Who would have thought being the Alpha of a pack of werewolves would involve so much paperwork?
Luke Wyland glared at the stack of folders on the scuffed table in front of him. Dragging his hands through his short, dark hair, he rubbed the knot at the base of his skull, a gesture he remembered his father doing hundreds of times as he sat behind his desk, surrounded by piles of papers. Now Luke understood why.
A truck rumbled into the lot outside the office of Townes Aviation. Almost as soon as the engine cut off, the door slammed shut with enough force to make Luke wonder if it’d ever open again. Footsteps stomped across the parking lot and down the hall.
His cousin, Dean, barged into the conference room still wearing his deputy sheriff’s uniform and a scowl. Fifteen months ago, before four of their packmates—including Dean’s sister and Luke’s father—were murdered, that expression would have been uncharacteristic of the big male’s laid-back nature. Now it threatened to become a permanent fixture.
Not bothering with a greeting, Dean stalked to the minifridge, grabbed a beer, and downed it in a few gulps. He grunted and pulled out another.
“Bad day?” Luke asked.
“We’ve got another missing person.”
The hair on Luke’s nape rose like his beast’s hackles. “Who?”
“A human. Eric Conroy.”
“The county clerk? I just called him yesterday to get some property transfer information.”
“What time was that?”
“About one o’clock,” Luke said. “He didn’t answer, though. I left a message.”
“Well, Conroy’s wife called this morning when she woke up and realized the guy’d never come home last night. No one’s seen him since he left work yesterday.” Dean flung himself into a chair that creaked under his muscular bulk. “I’ve got a bad feeling. With everything that’s been going on...”
Luke had a bad feeling, too. “That’s five missing now,” he said, not bothering to suppress a growl.
Black Robe, Montana, wasn’t a big town, but the county held close to twenty thousand people. One missing person wouldn’t be that unusual. People got lost in the mountains. Cars went off roads. Sometimes people simply decided to get out of Dodge. But this was no ordinary county. Here they had a pack. And the pack could find anything in their territory. Yet they’d found no sign of the logger who went missing seven months ago. Or the two female hikers who vanished a month later. Or even the lifelong resident who sold all his land just after New Year’s Day and disappeared without a word to his three children.
“Yeah.” Dean rubbed a hand over his face. “I think you should expect a call from the sheriff asking for the pack’s trackers if the guy doesn’t turn up by tomorrow.”
Luke looked out the window. Shadows stretched across the tarmac. It’d be full dark in another hour. “Call them and have them ready to go at first light.” As his Beta—Luke’s second-in-command—the job fell to Dean. “No one searches alone. I mean it, Dean. Not even you.” If someone or something was hunting in their territory, he wouldn’t let his wolves be easy targets.
Luke wanted to ask how things were going with the new sheriff, but the click of high heels on linoleum drew his attention to the door. Beautiful in a fancy black suit, Rissa Townes strode into the tiny conference room of her family’s aviation company.
The smile faded from her lips as she sniffed the air. “Why do you both smell so anxious?”
“We’ve got another missing person,” Luke said, pushing away from the table and walking over to the bank of windows.
“Seriously?” Rissa snatched the unopened beer out of his hand and sipped it while they filled her in. She paced the short length of the room, her scent growing bitter with worry and frustration. “Got to say, I hope the man is just off having an affair or something, and slinks home tonight.”
“Yeah.” Not with their luck. He shoved his hands into the pockets of his khakis and stared out the window. Machinery whined and clanked in the hangar kitty-corner from them. A mechanic in blue-gray coveralls crossed the patched and pitted tarmac. A long orange wind sock undulated in the breeze.
“So, why are we meeting here?” Dean finally asked, sounding exhausted. He scowled at Luke’s papers. “Please, God, tell me we don’t have to read any more environmental impact statements. My eyes almost fell out last time.”
“They’re not that bad,” Rissa said.
“Yes, they really are.” Dean flicked the edge of a particularly thick file. “This is torture. And you’re a sadist for making me look at these damn things.”
A slow grin spread across Rissa’s face. “Hmm...think I can make Freddie call me Mistress?”
Dean made retching noises while Luke mentally filed that little tidbit away to torture Rissa’s mate with at an opportune time. It was only fair, since Freddie had made it his mission in life to irritate Luke. Damn human.
Luke leaned a hip against the windowsill. “Don’t worry, Dean. I’m done with paperwork for the day. Rissa’s waiting on Freddie. He flew down to Missoula to pick up his sister, and Ris is such a sap, she can’t stand to wait an extra twenty minutes for her mate to drive home.”
“Hey!” Rissa said.
Some of that unnatural tightness drained from Dean’s features. “Can’t be helped, darlin’. It’s the curse of the mated—no matter how long you’ve been together.” His grin spread into the full, satisfied smile it always did whenever he spoke about his mate, Sarah. He turned an assessing eye on Luke. “I can’t wait for you to find your mate. Then we’ll see who’s a sap.”
Laughing, Rissa hiked herself up onto the wide window ledge. “Oh, that poor female, whoever she is. I hope she likes a bossy wolf in her business all day and night.”
Luke scowled. “I am not bossy. I’m confident.”
Rissa laughed harder, and Dean’s booming guffaws echoed in the small room.
A lot of Alphas wouldn’t allow their subordinates to make jokes at their expense, but Dean and Rissa had been his closest friends since they were kids. Besides, levity had been in short supply lately.
Plus, he wouldn’t mind having someone special to race home to every night, too.
God, he was a sap already.
The distant chop of a helicopter’s blades had Rissa jumping down from her perch on the windowsill and straightening her skirt. Then she smoothed her blouse and patted her hair. “Come on,” she said over her shoulder as she walked to the door.
Rissa, nervous? That was new. Luke sent a questioning look to his cousin. Dean shrugged as they followed in her wake.
“So, Ris,” Luke said. “Is Freddie’s sister really a combat pilot?”
Rissa ignored him. As she walked toward the landing pad, her voice drifted back to them. “Goddess, please let her like me.”
Luke’s eyebrows crept to his hairline.
Dean shrugged again. “Meeting the in-laws is nerve-wracking business, even if it’s only a sister.”
The sun was just beginning to set on a cold but beautiful day. Luke breathed in the scent of their territory: the clean bite of snow off the looming Cabinet Mountains, lodgepole pine, Rocky Mountain maple, and spruce. Home.
The responsibility of caring for it and the people who lived here weighed on him. His father would tell him it’s what an Alpha does—he worries and comforts, manages and directs. And when that doesn’t work, he knocks heads.
Grief pummeled him as he thought of his father and the others they’d lost. The memory of their torn and bloodied bodies, half-buried under the snow, tossed away like garbage, shredded him every day. Fury at his inability to find their murderers sent Luke’s blood racing. Within the confines of his body, his wolf snarled.
We’ll avenge our dead, he told his wolf. And protect our territory and pack.
No matter how long it took or what it cost them.
* * *
“Wow,” Izzy said in breathless wonder as the helicopter floated over another rugged, snow-covered peak that sparkled in the sun. The frozen surface of a lake shimmered like opals, its edges blurred by a snowy blanket.
“Told ya. You should see that in the summer. It’s surrounded by wildflowers.” The headset’s mechanical hiss couldn’t hide the smug satisfaction in Freddie’s voice.
From the corner of her eye, she noticed him staring at her. “What?”
“Damn, it’s good to see you, Iz.”
She gave him a tremulous smile. “You, too.”
“I can’t wait for you to meet Rissa,” he said.
Butterflies kamikazed her stomach. What if she hated the woman he’d chosen to marry? Or worse, what if Rissa hated her?
“Me, too,” she lied.
A loud rumble, audible over the chop of the rotor, sounded in the cockpit. Eyes wide, she slapped a hand over her stomach as it cramped with hunger. What the hell? Less than an hour ago, she’d eaten enough for two Chicago Bears linemen. She should have a major food baby. But lately, no matter how much or how often she ate, she could not satisfy the bottomless pit of her appetite.
And it was getting worse.
Another growl erupted.
She rolled her eyes at his teasing. “Tofu.”
“Whatever. I don’t think you were meant to be a vegetarian. You’re nothing but skin and bones. When I hugged you at the airport, I thought you’d managed to sneak a razor past security. Nope, just your hipbones. Seriously, Mom is gonna take one look at you and fly straight into mother hen mode.”
“Umm...” Hell, he was right. Their foster mother, Abby, was a force of nature, a tidal wave that swamped people with her care. “Shit.”
Monster. Unease bubbled like acid in her empty belly. “Uh, how many people we talking here?”
“Tonight, just a few. Our close friends, Rissa’s family. It’ll give you a chance to get to know everyone.” He gave her a sheepish look. “Hope you don’t mind. They want to meet you.”
Too bad Izzy was anything but normal or average.
Her stomach cramped again. Damn it. She would not let her bullshit ruin Freddie’s party. Besides, she never could deny him anything. She’d have to get over her stupid hysteria. Sucking in a long breath, she willed her stomach to shut the hell up.
“Sounds like fun.” There, that almost sounded relaxed—enthused, even.
Guess she’d have to work on the happy-happy.
“Sorry,” Freddie said. “I know you hate parties, but Rissa is like Mom when it comes to this kind of thing. She thinks any small get-together requires twenty people.”
“Okay. Listen, it’s really nice of you to invite me to stay with you,” she said. “But you’re getting married next weekend. You don’t want me hanging around all the time. Rissa must have a million things to do, and you know I’m no good at that girly stuff. I’ll be fine at a hotel.”
He didn’t even look at her when he said, “Nope.”
“Nope. As in no, nada, ain’t happening. You agreed to be my best man. We have big plans to make for my bachelor party and almost no time. I expect serious debauchery here.”
She rubbed a hand over her face. “You do realize I’m a girl, right?”
He did a cartoon-worthy double take. “That’s what the guys said. Told ’em that was just a low-down, dirty lie. You’re one of us.”
He cringed as if in pain. “Lalalala. There are no boobs.”
“Yeah? One is flying this aircraft right now.”
They flew in companionable silence for a while, soaring through the open turquoise sky. Sunlight warmed the cockpit and painted the pristine snow with a golden glow. An eagle launched from the branches of a tall pine and swooped over a ragged cliff, to glide down into the valley below. Her muscles relaxed bit by bit as she imagined the bird’s freedom as her own. God, she loved flying. It was her only refuge, the one place where the memories and fears didn’t take over.
Sometimes, on the ground, she lost the ability to breathe, panic seizing her lungs. She avoided crowds and sat with walls at her back so no one could sneak up on her. Sudden and inexplicable anger would pound through her veins, make her want to rage at the world. Nightmares woke her every night. And, dear God, the hunger. That, more than anything else, terrified her.
Because she knew what drove that constant craving—
“We’re getting there,” Freddie said.
Izzy jumped. “What?” He turned to look at her. She tried for nonchalance. “Hmm?”
Freddie caught her gaze. “When was the last time you spoke to someone? A professional?”
Please. Any shrink with an ounce of competency would lock her up.
“Come on, Iz. Between our childhoods, the war... Bess... You need to talk about things.”
Bess. Tears filled her eyes. Sighing, she leaned against the cool window. Her problems went way beyond PTSD or a dead sister.
“Yeah. All right.” He nodded at the cabins nestled among the trees. In the distance, more structures became visible. “Only a few more miles.”
Freddie guided the glossy Bell toward the airfield. The helipad sat on the edge near two gray-sided hangars and a squat office building. As he adjusted their angle of descent over the postage-stamp airfield, a tall blonde in black darted out the office door and shielded her eyes from the dust whipped up by the rotor wash.
“Ah. There’s my girl,” he said.
Izzy had never heard that tone from him. The love and longing in his voice awed her and a mammoth wave of protectiveness rose inside. This woman better be worthy of her brother.
The Bell touched down with a slight bump. Rissa waited twenty feet away as Freddie rushed through the shutdown procedures. The draft from the rotors blew tendrils of hair around her delicate face. She waved, flicking a quick smile at Izzy. Izzy waved back, telling her territorial inner bitch to pipe down. She was going to make this perfect for Freddie.
Two large men stood near the office building watching them. One wore a cop’s uniform and looked like an NFL linebacker. The other had messy, short dark hair and a several-days-old beard that framed high cheekbones and a strong jaw. Heat rushed into her face as she noted how his broad shoulders stretched the fabric of his blue button-down shirt.
Blushing again, Izzy stepped onto the tarmac, right into the cold shock of winter in Montana. It felt good, crisp and fresh. It reminded her of home.
Wind pushed at her back as she walked around the nose of the Bell. The dark-haired man stepped out of the shadows and her heart jackrabbited. She stumbled. But it wasn’t the cold breeze that nearly knocked her to her knees. The man was staring at her, and the weight of that gaze set off a new kind of fluttering in her belly.
Cocking his head, he inhaled so deeply she could almost feel the air rushing toward him. His body shook as if straining against an immovable force. His eyes flashed greenish-gold in the light of the setting sun.
A low growl sounded in the gathering dusk.
The cop grabbed the dark-haired man by the arm and got snarled at for his trouble. The cop seemed surprised but didn’t let go. He hissed something Izzy couldn’t make out over the whoosh of blood in her head. Obviously, the man didn’t care what the cop said, because he never took his hungry gaze off her.
The man’s jaw clenched, but he didn’t look mad.
He looked like he wanted to eat her alive.
She must have tipped over the edge into insanity, because her own hunger intensified, shifting into something primal, something sensual. Instead of running away from him, she wanted to run toward him, wanted—
The shifting wind blew in her face, carrying a scent she’d hoped never to encounter again. Terror weakened her knees and sent icy pinpricks across her over-heated flesh.
In Izzy’s mind, her grandmother’s voice shrieked, “They’re evil! Run, hide, fight.”
The beautiful, dark-haired man. He was one of them. The cop, too.
Izzy’s gaze whipped to her brother. He stood a dozen feet away, holding Rissa’s hands.
“No!” Izzy covered the distance without blinking.
Grabbing Freddie, she pushed him behind her, and snapped out a kick that sent Rissa tumbling back six feet.
Not far enough. Nowhere near far enough.
Not when it came to these things.
As she tried to wrestle Freddie toward the helo, a well-dressed woman in her fifties burst from the office. Three men ran out of the hangars.
Izzy whipped the knife from the sheath at the small of her back. Her whole life, she’d hidden from these creatures. Now they surrounded her.