WILD WOLF CHASING

CHAPTER ONE

 

A WOLF IN SHEEP’S CLOTHING

 

The situation was crazy. 

Infuriating.

And completely fucked!

Smashing the flat of his palm against his steering wheel, Max Doucet struggled to rein in the raw, seething fury of his rage, but it wasn’t happening. He was pissed as hell that Vivian Jackson had run on him, when he was the one trying to save her little human ass. He and his Bloodrunning partner, Elliot Connors, had driven into the town of Charity, Pennsylvania for that specific purpose just that afternoon, tasked with the protection of two young women who were about to find themselves in a shitload of trouble. 

After a string of missing persons’ cases along the Eastern seaboard, Jared Monroe, an FBI agent who was friendly with the Bloodrunners, had asked Max and Elliot to look into the case for him. There had been some unusual happenings around the disappearances that had caused Monroe to suspect that something sinister and predatory was involved, like an animal on the hunt for its prey. And sure enough, when Max and Elliot had visited the crime scenes, their heightened senses had picked up the faint, musky odor of something that was far from human. A scent that they’d discovered at each of the locations where the seven victims had gone missing.

All female.

All human.

And from what they’d been told, all beautiful.

Given their gut feelings on the case, the Bloodrunning partners didn’t believe the women had been killed. No, they believed they were being kept—and they planned on making the bastard who was responsible pay for his crimes in blood and pain…and ultimately death. 

Unfortunately for Max, his meeting with Vivian Jackson hadn’t gone as planned. While Elliot made contact with Skye Hewitt at the diner where she worked as a waitress, Max had driven his truck to the crappy apartment the two girls shared, since they’d believed Vivian would be heading home after work. But when she didn’t show, he tracked her down at the Velvet Rope, the tacky strip club where, according to Monroe, Vivian was employed. Taking a seat at a back-corner table, nearly hidden in the shadows, Max had ordered a beer from a flirty, topless blonde, and asked her if Vivian was still there. The blonde informed him that Vivian was working later than expected, so he’d settled in, his head aching from the blaring music as he waited for Vivian to make an appearance. 

He knew, from experience, that the key to these situations was to act quickly, but smoothly, making contact with the target without spooking them and sending them running. So once he’d spotted the human female, he’d planned to talk to her, calmly explaining the situation, and with any luck, she would be reasonable and decide to trust him, before she found herself trapped in the same nightmare the other seven victims were now living in.

But a few minutes later, when a breathtaking brunette came through the back-of-the-house doorway less than ten feet from where he sat, the nametag on her skintight tank top telling Max it was her, his plans had gone out the friggin’ window. 

Even now, hours later, he was beyond pissed at himself for not just manning up and talking to her at that exact moment. But the blue-eyed, dark-haired girl… Um, yeah. He didn’t know how to explain it, but she hadn’t been what he’d expected. And he’d screwed up. Big time. 

Instead of proceeding as planned, Max had stopped the leggy blonde the next time she walked by and asked her how long Vivian had worked there, and when it was going to be her turn to dance. And, yeah, by “dance” he’d meant strip. Though he’d barely paid attention to the naked women writhing around three poles atop the glittering stage that extended into the middle of the club, they were there. As his pulse had roared in his ears and confusion had swarmed his brain with Vivian Jackson’s nearness, he’d been caught between two warring choices:

Option one: tossing her gorgeous little body over his shoulder and getting her the hell out of there, away from all the leering stares and the stench of cheap liquor.

And option two: keeping his ass planted right where it was, waiting for the moment when she would get up on that stage and he’d be able to watch her strip away the skimpy uniform, piece by piece, driving him out of his goddamn mind. Though that one would have certainly proven tricky, seeing as how he’d have had to kick all the dirt bags out of the place first, since there was no way in hell he was letting them get an eyeful.

The blonde surprised him, though, by telling him that Vivian was new to the club and only served drinks. She never stripped or went topless. He was torn between a heady sense of relief that was based in emotions he refused to look at too closely, and an acute sense of frustration that he wouldn’t be seeing even more of her golden skin, which made him feel like a total shit. Even more so when Vivian slid him a few curious glances, the pink in her cheeks each time she found him watching her telling him she still wasn’t comfortable strutting around in the minuscule uniform.

What the hell is happening? his beast had growled in his head, as confused as Max was by the way the human female was affecting them, and he’d scowled in response, spooking the blonde into hurrying away. She’d escaped up a winding metal staircase that he guessed led to what was most likely a VIP lounge, given the bouncer standing beside it, and not long after Vivian had gone up the staircase as well. 

When fifteen minutes went by, and neither of the women came back down to the main room, Max had known he’d botched the job. Moving to his feet, he’d asked the first server he reached if Vivian was on a break, only to have her tell him that the girl had ditched the rest of her shift and left. 

Assuming that she’d gotten spooked—either by the way he’d been watching her or by the blonde telling her that he’d been asking questions about her—he threw some money on the table and hurried out to his truck, breaking every speeding law in the town as he raced back to her apartment. But he’d been too late. She’d obviously headed straight home, where the bad guys had found her. Max didn’t know what the hell had gone down there, but her blood-covered bedroom made it clear that Vivian had been hurt before she managed to escape. 

All of which brought him to where he was now, chasing the human female down. In the middle of a damn snowstorm, no less. 

His phone rang, pulling him from his dark thoughts, and he used the truck’s handsfree system to answer the call. Before he could get a word out, Monroe muttered, “You find her yet?”

He’d talked to Monroe after leaving Vivian and Skye’s apartment back in Charity, and the Fed had been as frustrated as Max that Vivian Jackson had given him the slip.

Frustrated, his wolf growled. Is that what we’re still calling it?

Ignoring the pain-in-the-ass animal, same as he usually did, he answered the Fed’s question. “I know you’re worried, but your calls aren’t helping, man. I need to focus.”

“What you need is to find her before the shithead kidnappers do.”

“You think I don’t know that?” he scraped out. “I saw the blood, Monroe. Her blood. I know what’s at stake here.”

In fact, he was the only one who did. Because while Elliot and Monroe believed he was searching for a human female who needed his help, Max was the only one who knew the truth, as confusing as it might be.

“Look, I gotta go,” he murmured, eyeing the neon sign for an upcoming roadside collection of diners. “There’s someplace I need to check out.”

“Then good luck. And call me as soon as you’ve got her.”

Max ended the call without even saying goodbye, Monroe’s concern chafing against him in a way that didn’t make any sense. It was the Fed’s job to protect the innocent, same as Max and Elliot’s. 

You know the reason, his wolf snarled. Stop playing dumb and get the hell on with it. WE don’t have time for jealousy. The assholes could already have her!

Gritting his teeth, Max bit back the sharp retort burning on his tongue and took the next exit off the interstate. Instead of arguing with his inner beast—something he rarely did anyway, since he preferred to pretend it wasn’t even there—he pulled into the sprawling parking lot that was shared by the diners. It was the eighth lot he’d searched since starting this little chase, but unlike the other seven, this time he spotted Vivian’s beat-up old truck in one of the distant spaces on the west side of the lot. 

About damn time, his wolf grumbled. Only took you how many hours?

“Three,” he snapped, scanning the darkened lot for any sign of trouble. “Now shut the hell up and let me concentrate. You’re worse than Monroe.”

The animal chuffed in response, no doubt hating the comparison to a mere human male, and Max found the corner of his lips twitching with a brief flash of satisfaction as he pulled up behind her truck. It was exactly as her best friend, Skye, had described it to him: a gray, older model Ford. And the license plate matched the info Monroe had emailed him earlier. 

Parking his year-old, massive black Chevy just a few spaces down, Max climbed out into the biting winter chill, his above-average body temperature the only thing keeping him from freezing his ass off in his T-shirt and black leather jacket.

“I hate the cold,” he muttered under his breath, hitting the button on the key fob to lock his truck. Even after all these years, he still missed the warm, lush heat of the Louisiana bayou. Though he’d been young when he and his sister, Michaela, had moved to Maryland to live with their great aunt, Max could still remember that heavy southern heat and the sweetness of the air. He would have been homesick for the amazing food as well, but his sister spoiled him with family recipes at least twice a month, and her “Bayou Nights” were still everyone’s favorite in Bloodrunner Alley.

Casting another searching look over the quiet, snowy lot, Max made his way over to Vivian’s truck and knelt down by her front bumper. His childhood memories faded to the background as he focused on attaching a high-tech tracking device to the truck’s undercarriage, courtesy of Monroe, that would make it damn difficult for the human to give him the slip again, since he could monitor the signal using his cell phone.

Finally, you’ve done something smart tonight. They were the wolf’s words, the animal’s primitive need and fury coiling through Max like a parasite, until his muscles turned battle-hard, ready for action. He needed to shake off the beast’s innate sense of aggression so that cooler heads could prevail, but wasn’t sure there was any way to pull that ship back into the harbor. 

“Just calm the hell down and let me handle this,” he commanded, wiping his hands on his jeans as he headed toward the gleaming entrance of the nearest diner, the holiday lights framing its windows sending splashes of color across the snow-covered ground. While the falling flakes had dampened all the scents in the lot, the second the automatic doors slid closed behind him, Max’s senses were overwhelmed by the unmistakable odor of human bodies. Sweat. Breath. Perfume. Even traces of blood.

It’d been nearly a decade since he’d been turned, and yet at times like this, when his beast was so close to the surface, he often had to exercise extreme control over his animal nature when surrounded by the flesh and blood of strangers. And the idiots giving him curious glances as he just stood there in the brightly lit entryway, battling the animal into submission, didn’t have a clue there was a monster in their midst. 

Just a wolf in sheep’s clothing, complete with fangs and fur and a deadly appetite. One wrong move, little lambs, and I could tear your picture-perfect world to shreds. 

This was the fear that weighed him down every single time he and Elliot were forced to leave the peace of the Alley and hunt down some bastard that had broken the laws of their pack. His brother-in-law, Brody, would tell him that the bullshit was all in his head, and he knew that in a lot of ways the guy was right. 

But that didn’t mean it wasn’t powerful bullshit. The kind that stayed with Max always, flavoring every aspect of this new life he’d been given within a harrowing world where preternatural creatures lived hidden among humanity, their roles varying from protectors to destroyers, and basically everything in between. And while the Bloodrunners were definitely the good guys—an elite group of hunters whose purpose was to track down rogue wolves who hunted humans—Max still…struggled with his new existence.

And he wasn’t fooling anyone with his laidback attitude, jokes and crooked smiles. At least not anyone who mattered. He knew his family and friends continued to worry about him, same as they had for years. Especially Michaela, but then his sister had “gifts” that enabled her to read another’s emotions when she was physically close to them, so there was no hiding the truth from Mic. And while his fellow Runners didn’t possess his sister’s insight, they knew him well enough to understand that he hadn’t yet found a way to fully embrace the creature that was now as much a part of him as those beloved childhood memories he carried so close to his heart.

Elliot and the others, they trusted him, but not… Not completely. Not even close. And that… 

Yeah, that killed. Max hated it and would change it in a heartbeat if he could, but after all these years, he still didn’t know how. Didn’t know how to wholeheartedly accept something that had been thrust on him so violently, forever changing his world.

Blowing out a hard breath, he shook off his tension and forced himself to walk deeper into the noisy, chattering throng of tables, each one decorated with a tiny Christmas tree. Despite the lateness of the hour, there had to be nearly forty people gathered around the tables and in the booths that lined the walls, attesting to the popularity of the establishment. He’d nearly made it to the center of the room by the time he spotted his target sitting at one of the booths at the far end of the diner, trying her best to be invisible. But there wasn’t a chance in hell of that happening. Not when a woman looked like her.

Long brown hair, shot with highlights of auburn and gold, falling in loose waves around her shoulders. Full, pink lips. Perfect skin. And a body that didn’t fucking quit.

Jesus, this second sight of her hit him just as strongly as the initial one had back at the strip club. When he’d first seen her, he thought she was even more breathtaking than he’d expected, and given what they’d been told by Monroe, he’d expected a lot. Now, hours after that first meeting, she still stole his damn breath.

 

He braced as he drew closer, unsure if her scent would hit him the same as it had at the club. He’d been unsettled ever since, because something had…happened when he’d taken that light, heady scent of human female into his system. He just didn’t know what to call it. 

Like hell you don’t, his wolf snarled, clearly losing its patience. But while the beast had quickly thrown off its own confusion, embracing the unthinkable, Max’s remained. Because while Vivian Jackson had smelled insanely good to him—better, in fact, than anything he’d ever smelled in his entire life—he hadn’t quite had that undeniable moment of recognition that told him she was his. As in his life mate: the one female in all the world that was meant to be his and his alone. 

Shaking his head, he’d told himself it wasn’t all that surprising that the connection didn’t seem to be working right for him. After all, he’d often wondered if he would even find a life mate, given that he wasn’t “meant” to be this way. And Vivian Jackson was a human! How fucking twisted was that, seeing as how he would never be willing to tie an innocent human to his world. Of all the shitty things that fate could do to him, this one seemed unnaturally cruel, and he was having a hard time believing it.  

Then again, given his past, he supposed he could believe it all too well. Because fate was a dick-faced bastard who was not to be trusted. 

This time, though, as he pulled in the first faint trace of Vivian’s scent, it slammed into him so hard he nearly stumbled back on his ass, his wolf roaring with triumph inside his head until it felt as if his skull might crack in two. 

I told you, you jackass! I told you!!

“Fuck me,” he muttered under his breath, his nostrils flaring as he sucked in as much of that warm, mouthwatering scent as he could, feeling high from it. Christ, he was practically flying. Whatever confusion her scent had caused him at the club, the issue had clearly been resolved, because there was absolutely no doubt about who her beautiful little ass belonged to now. 

It’s all mine. Mine. MINE!

“Yeah, okay, it’s definitely time to chill,” he whispered to himself. A good idea, but one he knew damn well wouldn’t be easy. He didn’t understand what had happened to cause the change, but the girl’s scent was a thousand times more powerful than it’d been before, nearly taking him out at the knees. She smelled so goddamn good, it was like breathing in nirvana, lush and warm and dangerously addictive, and he was already on the verge of shaking like an addict. 

Want her. Need her. NOW! His beast kept roaring the words over and over, prowling within the confines of his body as it licked its chops, salivating for her. And Max wasn’t much better. He was sucking in air like he couldn’t get enough oxygen, desperate for the womanly scent that grew stronger and clearer as he neared her table.

As if she could sense the strange intensity of his stare, her head snapped toward him, her extraordinary light-blue eyes shooting wide when she recognized his face from the club. But she didn’t jump up from the table and try to run, and she didn’t look away either. 

Instead, that ice-blue gaze which somehow seemed even paler now took a slow sweep over his body, from the top of his short, dark curls, down to his battered old black boots, then drifted slowly back up to his face. With his keen eyesight, he studied the base of her slender throat, noting the way her pulse had started to pick up, and could have sworn there was a sweeter layer to her scent, as if her body were telling him that she wanted what she saw. 

Wiping a hand over his mouth, Max struggled to get his shit together as he slid into the opposite side of her booth, knowing that he needed to get this right, if there were any chance of him earning her trust.

She sat back with her arms crossed over her nylon-jacket-covered chest and arched a shapely eyebrow at him. “It’s funny, but I don’t remember offering you that seat.”

Thinking she had the sexiest damn voice he’d ever heard, he told her, “I’m Max Doucet.”

“And I couldn’t care less,” she said flatly, giving nothing away. 

Regretting that he hadn’t taken the time to smoke a cigarette before he came inside, since he definitely could have used the hit of nicotine to mellow him out, he asked, “Have you talked to Skye yet?”

She didn’t so much as bat one of those long, curling eyelashes. “You know Skye?”

“Not really, no. I just met her tonight, at your apartment.” He studied her as he spoke, looking for any clues as to where she’d been injured, but didn’t see any blood. He could scent it, faintly, and didn’t even want to think about what the intoxicating scent was doing to him. Bringing his narrow gaze back to hers, he said, “She’s with my partner, Elliot Connors.”

“I haven’t talked to Skye. But I had a text from her.”

When she didn’t elaborate, he asked, “Did she mention me?”

“If you’re really who you say you are, then she said you’re a private investigator who wants to help me. But you can run along now.” She lifted a graceful hand, fluttering her fingers toward the exit. “I don’t need any help.”

“That’s not going to happen.”

Her nostrils flared as she sucked in a sharp breath. “Jesus, dude, are you deaf?”

“Hardly. But this isn’t something that’s up for debate. You’re in danger.”

“Oh yeah?” She gave a delicate snort. “I kinda figured that out when two ‘roid-popping assholes tried to kill me in my apartment.”

“Speaking of that, I heard the messages you left for Skye on the old answering machine. You sounded in pain.”

She smirked as if to say he had it all wrong. But he noticed that she didn’t quite meet his gaze when she drawled, “What can I say? I’m a fast healer.”

He knew she was lying—he just didn’t know about what. Sitting this close to her, her scent was coming at him at full volume. Warm. Rich. Delicious. But there was something…different about it too. Something primal and addictive lying at the edges that didn’t seem quite…

Stop being such a pussy and just think it. Human! She no longer smells entirely HUMAN!

He scowled, then quickly smoothed out his expression when Vivian arched another one of those shapely brows at him. But there was still a guttural edge of concern in his deep voice when he said, “Those men at your apartment—they didn’t bite you, did they?”

“Nope,” she replied with a little shake of her head, still not quite meeting his gaze. The fact she hadn’t laughed in his face told him that the bastards had most likely tried, which meant there was a good chance she was currently in denial over what she’d seen. Hell, she was probably trying to convince herself that she’d hallucinated the entire thing.

Rapping his knuckles against the table, he gave her a hard look. “There are about a hundred different questions I want to ask you right now, Vivian, but we honestly don’t have the time. What you need to know is that those men—they weren’t trying to kill you. They were trying to kidnap you.”

“Whatever the hell they want, I can handle it.” She leaned forward, set her elbows on the table, and curled her hands around the mug of coffee that was already half-empty. “So be a good little boy and scram.”

Well, shit. Max had known he was attracted to her, and given that she was his, it wasn’t all that surprising that he thought she was the hottest damn thing he’d ever set eyes on. But there was no denying she was a gorgeous girl, connection or not.

No, the surprising part was how much he already actually liked her. Instead of getting hysterical or sobbing about what a crap sandwich she’d been dealt that night, she’d somehow managed to fight her way free of her kidnappers, and was now facing off against him, telling him to get lost instead of demanding he solve all her problems for her. 

What? Did you expect our female to be as manipulative as Sophia? 

Piss off! he growled in his head, irritated that the beast was right. He had been comparing the two women. But now was hardly the time to get caught up in an internal debate about his old friend Sophia Dawson and all the crap she’d put him through over the years.

“You’re wrong, Vivian. You can’t handle this on your own.”

“And my answer is still the same, Max. Get lost.”

His wolf snarled in response, wanting him to just toss her over his shoulder and carry her out of there, but he ignored the idiot. Again. He’d fight the bullheaded beast into submission if he had to. No way in hell was he letting it call the shots.

Before he could inform Vivian that he wasn’t going anywhere without her, a fifty-something redhead with a great smile and glittering Christmas tree earrings walked up to the table. “Can I get you anything, sugar?” she drawled, eyeing him up like a tasty dessert. 

Though he was on edge, Max managed to dredge up enough of his manners to give her a grin. “Coffee, please. In a to-go cup, with milk and sugar.”

“Sure thing,” she said with a playful wink, before turning to Vivian. “You need a refill, honey?”

Dropping her I’m a bad bitch attitude, Vivian returned the other woman’s smile. “I’m good, thanks.”

And she’s friendly to other women, his beast drawled. Definitely not like Sophia.

As the waitress walked away, Max crossed his arms over the top of the table and leaned forward. “You know, you didn’t have to run from me at the club. I only want to help you.”

“Aw, you think you just have all the answers, don’t you?” She gave a hollow laugh that told him he was missing something. “Who said I was running from you?”

He studied her for a moment, thinking about the messages he’d heard on the answering machine at her and Skye’s apartment, and it suddenly clicked for him. “Skye was right. They were there, weren’t they? The assholes who attacked you at your apartment, you saw them tonight at the club, didn’t you? Was it when you went up to the VIP room? What did they do that made you run?”

Instead of answering his questions, she mimicked his posture on the other side of the table and gave him a searching look. “You know, since I’ve got you here, you might as well be useful and tell me if you know what a ‘Runner’ is. They kept going on about some guys named the Runners, but I have no idea what that means.”

This time, he was the one not quite meeting her gaze, focusing on her pink lips instead. “Runners—it’s the name of the agency that Elliot and I work for.”

“Elliot, as in the guy who’s with Skye?”

“He’s my investigative partner.” And best friend. Hell, he and Elliot had been through everything together, and there was no one Max trusted more. “She’s in good hands with him, I promise. He won’t let these creeps get anywhere near her.”

“That’s good,” she murmured, pulling her lower lip through her teeth in a move that had him shifting uncomfortably on his side of the booth. “And just for curiosity’s sake, exactly where is it that you want me to go with you?”

Coughing to clear the knot of lust in his throat, he answered her question. “Elliot is taking Skye to a safe house up in the mountains. I’d like to take you there to join her.”

She laughed like he’d just told her the punchline to a joke, her dark brows lifting in disbelief. “You expect us to just hide out in some mountain cabin with two men we don’t even know?”

“Here ya go, sugar,” the server said, interrupting their conversation as she set his steaming cup of coffee down in front of him. “Just let me know if you need anything else.”

Max thanked her, then waited until she was far enough away that he wouldn’t be overheard before he turned his attention back to Vivian. “We plan to leave you in a place where you’ll be safe, and then go after the dickheads who are responsible for this nightmare.”

She sat back, arms crossed over her chest, and stared silently out the window. After a moment, she spoke without looking his way. “You don’t need to do any of this. I can go and stay with my family.”

“And put your mom and little brothers in danger?” he scoffed. “If that was your plan, you’d already be there by now, or at least have called her. But you haven’t, have you?”

She stiffened at his words, then slowly turned her head his way again, giving him a cold, go-screw-yourself kind of look. “It’s creepy that you know so much about me,” she said quietly, before shooting him a sharp smile. “But you’re right about my family. So I’ll do what I should have done when I left the apartment and head to my boyfriend’s place.”

Sounding like a prick, he snorted as he shook his head. “Yeah, well, I’m guessing you didn’t because you don’t have one.”

She glared at him. “You may think you know everything about me, but you don’t. Not by a long shot.”

“Maybe not,” he agreed, before taking a sip of his coffee. “But if you did have a man in your life—the kind who would help you deal with what’s coming—then he would have burned that damn club down to the ground before he ever let you set foot in the place, much less work there.”

“You sanctimonious jerk,” she muttered under her breath, the pink in her cheeks impossible to miss, though he didn’t know if it was from anger or embarrassment.

He lifted the hand not wrapped around his coffee in a gesture of surrender. “Hey, I’m not judging. But it wasn’t a safe place, and you damn well know it.”

She silently fumed as she crossed her arms even tighter, like she was trying to keep herself from reaching across the table and slapping him. She watched him take another sip of his coffee, then blew out a sharp breath and snapped, “Do you even have any ID on you?”

He reached inside his jacket and pulled out his wallet, flipping it open to show her the PI license that was tucked under the clear plastic sleeve. She leaned forward, studying it, but if she figured out it was a fake, she didn’t let on. “And you’ve been, what? Chasing me down all night?”

“Yeah.”

A frown settled between her brows. “How did you even know which direction to travel in? I could have gone anywhere.”

“I went with my gut and figured that even if you were worried about contacting your family, you’d still want to be close to them. Skye told me where your mom and brothers live, so I headed for Ohio.”

If she was pissed about her best friend sharing that information, she kept it to herself. Tapping a fingernail against the silver phone sitting beside her coffee mug, she simply said, “You didn’t try to call me.”

He arched an eyebrow. “If I had, would you have answered?” he asked, thinking she must have charged her phone at some point during the night, since it had died while she’d been leaving that second message for her roommate.

She smirked again at his question, making it clear that she wouldn’t have. Then the sexy curl to her lips flattened, a haunted look falling over her expression as she gave him another hard, searching look. “If you know so much about what’s going on, then tell me who they are. What do they want with me?”

“I’ll tell you everything I know, but not here. We need to get back on the road and somewhere safe.”

Another hollow laugh fell from those pink, soft-looking lips. “Look, I appreciate what your partner’s doing for Skye. I really do. But you’re out of your freaking mind if you think I’m going to leave my truck in this place and just ride off into the night with you.”

“Then I’ll ride with you.”

She glared. “I wasn’t offering you a lift.”

He opened his mouth to argue, only to have her cut him off before he could get another word out. “But if you want, I… I can follow you.” She bit down on her lower lip for a moment, her brow furrowed as she seemed to think about what she’d just said. “Just until we get to someplace safe, and then I’ll decide what I’m going to do.”

“Good enough,” he muttered, getting a bad feeling in his gut that they’d already spent far too much time just sitting on their asses. “For now.”

She grabbed the battered gray backpack that was sitting beside her, hooking the strap over her shoulder, and they both climbed out of the booth. At around five-seven, she was tall enough that Max wouldn’t have to break his neck to kiss her, though not quite as tall as she’d been at the club, and he looked down to see that she’d traded the short skirt and stilettos she’d been working in for tight jeans that did amazing things to her long legs and a pair of faded Converse high-tops. It was a cute look on her, and one he strangely found as sexy as her work one.

She’d already paid for her coffee, so he left enough cash on the table to cover his own drink, along with a hefty tip, and they headed out. He tried not to stare at her ass as he followed behind her while she wove her way through the tables, but it wasn’t easy. He’d always enjoyed a fit body as well as the next guy, but there was something about Vivian Jackson’s lithe, athletic physique that had him nearly tripping over his own feet. Recalling that her roommate had mentioned something about how she was saving up for dance school, he damn near broke out in a sweat at the thought of watching her perform on a stage, that incredible body moving to music, driving him out of his goddamn mind.

“I’ll need to get gas soon,” she said, interrupting his dangerous thoughts as they walked out into the biting cold. “How far are we going?”

He frowned as he watched her shiver, thinking her thin jacket wasn’t nearly warm enough for the freezing weather. Slipping out of his leather one, he hefted it over her shoulders before she had a chance to argue about it. “Just another twenty miles or so,” he told her, taking his keys from his front pocket. “You went in the opposite direction of the safe house, so I think we’ll need to sleep for a few hours before we head up. There’s a motel off the beaten path that I’ve stayed in before, so if we’re smart, we should be able to make it there without anyone spotting us.”

“You really think they’re still looking for me?” she asked, seeming to have trouble taking her gaze off his bare arms, her attention making his muscles tighten with hunger, his thick veins pressing up beneath his skin. 

“I’d bet my life on it,” he muttered, forcing his attention onto their surroundings, where it belonged. He wished the damn snow would stop falling, since it was making it impossible to scent anything in the night air. 

“Here. Take your jacket back. You’re only wearing a T-shirt and it’s—Max!” she screamed, just as he caught the flash of something charging at him from the side. A heavy, bulky body slammed into him, taking him to the ground, the force of the impact sliding them over the gritty asphalt, until they slammed into the side of her truck. 

“Get in the truck and start the engine!” he shouted, hoping like hell that Vivian was doing as he said as he rolled the blond bastard onto his back and slammed his fist into his jaw with every ounce of strength he possessed, then did it again, the second strike knocking the guy out. Quickly moving back to his feet, Max turned to check on her, but another bastard charged him from the shadows, this one taller and even stronger than the blond, his eyes the same eerie black, like a shark’s. They hit the ground, rolling across the asphalt and straight into the woodland that lined two sides and the back of the sprawling parking lot, before breaking apart and facing off. This close, he could scent the musky odor of the male’s body, which would have clued him in on the fact the guy wasn’t human, even if the prick hadn’t just tried to slash him open with a short, deadly set of claws. 

“You’re gonna have to be faster than that,” he bit out, while a deep, eviscerating rage coiled inside him with the thought of what these two men were there for. Vivian. His life mate. The woman he was meant to protect with his dying breath, whether he’d claimed her or not. It was his single most important responsibility. The thing that now defined his very existence, and no matter how broken his relationship was with that primal, animalistic part of him, in this they were completely aligned. 

He had a 9mm Glock stored in the glove box of his truck, but didn’t waste time going for it, since bullets couldn’t be trusted to do anything more than slow non-humans down. And he needed these sleazebags dead, not limping.

Stepping to the side to avoid another vicious swipe of the tall one’s claws, Max cast a quick glance back toward the lot, hoping to spot Vivian through the trees. Instead, his vision was filled with the blond, who was back on his feet and rushing toward them. The guy still looked a bit sluggish from the knock-out blow that Max had dealt him, but with his sharp fangs and claws released, he seemed ready to do some serious damage. 

“Shit,” he growled under his breath as he released his own lethally sharp claws and fangs. He knew he was taking a massive risk by letting them free, given that a human could too easily come upon them at any time, if they happened to be parked in that part of the lot and heard the fighting. And not only that, but there was a strong chance that Vivian could still see them through the trees, if she was watching the fight through the front windshield of her truck, no doubt terrified out of her mind by what she was seeing. 

So let’s finish this quickly and get the hell back to her.

In a rare moment of total agreement with his wolf, Max gave a low, deadly growl as he faced off against the two jackasses who stood in front of him. He didn’t have a clue what species they were, but the bloodlust on their faces was enough for him to know the fight was going to be anything but easy. They charged forward before he’d drawn his next breath, and he got in a powerful strike to the tall one’s side, only to have the blond catch him a forceful kick to his kidney. Max hit the ground on one knee, hard, and wanted to kick his own ass for letting the dick get in such a good shot. Surging back to his feet, he rushed the fuckers with the sole intent of ending this shit as quickly as possible, so he could get Vivian the hell away from there. God only knew what she must be thinking. The poor girl was probably hunkered down inside her truck, terrified out of her skull. 

He delivered a bone-crunching kick to the tall one’s chest that knocked him down, then quickly moved behind the blond, grabbed his head, and twisted the guy’s neck sharply to the left, breaking it with a loud, resonating crack. A sound to his right warned him the tall one was back on his feet before Max even turned his head, and he swung his body around with a powerful roundhouse kick, satisfaction pouring through his veins when he heard the sickening crunch of bone as he connected with the guy’s knee. The male roared with pain, but refused to go down, launching himself at Max with claws extended. He snarled when the bastard tried to tear his throat out, only just managing to avoid the deadly swipe of his claws as the sound of an engine roared to life from somewhere in the parking lot, followed immediately by another.

“After I deal with your mangy ass, wolf, there’s going to be nothing standing between me and the brunette bitch.” A slow smile spread across the guy’s fang-filled mouth. “And she’s gonna pay for what she did to us.”

 

It was then that Max realized the male had wounds that were fresh, but already healing. Gouges were visible at the side of his throat and on one cheek, the deep cuts extending back into his buzz cut. Ones that had been made that night, but not by Max. 

Christ, had Vivian been the one to make them? And if so, how? What the hell was going on? And how dare this ugly jackass threaten his woman!

With a burst of rage unlike anything he’d ever felt, Max barreled into the male and took him to the ground, a savage, guttural animal-sound ripping up from his chest as he shoved the male’s claw-tipped arms to the ground and went directly for his throat, tearing it out with one gruesome bite. Then he took the male’s head between his hands and twisted, severing his spinal column with one brutal jerk.

Moving back to his feet, Max hung there over the body for a few weighted seconds, lungs heaving, his entire torso and face dripping with blood, and tried to think of what to do next. Of what he was going to say to her. Because even though he knew these assholes had most likely released their fangs and claws when they’d attacked Vivian at her apartment, it was different when it came to him. He didn’t want her terrified of him. He wanted her to…

Shit. He didn’t even know how to finish that thought. But it was probably best not to even think about what he wantedfrom her at the moment, since it would only complicate things. And they were already complicated enough as it was.

Needing to assure himself she was safe, he finally jolted into action, quickly dragging the bodies a little deeper into the woods. Then he retracted his fangs and claws, took the blond one’s jacket off him, using it to wipe away as much of the blood as he could, and hurried back to her. 

Only, when he came out of the trees, there was no “her” to hurry back to.

Vivian Jackson wasn’t sitting inside the cab of her truck in the dark parking lot, screaming hysterically and waiting for an explanation. 

She wasn’t waiting for anything.

Because the goddamn girl was gone.

 

From the book: WILD WOLF CHASING by Rhyannon Byrd

Copyright © 2019

 

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