Authors: T. S. Joyce
Tags: #Paranormal, #Shifter, #Erotic, #Romance, #Contemporary, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Supernatural, #Suspense, #Romantic Suspense, #Danger, #Adult, #Forever Love, #Action, #Adventure, #Wolf, #Mate, #Dark Secrets, #Series, #Insanity, #McCall Madness, #Deceased Father, #McCall Pack, #Galena, #Alaska, #Wilderness Living, #Dangerous, #Saved Soul, #Retreat, #Fight, #Safety
Link yanked his hand back and hissed in pain. Dammit that hurt, and it wasn’t the first time he’d hammered his finger today. He shook it out to help with the pain. He felt like chucking the stupid cedar log as hard as he could into the woods, but Drake Marshall was sitting in the rocking chair on his porch, watching him like he was afraid Link was going to make off with his hoard of broken-down tractor parts strewn across his front yard. The old man had a bum arm right now, but some of the logs on his cabin had rotted straight through from springtime water damage, and so he’d hired Link to repair it.
“You thinking about a girl?” Drake asked, his eyes twinkling as though he’d just made the funniest joke in the world.
“No,” Link growled out.
Wolf was getting on his damned nerves today, just like every other day. He should go see Vera. Or Elyse. Or even Lena. The girls could calm the monster in him. He would stay saner longer if he spent time with them, but they had their mates now. They didn’t need him. Nobody did.
Pain slashed through his chest, and he grimaced. With a long, steadying breath, he picked up another nail and went back to work. He would have to Change tonight. It had been a couple of days, and Wolf wasn’t patient like he used to be, back before Link had begun his descent into madness. He and Wolf both knew the human side of him didn’t have much control anymore. God, he hoped Nicole left before Ian had to put him down. He didn’t like the thought of her facing the winter without help.
He shook his head and nearly laughed at what epic horseshit that was. He knew what was happening, why he was feeling so protective. He was just trying to find a replacement for Elyse and the girls. He was trying to feel needed again, and he’d latched onto the first woman who’d shown him attention.
No, that wasn’t right. He closed his eyes tightly and tried to remember the real reasons he needed to take care of her. Wolf made everything so unclear. His instincts had made much more sense when he’d been around Nicole.
This is what Link did. Cole had killed her dad, and Link paid back the people his brothers had stolen from or hurt. Oh, he was headed toward a kill order and fast, but he was going to die a good person. He would leave this world better than his brothers had left it, and Nicole was now part of that mission.
Link worked the day away to the sound of his hammering and the churning thoughts revolving around Nicole. And after he’d finished the damaged side of Drake’s cabin, cleaned up his tools, and collected his pay, Link loaded up his Bronco and barely resisted the urge to head toward Elyse’s homestead where the three Silver brothers lived with their mates. He wanted to see them and smooth everything out. He’d left the day Tobias had told Elyse and Lena he’d found the cure for bear shifter hibernation, and he’d gone straight wolf for nearly a month just to avoid the pain that he was the unfixable one. He should have gone back and talked to them by now, but he hadn’t been ready. He would’ve been the downer to their happy times. Finally, the Silvers were awake for their first winter since they’d been cubs, and Link didn’t want to be the one who took away from their happiness.
Until he got ahold of his emotions and could stop being such a selfish, whiny dick, he needed to steer clear of Vera. His pain would hurt her. It would hurt them all because Wolf was wrong. They did care about him.
Link waved to Drake who was still sitting on his porch, rocking slowly in his chair, then pulled onto the snowy street that would lead to the main road in these backwoods. He passed Nicole’s turnoff and studied the tracks to make sure she’d made it this far safely. The deep chain divots were there in the snow, so the soft snarl faded in his throat. Curiosity nagged at him though. Why did a complete stranger have such a calming effect on Wolf? He looked down at his lap at his raging boner and shook his head, appalled that he’d momentarily given the crazy half of him too much credit. She didn’t calm the monster. She turned him on. Nicole was nothing but a breeder to Wolf, so if he was going to help her, he had to do it without talking to her and without her knowing.
With the excuse to gather information about her situation over on Buck’s property, Link decided to go hunting food for Nicole. Not because he cared about her as a person, but because he owed her. Yep, he was sticking with that.
Nicole wasn’t as interesting as he was imagining her to be.
She was just a speedbump on his road to Hell.
Nicole was a decent cook at home, but this was ridiculous. Who burned canned stew? Apparently a dumbass who didn’t know how to use a wood burning stove. The smell that filled the place was awful, and she yanked the scalded pot off the stovetop and set it on a potholder on the counter. Stifling a gag at the smoke, she bolted for the door and opened it wide, then fanned a dishcloth back and forth, trying to get as much of the billowing smog out of the cabin as possible.
Outside, the haunting notes of a wolf’s howl lifted on the breeze. Nicole froze, shocked and terrified. She’d never in her life heard a wild wolf, and it sounded so loud, so close. In a rush, she slammed the door closed and locked it. Heart beating against her chest, she pressed all of her weight against the thin wooden barrier and hoped it was strong enough to keep a determined predator out.
When she finally found her bravery enough to move, she pushed the window curtains aside and looked out into the night. She couldn’t see much outside of the lantern light. This place had both indoor and outdoor lighting connected to the generator, but she hadn’t been able to start the contraption, so she was stuck in the dark ages—if the dark ages had included battery-operated lanterns, of course.
She gasped as a light reflected strangely in the trees. Animal eyes, and oh God, it was watching her from the shadows. What did it want? To eat her? In horror, she looked over at the long rifles leaning against the wall. She’d taken her hunter safety course in Mission before she’d come here, but she’d only ever shot a little pistol in the class and didn’t know anything about shooting any of these guns. And besides, the rifles looked old and would probably misfire or shoot her in the eye or something.
But to feel safe, she picked one up and hugged it to her chest, the barrel pointed up to the ceiling at an angle, just in case there was a bullet still hidden inside. Scared out of her mind, she backed toward the couch that faced the door, sat down, rested the weapon on her knee, and aimed it at the door. And that’s where she stayed frozen until the early hours of the morning when she finally nodded off against the soft cushion.
It was the cold that woke her. Rubbing the crick in her neck, she blinked hard at the wood burning stove, which only had burning embers visible through the distorted front window. She had to go outside to get wood, and though she was relieved to find the front door still intact, going out there with that wild animal was a different hurdle altogether. Nicole stretched her legs and stood, then reluctantly padded across the freezing floorboards to the front door, rifle ready. For what, she didn’t know because she’d fiddled with it last night, and as far as she could tell, it wasn’t loaded. She kept it aimed anywhere but herself just to be safe, but best case scenario, she would have to wallop an attacker with the gun like a baseball bat, and her arms were flimsy. She suddenly regretted choosing volleyball as her sport in high school instead of a more combative contact sport.
With three quick breaths to psych herself up, she cracked open the door and stuck her head out. The woods were quiet in the early morning light except for creaking tree branches swaying in the wind. In a rush, she bolted for the tiny woodpile that sat outside the door. With an armload of the last of the wood, she turned and froze. Horror filled her veins as she beheld the tiny, bloody carcass that lay limp on the edge of the porch. Poor bunny. A thin trail of red in the snow called her attention, and she swallowed down a scared sound when she laid eyes on the tracks that surrounded the crimson color. They looked like a giant dog’s paw prints, but she knew they weren’t. A feeling of rightness slid over her as the word brushed her mind.
Why in the hell had the wolf decided to bring his meal onto her porch? She scanned the woods, but nothing moved. Carefully, she backed into the house and closed the door behind her. Wolves were smart. They knew how to hunt and lure prey, and that’s what this one was doing. Luring her out of her house so he could attack and eat her. He was sacrificing the tiny bunny meal so he could eat on Nicole for days.
Nope, nope, nope. She was not going to be breakfast for a wolf! With shaking hands, she clumsily built up the fire in the stove, then strode for Buck’s room. She’d avoided it the last few days to dodge the emotions his personal things would stir in her, but when she’d peeked in there the first day, she’d seen something lying at the end of his bed that would make her feel much safer now: a belt with a knife and sheath attached to it.
Her entire body shook with adrenaline by the time she’d tightened it around her waist, then brushed her teeth and washed her face with the icy water that trickled from the sink faucet.
And for the second day in a row, she reached for the green scarf to cover her face because Galena had something she needed to feel okay out here. The man behind the counter at the hardware store had offered to teach her how to load Buck’s guns when she’d gone in there for supplies to fix up the cabin. She’d laughed him off at the time, so confident she wouldn’t need any such lesson. And then he’d called her “hard to look at,” which pissed her off enough to leave in a huff.
But right now, the important thing was the promise of gun lessons, and she was scared enough to swallow her pride and take him up on his offer.
Nicole was ready for that crafty wolf now. He’d snuck his lure onto her porch in the middle of the day yesterday—another poor, limp bunny—but she’d wised up by day three of his tricky presents. Three hours of gun safety with Hardware Jack on not one, but
of Buck’s old rifles, plus a shotgun, and she was feeling a little less like the butterfly, and a little more like the dragon.
She’d pinned all the window curtains back so she could see that furry fucker coming from all directions while she re-finished the countertops in the kitchen. After sanding a healthy layer of damage off the wooden counters, she was now working herself into a sweat scrubbing the glossy solution into the surface. It was dangerous to sweat in a frigid climate. She knew because she’d bought books on Alaskan survival from the one-room bookstore in town and had read two last night. Sweating meant she was warm for the moment, sure, but if she ran out of wood, or if she was outside in subzero temperatures, the moisture could freeze her, and quick.
For the hundredth time, she regretted not knowing Buck. If Mom had been more understanding and more considerate, she could’ve let Nicole stay out here for summers when she was out of school or for winter break, or hell, even the week of spring break. But no, she’d hidden Buck away, kept him from her, and now she was reading about survival from a damned book instead of gaining firsthand knowledge from her biological father.
For fuck’s sake, she was part Alaska Native, and she knew nothing of her ancestry, nothing of her people, and nothing of where she came from. Mom had told her she looked different from her siblings because she was just a genetic anomaly. Nicole was
, and Mom and “Dad’s” genes had just mixed in a unique way.
Mom had lied.
Nicole’s eyes burned with the same stupid tears that had been trying to escape since Mom’s sister, Aunt Rita, told her Buck was dead, but like always, she blinked them back because she would not spare another tear for her mom’s betrayal. She was here to figure herself out and become stronger while she fixed this place up to sell. Not to turn to a puddle of emotion every time she thought about the mess her life had become.
Movement along the tree line outside held her frozen, mid-wipe of the fragrant, chemical-covered cloth. Wiping her hands on the dirty apron she wore, Nicole padded over to the window. She gasped when she saw the wolf for the first time.
He was huge—much bigger than she imagined. He loped toward her, a fish in his mouth. A fish? Did wolves fish? Apparently. A dark gray saddle of color covered his back, his points as white as the snow he trotted across. His paws were enormous, and one of his long canines was visible around the head of the giant fish. Ears alert, he lifted his gaze directly to her, as if he knew she was there, but he didn’t shy away or even slow down. Those eyes. Perhaps he was part husky because they weren’t the brown or gold she’d expected from pictures she’d seen of wolves in the Alaska books. His eyes were light silver like the moon, and absolutely breathtaking to look at. Even if he was here to eat her, she couldn’t deny his powerful beauty. As he disappeared around the house, she grabbed a rifle and bolted for the front window, just in time to see him gently lay the fish beside the bunnies. He canted his head and stared at his pile of lures. Slowly, he lifted his blazing gaze up to the window that separated them, and locked eyes with her.
And there was a moment…
She couldn’t move, couldn’t breathe as she stayed captive to his striking gaze. There was no hostility or hatred, only curiosity and something more. Concern?
And then he broke their connection and turned, jumped off the porch with the scratch of nails on wooden boards, then trotted off toward the tree line without a single look back until he reached the woods. And there he sat for a few minutes, watching her.
Ten minutes ago, she would’ve sworn he was waiting for her to come out so he could attack her, but now she wasn’t so sure. Not after that look they’d shared. Maybe he’d been Buck’s pet, if wild wolves could really be called such a thing.
With a long, steadying inhalation, she gripped the barrel of the rifle and cracked the door open to test him. The animal sat just where he’d been, eyes steady on her, but body relaxed. Okay. She stepped one boot out onto the porch, then jerked her body back inside the door when he twitched. The wolf lifted his hind leg and scratched the back of his ear languidly. If he was waiting to attack her, his body language wasn’t giving him away, that was for sure.
Limbs shaking from nerves, she stepped out of the safety of the cabin and scuffed the thick soles of her boots as she sidled toward the fish. It was so fresh its gills still moved, poor thing. She bent down slowly, carefully, then picked up the large fish by the toothy bottom lip and bolted back into the house. Feeling rude, she opened the door a crack again and called out, “Thank you for the fish! And for not eating me!”
The wolf turned and disappeared into the light snowfall like a ghost in the woods while Nicole stood by the front window, astonished, heavy fish dangling from one hand and her rifle solid in her other.
As she stared into the forest where he’d disappeared, she realized something incredible.
The bright-eyed wolf wasn’t trying to eat her.
He was trying to feed her.
Huh. She frowned and leaned the gun against the wall with the others. She didn’t know much about Buck’s death, but she knew one thing. He was killed by a wolf while he was out trapping some distance down the Yukon. This wolf might seem friendly enough, but she could never forget their brutal nature. Whether he brought her fish or not, that animal was a natural-born predator and not to be trusted.