Alphas of Red Moon Ranch - Complete Series (19 page)

BOOK: Alphas of Red Moon Ranch - Complete Series
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Chapter 53

Holly couldn’t help but find it endearing when Trish walked on the Elmswood College campus as though she were stepping onto the red carpet at the Oscars. Her already big brown eyes widened to drink in every sight, every school building, and every student. Once they got closer to the admission building, however, Trish sidled up to Holly like a shaken Chihuahua.

“Relax,” Holly tried to reassure the young girl. “We’re just here for a visitor’s pass.”

Trish nodded, her voice no doubt locked behind a bundle of nerves in her throat. Holly remembered the feeling well. Even Holly—who had been to numerous schools to study and, ultimately, to teach—felt her insides butterfly with anxiety the first time she stepped onto a fresh campus.

She obtained the visitor’s pass for Trish and introduced her to the admissions facility as someone who would
possibly
being applying next year. At the ranch, Trish was well-spoken, bold, and determined. Outside of it, Holly realized just how sheltered the young girl was and she seemed barely able to squeak out her
hellos
and
thank yous
.

Holly ushered her through campus and gave Trish a quick tour before she had to run to class. Holly had three classes to teach that day and she let Trish sit in with her. Holly was happy to have the young girl in her class—it was refreshing, at least, to see someone actually
paying attention
to the lesson. On her lunch break, Holly brought Trish into her office.

“What do you think so far?” Holly asked as she settled in behind her desk.

Trish took a seat across from her. “It is really interesting…thanks for taking me.”

“Of course,” Holly said. “We’re family, right?”

“Yeah.” Quietly, Holly was hoping she might get Trish to open up, maybe talk about clan life. If anyone knew how to win hearts at the Red Moon Ranch, it would be someone who’d grown up there. Like Trish. And Holly was very aware that, even though things between her and Jacob had never been better, she could still use some points with the rest of the clan—specifically, Trish’s mother, Cassidy. Instead, Trish’s fingers played over Holly’s desk and then she knit her eyebrows. “Are these old newspapers?”

Her eyes had landed on the article from
Eyes on Etna
that Holly had photocopied from the lab. Holly hesitated, not sure how much she should tell the young girl, and then she said, “Yes…I’ve been doing a little research.”

“About what?” There were Trish’s eyes, ever-curious.

“About the area, mainly…around Red Moon Ranch.” Holly tried to keep it vague.

“This guy,” Trish said, pointing to the black-and-white photo in the paper, “Roger or Robin or something...like a hunter...right?”

Holly tried to keep a poker face. “How do you know that?”

Trish shrugged and then flipped the page, looking through it. “Mama Mae has stories...I used to love to get her to talk and just sit back and listen. They spent their lives here, you know? She and Pops.”

“You mean...your grandfather?” Holly asked, trying not to betray herself with the edge of excitement that lingered in her voice.

Trish nodded and took one of the mints Holly had in a seashell bowl. “Yeah. Pops.” She unwrapped the plastic and popped the mint in her mouth as her eyes scanned the black-and-white
Eyes on Etna
.

“Do you…remember any of the stories?” Holly asked. She tried to keep her tone casual but, internally, her heart was thumping in her chest. If Trish had a lead on this…if Holly’s intuition was right…maybe they were one step closer to finding a cure for Jacob’s moonlust once and for all.

But Trish just shrugged again and Holly was reminded of how young she was. Apathetic teenagers. “Not really. Just bits and pieces. You should ask Mama Mae. She’d tell you.”

“Of course.” Holly made a mental note to do just that when they got back, even though she would have preferred it to come from Trish’s mouth. Despite their age difference, Trish seemed to be the only one of the clan members Holly could really talk to. “Are you hungry?” she asked, hoping some food might jog the younger girl’s memory.

Trish perked up and nodded her head rapidly. Holly smiled. “I’ll pick up something from the cafeteria...do you want to come or stay here?”

“I’ll stay, if that’s okay,” Trish said. Despite her persistent efforts to come visit the school, now that she was actually here, Trish had turned gun-shy. All the students, the classes, the waterfall flow of pupils in and out of each room…it had to be overwhelming for her.
Baby steps
, Holly thought to herself. And then she thought:
baby
. Her hand wanted to rest on her stomach just to cup it, feel it, but she didn’t want to be too obvious, not until she’d told Jacob anyway, so she forcibly kept her arms at her sides.

“Yes, of course,” she said. “I’ll be right back, then.”

Holly left Trish in her office and walked next door to pick up something for lunch. Meanwhile, her mind was spinning. The Robin Hoyte hunter story had been a wild hunch, a complete shot in the dark, but now…

Holly could taste it. Like that well-water smell right before a rainstorm. This was the start of something big. She was onto something. Research, academic intellect—that was half the battle. But trusting her
instincts
would get her all the way.

She’d taken a step into the cafeteria and was immediately hit with the smell of day-old pizza and lemon-scented cleaning product. Nausea suddenly wound its way through her and clenched like a fist around her stomach. Before Holly knew it, she’d stumbled over to the nearest trashcan and hurled into it.

Ugh
. A vile, grimy feeling crept up her bones, like gravel under her skin. Holly steadied herself, hands gripping the can, and spat into it, trying to collect her composure.

“Dr. Westmore? Are you okay?”

One of her students was kind enough, at least, to slow her pace and examine the older woman.

“I’ll be fine,” Holly said with a practiced smile. “Thank you.” The student left and Holly grabbed a napkin from the concessions table, wiping her mouth. It hit her then just how much she sounded like her husband.
I’m fine, don’t worry about me,
while something grew and lived and wreaked havoc inside of her. The difference between the two was, at the end of the day, Holly’s suffering would lead to a new life. Jacob’s would lead to death…or worse. The rest of his life trapped in the body of a bear.

And where would Holly be? Alone. Abandoned by the man she’d married for the second time in her life. Only this time, she wouldn’t be alone to take her grief out on term papers and bottles of wine. She would have to change diapers, clean up toys, and watch their child grow up all on her own.

She felt like she was going to be sick again.
Pull yourself together
. Holly staggered upright, took a breath, and tried to keep the contents of her stomach in order.

Holly survived the lunch line and managed to make it back to her office in one piece. In her paper bag, she carried two apples, a bagel, a muffin, and a banana, deciding that Trish had to like at least
one
of those things. She pushed through her office door and was surprised to see that Trish wasn’t alone. Instead, a boy in a crisp navy-blue shirt hovered behind her, his Ray-Ban sunglasses tucked into the neck of his shirt and grazing her shoulder. He murmured lowly to her and she giggled, a light, airy sound.

A chill swept through Holly. “
Cayden
,” she said curtly. Languidly, the cougar-shifter unwound from Trish and turned to face Holly instead. He leaned against her desk and folded his arms casually over his chest, cocky smirk planted on his face.

“Dr. Westmore,” he said. “We were just catching up…that’s not against the rules, is it?”

“Do you know each other?” Holly said, turning her attention back to Trish, abruptly ignoring Cayden. She dropped the paper bag on her desk and walked around to sit in her tall chair, resuming her position as the
authority
figure in the room. If she’d learned anything about animals (and she hoped she had, living on a ranch swarming with shifters), it was that they responded well to
body language
. She straightened her spine and lifted her chin minutely. Cayden—predictably, instinctively—cowered somewhat, hunching his tall frame down an inch. He’d—no doubt—learned to respond obediently to the presence of a
Head Bitch in Charge
.

“We grew up in the same circles,” Trish said vaguely. Holly had to wonder if there was some
shifter clique
roaming the halls. “It’s been a while, though.” And then, turning to Cayden: “Your mom kinda keeps you in your ivory tower, huh?”

“All you had to do was ask. I would’ve thrown down my hair.” Even when he spoke now, Cayden’s words came out low, like a purr. The toe of his shoe nudged Trish’s thigh playfully. “Who’d have thought you’d grow up so nicely?”

“We don’t live in a cave,” Trish said and rolled her eyes. When she turned away, however, Holly could see the peach blush glowing on the young girl’s cheeks. Cayden’s eyes, meanwhile, locked on Trish and shimmered gold.

Oh, hell no
. Where was a spray bottle when she needed one?

“Was there something you needed, Cayden?” Holly said curtly.

“No, ma’am.” He hopped off the desk, but his eyes trailed behind. They caught on the article of Robin Hoyte and Holly saw a flicker of something—recognition?—in the boy’s eyes before he shrugged it off. “I think I’ve got all I’ve need.”

“I’ll come with you,” Trish said suddenly.

Holly’s eyebrows hiked up her forehead. Her eyes said, pointedly:
Really?

Trish’s eyes caught on Holly’s and she shrugged once and then added to Cayden, “You can show me around…give me the tour.”

Trish’s fingers lingered on the printout and she discreetly folded it up in her palm, tucking it away in her pocket. It clicked with Holly—
oh
. Trish planned to do some recon. She had seen Cayden’s gaze linger on the article, too, and she was going to see how much he
really
knew about it.

She was clever, Holly had to give her that. And bold. Maybe too bold. She knew the way Cayden worked and the thought of him alone with Trish made Holly’s stomach twist up.
Cassidy was going to kill her
. “You don’t have to,” Holly said, her words heavy with meaning as she kept her eyes pinned on Trish.
Let me take care of this
.

“Relax, Dr. Westmore,” Cayden said and drew a large smile that showed off his teeth as he held the door open for Trish. “I’ll bring her back in one piece.”

“I can handle him,” Trish said and then smiled and shot Holly a playful wink.

That’s what I’m afraid of
.

“Just be back before…” The door
clicked
and Cayden and Trish were gone. Just like that. “…Five.”

Holly’s desk was cluttered with assignments begging to be graded. Still, she stared at them and her vision felt unfocused with worry. She began to chew at the end of her pen. Unconsciously, her hand travelled down and cupped her stomach, as though she could already
feel
the small life growing inside of her.

You better not leave me, Jacob
, she thought to herself
. I can’t raise teenagers alone.

Chapter 54

“And
you’re welcome
.”

Holly’s eyes flickered up from her desk to see Trish standing over her, huge grin stamped over her face.
Cocky
. It ran in the Westmore family.

Still, Holly wasn’t
impressed
. “It’s nearly six,” she said pointedly. “I told you to be back at five.”

Holly heard her words echo back into her ears and decided she had this parenting thing down. Already, she was chastising a young girl who was out past her curfew. How much harder could it be?

“Yeah, sure,” Trish said (
dismissive,
but, Holly guessed, that was also something she’d have to get used to in eighteen years), “but check this out.”

Trish took the article out of her pants pocket and unfolded it, flattening it out on Holly’s desk with the balls of her palm. “So I showed this to Cayden and—”

“You showed it to him?” Holly couldn’t help the sharpness in her tone.

Trish’s eyes flashed up to meet with Holly’s and she tilted her head slightly, like a confused dog. “It’s okay. He’s not like his mom. Well. Not entirely. I mean, he puts on a good show. If you really get to know him…he’s…you know.” Trish tucked a strand of hair behind her ears. “Anyway.”

Oh, sweetheart
, Holly thought.
He’s playing you like a fiddle
. But she knew saying anything would only push the young, determined cub
closer
to the fanged cougar, so Holly kept her lips buttoned. “So what did you find out?” she asked, gently prodding the conversation forward.

“Right. So this thing?” Trish stabbed her finger on the picture of Robin Hoyte, pointing to medallion around his neck. “It’s like…a hex gem. It can hold a power or a spell or a…”

“Or a curse,” Holly finished for her. In an instant, she knew. The moonlust, the sickness that had infected Jacob’s father and was now eating its way through Jacob…it was no accident. Hunter Robin Hoyte had come to Etna to destroy the clan and this spell had been his ticket to do just that. After all, a clan without an Alpha was weak, vulnerable.

Clearly, he hadn’t counted on someone as strong as Jacob to take the helm. Nor had he counted on an Alpha’s mate as persistent and determined to get to the bottom of it as Holly was.

“Do you have any idea where we might find it?” Holly said, her heart hammering in her chest. If they could find the talisman and destroy it…that could be the end of this terrible moonlust.
A normal life with her shifter husband. Imagine that.

“That’s the thing,” Trish said, rubbing the back of her neck. “Cayden said he’s seen it before. His mom—Miranda. She has it.”

Holly felt she’d swallowed a pound of dry ice.
Miranda
. Of course. They had finally discovered a medallion that—potentially—held the source of Jacob’s curse and, if destroyed, could possibly break it. And Miranda, of all people, had it. Prying it out of her claws would be
nearly impossible
.

As if she read Holly’s mind, Trish broke in excitedly, “Look…Cayden likes me. It’s that…macho animal thing. He thinks I’m a challenge or something. I don’t think he’s put two and two together and figured out the whole curse thing. If I can get him to get the talisman
for
me—”

“No,” Holly cut her off quickly. “You’ve done enough, Trish. You’ve done plenty. Thank you for this, but…I don’t want you any more involved that you already are.”

Disappointment that fell like a shadow across Trish’s face—the young girl was probably
used
to sitting on the sidelines. Still, as much as Holly wanted to nurture Trish’s bursting independence, she wasn’t about to get this girl involved in something potentially dangerous. Trish, maybe, was used to animals, shifters who fought with their teeth bared and claws extended, but as far as Holly was concerned, Cayden and Miranda were
dangerous
and she needed to stay as far away from them as possible.

“Yes, ma’am,” Trish grumbled.

Holly felt a sting of guilt, but what could she do? She’d already half-broken the rules by letting Trish tag along with her to campus. Best to nip this in the bud while she still could. Holly slung her bag over her shoulder and moved to the door, but not before she swooped an arm around Trish and gave her a small side-squeeze. “Come on,” Holly said, trying to lift the young girl’s spirits. “Let’s go make sure the ranch hasn’t burned down without us, huh?”

Trish linked her arm in the older woman’s, falling in line. Before they left, Holly snagged the printout and crumpled it in her hand, discreetly shoving it in her bag.

BOOK: Alphas of Red Moon Ranch - Complete Series
9.63Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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