A WOLF ON A MISSION Part 1
Declan Lyell eased further back into the shadows under the trees as he studied a ramshackle bar that sat at the edge of the forest surrounding the small town of Darby. He couldn't help sneering a bit at the idea of anyone describing the nearby cluster of small businesses and streets lined with a mix of house trailers and cabins as an actual town. A village maybe, but a wide spot in the road was closer to the truth.
For all that, the bar was doing a brisk business. The parking lot had remained pretty much full since the neon "OPEN" light flipped on shortly after sunset. Either nearly all the citizens of Darby spent their evenings in the place or else the bar managed to draw customers from farther afield. Most likely it was a bit of both.
The clientele was an interesting mix. Everyone looked human from a distance, but Declan didn't have to rely on sight alone to identify the different factions represented in the crowd. Yeah, the majority were exactly what they looked like—ordinary human beings out to enjoy a cold beer and some live music. It came as no surprise that there were a few vampires thrown into the mix. After all, blood flowed in the veins of all those humans. It was only natural that vampires would be drawn to the closest source of their favorite beverage.
He'd also picked up the more diluted scent of a few chancellors, the Coalition's name for those who carried a mix of vampire and human genes in their DNA. The combination gave them advantages over the purebred of both species. Thanks to their vampire ancestors, chancellors were stronger and longer-lived than humans. They also had fangs, which were useful as weapons, but they didn't need blood to live and could tolerate being out in full sunlight just fine.
That left one group unaccounted for. He'd yet to sense the presence of his own kind, the twin-souled. While Declan might look human, it only took him an instant to shift between that skin and that of a four-legged apex predator. Just like his father and brothers, Declan was more comfortable as a wolf than he was a man, thanks to the large helping of dominant instincts that always bred true in the Lyell family line. It made them talented hunters and relentless when on the trail of their prey.
Which was why he was standing out in the woods so far from his home territory. A few weeks back, he'd lost a vicious fight to his youngest brother, who had then taken over as the pack's Beta. Declan had always assumed he would inherit the role of the pack's Alpha when his father decided to retire. With that future now in serious doubt, he had no idea of what to do with the rest of his life. While he didn't like feeling beholden to anyone, he did appreciate his middle brother's offer of a job in his security company. He suspected Ian understood all too well what it was like to know he'd never be the one to take charge of the pack despite being every bit the Alpha that both their father and younger brother were.
Declan wasn't sure how long he wanted to work for Ian, but at least the job gave him something productive to do with his time until he figured out what came next. Over the past month, Ian had partnered him with a few different members of his team, both human and wolf, to give him a sense of how things were done. This hunt was his first solo mission, and it felt damn good to not having someone else watching over his shoulder and second-guessing every decision he made.
He drew a deep breath to test the air one last time for any sign of danger before joining the crowd across the street. According to what little information Ian's computer whizzes had been able to unearth for him, his target's last known location was working nights in that bar. Unless she'd already moved on, he should have this assignment all wrapped and be on his way home by tomorrow morning.
Vivian Channing popped the top off three beers and set them on an empty tray. After adding two hard ciders and three shots of a single malt, she pushed the tray closer to the other side of the bar, a clear signal to the waiting barmaid her order was ready to go.
Instead of picking it up to start her round of deliveries, Maggy reached across the small distance separating the two of them to catch Vivian's attention. Leaning in even closer to make herself heard over the crowd, Maggy asked, "Are you all right, Viv? You seem a bit on edge."
It was tempting to lie, but she couldn't, not to Maggy. The woman was the closest to a friend Vivian had these days, one of the few people she actually trusted. Rather than answering, she picked up a damp towel and gave the bar a quick swipe, more to buy herself some time rather than to actually do any actual cleaning. Finally, she sighed and offered her friend a rueful smile. "I'm okay, but there are a lot of strange faces in the crowd tonight. That always sets my teeth on edge."
She and Maggy couldn't do much about that even if Vivian had good reason to mistrust strangers. After all, the bar's owner couldn't afford to limit his customers to people she recognized. On the other hand, Logan did a great job of maintaining control over the crowd, and he made sure that none of his employees had to put up with hassles of any kind. Anyone who upset the wait staff got their asses thrown out the door in short order. Actual fights were quickly broken up, and the combatants were restrained until the county deputies showed up.
Besides, Logan had done Vivian a solid when he'd hired her without demanding either references or asking what landed her in such a remote area of the Coalition. He'd given her a job, a roof over her head, and a chance to make a life for herself here in Darby. But the man was no fool. He knew or at least suspected that her past would eventually catch up with her. When it did, she would do her best to draw the trouble away from the bar and the people who had made room for her in their lives.
"You trying to scrub the finish off my bar?"
Speak of the devil. Vivian had become so lost in the quagmire of her memories that she'd missed noticing Maggy had walked away and that Logan had moved down the bar to stand beside her. There was no way his sharp gaze would've missed seeing her flinch when she finally sensed his presence, but at least he didn't say anything. Doing her best to look far calmer than she felt, she tossed the towel on the counter before responding to his comment. "Just cleaning up some spilled beer. What's up, boss?"
"You're tense tonight. I can handle the bar by myself for a while if you need some fresh air."
His gruff concern meant a lot, but she shook her head. While a breather might help her nerves, this was the busiest night of the week, and she wouldn't leave him shorthanded. "I'm okay for now. I'll wait until the band takes the stage again and the orders slow down a bit."
His dark green eyes studied her briefly before he finally nodded. She'd never spent any time around a vampire before and had no idea if Logan was typical of his species. Funny how she felt safer around him than she ever had her own kind. He'd never once pressured her to show her gratitude for his offer of a job like a couple of her previous employers had. Those two had learned the hard way that was a mistake. Under other circumstances, she might have been tempted to take a walk on the wild side with Logan, but the man deserved better than a woman with a mysterious past and an uncertain future.
By that point, they both had orders waiting to be filled. Logan moved down to his end of the bar and went back to work. Vivian fell back into the familiar rhythm of filling orders, taking time in between to restock as she ran low on a few things. She was just walking out of the storeroom in the back when the front door of the bar opened and closed, sending a blast of cool air her way.
She paused long enough to draw a deep breath to clear out the smell of stale beer and too many bodies crowded into a small area. Her acute sense of smell automatically deciphered the various scents from outside the front door: cedar, Douglas fir, car exhaust, and a strong hit of…something wild. Something that sent her pulse into overdrive.
It had been so long since she'd encountered one of her own kind that it took her a second or two to process the scent. Once she did, the shock almost caused her to drop the bottles of tequila and scotch she was carrying. Not only would the waste of liquor make Logan less than happy, the crash of glass shattering on the floor would draw unwanted attention in her direction.
For the moment she was downwind of the front door, but that could change any minute if someone used the rear exit at the opposite end of the hallway. She retreated to stand against the storeroom door and scanned the few people who had just entered the bar. The closest couple were frequent customers who spent a least one night every weekend sitting in the back corner of the bar with a group of friends. Jack was right behind them. He was a long-haul trucker who came through Darby a couple of times of month on his way from one side of New Eire to the other. He had a regular reservation at a nearby bed-and-breakfast for an overnight stay. He had a fondness for one of the local microbrews and Logan's burger and fries combo.
None of them posed any kind of threat to her. That left the man still hovering near the doorway, apparently scanning the crowd. As soon as his hard gaze turned in her direction, it was clear he wasn't there to look for a friend. There was too much tension in his stance to be out to enjoy a few drinks with a buddy while they listened to the band.
When he lifted his chin to sniff the air, she fought the temptation to dive back into the storeroom to hide until he gave up and left, but there was no point in trying to hide. Eventually, he would catch her scent and track her there. The storeroom only had a small window on the outside wall. Even if she could fit through it, the steel bars over it would prevent her escape.
Sidestepping her way down the hall, she moved slowly to avoid any sudden movements that would draw his attention back in her direction. She made it to the bar safely, but her luck ran out seconds later. It only took a few seconds for her to set the bottles down on the counter behind her workstation, but that was enough for the enemy to have her in his sights.
His ice blue eyes locked onto her, holding her captive with only the power of his gaze. It wasn't until he started shoving his way through the crowd that his hold on her shattered. She ducked into the kitchen, heading to retrieve her purse and the to-go pack she kept stashed in her locker.
She'd almost reached the back door when Logan stepped in front of her. He grabbed her arm long enough halt her headlong flight toward the back parking lot. "What's wrong, Viv?"
"I've got to run. They've found me."
By that point, the vampire's voice was little better than a growl, his fangs on full display. "Who has found you?"
The back door opened and the hunter stepped inside. "That would be me."