Authors: Rose J. Allister
She placed her hand on a flat, damp rock to help her maneuver through a tight crevice. “I was just wondering why, if there are several wolf packs in the area, nobody has figured out what you are and done something about it.”
“Everyone who works a ranch in these parts knows about the wolf problem,” Kyle said. “But only a rare few know the
about the wolf problem. It ain’t that Shay Falls has an overpopulation of wolves. It’s that the wolves people think they kill get up and come back.”
She nodded. “You said that your pack doesn’t know about Dillon because they held animosity toward his old pack. But you never said why.”
Dillon cleared his throat. “My pack was wild, as you might have guessed.”
She shrugged, stuffing her clammy, chilled hands into Kyle’s jacket pockets. “Yes, but having a harder time with full moons than Kyle doesn’t tell me much about life in your pack.”
He pushed aside a pine branch in his path while she regarded his changed appearance. Dillon was altogether different now after washing up in a nearby stream and putting on the clothes that had been carefully folded in the corner. His dark brown Stetson shielded a good part of his face, but she could see his pensive expression while he considered her words. His tan suede jacket hung with fringe along the sleeves that swung back and forth with every self-assured step, and brown denims fit to every inch of his lower half like a glove.
“With Blaise as our alpha,” he said, “the rules we lived by were more typical of the old country than out here, where the few packs in existence try to blend with nature—and humans.”
She frowned. “The old country?”
“Our kind originated in Europe,” Kyle said. “The highest concentration of shifters live in Romania, Russia, and parts east.”
She nodded. “So Blaise didn’t want to live here peacefully.”
Kyle snorted. “He wanted to dominate the territory. He all but waged war on the mountainside, poachin’ human cattle ranches and battlin’ other packs for huntin’ and matin’ rights. Deaths did happen. He even took the occasional human slave.”
Her eyes widened and shifted back to Dillon. “
“It’s true,” he said. “Though our history ain’t quite as colorful as other packs like to make it sound.”
“Colorful enough to give us reason to talk,” Kyle added.
“It wasn’t a life I wanted. Most of us didn’t.”
She blinked. “Were you ever, you know,
He shook his head. “Wasn’t never my style. I helped one of the others free a slave once. Blaise didn’t like that at all. Lucky for me, he never found out I took part in it.”
She sighed in relief. “So the pack broke up because you didn’t approve of Blaise’s actions?”
Dillon shook his head. “Weres have to submit to their alpha for as long as they remain alpha.”
She frowned. “So what happened?”
Dillon paused, propping a booted foot on a low boulder. “An outsider named Kade Winchester challenged Blaise for alpha rights. He killed Blaise and won the right to take over. His first official command as our new leader was to punish us for Blaise’s crimes. Our crimes.”
“How?” she asked in barely more than a whisper.
“He disbursed the pack, prohibitin’ us to be together anymore. Doomed us to wander alone unless we could find other packs willin’ to take us in.” He let out a bitter snort. “But not only ain’t there enough packs in these parts to take in our strays one at a shot, there sure ain’t a one that would help one of Blaise’s weres. Not a snowball’s chance in the Sahara.”
“They hated you that much?”
Dillon looked to Kyle with a raised brow. “Our orders are to kill on sight,” Kyle said, and her eyes widened. “The first time I saw Dillon, that was an order I planned to carry out.” He pursed his lips. “Then I saw what he was tryin’ to do.”
Dillon stopped short and growled. “Kyle, don’t.”
Aimee turned to him. “Don’t what? I’d think you wouldn’t want us to have secrets. I’m supposed to be your mate and all.”
His eyes flashed with a golden glimmer. “You’re supposed to be.” He flicked a glance down at her ring finger, then struck off up the hill again. She set her jaw and followed.
The conversation halted abruptly as the incline grew steeper and more cragged with outcroppings of rock. Aimee used taller rocks to steady herself during the climb. She sniffed repeatedly to conquer her numb, runny nose, and her hands felt stiff and cramped from the cold. No doubt she looked a mess.
An attempt to gain a foothold in what turned out to be a loose pile of leaves sent her off balance, and she slid backward with a shriek until Kyle’s hand shot out and grabbed her.
“Thanks,” she said as he pulled her forward. He kept her hand in his as they continued on, even when the incline leveled off again. His grasp was so warm and familiar. So strong and secure.
“Your hands are like ice,” he said gruffly, stopping to face her.
“That’s early morning in the mountains for you,” she said, offering him a guilty smile. “I had gloves in the backpack that went over the cliff.”
“Fuckin’ Caleb,” Dillon muttered.
Watching her closely, Kyle clasped both her hands in his and raised them to his mouth. He breathed out forcefully and rubbed circulation back into her skin. It felt like heaven, but it wasn’t only her fingers that warmed to his touch. Her stomach began a slow, steady churn that kept a close pace to the golden magic shifting inside his blue eyes.
“One other question,” she said to distract herself from the emotions spinning like a pinwheel in her chest. “If Dillon had an alpha that he had to obey—still has to, if he is forbidden to get his old gang back together—then how can you be his alpha, too? Can there be more than one?”
“There can only be one,” Kyle said, still rubbing her hands. “But a wolf can be claimed by another alpha. Stolen away, if you will. Any command given prior to that time remains in effect for so long as the original alpha lives. But unless Kade challenged me to a fight and won Dillon back, he stays mine from now on.”
“And you can be an alpha while you have one yourself?” she went on, still not understanding the whole wolf society thing.
Kyle dropped her hands and sighed, a puff of steam roiling out from between his lips.
“That’s a sort of gray area,” Dillon said from much closer behind her than she realized.
She spun around to find him almost as close as Kyle, sandwiching her. She could feel the heat from both of their bodies, and it set loose a shiver inside of her.
“How so?” she asked, breathless from more than the brisk climb.
“There can only be one alpha,” Kyle said. “But because Dillon is kept outside my pack, I’ve been able to straddle a thin line.”
“For now,” Dillon added, and a heavy look passed between them. “The penalty if Kyle is found out would be harsh.”
The semantics spun around in her head, unable to resolve into any sort of logic. Still, one question stood out among the rest. She raised her face to Kyle’s. “Why did you do it, then? Why did you risk yourself to help Dillon?”
He swallowed and glanced at the other man.
“He sensed our destined bond the minute he saw me,” Dillon said. “The same way I felt it with you.”
The air grew thick as silence fell between them, and her breaths came heavy and with more difficulty. The urge to kiss Kyle for coming to Dillon’s aid, and to kiss Dillon just for looking so damn hot while he stared at her from under the tilted angle of his hat, slammed into her fast and hard. She flicked out her tongue to moisten lips blasted dry by the cold air.
Dillon saw her motion and moved toward her, but she stiffened. “I should really get going.”
“You’re already here,” Kyle said, pointing ahead of them.
She followed his motion with her gaze and saw a sloped roof a short distance down the hill. She shook her head in amazement. “So if I had just kept going and hadn’t happened to glance over at the cave at that precise moment, I’d have stumbled right over the ranger station within a half hour.”
“Fate,” Kyle said.
She pushed between the men and started toward the structure, spotting the figures standing out front. Four men were hunched over the hood of a car she recognized, and her steps picked up in pace. Three wore green uniforms and ranger hats. David, who had his back to her, wore a black nylon ski jacket and a red knit cap. He was busy gesturing to something on his car.
The station was still a good many yards off when one of the men glanced up and noticed her. He said something she couldn’t hear from the distance. David’s head whipped around, and he set off at a dead run toward her.
She stopped when he called out to her, but he kept running until he skidded to a stop and yanked her into his embrace.
“Jesus, Aimee,” he said, burying his head in her hair. She stiffened in his arms while he squeezed her hard enough to almost cut off her oxygen. “Thank God you’re all right. I’ve been frantic.”
He pulled back, his eyes trying to examine every inch of her at once. David did look worse for wear, with dark circles ringing heavy, red-rimmed eyes and a shadow of beard marring his always painstakingly clean-shaven face. “What happened to you? I searched everywhere until it got too dark and stormy. We were just studying a map of the area where I last saw you so we could start a manhunt.”
“I’m sorry I worried you.” She heard the footsteps behind her right before David glanced up over her shoulder.
He looked back at her, seeming to notice the borrowed leather jacket for the first time. “Where were you?” he said, eyeing the two males that came up behind her.
“I got chased by a wolf and got lost,” she said.
He blinked. “A wolf? It wasn’t even nighttime. Wolves aren’t active during the day.”
She shrugged. “I know what I saw. After it chased me up the mountain, it ran off. I lost my bearings trying to find my way back and wound up deeper in the forest instead. I sheltered overnight in a cave when the storm came.” She twisted around to gesture to Kyle and Dillon, whose gazes were both locked on David. “These two men offered to guide me to the ranger station for help.”
“Did they?” David asked, his eyes wary. Nevertheless, he thrust out his hand, which was covered by a thick, nylon glove. “Then I owe you both a debt for bringing back my fiancée.”
The word twisted sideways in her stomach, and she saw Dillon go rigid. His eyes narrowed a fraction. Kyle’s face was stoic as ever, and combined with the slash of scar along his face, it gave him an even more dangerous appearance than the man who’d had to be chained up in a cave the night before.
She could feel Dillon’s eyes on her, challenging her to refute David’s assumption. For a moment, she wondered whether she’d been better off lost in the woods with a strange wolf and a wild redhead with a gun.
David seemed to notice that the other men were a rather intimidating sight, too, because he looked back and forth between them and then turned to Aimee with a frown. “So, is everything all right?”
Aimee nodded, adding a smile for good measure.
“You’re a mess, poor thing,” he went on, reaching into her hair and pulling a leaf from the short curls. He lifted her hand with a tiny smile. “I see you still have your ring. All crusted with dirt now, though.”
She felt, more than saw, Dillon’s smart-ass grin. “I’m sorry. A little too much communing with nature, I guess.”
David shook his head. “Don’t be sorry. I’m much happier having you back with me where you belong. I just meant that you must have had such a rough time of it.”