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Ghost Wolf (Wolves of Willow Bend Book 12) by Heather Long (1)

Chapter 1

Present

The crowded diner, filled with delectable scents of sizzling meat, baked confections, and grilled potatoes, enveloped Dallas Dalton from the moment she stepped inside. Four waitresses hustled to manage more than a hundred already seated customers and nearly a dozen waited for a free table. A hostess met her gaze with a cheerful smile as the bell over the door rang when it closed behind her.

“Good morning, welcome to the Pullman. I’ll be right with you.” Sunshine and welcome shimmered within every syllable of the hostess’s tone. With so many in front of her, Dallas settled in to wait. There were three exits from the Pullman car diner. Set inside a genuine modified Pullman car, it managed to be cozy and yet spacious. The main entrance to her left, another to the west end of the car where the kitchen was located, and an emergency exit on the east end with a security bar along it. The windows were thick, but there were sturdy chairs. If necessary, she could shatter one and make her own exit.

Confident in her options, she let her eyes drift half-closed and let her mind rest. By the time the waitress said her seat was ready, she’d catalogued the scents in the room.

Thirty minutes after taking possession of the corner booth, she sipped her coffee and watched the door. Arriving early gave her the advantage of setting the terms. The waitress came by and topped off her coffee. “You sure I can’t get you something while you wait?”

The crowd at the door had diminished and they had a couple of open tables.

“I’ll wait a little longer,” Dallas told her, though her empty stomach twisted. Civility required she show at least a modicum of deference. Power rippled as the door jangled announcing a new arrival. Goosebumps shivered over her skin, but she only lifted her chin. After so many years, she had long since mastered her physical reactions. No matter what she felt, those emotions wouldn’t be found in her scent or her expression.

It kept her alive.

The dark-haired wolf swept his gaze over the patrons. The act wasn’t because he failed to notice her. Like her, he wanted the measure of the room he entered. Tall, broad shouldered and with only a hint of scars along his clean-shaven jaw, Brett Dalton appeared fit and healthy. Authority wreathed him as he nodded to the waitress, then weaved through the tables to her little corner booth.

Rising, she met and held his gaze. The strength of him rolled over her, surrounding her. Brett Dalton, the alpha of Hudson River, commanded attention.

“Thank you for coming,” she said, keeping her tone carefully modulated. As much as it grated her pride, she’d reached out to him.

“Come here,” he said, brushing aside her gratitude before he pulled her into his arms. The embrace caught her off-guard, and she didn’t know how to respond. With trepidation like she hadn’t experienced in years, she wrapped her arms around him. “Cousin, it’s been too long.”

The welcome, the familiar scent of family and pack—it represented something she hadn’t allowed herself to contemplate in decades. “You’re getting sentimental in your old age.”

The tease earned her a tight squeeze, then he set her away from him. His hands on her shoulders kept her still as he looked her over. “You are not eating enough.”

Mouth compressing, she shook him off then gestured to the table. “I’m starving, but I waited for you to order.”

One corner of his mouth curved into the hint of a smile. The other seemed taut, but the scarring there was so faint she wouldn’t have noticed if not for his half grin. “Then lets get you fed.”

The waitress hustled over, with a fresh cup of coffee for Brett and another refill for her. They placed their orders for stacks of pancakes, bacon and sausage, fried potatoes and scrambled eggs. After she left, Brett leaned back in the booth and took a sip of his coffee as he studied her.

With no time for games, Dallas said, “I asked you to meet me because I need your help.”

His enigmatic gaze rested on her, but she didn’t mind the scrutiny. The alpha had every right to study her, to question her presence, her choices—hell, her life in general. Family or not, she’d left too many years before and a great deal of water had flowed beneath the bridge separating them.

“Name it.” Permission framed in a command. Her cousin really had blossomed in his role as alpha. It suited him.

“How much do you want to know?” She would only share so much and refused to tell him anything that might compromise the alliances he’d formed. It was only fair.

“That’s a stupid question from a smart woman,” he said slowly, then paused as their breakfast arrived.

The heaping plates smelled fantastic, and she didn’t waste time spreading some butter onto the pancakes then pouring maple syrup over them. After a few rapid bites, she eased back on devouring the meal as Brett’s eyebrows rose.

“How long has it been since you last ate?”

Probing question or not, she simply shrugged. “A couple of days won’t kill me.” She’d gone hungrier for far longer when necessity demanded it. “Besides, the pancakes smell fantastic and they taste better.”

“They do,” Brett agreed with her, then speared a piece of his sausage. “Tell me what’s wrong, Dallas.”

“That list is far too long and messy to go into all of it. Julian contacted Chrystal.” She paused, then took a swallow of coffee. Eating and drinking helped her maintain her equilibrium. “She, in turn, called me.”

“So you are not as out of touch with your daughter as I was led to believe.” Reproach discolored the words.

“I’ve always known where she is and whom she is with.” Dallas would make no apologies for it. “Her mate is a good one, and she is safe in Willow Bend.”

“She could have been safe in Hudson River.” The verbal slap wasn’t lost on her. More tables emptied around them as the breakfast crush finished their meals and headed off to their jobs. Regular people living in a regulated world. Dallas could barely imagine.

“Perhaps, but that is the past, and I am dealing with the present.” He wasn’t the only one who could deliver a verbal jab. “Julian wants a meeting with me.”

“That can’t possibly be news. It’s my understanding he’s been hunting you for decades.” A trace of amusement glittered in his eyes. “You are the Rogue who got away.”

In more ways than one, she supposed. “True, but he’s never offered amnesty before, nor asked for a face-to-face on neutral territory.” She blamed Russia. Maybe she’d hit him too hard. The memory of belting him surged through her with a kind of satisfaction she couldn’t express.

“Interesting.” An unreadable expression slid through Brett’s eyes. “How much do you know about what’s going on?”

She wouldn’t pretend to misunderstand the question. “Enough. The threat of the Volchitsa isn’t going to go away. Once they take a job or a mission, they don’t stop. It’s a blood thing. As long as one is breathing, they will keep coming.” The need for pack aside, the Volchitsa were an entirely other kind of animal when it came to the tasks they undertook. “I’ve never seen them take on something of this scale, but…life at home can’t be a picnic either.”

Draining her coffee, she wished it had a shot of whiskey in it. The waitress swung by to clear away some of their plates then refilled their coffee. Dallas could have gone for a second course, but she also had miles to travel, so she was better off pacing herself.

“Then you’re aware they’ve set their sights on the Enforcers.” It wasn’t a question. “They’ve lost a few, too.”

Yes, she was aware. “I spoke to two Enforcers a week ago.” Across the country, on the doorstep of another lifetime. “Julian put them in my path.” That house always drew her, it was one of the reasons he’d never let it go.

“You have history with him, don’t you?” Brett leaned forward, his expression sobering.

“Not what I’m here to talk about,” she said, dodging the question. “What I want to know is if Julian’s spoken to the alphas about his amnesty. If I choose to accept it and it’s a trap, will Hudson River stand for me?” Even making the request felt like pulling teeth. She didn’t want to lean on the family connection, or put Brett in the middle of her choices.

“What do you know that he needs?” Brett didn’t miss a beat.

“I know a lot of things about a lot people.” It could be anything, or it could be…

“Luc said you knew the Russians Diesel went to meet…and that, apparently, Diesel also offers you sanctuary.” The last carried the weight of judgment. She’d gone to a different alpha. He didn’t like that.

“Diesel and I go way back, to a time before you were alpha.” When their grandfather ruled Hudson River, he’d made it clear he didn’t approve of her choices. The day she’d chosen to leave and roam, he’d told her if she walked away, to not come back. Her father had argued with him, but their grandfather had been adamant. He didn’t think women had any business running wild, wolf or not.

His attitude had made her decision far easier at the time. She didn’t want to live in the chokehold of expectation. Most days, she didn’t regret the choice. Turning her coffee mug on the table, she caught sight of the movement beyond the window. Luc winked at her from where he leaned against a car in the parking lot.

Of course Brett didn’t come alone, even in his own territory. They were not safe from a possible attempt on his life.

“It doesn’t matter when you developed the relationship; it matters you went to him first.”

Shock rippled through her. What was more injured by her choice, his heart or his pride? Shoving aside the uncharitable thought, Dallas leaned forward and lowered her voice. “Brett, I owed him a debt. He sent word to me that he needed my assistance because he also knew I’d spent three years in Russia. I have relationships there. Contacts I could call on and protocols I could follow. I repay my debts.”

The answer mollified him, and Brett blew out a breath. “You are always welcome in Hudson River, an offer I extended to your daughter when I learned of her existence.” Another verbal smack to the head. If they kept this up, she would be virtually black and blue by the time she finished her third cup of coffee. The black brew was strong and hot, and sipping it kept her rebellious temper in check.

She’d come to ask for Brett’s assistance, and since they hadn’t talked in more than four decades, he had every right to be annoyed with her.

Didn’t mean she had to like it.

“In my defense,” she offered an olive branch. “You were seven years old when I left.” Seven to her eighteen, and an adorable, sweet natured little boy. He’d been so full of life. Even then he’d been intense in his need to protect and care for those around them. She often thought it had to have come to him from his other grandfather, Hatcher. The healer had been a genuinely loving man, free with his affections, advice, and play. Their shared one had been an ass.

“I don’t care how old I was—if you need something, you come to me. Not Diesel.” The grumpiness in the statement pulled a reluctant smile from her.

“Well, my debt to Diesel is paid. That said,” she continued, holding up a finger to ask for his patience. In all fairness, she didn’t need to explain anything, but Brett was family. Although he’d grown up and assumed a powerful role in her absence, she hadn’t forgotten the little boy she used to look after, whom she’d taken on his first hunt, and whom she’d kill to protect. “The favor he did me all those years ago—it’s one I can never repay in full, no matter what he says. If he asks for my help again, I will give it.”

“That’s fair,” Brett said, his magnanimous acceptance sincere. Another smile worked its way free.

“You know you’re as adorable now as you were when you were little,” she said, not even trying to disguise her smile. “All bossy and in charge.”

A low growl rumbled in his throat, and she laughed.

“You take being told about it just as well.” The last earned grudging chuckle.

“Maybe it’s good you’re not around to tell those stories. Babette and Mom are bad enough.” Then the bridge between them widened and her wolf, always on point, always ready for battle, relaxed a fraction.

Stretching across the table he caught her hand in his, and the electric connection of pack sizzled over her. It was so alien, a feeling she only half-remembered in the dark hours of night when she was alone. Better to keep it hidden away than to recall. He didn’t claim her, but his power seemed to sniff around her, reacquainting itself, and her wolf responded to the pull.

Blinking, she felt the surge of her wolf rise, and then they stared at the alpha across the table. No aggression rippled with in the power eddying from him. Gold bled into his eyes, and his wolf stared back. Their wolves knew each other, but his had grown, matured, and no longer needed their shelter. Instead, a smile curved his lips. They might be family. She might have looked after him as a cub. They’d never been friends.

Until now.

“You always have a home in Hudson River,” he repeated, the emphasis clear. “The pack will stand for you. I will inform Julian, as well.” Then he blinked and his wolf retreated. As his eyes darkened once more, her wolf withdrew—pensive.

“That’ll go over well.” No humor flowed through her at the thought. Julian would hate being called on the carpet by an alpha—any of them. Then again, as Brett had said, he’d changed. The world had changed.

Maybe it was time for Dallas to change, too.

Her wolf snorted, then curled up. As long as they were close to an alpha, surrounded by his Hunters, she could afford to rest.

The sensation caught her off guard, and she leaned back in the booth. “You know, I’m still hungry.”

“Then let’s get more food,” Brett answered, before pulling out his phone. She hadn’t heard a text, but his scent altered and affection softened the tense line of his jaw.

“Your mate?”

“That obvious?” He typed in a quick reply.

“It looks good on you.” Even making small talk was hard. She was too out of practice, especially with someone who mattered.

The waitress took their order with no small amount of surprise when they asked for another round of pancakes, eggs and the rest. With a shake of her head she retreated, then Brett focused on her again.

“Dallas?”

Somehow, she’d known she wouldn’t escape this conversation without a difficult question or three. “Yes?”

“Why did you owe Diesel a debt?”

That truth hurt no one… now. “Because he gave me a place to have my child, asked me no questions, and allowed me safe passage when I recovered. Afterward, he kept my secret.” Diesel had saved her life because he’d saved Chrystal’s. He’d shielded her presence, even from his wolves. Only his healer had known she was there, and the healer had sworn a similar oath.

Without him, they would have died. Her baby would have died. Her wolf roused and rubbed against the inside of her skin. Resolved, she lifted her chin, but she didn’t look at Brett. She looked in the one direction she swore she never would.

The past.

A few decades earlier

Stepping off the bus, Dallas sucked in a deep breath of fresh sea air. The hints of brine tangled with notes of cotton candy, soda, and the taste of grilling meat. Her stomach growled, but she ignored the hunger while she slid her arms through the straps of her backpack. Fixing her ponytail, she headed away from the passenger bus. She’d been on that thing for almost four days.

The passengers were a little ripe. Following her nose, she headed for the pier. She’d read about the Santa Monica Pier while in high school, imagining what it would be like to stroll in the warm sunshine amidst the vendors. Music played from a speaker near a hut offering cold soda and hot snacks.

Digging into her pocket, she pulled out her wallet and checked the number of bills she had left. Spending sparingly on the bus ride kept her from putting a dent in what she’d saved. Her first official day in the new life she planned for herself? She was going to splurge a little.

Ten minutes later, a pair of hot corn dogs, with a huge cardboard bowl of french fries in hand, along with a slushie, she wandered the wooden planks toward an open patch of railing. Even though it was early afternoon, there were plenty of people thronging the food carts, while others played games. Children ran, laughter wreathing them. The seagulls started circling her as Dallas set her slushie on a bench, freed herself from the backpack, then settled in to sit.

As soon as she finished eating, she’d abandon the boardwalk and look for a spot of beach to walk on. The closest she’d ever come to the ocean at home was a weekend trip to Jersey with friends the year before. Most of the time, her family didn’t leave Westchester County.

The first corn dog tasted like heaven, but when one of the seagulls made a dive for her fries, she rumbled a growl and the birds scattered. Grinning, she dipped her corn dog into some mustard. She devoured both in short order, then washed the food down with some slushie. Demolishing the fries before they had a chance to cool, she satisfied the desperate emptiness in her gut.

Sighing, she deposited her meal refuse in the trashcan, then carried her backpack and drink to the railing. The view of the ocean captivated her. It stretched out to the horizon, and where it crashed against the rocks it foamed and churned. A sudden desire to find a way to wade out into the water invaded her.

First, she had to get off the boardwalk and away from the people. The constant barrage of noise irritated her—except for the kids. Their laughter sent a bolt of wistfulness through her for home. Probably because, from age thirteen on, she’d been in charge of the toddler group three afternoons a week. Rotating through pack chores taught them all the value of working together.

Most of the time, she’d enjoyed it, not that she ever confessed to it. The maternals would have dumped more babysitting on her. She’d located some stairs to head down to a walking path which wound near the rocky shore when a crisp scent of frosted leaves on snow-covered trees with a stand of evergreens nearby, and fur all warmed by golden amber sun rays filled her nostrils.

Pivoting, she found herself face to face with a wildly masculine and altogether delicious wolf. Tall, broad shouldered and thick chested, he wore a tank top and jeans. The platinum blond of his hair gleamed in the sunlight, but a pair of dark shades hid his eyes. Everything about him screamed dominance, the power simmering beneath the surface and her body quivered at first scent.

She could devour him with the same passion she’d inhaled the corndogs—only with a great deal more pleasure. Then her gaze drifted to his feet and she blinked. For some reason, she expected some kind of impressive boots to go with the overwhelming James Dean sensuality, not rope sandals with the glitter of sand on his toes.

“Dallas Dalton?” Heat licked through her at his deep baritone and the rumble of wolf in his voice. Five minutes on the beach, and she’d already found the best view.

Raising her head, she grinned. “That’s definitely my name, feel free to scream and shout.”

His eyebrows rose over the top of his sunglasses. “You’re definitely new.” The judgment weighing down his tough guy talk didn’t decrease her instant interest. In fact, it only ramped the lust radiating from her core.

“Fresh off the bus,” she said, adjusting the weight of the backpack on her shoulder. She’d stuffed everything worth carrying into it—three changes of clothes, a couple of books and the brand-new Canon camera her grandmother had given her in secret. If you’re going to roam my darling, you’re going to want to remember everything you see. The pricey present along with the film had made her day.

“Clearly,” he said. His indifferent tone reduced some of the value his looks had on her system.

A little miffed, she squinted at him. “And you are?”

“Your worst nightmare,” he said, then seemed to pause for effect.

When he didn’t continue, Dallas had to bite her lower lip to keep from laughing. The line was great, right down to the snarl in his voice when he said it. She couldn’t read his eyes. His body language definitely said don’t fuck with me, yet she had a hard time not giving into her humor.

“Why are you laughing?” Gone was the growl to be replaced by utter puzzlement. Whipping off his sunglasses, he stared at her with a pair of the most perfectly blue eyes. They were icy, cool, and more vivid than the sky overhead.

Damn.

“My worst nightmare?” She managed to repeat him without giggling. “I don’t know if you wanted me to freak out, but you’re a stone-cold fox, not a nightmare.”

The other wolf went silent for a long moment, and a line appeared between his eyebrows as a frown deepened along his brow. A child raced passed them, giggling with her tired mother trundling along, and it seemed to break the spell holding him captive.

“Go down the stairs,” he ordered abruptly, and slid his sunglasses back on. “We need to talk.”

“Hmm, I know better than to go off with strangers, even foxy ones. Why don’t we talk right here?” It didn’t matter if he revved her motor, she had no idea who he was. California wasn’t claimed territory, as far as she knew. Sutter Butte was the closest pack, but she had no intentions of going anywhere near them.

Scowling, the wolf took a step forward and invaded her space. “You’ll follow an order when you’re given one.” Dominance radiated off him, the power seemed to practically shimmer in the air.

Tasting it, she tilted her head and her wolf roused. Her other half hadn’t enjoyed the bus ride and had snoozed for most of it to keep her aggravation at bay. They were both awake now, and intensely aware of the man looming over them. “I find that answer vague and unconvincing, particularly since I don’t know who you are or why you think you have any authority over me.”

Off came the sunglasses, and the wolf glared at her. “I’m Julian, and I’m your Enforcer. Now, Miss Dalton, we’re going to get a few items straight immediately. Go. Down. The. Stairs.”

Every word punched his power higher, and this time she didn’t resist the urge to laugh. The nervous habit dated back to childhood. She’d always been dominant, but laughing defused situations and often allowed her to avoid handing someone their ass. The guys she’d grown up with didn’t like that she was often stronger than them, and meaner when pushed.

That didn’t mean she had to let a bully push her around. “Tell you what, Julian, learn to say please. You catch far more flies with sugar than you do with vinegar.” Winking once, she pivoted then descended the stairs rapidly. She’d delivered her reprimand, now she would cooperate. The Enforcers were part of the package of her roam, that rule she understood.

At the bottom, she didn’t wait for him. Continuing along the path, she marveled at the water swirling. It seemed to be flowing in more rapidly, or maybe she was just closer. It took a full two minutes for her overly irritated Enforcer to catch up with her. The heat of him at her back re-ignited her awareness. He said nothing, merely pacing her as she continued along the footpath. Did it give way to the actual beach at some point? With sand? Or was it all these rocks?

Kind of a letdown actually.

“Miss Dalton,” Julian said, finally.

Still not slowing, she glanced over her shoulder at him. “Yes?” One could learn a lot from how other wolves responded to having a back facing them. He might be tempted to attack her, since she ignored his authority. Or he could do what he had been doing, as he continued to follow her.

“Miss Dalton, there’s a procedure to these things…a custom.”

“Of course there is,” she replied, whirling to walk backwards and look at him. “There’s protocol to every interaction we have. Boring, staid, mired in way too many years of history because some overactive dominants need to have their asses kissed.”

“Are you finished?” He halted, and though his expression didn’t change, she knew she’d reached the end of the little path so she stopped, too. They were a safe distance from the pier and alone with the rocks and the sea.

Tilting her head, she considered whether she was done. “No,” she said after waiting a beat. “I think it’s important to establish where we both stand. You bark orders to total strangers and think it’s okay. I don’t listen to orders from people I don’t know, much less respect, and I definitely never kiss an ass.”

Folding his arms, Julian released a sigh. Impatience seemed to thread through his posture. Satisfied she’d found a chink in his armor, Dallas smiled.

“There, I’m done. We understand each other.”

The wolf shook his head slowly. “You are a piece of work, Dalton.”

“Maybe, but I bet you think I’m groovy now…” The tease elicited the first hint of a smile on his stone cool face.

The man had a gorgeous smile, and her tummy did a little flip. Would he play with her?

“You are something,” he said, conceding, and she resisted the urge to cheer. “Now, you’re going to listen to me or I’ll put your smart mouth on a bus back to New York with a note to your pack to keep you caged until you learn some manners.”

Dammit. So much for playing. “Boring,” she sighed. “Fine, do your worst. Give me the lecture.”

There should be a rule about stone cold foxes being stone cold meanies. Folding her arms, she met him glare for glare.

“How the hell did they let you out of your pack?”

“Because no one can keep me where I don’t want to be.” Not anymore.

It would be her mantra. She was free.

She planned to stay that way.

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