THE LONE WOLF'S LADY
The night air tasted cold and delicious, flavored with the promise of more snow and the spicy tang of cedar from the surrounding trees. It smelled like home to Rand. He paused at the top of the ridge to draw in another deep breath to clear away the last vestiges of the city fumes he'd been inhaling for the past month.
It had been far too long since he'd last been able to cast off the trappings of civilization and his human skin to run free as a wolf. He gave himself a good shake from nose to tail before resuming his patrol. This stretch of woods was his, the one place he could go where no one watched his every move, waiting for him to stumble, to disappoint. His older brother never failed to remind him that everyone made mistakes sometimes, and that might be true. However, Rand's failure had almost cost someone her life. That was something no one should forgive, not even him.
Especially not him.
Rather than think about things he might regret but couldn't change, Rand charged back down the hillside and let his wolf take over. He ran the familiar game trails that crisscrossed this section of the forests that he'd claimed as his own and kept up the steady pace that a wolf could maintain for hours. Eventually, he would have to circle back around and return to his cabin. But for now, his goal was to be too damn tired by that point to do anything other than crawl between the covers and pass out for a few hours. Dreamless sleep would be a welcome change from the nightmare his life had become.
A faint sound in the distance caught his attention just as he was about to cross the small stream that wound its way through the valley. He right and cocked his head to the side to listen. There…the howl was louder this time, which meant he needed to change directions and fast. The pack was on the hunt tonight. The last thing he wanted to do was run into his alpha and the others. There'd be another heated discussion about why he didn't want to join them. No matter how many times he'd tried telling them that he preferred to be a lone wolf these days, they weren't buying it.
Of course, that probably had more to do with the fact that Tobias, the alpha, was also Rand's father. Even if it was the beta wolf leading tonight's run, that wasn't much better considering his oldest brother currently held that position. Both men insisted that the loss of any wolf weakened the pack, not to mention their family. In no mood for another argument where neither side was willing to back down, Rand waded into the shallow water and ran upstream for a quarter mile to interrupt his scent trail. Once he reached the spot where the stream tumbled down from ridge above, he left the water behind and cut across country back in the direction of his cabin.
With luck, even if the pack ran across his trail they wouldn't waste the effort to track him down tonight. His father knew where he lived. If the man wanted to talk, he was more likely to come knocking bright and early tomorrow morning. The last thing Rand wanted was another lecture on it being past time to get his head back on straight. He also needed to resume his duty to protect this part of the vampire estate that the pack guarded in exchange for being allowed to live there. And if he couldn't do either of those two things, he should at least get his ass right on back to New Eire to work for his brother's Ian's security company.
Rand growled as he turned up the trail to his cabin. It wasn't as if he hadn't just spent the last four weeks working for Ian. Although he'd refused to take a new protection assignment, he'd put in long hours in front of a computer doing surveillance, coordinating the teams that were out in the field, and keeping track of the endless flow of paperwork that went along with the job. The truth was he wouldn't have even done that much, but the human who normally did all of that had been called out of town on a family emergency.
He paused at the edge of the woods to study the clearing that surrounded his cabin, hoping like crazy that no one had come calling in the time he'd been gone. Considering the place was lit up like the 4th of July, though, he hadn't been that lucky. Most likely Ian had decided to check on him before continuing on up the mountain to his own place. Why would the jerk waste time bothering Rand when he had a hot woman waiting for him at home?
Some in the pack couldn't understand why Ian chose to take a chancellor for his mate, but Rand wasn't one of them. In Jaina, the combination of human and vampire genes had produced a woman with the intelligence and strength to keep up with a dominant wolf. The fact that she was also gorgeous was just the icing on the cake. Anyone who spent more than five minutes around the couple knew it was a love match, pure and simple.
And if Rand was more than a little jealous, that was his secret.
He trotted up onto the porch and shifted. The world around him blurred for the few seconds that it took him to transition from four legs to two. He picked up the pile of clothes he'd left by the door but didn't bother putting them on before letting himself inside.
Five seconds later, he regretted that decision, because it wasn't Ian waiting for him in the living room. No, it was Tamara Fagan, the woman who had nearly died on his watch. His mind flashed back to the night when he'd been too busy flirting with her to notice that other guard had pulled a gun. If Rand hadn't dived between her and the traitorous bastard, she would have died. The bullet intended for her had blown a good-sized hole in Rand's shoulder, but at least he'd managed to end the threat before he'd passed out on the floor from blood loss. Tamara was the one who had stood guard until Ian had arrived with reinforcements.
That had happened three months ago, and he hadn't talked to her in all that time. If Tamara wanted to know how he was doing, she could have just called. Instead, she didn't say a word as her dark-eyed gaze started at his head and took a slow trip down the length of his body and back up again. He should probably be embarrassed about standing there naked and maybe even do something about it. But the woman was in his territory, uninvited and unwanted. If she didn't like seeing more of Rand than she'd expected to, that was her problem, not his.
To break the stalemate, he tossed his clothes on the couch and crossed his arms over his chest. "Want to tell me what you're doing here? Well, other than to get an eyeful of naked wolf?"
Tamara blinked as if it was taking her a few seconds to process what he'd just asked her. Then a flush of red blossomed on her cheeks, but he couldn't tell if was from embarrassment to temper. With her, it could go either way.
When she finally answered, he wished like hell he hadn't asked the question.
"I'm sorry to intrude on your privacy, Rand, but I didn't know where else to go. Earlier tonight, someone tried to kill me. Again."
He cursed and reached for his jeans.