Monday, May 8, 2017

Ravaged - Chapter 7

I had to take last week off to write, edit and submit my short story for this year's volume of Sword and Sorceress. I'm keeping my fingers crossed that I'll continue my streak. 😃

* * *

Chapter 7

Logan swallowed his irritation about getting turned into Alyson Tribideaux’s personal pack mule. Or maybe the irritation stemmed from how great her ass looked in her jeans as she bent over her tripod while she set up a shot of the main building. “Since you’ve drafted a film intern for free, are you saving your money for Morgan Freeman to narrate this documentary?”

She glanced up at him. “What?”

He stared up at the overcast sky. This morning’s beautiful sunshine was long gone, and low gray clouds scudded across his view. They insinuated more snow on the way. “Morgan Freeman. He’s played God before.”

She looked at him and grinned. “I hear James Earl Jones is cheaper.”

“You really think Haight would sign off on you using Darth Vader to do the voice-over about his compound?”

She laughed. “You’re right. Actually, I don’t worry about hiring the voice work until I edit the film and write the narrative.” She turned back to the viewfinder.

“Don’t you have some idea of what would work?”

“If you mean, will I use Frank Oz as Miss Piggy for the vocals, then yes, I know what definitely won’t work.” She made a few adjustments, and the camera emitted a high-pitched electronic whine as it recorded. The pitch was so high most Normals didn’t hear it.

“So you do have someone in mind?”

She laughed again and straightened. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say you were trying pitch your talent.”

“Dream on, Miss Director.”

She looked at him with real curiosity. “So are you just going to throw feed bags around for the rest of your life?” He stared at the surrounding forest. The subject of what he used to do before his abduction didn’t sit well with most weres. But why did he care what she thought?

He shrugged. “I don’t really know yet. After Vietnam and college, I did the computer start-up thing three times. Sold each of the companies for a profit. I’m not sure what I want to try next.”

She cocked her head. “Vietnam? I-I didn’t realize you were that old.”

“Does that bother you?”

“N-No.” She quickly turned back to the viewfinder, though the digital camera was working just fine.

For some reason, her discomfort sent a tickle of amusement through him. He crossed his arms. “Got something against middle-aged men?”

“No. Now, shush. I’m working.”

Before he could continue teasing Alyson, Sharon appeared over the little ridge in the field with a cardboard drink carrier. From the way she huffed and puffed, she’d hiked around the compound in order to stay outside of Alyson’s camera shot. “Thought…you might…need some coffee.”

Logan grabbed the carrier before she dropped it. “Thank you.”

“Sorry.” Sharon bent over and rested her hands on her knees. “I’m still working to get back in shape. Believe it or not, I used to run cross-country.”

Alyson sniffed. “Oh, my goodness! Is that really cafĂ© au lait?” She acted like an addict herself with the way she stared at the lidded disposable cups.

“Good nose.” Sharon grinned and straightened. “I doubt if mine is as excellent as the ones in New Orleans, but they get me through the afternoon.”

Logan handed Alyson a cup, and she took a sip. Her ecstatic expression made him wish he was the cause, not a cup of milk and coffee.

“This is incredible, Sharon!”

Haight’s assistant blushed. She seemed to do that a lot. “I’ll have some ready for you in the morning.”

Logan frowned. “About tomorrow morning, I can’t get the time off two days in a row.”

Alyson shot him an arch look. On the other hand, a hint of dismay shone in Sharon’s eyes. Great, now he had two women upset with him.

“And what makes you think I need your help, Mr. Polk?” the were said sharply.

He suppressed the urge to bark back. “You need someone for the set up. Otherwise, it’s going take you twice as long to unwind all your cords.” He pointed to Sharon. “She’s got her own job to do, as does everyone else who lives here.”

Alyson crossed her arms. “So what are you suggesting?”

He was really beginning to hate her stance. It made him want to tackle her and prove who was alpha. “What about Sarah Goldstein? She can use the experience for her independent study project. You would have your unpaid intern while you’re in Tuttle Creek without worrying about her room, board and travel expenses.”

“I’ll be the judge of who I need—”

The instant the words left her mouth, a gust of wind seized the camera tripod. Logan caught it before the tripod and the very expensive video camera hit the ground.

“This is why you need a real assistant.” He grinned.

She grimaced. “We’ll talk about it on the way back to my cabin.”

* * *

Two hours later, alarm bells rang in Alyson’s head when Logan took the turn for the town instead of the road up the mountain. “Where the hell do you think you’re going?”

He didn’t even bother to look at her. “You accepted Esther’s invitation to dinner, remember? And you need to talk to Sarah about her working as your assistant for the next week.”

“We said we would discuss on the ride back to my cabin,” she ground out.

“No, you said that, not me.” He flashed her a grin. “But we are talking about it on the ride back to Tuttle Creek.”

“And why can’t we pick up my vehicle?”

His scent turned as sharp and acidic as vinegar. “Did you notice the change in weather while you were getting your outdoor shots?”

She shifted uncomfortably in her seat. “It was getting cloudy. So what?”

“First of all, there’s another snow storm coming in. This time, it’s going to stick for the rest of the winter. Second, we lost four hikers this year because they were too dumbassed to come back down the mountain when the weather soured.” He shot a glare at her. “Third, the snow will start before dinner’s over, and that pansy-assed banana of yours with its lack of snow tires or chains won’t be able to climb back up the mountain.”

She made a low growl in the back of her throat, but he ignored her challenge. Her father would be the first to tell her she was damn lucky that Logan didn’t accept.

That thought made her feel worse. She swiveled her head to stare the passenger window.

Why did Logan Polk make her feel so incompetent? Of course she had checked the weather report this morning. She’d actually planned to use the incoming storm to gracefully bow out of the Goldstein’s invitation.

Alyson wasn’t aware she’d made another sound until he said, “What was that? I have trouble translating wolf when I’m not one.”

She turned slowly to glare at him and his shit-eating grin. Aunt Francine was right. She should have kept her distance from this man. “It means you’re as controlling as my father, and that isn’t a compliment,” she snapped.

Logan took a deep breath. Good to know she was irritating him as much as he was her. “Considering some of the damn fool things you’ve done in the two days I’ve known you, RenĂ© probably has a full-time job trying to keep you from killing yourself.”

Alyson clasped her gloved hands together and stared out the windshield. Her old grief tainted the air as memories of finding her mother filled her mind.

“You know your father loves you. He’s just trying to protect you,” Logan said softly.

His half-assed attempt at a non-apology was the last thing she needed to hear. “I guess you middle-aged men know everything.” Her reply was as bitter as the scent she emitted, the scent she couldn’t suppress.

“More than some snot-nosed pup.”

She stared at him. Anger shoved the past out of the way. “Is that what you think of me?”

He took another deep breath. It reminded her of Papa whenever she rejected one of the suitors he presented. “I think your father didn’t do you any favors by overprotecting you. You’re making…errors of judgment regarding the people and environment around you.”

Now he was deliberately attempting to piss her off. “My first instinct was to stay away from you, so my judgment is just fine!”

“Forget I said anything then,” he snapped.

“I will, rabbit-bait,” she shot back. And Mother Wolf help her, she’d never talk to him again.

* * *

Logan bit his tongue to keep from returning her insult. He was going to get through tonight’s meal without losing his temper. He owed the witches that much. He knew Esther meant well by inviting the snot-nosed bitch to dinner. And dammit, he wasn’t going to be the one who broke the peace of the Goldstein home. But for the love of Mother Wolf, this girl could be an idiot.

Her silence stretched until they reached the valley floor when he couldn’t take it anymore. “If things are that bad at home and you don’t want to stay in New Orleans, you can always join another pack.”

Alyson remained silent.

“Look, if we don’t pretend to be civil to each other during dinner, the Goldsteins, especially Sarah, will drive you insane trying to fix the problem.”

She snorted. “Why should I be nice to you? You see me as either a stuck-up, spoiled pack princess or an omega to be kicked around and raped by the rest of the males.”

What the hell had he stepped in? Worse, what the hell was going on in New Orleans? “I don’t understand what you’re talking about.”

“Oh, that’s right. I’m also too stupid to understand pack politics. Any other insults you want to add to your list, Mr. Polk?” she finished with a heaping serving of sarcasm.

“I get it. You’re pissed Auntie Francine replaced your mom in your daddy’s affections.” He immediately regretted the words. Obviously something was itching under her skin, but lashing back like this wasn’t going to help him find out what it was.

“How dare you.” Her voice was low-pitched, dangerous. Whenever his own mother sounded like that, someone was about to lose some fur.

If they were lucky.

“You’re the one who’s made it clear she hates being a wolf. And I’m getting tired of you treating me like your own personal omega.” This time, the grin he flashed wasn’t well-meant, and he made sure to show all his teeth. “I bite back.”

“You’re right.”

That simple admission startled him. “About what?”

“My feelings regarding the pack.” Her sniff sounded suspiciously like she was trying not to let tears fall. “I’m too much like my mother.”

“What do you mean? From what I know, Minuette was everything a packmaster could ask for in a mate.”

“And she hated every minute of it. So much so she killed herself.”

That bit of news hit Logan in the gut. She couldn’t be serious. But her surreptitious swipe of her face said Alyson was deadly serious.

“I’m sorry. I heard she died in a car accident.”

“That’s the story everyone was told.” Her scent switched from bitter grief to the sulfur of anger. “Aunt Francine did what she had to in order to protect me.”

“I’m still sorry you had to go through that.”

She did a one-shoulder shrug. “Let’s drop it.”

He’d never heard of a werewolf actually committing suicide. Just how bad was life with RenĂ© Tribideaux that his wife would rather kill herself than live with him? Especially if Alyson was as young as Logan suspected she was when Minuettte died.

It wasn’t like he hadn’t thought killing himself at a couple of points during his imprisonment, but that was before his captors had placed Sarah in the cage with him. The old memories triggered his own anxiety, and he forced his fingers to unclench round the steering wheel. The itch of fur along his skin faded as he counted each deep breath he took.

But his anxiety wasn’t the real problem. Alyson Tribideaux was rapidly becoming his own personal itch he didn’t dare scratch. He wasn’t about to give her the advantage by letting her know that, but it didn’t mean he had to be a total asshole.

The eleventh deep breath didn’t do a damn thing to clear his head. Worse, it filled his brain with too many ideas regarding her. How the hell was he going to survive dinner?

Monday, April 24, 2017

Ravaged - Chapter 6

Chapter 6

“I’m so sorry for making you wait, Miss Tribideaux.”

Alyson turned at the friendly greeting. Looking at Frederick Rogers Haight, several things struck her. Medium height, average build, common brown hair with a smattering of grey threaded through, and mediocre brown eyes framed by non-descript steel wire-rims. They all added up to someone who would normally blend in with the crowd if it weren’t for his bright smile and jovial attitude.

“That’s quite all right, Reverend Haight. Sharon has been taking good care of us.” She took a deep breath as she shook his proffered hand. The crisp scent of a red delicious. Well, that killed any theory about him being a super.

The assistant froze for a moment, but Haight’s chuckle seemed to relax her. “I’m not sure what I’d do without her. Honestly, she’s the one who keeps this place running.”

Sharon blushed, and the lightest hint of roses came from her direction. Alyson had to clamp down on her own emotions to keep from revealing the assistant’s secret. Sharon had a crush on her boss. No wonder she worried excessively over the reverend’s possible displeasure.

Haight scratched the back of his head. “This place will be filling up pretty soon, and I believe we need to hammer out the final details. If you don’t mind retiring to my office for lunch, Sharon will make sure your intern is fed.” Alyson relaxed slightly. Maybe this would be easier than she thought.

Until Logan inserted himself between her and the sect leader. “Where Miss Tribideaux goes, I go.”

Haight frowned. “Just what are you insinuating, young man?”

“Logan! I’m so sorry, Reverend—”

“I think you know exactly what I’m stating,” Logan growled. “Starting with Hollywood and leading to Peru.”

Sharon clapped her hand over her mouth.

Instead of the fury Alyson half-expected, Haight shook his head sadly. “Our mission is to find lost souls and show them the light. Those men you refer to in California weren’t doing our Lord’s work, son. They did terrible things. They were caught. They were punished.”

“What about the ones who escaped to Peru?”

Alyson blinked. She’d only discovered the incident with the actress. There were others?

“We certainly don’t condone the brutal murders of those other two women in Los Angeles. It is my understanding the United States government asked to extradite our former members who allegedly committed the crimes. However, Peruvian law enforcement has yet to apprehend them.” Haight exhaled noisily. “And before you ask your next question, I’ll give you the same answer I gave the FBI. No, I have not been in contact with them. I would most definitely turn them into the proper authorities. However, I sincerely doubt they would dare show their faces here.”

“Because you’d punish them?”

Haight’s heated gaze could have melted steel. “Because one of the women they are accused of murdering was our order’s prophet.”

* * *

Alyson retrieved the bags for her laptop and printer out of the coat closet before Haight led her to his private office. Logan obviously wasn’t happy about the arrangement, but he kept his mouth shut as she walked away. Once Haight closed the office door, she held up her hand.

“Before we go any further, I want to apologize for Logan’s behavior.”

“My dear, if I got upset at every accusation thrown our way, I would have given myself a brain aneurysm years ago.” He held out a chair for her at a tiny table on the other side of the room from his desk. The wide window showed a panoramic view of the valley with the town of Tuttle Creek nestled by its namesake. She took the proffered seat and studied his private space.

The museum metaphor carried over into his office. Another prehistoric fossil embedded in basalt adorned the wall behind his desk chair. It was a smaller version of the dinosaur on the mantel in the receiving area, but with the appropriate four limbs. A bookcase overflowed with tomes on Paleozoic archeology. Framed fossilized footprints from millions of years ago hung on the opposite wall.

When he took the seat across from her, she continued, “I want you to know I have no intentions of dredging up dirt. You’re one of several groups I’m filming—”

Haight held up his hands. “Stop right there.” He leaned forward, his elbows on the table. “A documentary should give an unflinching portrayal, shouldn’t it?”

His candor threw her off the speech she’d mentally rehearsed. “Yes, it should.”

“Then you need to include our problems as well.” His expression turned grim. “I’m not happy about the terrible acts performed by some of our former members, but they happened. If you ignore it, you’re integrity will be called into question, Miss Tribideaux. If I ignore it, the odds are something similar could occur again.”

He removed his glasses and rubbed his eyes before he laid his spectacles on the table and returned his attention to her. “All I ask is that you don’t sensationalize those terrible things the way the tabloids have. Please stick to the facts.” His earnest look was so endearing. He reminded her of the parish priest back home.

“You mentioned one of your own was a victim,” she said softly.

He nodded. “Jane Chevrette. Before we go forward with this project…” He stared out the window for a moment. “She was…very important to me. I won’t ask you to remove any mention of her, but please don’t mention her gift. People already don’t think much of us. I don’t want her name disparaged.”

She hesitated. “May I ask a few questions off the record?”

“Testing me?” One graying eyebrow rose above the rim of his glasses.

Alyson inhaled. Grief spiced his scent, but there was no hint of deception. “No. I want us both to be comfortable about this project, but it sounds like Ms. Chevrette was more than a colleague.”

He slowly removed his frames before he stared out the window overlooking the valley. “Yes, she was much more to me than just a fellow in faith.” When he turned back to Alyson, she could describe the glint in his eyes as murderous. “If I could wreak vengeance on the people who killed her, I would,” he said.

Logan’s earlier words chilled her. “Did you go to Peru?”

He blinked and sighed before he replaced his glasses. “No, but I did make some enquiries through non-government channels. The people responsible for my Jane’s death are no longer in that country, and I cannot…reach them at the moment.”

“If you know where they are, why don’t you call the FBI?”

The slightest smiles curved his lips. “May I ask you a question in turn, Ms. Tribideaux?”

“Of course.”

“When a werewolf is killed in a dominance fight, do you report the death to the Normal authorities?”

Her lungs refused to work. “I-I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

He waved a hand. “This is off the record, isn’t it?”

She nodded slowly. The old fear of discovery continued to punch her in the gut, making it difficult to breathe. “Did you really think I’d let a stranger onto this property without learning everything about her?”

What should she do? Laugh it off? Run? And how the hell had he discovered her secret?

What Haight had said about his lover, girlfriend or whatever she was to him being the group’s prophet finally registered in Alyson’s brain. “Ms. Chevrette wasn’t Normal.”

The reverend’s smile was sad. He leaned his elbows on the table as he regarded Alyson. “No. She wasn’t. And yes, I do know about your world. You have nothing to fear from me. Part of conventional seminary training is learning to keep your parishioners secrets as long as they are not a danger to themselves or to someone else. I have no problem extending the same courtesy to a business partner.”

“Let get this straight. You’re asking me to not out Jane as a supernatural and in return, you won’t out me as one?”

Haight chuckled. “When you put it that way, it sounds more like blackmail than a negotiation.”

If her father were here, he’d kill Haight outright because he knew the truth about. While the reverend’s offer did sound like blackmail, she could understand him wanting to protect someone he cared about. Alyson nodded. “Your terms are acceptable, Reverend.”

“As long as that particular term isn’t in the contract.”

Alyson rested her own elbows on the table. “And how do you propose to enforce that particular clause if it’s not in the contract?”

“I guess we’ll just have to trust one another,” he said.

She considered his statement for a moment. The clause really couldn’t be in a contract that another Normal might see. But the thought of following pack protocol made her stomach rebel. And if she did follow protocol, exactly how would she get out of the ranch alive? Not to mention, who had Haight already told her secret to?

“I guess so, too.” She reached down and pulled her laptop out of its bag. “I have my standard contract. If you want any additional changes—”

“Let’s get some food before we start. No sense continuing our negotiations on an empty stomach.”

As if she were waiting for a cue, Sharon entered with a tray. She set the two salads and bowls of strawberries before them, along with glasses and a pitcher of ice tea.

“Ring me if you need anything else.” She bounced out the door, obviously in a much better mood. Alyson wondered how much her improved demeanor was due to Logan.

And immediately squished the thought faster than a summer mosquito.

“I’ll need releases from the Sunshine Believers members I film.”

“That won’t be a problem. Most of our folks have agreed, but there’s a few that have said they don’t want to be a part of your project. I know you’ll respect their wishes.” Haight reached over and patted her hand, a fatherly gesture. “I trust you to do the right thing.”

She relaxed a bit and brought up the contract form on her laptop screen. Maybe her anxiety had nothing to do with this project and everything to do with the werewolf on the other side of the door.

* * *

Logan watched the rest of the diners as he poked at the rabbit food before him. Occasionally, one of the group would look his way before muttering to the person next to him or her.

“Lunch isn’t to your liking?” Sharon’s expression no longer had the fretfulness it had when he and Alyson first arrived.

He smiled. Or tried to. The motion felt unnatural and stiff after the last four years.

It didn’t earlier when you were talking to the pretty were, the voice in the back of his mind reminded. The voice that was beginning to sound more and more like his therapist.

“I’m more of a meat and potatoes kind of guy,” he murmured politely.

Sharon frowned. “I can have the kitchen fry a soy burger for you.”

“No, thanks. I appreciate the thought though.” He laid his fork aside. “You said you recently joined the Sunshine Believers. When was that?”

“It will be two years next month.” She took a sip of her tea. “I can honestly say Fred Haight saved my life.”

“How so?” He didn’t have to feign curiosity. The attitudes here reminded him of pack mentality. A tight-knit group with a healthy suspicion of an outsider.

She blushed, a hard one compared to earlier. The woman obviously adored her boss. Even a Normal could get that without detecting the rose undertone to her scent. “I became addicted to painkillers after a car accident. My sister dragged me to rehab twice. It didn’t help.”

Sharon stared at the dead garden outside of their window. “He found me in Cheyenne, homeless, trading sex for oxycontin. I’m not proud of myself. If it weren’t for Reverend Haight, I’d be dead or worse. I can’t really explain how he did it. He used mainly talk therapy, which never worked before when I was in rehab, but he cured me.” She face Logan again. “I’m clean. He gave me a decent job. A purpose.”

He inclined his head toward the rest of the dining room. “What about everyone else?”

She smiled. “Everybody has their own story. None are the same. Some were adrift spiritually. Some lost their homes in the last economic downturn and had nowhere else they could go. Some were addicts like me or had other problems with the law.”

“He sounds like saint.”

Sharon’s expression sharpened. “He’s a good man, but he’s just a man. I know what the people in Tuttle Creek say about him, but they don’t bother to get to know any of us either.”

“Actually, all I’ve heard and seen are good things.”

Her eyes widened and she blinked. “Oh. Like what?”

Suspicion ran deep in this woman. But then, it had taken the folks in Tuttle Creek a little time to accept the Goldsteins and him as well.

“I work with Avery at the feed mill. He’s the hardest worker there. Always on time for his shift. Always polite. You don’t see that much in kids these days.” Logan reached for a roll from the nearby bread basket. “Carol at the general store says the same thing about Maddy. And she’s quite pleased that Haight insists Maddy, Avery, and the other kids get their high school diplomas.”

Pink spread across Sharon’s cheeks again. This time, the scent of yeast and flour spilled from her, as if she were as fresh-baked as the roll in his hand. “I didn’t realize you—”

“Knew a couple of y’all?” He grinned. “Now who’s makin’ assumptions?”

Her laugh was self-deprecating. “I apologize for my attitude. I guess I’m so used to being looked down on or my decisions questioned. It didn’t occur to me I was doing the same thing.”

He shrugged. “It happens to all of us at times.”

Sharon leaned closer and said in a conspiratorial whisper, “You’re not really her intern, are you?”

* * *

“The man who came with you isn’t really your intern, is he?” Haight stared at Alyson with an unblinking gaze.

She hesitated for a moment. She didn’t want to damage her relationship with the reverend. Not after they’d hammered out the contract and he’d signed it. “I’m afraid half the town insisted someone escort me to your compound.”

He shook his head. “After this time, they’re still afraid.”

“I don’t think it’s you so much as me, sir.” She took a nervous sip of her tea. “I’m the stranger. Worse, I’m a tenderfoot. They’re afraid I’ll get myself eaten.”

“Eaten?” His eyes widened.

“Mayor Newlin and the sheriff think there’s a large wild predator a little too close to town.”

“A wild predator?” Concern flashed across Haight’s mien. “This is the first I heard of any incident.”

She shrugged and waved an airy hand. “Some hunters found a dead elk torn up in a mountain meadow. If Logan hadn’t driven me here, the mayor or Doctor Goldstein were going to.” She smiled. “If I didn’t know better, I’d say my father hired them all to keep an eye on me. Honestly, I think the town officials were trying to scare me.”

Her statement only increased the furrows of worry on the reverend’s forehead. “Because you were meeting with me?”

“More like trying to scare the big city girl.” Alyson laughed. “Which is ridiculous considering New Orleans is surrounded by gators.”

Haight chuckled as well. “So your father protects you from these gators?”

“No, he tries to keep away far more dangerous predators.” She leaned closer and mock whispered, “Men.”

* * *

Logan smiled at Sharon. “You found me out.”

“A lie’s not a way to make a good impression.” Despite her admonition, she returned his smile.

“You know what it’s like with the tourists. They come up here, unprepared, and they think it’s a zoo or amusement park.” He rolled his eyes and leaned back. “Remember those hikers that got caught in the snowstorm last spring and died of hypothermia?”

She nodded.

He jabbed a thumb in the direction Haight had escorted Alyson. “It’s the beginning of winter, and she’s up here with a designer coat, six hundred-dollar boots, and no chains for her tires.” He shrugged. “She’s staying in Old Roy Cole’s rental cabin, so he asked me to keep an eye on her. Last thing we need is for some rich bitch to drive her pansy-assed rental off the side of the mountain.”

“So why the lie?”

“Probably to preserve her dignity by pretending she’s in charge.” He shrugged again. “I don’t really give a shit what she says.” He leaned forward and rested his arms on the table. “I prefer a real woman to some city slicker any day.”

Red flooded Sharon’s face. “I-I’m flattered, but…” She took a large drink of her water.

“That’s okay.” He smiled. “I didn’t realize you and the reverend—”
“No!” Her outburst drew the attention of the remaining diners. “I mean, um, there isn’t anything between him and me.”

Logan straightened. “I didn’t mean to upset you. You’re a very attractive woman. I had to ask.”

Her blush deepened. “Well, that’s, um, very flattering, Mr. Polk—”

“It’s Logan,” he corrected gently.

“Logan.” She cleared her throat, but wouldn’t meet his eyes. “Like I said it’s flattering, but I’m still working on my sobriety. It’s best if I don’t get involved with any one.” Her gaze flicked to him and back down to her hands. “I hope you understand.”

“I do.” The problem was he really did. In his case, it wasn’t drugs, but his damn anxiety attacks. “Again, I apologize fore making you uncomfortable. That’s the last thing I wanted to do.”

She scooted back her chair and stood. “If you’re finished eating, why don’t we go find the reverend and Ms. Tribideaux?”

Logan rose as well and laid his napkin on his chair. “That’s a good idea.”

* * *

Amusement filled Reverend Haight’s face. “If I had a daughter as beautiful as you, protecting her would be a full time job.”

Alyson laughed to cover her discomfort. Why the hell was she bringing up such a personal subject with this man? But talking to him felt so comfortable, like she had known him all her life.

“Well, the other side is he wants to see me married, so he’s been parading a ton of associates’ sons through our h
ouse. But I’m not ready to settle down. My career is just starting to take off.”
Haight poured more ice tea into her glass. “And you want to establish your reputation before having a family.”

“Yes.” She took another drink. “It’s not that I don’t want family…”

“I agree with you.” He lifted his own glass. “Sow your wild oats before you have children to worry about. Here’s to finding yourself before finding a mate.”

She raised her own glass and clinked it against his. “To finding ourselves.” She took a sip before she waved her hand to indicate the compound. “Is this sanctuary about finding yourself?”

He chuckled. “No, I’m well past my…oats stage.” His expression turned somber. “This about protecting my family, and the Sunshine Believers are my family.” He took another sip of his tea. “There’s a dynamic that some family units have and others don’t. It makes the difference of whether the unit can remain together after a family tragedy.

“I know most of the public doesn’t believe this, but the things that happened, the terrible crimes some of our membership committed, had the same effect on our organization as it does when a member of a nuclear family unit does those same types of acts. And the same questions go through our heads. Why didn’t we see it? What could we have done differently?”

He took a deep breath and blew it out. “The best I can do is give my people some space to deal with those questions, even as I still struggle with them.”

“Would you mind if I ask about Jane and what kind of role she played?”

A sad smile appeared on Haight’s face. “Jane had the gift of foresight. I know most people would think she was a scam artist, but…too many things she saw came true for me not to believe her.”

Alyson pushed condensation down the side of her glass as she considered her next question. “If Jane was precognitive—”

“Why didn’t she foresee the problems?” His smile turned wry. “In the case of the actress, she did. She warned the men not to do something stupid, and they assured her they wouldn’t. Unfortunately, she believed she carried more influence over them than she did. By the time, we learned they had gone through with their plans, well…”

He shrugged. “The authorities arrived at our property before Jane and I did. They rescued the woman, and I was questioned about the matter.”

Alyson frowned. “Why wasn’t Jane questioned?”

“I told her to take our car and leave. There was no sense both of us ending up in jail.” Haight shrugged again. “She was the real leader of the Sunshine Believers after the disaster of that actress’s kidnapping. Or she was until she was murdered.”

“Was her gift the reason for her murder?”

“I believe it was. The extremists knew Jane would go to the police if she learned they planned additional crimes.” A tentative smile crossed his lips. “I’m sure you find the whole story ridiculous.”

“Reverend,” she said as she reached over and covered his hand with hers. “Like I said, I’m from New Orleans, the American voodoo capital. I’ve enough strange things in life to know there’s more to the universe than we poor mortals understand.”

He smiled widened. “I know that as well, Alyson.”

A shiver ran up her spine, and she tried to release as quickly as she could with obviously jerking it away. The echo of Roy’s warning yesterday morning ran through her mind. Her inner wolf said there was something off about Fred Haight. Something neither her human side nor her canine side could lay a paw on.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Ravaged - Chapter 5

Oops! I got so totally caught up in writing Sacrificed over the weekend (which is actually a good thing, right?), I forgot to post the next chapter for yesterday.

So to my wonderful readers, sorry about that!

* * *

Chapter 5

Logan blinked in surprise as he pulled into the drive of Cole’s rental at ten-fifty-eight a.m. The pack princess promptly walked out of her cabin with a couple of bags full of equipment slung over her shoulders.

Or maybe it shouldn’t be surprising. She didn’t want to give him an excuse to see where she slept, which fit more with her prickly disposition.

Not that he wanted to see it.

Liar, said the wolf inside him.

“You want this in the back?” she called the second he braked.

“Yeah.” By the time he turned off the ignition and jumped out of his Jeep, she had the rear door open and had wrestled the larger canvas bag inside.

“I could have helped,” he grumbled. So much for his effort to mend fences between their packs. A surly cub caught in the throes of puberty had a better disposition.

“I’m used to it.” A tentative smile crossed her face. “I can’t afford an assistant yet.”

He slammed the back door shut. “Not even a college intern desperate to work for free in the movie business?”

“I’m on the road a lot. There’s still travel expenses, room and board to deal with. It’s not fair to drag some kid around the country and make her pay her own way.” She turned and headed for the passenger door.

Something didn’t make sense. He climbed into the Jeep. “Not that it’s my business, but didn’t your parents set up a trust fund for you?”

One slim dark eyebrow rose. “You’re right. It is none of your business.” She turned and faced the windshield and sighed. “So many people lost everything in Katrina, not just the pack. I asked Papa to dissolve the trust and use the funds.”

“You couldn’t have been more than knee-high.” He flipped on the ignition.

“Old enough to understand what happens when the levees fail, Mr. Polk.”

He almost leaned over to brush his shoulder against hers in comfort. Probably not the best idea considering their conversation yesterday. Instead, he reached for the gearshift. “Were you able to get out?”

“Yes.” Her voice carried so much sorrow. “My Aunt Francine led a caravan of the pregnant women and pups to Houston. Papa and the rest of the pack tried to secure our boats and equipment. We still lost three quarters of what the pack owned.”

He did a J-turn and headed back down the drive. “I can’t imagine rebuilding from that.” Sweat trickled down his spine. He hadn’t lost anything in his life except his self-respect, and he couldn’t even get that back.

“Papa is the heart and soul of the pack. If he believed, then everyone believed.”

What he wouldn’t give to have someone believe in him like that. He blinked stinging drops out of his eyes. “You okay?” she asked.

He glanced at her before he turned and checked for oncoming traffic on the main road. “I’m fine,” he lied. “Why?” She pointedly looked at his hands on the steering wheel. His knuckles were white.

Great. Nothing like an anxiety attack in front of her.

Logan forced a smile. “Sorry. Thinking of how our dads would react if they knew we were in the same vehicle.” Yeah, that was an excellent excuse. Not that he really believed there would be trouble at the Sunshine Believers compound.

She laughed, but it sounded just as forced as his smile. “Yeah, I heard about what happened between them. How about we vow never to tell them we met?”

He pressed the accelerator and turned left. “Sounds like a smart plan. Even Dad’s version about what happened makes them both sound like douchebags.”

“You don’t think it’s romantic fighting for your true love?”

“Romantic? Are you shitting me? It’s one thing to fight to protect your lady. It’s another to fight over a woman like she’s a damn prize.”

Alyson said nothing for the longest time. Had he royally pissed her off with his statement?

He glanced at her, but she didn’t look angry. “Really? Is that how you want to be treated? Like an object to be fucked and brought out to impress other wolves when you’re not popping out pups?”

Still nothing. Her silence wasn’t helping to nerves prickling his skin.

The need to fill the void in the Jeep overwhelmed him. “Bet you haven’t heard my mom’s version of the story.”

“And what’s that? She resents being an object to fuck.” Sharpness tainted her voice. So she was angry after all.

He grinned. “You obviously have not met my mother. She’s nobody’s object. You do know she’s really the San Antonio pack alpha, don’t you?”

“You’re kidding?”

Another glance. Alyson stared at him with rapt attention.

“Hell, no. She left the Dallas pack for the same reason I left San Antonio. Didn’t like the idea of battling the parent to be top wolf.”

She laughed. “In other words, you were afraid your mama would whip your ass.”

“Damn straight, I am. She bluntly told both Dad and RenĂ© they had a choice. They could each fight her to retain alpha position of their packs. Or they could fight each other for her hand and retain some semblance of dignity. Personally, I think your dad lost on purpose.”

Now, Alyson was laughing so hard tears ran down her cheeks. “Kn-knowing Papa, you’re probably right.” That sent her into another spasm of hilarity.

They rode in companionable quiet for a few minutes before he asked, “So why does a nice wolf like you buy into the Normal myth of Prince Charming?”

And the tension between them slammed back into place.

“Why does a wolf like you resort to pathetic Normal behavior such as stalking?”

“I beg your pardon?”
“I not only saw you, I smelled you. First you ran in front of my Jeep the night I arrived. I nearly hit you on the drive up to the cabin. Then you were standing out by the cabin windbreak this morning around three a.m.”

He frowned. “I admit I watched you when you picked up groceries at Carol’s two days ago. It’s a little surprising to scent another were this late in the season, but I wasn’t anywhere near your cabin until I picked you up—” He looked at his watch. “Fifteen minutes ago.”

“Are there any other weres in the area besides you?”

“No,” he ground out.
“So you want me to believe you weren’t spying on me?”

Her incredulous tone and her accusations irritated him. “Why would I bother? You were the one yesterday who said I had plenty of women after me.”

“I was only repeating what Roy had told me.” She crossed her arms.

“So you’re a gossip, too?” he shot back.

“Shut up. Just shut up,” she snapped.

“Happy to oblige,” he growled.

Only a tomb would have been quieter than the rest of their forty-minute drive.

* * *

Alyson was never more glad to arrive at her destination in her life. The nerve of that man! Maybe she was too human, but her nose worked just fine. She could tell the difference between a were and a regular wolf. And she damn well knew a were smelled the same regardless of which form he wore.

She rolled down the window of Logan’s Jeep, letting in the damp, moldy odor of decaying leaves. The gate to the ranch stood open. Brown remnants of high meadow grass rustled between tiny mounds of snow, but no guards could be heard, much less seen or smelled. Wire fencing was strung between chest-high wooden posts along the drive with occasional bright orange ten-foot poles.

Breaking her oath to never talk to Logan Polk again, she asked, “What are the orange poles for?”

“They’re guides for the plow so the driver doesn’t accidently run into the fence posts,” he said, guiding his Jeep through the open gate. “Last thing you want is cattle and horses escaping in the middle of a blizzard.”

She looked at the orange poles again as the Jeep drove past them. She couldn’t imagine drifts that deep. Snow in New Orleans was a truly rare event. Something to be celebrated as the city shuts down to enjoy the moment. Another pang of homesickness went through her.

They rolled up to a massive one-story log cabin at the end of the driveway. Similar, slightly smaller buildings spread out from the main one. It resembled a rustic ski lodge.

Or a dude ranch. She wasn’t quite sure which effect the Sunshine Believers were going for. According to the information she’s dug up, only the main building had been on the property when Haight’s organization bought the ranch. “Do we just go inside?” Logan said as he cut the engine.

“It’s polite to knock,” she said.
He gave her an odd look as he cut the ignition, and she realized her words had come out sharper than she intended. Except she’d meant them to be cutting, hadn’t she? The bastard had lied about spying on her, hadn’t he?

An attractive brunette burst out of the front door of the lodge, waving. “Ms. Tribideaux?”

Alyson leaned out the window. “Yes?” She took a surreptitious sniff of the woman. Golden delicious. Normal. But something seemed off and she couldn’t figure out what.

The woman smiled. “I’m Sharon Tyson, Reverend Haight’s assistant. You’re a bit early. I can show you around while he finishes his current meeting.” She shifted to peer at Logan. “Will you be back in two hours, or would you prefer I call you when Ms. Tribideaux is ready to leave?”

Before Alyson could stop him, he’d jumped out of the Jeep. He rounded the vehicle and, well, he didn’t push Reverend Haight’s assistant out of the way, but she scurried back at the scowl on his face when he opened the passenger door. “Where would like your camera equipment set up, Ms. Tribideaux?” he said.

She slid out as well. Logan seemed determined to repay this favor by proxy that he owed her. The silence of the ranch bothered her. There wouldn’t be many insects above ground with the current temperature, but there should have been birdsong. For the first time, she was glad of his company.

She waved at the grouchy were. “Sharon, this is my college intern, Logan Polk.” Alyson smiled sweetly at his frowning visage. No question about it. He didn’t like being treated as unpaid help he’d suggested she get. “Just take the equipment bags in with us. I still have to get Reverend Haight’s signature before we start filming.”

She slug her backpack over her shoulder before she turned back to Sharon. “I hope you don’t mind. If our meeting goes as well as I expect, I want to get a jumpstart on my work today.”

“Oh, um…” Sharon’s flummoxed expression would be funny under normal circumstances.

Alyson struggled to keep her own expression nonchalant. It wouldn’t do to piss off the woman. She knew how much power the so-called secretaries and personal assistants really wielded in most organizations.

“I think just carrying it in will be fine.” Sharon shot Logan a worried look. “I’m not sure how the reverend will feel about having an extra guest.”

“As I told him in our letter exchange, I have no intention of painting the Sunshine Believers in a bad light.” Alyson swept her hand in the air to indicate the ranch. “I find what he’s done here quite admirable. I think people need to see what good leadership can do for any organization, not just a religious sect.”

Sharon brightened at the compliment. “That would be so great. I wasn’t a member when things went bad all those years ago.” She lowered her voice. “I heard the stories though. The members of the church at the time were so relieved when those men were caught before they hurt the woman they’d kidnapped in L.A. Human sacrifice is not what we’re about.” A shudder ran through her.

Alyson went for the gracious, socialite smile she’d practiced for years. “Why don’t you show us where we can stow our gear? I’d love to see what all you’ve built here.”

It must have worked. Sharon beamed and said, “Right this way.”

Alyson swallowed her irritation when Logan made a point of carrying the equipment bags. She couldn’t afford to replace anything if he broke something. But it wasn’t worth the pissing contest in front of Sharon after the rocky beginning with Reverend Haight’s assistant.

The interior of the main cabin wasn’t anything like Alyson expected. Humidity weighed down the air. Instead of the blue-collar American, wild west, or native tribal designs she’d seen all over town, the lodge’s great room resembled a Paleozoic museum.

Petrified wood had been carved into various pieces of furniture. Huge potted palms hugged alcoves and corners. Rather than the head of a large hooved, local herbivore hanging over the fireplace, the outline of an eight-point sun had been carved into the stones. Hammered gold filled in the grooves.

Underneath the sun, what appeared to be a skeleton of a tiny dinosaur perched on the mantel, some carnivorous variety from its jagged teeth and the prominent ripping talons on each of its limbs. The relic was posed in such a way it almost appeared alive and ready to pounce on its next victim.

Alyson took a closer look. Instead of the requisite four limbs, the skeleton had eight. She waved to indicate the figure. “Is this a particular species native to Montana?”

Nervous laughter burbled from Sharon. “No. Our symbol used to be an eight-legged lizard over a star. After the problems in L.A. and the negative connotation reptilian species have in America, Reverend Haight decided to simplify the emblem.” She pointed at the gold design. “Now, it’s just the eight-point star.”

“But the skeleton?” Alyson raised an eyebrow.

More nervous laughter. “One of the teens was fooling around with fossils and animal bones. Reverend Haight thought it was cute, so he put it up on the mantel.”

The ashy smell of fear wafted from Sharon. But fear of what? Being judged for having bones in a worship space? Many shamanistic religions as well as the Catholic Church held bones as religious objects.

Or was it fear of bringing Child Protection Services down on the compound? Anything in U.S. society that wasn’t WASP-ish was immediately suspect in a large swath of the country.

Or was it as simple as fearing her boss’s temper? What if Fred Haight’s views weren’t as far removed from his jailed compatriots’ opinions as he wanted the outside world to believe?

Whatever it was, Alyson knew if she pushed, the assistant would clam up. Best to give it time, wait until the members of Sunshine Believers trusted her.

Sharon led them to what she called a coat closet. The space was the size of the cabin Alyson rented from Roy. Once their gear was stowed and coats hung, Sharon led them around the main building. The place was more like a spa than a religious center. Massage rooms, a sauna, and meditation spaces were interconnected by a brook diverted through the building. The water feature even had tadpoles and tiny fish swimming in it.

While Sharon kept her manner upbeat and cheerful, she kept shooting nervous glances in Logan’s direction. Maybe the woman subconsciously picked up on his alpha dominance though he took pains to remain in the background as they toured the facility.

Sharon swept into a large room with a series of tables with white cotton cloths covering them. “This is our communal dining area. We serve a completely vegan diet, and we grow a majority of our food.”

“Vegan?” Disbelief twisted Logan’s brow.

Sharon tilted her chin in a defiant manner at his question. “It’s a healthier lifestyle and much better for the environment.”

Alyson took a deep breath, as much to test Logan’s doubt as to prepare to smooth over Sharon’s ruffled feathers. She caught the faintest odor of Normal blood. Underneath it was a whiff of something else familiar that she often detected in conjunction with the coppery scent. A combination she only smelled when Papa returned from a meeting with the vampire representative of New Orleans. “Is that sandalwood I’m smelling?”

“I’m afraid so. We burn incense during services.” Sharon’s expression became alarmed. “You’re not allergic, are you?”

“Oh, no. It just reminds me of—” Alyson caught herself. “Someone I know back in Louisiana who wears a lot sandalwood cologne.” She forced a chuckle.

A soft chime rang, and Sharon jumped. “That’s Reverend Haight. Wait here please, and I’ll let him know you’ve arrived.” She dart out the door.

“We need to get you out of here,” Logan murmured.

“Why?” Alyson crossed her arms.

“Can’t you smell it?” He looked at her as if she’d lost her mind. “Neither scent is from a tree.”

She rolled her eyes. “Has it occurred to you there’s a simpler explanation? As in one of the women here is having her period? And you can’t be sure it isn’t incense and not—” She glanced around herself. “The other thing.” If he didn’t say “vampire”, she wasn’t about to either.

His jaw muscles clenched so hard they stood out in sharp relief under his skin. “You can’t tell me you think she’s acting in an ordinary manner.”

Sharon’s behavior bothered her more than she wanted admit to Logan, but she didn’t want to give him the satisfaction of being right either. “Maybe if you’d stop glowering at her like the big, bad wolf, she wouldn’t be so nervous around us.”

“I don’t think I’m the one she’s afraid of.” He glowered more.

“Has it occurred to you that if something is going on here, she’s more likely to open up to me?” Alyson said softly. “Without you being so…intense?”

Slowly, his shoulders relaxed before he inclined his head. “You’re right. I get a little…” Rotten citrus tainted the air. His anxiety had to be incredible.

His admission made her feel a little sympathetic. If even half of what Aunt Francine had insinuated last night were true, Alyson understood Logan’s jumpiness at the sandalwood odor. “Weird about them?” She gave him the slightest of smiles. “I totally understand.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he growled.

Mother Wolf, she’d really stepped into it, hadn’t she? But there really wasn’t a point in lying. He knew who she was, and that she knew who he was.

Alyson let her arms drop to her sides, and lowered her voice even more. “All I mean is I’d be nervous too if I were the only one of our people who survived Selene Antonius’s little shop of horrors.”

His nostrils flared, and his fists clenched. For a moment, she feared she’d made the wrong choice. If he lost control here in a compound of Normals, they were both in deep shit.

Instead of sprouting fur, he closed his eyes and quietly counted, “Ich, nie, san, shi…” When he reached what she assumed was ten, his shoulders had relaxed and his skin had smoothed.

His eyes slowly opened. “You know.”

“Yeah,” she admitted. “I’m sorry for questioning you. You’d know before now if there are any of them living in Tuttle Creek, which is why I didn’t want to jump to conclusions when I smelled the sandalwood and blood.”

He shook his head. “You’re right. There isn’t any of them nearby.” He leaned closer to her ear and murmured, “Closest vamps I know of are a couple living in Billings.”

She cocked her head. “Literally two?”

He grinned. “No, literally a couple. Ever hear of Toni Wells?”

“The romance writer?” Alyson stopped short of gushing over her favorite author. “I’ve heard of her,” she said coolly. “Joni and Thomas Wellington.”

She snapped her fingers. “So that’s why their Ancient Nights Convention is held up here in the middle of winter.”

“No, you’re not a fan at all,” he drawled.

For once, she didn’t get angry at his teasing. In fact, she kind of liked it.

* * *

Fury ripped through Marcus Giovanni as he watched the video feed from the Sunshine Believers dining room. If it weren’t the middle of the day, he’d charge up there, rip off the wolf’s head himself, and ship it to Alex Stanton.

Or maybe he should ship Polk’s left hand to Stanton.

He held up his arm and stared at the stump. Not even the V-virus’s vaunted healing power could replace a missing limb when it had been cut off by the weapon of a god. Not when he’d left his hand behind, his blood coating the pebbles and soaking into the desert sand. Not when the choice had been his hand or his life.

Maybe daylight was a good thing. It kept him from doing anything stupid like revealing his continued existence. Augustine and the rest of his minions must have assumed he died in the Nazca desert. Let them continue to believe so until it was too late.

No, he needed to lay aside his personal desires and stick to the plan. He wasn’t going to make the same impatient mistakes his grandmother and the lizard demons had made.

His phone buzzed. He thumbed the “Answer” icon. “Yes.”

“Why is the male werewolf with the filmmaker?” Haight sounded curious.

Not who was he, but why. “Maybe word got out about your little stunt in Seattle.” As much as it burned Marcus to say it, he added, “Leave this one alone.”

“Why?”
Marcus wanted to yell in exasperation, but Haight didn’t think like he did. The idiot was too worried about short-term results. “He’s here to protect the female. She’s a pack princess from Rousseau’s territory, but she’s in Augustine’s now. Something happens to her, and you’re going to have more trouble on top of you than you know what to do with.”

“And why would I be afraid of some vampires?”

“You know what happened in Peru.”

Faint static was the only sound for almost a minute. “You and your people need to stay where you are until she leaves.”

“I wasn’t planning on coming out until after sunset,” Marcus muttered sourly.

“No, stay there until she’s finished filming.”

Haight’s statement confounded him. “You’re really going to allow her access to the entire compound?”

“No, just most of it. When she presents a lovely view of our church, it will attract more lost souls. Fresh human blood will quench your thirst far better than the occasional elk, wouldn’t it?”

Despite himself, his mouth began to water. “Yes, it would.”

“Stay where you are. I will notify you when she leaves.” The signal abruptly cut out.

Marcus leaned back in his chair. Now, why was Haight so damn interested in the Tribideaux bitch?

Monday, April 10, 2017

Ravaged - Chapter 4

Logan glared at Sarah as he jabbed a steak off the platter. “Why didn’t you tell me her name last night?”

“I did!”

“You only told me her first name.”

“I couldn’t pronounce her last name. She said it too fast, and it was in some weird language. Alyson was the only part I caught.” Sarah glared right back.

Normally, he’d be ecstatic seeing the scarred girl stand up for herself, but not this time. Not when it came at his expense with a large political price tag. “First of all, French is not weird. Secondly, her father, RenĂ© Tribideaux, is the packmaster of New Orleans. Third, do you have any idea have much shit would be stirred up if he knew I was within a hundred miles of his daughter?”

For the first time, Aaron looked worried. “I wasn’t aware there a blood feud between the San Antonio and New Orleans packs.”

Logan was sure the disgust he felt was reflected on his face. “Not per se. Mainly two alphas and their super-huge egos.”

“What did your father and RenĂ© get into a snit fit about?” Esther prompted.

He didn’t want to go into family history with the Goldsteins, but all three looked at him expectantly. “They fought over my mom.”

“Like, literally, fought over your mom?” Sarah’s eyes widened.

“Yep.” He forked a baked potato onto his plate.

“That’s so romantic.” She sighed dreamily.

“No, it’s not. Especially not with werewolves. One of them should have wound up dead. My dad didn’t want to take on the New Orleans pack as well as his own. That’s the reason he let Tribideaux live. For us, getting your ass beat and being allowed to trot off with your tail tucked between your legs is embarrassing as hell.”

“Logan,” Esther said softly. “Language.”

He slammed down his fork. “She needs to understand how the world works.”

“You think I don’t know.” Sarah yanked up the sleeves of her sweater. Under the dining room chandelier, long white scars glistened along the length of her forearms. Even Aaron and Esther’s skills as healers could only do so much on the months-old damage once Augustine’s team had pulled the survivors out of that hell hole.

Sarah bared her teeth at Logan. “Tell me again how the world works, Mr. Polk.” She shoved back her chair, the pine feet screeching against the oak floor, and she raced from the room. Pounding on the stairs was followed by the slam of her bedroom door.

A lump burned in his throat. It had been a while since he’d screwed up that badly with Sarah. “I’m sorry,” he whispered.

Esther laid her hand over his fist. Only then did he realize the tension thrumming through his body. The rapid pulse in his ears.

“She pushed. You pushed back. Which is a switch in both of your behaviors.” Esther’s smile was sad, weary even. “Dr. Plinkman said we all needed to be patient with each other. I’ll take this as a positive sign.”

“It’s been almost four years,” he murmured.

“You can’t set a time limit on emotional damage, Logan.” Aaron rested his utensils on the side of his plate. “My daughter makes a good point though. Maybe you’re not using your parents as an excuse with Ms. Tribideaux, though it is a good reason to keep your distance. However, you’ve also avoided any were that’s passed through Tuttle Creek for the last four summers. Sarah’s making plans for school next fall. She’s moving on. As much as we love having you here, it’s time for you to move on with your life, too.”

As much as he hated to admit it, Aaron was right. Hell, even Alyson Tribideaux was right. He was hiding in Tuttle Creek. He had a choice to make. Find a mate and start a new pack.

Or go home to Texas and take a lower-ranked place under his father because he wasn’t about to fight his sire for pack dominance.

But if he was going to be a fucking beta, maybe fixing the old feud between the Polks and Tribideauxs was a good place to start.

* * *

Alyson jerked awake, unsure of what had roused her. She checked her recharging phone. Three a.m. local time. She scanned the small bedroom. Nothing. Not even the proverbial mouse.

Flinging the comforter aside, she slid out of the high mattress and padded over to the door. There wasn’t any sound in the main part of the cabin.

Hinges squeaked when she pulled on the lever and peered through the opening. Moonlight spilled in silver squares along the rugs and hardwood floor. It was still two days before the full moon, but her skin tingled at the sight. She crossed the living space. Embers glowed dully under the grate, but no burning scent indicating one had escaped through the screen guarding the fireplace.

Outside, the few remaining patches of snow gleamed. But there was nothing—

A shadow shifted near the pines that served as a windbreak on the west side of the cabin. The silhouette of a wolf stepped from behind a trunk, as if it knew she was watching. Branches provided enough gloom that she couldn’t make out the coloring.

Was it a wild wolf? Or was it the same were that had darted in front of her Jeep last night? Was it Logan Polk?

Alyson cracked open the front door, and a burst of frigid air blew past her along with the odor of the stranger. From his scent, he was the same wolf who’d nearly caused her accident last night. The same scent of the man who’d sat beside her at breakfast. The shadow wolf darted to the ridge, then looked over his shoulder, daring her to follow him. Francine’s warning blared in her mind. While the urge to shift and run under the moon with him was tempting, something deep inside her said to listen to her aunt. She closed the door and locked it, waiting to see what he would do.

The wolf stood on the ridge for an hour. Or it could have been merely a second. His tail wagged once before he trotted off and disappeared from sight.

She sagged against the door. Was Francine right? Was Logan Polk so damaged he could only be friendly in his animal form? Had he been spying on her the whole time? She hadn’t bothered closing the curtains because she believed she was isolated from everyone up here.

Maybe there was another problem. Maybe the reason she clung to her romantic fantasies was from her own emotional damage. Maybe she was so damaged thanks to her mother and her father’s problems she would never be a suitable mate for anyone.

Maybe she was the one who was far too broken for Logan Polk.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Ravaged - Chapter 3

In case you haven't noticed while reading the sample chapters, the book hasn't been proofed yet. It will be before it's released.

Also, if you see the stats on your right, I blew past the 80K mark last week. That means Ravaged will be closer to 90K by the time editing is done.

* * *

CHAPTER 3

By the time Alyson stalked back to the clinic, she realized she hadn’t confronted Polk about running in front of her Jeep last night. Roy immediately distracted her by insisting on taking her to lunch for making her wait. Or that Doctor Goldstein had made her wait, he’d muttered with a pointed dirty look aimed at the bemused physician, who mouthed, “Thank you,” to Alyson as she left with her landlord.

This time, he took her to a bar called the Next to the Last Buffalo. Once they were seated in a booth and the waiter had taken their orders, she asked him about the naming conventions for the town’s eateries.

He chuckled. “According to the story, Last Buffalo was a cavalryman who’d gone native after the Civil War—”

“You mean the War of Northern Aggression,” she said, reaching for her soda as their waiter set the drinks down.

“My story, my names, Missy.” Roy waggled a finger at her. “Anyway, after the Civil War…” He eyed her.

Alyson smiled and kept her mouth shut.

“Alfred Tuttle hired Last Buffalo to help negotiate the land for his town and keep the peace. Later, Last Buffalo married a Chinese woman. Well, no one in town could pronounce her name, so everyone called her Next to Last Buffalo.”

“And nobody gave them any grief over—” She cleared her throat.

One of his bushy eyebrows rose. “You mean the miscegenation laws at the time?”

She nodded.
“Naw.” Roy leaned back against the booth seat. “Like I said, people here pretty much leave you alone as long as you keep your nose clean.”

“As long as you’re not a favor to be traded,” she said bitterly.

“What?”

Alyson relayed her conversation with the shirtless Logan to Roy, though she left out any mention of the shirtless part.

The old man shook his head. “Ain’t like him to be rude like that.” He leaned his elbows on the Formica tabletop. “Though honestly, him escorting you over to the Haight ranch would be even better than the doc. He’s a tough one.”

“After he failed to protect Sarah Goldstein?”

“I don’t think Logan was hired until after she’d been kidnapped.” Again, he waggled his index finger. “And you shouldn’t rely on an old man’s gossip.”

The waiter delivered their sandwiches, and Roy turned the conversation to her work. But the image of the shirtless Logan Polk teased her libido all the way home.

* * *

By the time they returned to Alyson’s cabin, most of the snow had melted. After Roy headed back up the mountain to his house, she spent a few hours looking through the books the librarian Marvin had pulled for her. She ended up pulling out a pad of sticky notes and jotted down questions to take with her.

Dinner with the Newlin brothers turned into a pleasant affair with productive interviews despite the odd dĂ©cor of modern hunter and pink leopard print unnerving her. What little Marvin didn’t know, Mayor Tad filled in. During a lull in the conversation while Marvin served dessert, Tad asked, “Is someone going with you out to the Haight ranch tomorrow?”

Alyson met his concerned gaze with a bold stare of her own. “Why is everyone so concerned about me going to the Haight ranch by myself? What aren’t y’all telling me?”

Tad’s expression turned grave. “It’s not so much him and his people. At least, the sheriff doesn’t think so.”

“Then what?”

“A couple of weeks ago up at Last Buffalo Meadow, some hunters stumbled across an elk carcass ripped to shreds with all the meat left there. It’s between Old Man Cole’s property and the Haight Ranch.”

She shrugged. “The town is pretty close to Yellow Stone. You sure it’s not just a wolf pack or a cougar, and these hunters scared off the predator?”

Tad shook his head. “I’ve seen both types of kills. And I did a stint with the Marines. This looked more like someone took an automatic rifle to the elk and unloaded a full clip on it.”

“I’m telling you someone’s messing with people around here,” Marvin said as he set bowls of blueberry pie a la mode in front of Alyson and his brother. He set his fists on his hips. “Go on, tell her what the tracks looked like.”

Tad’s cheeks and ears turned bright red. “Doctor O’Connell was just offering an observation.”

Marvin turned to her. “Our resident retired paleontologist says the tracks around the carcass were caused by a velociraptor.”

Tad rolled his eyes. “And everyone knows the man grows his own weed.”

Marvin shrugged and marched back into the kitchen.

Tad coughed discretely. “I’ll clear my meetings tomorrow afternoon and take you up there, Miss Alyson.”

“That’s all right.” She gave the mayor a wry smile. “My landlord conned Logan Polk into acting as my escort.”

“Good.” Marvin slid into his chair. “That’s a nice long ride for you two to get to know each other.” He winked at Alyson before taking a bite of his dessert.

“Marvin, we have a guest,” Tad hissed.

“Not my fault that boy needs to get laid before he has a mental breakdown.”

His brother gasped. “Really?” He turned to Alyson. “God, I’m so sorry. Please don’t put that in your film.”

Marvin shook his spoon at his brother. “Well, according to Wade, she’s the first one to flick Logan’s Bic since he moved here.” The librarian leaned closer and laid a hand on her sweater sleeve. “I’ve been telling these idiots for three years and eight months he doesn’t swing my way. Believe me, if he did, I would have snapped him up in a heartbeat. And if you ever see him without a shirt, you’ll understand why.”

Heat flooded her face at the reminder of her second encounter with the mysterious Logan Polk.

“Oh, girlfriend already has!” Marvin laughed. “Tell me, is his ass as delectable without his jeans as it is with jeans?”

“I don’t know,” Alyson mumbled. She shoved a spoonful of blueberries and vanilla ice cream in her mouth. Because part of her really wanted to find out what Logan’s naked ass felt like under her palms.

* * *

When Alyson returned to her cabin, the bright blue clock numbers on the kitchenette’s microwave reminded her about the time difference between Tuttle Creek and New Orleans. And that she’d forgotten to check in with Aunt Francine.

She ditched her coat before she unsnapped the side pocket on her backpack and pulled out her satellite phone. Papa had complained about her extravagance, but the device had been the best investment next to her digital video camera, the laptop and the software she used for editing.

It took a few seconds for the call to ring through. A wave of homesickness hit her at Aunt Francine’s dulcet, “Evening, cherie. What can I do you for?”

“Can you ship me a dozen beignets?” She crossed the rental cabin’s living room to the bedroom.

Laughter chimed through the receiver. “If you want sweets, ma petite, you need to come home. And you need to call your papa."

Alyson groaned as flung herself on the platform bed. “I called him last night as soon as I unloaded everything. I’m not a little girl. Why is he so overprotective of me?”

More laughter. “He’ll be like this until you find a good wolf to settle down with and raise a basket full of pups. Now, tell me what’s wrong.” Leave it to Francine to ferret out Alyson’s real feelings.

“This is an information call because you will tell me the truth and not blow this out of proportion.” Alyson sucked a deep breath and blew it out. “Do you know a wolf by the name of Logan Polk?”

Silence stretched until she thought she lost the signal. “Aunt Francine?”

“You have met this gentleman?”

“Yeah, this morning. My landlord introduced us.” She wasn’t about to add that Logan sat next to her at breakfast. And she saw him shirtless.

“Are you interested in him, cherie?”

Alyson closed her eyes to keep from making a nasty comment. Logan’s naked torso and incredible abs danced in her mind. “Why does every conversation with my family have to revolve around me finding a mate?”

“Forgive me. It’s just that…you know how your father feels about involving you in politics.”

“Yes, I do. He’s willing to sell me to the highest bidder.”

“That’s not true, child, and you know it.” Francine’s breath whistled across the signal. “He could not make your mama happy. He is simply trying to make sure he succeeds with you.”

The sadness in her aunt’s voice tore at Alyson’s heart, and threatened to throw her in the same depression abyss her mother fell into years ago. Somehow, Alyson dug up a bit of courage. “If he wants me to be happy, then he needs to let me live my life. Now will you please tell me what you know about this Logan person?”

Francine sighed. “All right. He’s the son of the San Antonio packmasters.”

That’s why the name sounded familiar, but she’d been doing her best to ignore any eligible males in the eastern half of the country. “So why didn’t Papa throw him at me?”

Her aunt chuckled. “Because your father and George Polk fought for the hand of Emily Shipley, and your father lost.” Alyson couldn’t imagine her father losing at anything. She also couldn’t imagine him with anyone but Mama either. “But that had to have been decades ago! Papa still holds a grudge?”

“You father holds on to a lot of things he shouldn’t. You especially.”

Alyson stared at the caulk and plank ceiling. “So what do you know about this Logan? According to my landlord, he’s been living here with a witch family for the last four years.”

Another sigh filled the receiver. “Oh, ma petite, he may be too broken for you to pursue.”

“Who said anything about pursuing him?”

Francine chuckled. “I am not you father. Don’t think about trying to fool me.”

Alyson swallowed her irritation. Her aunt may be her mother’s twin, but she took the surrogate mother thing too far. Best to change the subject. “What do you mean ‘broken’? Has he gone rogue?”

“Not officially. It…he…the situation was very ugly.”

“He said something about his parents setting him up with Siobhan Lannigan, the Los Angeles pack’s beta. Did she fight him for the right to marry her Normal?”

Francine clicked her tongue against her teeth. “From what I heard, it was dislike from the start on both sides. There was no fight. It was a mutual decision. When Logan and Siobhan didn’t work out, he visited other packs to court but never found a bitch to his liking. He returned to Los Angeles after sufficient time had passed and asked the packmaster permission to court other girls there.”

Silence fell again which meant Francine was getting to the juicy part of the story. And that silence drove Alyson insane. “So what happened? Why is he living with a witch family?”

“A few years ago, Selene Antonius, the beta of the Augustine vampires went rogue and tried to usurp her brother. She failed miserably, but her brother was foolish and did not kill her.”

Francine sighed. “It would have saved so much heartache if he had. In her search for revenge, she sought a way to allow vampires to walk in daylight, no doubt thinking it would give her an edge over others of her kind. She kidnapped many supernaturals of all types, performed obscene experiments on them. Most didn’t live.”

Gorge rose at the back of Alyson’s throat. “Logan was one of them.”

“Yes. When Master Augustine discovered Selene’s actions, he had his people kill his sister and rescue the survivors. I heard rumors that Polk had traveled to the neutral lands and lived there. Few have had contact with him over the years, and most who claim to do so, like to tell tales.”

Alyson’s eyes stung. Mother Wolf help him. An alpha would be ashamed for allowing himself to be captured. It explained his reticence to talk with her. For him to trust the Goldsteins…

“Francine, were there any witches who survived the rogue’s experiments?”

“I heard one did. A child.”

Mother Wolf help her. Sarah.

Bits and pieces of Roy’s story made more sense now. Aaron and Esther Goldstein took Logan in because he was the reason their daughter survived. If he was ignoring the Normal women in town over the last four years, the trauma of his capture and torture had affected him. Sarah probably thought she was helping by setting him up with one of his own kind.

Which, once again, made her wonder about Roy Cole. He was just as guilty of pushing her and Logan together, but she trusted her nose. He was definitely a Normal.

“Anything else you can tell me about him?”

“No, cherie. Just…please be careful around Logan Polk. Avoid him if you can.”

For the first time in the conversation, Alyson laughed. “That may be hard to do. I’ve already been invited to dinner by the witches. And they finagled him into escorting me out to the Sunshine Believers’ ranch tomorrow afternoon.” Francine was silent for a long moment before she said, “Frankie hung out with a witch, too.”

Oh, shit! Alyson wanted to sink into the floor. Papa may have rightly expelled Cousin Frankie from the pack, but that didn’t mean Francine didn’t care about her son. And to not be allowed to bury her only child nearly killed her. “I-I think this is a different situation.”

“Hmmm, may be, Cherie,” Francine said. “Funny how they both include living sacrifices.”

Monday, March 27, 2017

Ravaged - Chapter 2

If you're watching Ravaged's wordcount to the right, I went beyond the original 75K I had estimated. But I think you all will be pleased.

* * *

Chapter 2

Logan’s human ears tried to perk when Sarah said, “Did you hear about the film maker renting Roy Cole’s cabin?” She passed him the potatoes, a mischievous expression on her heart-shaped face.

Even if his ears didn’t actually move, the eyebrows on both the adult Goldsteins did. Aaron’s brown eyes gave his daughter a speculative look as he sliced the lamb roast.

However, Esther frowned. “Weren’t you complaining about the way people gossip in this town when we first moved here?”

“C’mon, Mom. A film maker is a big deal here even if her movies are documentaries.” Sarah scooped a healthy portion of lima beans onto her plate.

It was good to see the young witch eating normally again. Logan shifted his attention from her plate before she noticed. After the starvation they’d both experienced while prisoners of Tyrone Mallory and Selene Antonius, it had taken them a long time to fight the urge to eat sparingly and not hoard food. The assholes had captured Sarah two months before the night he and Alex Stanton, his closest friend outside of the were community besides the Goldsteins, had been abducted.

“Even better—” She shot Logan a sly smile. “The film maker is a lady were.”

“And how do you know this?” Aaron frowned at his daughter.

“I was in the general store buying groceries when she was picking up the keys to the Cole cabin,” she said primly.

He could feel Aaron and Esther’s attention turn to him. Knowing what would come next, he shoveled a huge forkful of potatoes into his mouth.

“Really?” Esther murmured. “By herself? This late in the season?”

“Maybe we should invite her to over for coffee.” Aaron forked a slice of roast onto his plate before he passed the platter to his wife. “Not a whole lot of supernaturals in Tuttle Creek.” He eyed Logan as if daring him to dispute the offer of hospitality.

“Definitely!” Sarah chirped. “I could interview her for my independent study project.” Except it wasn’t her school assignment gleaming in her eyes.

A lump of concrete would have been easier to swallow than his mouthful of spuds, but Logan managed. His friends’ plans needed to be nipped now before someone got hurt.

Before he got hurt.

“Y’all need to stop.” His already deep voice had dropped an octave. His skin prickled with the threatening change. “She wants to be left alone.” That had been obvious from her bald, dismissive look this afternoon. “And quit acting like a bunch of Yentes. I can’t do a mate any good until I get my own shit together.”

“Language,” Esther admonished.

“Will you stop playing matchmaker?” He deliberately narrowed his eyes and stared at each of the Goldsteins.

Any story, any tale, he could pull out of his own pain, he had used to keep Sarah’s hopes up. Until there was nothing but his own stories. He should never have told the girl he’d been in L.A. searching for a mate when he’d been taken. Now, her family had made it their mission to fulfill his search in gratitude for keeping their daughter alive in that hellhole.

Unfortunately, their good intentions had made the last four summers excruciating. The appetite he’d built up through an honest day’s work disappeared. He stood, placed his napkin on his chair, and headed for the back door. Maybe a run would clear his head.

Sarah’s tremulous voice paused his hand on the knob. “I didn’t mean to push so hard.”

He looked back at the teen. He forced a smile at the anxiety in her expression and the bitter taste of her scent. Great. His irritation and lack of manners triggered one of her attacks. “I know you didn’t, sweetie. We both need time to heal. I can’t fix you anymore than you can fix me. Remember?”

The echo of their therapist’s words eased the panic evident in her posture and the hint of ozone in the room. She nodded though wetness still shimmered in her eyes.

The first snow of the season was already falling when Logan stepped outside. A soft, muffled cold enveloped him along with the flakes and the silence. He exhaled the tension, and the cloud of his breath swirled into the night.

Not a good night for a hunt since any prey would be tucked safely in their burrows and dens against the storm. He scanned the area for any townsfolk over the top of the fence before he stripped off his clothes and boots and set them in the box tucked against the house. Aaron and he had built the storage when they first arrived in Tuttle Creek for those nights he needed to let the wolf free.

Skin pricked. Muscles stretched. Bones cracked and reformed.

He shook, from the tip of his snout to the end of his tail. The snow fell faster, huge wet globs now. No, definitely not a good night for a run. But he feared what he might do to his friends if he didn’t work off his own rage and hate and terror at the remembered helplessness.

And he’d felt just as inadequate when he saw the lady were and her expression of disdain this afternoon. He should have gone over and done something about it. Yet, he’d been frozen in his tracks and just stared at her. How could any she-wolf want him when he was such a mess? With a leap, he cleared the side yard fence and bounded into the forest

* * *

The next morning dawned crisp and bright compared to the low-hung clouds that greeted Alyson’s arrival to Tuttle Creek. The ground wasn’t cold enough yet to keep the thick white blanket that has fallen last night. Finding a shovel in a shed behind the cabin, she had already cleared the dirt drive of the soft snow when Mr. Cole arrived on his tractor to plow her out.

The discomfort of a seventy-something Normal thinking he needed to take care of her prompted her invitation to make him breakfast for his trouble. Unfortunately, her offer only pricked his pride further. They compromised at Alyson driving them to the local diner and Mr. Cole buying.

“I don’t get why a pretty girl like you is up here by yourself this time of year.” His piercing gaze drilled her skull as she tried to concentrate on damp asphalt. If a wolf ran in front of the Jeep again, she wasn’t sure she could keep it from tumbling down the mountain.

“It’s my job.” She shot him a quick smile.

“Doesn’t mean you can’t have someone to keep you warm at night.” Mr. Cole chuckled. “If I was forty years younger, I’d put my hat in.”

“I don’t know if I could have handled you forty years ago.” She smiled back. It was easy to believe he’d been attractive in his youth. Sure he had a full head of silver-white hair and all his teeth, but his easy charm would have been what garnered the ladies’ attention.

Finding a Normal sounded appealing. Someone who knew nothing about the supernatural species, much less cared, but the New Orleans pack would never accept such an arrangement even if she were madly in love. Except Lannigan hadn’t had a problem when his daughter married a Normal. According the gossip, Siobhan Lannigan’s husband was a detective in the sheriff’s department out in California. Someone strong enough and brave enough to go head-to-head with an alpha for his woman’s hand.

And there she was daydreaming about romantic nonsense again. She sighed.

“What’s wrong, Miss Tribideaux?”

“It’s Alyson, Mr. Cole.”

“Well, then you need to call me Roy.”

“No offense, Roy, but insinuating I need someone makes you sound just like my father.”

He chuckled again. “Men and women should look out for each other.”

She frowned. “He’s just looking to—” Somehow, she managed to bite of the improper string of words she was about to vomit. “I’m an only child, and he wants grandchildren so bad he’d driving me crazy.”

“Nothing wrong with wanting grandchildren.”

It is when he’s setting me up with every Tom, Dick and Hairy in a thousand-mile radius. Her fingers tightened around the steering wheel.

“I see.” Roy seemed determined to fill the silence. “He went too far playing matchmaker?”

“You could say that.” She glance at the older man, but he appeared genuinely concerned. “I think he sent someone after me.”

“Like stalking you?” Bushy gray eyebrows climbed his forehead.

“No.” She sighed again. “There was a man at the feed mill staring at me when I came out of the grocery last night. About six-two or six-three, sandy brown hair, looked to be in his early thirties.” Muscles that didn’t strain when he was swinging around hundred-pound feed sacks, but Roy didn’t need to hear that tidbit.

“Sounds like Logan Polk.” He snickered. “Don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about there. The gossip in town says he isn’t partial to women. And plenty of the single gals have tried.”

“Oh.” Had she misread the look he gave her? “I take it he grew up here?”

“Naw, he’s from Texas originally. At least, he has the twang though he doesn’t offer much personal information. He moved up here with Doc Goldstein’s family nearly four years ago from Los Angeles. He really doesn’t say much about his past.” Roy’s voice lowered to a sad note.

“Something happened in Los Angeles, didn’t it?” she said softly.

“Don’t know the whole story. Really none of my business.” He shook his head. “Scuttlebutt is the Goldsteins’ daughter was kidnapped when they were in California. Bad things happened. Really bad. I think Logan was hired by the Goldsteins as a bodyguard, though none of them will say for sure. But damn, if any of the boys in town look at that Sarah Goldstein sideways, Logan is on ‘em like white on rice.”

“I see.” This Logan had to be a rogue. An alpha didn’t leave his pack unless he was looking to start a new one. And a gay alpha didn’t stand a chance of either taking over a pack or founding one. Mate or abdicate was the rule.

It sucked. It sucked rotten eggs in her opinion. It was the freakin’ twenty-first century for the love of Mother Wolf.

“My misunderstanding then,” she added.

The incline leveled out, and she shifted out of the lower gear. Mounds of snow clung to the prairie grass, but not a cloud marred the crystal blue vista.

“Now I know what they mean about the big Montana sky,” she said.

“Yep.” Roy didn’t sound smug or condescending, just happy with life. “Supposed to stay clear for the next twenty-four hours according the Weather Channel. Wait until you see the view tonight from your cabin.”

* * *

The Last Buffalo Diner was crowded and loud when they entered. The noise died immediately as the clientele watched them. The change was unnerving. It raised the hackles on the back of her neck, but Alyson followed Roy as he plowed past men twice his size and half his age.

He settled into a booth at the rear of the diner, his back against the wall where he could keep an eye on everybody. His choice left her with a decision—either sit next to him so her back was against the wall too, which her wolf-half silently advocated, or sit across from him like a proper human would.

Those glittering eyes caught her hesitation. “I’m not the one you should be worrying about, Alyson.” His voice was so low, only a supernatural could hear him.

She tried to appear confused, but she had the impression he saw through her act. Slowly, she slid onto the opposing bench.

A stout, matronly waitress with graying hair in a tight braid appeared beside their table, already pouring coffee into one of the two cups she held. She grinned at Alyson and set the first cup down for Roy. “What can I get you to drink, Miss Tribideaux?”

That the waitress knew who she was sent a trickle of unease through her. Back in New Orleans, she had relative anonymity thanks to the big city population. Here in Tuttle Creek, Montana, population four thousand-three hundred-one, she would stand out.

“Coffee, black, please.” It seemed the safest bet. She could feel the eyes of everyone in the diner on her. Besides, the odds of getting a decent cafĂ© au lait in Montana were about the same as her finding a beignet in the forest.

Conversation resumed around them. Once the waitress set down the second cup and toddled off to take care of another customer, Alyson leaned forward. “I take it I passed the city versus country test.”

“Yes, ma’am, you did.” Roy grin as he took off his cap and unwound his muffler.

She took a sip. Not as bitter as the chicory mix favored back home, but she still missed milk to mellow the flavor. Little containers of artificial creamer sat in a matching mug at the end of the table. Those would be even worse than plain coffee.

“So who should I be worried about?

“I hear you’re in town to interview the leader of the Sunshine Believers.” Roy wrapped his hands around his own mug.

“I take it he’s not popular around town.”

The old man’s frown emphasized the deep lines embedded in his face. “He’s never caused any trouble around here. Neither have any of his people. There’s just something off about him that I can’t put my finger on.”

The waitress came back, her pen poised on her pad. “Your usual, Roy?”

“Yep. Thanks, Lois.”

She turned a bright smile on Alyson. “And you, dear?”

“Three eggs, scrambled, with bacon and toast.” If Roy hadn’t insisted on paying, she’d order her normal breakfast, but she wasn’t about to bankrupt the man. Besides, she could always grab a snack back at the cabin later. Like maybe some more ice cream if she could swing by the store before they drove back up the mountain.

Lois tucked her pen behind her ear. “I like a girl who isn’t afraid to eat.” She sauntered back to the window behind the counter and called out the order.

Alyson took a sip of her coffee. “So what do folks around here think of the Reverend Ford Haight?” Might as well get a little background. Most small towns were notoriously closed-mouthed, but then neither she nor Haight were part of the community.

Neither was this Logan apparently.

She shut down that thought. Even if Roy was right, and the man wasn’t a suitor planted by her father, she needed to focus on her job.

Roy shrugged. “Don’t think many of them care as long as he doesn’t cause trouble. You know about what happened in Los Angeles four or so years back?”

“You mean the kidnapping of Jessie Alton, the actress? The men from the Sunshine Believers who kidnapped her all ended up in prison or high security mental wards. Haight disavowed them.” There had been a few things missing in the public police reports, too. Things that made her suspect someone involved in the whole sordid affair regarding the kidnapping was supernatural. Something of this magnitude, especially between Alton and her husband’s popularity as entertainments stars, required a joint effort to keep things quiet. Well, relatively quiet.

She’d heard stories about the cooperation between the Lannigan pack, L.A.’s master vampire, and the resident witch coven. But any time she’d asked Papa about specifics, he’d told her not to worry her pretty little head about political affairs.

Roy bobbed his head. “Yeah. While he did say those men weren’t acting on his cult’s behalf and the police couldn’t tie him to the crimes, it makes me wonder.” His fingers drummed the side of his cup. “This is the type of town where no one’s perfectly innocent, but as long as you keep your nose clean and don’t hurt anyone, no one bothers you.”

“You think he was involved in the Alton kidnapping, and he hung his people out to dry?”

Boney shoulders shrugged under his insulated coat. “Don’t know. What I do know is there are a lot of pretty young things that are part of his compound. More women than men if you know what I mean.”

The image of Maddy, the teenage girl at the general store who lived at the Sunshine Believers’ ranch, popped into mind. “Do you think they’re brain-washed or abused?”

Again, Roy shrugged. “Don’t act like it, but I’m not an expert.” He reached over and grasped her hand. “Just be careful when you’re around him. I suggest you take someone with you when you drive out to the compound.”

She took a deep breath. Underneath the aromas of frying food, the hay-sweet scent of cattle and the crisp odor of fresh-cut pine, the old man still had the super tart scent of an Arkansas Black apple. But something else crossed her nose, and it wasn’t from Roy.

Ginger. Lots of ginger followed by the unmistakable musk of another were. None of which came from the surrounding tables.

She turned around to follow the scents. A tall man with shaggy, graying hair strode toward them. He wore the requisite Tuttle Crossing uniform of jean, boots, and flannel topped off by a heavy coat. A young woman followed him, mid-to-late teens by the look of her. Her dark hair framed a heart-shaped face with shining brown eyes. Her appearance was similar enough to label the man as her father. Witches from the tangy ginger with a fainter hint of ozone.

Behind them stalked the were from the feed mill, dressed like the male witch but with an ugly scowl marring his handsome features. A scowl she recognized from her father and cousins. He was itching to shift and tear someone a new asshole.

And of course, the trio stopped in front of their table.

“Roy, you missed your appointment,” the male witch said with a milder version of the were’s scowl.

The old man scowled right back and tilted his head in Alyson’s direction. “Can’t you even use your company manners, Doc?”

“Hello, Roy. You missed your appointment.”

“So you tracking down patients now?”

The older witch smiled. “Only when they don’t come in for their quarterly A1C testing like they’re supposed to.”

Roy made introductions. The Goldsteins were rather enthusiastic. The were barely gave her a civil nod.

“Why don’t you join us for breakfast since there isn’t a free table?” Roy added.

No, no, no.

“Sure!” Sarah immediately slid into the booth next to Roy. Her father followed.

Which only left room for Logan to sit next to Alyson.

Human establishment, human manners, she reminded herself. She scooted across the cracked vinyl seat to make room. On the other hand, he didn’t seemed too pleased about the arrangement either.

Alyson took a surreptitious sniff of the man next to her. Yep, he was definitely the were who’d ran in front of her last night, but she wasn’t about to confront him in front of so many Normal witnesses.

She wondered if one of the Goldsteins summoned Lois by the way she appeared out of nowhere with menus. Alyson bit her lip at a more uncomfortable thought. Maybe she was distracted by the bulk of Logan Polk overwhelming everything around her.

Small town gossip filled the minute or two before Lois appeared with plates for Roy and Alyson balanced on her arm. Once she dropped off the drinks for the rest of their table and took the remaining orders, Doctor Goldstein leaned over and said, “Roy, I want you to stop by the clinic for your blood work after breakfast.”

“Can’t. Caught a ride into town with Miss Alyson.”

The doctor’s lower jaw worked for a moment before he said, “Roy, you can’t put this off any longer. I can’t authorize refills of your insulin until I know what your numbers are. You could be taking too little or too much.”

Roy reached for the syrup bottle and deliberately pour a healthy amount over his pancakes in response.

Goldstein turned to her, a please-help-me look in his eyes.

The old man’s stubbornness reminded her too much of her mother’s situation. She had also insisted nothing was wrong. By the time Alyson had figured out she was lying, Mama was dead.

Alyson cleared her throat. “I was planning on doing some research this morning at the town library. Why don’t you take care of your errand at the clinic, and I’ll swing by when you’re done?” she said brightly.

“Fine, but I want something in return,” the old man growled. “Doc, you need to accompany Miss Alyson to the Sunshine Believers compound. She shouldn’t be going out there by her lonesome.”

The change in topic obviously caught the doctor off guard, too. “I’ve got a pretty full schedule today. Maybe Logan can go out to the compound with Miss Tribideaux?” He looked at the man next to her.

Alyson could feel the tension in Logan’s body. His attitude was a one-eighty from yesterday’s frank appraisal. Maybe she really had misread things like Roy suggested. Maybe his stare yesterday was the normal analysis of an interloper in his perceived territory, even though Montana was supposed to be a neutral zone for the packs.

Panic set in. He didn’t want to escort her anymore than she wanted him to. Not that she needed a chaperone anyway. “I don’t have a definite appointment with Mr. Haight yet, and I’m sure Mr. Polk needs to be at work.”

“No worries! It’s Logan’s day off,” Sarah chirped. Her statement earned a glare from the male were.

“Then you’re paying the gas money,” he muttered.

“Sure.” She grinned, pulled out a few bills from her pocket, and slid them across the table. “This should cover it.”

Alyson tried not to smile at the girl’s antics. There was obviously some kind of rivalry going on between the two. More like the sibling version than anything else. Was Logan getting as much pressure to find a mate as she was? It must be bad if his witch friends were in on it. Maybe they weren’t as plugged into the town grapevine as Roy. Or Logan hadn’t come out of the closet with his friends.

Those thoughts actually made her feel sorry for the man sitting next to her.

The rest of the meal passed pleasantly despite the tension in the male were. Sarah carried most of the conversation. She had been taking classes remotely, working on her graphic arts degree, but planned to transfer next year to a bigger school. Questions spilled out of her about cameras, software and anything else she could think of relating to video arts.

Sarah’s enthusiasm didn’t hide the worry in Aaron’s eyes when his daughter spoke about moving away. Another unspoken something was going on in that regard. His behavior cemented Roy’s story that something bad had happened to Sarah in the past. The more the teen talked about attending school in California, the more Roy fidgeted in a way that had nothing to do with his third cup of coffee.

Which was just plain weird considering none of them had mentioned any familial relationship between him and the Goldsteins.

Part of her was relieved when Logan claimed he had things to do. He laid down a couple of bills and stalked off before Lois made his change. Once everyone else was finished with breakfast and the bills were paid, Alyson walked out with the Goldsteins and her landlord.

Alyson and Roy climbed into her rental, and they followed the Goldsteins’ SUV out of the parking lot and down the street. At the edge of town, the clinic sat, a low-slung concrete pre-fabricated building, huddled on itself against the coming winter that threatened to bury it. The only cheerfulness was the bright red signage on the front, stating “Tuttle Creek Medical Center.”

“I could have walked three blocks,” Roy grumbled.

“I know you could, but Doctor Goldstein insisted.”

“This is taking time out of your business.”

“I need to check in at the general store for Haight’s response before I head to the library. Besides, you’re the one who bargained for my escort.” She pulled into a parking space in the cleared lot and cut the engine. “So you need to uphold your end of the deal.”

“This is why I like my mountain. No one’s hassling me up there.”

Alyson popped open her door. “Which is exactly why you need your meds sorted out before the real winter sets in.”

Roy climbed out and rounded the Jeep. “You’re worse than my wife, God rest her soul.”

“And you’re as cranky as my father,” she shot back. “I’ll be back in a bit while you take care of business.”

“Fine.” He waved a gloved hand in the air and stomped into the clinic. If he didn’t have the apple smell of a Normal, she’d claim the old man was a were.

Alyson pivoted and strode down the sidewalk to the general store. No one was inside when she entered except the proprietress, Carol Riesgraf.

She looked up from some paperwork on the counter and grinned. “Hey, Ms. Tribideaux! Got something for you.”

“Maddy isn’t here?”

Carol shook her head. The silver pixie-cut made her look decades younger than seventy. From the way she spoke on the phone when Alyson had been making arrangements, she and Roy had been classmates in school. “She dropped this off on her way to the high school this morning.”

The admission sent a frisson of unease through Alyson. “I didn’t realize she was that young. What do her parents say about her living on the Sunshine Believers compound?”

A disgusted look filled Carol’s lined features as she handed over a sealed envelope. “From the little she told me, there were some problems with her stepfather and his wandering hands. People whisper all kinds of insinuations about Fred Haight, but I’ll give him this. He makes the kids he takes in finish school and get their diplomas.”

Alyson accepted the envelope. “Roy says he doesn’t get a good vibe from the Sunshine Believers.”

“I don’t like to gossip.” As if to emphasis her point, Carol pursed her lips together.

Alyson tried for a reassuring smile. “All I’m doing is collecting background material. The community in which some of these splinter religions live and work can make or break the group.”

Carol stared at her fingers clenched on the counter for a moment. “As long as I’ve known Roy, he’s had a…sixth sense if you will. I don’t discount his opinions, but—” She looked out the window before returning her gaze to Alyson. “Like I said, Haight makes the underage ones go to school. The handful with jobs in town work their asses off.”

“Like Maddy?”

“Yeah.” Carol smiled. “I don’t ever have a problem with her. She shows up on time, ready to work, and doesn’t complain about a thing. Maybe that’s the problem.”

“What do you mean?”

“Have you ever met a teenager who doesn’t complain?” One of Carol’s silver eyebrows rose. “Even I bitched when I wanted to listen to Elvis records with my friends rather than do my chores on our ranch.”

Curiouser and curiouser as one of Alyson’s favorite authors would say. Haight had admitted publicly he wanted to redeem his organization’s name. But if he had a way of turning Normal teens into model citizens, he could make a mint.

And Maddy had smelled pretty damn Normal when they met yesterday afternoon.

“Thanks for this,” she said and waved.

Once outside the store, she yanked off her glove, slid a fingernail under the flap, and tore open the envelope. Inside was a note with the sharp, printed words she came to expect from Fred Haight. An invitation to lunch tomorrow for an interview to discuss the terms of filming his compound and his followers.

He was sticking to his word that he wanted to meet her in person before he granted her access to the entire compound. Given his group’s history, she could understand his reluctance to let a stranger observe his people. Still, she was disappointed that any real work would be put off for another day.

She shoved the note into her hip pocket. It didn’t mean she couldn’t set up some preliminary interviews with some of the town leaders. And the delay would get both her and Logan out of Sarah’s attempt to force them together.

Her trip to the town’s library was a little more fruitful. The head librarian, Marvin Newlin, happened to be the mayor’s brother. He invited Alyson over for dinner that evening. He also pulled a half dozen books on the town’s history he thought Alyson would find useful. Thank Mother Wolf, she remembered to stuff a reusable canvas grocery bag in her backpack.

“I hear you’re going to be filming Reverend Haight’s ranch.” Mr. Newlin played with his reading glasses hanging from a pink beaded chain around his neck.

“I hope to. We’re meeting tomorrow to discuss the particulars.” She needed to dump the books in the backseat of the Jeep before Roy saw them. Otherwise, the old man would insist on carrying them.

“The man actually follows Christ’s path. Charity to all.” Mr. Newlin beamed. “I’m not a member, mind you. Our great-grandfather built the town’s first church.” He chuckled. “Well, the only church. But the way that Rev. Haight takes in those lost souls—” He patted the space above his left breast. “It just fills your heart with love, doesn’t it?”

Alyson gave the polite smile she always did when the subject of personal religion came up. “He’s done a great many things to turn around his organization. That’s one of the reasons I want to interview him.”

Unfortunately, her simple answers weren’t enough. By the time Alyson extracted herself from the clutches of the librarian, the bright morning sunshine was rapidly melting the snow still laying in yards and flower beds. It also made for a pleasant walk back to the clinic. People nodded and gave friendly waves as she went.

Was that why Haight moved his group here? To create a more positive atmosphere?

Everyone she met so far had good things to say about him and his people. Everyone except Roy. And the old man had nothing to go on but a vague feeling. She’d put more stock in Dr. Goldstein having a suspicion, assuming he was telepathic like a large number of witches were.

She could understand why even witches such as the Goldsteins liked living here. But it didn’t answer why an alpha would be so closely attached to non-were supernatural family. Rogues didn’t bother forming those kinds of bonds. Unless the Goldsteins were rogues as well. She was so discomfited by Logan’s presence she hadn’t looked to see if Sarah or Aaron had worn earrings, which she should have to determine their coven membership.

No, the Goldsteins being unaffiliated didn’t make sense. Rogue witches usually attached themselves to vampire covens out of sheer survival instinct. Or at least, that had been her experience. Why would they serve a rogue alpha?

The two witches hadn’t acted subservient to Logan. In fact, they had been damn friendly to her if they were rogues. Even Logan had given her a token amount of civility despite his irritation with being forced to interact with her. The stories her parents told her said a rogue wolf would kill a pack wolf if he discovered one alone. Logan hadn’t done anything besides look at her, or try not to look at her, at breakfast.

Stop it, she told herself sternly. You’re not interested in Logan, remember? And he’s definitely not interested in you. Marvin Newlin was more to Logan’s taste if Roy’s gossip was true. Assuming the poor Normal could survive a night with a gay alpha.

Alyson stepped inside the clinic. No one was sitting in the waiting room, but ginger flooded the air.

A dark-haired woman peered over the reception counter. “Hi! Can I help you?”

“I’m here to pick up Roy Cole if he’s done with his appointment.”

The woman grinned and stood. “You must be Alyson. I’m Esther. Jill of all trades and Mrs. Dr. Goldstein.” She held out her palm.

Alyson could help but laugh along with the woman’s infectious enthusiasm as they shook hands. Unlike her daughter’s wayward locks, Esther’s dark hair was pulled back in a neat bun. The studs in the second piercings on the witch’s ears were tiny silver grizzlies while the silver hoops in the first piercings were plain. The bear was the symbol for the Los Angeles witch coven if Alyson remembered correctly. Plain hoops meant Esther didn’t hold an office within the group.

“By the way, thank you for getting Roy in here. Aaron hasn’t had a chance to get up the mountain. It’s been high school sports check-up season for the past two months.” She rolled her eyes.

“I can see him being a stubborn patient.”

Esther nodded. “Since we’ve got him here, Aaron’s doing a full work up, so it may be another twenty to thirty minutes.” She paused as if she wanted to say more, but she leaned over to check the front door before she continued.

“Come over for dinner tonight.” She held up her hands when Alyson opened her mouth. “No pressure, I swear. Not many supers live in the area, so it’s a treat for us to visit with someone new.”

Damn, no matter what she said, refusal would be awkward. “Um, I accepted an invitation to the Newlins tonight.” When Esther’s expression fell, Alyson quickly said, “Maybe we can get together tomorrow night?”

“Sure.” Esther’s quick smile turned into an embarrassed expression. “I just wanted to apologize. I heard about what my family did to you and Logan this morning. My daughter really doesn’t understand personal limits, especially when it comes to weres. My husband should have known better though, so I’m sorry for his rudeness.”

The apology took Alyson by surprise. She wasn’t sure what to say, except she had a way out of the direct awkwardness with Logan.

“Apology accepted. Actually, the escort thing isn’t a problem. I’m not going out to the Haight compound today after all. I was hoping I could leave a message for Logan?” Instead of making a definitive statement, she ended the sentence on the quivering high Normal women used, asking permission instead claiming their power. Dammit, she wanted to bite her own tail.

“I hate to do this to you, but I’ve got a swarm incoming.” Esther nodded at the front of the clinic. Sure enough, one stressed mother with three little ones, all under five and with running noses, struggled to herd her brood past the glass door. As they watched, two more vehicles pulled into the lot. “I won’t see him until the clinic closes, and he planned to drive up to the Cole cabin before noon to meet you.”

Esther pointed to her right. “The first house past the clinic is our place. The gate’s unlocked. Logan should be out back chopping wood. Or that was his plan, and if he is, he won’t answer the phone.”

Alyson swallowed her urge to grimace. Not her first choice of plans, but before she could say no, two men rushed in with a third slung between them. The injured man was white as a sheet, probably because the towels wrapped around his lower hand were a brilliant, wet scarlet. “Esther!”

The eggs and bacon in Alyson’s stomach lurched at the sight. Why couldn’t she handle this kind of sight while she was in human form?

Esther ran around the reception desk. “For the love of all that’s holy, Abner! How many times are you going to stick your hand in an auger?”

The injured Abner gave a sickly grin. “Till I lose it?” Esther guided the men through a door that presumably led to the exam rooms.

Alyson backed out of the way and into the mother with the three sick toddlers. “Sorry,” she muttered.

“I’m sure it looks worse than it is,” the woman replied. “Cousin Abner’s always doing something stupid.”

The oldest child, a boy, yanked on his mother’s coat. “Yah think Abner’ll still have his stitches at Thanksgiving,” he said between loud sniffs.

“We’ll see.” She gave Alyson a long-suffering look. “If you don’t have kids yet, I strongly suggest putting them off for as long as possible,” she whispered.

“Thanks for the advice.” Alyson smiled and quickly left the clinic. Once outside, she took deep cleansing breaths of cold, mountain air. It lessened the threatening nausea. She had to be the worst were on the face of the planet for letting the sight of a little blood make her ill.

As she stood on the sidewalk, another pick-up and a mini-van pulled into the clinic’s parking lot. Aaron hadn’t been joking about having a busy morning, even without Abner’s desire for self-mutilation.

Like it or not, she was going to have to face the alpha on her own.

* * *

Logan set aside his splitting maul for a moment to strip off his thermal undershirt. Mother Nature was making up for last night’s snow with a much warmer day than expected. He tossed the shirt over a branch of the backyard maple, grabbed the maul and was reaching for another log when a flash of movement through a chink in the fence caught his attention.

Whoever picked their way through the muddy, dead grass in the front yard was downwind as well. His protective goggles didn’t help. He shoved them up, frowned and shaded his eyes.

Alyson Tribideaux, the filmmaker. The very attractive filmmaker who happened to be the New Orleans pack leader’s daughter. The one who didn’t want to give him the time of day.

And moved across the yard like a wolf afraid to dirty her paws.

Or her six-hundred-dollar boots.

Sarah couldn’t have known who she’d been trying to him up with when she brought up the subject at dinner last night. But he definitely needed to have a long talk with the young witch about knowing the players before manipulating the board.

The she-were disappeared from sight. The gate latch jangled before the gate itself swung open. Her gaze didn’t meet his until she reached him. Her expression was reminiscent of an omega trying bluff her way through an encounter. “Hello.”

“Hello.” He set the log on end, slid his goggles back into place, and swung the maul. The dry wood split with a satisfying crack.

“I came over to let you know I won’t be needing your services after all.”

“My services?” He placed another log on the stump he used as a chopping block.

“Dr. Goldstein volunteered you to escort me to the Sunshine Believers compound? Anyway—”

He brought the maul down a little harder than necessary. She jumped back when the two blocks flew apart.

Logan swallowed the grin that threatened to split his face just as easily. “You really shouldn’t be out here without steel-toes boots.”

She ignored his advice. “As I was saying, my appointment has been delayed until tomorrow so I won’t need you this afternoon. So thank you for your assistance.” She pivoted smartly and stalked toward the gate.

What a snob. Not being interested was one thing. Looking down on him as a servant to be ordered about and dismissed when not needed was another. Not to mention, he’d told his friend Alex, who happened to be the Augustine Coven’s chief enforcer, he’d take a look at the Sunshine Believers compound if he ever got the chance.

Well, this was his chance, even if was with the most conceited wolf on the face of the planet. “What time tomorrow?” he called.

She paused and turned to face him. “Why?”

He set one of the split pieces on the chopping block before he answered. “Because the currency in this part of the world is favors. I’m supposed to escort you to Haight’s place, and that’s what I’ll do.”

“You don’t owe my anything.”

He swung the maul again. She didn’t leave as he half-expected. “Aaron owes you for bringing Old Roy in for his check-up. I owe Aaron for putting me up for the last four years. Ergo, I owe you.” Not to mention he and the Goldsteins owed Augustine and his people for getting him and Sarah out of the Mallory Labs torture pit, but he wasn’t about to admit that little Miss Holier-Than-Thou.

She grimaced and folded her arms. “The only reason I was in town this morning is because Roy was angry I cleared the drive before he arrived.”

Interesting. So she was a total pansy-assed omega. No wonder Tribideaux couldn’t find a mate for his daughter.

Logan grinned. “By usurping Roy’s duties as host, it’s your own fault I have to escort you to Haight’s place.”

Her arms dropped to her sides, and her mouth opened and closed a couple of times. Finally, she said, “Fine.” She turned to leave.

“What time?”

An exasperated growl started low in her throat. “Noon.”

“I’ll be at your place at eleven.”

“I can pick you up here.”

Logan liked getting a rise out of her. He gave her a mock frown. “The drive going into the compound is an old logging road. I can guarantee that Mother Wolf-awful banana rental of yours doesn’t have the shocks or suspension to handle the terrain, much less the mud from last night’s snow. We’ll take my Jeep.”

“Look, you don’t want to be around me, and I know why.” A wry smile tugged at her mouth. “Sarah really pushed for you to escort me. I’m sure it’s because we’re both—” She shrugged. “You know. I get the impression she’s a bit of a spoiled princess, used to getting her way.”

“No. She’s not.” He didn’t exactly snap at her, but his anger surprised him as much as it startled her.

“Then why was she pushing so hard for us to be together? I mean, Roy already told me that you aren’t interested in girls.”

His lower jaw dropped and he gaped. It took him a couple of tries to form words. “Where on earth did he get that idea?”

Alyson looked defensive and embarrassed. “He, uh, just mentioned you don’t date women, even though you’ve had several, um, interested parties in Tuttle Creek.”

He dropped the maul and strode across the yard until he was inches from her. He had to give her credit for not backing down. “Do you have any idea what an alpha is?”

Her lips puckered in a sour expression. “Too much of an idea.”

Logan ignored her odd look. “It means I need a female of my own kind.” Like you, but he didn’t dare say that. She’d bolt. And if the only thing holding her back from approaching him was Roy’s dumbass gossip, then he needed to give her another impression of him.

She held up her hands in a warding off gesture. “Hey, I get how hard being an alpha in the closet must be—”

“‘An alpha in the closet’?” She surely wasn’t suggesting what he thought she was.

“Look, I’m not getting in the middle of some Brokeback Mountain scenario you’re hiding because you don’t have the balls to come clean with your friends.”

The urge to kiss her insinuations away vied against the urge to slap her for the insult. And his mother would be the first one to make him pay for laying a hand on a woman in anger. He shoved up his goggles and decided to try another track.

He folded his arms over his chest and rocked back on his heels. “Is that why your nose is bent out of shape? Because as a pack princess, you can snap your fingers and have any stud you want, and you know you can’t have me?

Her cheeks pinked. “Maybe I want someone who’ll respect me, not use me for his own selfish power play. Someone who respects women. Like a Normal.”

He snorted. “Right. RenĂ© Tribideaux will agree to his daughter marrying a Normal over his dead furry body. In fact, he’d kill you before he allowed his family line to be sullied with Normal blood.”

Her chin jutted forward. “Not necessarily. The beta of the Los Angeles pack married a Normal.”

“Siobhan Lannigan?” He laughed. “Have you ever met her?” When she shook her head, he added, “There’s a reason I didn’t mate with her, even though her dad and my parents tried to push us together ten years ago.”

“If you didn’t like her, why are you hiding up here in neutral territory, pining over her?” Alyson shot back.

He dropped his arms and deliberately leaned over her. “For a documentarian, you can’t keep your facts straight. Am I in Montana because I’m in the closet or because I’m pining over a bitch?”

Her eyes swept over him as she inhaled deeply. “I don’t care why you’re hiding. I just know you are, which means you’re not much of an alpha.”

“I’m not hiding up here,” he growled.

She lifted an eyebrow.

His skin prickled, and he clenched his fists to keep from losing control. “I’ll be at your cabin by eleven tomorrow morning. You’d better be ready to go, pack princess.”

“Don’t be late,” she sneered before she marched in the direction of the front fence line.

“Don’t let the gate hit you in the ass!”

The gate swung sharply, but stopped before gently shutting with a soft click of the latch. At least, she didn’t leave him with repairs to do on his day off.

He needed to call Wade about taking tomorrow afternoon as personal time. Wade shouldn’t argue too much, especially since the Grisham kid had been begging for more hours.

But for now, he needed to finish splitting the cord of wood Aaron had delivered this week. If this winter was anything like the last, they needed to save the generator fuel for the clinic when Tuttle Creek lost power.

He picked up the maul and grabbed another log. Otherwise, he may split the New Orleans pack princess’s stubborn head open. Yeah, much better doing some solid work than think about how Alyson Tribideaux’s ass looked as she sashayed out of the yard.