it was.
“Want somepopcorn or chips and dip?” Kellen’s voice pierced through hermemories, returning her to the present.
“Umm... I’mfine; still full from dessert.” Cassie gave him a brief smile andreturned to staring at the screen as if absorbed by the movie. Thememory of that night still haunted her. How could the beast havedriven her to...er...mate one minute and then protest what hadhappened the next? It made no sense, unless the creature had beenas surprised by those feelings as she had been. She frowned,wishing, not for the first time, she'd been spared the burden ofhaving an animal inside her.
“Oh... Well,I’ll make some for myself and if you change your mind...”
She made anoncommittal noise and he stood, heading towards the kitchen. Theabsence of his warm body made her feel chilled and she picked up athrow pillow, hugging it to her chest.
“Do you wantsomething to drink?” He spoke behind her and she jumped insurprise, a growl escaping her lips. She coughed to cover itup.
“Don’t creep upon me like that,” she snapped, feeling the beast inside herbecoming alert as if danger were nearby. “You know I hate to bestartled.”
“Hey, it’s notmy fault if you get so wrapped up in a movie that you don’t noticewhat’s going on around you.” He playfully tapped her on the head.“I’ll bring you a cola, okay?”
“Sure. Thanks.”Cassie closed her eyes and breathed deeply, trying to calm thecreature within. What would happen if she ever felt reallythreatened? Would she change into a wolf and attack? She squeezedthe pillow tighter and prayed she’d never find out.
Cassie awokethe next morning, once again filled with an all too familiarfeeling of discontent. Her sleep had been punctuated with strangedreams where she’d kept trying to talk to Kellen about hisgambling, but when she’d reached out to touch him, he’d morphedinto some other man. A man who took her to bed and brought her tounbelievable heights of ecstasy, no less! She squirmed at thememory wondering why her subconscious kept conjuring up thisfellow.
It certainlywasn’t some version of Kellen. Their first time having sex had beentheir last. She recalled ‘the morning after’ clearly. Getting upearly, she’d scrubbed her skin in the shower, trying to remove thememory of what had happened. Then realizing the phase of the moon,she’d grabbed her pills and locked herself in her room afraid ofwhat she might do next. Kellen had been concerned, knocking on herdoor, asking to talk to her, but when she’d mumbled migraine; he’dleft her alone truly believing she was ill.
Days later, asgently as she could, she’d explained their night together had beena mistake. Kellen tried to talk her out of it, claiming he’d beentoo rough and had scared her. She’d even gone so far as to let himkiss and caress her, a part of her hoping he was right, that theycould have a normal relationship together.
Of course ithadn’t worked. His touch didn’t excite her, his kisses didn’tarouse. In fact, the harder he tried, the stiffer she became as shefought to suppress the snarling protests of the fickle creatureinside her. Eventually, he’d agreed it wasn’t working between them,but she could tell he was hurt. And how could she blame him? She’dcome on to him one minute and rejected him the next. Feeling guiltyshe’d offered to leave, but he wouldn’t hear of it.
And so theycontinued living together, but it was a strange platonicrelationship. She loved Kellen and was sure he loved her. Therewere moments of fun and laughter, companionable time watchingmovies, grocery shopping or painting a room, but there was acertain hollowness as well; an emptiness and sense of despair thatseemed to be growing ever larger. Lately, the creature inside herhad started pacing and panting; searching, as if it knew somethingimportant was coming. Cassie raked her hands through her hair,wishing she knew what was going on inside her and how to fixit.
Her most recentattempt—the anniversary dinner—certainly hadn’t worked. The animalwithin was no closer to accepting Kellen. Sadly, she suspected itwould never accept any human and she mourned the loss of her dream.There’d be no family, no ‘happily-ever-after’ for her. Her fate wassealed; she was destined to live her life alone.
Cassie tried tolook at the fact philosophically, to see that perhaps it was forthe best. In reality, who could she burden with her strange lifestyle? Even Kellen questioned her monthly seclusion, no longerbelieving the ‘migraine’ story. He too had done some research onher pills once she had to start buying them on the street. Kellen’sconclusion was that she was a closet drug addict, but, at leastbeyond a few initial speeches, he left her to make her owndecisions on the matter. She doubted others would be astolerant.
She shook herhead. The poor guy put up with so much from her, and here she wasplanning on chastising him about his gambling. Of course, hisaddiction was real while hers wasn’t, but Kellen didn’t knowthat.
Climbing out ofbed, she wandered through the silent house—Kellen was stillsleeping—and prepared the coffee pot before stepping out back.Leaning on the deck railing, she absorbed the new day. Dawn wasjust breaking, streaks of yellow breaking through the purple andpink clouds. The darkness slowly seeped away revealing the outlineof buildings and shrubs. There was a slight chill to the desert airthat would soon disappear as the sun rose to its zenith. Faintsounds of birds and insect life mixed with the stirring of thehuman inhabitants of the neighbourhood; a door slammed, a carstarted, a baby cried. Normal life.
The beastinside raised its head, whining and prancing like a puppy wantingto go for a walk.Morning is the perfect time to run, tohunt...
Cassie frowned.Normal people didn’t have animals talking to them inside theirheads. She tried to ignore it, but found herself shifting back andforth on her feet, fighting the urge to step into the backyard, togive in to the call of nature.
Just for awhile. To feel the wind against our face, our muscles stretchingand straining, the ground racing by...”Thecreature quivered in excitement.“It would be such fun to answerthe call, to be what we truly are just this once...”
No! She jerkedherself back into her human mind, realizing she was actuallystanding in the middle of the yard and... Oh God, her fingernails!The air around them seemed to shimmer and for a moment theyappeared longer, thicker, almost like claws. Then the air quiveredagain and they were back to normal. That had never happenedbefore!
Horrified, sheglanced around, fearful someone had observed what had justhappened. Of course, at such an early hour there was no one about.Relieved, she stumbled back into the house ignoring the smell offreshly made coffee and rushing to the calendar. Frantically shesearched the date and slumped in relief when she realized it wasstill almost a week until the full moon.
Then shestiffened again. If that was the case, then why...? Cassie pusheddown the panic that tightened her throat. The creature within herwas getting so much stronger. What was she going to do? What wouldhappen when she could no longer keep the animal suppressed? Shewrapped her arms tightly around herself as possible scenariosplayed out in her head.
Images ofherself transforming into a werewolf filled her mind. Sheenvisioned herself as a snarling, snapping animal, attackingeveryone in sight, blood dripping from her jaws as she left a pathof destruction in her wake. First Kellen, then the neighbourhoodchildren...
Clamping a handto her mouth, she held back the cry that threatened to burst fromher. How long until that fateful day came? Until she became anuncontrollable beast? And what could she do about it?
Cassie bracedherself against the kitchen counter, her gaze flashing around theroom. She couldn’t stay here. It was too dangerous to those aroundher, but where could she go? Was there any place far enough awayfrom other humans where she wouldn’t be a threat? Shivers wrackedher as she contemplated her future; alone, always running andhiding, fearful of what she might do...
A tear sliddown her face at the bleak life she saw ahead of her. She’d neverbe able to have a home or a family, never fall in love, never beable to relax or let her guard down. God, what had she done to havesuch a fate thrust upon her? First she lost her mother before shewas even able to remember her, then her uncle was shot in front ofher and now she lived in constant fear of discovery... All shewanted was a simple, ordinary life! Was that really too much toask?
The beastinside whined pitifully, but she didn’t care. She hated thecreature. Hated herself! Turning, she caught sight of herreflection in the glass door of the microwave. Her face lookeddistorted. Gasping, she touched her cheeks, her nose. Had thechange already started?
She hurried tothe bathroom and looked in the mirror, then slumped in relief. No.It was her usual image that greeted her, though her eyes were wideand her nose was pink. Lines of tension bracketed her mouth andeven her hair was sticking out all over. She did look rather wild;a short dry laugh escaped her.
Smoothing herhair with her hands, she tried to force herself to relax, to thinkrationally rather than panicking. She inhaled deeply, and thenexhaled slowly. Once she felt calmer, she headed back to thekitchen and poured a cup of coffee.
All right.Perhaps she was over reacting. This morning was just one littleslip; a...a warning that she needed to be more cautious. Yes, thatwas it! She just had to guard her thoughts more, and not get toocaught up in the creature’s thinking. There was still time to finda solution rather than running away. Maybe if she played with hermedication; increased the dosage slightly. It might only put offthe inevitable, but it would buy her some time at least.
Cassie heldonto the idea like a drowning woman. She wasn’t ready to leave herpresent life. Staring around her tiny kitchen, she took in thecrocheted potholder one of her customers had made her, the lacecurtains she’d bought just a month ago, the ugly picture on thewall that Kellen had given her...
Ah, Kellen...What would happen to him once she left? They had their roughpatches, but there were good times too and really, they only hadeach other. She didn’t dare let anyone else get too close, andKellen only had his gambling buddies who came and went with thetides of fortune, leading him into scrapes and then walking away.She would battle the beast within as long as possible so she couldstick around and take care of Kellen. He was her family now andthat’s what family did.
A queasyfeeling stirred in her stomach as she wondered how long she’d beable to keep control. Another month? Another year? She pushed thethought aside, and wiped the dampness from her cheeks. Enough ofthe melancholy. It wouldn’t help anything and besides, it was timeto get dressed for work. “Just like a normal person.” She spoke thewords firmly to the empty room as if saying them out loud wouldsomehow make them true.
The garbledsound of flight announcements washed over the buzz of hundreds ofvoices and the distant drone of jets landing at the McCarrenInternational Airport in Las Vegas. Throngs of people pushed andshoved, children cried, happy vacationers enthused. Bryan did hisbest to ignore them as he made his way to the car rental agency. Ithad been two days since he’d received the e-mail about a supposedsighting of Cassandra Greyson and he was eager to discover if theinformation was correct.
He smiled whenhe arrived at his destination. Only one person was ahead of him inline at the car rental desk so he’d be able to get on his wayquickly. Approaching the desk, he stood patiently waiting his turn.The female attendant glanced up casually from her computer, thengave him a second look over the shoulder of her current customer.Her eyes brightened with obvious interest as she took in hisappearance. Bryan smiled to himself. While not conceited, he knewthe effect he had on women and at times used it to his advantage.This might be one of those occasions.
Minutes laterhe was casually leaning against the counter, chatting to the girlas she processed his request. As usual, he’d managed to charm hisway into a nicer vehicle and a better deal than most customerscould manage.
“So, Bryan, howlong will you be in Vegas?” The redheaded woman looked up at himthrough her lashes as she filled out the required forms.
“A week, maybelonger.” He smiled at her, slowly letting his eyes move over herbody. She blushed, but smiled back at him.
“Well, ifyou’re bored or have some free time—”
“I’ll think ofyou.” Bryan grinned, finishing the phrase for her. As he reachedout to take the keys, her fingers entangled with his and a bit ofpaper poked at his palm. He withdrew his hand and noted that asticky note accompanied the keys. Carefully he read the paper, thecorners of his mouth curving slightly; as he suspected it was hername and number. He folded it and tucked it into his pocket, givingher a knowing wink before walking away. She was easy on the eyes,so maybe...
Bryan steppedout of the terminal and was immediately hit by a wave of heat. God,how did people manage to live in a place like this all year round?The pilot had warned them just before landing that Vegas was in themiddle of an unseasonal hot spell. Apparently the man hadn’t beenlying.
Longingly,Bryan thought of the cooler air and shadowy depths of the forestback in Canada. Hopefully, he’d find the Greyson girl quickly andbe able to head back home before he died from the temperature.Sweat was already forming on his brow just standing there, so hehurried down the sidewalk, eager to find his car and put on the airconditioning.
In a matter ofhours, he was settled in a motel room; not one of the largecasinos, but a smaller establishment closer to the suburbs. IfCassandra Greyson was working in a grocery store, she probablylived near the place so it made sense for him to be close hisquarry.
Kicking off hisshoes and removing his shirt, he dropped onto the bed, restingagainst the pillows. He sighed as his body relaxed for a moment,enjoying the feel of the cool sheets and the quiet of the roombefore pulling his cell phone from his pocket. He’d check in withRyne first. Folding one arm behind his head, he propped the phonebetween his shoulder and ear, absentmindedly scratching his chestwhile waiting for someone to pick up.
“Hello?” Abreathless Mel answered.
“Hey, Mel! It’sBryan. How are you doing?” He shifted his arms and grabbed thephone securely.
“You guess?” Hefrowned. Something must be wrong. Mel wasn’t usually that tentativewhen she spoke.
“Yeah...” Hervoice lowered to a whisper and he mentally pictured her turning herback to the room and cupping her hand over her mouth so her voicedidn’t project anywhere, but into the receiver. “Can I tell yousomething? Something you have to promise not to share withRyne?”
“Well... Thatdepends what it is. He is our Alpha.” Bryan hedged his answer andsat up straighter, wondering what information she felt she couldshare with him, but not her mate.
“Right.” Hecould hear her breathing heavily, maybe even sniffing a bit as ifshe’d been crying. Bryan waited patiently for her to continue.After a moment, she must have made up her mind, for she started totalk again. “Okay. Here’s the thing... I had a message from theLycan Link. You know how they’ve been looking into my background,trying to figure out who my father might be?”
“Uh-huh. Dothey have a lead?” He leaned forward, resting his arms on his kneesas he tried to guess what she might have found out.
“Then why nottell Ryne? He’d be happy for you.”
“Well... It’sjust that... Oh damn! Here he comes. Please, Bryan! Promise not tosay anything to him, please?”
Bryan exhaledgustily, feeling torn, but deciding once again to placate her. Hedidn’t like this business of keeping secrets from his Alpha, butMel’s parentage wasn’t life and death news; he supposed her couldcut her a bit more slack. “Okay. But I want an explanation nexttime we talk, all right?” His voice held a bit of added sternnessas he uttered the last phrase.
He could hearher breathing a sigh of relief. “Thanks, Bryan. You’ll understandwhen I tell you.” Muffled sounds followed, then Ryne came on theline.
“Bryan? Are youmaking Melody cry?” The Alpha’s voice was suspicious.
“Who? Me? No! Ijust started talking to her a minute ago.” Bryan didn’t have tofeign his nervousness. He didn’t want Ryne angry at him; the guywas pretty laid back unless someone pissed him off or upset hismate. Bryan had no desire to be that person.
“Huh.” Rynesounded puzzled and more than a bit frustrated. “It must be thosedamned pregnancy hormones. Melody’s moods are all over the placelately. I can’t keep up.”
Bryan laughedsoftly imagining the man running agitated hands through his hair.Ryne didn’t do female emotions very well which was why it was agood thing Mel wasn’t like this all the time. “Maybe you shouldtalk to Kane? Elise has been pregnant twice. He might be able togive you a few pointers.”
“Yeah, maybeI’ll do that.” He sighed heavily before changing the topic. “So youmade it to Vegas all right?”
“Yep. Justchecked in. I’ll grab a bite to eat and then see if I can find thegrocery store where the girl in the picture works. With any luckshe’ll be there. If not, I’ll ask one of the other employees whenshe’ll be in.”
“Be careful youdon’t sound too interested or they’ll think you’re some type ofstalker.”
“Hey, rememberwho you’re talking to. I’m great at subtle.”
Ryne grunted inacknowledgement. “Right. Give me a call tomorrow and let me knowhow you made out. If it’s her, I’ll start to work on getting herinto Canada. And remember to be careful; rogues can beunpredictable.”
Bryan rolledhis eyes. Ryne was really stuck on this rogue business for somereason. Cassandra Greyson was just a kid. Handling her would beeasy. He kept his thoughts to himself however; he’d prove Rynewrong once Cassandra was part of the pack.
They continuedto talk for a few more minutes, going over the technicalities oftransporting a werewolf across the border then ended theconversation.
As he hung up,Bryan felt guilty for not telling Ryne why Mel was upset, butreasoned that he didn’t really know for sure. Finding her fatherwas no big deal. Ryne was probably right; pregnancy hormones werethrowing her off kilter. Besides, she’d likely break down andexplain it to Ryne herself, long before he next spoke to her.
Putting thematter aside as just another of the weird little interludes thatRyne and Mel shared, he headed to the bathroom for a quick shower.Travelling always made him feel grubby. Adjusting the watertemperature, he stripped and stepped under the pounding stream.
At first heclosed his eyes, revelling in the sensation of the hot water as itpounded his shoulders and ran down his body. Steam rose around himand he rolled his shoulders to ease the tension in them.
Shaking hishead to clear the water from his eyes, he grabbed the soap andbegan to lather up. He was here to do a job, after all. Washingautomatically, he pondered how to proceed in his search. Theydidn’t have a clear picture of Greyson, just Ryne’s description ofher and, if the girl had any measure of sense, she wasn’t using herreal name. So how to establish her identity?
A good sniffwould determine if she was a werewolf, but other than that, all hehad was a vague memory of her scent, which he’d detected in themotel room in Kansas. Would it be enough? His inner wolf rumbled inthe affirmative. It hadn’t forgotten the girl’s unique essence.
Bryan shifteduncomfortably as his body stirred to life. The beast inside seemedto have developed an exceptionally keen interest in the girl. Itwas more than the thrill of the hunt; for some reason the animalwas eager to mate her, sight unseen. Down boy, he scolded. A sexualencounter was a possibility if the girl was willing, but don’tstart planning anything permanent, okay?
An innersilence greeted his warning. He frowned; the wolf hadn’tautomatically agreed which was odd. Usually they were of oneaccord. Bryan hoped it wasn’t going to prove difficult. He’d haveenough to deal with once he found Cassandra Greyson. A contraryinner-wolf would just complicate matters further.
Shutting offthe water, he grabbed a towel and quickly dried off before donningclean clothes. It was just past noon. He’d grab a bite to eat, thensearch out the grocery store. If luck was on his side, the girlwould be working and he could check her out. Should she prove to beCassandra Greyson, he’d make contact and...
His thinkingscreeched to a halt as he pondered what to say to the girl.
‘Hi! I’m Bryan,a fellow werewolf. The Finding clause means you’re part of my pack,so come along quietly...’ Shaking his head, he chuckled imagininghow well that would go over. He considered the situation for a fewmore moments, then shrugged. Nothing else came to mind, so he’djust have to play it by ear. Talking to women had never been aproblem for him. The Greyson girl probably wouldn’t prove anydifferent.
Marla steppedinto the Aldrich’s office and sat down in a seat near his desk. Theman was still with his nurse—Sylvia Robinson—whom he employed tohelp deal with his trach tube. It required some daily maintenanceand the man preferred to have a ‘professional’ deal with it, eventhough most individuals managed fine on their own.
As she sankback in the leather chair, Marla looked around, pleased with thedecor she’d chosen. Aldrich had given her free rein with decoratingthe penthouse and she gone with a modern look; chrome, leather,stark white walls with vivid splashes of colour. Some might thinkit was cold, but to her it fairly screamed exclusive,elegant...expensive. A faint smile spread over her face at thememory of the purchasing spree she’d had.
She sighed andbegan to examine her nails for chips as she waited, not reallycaring how long Aldrich spent with the nurse as long he didn’texpect her to help care for the tube. Thank heaven he kept a silkscarf over the opening. While it wasn’t really ghastly to look at,she preferred to ignore the more unpleasant aspects of life. Thenurse was welcome to the job.
Mrs. Robinsonhad started just a month ago and was the eighth nurse he’d employedsince the accident, the others having lasted only a matter ofmonths each. Either they hadn’t been able to put up with his moodsor they’d shown signs of excessive interest in the man. In theformer case, they quit of their own accord; in the latter, Marlaherself made sure they left. She wasn’t having anyone poaching inher territory and she’d already staked her claim on Aldrich, evenif he didn’t know it yet.
A quick glanceat her watch, told her he’d still be another ten minutes. Aldrich’slife was rigidly ordered and he demanded punctuality, which was whyshe’d arrived early for their meeting. It also provided a goodopportunity for gathering information.
Getting up, shewandered casually about the room, appearing as if she were staringat the pictures on the wall. The man was obsessed with security andhe was always moving the surveillance cameras. As she moved about,she surreptitiously scanned the room, trying to determine theirlatest locations.
Ah-ha! Therewas one over the door, pointing at the filing cabinet and the otherone… She bit her lip and continued to search…there! Near thebookshelf. It was aimed at his desktop. Judging the anglecarefully, she determined the computer wasn’t within the viewingarea, though it had been last time.
Smirking, sheworked her way to the window and made a show of peering through theblinds at the view. Idly she noted how sparse the trees were andthe lack of green space.
Not a suitableplace for us to live.
She frowned andpushed her inner wolf’s foolish idea away.
Letting thecurtains fall back into place, she ensured she was out of camerarange, then carefully reached forward to jiggle the computer mouse.The screen came to life and she began to read the informationdisplayed. It never hurt to know what Aldrich was up to when shewasn’t around. He liked to spring surprises on her and she’d foundthat a bit of judicious snooping helped her keep one step ahead ofhim on most things.
The computerfile that appeared had to do with Cassandra Greyson, an image ofthe heiress at the top of the screen. It showed a young girl withlong, dark brown hair, green eyes, and golden skin. A mischievoussmile seemed to lurk just beyond her full lips as if she weresecretly mocking the photographer. It was a candid shot, one of thefew that had apparently ever been taken of the child.
Marla didn’tknow much about the girl. Aldrich kept the whole thing close to hischest, but she had gleaned some information over the years.
The missingheiress had disappeared the night Anthony Greyson was‘accidentally’ shot by Aldrich who purportedly had been trying toscare off an attacking dog. If it hadn’t been for the severity ofhis own wounds, Marla might have thought Aldrich had arranged thewhole thing—it had been such a convenient way of eliminatingGreyson, after all. However, Aldrich had been near death, so itreally must have been just a freak occurrence.
A wild dogattack was so unlikely in Chicago. At times she mused if a werewolfcould have been involved, but decided it was just her own paranoia.Lycans kept a low profile and as far as she could determine,neither Greyson nor Aldrich had been dabbling in anything thatmight have provoked an attack.
Returning herfocus to the screen, she skimmed over Cassandra’s file; Name, dateof birth, mother’s name, but no father was listed. After herdisappearance, she’d been traced as far as Kansas and then thetrail went cold. Nothing Marla didn’t already know.
About to turnaway, she saw a footnote. This file was linked to the Greene file.She growled in frustration. There were certain files Aldrich keptencrypted and this was one of them. He’d never shared the passwordwith her and so far she hadn’t been able to crack it. The onlyother person who might know how to get in was his former assistant,Mrs. Sandercock.
Mrs.Sandercock, however, was unlikely to provide any help, shouldanyone contact her over the matter of secret passwords. It seemedthe woman was rather bitter; something about an unexpected letterof dismissal from Mr. Aldrich. Marla smirked, thinking of how she’dbamboozled both Sandercock and Aldrich; each believing the otherhad terminated their association. Aldrich had barely been out ofthe hospital and in no condition to begin interviewing for the job,so naturally Marla had just slid into the permanent position. Asfor Mrs. Sandercock...well... Marla shrugged. Someone had probablyhired the woman eventually; not everyone demanded letters ofreference.
Checking thetime, Marla realized Aldrich would be finished with his nurse soon.Casually, she strolled back towards her seat. On the surveillancecamera it would appear she’d been studying the view and thepaintings on the wall, while awaiting Aldrich’s appearance. Thecomputer screen would fade to black in a minute, erasing allevidence that anyone had been looking at it recently. Everythingwould appear untouched.
Gracefullysettling into her seat, she pasted a placid smile on her face,crossed her ankles, and arranged her skirt so that a sufficientamount of skin was showing. Now all she had to do was wait for heremployer. Inside, her wolf whimpered, saying it was tired of thegame she was playing, but she shushed it sternly. This was not thetime. Everything would work out perfectly fine.
“Thank you,Sylvia.” Aldrich slowly got up from his chair and nodded at thenurse who was putting away her equipment.
His doctorassured him there was no need for a private nurse, but Aldrichwasn’t taking any chances. Sylvia suctioned the tube each morningand night as well as before meals and whenever else the need arose.She was also in charge of checking the condition of his stoma twicea day, ensuring proper humidification of the air, orderingsupplies, cleaning, and maintaining his suctioning machine... Thewoman was well worth the price of her paycheck. And besides, he hadhis hands on the Greyson estate; money wasn’t a problem.
“You’rewelcome, Leon.” She smiled at him briefly, as she continued withher task.
Aldrich spareda moment to watch his nurse, not minding the familiarity with whichshe addressed him; her faint British accent was pleasing to theear. Sylvia was fiftyish, slightly plump and had a bit of grey hairappearing, but was still an attractive woman. Plus she didn’t grateon his nerves and showed absolutely no interest in him whatsoever.Not since Mrs. Sandercock—damn her for leaving with no warning—hadhe appreciated the calm, soothing presence of the fairer sex.
His cheektwitched as he thought of the other female in his employ; MissMatthews, or Marla, as she kept asking him to call her. The womanwas beautiful and efficient, but as cold and calculating ashimself. She thought she had him wrapped around her finger with herpouting lips and oft-displayed cleavage, but he knew her game.
Miss Matthewswas out for whatever she could get and she’d set her sights on him,or more precisely, the Greyson estate. If it wasn’t for the factshe was damned good at her job, he’d have sent her on her way agesago. As it was, he could put up with her as long as she didn’t steptoo far out of line.
“Leon? Issomething wrong?”
Aldrichrealized he was scowling at the nurse and hastened to reassure her.“No. Just some business I was thinking of.” He paused, then spokehesitantly. “I...I believe the British are known for takingafternoon tea. Is it a practise you follow?”
Sylvia smiled.“I do like to have a cup mid-afternoon. Are you fond of tea?”
He studied herfor a moment, then nodded.
“If you’d like,you could join me one day.” As she made the offer, a slightpinkness appeared on her cheeks. Aldrich found it fascinating.
Suddenly awarehe was staring, he rubbed the back of his neck, feelinginexplicably embarrassed—he was never embarrassed—and left theroom, only realizing after the fact, that he’d never answeredher.
He left thearea designated as the nurse’s room utterly bemused by theexchange, arriving at his office door without even being aware ofthe fact. The door was open a crack and he could see long, silkylegs carefully arranged for his viewing pleasure. Aldrich couldn’thelp giving the displayed limbs an appreciative look. The woman wasas sexy as hell and a certain portion of his anatomy couldn’t help,but respond to the fact.
Wondering whatwas wrong with him—first Sylvia and now Miss Matthews—he gave hishead a shake and corralled his wandering thoughts. Putting on hisusual bland expression, he entered the room.
“Miss.Matthews, I’m sorry to have kept you waiting.” He uttered thesocially polite words, not really caring if she had been waiting ornot. That’s what he paid her for after all, wasn’t it? Still, heprided himself on maintaining a cloak of civilizedrespectability.
“No, you’reright on time as always, Leon.”
He paused inthe act of sitting down behind his desk and looked at her with oneraised brow. She caught his gaze, lowered her eyes demurely andwith a slight blush—fake no doubt—corrected herself.
“I mean, Mr.Aldrich, sir.”
He gave a nodof approval and finished seating himself. Leisurely, he surveyedthe surface of his desk, noting all his papers were exactly wherehe’d left them. Good. She hadn’t touched anything, though thesurveillance cameras would have caught her if she had. He picked upthe file she’d prepared the previous day and flicked it open. Aftera brief perusal he commented on her report.
“The GreysonEstate continues to function well and is in good repair, Isee.”
“Yes.” MissMatthews leaned forward slightly, as if she were eager to talk tohim. Was it a coincidence her blouse gaped open? He thought not.“The monthly expense report for maintenance supplies, utilities,and employee wages is included.”
He glanced atthe next page and nodded. “Anything else?”
“Just thematter we discussed earlier; Franklin’s advancing years.” She shookher head and made a little moue. “I fear he’s getting quiteforgetful. The errors in the content inventory, claiming we’ve hadconversations which we haven’t...” Her face was a picture of regretas her voice trailed off, but Aldrich studied her eyes instead;they were flat and cold. The woman was up to something.
“Be that as itmay, he and Mrs. Teasdale were appointed by the courts as interimcaretakers and Franklin’s last medical report deemed him capable ofthe job. We’ll just have to rely on your continued diligence toensure things don’t get out of hand.”
The womanpreened at his supposed praise while Aldrich kept his face neutral.He recalled Swanson’s report about her stop at Albert Winter’s, theantique dealer, last time she visited the Estate. There was littledoubt in Aldrich’s mind Miss Matthews was pocketing small items andselling them, thus acquiring a tidy little nest egg. He admired heringenuity; it was something he might have done himself in the earlydays.
As long as sheconfined herself to the occasional bout of petty theft, he’d let itgo. Her activities were actually providing him with ammunitionshould he need to use some leverage against her in the future.Knowing deep, dark secrets about an employee could be souseful.
“As always,I’ll do my best.” She smiled at him and, not for the first time,Aldrich noted her white, slightly longer than normal, canine teeth.They had an unsettling effect on him when she smiled widely. Hebriefly mused why she’d never had them fixed.
He gave hishead a minute shake and continued on with the business at hand.“Swanson will be reviewing the Estate’s security system next week.I’d like you to accompany him and make note of anything that needsupgrading.”
“Yes, sir.” Shebegan making notes, then queried in a deceptively casual voice. “Ifyou don’t mind my asking sir, how are you progressing on the matterof the missing heiress?”
“Cassandra?”Aldrich flicked a glance at his computer and then at Marla. How didshe know that was the file he’d been reading? Coincidence or...?Eyeing the surveillance camera mounted on top of the bookshelf, henarrowed his eyes. Did Swanson get the angle wrong or did itactually encompass his computer? Damn! He’d have to check thefootage tonight.
Marlacontinued. “Yes. I was wondering if the latest batch of missingperson posters had yielded any results.”
“No, not yet,but we’ll keep trying. She has to be somewhere. All it takes is forthe right person to see the poster and for her picture to jiggle amemory.”
“And when youfind her?”
“I believe thatfalls under lawyer-client confidentiality at this point. If youever need to be appraised of the situation, I’ll let you know.”
“Of course.”She nodded and Aldrich wondered what was going on behind her demureexpression. Was she laying plans for when or if Cassandrare-appeared? Perhaps planning on befriending the girl, becoming hercompanion? Or possibly arranging an accident, should the girl everbe located. The latter seemed more likely. Marla was probablyhoping he’d remain in control of the Greyson estate for some timeso the financial perks would continue to filter down to her. Andonce the estate was settled… Well, a substantial sum would come hisway. She’d love to get her hands on that.
Well, no matterwhat Miss Matthews was concocting in her head, he had his ownagenda where Cassandra Greyson was concerned.
Swiftly dealingwith the remaining items on his desk, he sent Miss Matthews on herway, much to her obvious annoyance. The woman always wanted tolinger and fawn over him, making annoying small talk, findingreasons to touch him. On occasion, he put up with her wanderinghands, but today he wasn’t in the mood. Once free of her presence,he turned to his computer and thoughtfully studied the informationbefore him.
CassandraGreyson’s background puzzled him. From what little information he’dgarnered, the girl was the daughter of some woman named Luisa, withwhom Greyson had hooked up with briefly, though Greyson wasn’t thefather; that person was listed as an unknown. Upon Luisa’s death,he’d raised Cassandra as his niece and made her his heir.
Aldrich pulledat his lip, still impressed Greyson had managed to keep the childhidden all those years. It had come as a shock when Greysonsuddenly announced the existence of a ward. In fact, theannouncement had been so startling it had aided the werewolf’sattack. Staring at Greyson in amazement, Aldrich had been unawareof the wolf until a streak of movement caught his eye. He’d swungtowards the wolf; in his surprise tightening his grip on the gunand unintentionally shooting his boss, Anthony Greyson.
The incidenthad been deemed an accident caused by the ‘wild dog’ attack—that’show the doctor at the hospital had listed the cause of the injuriesto his throat. Aldrich had done nothing to disabuse them of thefact.
With Greysondead, Cassandra had become heir to a multi-million dollar estate.Unfortunately, she’d gone missing the night of the accident and noone seemed capable of finding her.
OriginallyAldrich was of two minds as to how to deal with the situation. Bothoptions had merit. In one, the girl was simply eliminated. If shenever returned as heir, he’d be in charge of dispersing theestate’s funds. He already knew of several ways to ensure a goodlyportion ended up in his hands. Even now, as executor, he was ableto use his own discretion to access a percentage of the money. Themain drawback was the seven year waiting period for missing heirs.It would be another four years before he had complete control.
The otherpossibility was finding the girl and bringing her back. He’d haveher declared incompetent, which wouldn’t be hard, given herbackground. She’d been raised in a figurative glass cage and had nofamily or friends to vouch for her. There was even a nurse who hadworked with the girl just hours before Greyson’s death. Accordingto the woman, the girl was unstable, incorrigible and needed heavysedation for some mysterious condition. Pampered, alone in theworld, ill and a runaway... Having himself appointed guardianshould be easy.
Her ‘condition’was of special interest to him. Based on her uncle’s declarationjust minutes before his death, Aldrich had his own suspicions as towhat ailed her. If he was correct, the girl would serve more thanone purpose if he kept her alive. He chuckled darkly. Yet anotherpawn for him to use in the chess game of life.
Las Vegas,Nevada, U.S.A....
Cassie shiftedon her feet and rubbed her lower back. Standing at a cash registerall morning was tiring and she couldn’t wait for her lunch break.She flicked a casual glance at the customers still waiting to checkout, while her present customer—an elderly woman named Mrs.Mitchell—found the money to pay for her groceries.
Most of thepeople in line were regulars, though the third man back was new.Possibly, he was a tourist, though she didn’t see many of those inthe store; they usually stuck to the casinos and other attractions.She smiled vaguely at the customers and turned her attention backto Mrs. Mitchell.
“Threedimes—that’s thirty. A nickel—that’s thirty-five.” Three morepennies appeared. “Thirty-six, thirty-seven, thirty-eight! Thereyou go. Twenty-nine dollars and thirty-eight cents exactly.” Theolder woman looked triumphant at having completed the task.
“The exactchange as always.” Cassie smiled back as she picked up the coinsfrom the counter and placed them in the till.
She didn’t mindwaiting as the older customers dug around for exact change. Themorning shift was slower paced and friendlier; the customers oftenstopping to chat for a few minutes. Many of them were seniors andmore than a bit lonely; their time at the grocery store was asocial outing rather than just a necessity.
Cassieunderstood about loneliness. Her family—Uncle, Franklin andCook—were all gone now. She just had Kellen. Some, like Mrs.Mitchell, were almost family; the grandmother or great-aunt she’dnever had, but it wasn’t a real relationship, more just wishfulthinking.
“Do you needhelp carrying those bags to the car, Mrs. Mitchell?”
The older womanreached across and patted her arm. “No, but thank you for asking.The doctor said it was good for my old bones to carry a few heavyitems; resistance I think he called it.”
“All rightthen, just don’t do too much at once.” Cassie turned her attentionto the next person waiting to check out while Mrs. Mitchell movedto the end of the counter and dug through her purse, most likelysearching for her car keys. The poor dear was always misplacingthem.
As she dealtwith her new customer—a young mother with a toddler in herarms—Cassie experienced a prickling feeling, as if someone werewatching her. It wasn’t the first time this had happened. Severaltimes this past week, she’d found herself staring around thegrocery store looking for the source, only to find nothing.
At the time,she’d attached no importance to the phenomenon. But now that Mr.Bartlett had mentioned someone asking about her... Well, maybe itwas more significant than she thought. Could the beast inside herbe aware of danger on some level? Inwardly she rolled her eyes,thinking the creature might have one redeeming quality after all;though sensing someone was watching and knowing exactly who it wasand why, were two completely different things.
Shrugging hershoulders, she tried to rid herself of the uneasy feeling, but itdidn’t work. Flicking a glance up from the bar code scanner, shelocked eyes with the man—the one she’d dubbed a tourist—and foundhe was studying her, his eyes narrowed in concentration.
Quickly, shelooked away. Her mouth suddenly seemed dry and the air around herwas much warmer than just a few minutes ago. Inside her, the beaststirred with excitement. Another quick peek revealed the man wasfrowning now.
Was he upsetthe line was moving so slowly? Cassie tightened her lips. Well,there were only two checkouts open, so he’d just have to wait histurn! She continued to scan the groceries while tryingunsuccessfully to ignore his presence. He had an arrogant lookabout him, as if he expected everyone to notice him. Too bad, shewasn’t going to try to speed things up just to keep him happy!
Seconds tickedby. An uncomfortable feeling began to grow in her stomach. Herheart rate sped up and her senses seemed to be heightened; thebrightness of the overhead lights and the beeping of the scannerseemed to hammer inside her head. Scents she wasn’t normally awareof assaulted her nose and she mentally identified them while tryingto concentrate on her job; baby powder, raw meat, cleaningproducts, sweat... Something new was in the mix though. She sniffedand wondered what it might be. An animal of some sort...? Weighinga bag of grapes, she looked at the man through her lashes.
Damn! He wasstill staring at her. She found her gaze locked with his andcouldn't look away. His eyes were hazel, his stare intent as if hewere trying to see inside her. A shiver swept over her, followed bya heated feeling. Darting out the tip of her tongue, she wet herlips and he followed the movement with his eyes before looking backup at her. One corner of his mouth curled up and Cassie'sdiscomfort increased. A desperate need to escape was coming overher; the wolf inside her was prancing; excited by the man'spresence yet at the same time wanting to run so he would givechase.
Cassieswallowed hard and wrenched her attention back to the task at hand.Her voice tremored as she announced the total.
"That will beforty-five, eighty-seven.”
The womanhanded over sixty dollars and Cassie took it. Her hand shook as shemade change, dropping the coins and cursing softly under herbreath. A chuckle came from the direction of the tourist and Cassiewondered sourly what he found so funny.
Working onautopilot, she commented to the mother about the baby, all thewhile thinking that the man was next in line. She didn’t want todeal with him; in fact she was almost light-headed at the veryidea. Little frissons of awareness darted up and down her spine atthe thought of him being just inches away, hearing his voice,breathing in his scent, their fingers possibly touching as hehanded her some bills...
“Hey, Sandy!Break time.” A cheerful voice sounded behind her and she almostslumped in relief. Debra, her replacement cashier was there. Thankheaven, it was break time! With more haste than dignity, Cassietraded places with the other girl and moved to leave.
Oh God, Mrs.Mitchell was still here! All Cassie wanted to do was get awaybefore that man came any closer. Forcing herself to pause, shelooked at the older woman. “Yes, Mrs. Mitchell?”
“I meant to askyou how your little anniversary dinner went. Was Kellenpleased?”
“Er...” Cassielooked over her shoulder. The man was still watching her, a scowlon his face. What was his problem? Obviously he was upset aboutsomething, but what? She’d never met him before, so perhaps she wasbeing paranoid, though something was telling her she wasn’t....Dragging her attention back to the older woman, she stumbled overher response. “I’ll...uh...I’ll tell you about it next time you’reat the store. I...er...need to use the washroom.”
“Oh, then don’tlet me keep you. I know what that’s like.” Mrs. Mitchell waved heroff, and Cassie walked away as quickly as she could, ducking downthe cereal aisle. As soon as she was free of the man’s gaze, shestarted to feel better.
“Now that wasjust...weird,” Cassie muttered to herself. Her heart rate wascalming, the sights and sounds around her were fading to a normallevel of awareness. Biting her lip, she cautiously peeked aroundthe corner of an instant oatmeal display. The man was still there,only he’d moved closer to the door and was now chatting to Mrs.Mitchell!
Cassie clenchedher hands, wishing she knew how to read lips. Even by straining herultra acute hearing, she couldn’t make out the words over thebackground noises. What were they talking about? Mrs. Mitchelllaughed and the man smiled at her, then looked in Cassie’sdirection. She ducked back. Had he noticed her spying? Not willingto take the chance he’d seek her out, she scurried to the back ofthe store and ducked into the employees’ rest area.
Once there, shesat at the table and held her head in her hands, grateful no oneelse was about. Good heavens didn’t she have enough to worry aboutright now without this? Who was that man and why did he make her souncomfortable? Was he the same person Mr. Bartlett had beenreferring to? And if he was, what was the reason behind hisinterest? And why was he talking to Mrs. Mitchell?
While it couldbe the man just wanted to ask her out on a date, she doubted it.There was a certain aura that had come off him. Earlier, she’ddubbed it arrogance, but on reflection perhaps it was danger.Whatever the case, he made her nervous and stirred the beast insideher.
Could he beanother werewolf? Cassie gnawed on her lip nervously then shook herhead. It had been three years since the incident and there was noindication the wolves knew where she was, or that they were evenlooking for her. She was simply being paranoid where they wereconcerned. The only werewolf around was the hated creature insideher. Still... A shiver ran through her, despite the relative warmthof the room.
Rubbing herhands over her arms, she considered the other possibility; that themystery man had something to do with Kellen’s gambling. She hadn’thad a chance to talk to Kellen about it yet; the first night whenhe’d made her dinner, it just hadn’t seemed appropriate and sincethen they kept missing each other. A nasty voice inside her headinsisted Kellen was purposely avoiding her.
She sighedheavily. Quite likely the voice was right. All the signs pointed tothe fact that Kellen was in debt again, likely for a significantamount this time, and the people he owed were getting impatient.Maybe they thought she’d bail him out, or by harassing her it wouldforce Kellen to pay up. An inelegant snort escaped her. Kellen hadlittle in savings; it would be a long wait before he made any sortof dent in the total, whatever it might be.
The man in thecheck-out line certainly matched her image of a thug sent tocollect a debt. Tall and muscular, though too intelligent lookingfor a run of the mill goon. And too good looking too, she added asan afterthought. His nose wasn't broken, there were no visiblescars, and he had all his teeth—she'd seen them when he smiled atMrs. Mitchell. Cassie frowned. Well, maybe he didn't look like athug after all. But he did have an air of danger about him. Not ina violent way though; it was actually sort of...sexy. Like he couldbe dangerous if he lost control...
Just thinkingabout the man caused the wolf inside to stir again. Reluctantly,she acknowledged that the man affected her too. His hazel eyes hadbeen fringed by long lashes and his dark blond hair was thick withjust a slight wave. Her palms tingled as she wondered if it wouldfeel as soft as looked. She bit back a smile as she recalled that aslight dimple had appeared on his cheek when he'd been laughingwith Mrs. Mitchell. A thug with a dimple? She shook her head,chastising herself. Mooning over a man with probable criminalconnections was not a good idea.
Taking a deepbreath, she brought her mind back to the business at hand. She hadtwo possibilities—werewolves or thugs—and neither one was overlypalatable, though she felt the thugs might be less of a threat. Atleast she could go to the authorities about them.
Checking herwatch, she decided to ask Mr. Bartlett to let her leave early. Ifshe went home now, she’d be able to talk to Kellen before he leftfor...well...wherever it was he went during the day. She’d put offdiscovering what sort of a mess he was in long enough; now it wastime to get to the bottom of things.
She grabbed herpurse from the small locker assigned to her. The bus would beleaving soon, so if she hurried...
Bryan hadrolled his eyes when the young woman ducked back behind a cerealdisplay. How she’d thought that could possibly hide her presence,he had no idea. Her scent gave her away just as easily as herphysical presence. She was definitely a werewolf—that had been easyto determine—but there was a subtle essence that was uniquelyher... He briefly closed his eyes and inhaled; exotic and spicy,with floral undertones.
That particularscent was one he couldn’t forget. It had plagued him for the pastthree years, ever since he’d caught the faintest whiff of it in themotel room in Kansas. The girl was definitely CassandraGreyson.
She’d peered athim for a moment before moving deeper into the store, her scentfading as it blended with those of the various foods for sale. He’dsnorted, wondering if she thought she was hiding her trail. If shedid, she was sadly mistaken. An experienced hunter such as himselfwouldn’t be easily led astray by the tempting aromas of meats andbaked goods.
Bryan shiftedhis gaze to the magazine racks and the large man lurking there. Nowthatwas an inexperienced hunter. The man had been staringat Cassandra Greyson for the last half hour while trying to lookinconspicuous by supposedly reading a magazine. The problem was thefellow hadn't turned a page the whole time, nor had he taken hiseyes off the young woman. Who was he and why was he watchingher?
The man hadmade no move to follow Cassandra when she left her work station. Ifhe had, Bryan would have followed. Instead, the fellow had made abrief phone call and then picked up his magazine again, apparentlyplanning on waiting until she reappeared.
Deciding theman wasn't planning on making any moves towards Cassandra in thenear future, Bryan nodded as the older woman beside him continuedto chatter away. He’d approached the senior citizen after payingfor the groceries he didn't need, but that were part of his cover.As he'd bagged the items, he’s struck up a conversation withCassandra’s elderly customer offering to carry her parcels to hercar. While she declined, it proved to be the perfect way to makeher acquaintance, just as he’d suspected.
“You’re justlike Sandy—that’s the girl who was working the checkout a minuteago. She wanted someone to help me as well, but I said no to hertoo. Such a sweetheart, she lives just a few blocks from me in thecutest little house. Her boyfriend, Kellen, shares it...”
He'd beenchecking on the magazine-man again when her statement caught hisfull attention The news that Cassandra—or Sandy as the woman calledher—was involved with someone didn’t sit well with him or his innerwolf. It was unreasonable to think the girl would have remainedunattached all these years, but that didn’t mean he had to like it.Such a living arrangement was...inconvenient to his presentpurpose.
Bryan tried toput a logical spin on his feelings; he had a right to be annoyed.If she was living with someone, it would make it all the moredifficult to bring her into the pack. She’d be reluctant to leavethe man behind and bringing a new wolf plus her human companioninto Canada... He shuddered to think of the complications.
They were atthe store’s exit now and Bryan let the older woman leave first. Shewas still talking about this Kellen person...
“—works heretoo, though it’s a night shift, so I’ve only seen him a few times.He’s a good looking fellow, but...” She shook her head, then leanedcloser whispering in a conspiratorial manner. “I’d never say it toSandy—I don’t believe in poking my nose into other people’sbusiness—but sometimes I wonder about her relationship with him.I’m sure he’s a fine young man, but I’m thinking he’s not the onefor her, They don’t see much of each other, what with workingopposite shifts, and she has this look about her—not exactlyunhappy—but as if she’s restless inside, like something importantis missing in her life.”
Bryan madesuitable noises and continued to walk beside the woman as she madeher way across the parking lot. So Cassandra—Sandy—seemed restless.He felt the corners of his mouth curve upward at the news. If herwolf was restless, it probably was feeling the strain of not beingpart of a pack. Well, he was here to offer a solution.
Mrs. Mitchellbid him farewell and climbed into her vehicle. He continued on hisway as if searching for his own car, but once the woman drove outof sight, he circled back. The man by the magazines was still inthe grocery store, and Bryan had no plans of leaving Cassandraunguarded until he knew the man's intentions.
His hand wasjust reaching for the door when the wind shifted and her scentdrifted by. What...? Bryan turned in a circle, scanning hissurroundings. Cars, shoppers, grocery carts.... There! He saw aslim dark haired woman getting on a bus! Instinct told him it wasdefinitely Cassandra Greyson.
As the buspulled away, he started to run across the parking lot, intent onfollowing her, but then drew himself to a stop. No. He’d have toshift into wolf form in order to keep up and somehow he suspectedthe citizens of Las Vegas wouldn’t be used to seeing a wolf runningdown the street, chasing a bus.
Bryan shiftedthe bag of useless groceries in his arms and glared in thedirection of the departing vehicle cursing himself for making sucha rookie mistake. Damn but he never should have taken his eyes offthe girl! Now he’d have to start searching for her all over again.He growled wishing he had her last name at least. Then he couldhave just used the phone book to find out where she lived, but allhe knew at this point was that she was known as Sandy.
All right, he’djust have to do things the hard way. First he’d find a map thatoutlined the city bus routes and then he’d follow it along until hecaught her scent again. She had to get off the damned bus at somepoint and then he’d have her.
As he headedback towards the small strip mall that contained the grocery store,he saw the large man from the magazine rack was leaning against awhite van, once again making a phone call. Bryan wished he wasclose enough to hear what was being said. Instead, he moved untilhe could at least see the license plate and committed it to memory.He'd have Daniel trace it for him once he got back to the motel,but first he had to track down Cassandra.
Compressing hislips, he grumbled discontentedly thinking of how long it might taketo pick up her scent again. Waves of heat rose from the sidewalkand he felt sweat trickling down the indent of his spine. Damn,they would have to be having an unseasonal heat wave just when hearrived in the city. He’d have heat stroke before he found her. Thecool forests of Northern Canada had never been so appealing.
Aldrich lookedover the information that Nate Graham had sent him. The Nevadasituation was salvageable, but only if they were able to get theiredge back. Things had been allowed to slide under the less thancompetent leadership of Eddie Perini.
Flickingthrough the pages, Aldrich shook his head in disbelief. He’d made aserious error in judgement when he’d permitted the man to playShylock. Perini wasn’t ruthless enough; his clients didn’t respecthim. The point returns weren’t nearly as high as they should be.Eddie needed to apply pressure, instil some fear. Fear kept peoplein line, not idle threats.
He threw thereport down in disgust. There was no excuse for this except poormanagement on Eddie’s part. Narrowing his eyes, Aldrich consideredthe possibilities.
At first, hewondered if he should just fold the company and take his losses,but... No. That smacked too much of giving in; it gave people thewrong impression. Even if he dispatched Eddie, the failure of thebusiness would still be a fact. Should word ever get out, it couldnegatively impact on his effectiveness in other areas of business.Failure clung to one’s name and reputation like gum to a shoe.
No, he had topull Dollar Niche out of the fire first. Once it was suitablyprofitable again, then he could rid himself of it. In the grandscheme of things the company was a minor concern, a leftover fromthe days when his goals hadn’t been quite so lofty. But he neededto exit the scene with his head held high.
Aldrich gave adecisive nod. Having chosen a course of action, there was no pointin waiting. He picked up the phone and dialled.
As it rang, hedrummed his fingers impatiently on the desk, waiting for an answer.Some might view his plan as a severe step, but it was necessary inorder to re-establish the fact that Dollar Niche was not a companyto be toyed with.
If memoryserved him correctly, Eddie was a squeamish sort. The man’sreaction to this new business plan might even prove to be mildlyamusing. Idly, Aldrich thought Eddie’s career choice was definitelyat odds with his personality; the man would have done better ifhe’d followed the elder Perini’s career path and become a part timepreacher. Bilking people out of their hard earned money withpromises of salvation didn’t involve any ‘rough stuff.’
Finally, thephone was answered, but a clattering noise met Aldrich’s ear as ifwhoever was picking it up wasn’t really paying attention and hadfumbled the receiver. The sounds of a sports announcer drifted overthe line and then, after some delay, an actual voice spoke.
“Eddie Perini.What can I do for you?” The man’s casual answer let Aldrich knowEddie hadn’t checked who was calling before answering. He sighed;still the same old Eddie, he thought to himself, always thinkinglife was a lark. They’d grown up in the same neighbourhood; givingEddie the job of managing the company had been an uncharacteristicspur of the moment decision based on that long ago friendship.Well, he’d known it before and this just reinforced the fact thatsentimentality had no place in business.
“Edward, thisis Leon Aldrich speaking.” Aldrich chuckled to himself, knowing theuse of the man’s formal name would rattle the fellow; memories ofMama Perini bellowing down the street drifted by while Eddie triedto gather his composure.
“Uh...Leon...er...Mr. Aldrich, sir. How are you? Nice of you tocall.”
Aldrich couldhear the nervousness in the man’s voice and mentally formed theimage of Eddie sitting up straighter and shuffling the papers onhis desk into some semblance of order as if the disorganized officecould actually be viewed through the phone. Good. The man had beenlazy in carrying out his duties and deserved to sweat a little.
“I’ve beengoing over the accounts and see no improvement since the last timewe talked.”
“Well...that’snot precisely true, Leon.”
Aldrich raisedhis brows at the man’s denial and leaned back in his chair. “I begto differ. My representative is in Vegas at this very moment,checking out the situation. Word on the street is that Dollar Nicheis seen as an easy mark.”
Eddie didn’tanswer immediately, no doubt realizing a noose was closing inaround him. “I wouldn’t say that exactly. I...I’ve gathered anumber of new clients—”
“Profitableclients? Or just men who use Dollar Niche because it’s seen as apushover?”
“No. Of coursenot. They’ve made their payments!”
“Paltry sums,Edward. These individuals have borrowed substantial amounts fromthe company and have reaped the benefits of our generosity.Repayment—swift repayment—is needed if the company is to make aprofit.” He kept his voice slow and calm, knowing the raspy soundwas more effective that way. At least the damned tracheotomy wasgood for something, he mused.
“Well... Someof these people don’t have that much lying around, you know. Theypay off what they can.”
“Edward, we arenot running a charity. People always claim to be hard up. Ifsufficient incentive is applied, they find the neededresources.”
“We pressurethem, Leon...er...sir.”
“Perhaps yourconcept of pressure is different from mine, because what I envisionas pressure would have yielded much greater results than those Isee on the page before me.”
“Uh... Exactlywhat are you getting at?”
“I need you toset an example. To show your clients you mean business. Choosesomeone and make sure everyone knows what happens when a personfalls behind in their payments.”
“You mean—” Theman’s gulp was audible over the phone line.
“I mean you dowhat is necessary, Edward, to make alastingimpression.This company has been falling apart over the past few years. Iadmit it’s partially my own fault. You obviously weren’t up to thejob...” He heard Eddie sputtering protests, but ignored theattempted interruption. “And I didn’t take sufficient notice of thequarterly reports. However, that is all water under the bridge. Thesituation will be reversed or someone will be held accountable. Idon’t think I need to spell out who, do I Edward?”
“No, sir.” Theanswer was given as part of a heavy sigh.
Aldrich smiledcoldly. “As long as we understand each other. Goodbye, Edward. I’llbe in touch.” He hung up the phone and leaned back in the chair.All that talking had been exhausting. Rotating his shoulders toease the tension, he contemplated his next move. Perhaps, he’d gofind Sylvia; she still kept the quaint British custom of afternoontea...
Hanging up thephone, Eddie Perini rubbed his hands over his face. God, he wasn’tcut out for this. He could do the lending, fake a tough guy voiceand issue threats to a mark, but carrying them out had never beenhis strong point. Having a guy roughed up a bit was one thing, butdoing serious bodily damage or going after a guy’s family...?
He lookedaround the room for inspiration, but found none. The place lookedlike it came from some Hollywood B-movie; worn furniture, dullpaint, the air stale with smoke. Beyond this office, the ‘waitingroom’ wasn’t much better, consisting of a few chairs lining thehallway. Yeah, it was pretty shoddy, but a high-class placewouldn’t draw in the type of customers they serviced.
Sure, DollarNiche wasn’t making the profits it did a few years back, but therewas a bloody recession going on! Even a shady business like thisone was feeling the pinch. He cursed Leon for sticking his nose inwhere it didn’t belong. The guy sat in some ivory tower surroundedby money and had no idea what happened in the real world. If theystarted beating up all the clients, people would hear about it andnew marks would shy away.
Eddie sighed.It was no use complaining. Aldrich was a bastard and if he didn’tfollow through, he’d be in big trouble; at best losing his job, atworst... Well, he didn’t want to think about that.
Rumours aboutLeon had grown over the years. The man had clawed his way up fromthe streets they’d both lived on to the position of a big timelawyer who worked almost exclusively for a multi-millionaire. Whensaid millionaire had been killed in an accidental shooting, it cameas no surprise to Eddie that the gun had been in Aldrich’s hand,though no blame had ever been laid. That, combined with whisperingsof how Aldrich had helped make certain individuals ‘disappear’ madepeople exercise extreme caution when dealing with the man. No oneknew for certain exactly what he was capable of doing and no onewas anxious to find out, either.
Pulling a thickfile forward, Eddie flipped through the pages, scanning the listsof names. He had to make an example of someone, but who? And how?Aldrich had insinuated serious injury or maybe even death. Eddie’sstomach lurched at the idea. He wasn’t into blood and had no desireto spend time in jail for murder. Maybe he should have become apart-time preacher like his father... Nah, he liked having hisweekends free.
Focussing onthe list in front of him, he muttered under his breath. He had noidea who he should choose. Deciding to let fate make the choice, heclosed his eyes and stabbed the page randomly with his finger.Okay, this was the guy. Eddie stared at the name and screwed up hisface, trying to picture who the man was, but nothing came tomind.
Shruggingphilosophically, he picked up the phone to call Hugh, his recentlyacquired ‘muscle.’ He’d hired Hugh just a few weeks ago. The manhad appeared at the office one day and before Eddie was even surehow it had happened, Hugh was working for him. Not that he minded.Hugh liked doing the leg work, checking up on clients, giving thema bit of a squeeze; Eddie preferred to hang around the office inthe air conditioning.
Hugh hadn’t hadmuch to do yet beyond shaking someone by the scruff of the neck, afact he often bemoaned. Apparently, Hugh appreciated opportunitiesto flex his muscles. Well, this would be his chance.
“Hugh? Eddiehere. I’ve got a job for you.”
The man on theother end of the line grunted and Eddie took that to mean Hugh waslistening. Either that or he’d just woken up.
“Yeah, the bigboss wants us to make an example of somebody. He thinks we’re beingtoo easy on the clients.”
Hugh’s gruntwas more enthusiastic than last time. Hugh liked action.
“So I need youto track down this guy for me, and bring him in. We’re going togive him an ultimatum and if he can’t keep it... Well, people willknow that if you don’t pay up, Dollar Niche means business.”
He listened asHugh gave his approval of the plan.
“What’s that?Oh yeah, the poor sucker’s name. It’s...uh...” Eddie checked thename he’d randomly picked. “It’s Anderson. Kellen Anderson.”
Cassie got offthe bus and hurried home, anxious to speak to Kellen. It wasobvious to her now that he’d been purposely avoiding her, ratherthan just a serendipitous series of events keeping them apart. Shefumed wondering what kind of a mess he was in and how much he owed.In the past, she’d relented and paid off his debts, all the whilescolding him for borrowing money he couldn’t repay. Afterwards hewas always repentant, staying on the straight and narrow for aperiod of time but then falling into the same trap again. He’d meetnew friends, start spending evenings ‘out with the guys’...
She shook herhead. Those nights out always led to trouble. She sighed heavily.They’d moved to a smaller house where they had to pay less rent,given up having a car and now relied on public transportation.Second hand stores and yard sales were frequented, yet still moneywas tight and Kellen just couldn’t see it and her patience wasgrowing thin. Kellen needed to be responsible. He needed to controlhimself.
The few peoplethat knew about Kellen’s gambling in the past had hinted that she’dbe better off without him. Mr. Bartlett had said as much just todaywhen she asked to leave early. There’d been a pitying look in hiseyes...
“When you bailhim out, you’re just enabling him.” The older man had said. “Youneed to let him hit rock bottom. That’s the only way to make himrealize how big his problem is and that he needs to getprofessional help.”
She’d thankedhim for his concern, but didn’t know if she could really turn herback on Kellen. Sure, she threatened to let him figure it out forhimself, but he’d done so much for her in the past. Wasn’tsupporting him a way to pay back his kindness?
Rounding thecorner, she saw that Kellen’s bike was gone and frowned. Had shemissed him? Perhaps he’d parked it out back to tinker on it. Themachine was old and always in need of some type of repair.
Climbing thesteps, she tried the front door. It was locked. Sighing, she pulledout her key and let herself in. Kellen wasn’t home. A glance in thekitchen revealed that he hadn’t left a note on the message board,not that she’d really expected one. He’d been disappearing on hisown a lot lately, only speaking in general terms of being out withfriends. In reality, that meant out gambling. And for the past fewdays... Well, she had no idea where he was. His bed was slept inand dirty dishes were in the sink, but other than that, there wasno sign of him. She rolled her eyes; so much for his great show ofrepentance the other night.
Cassie wanderedinto the living room and stuck her hands in her back pockets. Well,she’d wait for him. He had to come home sooner or later. In themeantime... She looked around. The living room was still relativelytidy, so perhaps she’d keep herself busy doing laundry.
As she gatheredclothes from the bedrooms, she thought about the man she’d seen atthe grocery store and wondered why he bothered her so much. It wentbeyond the fact that he might be a thug. His very presence had sether whole body on edge and had the creature inside her pacingrestlessly, whining and eager to be set loose.
A frisson offear swept over her at the thought of the beast escaping the tightreins she kept on it. Her body was already in a constant state oftension, always on guard, after the slip-up in the back yard theother day. She was careful of her thoughts and tried to avoidletting her mind drift for fear the creature might surface and gainthe upper hand. At night she only allowed herself to sleep lightly,in case deep slumber allowed the wolf to sneak past her defences.And now this man appeared, stirring the animal up, excitingit...
Yes, he’sthe one. He’s the answer...The words whispered in her mind andshe was almost tempted to question the creature. What ‘one?’ Theanswer to what?
It was utternonsense of course. Why would she waste her time talking to ananimal? Clamping her mouth tightly shut, she headed to the laundryroom, her arms full of dirty clothing. Absentmindedly, she sortedthe items by colour and checked pockets, frowning as she pulledloose change, matches, and a crumpled note from Kellen’s jeans. Whyhe couldn’t remember to empty his pockets before dumping hisclothes in the laundry? After all, he was supposedly the expert.She’d just learned how to do laundry a few years ago, yet here shewas... Her train of thought screeched to a halt as she glanced atthe note in her hand. She felt her eyes widen. He owed howmuch...?
Cassie actuallystumbled backward in shock. Fifty thousand dollars! What was hethinking to borrow that amount? She looked around the room and thenat the note again, hoping she’d been wrong. No. It was still thesame number of zeroes.
Her legs feltwobbly and she sat down on the small stool that was in the room. OhGod. This was way more than the usual amount. It wasn’t a fewthousand that he’d racked up playing small time poker with hisfriends.
She stared atthe note for a few minutes before crumpling it in her hand andswearing under her breath. Kellen had promised her he’d never getdeeply into debt again, like he’d been when they’d first met. Bymaxing out her credit cards and emptying all her accounts, she’dbeen able to pay off what he’d owed three years ago and still havea tidy nest egg left over, but this... This would take almosteverything she had saved!
Anger surgedinside her. That was her money in the bank; her safety net in caseshe ever needed to run. Why should she use it to bail Kellen outagain? No. She wouldn’t do it. Kellen had gone too far this time.Mr. Bartlett was right. If she kept rescuing him, he’d never learn;the cycle would never be broken.
Shaking with acombination of hurt, anger, and shock, she stumbled into the livingroom and sat down on the sofa, facing the door. She’d wait righthere and confront him as soon as he stepped in the door.
Damn the man!How dare he mess up her life this way? Wasn’t it enough that shehad to deal with being a werewolf? Well, this certainly explainedthe man at the grocery store. If Kellen owed this much money, theloan shark would be wanting weekly payments and wouldn’t be adverseto applying any kind of pressure needed to ensure Kellen coughed upthe amount. No wonder the creature inside her was fighting to getout. The man at the store obviously represented danger!
A niggle ofdoubt worked its way into her resolve to let Kellen take the fallfor his own actions. Could she stand by and let Kellen get hurt?She nibbled on her lip. Not really. But that didn’t mean she’d payoff the loan shark for him. No, once she knew the facts and ifthere really were threats being made against Kellen or herself,she’d contact the authorities.
The beastinside her whimpered and Cassie acknowledged that it had goodcause. She’d been living her life under the radar for three yearsnow. Her fake identity as Sandy Grant had served her well, but thenagain, it hadn’t come under close scrutiny either. And her use ofdrugs—not quite street drugs, but illegally purchased none theless—wasn’t something she wanted brought to light.
An angry snarlerupted from her mouth, surprising her. Even though it was justdays until the full moon, the creature had never done that before.Nervously, she clenched her fists on the arm of the chair exertingmore inner control. It was getting stronger, fighting against therestrictions she placed on it. Would she have to take medicationdaily to keep it under control?
Anotherdiscontented growl rose within her. The animal hated the drugs.They were a chemically induced jail that kept it from roaming as itwished. But necessary, she argued with herself, thinking of thepanic that had overwhelmed her just days ago. Las Vegas was highlypopulated and werewolves were dangerous. It—she—they—could killsomeone. Hadn’t she seen the power and destruction a creature suchas herself was capable of with her own eyes?
She bit her lipas another idea crossed her mind. If Kellen wasn’t here, how wouldshe get her pills? There were enough for another few months, butthen... Thoughts whirled in her mind as she contemplated all theimplications of Kellen’s gambling debt. Any course of action shetook would have far reaching consequences. Leaning her head backagainst the cushions, she closed her eyes and massaged her templeswith her finger tips as she tried to reason her way through thesituation.
Bryan paddeddown the street, pausing to sniff at each bus stop. So far no onehad given him a second glance, probably thinking he was someone’spet husky that had escaped from a backyard. He paused at a cornerand sat down in the shade cast by a mailbox, panting from theexcessive late afternoon heat. Las Vegas was no place for a wolf.His fur coat served him well in the cooler Canadian climate or evenin the north western United States where he’d grown up, but thiswas ridiculous. Once he found Cassandra, he promised himself alarge, cold drink.
At least it wascooler now than it had been in the middle of the afternoon. Fromall he’d heard, the temperatures would continue to drop as nightapproached. He squinted up at the sky, judging it to be aroundsupper time. His stomach growled in concurrence and he thoughtlongingly of the fast food restaurant that was directly across fromhis motel.
Realizing hewouldn’t be eating in the near future unless he managed to trackthe girl down, he rose to his feet. Giving his body a shake, hecontinued on his way, sniffing the ground as he went. A bus drovepast him and paused at the stop up ahead. He slowed his pace andwatched the people disembark and hurry on their way. Then thevehicle roared to life again, spewing exhaust his way. His coughedand sneezed as the smelly fumes irritated his sensitive nose.
Snorting toclear his airways of the obnoxious odours, he approached the busstop. Carefully, he sniffed the surrounding ground, then froze whena familiar scent tickled his nostrils. Exotic and spicy with floralundertones... That was it! He looked up sharply and gazed around.No one was watching him yet. He pulled his lips back in a wolfishgrin. Gotta love the way everyone minds their own business aroundhere, he thought to himself.
Nose to theground, he set off at a brisk pace, eager to find the Greyson girland make contact. She was a lone wolf but still young enough to behandled with ease. It was the wolves that had been on their own foryears that could prove dangerous. A wolf’s psyche wasn’t programmedto live a solitary lifestyle. After awhile, they usually becameunstable and then... Well, the options became more limited and lesspleasant.
But Cassandrawasn’t that far gone; he was sure of it. She might be experiencinga bit of mental conflict but that would be the extent of it. Andonce he talked to her and she saw reason, they’d head back to hismotel. He’d grab some food and then get cleaned up. The thought ofa shower made him grin; the grit of the city had invaded his furand he couldn’t wait to be rid of it.
His nailsclicked on the sidewalk, the heat from the sun-baked cementpenetrating the pads of his paws. He didn’t care; the joy oftracking filled him, pushing all other cares aside.
He sniffed thecorner of a mailbox and could almost envision her brushing againstit as she walked past. A little further down the road and he founda spot where she’d paused to cross the street, perhaps waiting fortraffic. Her hand had been pressed against a lamp post, the sweatand oil from her palm was as distinctive as a neon sign to him.
Bryan began toscan ahead, wondering if he’d catch sight of her even though heknew it was unlikely. His wolf wanted the thrill of sighting itsprey followed by a chase. Not this time boy, he told the beast.Chasing her down won’t enamour her to us. Besides we’re in a city,not the woods back home. We have to try to blend in. The beastwhined but conceded.
Padding arounda corner, he paused then picked up speed. Close, so close... There!She’d gone up this sidewalk. He trotted up to the house sniffingcarefully. Yes, this had to be her home; her scent permeated thesurrounding area. His wolf rumbled happily at the knowledge thatshe was nearby, his tail wagging. Circling around to the back ofthe building, he continued to sniff, analyzing the location. Nopets, a motorcycle partially dismantled, fresh laundry, a malehuman... The hair on his neck rose as he considered this last bitof information.
Mrs. Mitchell,the elderly lady at the grocery store, had mentioned that a man bythe name of Kellen lived here as well and this confirmed it. Theknowledge didn’t sit well with him or his wolf. Anger wafted fromthe beast within him and he struggled to stay in control and keepthe animal in check. He had no claim on the girl and couldn’t justattack the man she lived with, even though his presence was anunwanted complication.
Was the maninside at this moment? He cocked his ears and listened. The housewas silent so it was hard to know. He’d have to shift back intohuman form and knock on the door. Stepping into a shadowed areabehind the house, he transformed into a man again. Straighteninghis shirt, he was thankful once again that he didn’t need to worryabout the inconvenience of carrying clothing with him, like somehalf-blooded Lycans did. Appearing naked at the girl’s door woulddefinitely not make a good first impression. And should herboyfriend answer... He shook his head at the thought of thefireworks that could cause.
Walking alongthe side of the house, he scrutinized in the windows. Hmm...Curious. The first window revealed a very feminine bedroom withlace ruffled curtains while the next was a plain dark blue. Hepaused and tested the air outside this last window. Even morecurious. Unless his nose was deceiving him—which he seriouslydoubted—they didn’t share a bedroom; her scent was too weak. Thattidbit of knowledge pleased him no end.
Rounding thecorner, he went to the door, glancing in the front window, whichwas located just to the right. Even with a set of blinds, itoffered a perfect glimpse inside the living room. Through thepartially closed slats, he noted the worn furniture, the olderstyle TV and Cassandra. She was curled up on the sofa, soundasleep. Her hand cradled her cheek and her plump lips were softlyparted. He stared at them for a moment and imagined how they’d feelagainst his own; soft and warm, moistly sliding... His tongueslipped out of its own volition and wet his lips. It was as if hecould already taste her.
Curling hishands into fists, he forced his gaze to move on, noting her lasheswere as dark as her hair and fanned out over her cheeks in aperfect arc. They scarcely hid the dark mauve shadows marring theskin below her eyes. He scowled. It would seem she was exhausted.Protective instincts rose within him and he wondered why she wasn’tgetting the sleep she needed. His wolf pushed against itsrestraints, wanting to immediately enter the house and curl uparound her, offering protection and warmth as she rested.
We’ll keep hersafe. Once she knows she is ours her rest will be peaceful.
Bryan laughedsoftly. If only it were as simple as his wolf would like tobelieve. Something told him Cassandra wasn’t going to welcome himwith open arms. And the fact that she belonged to him...er...thepack, that is, would be a shock let alone the news about moving toCanada.
He stoodquietly watching her for a few more minutes, appreciating herbeauty. His wolf rumbled its approval as well. At the store she’dappeared to be of average height and build, though the cashier’sapron she’d worn had hidden her body from view. Now, her tight yogapants showed shapely thighs and delightfully curved hips.
Her top hadridden up and was twisted under her, baring part of her belly andpulling taut over luscious breasts. Cassandra Greyson was anenticing bundle and his palms tingled with a longing to stroke her.Somehow he knew her golden skin would be warm and supple to thetouch. His lids grew heavy as he thought about how it would feel tohave her naked body pressed against his, her softness complimentinghis hardness, her limbs entangled with his. The stirring of hisbody had him shifting uncomfortably. Damn, his wolf’s lustythoughts were invading his own. He cleared his throat and onceagain schooled his mind to the task before him.
He raised hishand intent on knocking, then hesitated just inches from the door.A frown marred his brow as he glanced upwards. The sky was startingto darken and she’d be surprised to find him at her door at thislate hour. And he still had no idea how he’d break the Finding toher either. Besides, she was sleeping so soundly, it seemed a shameto wake her when really nothing could happen until tomorrow.Perhaps he should return in the morning. She might be morereceptive after a good night’s sleep.
For a moment heweighed the pros and cons, before letting his hand fall to hisside. He knew he was coming up with excuses and couldn’t understandwhy his human half was reluctant to actually make contact with her.Was it because his wolf was so keen on her, he felt the need to actcontrary and assert his dominance over the beast?
Or because youare denying the truth that I already know?
Bryan frowned,displeased with the creature. His wolf was getting way too pushy asof late. They might be as one in most things, but when it cameright down to it, his human half was ultimately in charge. Liftinghis chin slightly, he stepped off the porch and away from thehouse, ignoring the animal’s protests. Tomorrow morning would besoon enough to talk to Cassandra. He’d head back to his room, getcleaned up and...
But what aboutthe other one?
Kellen? Herlive in?
The one inthe store.His wolf whined pathetically.
Damn! He’dalmost forgotten the guy who’d been watching Cassandra. Bryanpaused mid stride, looked around and lifting his head, tested theair. No one was about, but... Quickly, he decided to alter hisplans. He’d grab a bite then come back and spend the night under anearby shrub. If anyone approached, he’d be there to defend her.And if nothing happened, well, first thing in the morning, he’dapproach her as planned.
His wolfrumbled happily and Bryan sourly realized the beast had gotten itsown way. He sighed heavily and shook his head. We need to have along talk about who’s in charge, he warned the animal.
Hugh pulled thevan into a parking space down the road from Anderson’s home. Eddiewanted him to find the man and bring him in so this was the logicalplace to start. It also provided another opportunity to check outthe girl. He’d watched her at work earlier in the day; a prettylittle thing, probably with a Latino background. She seemedordinary enough, working an early shift at a grocery store, takinga bus to and from work. From what he’d observed she was good at herjob; quick, friendly with the customers... The only strange thingwas how she’d suddenly looked spooked and left work early.
There’d beennothing unusual that he could see. Just a line of customers anxiousto pay for their groceries. Still, something must have happenedsince she hadn’t appeared ill. Hugh knew he wasn’t the brightestman on the planet, but he was good at his job and when somethingwas off, he noticed. Something was off about Anderson’s woman;exactly what, remained to be discovered.
He glanced upand down the street. Typical suburbia, no one home during the dayand when they did come home at night they all hid inside, watchingTV or surfing the Net. It worked to his advantage; the fewerwitnesses the better.
A hat on hishead and a pair of sunglasses served as an easy disguise. Reachinginto the glove compartment, he pulled out a picture of a dog.Claiming he was looking for a lost pooch would explain his presenceshould anyone ask.
Sliding out ofthe vehicle, he crossed the street while surreptitiously checkingfor observers again. He strolled down the street as though he had apurpose for being there; peering into yards as if conducting asearch. When he reached Anderson’s, he tried to act like somethinghad caught his eye and walked up the driveway.
Hugh approachedthe front door. He’d knock and ask if he could search the backyard.It would give him a chance to see if Anderson was home. Intent onknocking, a casual glance in the front window revealed Anderson’swoman dozing on the sofa. Her head tilted onto the back rest, herarms were folded and a frown marred her brow even in sleep.Definitely not a happy home maker; she looked ready to chew someoneout. Anderson? Perhaps... Searching the interior he saw no sign ofmovement. The house seemed quiet. Instinct told him Anderson wasn’thome. He sighed. Now he’d have to go searching out the man’s otherhaunts.
He easedbackwards off the step, keeping one eye on the woman inside. Shedidn’t stir and he quietly breathed a sigh of relief. Good. Noawkward explanations needed as to why he was looking in her frontwindow. For a moment he hesitated, wondering if he should circlearound the house, go in the back way and ‘persuade her’ to revealAnderson’s whereabouts. It sounded like fun, but...
A glance overhis shoulder showed someone coming down the street. It was anelderly woman walking a dog. Damn. He’d better not chance it.Besides Eddie hadn’t sanctioned any action against thegirl...yet.
Maintaining hiscover, he continued down the block, moving away from thedog-walking woman and then back up the other side as if searchingfor his own pet. When he reached his van, he got back in andremoved his hat. Okay, no Anderson, so now what? He checked thebrief file he’d compiled on the man to see where he should nextlook.
Since Hugh hadstarted at Dollar Niche, he’d made a point of checking out quite afew of the clients who owed larger amounts. Eddie never bothered,but Hugh firmly believed in knowing who he was up against. InAnderson’s case, his research revealed a simple gambler in over hishead, nothing else.
Hugh drummedhis fingers on the steering wheel for a moment, then gave a nod.Anderson had been referred to Dollar Niche by a fellow named Scott.Scott’s address was on file; he’d go there next. Starting theengine, he eased away from the curb. Anderson had a meeting toattend and Hugh intended that he’d keep the appointment.
Kellen stood inthe depressing hallway, his fists shoved into his coat pockets, andhis shoulders hunched. It had to be at least two in the morning andthe chill of the desert air had crept into the building making himshiver slightly. He hadn’t planned on being here, but Hugh—he shota glance at the muscle bound man who stood a few feet away—had beeninsistent that he meet with ‘the boss.’ When Hugh insisted, Kellensuspected few declined. He rolled his shoulder, still able to feelthe impression of Hugh’s fingers there.
He’d been at apoker game, just as he had been every day for the past three days,trying to win enough to pay off the huge debt he’d accumulated,when Hugh appeared. How the man had found him, he didn’t know, butHugh claimed to be a representative of Dollar Niche and that KellenAnderson’s presence was requested immediately at the office.
So here he was,waiting to talk to Eddie Perini about the considerable debt he’drun up. Dollar Niche was basically a loan sharking business thatasked no questions and charged exorbitant interest rates. He hadn’tset out to borrow money from them, but when a winning streaksuddenly cooled, he’d been desperate for funds so he could stay inthe game. His new friend, Scott, had made a phone call to DollarNiche and gotten him a small loan and that’s when the trouble hadstarted. The game had continued to sour. He’d borrowed more, hopingto recoup his losses, but the downward slide wouldn’t stop.
Now the peoplewho ran the business wanted to talk to him about the fifty thousandhe owed. His first week’s payment was due and somehow they musthave discovered he didn’t have enough to cover the amount. Well, itwas just his first installment, he thought hopefully. They wouldn’tbe too rough on him and from what he’d heard, Dollar Niche was oneof the easier establishments to deal with. He thanked his luckystars over that one.
Kellen easedhis weight onto his other leg, wondering how long he’d have towait. It was getting late and he’d already missed his shift atwork—again. That wouldn’t go over well with Sandy or Mr. Bartlett.He hoped he could talk the man into giving him another chance.Sandy would kill him if he lost that job.
Trying todistract himself, he began reading the various flyers posted on thewall across from him. Free kittens, religious revivals, usedfurniture for sale; it was an eclectic mix. One in particularcaught his attention. It was half hidden under another page thatwas advertising cleaning services, but something about thepartially covered colour photograph niggled at him. He stepped awayfrom the wall, intent on getting a closer look.
“Where are yougoing?” Hugh stood up straight and grumbled at him, thick armscrossed over his chest.
Kellen gave alopsided grin and nodded his head towards the wall. “Just lookingat the flyers posted over there. You never know when you might findsomething you need. My carpets need cleaning and this seems like agood deal.”
Hugh gruntedand returned to leaning against the wall in a half dozingstate.
Doing his bestto ignore the man, Kellen lifted the cleaning ad out of the way andthen inhaled sharply. He was staring a picture of Sandy! Blinking,he studied it carefully, thinking he must be mistaken, but hewasn’t. It was her—a few years younger possibly—but definitelyher.
Careful to notattract Hugh’s attention, he scanned the page. Cassandra Greyson.Missing Heiress. Apparently she’d disappeared about three years agoand there was a hundred thousand dollar reward for informationleading to her whereabouts. There was a number to contact, too.
He gulped.Sandy was an heiress? And whoever was looking for her was willingto pay one hundred grand for information about her. Wow! She mustbe worth a fortune if they were offering that kind of money. But ifshe was rich, why was she hiding in the Las Vegas suburbs andworking in a grocery store?
Kellen recalledhow he’d found her standing at the edge of an alley lookingconfused and utterly lost. She’d been dishevelled and hungry.They’d had breakfast together and on a whim he’d offered hisapartment as a temporary crash pad. Surprisingly enough, she’daccepted.
That night,she’d awoken screaming and once he’d calmed her down, she’d slowlytold him a bit of her story. How she’d seen her uncle killed andanother man murdered. How one of the killers might still be lookingfor her. He’d suggested going to the police and she’d been adamantthat she couldn’t. Supposing she’d witnessed some illegaldeal—maybe drugs or arms—and just wanted to start a new life awayfrom a seedy past, he hadn’t pressed the issue.
Furrowing hisbrow, he realized that if she was indeed an heiress, it wouldexplain why she hadn’t known how to complete even the simplest ofdaily tasks. That part had always puzzled him. She hadn’t been ableto cook or clean, had no idea how to do laundry or use publictransit. Now it all made sense. Sandy—Cassandra, he correctedhimself—had likely been raised like a princess in an ivory tower.He chuckled to himself thinking of how the ‘princess’ had cleanedhis toilet and washed his socks.
Raised voicesbroke into his thoughts and he turned towards the source, lettingthe cleaning ad fall down over Sandy’s picture. The noise wascoming from the office at the end of the hallway. The door swungopen banging loudly against the wall and a middle-aged man stumbledout, his face ashen.
“And you betterhave the money next week if you know what’s good for you. DollarNiche is tired of carrying you along. Pay up or else.” An angryvoice blared out of the office and the man nodded as he backedaway. Turning, he cast a nervous glance at Hugh then gave Kellen asympathetic nod before hurrying around the corner out of sight.
Kellen inhaleddeeply and straightened his shoulders. Okay. Yelling and verbalthreats. He could handle that.
Hugh grunted.“Your turn.”
“Thanks.”Kellen nodded as he walked past, but Hugh didn’t respond whichwasn’t surprising. Stepping into the office, he looked aroundbriefly before settling his gaze on the man who was walking aroundthe desk. The fellow was breathing deeply, as if trying to calmhimself down, which Kellen supposed he was. Yelling that loudlywould tend to work a body up.
Running hishands through his hair, the man eased down into his chair andnegligently waved a hand at him.
“Mr. Anderson,I’m Eddie Perini. Please, take a seat.”
Slowly, Kellenwalked towards the chair indicated and sat down, not sure what toexpect. The man before him didn’t look like a mobster. He wasaverage size, had dull brown hair, wore a rumpled shirt, and neededa shave. In fact it was hard to believe this mild mannered man wasthe person who’d been yelling just a minute ago.
“Forgive theunpleasantness you overheard just now. Frank—the man who was herebefore you—just needed a pep talk to keep him motivated.” Eddiechuckled and looked pleased with himself.
Kellen noddedand eyed Eddie warily.
“I’m sureyou’re wondering why I’ve brought you here.”
“The thoughtdid cross my mind.” Kellen shifted in his seat, not at all surewhat the protocol for this situation might be and not trusting thecalm facade the man was presenting.
Eddie Perinismiled slightly. “I’m sure it did. You owe us quite a large sum,Mr. Anderson.”
Kellen wincedand licked his lips nervously before replying. “I know. The firstpayment is due tomorrow.” There was no point in denying the truth.It might make the fellow angry and he’d prefer to remain on theman’s good side. After all, Eddie did control the blond gorilla inthe hallway known as Hugh.
“And will yoube able to make the required payment?”
The man raisedhis brows. “As I suspected.” He steepled his fingers and peered atKellen for a moment before speaking. “Mr. Anderson, I’m not aviolent man. I’m a business man. I lend money for a fee and thenawait payment. When payment is made on time, I’m happy and my bossis happy. When payments are late... Well, it causes distress.”
Not sure whatto say, Kellen gave a slight nod. Eddie continued.
“Normally, Ibelieve in giving my clients the benefit of the doubt. Most peopleare honest and try to pay me back as soon as possible, but noteveryone has the same philosophy as me. My boss for example. Heis...displeased...with the rate of return we are getting on ourinvestments. As you just heard with Frank, I’ve upped my usuallevel of incentives. However, Leon—my boss—doesn’t feel that issufficient. He wants me to make an example of someone.”
“An example?”Kellen didn’t like the turn this conversation seemed to be taking.He’d watched enough movies to know that ‘examples’ could have theirlegs broken, fingers removed, or even be killed. A cold sweat brokeout on his body. Bravery was never one of the qualities he’dclaimed to have. Whenever possible he avoided unpleasantness. Thiscouldn’t be happening to him!
“Correct. Itupsets me to tell you this, but... you’ve been chosen as theexample.”
“Me?” Kellengripped the arms of the chair, his stomach feeling as if it haddropped to the floor.
“Yes,unfortunately yours is the name that was picked.”
“But...but...the first payment isn’t even due until tomorrow!”Kellen leaned forward, pleading his case. Even as he spoke, therewas a buzzing sound in his ears and the room seemed to grow darker.There wasn’t enough air either. He hoped he wouldn’t pass out.
“Technically,it’s already tomorrow, but let’s not split hairs. I have a proposalfor you. If you can make your payment on time, I’d have no reasonto use you as my example. Instead, I could report to my boss thatthe mere threat was enough to bring you to heel.”
“All right. Ican do that.” Kellen swallowed dryly and nodded in agreement, notsure how he’d make the payment, but willing to promise anything.The darkness that had been encroaching on his vision started tofade and the tightness in his chest eased.
“I was hopingyou’d say that. As you might have guessed, I’m a civilized man.Carrying out my boss’s instructions with respect to this matter haslittle appeal to me, but I will if necessary. Might I ask how youplan to get the needed funds?”
“Um...” Hewracked his brain. “A friend of mine. She has a lot of money.”
“And thisfriend is willing to lend you money now, but she wouldn’t earlieron?”
Kellen noddedvaguely thinking that his head must be going up and down like oneof those bobble-headed ornaments on the dash board of a car. “Ididn’t want to bother her.”
He prayed Sandywould come through for him one last time even though she’d said shewouldn’t bail him out again. She’d threatened that before, butalways caved in if he begged hard enough. Hopefully she hadsufficient savings in her bank account... Wait. She was an heiress.Of course she’d have enough money!
A wave ofrelief washed over him. Why was he worrying? He relaxed his tensemuscles, a slight smile forming on his lips. Standing up, he cockedhis head to the side and raised a brow, feeling more confident thanhe had just a moment ago. “Can I go now?”
“Of course.”Eddie eyed him with a curious expression. “And Mr. Anderson? I’llbe sending Hugh to your house around noon.”
Kellen startedto nod, but then stopped himself. Reaching back, he grasped thedoor knob. “Sure. That won’t be a problem.”
“Good. Couldyou ask Hugh to come in as you leave?”
Kellen gaveEddie Perini a quick salute and exited the room. As he walked downthe hallway, he paused near the poster that claimed Sandy was anheiress. Checking over his shoulder to ensure that Hugh was in theoffice, he ripped the paper from the wall and shoved it in hispocket. He suppressed the desire to whistle as he ambled down thenarrow stairway. Lady luck was on his side again!
Hugh leanedagainst the doorway and observed his ‘boss.’ The man was grinninglike a Cheshire cat.
“That was agood performance, wasn’t it Hugh?” Eddie leaned back in his chairand propped his feet on the desk. “Anderson really believed I wassome big crime lord. The way I yelled at poor Frank and then was sooverly polite with him. And I loved the way I said ‘late paymentscause...distress’ in that cool, detached way. Anderson will berunning home and finding some cash, I’m sure of it.”
Grunting, Hughsat down not nearly as gleeful as Eddie. He’d overheard the wholeconversation and Anderson had seemed too certain he could find theneeded money in time. Something was off about that; furtherinvestigating was definitely in order. “Perhaps. But what if hedoesn’t?”
Eddie droppedhis feet to the floor, his expression sobering. “For his sake Ihope he manages. Aldrich really wants results; greedy oldbastard.”
Ignoring thelatter comment, Hugh gave an update on Anderson, unsolicited thoughit was. “I’ve checked out Anderson. He lives with a girl and theyboth work at a grocery store; both low income jobs. They rent asmall house, but Anderson does own a motorcycle. It’s old, but somemight call it a classic, though you’d need to find the rightbuyer.” He shrugged. “If you want money from him, the best bet isto go after the girl. She leaves for work pretty early in themorning; usually no one’s around. I can grab her easily. Andersonwill find a way to cough up some money for her sake.”
Eddie rubbedhis chin. “No. Hold off on that. He said his friend has some money.Let’s give the guy a chance. If Anderson doesn’t come through witha substantial payment tomorrow, we can still try Aldrich’s way. Noharm done in waiting. Aldrich isn’t here. He has no idea what’sreally going on.”
Hugh stared atEddie thoughtfully. “Sure, you’re the boss.” He managed to keep hisvoice neutral.
Eddie burpedloudly and grimaced. “This sort of stuff is bad for my digestion.I’m heading home. Can you lock up?” Hugh nodded and Eddie grabbedhis jacket, swinging it over his shoulder as if he hadn’t a care inthe world. He didn’t even bother to lock the filing cabinets.
Such negligencecould prove deadly in this business, Hugh thought as he staredaround the tired room. The decor reflected Eddie’s carelessattitude. Worn furniture, papers strewn about, file drawers leftpartially open. Giving a derisive smile, he went to the smallwindow and pulled the blind slightly aside so he could see thedimly lit alley below. After a few minutes a door opened and ashadowy figure stepped out. A security light briefly illuminatedthe individual and revealed that Eddie was heading for his car.
Satisfied thathe was alone, Hugh let the blind fall back into place and wanderedover to the filing cabinet. He pulled a drawer open and beganrifling through, pausing every now and then to read a bit here andthere.
Nate Graham hadhired him to get inside Dollar Niche and find out how the businessoperated. Hugh wasn’t too sure why Graham wanted the information,but he was getting paid and that was what mattered. Well, that andthe fact that he might get to beat somebody up. That was an addedbonus.
Hugh knew somemight question his ethics; working for two different employers,being paid to spy on one of them. He shrugged. Such minor detailsdidn’t bother him. It was a cut throat world and he was availableto the highest bidder, plain and simple. Sure he was clever enoughto ‘make something of himself’ as his granny used to say, but usinghis brain had never appealed that much. It was the darker side oflife that drew him.
He copied a fewpages to give to Nate and shoved them in his pocket. He’d drop themoff then cruise by Anderson’s place again. There was somethingstrange about that setup and he wanted to know what it was.
Bryan shiveredand bit back a sneeze. It had been drizzling for almost an hournow. Vegas wasn’t known for its rainfall, but given his luck, hewasn’t surprised that it was happening tonight when he was sleepingoutside. Between the dampness and the cool night temperatures hewas miserable.
The localvegetation provided minimal shelter. Cassandra’s yard was a typicaldesert garden with cacti and... He frowned up at the plant he washuddled near wondering what it was called. An agave? Or maybe ayucca? Whatever it was, he’d give almost anything for a good oldbroad leaf maple that would keep the water from dripping on hishead.
Feeling sorryfor himself, he rested his chin on his paws and kept one eye on thehouse, the other on the road. It had been a quiet night; just a fewvehicles passing by. No one had approached the house, not even thisKellen character she lived with.
Bryan’s wolfsnorted.What type of male leaves his female alone all night?It’s obvious he doesn’t care. Once she is ours, such a situationwill never occur.
She isn’t ours,buddy. Bryan felt it necessary to remind the animal within of thatimportant point. Sure, Cassandra is a lovely little bundle, butthat doesn’t mean anything. There are lots of women in Las Vegas.Remember the one at the car rental? He paused expectantly, but hiswolf wasn’t impressed and retreated to mope.
Grimacing, heconceded the animal had a point. Cassandra was much more alluringthan the redhead. An image of her pressed flush to his body poppedinto his head and he was sure he could smell her heady scent, feelher warmth, taste her... His body stirred in response to his mentalimagery and Bryan had the distinct impression that his wolf wassmirking.
Sighing at thecontrary creature, Bryan lifted an eyebrow and watched with casualinterest as a white van come down the street. It slowed as itapproached and he raised his head to watch more closely. This van,or a similar one, had been by before. He squinted trying to see thedriver, but could only make out a silhouetted figure. Sitting upcompletely, he tested the air for a scent. It was vaguelyfamiliar... Hadn’t he detected it around the house when he returnedafter eating? He’d assumed a friend or neighbour had stopped by,but this wasn’t the usual time for social calls.
When the vancame to a complete stop, he got to his feet, ready for action ifneed be. He sensed the driver was hesitating, wondering if heshould stay in the vehicle or get out and take a closer look at thehouse.
Just as thevan’s door began to creak open, a figure appeared strolling downthe sidewalk. Someone was out walking their dog in the rain! Bryanscowled, but stepped back and shifted into his human self. Whilehis wolf form was better for sneaking up on the individual in thevan, it would attract the dog’s attention more. He pressed himselfback into the shadows and watched.
Whoever was inthe van, noticed the dog-walker as well, for the door slammed shutand the van started. It pulled away sedately, and Bryan narrowedhis eyes. Whoever was driving knew how not to attractattention.
Stepping out ofhis hiding place, he quickly walked to the road, trying to catch aglimpse of the license plate, but the van was already turning thecorner. Hmm...wasn’t it the same van he’d seen in the grocery storeparking lot the previous day? If so, he already had the platescommitted to memory. Now he just needed time to send them to Danielto be traced. He cursed himself for not taking care of that littlejob earlier.
Questionsbounced about in his brain. Why was this guy watching CassandraGreyson? He’d been observing her at work and then snooping aroundthe house earlier this evening. Was the man a stalker or a rejectedboyfriend? Or was there some other reason for his interest? Afrustrated growl sounded low in Bryan’s throat. No one had theright to be watching Cassandra except himself! He turned abruptly,intending to return to his hiding place and resume his guardduties.
“Hello!” Avoice—elderly and female—called out and Bryan swivelled his headtowards it. Mrs. Mitchell, the elderly lady from the grocery storewas approaching, with an overweight dachshund trotting besideher.
“Mrs. Mitchell,nice to see you again.” He nodded and tried to look casual, as ifhe belonged in the neighbourhood.
She beamed upat him. “You like walks in the rain, too, I see.”
He opened hismouth to answer, but she continued on without waiting for areply.
“We don’t getmuch rain so when we have the chance, Netty and I head out, nomatter what time it might be.”
Bryan glancedat the fat dog that he assumed was Netty. It didn’t appear to beenjoying the rain at all. Instead it was staring woefully at him,its eyes begging for an appeal from the damp, early morningouting.
“I know how youfeel.” He muttered under his breath as he wiped a raindrop from hiseye, then pulled at the damp shirt that stuck to his chest.
Mrs. Mitchelldidn’t seem to notice. “You must have just moved here. I know allthe neighbours. You’re in the Thompson’s old house, I bet!” Shepatted his arm and nodded towards Cassandra’s house. “That’s whereSandy lives. You remember her, the girl from the grocery store?You’re almost next door neighbours now. If I were you, I’d takelots of walks down this street. You might bump into her and I thinkyou might be just what she needs.”
The older womanglanced towards the horizon. “The sun will be rising soon. It’sgoing to be a beautiful day, you know. The desert always bloomsafter a rain. Well, we’d better be on our way. Come along, Netty.I’m sure I’ll see you around, Mr... Er... What was your nameagain?”
“Mr. Bryan. Ofcourse. I’ll have to try to remember that.” She smiled at him thenjiggled Netty’s leash and headed on her way.
He shook hishead as he watched her disappear around the corner. Strange woman,he thought. There was something off about her, though. Was it justold age or...? Cocking his head to the side, he considered theirexchange. She hadn’t told any lies, he was sure of it—humans gaveoff a number of signals when they were being deceptive—but shehadn’t been completely honest either. Pursing his lips heconsidered the situation, then decided to forget about it. Mrs.Mitchell was an interesting old lady, but in the grand scheme ofthings, had little impact on him and his dealings withCassandra.
Using hissleeve to wipe the rain from his face, he glanced down and frownedat the damp material that clung to his body. Going back to themotel and changing sounded eminently appealing, but even as theidea came to him, a light flicked on inside the house. Cassandrawas awake. Hmm... He couldn’t just stand around on the sidewalk,staring at the house. One of the neighbours might notice. Perhaps,he’d just wait beside her house. When she came out, he’d walk up toher casually and introduce himself.
Cassie awoke toa vague feeling of discomfort in her neck and back. Gingerly shestretched and tried to roll over, moaning as pain shot through herbody. She grimaced, and opened her eyes, slowly coming to realizethat she was in the living room. No wonder she was stiff, she’dspent the night sleeping on the couch.
She yawned andstood up, more aches and pains making themselves known. Glancing ather watch, she saw that it was still early, barely five-thirty. Afaint brightness was just appearing in the sky outside her window.Stumbling into the kitchen she prepared the coffee maker, then madeher way to the bathroom, functioning on autopilot.
It wasn’t untilshe’d stood under the hot shower spray for a few minutes that herbrain suddenly registered the fact that she’d been waiting up forKellen. Had he come home last night? Scrunching up her brow, shetried to recall if she’d heard him or not, but her mind was ablank. She’d slept soundly last night, which was strange given heruncomfortable location. For some reason a feeling of security hadwrapped itself around her, as if all was right with the world and aguardian angel was watching over her. A foolish idea though. Nodoubt, she’d finally been overtaken by sheer exhaustion.Thankfully, it appeared the animal inside her had slept too.
Quickly, shefinished her morning ablutions, wrapped herself in her bathrobe,and hurried down the hall in search of Kellen. They really neededto talk. She stood outside his bedroom, listening intently for amoment, but heard nothing. Giving the door a soft knock, she calledhis name and turned the handle. A peek inside showed her that hisbed hadn’t been slept in and his work uniform was still lying onthe chair beside his bed.
Exhalingloudly, she ran her hands through her damp hair in exasperation. Hehadn’t gone to work and he hadn’t come home. That could mean onlyone thing, he’d spent his night gambling again. Damn him! Wasn’t hedeeply enough in debt? He owed fifty thousand dollars! Was hetrying to make it up to a hundred? She felt tears of frustrationand anger welling in her eyes.
Slamming thedoor, she stomped into her own room and began to get dressed,pulling on her clothing while muttering dire threats under herbreath. He’d definitely lost his job, if he’d missed work againlast night. Mr. Bartlett had already been more than understandingwhen it came to Kellen.
She yanked acomb through her hair and pulled it back in a pony tail. This wasjust great. She’d be their sole bread winner again. With only halfthe income, how the hell were they supposed to pay rent and buygroceries, let alone try to pay off the money he owed?
Shoving herfeet into her shoes, she headed to the kitchen, the smell of freshcoffee doing little to sooth her spirit. Leaning her hip againstthe counter, she sipped the bitter brew and scowled, contemplatingall the things she’d say to Kellen once she finally tracked himdown.
It was early toleave for work, but she decided to go anyway. Staying at home wouldonly make her angrier. Maybe she’d even walk to the store, it mighthelp burn off some of the anger inside her.
Turning off thecoffee maker, she grabbed her purse and headed out the front door,only to freeze on the front step. Something was different.Narrowing her eyes, she looked around. It had rained last night; anunusual event to be sure, but that wasn’t what had caught herattention. A strange scent was assaulting her nose. The animalinside her was instantly alert and pressing against its boundaries.She could sense the change within her. Suddenly, her ears seemedmore attuned to the sounds around her, her skin seemed moresensitive to the air pressure. Even though the light of dawn wasbarely breaking, her eyesight was more acute than ever, catchingthe minute movements of insects. Slowly she turned her head,searching the shadows for anomalies.
Something washere, something vaguely recognizable that called to the animalwithin her. Slowly, she bent and set down her purse, keeping awatchful eye on her surroundings. Instinct was telling her to becautious. There was danger nearby, but... She sniffed the air; itwas alluring too. Her heart was beating faster, her skin seemed totingle and warmth was pooling in her belly, stirring a memory.
She’d had thedream last night. The wolf had chased her, caught her, and forcedher to the ground. It had been more realistic than ever; the feelof his hot breath, the weight and power of his body pressed tohers, his scent surrounding her...
Cassie’s eyeswidened when she realized it was the same scent. The one from herdream was here, floating on the air around her house. Frightened,yet inexplicably drawn to it, she stepped off the porch and beganto walk down the path that led to the driveway.
The scent wasgetting stronger. Her breathing quickened as excitement racedthrough her. The beast inside strained to reach the source. Pulledby some instinct she didn’t understand, her feet unerringly led herto the edge of the house. She turned the corner and...screamed!
The shadowyfigure of a man stood just at the edge of the building. Before shecould even think, he grabbed her, spinning her around and clampinga hand over her mouth, effectively stifling her cry. Instinctivelyshe struggled, but he easily stilled her movements wrapping his armaround her waist and pressing her back tightly to his chest.
“Shh! You’llwake the neighbours,”he scolded into her ear. His hot breathtickled against her skin, sending shivers down her spine and shefroze, surprised by her own reaction., He used her momentarystillness to his advantage, turning her face so that she waslooking over her shoulder and staring up into his eyes. Hazel eyes.A thrill shot through her as their gazes locked and she foundherself unable to look away. They were so close, she could feel hisbreath against her face, fill her lungs with his scent. There was acompelling power about him that held her transfixed, unable tothink or move.
His mouthquirked in a smile and amusement danced in his eyes. “That’sbetter. Now, if I let you go, will you behave?”
Cassie foundherself nodding and wondered why. This man had no control over heryet her free will seemed to be disappearing. Some part of herselfthat she wasn’t even aware of was taking over, willingly bowingdown before him.
He released herand stepped back, holding out his hand. “Hi! I’m Bryan.”
She stared downat his hand for a moment, feeling dazed. The man had seemed toappear out of nowhere, lurking around her house at an hour whenmost people were just getting out of bed. The shock of him justbeing there,when she hadn’t really expected to seeanyone, had made her scream and now he was holding out his handmaking polite introductions? And she was just standing there? Okay,something was wrong with this picture.
He’s not athreat to us, the voice inside assured her.
Why shebelieved the voice, she didn’t know. It wasn’t like she and thecreature were on speaking terms. The thought crossed her mind thatshe should be running and calling for help. Men with honourableintentions didn’t lurk outside your home in the early morninghours. Her brain acknowledged the facts, but seemed to just standback and blithely watch as she responded to the man’s greeting.
“Um... Hi!” Shebrushed a few strands of stray hair from her face and then slowlytook his hand. Heat rushed up her arm at the contact and she brokefree quickly, flexing her fingers and frowning at the unusualreaction.
She looked upat him warily, wondering how he knew her name. Then the sun’s raysbroke over the roof tops and his face was suddenly illuminatedclearly. A gasp escaped her lips as she realized she had seen himbefore. He was the man from the store!.
Fear rushedthrough her, breaking through the strange calm that had washed overher. Her mind raced as she stared at him with increasingtrepidation. Oh, this was not good. It couldn’t be a coincidencethat he ended up outside her house after watching her so intentlyin the grocery store. And how had he found out where she livedanyway? Her human logic told her he was probably some kind ofstalker. The animal inside whined in protest at the idea, but shemanaged to ignore it.
“Er... Nice tomeet you, but I have to go now...” Cassie started to back up andthe man—he’d called himself Bryan—frowned at her, possiblyrealizing she’d recognized him.
He took a stepcloser to her. “There’s no need to be afraid—”
The thoughtflitted through her mind that those were the words every psychoused just before attacking. Giving no warning, she pivoted and ranback towards the front door.
“Hey!” Theman—Bryan—shouted and followed her.
She could hearhis steps close behind her, sensed him reaching, trying to catchher. Panic began to rise inside of her and she urged her legs tomove even faster. His fingers fumbled, then clamped around herupper arm. Her body spun around as her forward momentum reacted tothe sudden tug on her arm. A feral sound, half scream, half growl,ripped from her throat. His hands grabbed at her. She started tostruggle, her vision blurred. Her whole body seemed to vibrate witha strange energy as survival instincts kicked in.
“Oh no youdon’t.” Bryan’s voice growled in her ear, but she had difficultyfocussing. Everything felt so strange, as if her body wasn’t quiteher own. “Changing into a wolf won’t help you escape me. Not that Iwouldn’t enjoy a good hunt—I could easily outrun you and take youdown—but that might not go over so well here in the suburbs. Solet’s just make things simple. I’m your Beta and I’m ordering youto not change.”
As if someonehad pulled a plug, the strange feeling began to subside, but shepaid little attention to the fact. His words rang ominously in herhead.
“Beta? Wolf?What are you talking about?” She stared at him, frozen in horror.He knew! Somehow he knew! How had she been discovered? Her heartwas pounding so hard she was sure he must be able to hear it. Thiswas her worst nightmare. He couldn’t know. No one knew, justherself and her uncle. Not even Kellen was privy to her secret;she’d taken great pains to ensure that fact. Besides, she’d neveractually transformed completely so no one could have seen her; shestayed locked in her room, drugged almost out her mind during thedangerous phases of the moon...
It couldn’t betrue. The only way he could know she was werewolf was if he weresomehow connected to the incident in Chicago. She shook her head indenial. No! It couldn’t be happening. Not now after all theseyears. Suddenly the frozen state she was in disappeared and shebegan to kick and squirm. She had to get away. Her very survivaldepended on it.
His fingers bitinto her arms even more tightly as she struggled and she winced atthe controlled strength she felt emanating from him. Her dreams hadnever been this real... She looked around frantically. Where werethe neighbours? Why wasn’t someone outside and coming to herrescue? Perhaps, it was all a bad dream. Surely, she’d wake up anyminute and find out it was just a new twist on the dream shefrequently had.
“Cassandra,behave!” He growled the words at her as he thwarted all herattempts to free herself. “You know exactly what I’m talking about.I’m the Beta of our werewolf pack and you’re coming with me.”
“Werewolf pack?Going with you?” Her voice rose as terror gripped her. He was oneof them! Oh God, no! She couldn’t go with him. Werewolves weremonsters. They murdered people. She’d seen it with her own eyes.She wasn’t like that! She’d never be one of them. Never!
“No!” A rush ofenergy such as she’d never felt before burst from her and sheripped herself from his arms, stumbling backwards. As if in slowmotion she felt herself falling, the impact of the cement ripplingup her spine as her rear end struck the ground. Then the rest ofher body tipped back and she caught a glimpse of Bryan’s shockedface, followed by a view of the sky as she continued to bepropelled backwards. Finally pain exploded in her head as her skullstruck the edge of the step and then...darkness.
Kellen satnursing a cup of coffee in his favourite restaurant. It wasn’t anexpensive place, more of a diner than an actual restaurant, but thefood was good, and the prices weren’t inflated.
He rubbed hischin, a slight smile playing over his lips. Expense might not be aproblem in the near future. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled outa piece of paper and stared at it; one hundred thousand dollars forinformation leading to the whereabouts of Cassandra Greyson. It wasa staggering sum of money and who knows, he might even get moresince he not only had information. He had the actual girl!
This was a turnof fortune that he’d never foreseen. As a matter of habit, he neverlooked at the bits of paper posted on bulletin boards. Sandy’spicture might have been posted for ages and he would never haveseen it. Apparently Lady Luck was back on his side. Why else wouldshe have put him in a hallway directly across from Sandy’s picture?To think he’d been shaking in his boots, when the answer to all hisproblems was already with him. He laughed softly and leaned back inhis seat to stare out the window, dreaming of the future.
What would hedo with the left over money, once he’d paid off Dollar Niche? Moveto a bigger house? Take a vacation? Fix his motorcycle? Sandy wouldtell him to save it for a rainy day; she was always so practical,scrimping and saving. Sandy... Hmm...
Raising his cupto his mouth, he fixed his gaze on an alley a short distance away.That’s where he’d met her. And the table he was at was the onethey’d shared during their first meal together. An image of herfrightened face flashed in his mind. She’d been wary of him, buteventually had learned she could trust him, that he wasn’t about toattack her or murder her in her sleep.
Not that hehadn’t been tempted—well, not to attack or murder—but to make someform of advances towards her. He’d immediately noticed her physicalappearance though she’d seemed unaware of it; the fact that shehadn’t been flirty or obvious had been rather sexy to his way ofthinking. Then, as he got to know her, he’d discovered she had amischievous streak and a quirky sense of humour, that she was eagerto learn about the world and willing to tackle any task be itlearning to cook or mastering public transit. She’d been anintriguing mix of child and unawakened woman.
Often he’d findhimself staring at her, looking for some hint that she was aware ofhim as a man; that she returned his interest, but it neverhappened. Well, there’d been that one inexplicable yet amazing timewhen she’d crawled into his bed, but beyond that...nothing.
Instead, he’dhad to content himself with her friendship and the vague hope thatmaybe someday she’d change her mind. It was foolish of course.Obviously, the spark wasn’t there for her and now, perhaps he knewwhy.
Given the sizeof the reward, it was obvious she came from a wealthy backgroundand probably was used to rubbing elbows with the rich and famous.Why would she be interested in him? Kellen Anderson was a nobody;kicked out of home and forsaken by his family because of hisgambling. He hadn’t talked to his parents in years, not sincethey’d had to re-mortgage their house to get him out of debt. Andall the friends he’d grown up with... Well, he owed them tons ofmoney too, and they’d likely string him up if their paths evercrossed.
A wry chuckleescaped his lips. Here he was, right back where he started; in debtup to his ears with threats being made against his personal safety.At least this time, he’d be able to get out of the mess on his own.The ticket was right here in his hand or, more exactly, in hishouse.
Kellen strokeda finger over Sandy’s image. She was laughing in the photo and hesmiled in response. It would be good for her to be back where shebelonged; life here wasn’t caviar and silver spoons. He shook hishead, wondering how she had ever put up with their pokey house andthe monotony of working at a grocery store when she could be livingin the lap of luxury. If he were in her shoes, nothing could haveconvinced him to leave all that wealth behind.
He rubbed hischin thoughtfully. Why had she left? Her story about her unclebeing murdered didn’t quite ring true now. He’d always assumedthere was some illegal activity involved, but if she were wealthy,why hadn’t she simply called the authorities? And why had shestayed away all these years? She must have known there was moneyawaiting her, even after she’d emptied her bank accounts. Who intheir right mind would turn their back on all that? He bit his lip;there was something about this whole situation that botheredhim.
His wrist watchbeeped and he checked the time. The crystal was cracked—Hugh’sfault probably—but he could still make out the time. He addedgetting a new watch to his list of things to buy with the extrareward money while swearing under his breath at the passage oftime. Damn! He’d been sitting here longer than he’d planned. Hughwould be at the house in just a few hours, looking for the money.Kellen stared at the paper in his hand one more time and thenfolded it carefully before tucking it back in his pocket. Sighingheavily, he tossed a tip on the table and walked out, frowning,deep in thought.
Bryan balanceda tray of coffee and a bag of donuts in one hand as he pulled openthe door to the motel and quickly crossed the lobby, hopingCassandra hadn’t come around during his brief absence. She hadn’tstirred once when he’d scooped her up off her sidewalk and drivenher to his motel. Nor had she shown any sign of gainingconsciousness when he’d moved about the room, drying off andchanging out of his damp clothes, so he’d figured there was enoughtime to head across the street for food.
The bump on herhead hadn’t appeared serious and given the fact that she was awerewolf, he knew she’d quickly heal. Most likely it was shock morethan the injury that was causing her unconscious state.
He chuckledsoftly. When she’d knocked herself out, he’d had flashbacks to hisfirst meeting with Mel back in Stump River. Mel had been runningfrom him and had smacked right into a tree, knocking herself out.He’d ended up carrying her back to the house, thinking he’d found apretty bit of fluff to play with for a while. Of course, Ryne hadtaken one look at the woman and subconsciously claimed her, giving‘back off’ signals that were hard to miss.
Well, thistime, he was the only male around so that wouldn’t be a problem.Not that he had anything, but a professional interest in Cassandra,he assured himself. He was here to do a job and that was a far ashis involvement should go. It didn’t matter that she’d been softand warm in his arms, or that her scent had wrapped itself aroundhim causing his blood to thunder in his ears. No, it was just theadrenaline rush of finally finding her.
Bryan frownedand shushed his wolf’s protests before it could even speak. Herplump red lips and smooth golden skin had only a minimal effect onhim. And the fact that he could see her cleavage and feel the swellof her breasts brushing against him as he carried her from hiscar... Well... He stepped into the elevator and surreptitiouslyadjusted the crotch of his pants; okay, so she did havesomeeffect on him.
He clamped hismouth shut and applied cool logic to the situation. Cassandrawasattractive and it was only natural that he responded toher, especially considering how his wolf was acting lately. It evenexplained his appalling lack of judgement with regards to how he’dintroduced himself. Duh! He gave himself a mental forehead slap.‘Hi! I’m Bryan’ hadn’t been the cleverest introduction.
She could bebordering on going rogue and he should have been more careful untilhe’d fully assessed her stability. It was little wonder she’dfreaked out. To her way of thinking, he’d been lurking in herbackyard, like some crazy stalker and her wolf might even considerhim an invader of her territory. He should have had some excuseprepared or better yet, have avoided the yard altogether. Casuallywalking down the street and bumping into her would have provided aperfect opportunity to strike up a conversation in anon-threatening manner. He was glad Ryne wasn’t around; he’d neverhear the end of it after his boasting that he knew how to handlewomen.
Of course—Bryanconsidered another point of view—she might still have reacted badlyto him, no matter how he introduced himself. She’d become even moreagitated when he mentioned wolves and the pack; the idea of anotherwerewolf seemed to scare her to death for some reason. He knewshe’d been raised by humans, but Greyson had been seeking out awerewolf pack for her to join, so why had she been on the verge ofhysterics?
The elevatorgave a slight pinging noise announcing he’d arrived at his floor.He took a deep breath wondering what he’d find when he got to hisroom. There was some major damage control to do and it was all hisfault. Hopefully, she’d just be waking up and they could start offon a fresh note. He had coffee and donuts as a peace offering. Andmaybe he’d even try a bit of humour. That usually helped break theice...
The pillowbeneath her head was softly scented with the most delicious smell.Cassie buried her face into it and inhaled deeply, a slight smileforming on her face as a sense of warmth and security filled her.Reaching out, she searched for the covers, anxious to pull them uparound her shoulders and drift back to sleep.
Her graspingfingers didn’t find a blanket and she muttered in annoyance,wondering if it had been kicked onto the floor. Usually, she wasn’ta restless sleeper except during a full moon. Frowning, she triedto recall what day it was.
Could it be thefull moon already? Her brain responded sluggishly as images andmemories drifted past. For some reason her thoughts were hazy andfocussing was difficult. Well, she was often confused ordisoriented during a full moon, so possibly that was the case.Rolling over, she groaned, the back of her head throbbing lightlyas it pressed into the pillow.
“Must have beenthrashing about and hit it on something.” She mumbled to herself asshe manoeuvred her head to the side. Ah! That was better. Stillhalf asleep, she brought her hand up to touch the tender area. Herfingers encountered a small lump, but there was no stickiness toindicate blood. That was a good thing. During a full-moon, itwasn’t uncommon for her to awaken bruised and battered, having onlythe vaguest recollections of what happened while she was locked inher room. On a few occasions, she’d even managed to escape thehouse, waking up in some of the strangest places.
The first timeit happened, she’d ended up in the alley where Kellen had foundher. On another occasion it had been a neighbourhood park and onceshe’d even found herself in the employees’ room at the grocerystore. Luckily, she’d always been able to make her own way home orfind a means of contacting Kellen.
A smile driftedover her face as she thought of Kellen. He always came to get her;scooping her up, lecturing her about her drug habit... The smilefaded as she thought about all the lies she’d told him over theyears. She wished she could share the truth with him, but it wastoo dangerous. No one could ever know what she really was...
It seemedamazing that no one had ever discovered her wandering about in asemi-conscious state; at least to the best of her knowledge, no onehad. She always scoured the news after the fact, praying that therewould be no reports of strange inexplicable attacks by wild dogs.There never were, but she always worried, just in case. The animalinside her wasn’t to be trusted.
Cassie shiftedback onto her side, keeping her eyes closed as she hovered on theedge of sleep. It was puzzling how she ended up in those places.They were usually locations she was thinking about just before thepills took effect, she never had any recollection of how she gotthere. And when she returned home, the door to her room was stilllocked, so how had she managed to escape?
Over the pastthree years, she’d done her share of research on werewolves, tryingto understand this mysterious other half of herself. There were somany sites and so much information, but no real way to authenticatewhat she read. Most of it she supposed was just the stuff Hollywoodmovies were made of—images of grotesque and painfultransformations, creatures howling at the moon—or at least shehoped it was all fanciful cinematography. Still, her own experienceallowed her to glean a few nuggets of truth such as the monthlyeffect of the moon.
One site hadtalked about supposedly ‘royal’ or ‘blue-blooded wolves’ being ableto teleport, or move from place to place, simply by thinking of alocation, though apparently it was a skill that was hard to master.She wasn’t sure if that was what she did or not, though it was apossible explanation.
The main flawin the theory was the whole idea of being werewolf ‘royalty.’ Itwas almost farcical to her to suppose that savage beasts could everorganize themselves into an aristocracy! Yet again, she shook herhead in disbelief of the very idea, wincing as the movementreminded her that her head hurt. She sighed supposing she shouldget up and put some ice on the lump.
Slowlystretching, she reluctantly opened her eyes and then froze her armsstill extended at her sides. A gasp escaped her lips as she took inthe unfamiliar curtains and furniture. This wasn’t her bedroom! Shebolted upright and everything seemed to spin wildly for a momentbefore slowly righting itself. Her heart pounding, she lookedaround finding herself in a totally unfamiliar room.
Something aboutthe decor led her to believe she was in a motel, but where? Shehalf fell off the bed and rushed to the window to peer outside. Apartially filled parking lot and the back of a building met herinquiring gaze. There was no visible sign to indicate the name ofthe place, but at least it appeared she was still in Las Vegas; thepalm trees and cacti that bordered the parking lot werereassuringly familiar.
Letting thecurtain fall back into place, she scanned the room, her gazelighting upon a pile of clothing on the floor and an open suitcasesitting on chair in the corner. She approached it hesitantly,almost fearful of what she’d find. The clothing was damp to thetouch and she found a previously unnoticed towel folded across thearm of the chair. Biting her lip nervously, she began to riflethrough the contents of the suitcase. Men’s shirts, pants,underwear... She quickly dropped them, wiping her hands on herpants in disgust. Dear heaven, they weren’t even Kellen’s—he woreboxers not briefs!
A horridthought suddenly popped into her head, and she looked down, runningher hands over her body, relieved to find she was fully dressedexcept for her shoes. For a moment, she’d feared she’d gone into anearly heat and ended up with some strange man! Sighing in reliefthat at least she hadn’t done something totally inappropriate, sherubbed her forehead trying to recall who owned the suitcase and howshe’d come to be here...
Before anyanswers came to mind, a sound behind her alerted her someone wascoming. Swinging around, she faced the door and watched withtrepidation as it swung open. A tall, well built man walked in, andthat’s when it all came rushing back to her.
Oh God, it wasBryan, the stalker guy from the grocery store! Somehow, he’dfollowed her to her house and had been waiting for her when sheleft for work this morning. And, worse still, he claimed to notonly know about werewolves; he said he was one, the pack Beta noless! Warily, she backed away from him, her legs hitting the bedand causing her to sit down on the mattress with an undignifiedbounce.
He chuckled,seeming to find her retreat funny. “Just the sight of me alreadyhas you falling into bed, eh?”
“Stay back!Don’t come any closer.” Cassie issued the warning while managing toright herself and then skittered across the bed, pressing herselfto the headboard. The beast inside her was bouncing up and downlike a puppy presented with a juicy bone. Its obvious pleasure inseeing the man was in stark contrast to her own horror. Did thecreature have no sense at all? Sure the man was drop dead gorgeous,his eyes an intriguing hazel, his lips curved in a smile thatbegged to be tasted...
The man steppedeven closer and her breath caught in her throat. Was that a leeringexpression on his face? Her skin tingled with expectant awareness,waiting for the touch of his fingers, the brush of his lips. Amental image of his mouth on her flesh, his body pressing hers tothe bed popped into her head and—how embarrassing—an ache began lowin her belly at the idea of being ravished. No! These couldn’t beher thoughts; the creature was taking over, that had to be it!
Her eyesfixated on his gleaming white teeth, the slightly longer thannormal canines. She took in his broad shoulders and muscularforearms, part of her longing to run her hands over their surfacewhile another piece of her acknowledged she’d never stand a chanceagainst him in a real fight. A distressed whimper escaped her lipsand she snatched up a pillow, clutching it to her chest even thoughit would provide no protection. The man had claimed to be awerewolf and she knew what werewolves could do...
Marla finishedthe electronic transfer that deposited money into Nick Grant’s bankaccount as per Aldrich’s instructions, then sighed heavily andfinger combed her hair away from her face. Wrinkling her nose indistaste, she mentally went over the tasks she still had tocomplete; double checking the other employees had been paid,dealing with the utilities, setting up an appointment with Swansonfor a security check of the Estate... She hated this part of herjob. Travelling about in the limo was one thing; sitting at a deskwas sheer drudgery.
Trappedinside, always trapped inside. When will it end? Where is thefreedom to roam, to run?Her inner wolf paced back and forth inthe cage she had imposed upon it.A real mate, a real pack, ourown kind...
Rubbing herforehead, Marla tried to ignore the relentless questions, the inneragitation. Whining and complaining will do you no good, shescolded. This is the best course for us. We never did fit into apack, nor enjoyed our pack mates, remember?
Youdidn’t,the wolf scolded back,but then again you nevertried. Always out for yourself. Pack is everything, our family, ourreason for being.
Family, shescoffed. I have no family. My father is dead, my mother left mebehind.
You chose tostay,the wolf reminded her.
Only becauseshe didn’t really want me. No one ever really wanted me. Pack isnothing! This, she swept her arm out encompassing the room, isreal. Clawing and scraping your way ahead, finding a secure sourceof money. Then we’ll be independent and need no one.
No one?The wolf answered sadly. How lonely...
Shaking herhead, Marla stood up and paced the room, trying to calm down fromthe argument she’d just had with herself. Thankfully no one hadcome in. She ran her fingers through her hair again andstraightened her dress. Then, chin lifted, she sat down, tuckingher chair in near the desk, once more the image of an efficientpersonal assistant.
Her job hadevolved over the past few years, moving from simply being atemporary secretary to that of personal assistant. Aldrich seldomvisited his offices anymore, conducting most of his business overthe phone or the internet, so she spent a great deal of time stuckin his penthouse. At least if she was in an office building, she’dbe able to ogle the men that worked there. Instead, here she wassurrounded by the same boring people day after day, dealing withAldrich’s personal bills, consulting with his housekeeper overmenus and generally overseeing almost every aspect of his life.
At first, she’dbeen pleased, seeing her work here as a stepping stone to gaininghis confidence and becoming more ‘intimately’ involved. She’denvisioned accompanying him on business trips and to socialfunctions where she’d be required to wear designer gowns and drinkchampagne. Instead, Aldrich had become increasingly reclusive and,while the man allowed her to balance his household accounts, he wasproving to be annoyingly immune to her charms.
Oh, heappreciated her physical attributes, but she never got a sense thathe truly trusted her. It was frustrating, considering all the timeand effort she’d put into this project.
See? It isn’tworth it. We need to leave, find one who suits us better.
Marla chuckleddryly, for once agreeing with her inner wolf. She really didn’twanted to marry the old man, but he was in line to receive aconsiderable sum of money and some sacrifices were to be expectedif she was to get her hands on the main prize. However, she hadn’texpected the sacrifices to be quite so...mundane.
When she’dfirst begun working for Aldrich, he’d been in the hospital anddependent on her to carry out his wishes. It had seemed a perfectopportunity to worm herself into his life, and she’d succeeded tosome extent. In the beginning, he’d relied heavily on her, butlately the plan was losing its momentum.
She frowned,wondering what she was doing wrong, then smoothed her forehead soas to not cause any wrinkles. A wrinkled brow wouldn’t help her winover Aldrich or any other man for that matter.
A knock on thedoor had her looking up and a middle aged woman popped her head in,smiling cheerfully. “Marla, I’m just making a pot of tea, if you’dcare to have some.”
“Thank you,Sylvia, but you can start without me. I need to clear my deskfirst.” Marla returned the smile, and Aldrich’s nurse left with anod and a wave. As soon as the woman was out of sight, the pleasantexpression fell from her face.
Annoying oldcow. The nurse was unfailingly friendly and appeared happy to goabout her job of caring for Aldrich’s tracheotomy, claiming howlucky she was to have landed such an easy, yet satisfying job.Marla shuddered wondering how suctioning mucus could be viewed assatisfying. The woman’s affable presence was grating on the nerves,though Aldrich actually seemed to like the old biddy. They evencalled each other by their first names.
Marla tightenedher lips as she recalled that not once in the three years she’dworked for him, had Aldrich ever called her Marla. She was stillMiss Matthews’ to his ‘Mr. Aldrich.’ In fact, the few times she’dtried to use his name and called him ‘Leon’ he stared at her as ifshe’d taken leave of her senses.
Briefly, shewondered if Sylvia could be a rival for the man’s affections, butthe idea seemed too preposterous to even consider. The woman wasactually dowdy whereas she, with her werewolf metabolism, had theluxury of always looking sleek and fit. Plus, she aged more slowly,so sags and wrinkles were still years in her future. Sylvia hadcrow’s feet by her eyes, an overly round figure, and grey at hertemples. Marla grinned; the other woman’s short comings made herfeel quite happy suddenly.
She bent overher desk intent on getting the menial tasks done as quickly aspossible, only to look up sharply when the sound of raspy laughterdrifted down the hallway. Tuning in her acute hearing, she heardher employer joking with the nurse. Marla’s fingers tightened onher pen until the plastic casing cracked. Laughter was not a goodsign; not good at all. Leon Aldrich never laughed. The man didn’teven know the meaning of the word humour and yet...
He isinterested in the woman. She is for him in a way we never willbe.
Compressing hermouth into a straight line, Marla fumed in her small stale office.Despite all logical arguments to the contrary, Nurse Robinson wassomehow getting under Aldrich’s guard. And if Aldrich let the womanin, she could very well ruin all of Marla’s plans to get her handson the money from the Greyson estate.
Tapping thedesk with the broken pen, she narrowed her eyes, annoyed that thisnew obstacle had popped up. Well, there was only one way to dealwith a situation such as this.
Leave? Giveup this ridiculous plan?The wolf perked up, its spirit soaringat the possibility.
No. SylviaRobinson would have to go. Hopefully, she’d be as easy to get ridof as the other nurses had been. If not... Marla curled her lips.There were ways to make even the most unwillingly person leave.
Mel pacedacross the room, her arms wrapped around her waist as if she couldward off the trouble headed her way. Nervously, she nibbled herlower lip, not sure what to do or who to turn to. The email she’djust printed was clutched in her hand, the only remaining evidenceof the message she’d received. She’d double checked the computer toensure it was truly deleted from memory, even dumping the recyclebin and checking the temp files.
In othercircumstances, she might have found her actions a humorousre-enactment of Ryne’s some three years ago. At the time, they’djust met and he’d been suspicious of her motives. When sheaccidentally downloaded pictures from his camera onto her computer,he’d been furious at her invasion of his privacy. He’d deleted thefile, but neglected to dump the recycle bin, a fact that she’dhesitated to use until circumstances forced her hand. She’d endedup using the supposedly erased photos to create a report on him forher employer, Anthony Greyson. That report had unwittinglyprecipitating a series of life-changing events.
In the end, hersnooping in the recycle bin had led to a greater good, or at leastthat’s what she liked to think. If she hadn’t found the picturesRyne had deleted, he might not have felt compelled to track herdown and he wouldn’t have been there to rescue her from the evilclutches of Leon Aldrich. Ryne argued otherwise, but that was herversion of the story and she was sticking to it.
A faint smilecrossed her mouth at the memory of how the whole episode had ended;her real heritage being revealed, she and Ryne becoming mates...The smile faded quickly from her face. If only she’d known thenwhat she knew now. This past week, she’d felt as if her happy worldwas being ripped apart. Her fingers clenched into fists causing thenote in her hand to crinkle. She read the message again and a waveof nausea washed over her. Rushing down the hall, she made it tothe bathroom just in time before starting to heave.
Once theghastly experience was over, she splashed cold water on her facethen leaned against the cool tiled wall and sniffled sadly. Herlife had been going so well. The pack was her new extended family,Ryne her loving mate and now a baby... Why did this have to happen?She poked the note that had fallen on the floor with her toe.
A knock on thedoor, had her lifting her head.
“Mel? Are youall right?” It was Olivia, Marco’s mate.
“Just aminute.” She picked the note up and shoved it in her pocket beforeopening the door.
The other womanwas looking at her with concern. “Still having some morningsickness?”
Mel gave her awatery smile before answering evasively. “Maybe or it could besomething I ate.”
“Do you wantsome tea? Or crackers? They always helped sooth my stomach when Iwas pregnant with Maria.”
Olivia was oneof those calm, competent women who never looked fazed by anything.She had two children—Angelo who was four and Maria who had just hadher first birthday—yet Olivia never seemed tired by their antics.Mel hoped to be even half as good a mother as the woman who stoodbefore her.
Refocussing herattention on Olivia’s question, Mel nodded slowly. “The tea mighthelp.” She brushed her hair from her face and vaguely noted thather hand was shaking.
Olivia gave hershoulder a sympathetic squeeze. “Being sick to your stomach is theworst part of being pregnant. Why don’t you go lie down and I’llbring a tray to your room.”
“Thanks, but Ithink I’ll just sit in the kitch—”
“Melody!”Ryne’s voice boomed down the hallway and Mel cringed. She didn’twant to see him right now, so she stepped back into the bathroom,foolishly intent on hiding in there until she was more composed,but it was too late. Before she had time to even grab the door,Ryne was there.
His piercingblue eyes searched hers, concern evident on his face. She lookeddown at the floor, too unnerved by the secret she possessed to meethis gaze. Her hand reached for the door knob and gripped ittightly, her fingers tuning white.
“Melody, what’sthis about you being sick?”
Mel tightenedher lips. Damn his werewolf hearing! He’d picked up on theconversation with Olivia, maybe even heard her retching. In vain,she tried to shrug it off. “It was nothing.”
“Like hell itwas ‘nothing.’ I overheard Olivia saying you were sick. Thepregnancy book I’ve been reading said you should be over the nauseaby now.”
“Well, you knowI never follow the rules.” Mel gave a brief laugh and moved to walkpast him. He shot his hand shot out and caught her gently by thearm. A familiar tingle washed over her at the point of contact. Itwas always that way when they were together; the attraction betweenthem was like an electric current. Normally, she revelled in theirconnection, but today it made her cringe away.
Of course henoticed her withdrawal and gave her a puzzled look. Shestrengthened the mental block she’d created, not allowing himaccess to her thoughts. Being blood-bonded had its drawbacks whenyou were trying to keep a secret and this wasn’t something shecould just spring on him. Besides, her own thoughts and feelings onthe matter were still in a muddle…
A hurt lookpassed over his face as he realized she was keeping him out. Oliviaseemed to sense something was wrong too, for she quietly left,murmuring that the tea would be ready whenever Mel wanted it.
“Melody?” Rynecupped her face and forced her to meet his gaze. He seemed to besearching her eyes for an answer, but she had none to give him yet.Tears welled and she blinked trying to keep them at bay. “Ah,Melody, don’t cry!” Gathering her close, despite her resistance, herocked her in his arms. His tender gesture made her cry all theharder. Ryne wasn’t one to display his feelings; he was more of a‘rough around the edges’ kind of guy. When he showed his softerside, it always made her emotional; it was only for her that he waswilling to be vulnerable and expose his true self.
She clutched athis shirt with her fingers and sniffled, her tears slowly fading.The warmth of his body seeped into her and she began to relax,knowing it was wrong, but unable to resist.
Just for amoment, she’d pretend everything was fine.
The tea kettlewhistled softly on the stove in the kitchen of the Greyson Estate.Through the large windows, Franklin could see the grey cloudshanging low in the sky. With the temperature hovering at thefreezing mark, they could herald a spring snow or a cold rain.Dampness permeated the air and he pulled his chair slightly closerto the old, stone fireplace, enjoying the warmth emanating fromit.
He murmured histhanks as Mrs. Teasdale placed a cup of tea in front of him beforesitting down opposite him.
“How do youthink our young miss is doing?” She asked as she curled her handsaround the cup. No doubt the dampness was making her arthriticfingers ache.
“I’m sure she’sfine.” He stared at the steaming liquid, holding back a smile atthe good news he had to impart. It would take her mind off heraching joints.
“That’s whatyou always say.” Mrs. Teasdale scolded him gently, then sighed,wrinkling her brow in worry.” I just wish she was here, where wecould take care of her.”
Franklin took asip of tea before responding. “She has her reasons for stayingaway, I’m sure.”
“It’s beenthree years. Surely by now...?” She let her voice trail off andlooked at him pleadingly.
“Cassie’sspecial, we both know that. When the time is right—”
“But what if wewait too long?” The elderly cook leaned forward setting her cupdown. There was an urgent expression on her face.
Franklinshrugged. “Greyson tried his way and it blew up in his face. Weobviously can’t force contact. Letting a pack find her on their ownis a risk, but what other option do we have?”
Mrs. Teasdalesmacked the table with her open hand. “Bring her home! We’ll takecare of her—”
“And when we’regone? She’ll be alone again and all the money in the world will beof no use to her.” It was an old argument; one they had every fewmonths. He reached across the table and patted her hand. “We agreedto let fate take its course. If she stays away and ends up losingthe estate, then so be it. At least she’ll be with her ownkind.”
“But will shefind her own kind?”
“Perhaps.”Franklin gave a slight smile. “Though I think they might be findingher.”
Mrs. Teasdalesat back, looking surprised that their habitual conversation wastaking an unexpected turn. “Are you hiding something from me?”
He tried tolook mysterious by looking to all sides before leaning forward towhisper. “I’ve had a positive report.”
“Really?” Sheclasped her hands to her ample bosom. “What did Meredith have tosay?”
“Just that aman has been around.” He leaned back and tried to act casual, butcouldn’t keep the smile from his lips. “And not that young fellowshe’s presently with.”
Mrs. Teasdalesnorted. “Kellen Anderson. I’ve never liked him.”
“Cassie’s anadult now. We have to accept her choices.” Franklin chided hergently.
“But we don’thave to like them.”
“True.” Heconceded the point. “Anyway, Meredith called this morning to give areport. It’s not definite, but she claims the man had a certain airabout him; the way he moved, the way he held his head and watchedCassie. According to Meredith, he matched most of the signs Mr.Greyson used to identify that young reporter—Melody Greene—a fewyears back. Even Netty concurred.”
Mrs. Teasdalechuckled. “Netty wouldn’t know a werewolf from a hole in theground. Meredith was just pulling your leg on that one.”
Franklinlaughed softly. “I know, but she does a good job, so we can let herhave her little delusions about her pet. What’s important is thatthis is the first real sign of interest that we’ve evernoticed.”
Nodding inexcitement, Mrs. Teasdale started to push her chair back from thetable. “If it’s true, I’d better start to get ready. I’ll get outmy recipes for our Miss Cassie’s favourites—”
“She might notcome back,” he cautioned. “If she takes up with a pack, they mightnot allow it.”
She stilled hermovements. “I know she’d not be here forever, but surely avisit...?”
“We can onlyhope, but their ways might not be ours.”
“Hope’s allwe’ve had these past three years. What with Miss Matthews alwayscoming around and helping herself to Miss Cassie’s things and thatMr. Aldrich meddling with the accounts. It’s a good thing you keptyour connections when you retired from the Service.”
“They haveproven useful, haven’t they?” Franklin gave a pleased smile. “Thetwo doddering old retainers know more about Cassandra Greyson thanall the supposed professionals who are looking for her.”
Mrs. Teasdalenodded. “It’s been a blessing knowing where she is and that she’ssafely tucked away from Aldrich’s machinations.”
“Indeed.” Hesipped his tea again, enjoying the warm sweetness. “Meredith andNetty were a tad worried earlier this week. Someone else wassnooping around, but they’re placing their money on this youngfellow being the right one. And if he is, then Miss Cassie will befine. He’ll take good care of her.”
Bryan stoodinside his motel room staring at the young woman cowering near thehead of his bed. She was clutching a pillow defensively to herchest and seemed scared out of her wits. He’d hoped she’d be calmerby now, but apparently that wasn’t the case. Why didn’t her wolfsense that he meant her no harm? Was she already going rogue?Losing her grip on sanity? No. She was too young for that, wasn’tshe?
Still, herreaction made no sense to him; it wasn’t as if he’d attacked her.The fact that she’d fallen and hit her head was her own fault. Infact, he’d gone out of his way to assist her; bringing her hereuntil she recovered, bringing her food... He glanced down at thecoffee and donuts in his hand and set them down along with his keysand cell phone, while searching his mind for a way to make her feelat ease. Perhaps a little humour would help. Tilting his head, helooked at her quizzically before speaking. “Now this is a newone.”
“Wh... What doyou mean?” She eyed him warily, her body tensed as if to ward offhis advances should he decide to pounce. His wolf rumbled itsapproval of pouncing, but he mentally shook his head. Explaininghis real purpose for seeking her out had to come first. Rememberwhat Ryne said? Business before pleasure. The wolf inside slunk tothe ground as it recalled the Alpha’s command.
“Women don’tusually cringe at the sight of me. More often than not I have tobeat them away with a stick.” He shoved his hands in his backpockets and grinned at her, letting his amusement reflect in hiseyes.
She didn’treturn his smile, if anything, she looked even more nervous thanbefore. He felt the grin slip from his face as she pressed herselfeven tighter against the headboard. Okay, perhaps his choice ofhumour might not have been in the best of taste, given thecircumstances.
Damn, but hewas messing this up. He ran his hand through his hair infrustration looking around the room for inspiration and wonderingwhere all his purported common sense had gone. Something about thissituation was throwing him off his stride and instead of swaggeringthrough his encounters with Cassandra, he felt like he wasstumbling.
Dropping hishand to his side, he took a deep breath. Okay, on to plan ‘B,’which he was just devising at that very moment. Hmm, soft words andsome hand holding to soothe her nerves might be the key.
“I won’t hurtyou, you know.” He spoke in low, gentle tones as he stepped closer,then sat down on the edge of the bed. “I just want us to get toknow each other better.”
Cassandra gavea squeak and pulled her feet even closer to her body. The scent offear rippled off her in waves. Fear and—he sniffed carefully—afaint undercurrent of arousal? He blinked rapidly trying to processthat fact. They’d just met, and while he wasn’t unaware of his ownsex appeal, for her to be turned on by him was extremely curious.Searching for an explanation, the lunar cycle came to mind. Perhapsthe nearness of the full moon was affecting her wolf and bringingit into heat. It was spring after all. He mentally rolled his eyes;just what he needed, a sex-starved young she-wolf to keep inline.
Bryan rubbedthe back of his neck and eyed her speculatively. Her fear,inexplicable as it was, was bringing out the Beta in him; not theenforcer, but the need to protect and reassure the weaker membersof the pack. He reached out his hand in a gesture of comfort, onlyto be rewarded by her swatting at him.
“Hey!” Jerkinghis hand back in surprise, he glanced at it. The tip of her nailshad caught the skin and the thinnest line of blood was appearing.An instinctive growl rose from his throat, chastising her for heractions. Another Beta characteristic was coming to the fore;demanding respect from the pack members and enforcing the rules,one of which was not striking out at superiors unless you weretrying for a coup.
Much to hissurprise, given her meek cowering just moments before, instead ofshowing submission in the face of his reprimand, she shouted athim.
“Don’t you daregrowl at me! Take that you filthy beast!” He caught a glimpse ofher face, furiously contorted just before she swung the pillow athim.
“What the—!” Heblinked in shock as the pillow slammed into his face. As blowswent, it wasn’t much—he’d endured far worse in a bar fight—it wasjust that it caught him by surprise.
Reflexively, heraised his arm to deflect a second blow and saw her dive across thebed. He shot his arm out, managing to grab her ankle, pulling herback towards him. Her nails made a faint scratching sound as sheclawed at the bedspread, trying to pull herself across the surfacewhile her free leg kicked back at him. It caught him in the stomachand his grip loosened as the air whooshed from his lungs. Thelittle hellcat!
In that briefmoment Cassandra reached the end of the bed. Pivoting around, herfeet hit the floor and she was almost completely upright by thetime he lunged across the mattress. Wrapping his arms around herwaist, he yanked her against his chest, intent in holding her in abear hug. With impressive speed she reacted to his move, jerkingher head backwards. If he hadn’t anticipated her actions and swunghis head to the side, she’d likely have broken his nose with hermove. Some part of his mind registered the fact that whoever hadtaught her to fight, had done a damned fine job. Unfortunately,that meant he had his work cut out, trying to subdue her withoutcausing any actual injury.
“Oh!” Aninfuriated scream came from her throat as he tightened his grip andshe realized her head butting had been unsuccessful.
Arms and legsflailing, she repeatedly tried to strike out at him. He was gladthat his early command about not shifting form was still stuck inher wolf’s mind. If they were struggling as wolves right now, theirgrowls and snarls would have caused suspicion in the mind of anyonepassing by the room. As it was, the thumping of the bed against thewall combined with the grunts and heavy breathing would lead apasserby to suspect rather rambunctious sex was taking place, not afight.
In the end,despite her efforts, his superior strength and weight won out. Helay on top of her, his arms and legs wrapped around hers, theirbodies pressed together from chest to thigh. They were bothbreathing heavily and he could feel her breath against his face,smell the sweat that had gathered on her skin. As close as theywere, he was staring right into her eyes; incredibly deep greenpools with thick dark lashes.
If thecircumstances had been different it might have been rather sexy tohave her pinned beneath him after subduing her. Crap! No point inlying to himself. Itwasincredibly sexy and it was turninghim on, even if he was mad at her.
And she wasinterested as well; the faint musky scent of her arousal hung inthe air around them, stirring his instincts even further. Sheprobably wasn’t aware of the fact, but she’d pushed her hips uptowards him. Her wolf was instinctively offering itself to him andfor a moment his own self control slipped too. Grinding his hipsagainst her shot a thrill of heated lust up and down his spine anda rumble rose in his chest.
Gritting histeeth, he fought against his desire, trying to channel theemotional energy elsewhere. He inhaled deeply and let his temperrise to the surface instead. This young wolf was insubordinate anddisrespectful, challenging his authority, attacking her superior.Some of the blows she’d landed with her elbows and knees had reallyhurt! A spot on his inner thigh throbbed from her unsuccessfulattempt at kneeing him in the groin.
Deciding it wastime to lay down the law, he glared at her, rumbling a warning.“That’s enough, pup. Stand down or face the consequences.” The tonehe used, and the words themselves, should have had her cowering.For a moment their eyes locked and he waited for her to drop hergaze in acknowledgement of his position.
The faintestflicker of indecision could be seen in her eyes, then she squaredher jaw...and spat in his face!
His wolf surgedto the surface and he bared his teeth, his fingers tightening onher arms as an angry growl rose in his throat. She was treading onthin ice now, and her next move would determine her fate. If shedidn’t change her attitude, he’d tie her up and ship her to Canadaso fast her head would spin!
Cassandra frozeand he knew she was seeing the animal in him lurking behind hiseyes. A frightened whimper escaped her and she paled, seeming toshrink into herself, her straining muscles relaxing as if admittingdefeat. Good. She needed to learn who was boss. While he waswilling to cut her some slack, there were limits.
He waited amoment, keeping his gaze steady, letting her know he wasn’t pleasedand he wasn’t backing down. She flicked a glance at him, butquickly looked away, remaining limp and passive beneath him.Gradually, he eased his grip while continually monitoring herresponse. There was no indication that she planned anotheraggressive move, so he slowly sat up all the while watching hercarefully in case she made a sudden move. Her sudden acquiescenceseemed suspicious, but when there was not so much as a twitch, hefinally relented and leaned back on his heels, though he stillstraddled her hips.
Using thesleeve of his shirt, he wiped the spit from his face and grimaced.“That was really rude, you know. Didn’t anyone ever teach you notto spit at people?”
She didn’tanswer, but he was sure he saw a flash of regret in her eyes beforeshe hid it with a defiant thrust of her chin. Oh, she was feistyone, he thought to himself, forcing a smile of appreciation. But,even though he liked some spirit in his women, she’d have to learnrespect if she was going to survive in the pack; Ryne wouldn’t putup with that sort of crap. Deciding to capitalize on the situation,he pressed his point, keeping his voice deep and implacable.
“Your attitudehad better change once we get back to Canada. Our Alpha will betaking you to task himself if you even try a stunt like that onhim.”
“Canada!” Hervoice squeaked as she spoke the word.
He nodded,pleased she was at least talking now, rather than cowering in fear.“Uh-huh. That’s where the pack is located. Under the Findingclause, you’re now a member. We’ll be heading back just as soon asI can finalize the arrangements.”
“Findingclause? Arrangements?” The words came out as little more than abewildered whisper.
“Yep. Rogue orlone werewolves such as yourselves can cause a lot of trouble sowhen one is found we usually hunt them down—” His cell phone rangat that moment interrupting his explanation. He patted his pocket,before realizing it was on the dresser. Leaning forward, he foundhe couldn’t quite reach and grunted in frustration.
For a moment hehesitated, eyeing the woman beneath him. The phone rang again andhe sighed heavily, then issued a warning in his sternest voicebefore climbing off her. “Don’t do anything stupid like trying toleave because if you do, I’ll just track you down again and theconsequences won’t be pleasant. Stay right here while I get myphone.” She didn’t move when he stood up, only her eyes followedhis progress as he backed towards the phone, reluctant to let herout of his sight. For some reason he didn’t trust her suddenacquiescence.
He picked upthe phone without even looking to see who was calling. “Hello?”
Mel’s voicesounded in his ear. “Bryan?
“Yeah? What’sthe matter? I’m sort of busy right now.” He answered herabsentmindedly, his thoughts more on the girl before him than hisAlpha’s mate. Cassandra Greyson was a bit of a puzzle, scared yetdefiant. How had she survived for three years on her own? Keepingher wolf in check with no one around to guide her couldn’t havebeen easy...
“Oh, I’m sorry.I...I’ll call back later.” Mel’s voice sounded wobbly, as if shewere on the verge of tears. That grabbed his attention and snappedhim back into focus.
“No! Don’t hangup! What can I do for you, Mel?”
“Oh Bryan,I...” She paused and sniffled.
A sound fromthe bed caught Bryan’s attention and he looked up to see Cassandrawas now sitting on the edge of the bed. She had her arms wrappedaround herself and was staring at the floor. Her whole demeanourprojected a feeling of defeat. He grimaced, thinking he’d been tooharsh with her. The girl had had a rough go of it, no doubt. Beinga lone wolf was no fun...
“Bryan? Are youstill there?”
“I’m here Mel.I just got distracted for a minute. What’s upsetting you?” Heturned his body slightly away from the bed, in an attempt to helphimself concentrate on Mel.
“You know howyou saw me at the computer the other day, and I was acting sort ofstrange?’
“I remember.” Aquick glance over his shoulder revealed that the Greyson girlhadn’t moved. He relaxed a bit and listened intently to Mel, tryingto think of what the problem could possibly be. Mel wasn’t the sortto fall apart over nothing, though since she’d gotten pregnant hermoods were a bit unpredictable.
“Well, I’vebeen getting some correspondence from—”
A sound behindhim had Bryan starting to turn towards the spot he’d left Cassandrawhen pain exploded in his head. He gave a brief cry, felt his kneesbuckle and then the carpeted floor seemed to rush up to meethim.
Cassie stoodfrozen, staring at the results of her actions. Bryan was lying onthe floor, a thin trickle of blood seeping from a cut on his cheek.She couldn’t believe she’d actually knocked the man out! Sure italways worked in the movies, but this was real life. Using the lamphad been an act of desperation and now that she’d been successful,a queasy feeling was filling her stomach.
She swallowedhard, forcing herself to look around for her shoes. Her purse wasby the door and she breathed a sigh of relief, thankful that Bryanhad brought it along. All her ID was in there and even though itwas technically all fake, they were the only documents she had atthe moment. The irony of her thanking her kidnapper for not losingher purse struck her and she gave a derisive snort before resumingthe search for her shoes. Even though he was unconscious now, shedidn’t hold out much hope that he’d stay that way for long. Afterall, he’d admitted he was a werewolf and they were purported to bequick healers. Heck, who was she kidding? She’d seen the phenomenonherself; her own minor cuts and bruises always faded much fasterthan would be considered normal.
The memory ofwatching her skin knit itself back together before her very eyesmade her uneasy. She didn’t want to be a werewolf and anything thatreminded her of the fact was upsetting.
A voice—afemale voice—could be heard over the phone and Cassie paused in hersearch for her shoes. Bryan had indicated he was popular withwomen; was this one of his girlfriends? He’d called her Mel. Wasthat short for Melissa or Melanie? Not that it mattered.
Cassie bit herlip wondering if Mel was a human or another werewolf. If the otherwoman was human, maybe she should warn her about her boyfriend. Shequickly dismissed the idea. Escaping was her priority at themoment. Besides, the person on the other end likely wouldn’t evenbelieve her.
“Hello? Hello?Is anyone there?”
Ignoring thefrantic sounding voice, Cassie peered under the bed, gruntinghappily when her shoes came into view. Pulling them on, she stoodand stared at Bryan again. He was breathing steadily, so no realdamage had been done. Perhaps she should tie him up? Eyeing the bedsheets, she decided against it. It would take too long and probablywouldn’t slow him down significantly. The power of his body hadbeen more than revealed to her when he’d had her pinned to the bed.Muscles seemed to cover every inch of the man. Muscles and... Hergaze drifted to his crotch.
Their strugglehad aroused him. She’d felt the evidence pressing against her andthe beast inside her had responded, her panties growing moist. Thesmell of his body, heated from their exertions, had filled hernostrils and she’d had an overwhelming desire to nuzzle against himand lick the strong column of his throat. Thankfully he hadn’tnoticed and she’d been able to project a defiant facade.
But a facadewas exactly what it was. The creature inside her was fighting toget out like never before. Hot, wild thoughts kept racing throughher mind; images of naked, sweaty bodies twisting and writhingtogether. Even now she could almost imagine what it would be liketo have her legs wrapped around his hips; to feel his handsgripping hers...
The man on thefloor gave a light moan and Cassie jerked back to reality. Herbreathing was rapid and there was an ache between her thighs. OhGod, this was crazy. Here she was contemplating sex with awerewolf! With a cry of self-disgust, she turned and fled the room,anxious to put as much distance between them as possible.
Once she wasoutside the motel room, she looked around getting her bearings,trying to calm herself enough to think logically. Luckily, theplace he’d taken her wasn’t that far from her house and it was on apublic transit route... And there came a bus! She sprinted acrossthe parking lot, arriving just in time to climb on.
Settling in herseat, she breathed a sigh of relief. She could have walked home,but this was faster and she wanted to put as much distance aspossible between herself and that werewolf.
His motives forsearching her out were puzzling. While she’d been more intent onescaping than listening to what he was saying, a few of his wordshad sunk in.
He’d saidsomething about finding her and that she was now a member of hispack. And he was going to take her to Canada! She shivered,thinking how just a few days ago she’d been contemplating the factthat she’d need to move away from civilization before the animalinside her caused any harm, but Canada! It seemed a bitextreme.
She wonderedhow he’d found her if he was from such a faraway place and, forthat matter, why he was even looking for her. It made no sense. Shefurrowed her brow and then opened her eyes wide as she recalled hisarousal. Was he looking for a mate? Some of the websites she’dvisited had said werewolves hunted for mates, but was that true ora myth? The idea frightened her human side, while the animal withinsquirmed in delight.
Yes, our mate!And a pack in the wilderness!
Cassie grimacedat the creature’s excited response and squashed the beast down. Sheneeded a clear head right now, not crazy thoughts about...mates; ashudder of distaste ran through her at the very idea.
Nibbling herlip, she considered the situation. Possibly, Bryan was somehowconnected with the werewolf in Chicago. Most definitely, he wasn’tthe same wolf she’d seen on the estate. That beast had been a darkhaired man before it had shifted, but perhaps Bryan knew this otherwerewolf? There’d been mention of a pack, but Canada and Chicagoweren’t that close together... Her head began to pound as thesituation became more and more muddled.
She gave uptrying to figure out the how and why of Bryan finding her. It wasmore important to plot her course of action. Having escaped himonce, she wasn’t sure she could do it again, so running wasessential. All the money she’d saved for an emergency was going tobe put to use now.
As soon as shegot home, she’d pack a few things and head to the bank. She’d closethe account, go to the airport, and get a seat on the first flightout. It didn’t matter where it was headed. Any place would do.
But what aboutKellen? Cassie clenched her hands in her lap. She couldn’t leavehim behind, despite her earlier anger over his gambling. It was toodangerous and Kellen was her family. The werewolf knew where shelived. He’d find Kellen and most likely kill him, assuming she’dshared the secret of werewolf existence.
Well, she’dtake Kellen with her. Hopefully he’d be willing to go. Given thedebt he’d run up locally, she didn’t believe he’d protest too much.A fresh start would be good for him.
Cassie crossedher fingers, hoping Kellen wouldn’t question her impulsive desireto relocate. He liked adventure, so maybe it would appeal tohim...
The bus wasapproaching her stop, so she gathered her purse and made her way tothe door. It only took a few minutes to reach her house. Vaguelyshe noted the day was clear and hot, much warmer than was typicalfor Las Vegas at this time of year. The sun was high in the sky, soit must be about noon. Kellen should be home from wherever he’dspent the night. If he wasn’t, she didn’t know what she’d do. Shecouldn’t just leave him behind to face Bryan’s wrath, yet how wouldshe find him?
As quickly asshe could, she walked down the street not wanting to draw attentionto herself by running, but eager to get home so her escape plancould be set in motion. Over the years, she’d played out a scenariosimilar to this so she’d be prepared if the time ever came Ofcourse, she hadn’t expected to be kidnapped by a sexy werewolf, northought of Kellen possibly not being home...
Her house wasbefore her. She trotted up the walk, grabbed the front door, andbreathed a sigh of relief as the door knob turned under her hand.Kellen was home. There’d be no need to try to track him down. Thedoor swung open and she stepped inside.
“Kellen?Kellen, where are you? I’ve got something to tell you...”
Cassie droppedher purse on the coffee table, peeked into the kitchen, thenhurried down the hall towards the bedrooms. Kellen’s door was ajarand she could see him standing by the dresser, staring at a pieceof paper. She ignored it and looked at him instead.
“Kellen, I havea surprise for you.” She’d decided to tell him they were going on avacation, that one of the women at work had to back out of a tripand she’d taken over the tickets. It wasn’t a very strong story,but she hoped he’d be too excited to question her. Once they got towherever they ended up, she’d probably have a better storyconcocted. Right now getting away was the most important thing.
“Hmm?” Helooked up at her distractedly. “Oh. Sandy. Good. I was hoping you’dbe home early from work. I need to ask you something.”
Damn! She’dforgotten all about work. Mr. Bartlett wouldn’t be happy that she’dmissed her shift and not called in. Oh well, if she was leavingtown, she supposed it didn’t really matter.
“You can ask melater, Kellen. I’ve got great news. We’re going on a vacationtoday! I got tickets really cheap, but we need to get to theairport right away. Just grab the bare essentials and we’ll headout.” Cassie infused her voice with an excitement she didn’t feel,talking quickly, and giving him no chance to ask questions. She sawa duffle bag on the floor and tossed it at him. “You start packingand I’ll gather up a few of my things. Won’t this be exciting?”