Past My Defenses ONLY
a Taming the Pack novel by Wendy Sparrow
Vanessa is the fastest Lycan around. In wolf form, the only threat she can’t outrun is her allergies. After a feline dander-bomb takes her down, she wakes up naked in a cage staring at a hot park ranger who had no idea what he’d trapped. But ooooh, he smells so good. Mine.
Dane hoped to tame the silver wolf in his kennel, but all bets are off with the deliciously sweet Vanessa on two legs. Her temper makes his pulse race, and he can’t escape the feeling they belong together.
They’re hot as a forest fire even before they scent-match, but Glacier Peak’s Alpha considers Dane a danger to the pack. Meanwhile, Lycans are being poached, and Vanessa has been targeted. Dane will have to keep her close to protect her, but with Vanessa in heat and mad to mate, who will protect him?
Title: Past My Defenses (Taming the Pack)
Author: Wendy Sparrow
Genre: Paranormal Suspense
Length: 332 pages
Release Date: June 2014
Ebook ISBN: 978-1-62266-737-6
Pricing is not guaranteed
Past My Defenses
by Wendy Sparrow
Copyright © 2014 by Wendy Sparrow. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce, distribute, or transmit in any form or by any means. For information regarding subsidiary rights, please contact the Publisher.
The night felt empty. The encroaching evergreens on either side of the highway loomed and swallowed most of the light from the stars.
Dane wiped a tired hand down his face. Look at him getting all spooked and sappy just because he wasn’t going to be welcomed home after a long day of work.
Dane flicked on the radio and let it search through scratchy stations for a minute before turning it back off. He hated the silence, but he hated the noise even more. Another twenty minutes, and he’d be home.
He should get a dog.
A cat wasn’t a pet—and it wasn’t even his. A cat went wherever it wanted and to hell with what the humans around it needed.
A dog was always happy when an owner came home—stupidly happy, possibly—though he’d seen intelligent dogs. If he got an intelligent dog, he could teach it how to track—or maybe it’d already know how to do that instinctually. Dane yawned; his jaw popped from the effort. Plus, with a dog, he’d feel like he was the master of his domain. His cat—or rather the cat, because it definitely wasn’t his, by any stretch of the imagination—suffered Dane’s presence as long as the infernal thing was fed.
But a dog…
Up ahead, a light caught his attention, and he pulled his Jeep off to the side of the road beside an abandoned car. The driver’s side door was open and the dome light on. It was in a ditch, the front end embedded in the soft soil from the impact, but looked still drivable. The air bag hadn’t gone off. There was a bend in the road, but not one so sharp someone should have lost control on it…not someone sober anyway. Where the hell was the driver?
He leaned in. The sour smell of bleach made him wince and his eyes water. There was a small bottle on the passenger’s side that must have broken open when the car crashed.
“Hello?” he yelled, grabbing his flashlight and beaming it out into the surrounding trees. The forest was dense in this area. “I’m a park ranger. Dane Hansen. Do you need assistance?”
Just miles earlier, this stretch had felt empty, but now, faced with this abandoned vehicle, there was a menacing quality to the stillness and shadows. The forests around Glacier Peak were never empty during the day, and the bigger predators would come out at night.
“Hello?” he tried again. Leaning into his Jeep, he radioed the accident in to his dispatch and waited, calling out periodically.
“I’ve got someone from the sheriff’s department en route,” Ross from dispatch said. “Stay where you are.”
“You don’t think I should see if there’s someone out there injured?” Well, that was weird as hell.
“Do you have reason to believe there is?”
Even though he couldn’t see him, Dane gestured at the car. “Well, the door to the vehicle is wide open and there’s no one around. The emergency lights aren’t even on.” Duh. Something wasn’t right.
“Do you see signs of foul play?”
“No. There’s a small bottle of bleach on the floor that must have leaked when the car crashed. It might be masking other smells, but I don’t see any signs of blood or a struggle other than what would have happened during the crash.” Why would someone be carrying a bottle of bleach in their car? Odd.
There was silence as if Ross was conferring with someone. Other than how inky black it was, there was no reason why he shouldn’t be safe tramping through the brush. He tried calling out a few more times. No response. The car door’s being open like an alien abduction had just occurred was creepy as hell. The hair on the back of his neck was standing up straight as if someone were staring at him from the forest.
“No, wait for the sheriff’s deputy to arrive,” dispatch said. “Better safe than sorry.”
Better safe than sorry? What the hell? Sure, he was a park ranger, not a cop, but he carried a gun. Even though he was new to the area, he’d lived in Washington State most of his life. He knew what was out in the dark. Yeah, he wasn’t going to hang out by his Jeep waiting for the cops to get around to this. Who knew how soon that’d be?
He looked both ways along the deserted highway before feeling like an ass and stalking toward the forest with his flashlight pointed at the ground. The brush and grass looked to have been disturbed but prints were difficult to make out in the dark. He was careful not to step on the path he saw. Once he crossed into the tree line, the trail seemed even more indiscernible, but the sense of being watched increased.
Pausing, he looked around. Where were all the animals? Normally, he’d have scared a few small critters into bolting.
“Hello?” He should’ve asked Ross for the vehicle owner’s name. That’d been stupid. Then again, Ross should’ve volunteered it. He could go back and search the glove box, but something about this screamed crime scene, and he didn’t want some pissed-off cop snarling at him because he had to touch everything. Especially since they were treating him like a preschooler who needed someone to hold his hand before he could go into the forest.
He scanned his flashlight around him searching for something to indicate there was a person to follow in here. There was the blink of reflected light as his beam caught the eyes of an animal, and he jumped, but when he jerked back to it—it was gone.
“Nice, Dane. You’re real brave. Maybe you do need someone to hold your hand.” He scowled. Where the hell should he go next? The bushes around all looked mostly undisturbed. “Pathetic.”
A car was approaching. Swearing under his breath, he turned and stomped back out of the forest with less care than he’d used going in.
Huh. More than one car. The one in front was a police cruiser that turned on blinding flashing lights. He blinked rapidly and tried to shade his eyes.
“Are the lights really necessary?” he asked the cop—whom he could barely see now.
“Yup. I’ll take it from here,” the deputy said, sauntering forward.
Travis. He was the same age as Dane, and they’d met a time or two.
“I can help you search. I haven’t heard anyone, and I didn’t see anyone on foot from my direction. I’m assuming you didn’t see anyone coming from yours.”
“Nah, but I got this. You can go on home.”
Dane stared at him. This didn’t add up. “It makes sense for me to stay. And I don’t mind working off the clock.” He had nothing but an empty house and a cat to go home to. Spending a few hours doing something worthwhile might lift this mood he’d been in.
Travis shook his head. “I’ve got someone to help, and we’ll call you back if we don’t turn up anything.”
He squinted at the other vehicle. “Who?” And why couldn’t he help? If this was some sort of locals-only thing, he’d misjudged Travis. The man seemed intelligent, but he hid behind a fairly convincing image of an idiot.
“Tracker. He’s a local. With it being so dark and all, we’ll try it this way tonight and get back with you.”
He met Travis’s gaze. “You know sending away another set of eyes is stupid as hell.”
There it was…a shrewd look that was quickly smothered. “Yup. But that’s how the sheriff wants this played.”
“Then, the sheriff is an ass, and if something happens to whoever owns that car because you sent me away, I’m not keeping quiet about it.”
Even with the flashing lights still blinding him, he saw the white of Travis’s smile. “Dane, I don’t think anyone expects you to stay quiet very long. I’ll keep you in the loop.”
Shaking his head, he went back to his Jeep and waited there, watching his rearview mirror. Travis was investigating the car, and the passenger in the dark SUV that had pulled behind the cruiser didn’t get out. Why were they being secretive?
Travis straightened from a crouch and went to the dark SUV—which was still mostly camouflaged by the blinding cruiser’s lights. A minute later, he approached Dane’s Jeep.
Opening the passenger door, the deputy leaned on the seat and stared Dane down. “Get a hold of me when the sun comes up, and I’ll deal you back in if I can. In the meantime, I can’t have anyone extra out in the dark wandering around.”
“Why not? Afraid I’ll get lost?”
Travis tilted his head. “Wolves. We’ve got a pack in the area, and the leader doesn’t take to strangers all that well.”
“Seems like a local thing.”
The deputy grinned. “I like you just fine, Dane. Maybe later I’ll bring you some roses to apologize for shutting you out. Pink or red?”
Dane started his Jeep. “I will call in the morning.”
“I don’t doubt it. I’ve always thought you were sweet on me.” Travis slammed the door closed before he could hear Dane’s real opinion.
He made the rest of the drive home in sullen silence, and when he slid from behind the wheel, the ache in his jaw alerted him that he’d been clenching his teeth the whole time. Great. The door wasn’t open more than a crack when the damn cat darted through and out into the night.
“Lucifer!” Normally, he didn’t let him out at night. He didn’t want his younger sister’s pet becoming a late-night snack for something lurking in the woods. “Lucifer!” Hell, the stupid thing could fend for itself. He’d open the pet door, and hopefully, it’d have enough sense to come in if something was chasing it.
Shaking his head, he turned to go in when he heard a wolf howl in the distance…and then the screech of a cat. Hell. Yanking out his flashlight and turning it on, he bolted into the woods in the direction of Lucifer’s screeching and hissing. Christa was going to kill him. She treated that cat like a child.
A half mile later, he stumbled into a small clearing and stopped stock-still. Well, that was something you didn’t see every day.
Her naked hip pressed against the cold concrete was her first indication that something was very wrong in her world. The bright light of the room burned through her closed eyelids, but she almost didn’t want to open them anyway. Reality was about to kick her tail—and since she was back in her skin-wear, that tail would be a metaphorical one, not an actual furry tail.
“Meow?” a plaintive voice asked.
“Oh, hell no,” she said in a raspy voice, barely recognizable. That would explain the thick feeling of cement in her throat. Cats—those bastards—sent her histamine levels rocketing upward. And they knew it, too. They sensed it. It was why they always cuddled up to her no matter where she was. She was a damn cat magnet. She opened one eye. There was a drain in the concrete near her cheek and outside of that, a metal cage with a feline pressed against it. The cat stuck a paw through the bars and tried to swipe at her naked shoulder, missing only by inches. Beyond the maniacal cat, a man—a hot, red-blooded, sexy male no less, stood with his jaw dropped.
She inhaled and exhaled—a long, raspy wheeze where she could practically hear the air scraping through her lungs. “While you’re enjoying the scenery, do you think you could get that cat away from me? I’m seriously allergic. Unless you’ve got an EpiPen handy, this could get ugly.”
He strode over, grabbed the cat, and without saying a word, went to the nearby door and tossed the vile beast outside. The cat yowled irritably but he slammed the door shut in its face. Well, that was more like it. Her respect for the man ratcheted up a dozen levels.
Vanessa sat up slowly, and it felt like she’d left her sinuses behind on the concrete. An involuntary groan slid out of her sore throat. She’d told the alpha she’d be no good in this state. She’d warned him she had next to no skills when her allergies were this bad. She couldn’t have caught the scent of a skunk if it’d sprayed her, let alone track anything. She was useless in either form. The alpha was a man, though, and he thought he knew better. Typical man. Typical alpha.
She should be in her home crowded against her air purifier, waiting for all of Snohomish County to stop blooming her to death. She wasn’t deathly allergic to everything else like she was to cats, but it wasn’t pretty. She’d been a snotty mess even before she’d padded out into the forest on four feet.
Then, it all got hazy—a histamine and altered-consciousness blur.
The man walked over to the tall island counter in the giant utilitarian mudroom and leaned against it, facing her, with his arms crossed. He kept staring at her.
“You were some sort of wolf,” he stated, pointing at her.
She pulled up a leg and propped her chin on her knee, wrapping her arms around it. It covered much of the free peep show she was providing this stranger.
“If you say so.” She sounded like a pack-a-day lifetime chain smoker. Real sexy. “Right now, I’m a naked woman in a kennel, hoping you have a couple of allergy pills and a shirt that furry spawn of Satan hasn’t touched.” She reached out a hand and rattled the four-by-five metal cage bolted to the floor. “I’ll tell you what…this reminds me of Reno—only that time involved a double-dog dare and a feather boa.” Vanessa wrinkled her nose. “Actually, so far, this is better than Reno, but I wouldn’t mind losing the kennel.”
He grabbed a set of keys off the shelves across from her and crouched in front of the door. He was still wary of her, but it was likely hard to be afraid of a scrawny, naked woman in a cage who sounded like one of Marge’s sisters on The Simpsons. The latch snicked open, and the lock dropped into his hand. With a show of false nonchalance, he turned his back on her as the door slipped open. Instead of moving, she watched the fluid grace of his limbs as he strolled toward the humming dryer in the corner, the picture of casual. It was for her benefit, after all—besides, he didn’t look bad from behind.
They say when a person loses one of their senses, the remaining senses become heightened—what a crock of crap. She couldn’t catch the scent of the dryer and the warm cotton contents that spilled out when he opened the door—or the scent of him, yummy, thirty-something male. Unfortunately, her ears felt plugged and gross from swollen passages and too long on the cold concrete, so she could barely hear the scrape of buttons on metal as he pulled a red flannel shirt from the dryer. Her eyes were all watery, but she glanced around and through the tears she could see a few other cages. She’d been in the largest. Most were for smaller animals—cats, raccoons, bunnies.
Where the hell was she?
If it weren’t for the accommodating behavior of her captor, she’d be bolting for the door and running despite the fact that she felt two steps away from death. Her legs tingled with the desire to run…or it was the lack of oxygen and the change from wolf to human? It could be either.
But seriously, what was with these cages?
The only thing that came to mind was poachers, but they’d have more large cages if that were the case, and he had unlocked the door.
Besides, there’d been a real look of shock on his face when she’d opened her eyes. He hadn’t expected her to be anything other than what she’d been—a slight wolflike creature. A poacher would have known.
Plus, he didn’t look evil. As far as she could tell. She blinked rapidly, hoping to focus on him through the wash of tears. It was no good. Even though her hormones from being in heat were telling her that he was a warm-bodied possessor of the XY chromosomes and a virile specimen at that, he remained a watercolor painting. Brown hair, tan skin, lean, tall…and coming back toward her with the flannel held out and his cloud-gray eyes averted.
But also a big checkmark in the “he’s not pure evil” category. Even if he had that cat.
She unfolded from the cage slowly, unaccustomed to fitting through a door the size of a small window.
“So, you like to keep cages around?” she asked as she stood. There. That had sounded casual. Well, as casual as she could be with this swollen, itchy-as-hell throat.
Please let him not be a poacher.
“I’m the new park ranger. I moved in a few months ago. Cages go with the territory. Typically I’m just holding animals for animal control or until they heal, not because they felt like a stroll on four feet instead of two.”
Ah, huh, well, this blew. She’d managed to keep what she was from the previous park ranger for the four years she’d lived under the protection of this pack. She’d blown their cover in just months now. Who knew what the hell her alpha would make of a two-legged knowing he’d caught a Lycan? Jordan didn’t tend to take a light stance on things like that. Damn. Just damn.
Maybe if she left town, this park ranger would think she was a mutant of some kind.
But hell, she liked it here. Jordan was pissy sometimes, but there wasn’t the constant battle within the pack as Lycans jockeyed for position.
This was her mistake, though, and if she had to leave, she had to leave. Running off was something she did well anyway.
She snatched the warm flannel shirt from his hand, irritation making her feel stabby. Before putting it on, she held it to her nose and inhaled, wishing she had any of her heightened senses. It probably smelled amazing. Warm cotton. Warm man.
“I swear it’s clean.”
She looked over the collar to see his gray eyes focused on her. Apparently, he was done being a gentleman. His gaze traveled up to take in her messy blond curls and then back down. They lingered on her too-wide mouth before slipping lower—much lower, and his mouth looked inclined to smile, not drool from lust-induced awe.
Normally not shy, Vanessa raised her eyebrows and cleared her throat. The movement caused a tickle in her chest that turned into a full-blown cough, doubling her over, hacking and choking. Sexy. Real sexy.
When she straightened, her captor had retrieved a first aid kit and opened it on the large island in the middle of the room. While he shuffled through the contents, she pulled on the shirt that drowned her winter-pale skin in yards and yards of red flannel. She’d gone from indecent to practically modest with a shirt that probably fit his lean torso snugly. There were perks to being scrawny.
“Hah!” He held up a packet containing two pink pills.
“I love you,” she said, holding out her hand and suppressing the urge to kiss him. He was a lifesaver, and a little tongue wouldn’t have been amiss. Then again, she could barely breathe and her tongue felt swollen. She should restrain herself. For both their sakes.
He placed the pills in her palm, his hand brushing hers and sending shock waves across her skin. It was nothing. He was the right age and the right chromosomes. She’d be hot for anyone at this point in her cycle. Her mail carrier had received an overly long hug just yesterday when he’d delivered the filter for her air purifier, and Ernie was eighty if he was a day.
Eagerly tearing into the package, Vanessa chewed the caplets, wincing at the foul taste. Desperation helped her tolerate the numbing sensation and vile tang. Almost immediately, the raging inferno of pain in her throat began to ease a little. She closed her eyes in a prayer of thanksgiving and a wince against the tingling acrid taste that lingered.
He cleared his throat. “The wolf-dog hybrid I brought in tangled with my cat. My cat won.”
“Hellish beast,” Vanessa muttered, keeping her eyes closed. He’d saved her life so she could almost forgive him for owning a cat—almost.
“Actually, his name is Lucifer.”
“It fits.” All cats were evil incarnate, but that cat…that cat had it in for her. If cats ever gathered to form a wicked army of demonic malevolence, that cat would lead them. For sure.
“Not so well that he should have had the upper hand against a full-grown wolf.”
She shrugged and opened her eyes. She wasn’t such a coward that she wouldn’t meet his eyes when he asked her the impossible questions. She dimly remembered being tackled by a cat. Her brain had been a symphony of swearing until her immune system gave up the fight.
“You were the wolf. I don’t know how, but that was you.”
She shrugged again.
Okay, so she’d meet his eyes, but she wasn’t stupid enough to answer his questions. If she let him stumble around through the murky mire of her shifted state, eventually he’d doubt what he’d seen. Pretty soon, she’d be able to walk out of here with a wave and a raised eyebrow and, if she was really lucky, an admonition that he lay off the booze.
“Have you been drinking?” she asked. Please, oh please.
“Not a drop.”
Rats. That was too bad.
“Maybe some recreational drug use?” It was worth a shot.
He raised his eyebrows and cleared his throat again. “The wolf was struggling to breathe, and I thought it was dying. I was going to call the vet and have it put out of its misery.”
Vanessa sniffed and then inhaled deeply as her sinuses unplugged. Oh, wow, that was nice. She had been in misery. Misery was the only word for it when her allergies were this bad. Hell, she might have thanked him for making that call. This blasted allergy season was going to be the death of her anyway, and it had just started. “I skipped my allergy meds in favor of a clear head.”
“A clear head as a wolf?”
She shrugged again.
He snorted, a sound of disgust, and glared at her. “I know what I saw.”
“Sounds good.” She was being purposefully obstinate, but the longer they went with her in the human state, the more implausible his memory would seem. “Hey, tiger, do you have a room with a bed where your evil cat hasn’t been?”
If only she could bolt out of here. Formulate a plan to deal with this. If she had to leave town for the good of the pack, she would, but her brain was already getting bogged down from the meds and too many hours teasing anaphylaxis.
“It’s Dane. Dane Hansen, and, yeah, my bedroom. I don’t let him in my bedroom.”
She sighed in relief. “Fantastic. Where is that?”
Hopefully, Dane would stay a gentleman, but she was only going to be conscious for a couple of minutes.
“I’m about to drop from those pills, and I don’t like the idea of wandering home barefoot in this state even if I wasn’t about to join the living dead. I’m going to need to borrow your bed for a couple of hours.”
Dane blinked at her, gray eyes reflecting his confusion. He looked so good up close—only a little blurry. Then, gentleman that he was, he pointed at the stairs at the far end of the long white room.
“Thanks. It’s Vanessa, by the way.” He should know that. He’d seen her naked. Most men knew her name before they saw her naked. Also, if she had a name, he’d really start doubting the whole wolf thing—probably, but she couldn’t worry about that, couldn’t think about that.
Sleep. Bed. Now.
Her brain wasn’t doing any calculus anytime soon.
Damn, he’s hot.
Okay, that couldn’t be helped.
She backed away from him with a grateful smile, but when she turned to climb the stairs…she felt his gaze on her, hot and intense. Her senses might be in mucus overload, but her instinct for danger was intact. She glanced over her shoulder. He might be a Monet painting of watery vision, but there was no mistaking the raging desire in his features. She paused, a fawn in front of a predator…and then medicinal exhaustion brushed all vestiges of clarity from her brain, and she swung away and stumbled up the stairs.
She vaguely noticed a barely furnished great room with an attached kitchen, but the hallway the stairs had opened onto led her toward several doors. The first was a study, the second a bathroom, and the third was a room with a massive four-poster bed. Massive. Tall oak spires at each corner of the gigantic bed extended like jousting poles toward the ceiling. Dark, masculine plaid bedding looked soft and cushy. Heaven. Sweet, sweet heaven. Everything about this room proclaimed it the master bedroom—in so many ways. She’d never been in a bed that big. Was there anything larger than a California king size? This was like Alaskan king, her brain mumbled blearily. Vanessa snickered to herself before crawling under the flannel covers that tugged at her flannel shirt. It was like trying to get between two pieces of Velcro, but she managed—and then she dropped into oblivion.
She’d been a wolf—and her sweet naked human body now encased in his shirt and snuggling in his bed wasn’t going to change what he’d seen. Dane dragged a hand through his hair. Scratching on the outside door was followed by Lucifer’s angry yowl. With a sigh, he went to open the door.
Lucifer wasn’t his cat. It’d been his sister’s but she’d moved into an apartment that didn’t allow pets so the cat was a temporary resident with him until she figured something out. The door was only two inches open when Lucifer shoved his way inside, glaring at him.
“What? What was I supposed to do? You practically killed her.” Oh, great, now he was talking to cats. Then again… He crouched and petted him. “You are a cat, aren’t you? You’re not going to change into a man…?”
Lucifer looked snide and, damn, but if he didn’t wink.
Dane straightened. “This is why men don’t have cats—just on the off chance you’re not really a cat.” Then again, if Lucifer had transformed into the lithe little female upstairs, he wouldn’t have minded keeping her around—and maybe doing some petting.
He was losing it.
Shaking his head, Dane said, “If you change into a man, you’re not sleeping in my bed.”
The cat looked bored and wandered toward the stairs—with new purpose. Dane didn’t doubt he was going to find the interesting-smelling female from earlier. The cat had never taken to anyone like he had to Vanessa. He’d found the wolf…or whatever…down for the count with Lucifer curled on top of her, claiming the kill. He’d thought the wolf was dead, until it had stirred and stared at him with watery brown eyes.
Never in all his years of working in wildlife, had he considered picking up a large wild animal and carrying it home with him. He kept waiting for the split-second decision to bite him—literally. Instead the wolf had been limp and docile, and Dane had stayed awake the rest of the night, staring at it and willing it to improve. He’d been doing laundry in the mudroom to keep an eye on it. He’d even decided to stay at home rather than investigate that abandoned vehicle.
One minute, he’d been staring at the beginning of dawn streaking through the tall fir trees all around his place. The next, he’d turned back when his wolf had softly said, “Oh, hell no,” in a deep, raspy, but undeniably female voice.
This couldn’t be happening, but it was.
Heading off Lucifer’s prowl, Dane brought him back to the corner of the room with the cages for rabid or unwell animals and stuck the angry, hissing black cat in one of the larger ones. “Quit! It’s just for a few hours until our werewolf guest leaves. You’ve already proven you’re in charge.”
This almost seemed to mollify the cat for a few moments but then he renewed his loud, aggrieved protest to the cage.
Dane dragged a hand through his hair before leaning against the counter in the center of the mudroom. He had a female werewolf upstairs in his room. For half a second, he considered calling someone—the police, animal control…a psychiatrist, but then tossed it aside. There was no way he was in any danger from the wolf or the woman. Hell, a ten-pound cat had taken her down. If he felt threatened, he could always rub Lucifer on her.
But he didn’t feel threatened.
Interested, yes. Intrigued, definitely. Aroused? Hell yes. And she was upstairs sleeping in his bed. He rubbed a hand across his jaw, his hand sounding like sandpaper due to the beginnings of a beard. He should be exhausted after watching over his she-wolf all night.
It was probably a bad idea to think of her as his, but he wanted to keep her and take care of her like a stray. Even before she’d morphed into a human he’d wanted to keep the wolf—something illegal in Washington State. He’d been hoping she’d prove to be a wolf-dog hybrid so he could justify it. His superiors would’ve had fits, but Dane had already been building a case in his mind when he’d glanced out the window at the dawn.
“It looks like I won’t be keeping her as a pet.”
Lucifer had stopped yowling and was cleaning his leg with long strokes of his tongue—looking, to all intents, as if getting in the cage had been his idea from the beginning and that he would get out when he was good and ready. For how exasperating Lucifer was, he merited a certain amount of admiration for how obstinately arrogant his every movement proclaimed. When Dane had first seen the black monster on top of the wolf, he’d actually believed the house cat had taken down a wolf five times his size.
“Maybe I’ll keep her anyway.” The idea shouldn’t have any appeal to him, but it did.
Lucifer stared at him as if conveying disbelief.
“You’re right, taming either the wolf or the woman seems unlikely.”
He was talking to a cat again.
Rolling his eyes, Dane left the room and went upstairs.
He grabbed his phone and called, asking to be patched through to Travis. Even if he wasn’t up for a search-and-rescue and he didn’t feel comfortable leaving Vanessa alone, he said he’d check in.
“Any news?” Dane asked.
“Nah, but no signs of foul play anywhere in the area. We’re hoping she got picked up by a motorist, and we’re contacting next of kin and so on.”
“What’s her name?” He tipped backward and looked down the hall toward his bedroom.
“Cheri Britton? You know her?”
“Don’t think so. Blonde? Brunette?”
“Brunette with shoulder-length hair. Brown eyes. Five foot eight. One hundred thirty pounds.”
So, not his naked werewolf guest. “No. Don’t know her.”
“We did a pretty good search, but we might want to pull in some of park service if she hasn’t turned up and a missing persons report is filed. You want in on that?”
“Yeah. Not now though, right?”
Travis laughed. “And here I thought I’d have to chase you off this morning.”
There was a lot he could say. He had a guest. He hadn’t slept because of said guest. He’d seen said guest naked and also covered in fur at one point. Dane said nothing.
Finally, Travis said, “Nah, I think we’re good.”
“Good. That’s good.” It was hard to act normal after a brush with a fictional creature. “So, you mentioned wolves last night.”
“Yup,” Travis said slowly.
“Are there any other kind?”
“I don’t know.” Well, yes…but he’d sound like a crazy person if he volunteered what he now knew.
“What about wolves?”
Several moments of silence passed as Dane tried to manufacture some question that sounded reasonable.
“Have you seen a wolf?” Travis finally asked.
He looked down the hallway again. This was insane. This was getting further into a conversation about werewolves than he wanted to go. “You know what? Never mind. It was dark. Maybe it wasn’t even a wolf.” It definitely wasn’t a wolf some of the time anyway.
“Dark or light-colored?” Travis asked.
“Oh, well, okay.”
There was another lull in the conversation. “That’s it? That’s all you have to say?”
“You said you weren’t sure if it was a wolf. There are plenty of light-colored dogs in the area that you might mistake for a wolf.” Another long round of silence. “Well, okay then, as I said, I’ll keep you in the loop if we need you.”
“Get a hold of me if you come across any other wolves…or dogs that look like wolves…or shadows that look like dogs that look like wolves.”
Travis hung up laughing.
Pocketing his phone, he stretched his neck as he yawned. Exhaustion was hitting him like a wall.
A good host would check on a guest, and she’d been in bad shape all night. It wasn’t just the magnetic pull of her warranting this check. He’d never seen anyone that allergic to anything.
He stopped at the doorframe to his room and peered in. He’d assumed her cheeks were round and her lips extra plump, but the allergy medicine had started working and her cheeks had thinned out. Her lips still looked more generous than most women’s, but she’d looked like a collagen injection gone wrong at first.
And he’d still been attracted to her.
He needed a girlfriend. It’d been far too long between dates. He blamed this small town in the shadow of Glacier Peak. Only idiots lived this close to a volcano—and he’d joined them. There weren’t enough single females in small towns, not enough that he came into regular contact with, and now that he had—apparently some of them came with furry baggage he really ought to steer clear of. He ought to.
Her snoring sounded like a buzz saw had gotten loose, and she flipped in the bed so all he could see was the mop of blond curls on top of her head.
He absently rubbed his chest where a heavy weight had settled. Either he was having a heart attack or he felt something for this strange little interloper. He stepped forward quietly for a closer look. He probably didn’t need to keep quiet; the odds were next to nil that she could hear him above the racket of her breathing. Vanessa was waking the dead in the nearest cemetery with the decibels of her snoring.
Rolling over again, she snarled at the blankets wrapping around her. She tugged at the flannel sheets in her sleep with an angry growl that reminded him of Lucifer. Then, her thin pixie face smoothed, her mouth dropped open, and the loud snoring resumed. She looked better than she had a half an hour ago. Her face was small and pointed with high, pronounced cheekbones. He could almost see the wolf behind the woman in her long, thin nose. Then there were those brown eyes that had blinked and squinted at him while they’d talked—the color definitely matched the watery, allergy-blurred ones of the wolf.
She was the wolf.
She’d been a wolf. She might be trying to convince him his eyes were playing tricks, but he knew what he’d seen. He didn’t know what it meant, but he knew what he’d seen. She looked warm in his bed and like she belonged.
A huge yawn made Dane’s jaw pop. It’d been a long night, and she wasn’t going to wake anytime soon. If he were a decent guy, he’d go sleep on that back-wrecking couch—especially since he’d probably need earplugs to sleep within a mile of Vanessa. Then again, she looked awfully warm and comfortable, and he was a decent enough guy to sleep on the other side of the bed. He yanked his T-shirt off, wadded it up, and tossed it in the direction of his hamper. It dropped several feet shy. Yep, he definitely needed sleep if his finely honed hamper-tossing skills were falling off like this.
His hand went to his jeans and then he stopped. Sleeping in jeans would be uncomfortable, but he didn’t want her getting the wrong idea even if it sounded like the right idea right this moment.
His marriage proposal and subsequent rejection by Kaylee a year ago made him either ready for a rebound or ready to settle down. Kaylee had said she wasn’t the staying kind. If a normal human woman didn’t work out, sleeping with a werewolf didn’t bode well for a stable relationship.
What was he doing? Trying to build something with a woman he’d known a half an hour? Well, technically, he’d known her longer, but she’d been a wolf. A silver she-wolf.
Dane dropped onto the bed. His houseguest let out a snore that might have rattled the windows. He pushed off the mattress and went to his sock drawer where he kept earplugs for when he had to use a chainsaw—the snores breaking the sound barrier were on the same decibel level.
Amazing. He could hear her snoring with the earplugs in. Still, it was better.
Back in bed, he tugged a small portion of the covers from her. She bared her teeth in what looked like a snarl and then relaxed. Maybe it was only the lack of sleep making him feel this attraction to her. Maybe fully rested, he’d send her on her way after making sure she was up-to-date on her rabies shots.
Her snores stopped suddenly, and it stopped his heart. She was okay, right? He’d do mouth-to-mouth with no complaints, but if she wasn’t okay, did she need a vet or a doctor? Her nose wrinkled and she wriggled across the bed toward him. He was about to pull out his earplugs and explain—who the hell knows what—when she settled beside him.
Her nose pressed against his shoulder. He pulled one earplug out and tipped to face her. A roar of possessiveness took him by surprise. How she could look so fragile and fierce at the same time was a mystery. Reaching out, he ran a hand through her platinum-blond curls. The wolf’s fur had been more gray than blond, and nowhere near as soft.
Her face screwed up in an expression he couldn’t read, then she whimpered and moved closer. Her body was warm on its own, her flesh radiating heat, but when she draped a naked leg across him, he felt branded. They wouldn’t need any blankets if she kept this up.
This was stupid.
He wasn’t a stupid man.
Only a stupid man would get involved in whatever weird mythical crap was going on here with her.
Her mouth dropped open, her lips brushing his skin as they did, and then, the snoring resumed.
He shoved the earplug back in and lay down. Maybe he was a stupid man because he didn’t get up and leave. In fact, he turned toward her and hugged her nearer—snoring and all.