Snow Wolf

Wolves of Willow Bend #9

Ranae is the youngest of the Buckleys— the only girl among three powerful male siblings. Her restlessness and dominant nature affected her every relationship within Willow Bend, not to mention testing the patience of her Alpha. Apprenticeship to the Hunters fed her desire for a purpose. When her Alpha and eldest brother ask her to undertake a mission to the Yukon territory, she’s thrilled at the opportunity to be useful. Clashing with the Diesel was the last thing she expected on the dangerous assignment.

Diesel, the oldest Alpha in the U.S. packs, lives a gray existence. The loss of his mate so many decades ago wears away at him until he doesn’t give a damn about anything. The problems of the other packs are not his, and he prefers to be left in isolation. The arrival of the Chief Enforcer annoys him, but it is the wolf traveling with him who wakes the predator in Diesel. The scent of mate clings to her, but she rejects his overtures and challenges him on every level.

War may be coming for the Yukon, but Diesel’s battle is very personal…

 

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Snow Wolf

EXCERPT

Chapter 1

Ranae maintained her stillness and refused to tap her foot, no matter how long it took her suitcase to appear on the luggage carousel. Her flight had been delayed, and she’d spent the past three hours squeezed into a plane with several hostile passengers, all of whom radiated the desire to be at their destination. The stench of their fury polluted the baggage claim air. Several snapped comments on their phones about the delay, others scrambled to make arrangements for rental vehicles, passenger pickup and more.

Focusing on her breathing, Ranae kept her pulse steady. Frankly, one more bitchy remark from the over-coifed, heavily made-up woman to her left and she might give in to the urge to punch her. No one on the flight had been happy, but the eddies of negativity swirling around them didn’t help anyone. Over half the luggage had been unloaded, yet still no sign of her powder blue suitcase. The atrocious color had been her mother’s idea—it made spotting her case easy and hopefully discouraged anyone from grabbing her luggage by mistake.

A buzzing in her back pocket provided a distraction from counting her breaths. Easing the phone out, she checked the screen. A.J.’s face stared up at her, with his eyes crossed. He hated the photo. It was why she used it for his contact information

Hitting answer, she put the phone to her ear. “Yes, big brother mine, I’m here. I texted you as soon as we taxied to the gate.”

“Good flight?”

“Peachy.” She lied through her gritted teeth. “Great passengers. Calm skies. Timely landing.” The last was at least partially true. If she’d been sandwiched in there much longer, she might have had to hurt someone.

A.J. laughed. “Good to know. Change of plans. Rent a car and head about an hour away to Paine Airfield. Hanger four. Julian will meet you there.”

“Roger that.” Relief flowed through her veins. She would have time to herself before having to deal with the Chief Enforcer. The assignment to go to the Yukon thrilled and terrified her in equal parts. Having to work with the biggest, baddest of the Enforcers? Not her idea of a walk in the park. The faith in her demonstrated by Mason’s request buoyed her. “Something wrong?”

Her brother could have texted the information.

“Nope. Just wanted to make sure you were really doing okay.” After spending several years isolated from pack and family during his internment in prison, A.J. had come home changed, stronger, yet he was still her brother.

Scanning the carousel, she released a chuckle as much to soothe him as to ease her own nerves. “I’m okay. A little stressed, but I think the drive sounds like a good idea.”

“Excellent. If you have any questions or concerns, you call me, right?”

“Of course.” Though rumor had it the Yukon didn’t have a lot in the way of cellular signal. “It’ll be fine, big brother. I’m a glorified messenger.”

“Yes, and no.” Trust A.J. not to sugarcoat it. “Diesel isn’t the most stable or friendly. You’re going to have to decide whether you need to charm him or piss him off to get a response.”

Did he seriously just tell her to piss an Alpha off? “I’m sorry, who are you and what did you do with my brother?” Linc would have told her to be sweet or leave him alone. Ty would have insisted on going with her. A.J.? He didn’t seem to have any reservations about her capabilities or encouraging her strengths.

Masculine warmth flooded A.J.’s laughter. “I’m right here, trouble. I know you’re not a child anymore. You shouldn’t have grown up so fast on me, but since you did—I have faith in you. It’s been a hard couple of years, no one knows that better than me. I also watched you get a grip on your temper, throw yourself into your studies, and your mentor has nothing but positive things to say about you. You can do this…but you’re the woman on the ground. We have to trust your judgment.”

The assignment was important. Russian wolves had attacked two North American packs, either through direct interdiction via a Russian pack member or through insurgents seeking new territory. Based on the briefing A.J. gave her, they didn’t know whether they were dealing with rogues, a pack, or something else. In the meanwhile, her other brothers were in the middle of the issue—one in Sutter Butte with his mate and the other in Delta Crescent with his. She was the Buckley on point.

“I won’t let you down.”

“I know you won’t. You got this. Just call in and let me know how it’s going so that Mom doesn’t move in and smack me every time the phone rings and it isn’t you.”

Humor welled up, displacing more of her anxiety. “Tell her to call Ty and bug him about coming home.” She hated that he was in Sutter Butte. The pack’s bad reputation preceded it…not to mention Claire’s history with them.   Don’t think about Claire. She and her sister-in-law had made a sort of peace after Ranae’s attack earned her severe punishment from Mason.

“Oh, I like that idea.” A door closed in the background, despite the constant hum of humanity around her she even caught A.J.’s soft sigh. “Say hello to Ranae, Vivian.”

“Hello, little sister.” Game designer and turned wolf, Vivian made A.J. happy. Ranae loved how ridiculously adorable they were.

“How is my niece or nephew to be?” Vivian was in the last trimester of her pregnancy—all big belly and glowing with happiness.

“Active.” The nearness of her voice suggested she’d either leaned into A.J. or perhaps her brother had settled in next to her. “I can barely keep up with the one in these developing stages, I can’t imagine how your mom handled three.”

Ranae snorted. “It was more about corralling them and working them until they had to sleep.”

“True.”

“Be nice,” A.J. said with a soft chuckle, before a kiss echoed over the phone line. “Get the job done, trouble. Call if you need me.”

“I promise.” No way in hell she’d pull A.J. from his pregnant mate. Thankfully her blue suitcase chose that exact moment to appear. “I gotta go so I can rent that car. Talk to you soon.”

“Soon.” The vaguest hint of command reinforced the word, but Ranae smiled as she disconnected the call. Her brothers were overprotective as hell, but A.J. gave her the job in the first place. Grabbing her suitcase, she side-stepped the bitch scowling at the carousel looking for her own bags and followed the signs for car rentals.

A hint of wolf drifted on the air, and she scanned the other passengers. Too many bodies in the close confines made it hard to pinpoint the scent. Another waft of wolf brushed her nostrils, and she pivoted with her phone in hand. Female. So, not the Chief Enforcer she’d been scheduled to meet. If another Enforcer had been dispatched to greet her, A.J. would have given her a heads up.

Seattle was outside of claimed territory. Considered neutral, it could be anyone…but with worry about Russians still on her mind, she’d be more comfortable identifying the source. Resuming her path toward the rental car desks, she maintained her watchful awareness. The last thing she wanted was a fight in the middle of a crowded airport, but she couldn’t afford an ambush either.

Adjusting her grip on the suitcase, she studied every person who passed her. No other hints of wolf pursued her as she discussed renting the vehicle, handed over her credit card, and then signed the contract and received the keys. Outside the airport, smokers occluded the air, but she didn’t detect the other wolf.

I’ll mention it to the Julian. They know where all the Lone Wolves are. Better to be certain, especially when she had a job to do. Look out Yukon, here I come.

 

Her hour-long drive took closer to two, but she arrived at Paine Field after devouring a hot sandwich and draining an even hotter cup of coffee. Eating didn’t solve problems, but it sure went along way to soothing her ruffled fur after the flight. Her phone remained silent even after she sent a text message to Julian to let him know of the delay. Well, it wasn’t like he had to answer her. Theoretically, he wouldn’t leave without her either.

At the gate, she presented her identification to the security guard and the information about her flight. After he verified it, he gave her directions to the hangar and noted her license plate and information. It took her five minutes to arrive at hangar six and find a parking spot. Each hangar had a half-dozen dedicated spaces for vehicles. Parked, she stepped out into the sunshine, the air was damp and cool despite the brightness of the day.

Oil, concrete, and mechanical scents perfumed the breeze. Acrid and a little harsh, but a breeze stirred the smells and carried a hint of salt water. She unloaded her suitcase, then slid the strap of her purse crosswise over her torso before cleaning her trash out of the vehicle and locking her keys under the frame in the key coded box.

She paused outside the hangar door and deposited her trash in the bin before entering. Inside, she paused to let her eyes acclimate to the dimness. The scent of wolf flooded her nostrils. Male. Powerful. Definitely present.

Searching the space, she focused on the platinum blond male standing next to a small plane. Small? It’s a fucking toy. Her gut clenched. She’d seen commuter planes before, but this one seemed ready for amphibious landing and the body would put her practically in the Enforcer’s lap.

“Good afternoon, Ranae Buckley. I don’t bite.” The wolf said by way of greeting.

Yeah, sure he didn’t.

Stiffening her spine, she walked across the hangar toward him. Dominance rolled off him in waves, but she kept her chin high. He wasn’t her Alpha, and she was there under orders. Still, when his gaze collided with hers as she narrowed the space between them, she couldn’t resist darting a glance down.

Dammit.

Thankfully, he didn’t smile. Instead, he looked her over. “You should change before we board. We’re taking off in fifteen minutes.”

What was wrong with what she had on? She glanced down at her jeans, cable knit sweater and boots.

“Layers, little girl. Where we’re going it’s below freezing more often than it is above. Once we land, we need to hustle to make it to their base camp.” He pointed across the hangar. “Bathrooms are that way. Get moving.”

Resisting the order, she canted her head. “Good afternoon to you, Julian.” Proud of her resolve, she raised her eyebrows. “I’m about to spend several hours inside that tin can, I don’t want to get cooked with heat exhaustion. Thanks.” She had thermals included in her packing, her mother wouldn’t let her leave Willow Bend without going over every single item she packed.

“As you wish.” The sardonic note wasn’t lost on her. A second wolf strode across the hanger toward them. The male winked at her as he halted before Julian.

“We’ve got everyone in place around Three Rivers, and Calitri and Sphinx are on their way toward Yukon territory in case you need them. Any other orders?” The newcomer seemed younger than Julian. His words were a sober reminder that the clock ticked down on the upstart pack. Would they kill them all? Chrystal had come from that pack and despite all the bad feelings about Omegas, Ranae actually liked the little wolf. She was so—different from the rest of them.

Though he addressed the Chief Enforcer, he kept glancing at her with a half-smile—a good looking wolf and he damn well knew it. She fought to keep a bland expression on her face.

“Yes, stop flirting with Willow Bend’s representative.” Julian thumped him and the wolf laughed.

“You’re no fun.”

“No,” Julian said flatly. “I’m not.”

The younger wolf sighed dramatically and spread his hands wide. “Of course, sir.” Without missing a beat, he turned and strode toward her with his hand held out. “I’m…”

“Leaving.” Julian’s order punched between the syllables and the wolf retracted his hand. He gave her an apologetic smile before he cut left and strode out the same door she’d entered.

“Well, aren’t you a bundle of cheer.” She meant it sarcastically, but the taciturn look on his face had her instantly regretting the choice.

“I’m a busy man, Miss Buckley. We have no idea what we’re going into. After we determine the situation, if you still feel the need to play, we’ll find someone to entertain you.”

Joy. She’d dealt with her grumpy and very dominant brothers before. While Julian didn’t give her any kind of fraternal vibe, she decided to go with her gut and defer to him while not kissing his ass. “Thanks for the offer. It means a lot.” Then she eyed the plane. “Where do I stow my gear?”

“Behind the co-pilot seat. It’ll be cramped. You can sit in the back, if you want, but you’ll be more comfortable up front.”

Yeah, whatever helped him sleep at night. A good stiff wind could throw that plane out of the sky. Keeping the comment to herself, she nodded and carried her bag straight to the plane.

Unlike most of the wolves she knew, he didn’t offer to take her bag or give her any assistance. The inside of the plane was even smaller than she imagined. It took a little wiggling to get the case locked into place. Sliding back out, she glanced around the hanger. Save for the other Enforcer, they appeared alone.

“No ground crew?”

“My plane. I am crew.” Julian said as he circled the back of the plane. “Mitch filed the flight plan, and I can open the main bay door to taxi out. Need to hit the head before we leave?”

Considering the coffee she’d drunk earlier, not a bad idea. “Sounds good…” Three steps away, she paused. “Julian, are there any other Lone Wolves or Enforcers in the area?”

“No, Seattle’s not popular, at least not currently. Most of the Lone Wolves are farther south. Why?” He pinned her with a look.

“I thought I scented a woman at Seatac when I was leaving.” It wasn’t a lot to offer. “Didn’t actually see who it was, and I didn’t recognize the scent.”

Julian pulled a phone from his pocket and dialed a number. “Mitch, head to Seatac and run through security cameras for arrivals and departures…” He looked at her.

“I got in a little over two hours ago.”

“From four to two hours ago.”

“Sure thing, boss…anyone I am looking for in particular?”

“Female wolf. We didn’t have anyone scheduled, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t have a layover. Check it out.”

“Will do.” Mitch’s answer rang clearly before they disconnected their call.

Ranae frowned. “How is he supposed to recognize a wolf from a video feed?” She didn’t bother to ask how he’d get access to their security cameras. Enforcers had connections everywhere. They needed them.

“Because he knows how to do his job. Thanks for the information. Bathroom. Go.”

Ranae rolled her eyes and spread her hands, mimicking Mitch’s action from earlier. “I’ll be sure to powder my nose while I’m in there.”

The Enforcer snorted as she walked away.

Damn dominant males.

Then she could have sworn he said, “Damn dominant females.”

Though tempted to glance back at him, she fought the urge and pushed open the door to the bathroom. Just for that, she’d take at least ten minutes.

What was he going to do? Leave her?

 

Six hours later, she and her stomach were both done with the toy plane being tossed by the winds. Julian turned out to be a silent pilot, his focus lasered on the task of flying them north across Alaska. The only words he exchanged were with flight control. They bounced and jerked like she used to when she would try to ride the wind outside the car window with her hand. The thought was hardly comforting.

“We’re not in any trouble.” The cool tones did little to ease the fist of anxiety gripping her guts. Of course, his scent remained completely unreadable. Hell, if she didn’t glance at him periodically, she’d barely know he was present.

How did a wolf hide his scent, even in close quarters?

“Just keep flying.” His distraction was the last thing she wanted. They bobbed and weaved enough. Glancing at her wrist, she scowled. Her watch was at home and her cell phone was in her back pocket.

“We’re about fifteen minutes from Prudhoe Bay. We’ll land, stow the plane then go over land.” How he could tell when the landscape below seemed to be an endless field of white, trees, and more white?

Prudhoe Bay—a small community in far northern Alaska—near to the Arctic Circle. She wanted to shiver thinking about it. A.J. and Dylan briefed her about the Yukon, a sketch of details. They maintained a base camp about two hours east of Prudhoe Bay called Amaruq. Dylan advised her to not be deceived by the mudhole appearance. “It looks like a half-forgotten fishing village populated by natives who love to not speak English. They’re as many wolves as there are natives. Don’t be fooled, their humans aren’t like ours, they shelter the wolves and revere them to a certain extent. You have to check in in Amaruq, and you’ll receive a marker that will let you travel from there to deeper into Yukon Territory.”

“A marker?”

“It could be anything—a scarf, a hat, a piece of jewelry, something colorful. Whatever it is, take it and don’t complain.” The serious note in Dylan’s tone and A.J.’s faint smirk intrigued her.

“What did they make you wear?”

“After I refused the baseball cap?” The corner of Dylan’s mouth quirked. “A lace bonnet.”

She laughed. “So, whatever they give me?”

“Exactly. You wear whatever they give you and you journey overland to Tikaani. Despite what we know, even in the long winter months, the whole pack doesn’t shift and roam. Most of them do, but they will have scouts, children, and some of their seniors tucked away in Tikaani. Don’t make the mistake of thinking the shifted pack won’t know you’re there. They will. There are guest houses on the outskirts. They’re stocked and have heating and other supplies. Tuck yourself inside, get some food and some sleep and wait.”

“Wait?”

“Wait,” Dylan repeated. A.J. nodded.

“For how long?”

“For as long as it takes.”

The plane’s descent drew her from the memory, and she scanned the desolate looking landscape below. Construction seemed to be ongoing and there was plenty of traffic around the landing strip, despite the isolated locale.

“I thought this was a remote outpost.”

“It is for most of the year. The real work begins when everything is hard frozen. It’s okay. Makes our journey easier.” He didn’t have to explain the comment. If the hard frozen land brought in more people, they’d blend.

Twenty minutes later, she stretched her legs and huddled into her jacket. It got damn cold at home, but this took it to a whole new level. It was dark—not a little dark, but middle of the night dark. No sign of the sun anywhere, despite the fact the time said it was mid-afternoon. Thankfully, there were floodlights.

She secured the woolen cap closer over her ears and then tugged her gloves on before reclaiming her case and purse. Julian hadn’t wanted her help with securing his plane. The little airport had one building for passengers and a diner, which appeared closed. She hadn’t bothered to look for a bathroom.

Maybe she could convince the Enforcer to stop somewhere along the way—if there was an anywhere to stop on the way. Her cheeks were numb and she could barely feel her lips when she caved and slid the neoprene mask on. Her mother had stuffed it into her purse, and she’d told her she hardly needed something they kept in stock for their human packmates.

Well, I’ll thank Mom for it later, and it’ll make her day. She probably should have texted A.J. to tell him they’d arrived in Prudhoe, but she’d wait till they were in their vehicle. It took another ten minutes before Julian strode in her direction. Bastard didn’t even have on a hat. If the cold bothered him, he didn’t show it.

He nodded to her once as he bypassed her and continued on. Of course, he expected her to follow.

Then again, he knows where he’s going.

She refused to hurry to catch up to him or lengthen her stride. Their path took them around the lonely building and beyond the hangars to a stretch of covered parking. The vehicle waiting for them gave her pause. It looked like a modified jeep. The doors unlocked, but the engine had been running when they arrived.

“Something else they leave for guests?” She couldn’t help it; she needed to know.

“No, we keep it here. Saves time on renting a vehicle or finding our own way. We pay a stipend to keep it fueled and no one turns off a vehicle this time of year.” It had to be the cold. At these temperatures, fuel lines at home would freeze.

He tossed his bag into the back and held it open with a pointed look at her. The urge to pick up the pace rolled over her and she refused to obey it. Sliding her case in, she glanced around.

“So, everyone else has to rent one?”

“If they’re lucky. Sometimes you just take the old-fashioned way.”

And by old-fashioned, he meant shifting and running. A shudder tore through her. No thank you. A two-hour drive could be a good half-day run or more on familiar terrain. She didn’t even ask whom he expected to drive. He had the keys and the power. Sliding into the passenger seat, she left her gloves and mask in place. The heat blasted from the vents, but the interior seemed as chilly as the outdoors.

One step at a time.

“Anywhere to stop between here and Amaruq?”

“Nope.” He slid into the driver’s seat and they were off. Her bladder protested, but she stayed silent. They’d make time in the little village—though, damn, what if they used outhouses here?

“The weather going to be a problem?”

“No.” He flicked on the lights. Everything around them seemed to be on concrete stilts. The roads weren’t flat, but gravel. There was a lot of movement going on, lights everywhere. “We should be there by dinner. We may stay the night, if you’re tired.”

“You don’t want to.” It wasn’t a question.

“No. It’ll be an unpleasant journey, no matter what time we leave.”

The sun wouldn’t be coming up. “Then we do it your way.” It cost her to admit it.

“No arguments?” He spared her a glance.

“Not on this subject. You’ve been here before. You know the terrain. I’ll go with your expert opinion.”

“Kind of you.”

“Disappointed I’m not arguing?”

“Surprised, actually. I was under the impression you would be difficult.”

Good. She didn’t want to be predictable, even if difficult was a kind description on the part of her packmates. A part of her wondered who told him as much? Mason? A.J.? No, A.J. wouldn’t have called her difficult. He prefers high strung, as though I’m some kind of instrument.

Leaning back, she stripped off her gloves and tugged out her phone. She had one bar, so she fired off a message to A.J. before they got out of range of the cell tower. “I don’t know where you get your information, Julian. I’m a constant fucking delight.”

The Enforcer laughed. It was not an amusing sound. “You might need to be, Miss Buckley.” The ominous warning rocked her resolve. “It could help you survive this trip.”

“What do you know that I don’t?” Dammit, she should never have revealed a weakness.

“Get some sleep, if you can.” They were leaving the buildings behind, and the road stretched out into the endless darkness.

“You’re really not very comforting.” The complaint unfurled from within her, and her wolf wanted to snap.

“Good.” The lack of emotion made his tone hard to read. He said nothing else, and she elected to not poke the bear. Maybe this trip hadn’t been so much a show of faith in her as a punishment.

Doesn’t matter. I do my job, and I do it well then I take home the information to my Alpha. Maybe dealing with the Chief Enforcer was good practice for when she’d have to talk to the Yukon Alpha. They’re both old curmudgeons, and Julian’s kind of a jerk.

The last thought restored some of her good humor, and she leaned her head back. Sleep sounded good. Or at least the pretense of it. So what if the Enforcer didn’t want to talk to her? She really didn’t want to talk to him, either.

Every moment the vehicle continued forward, however, her gut clenched. What the hell was waiting for them out there?

 

Chapter 2

The lights danced across the sky. A common enough sight this time of year, yet they still captivated tourists to fly across the sky for the best view. Fortunately, little else disturbed his area of tundra. The pack had angled south, trailing a herd of caribou. They would range along with the herd—in part to hunt and in part to keep an eye out for poachers.

The wild wolf populations had taken a severe dip over the past two years, as outsiders took a special shine to proving their manhood by hunting the last three hundred or so left. With fewer than eighty found during their last count, the whole pack voted to run with them and keep an eye on their wild cousins.

Death—a part of life. Extinction—a fact of death. A howl rolled across the wind. A distant part of his mind identified the wolf—a Sentry—calling out across the darkened landscape. A mile to the south, another wolf answered and then another. It carried on until the wolf song rode the breeze as the pack answered. They were spread out for miles, family groups and mated pairs moving together while the bachelor and Sentry wolves roamed on circuits with at least four Sentries within range of Tikaani at any one time.

Once upon a time, the whole pack would shift during the long dark months. They wouldn’t worry about their village or if any one came and went while they roamed. Any mothers with young children would have moved with their infants to the base camp or deeper into human territory, wintering with the tribes who guarded them. The pack would spend their time roaming the tundra, hunting, and behaving as wolves until late February when they’d migrate to Tikaani. Then their young would return home.

Change came slowly to the Yukon, but it came nonetheless. Civilization continued to spread into his territory, larger cities taking up residence while the native population dropped off—either to the attrition of death or to their own young migrating to other parts of the states.

Too few of their Inuit allies remained, so they changed Tikaani, digging deep into the permafrost and sinking concrete struts deeper still, to create an underground compound. When the pack shifted for the long, dark months, the maternals and their young went underground. Sentries took circuits to protect the vulnerable, while other singles took work as far away as Anchorage to keep a constant stream of revenue coming into the pack.

Not that they needed the money, but Diesel recognized the power financial freedom provided his young. They were more likely to return to the pack if they didn’t have to worry about how to pay for things.

Change sucked.

A new wolf song picked up where the last one dropped off, but this one carried a note of urgency and aggression. Flicking his ears, Diesel turned his attention from the dance of lights to the west.

Intruders.

Sentries sent up a single call, a vocalization both sharp and mournful, that cut off as soon as it hit the wind. They wouldn’t give away their positions by continuing the song. Irritation along with a cold north wind ruffled his fur. Rising from his haunches, Diesel stretched. The Sentries could deal with any genuine threats and if it turned out to be messengers from the other packs… They can wait.

One step from turning east and away from Tikaani, he paused. Movement along the tundra beckoned his attention. Dropping his head, he kept his ears tuned to the motion but the wind swirled and danced away, not quite bringing him the scent of the invader.

Yet, he recognized a foreign wolf. None of his would make the mistake of trying to approach him from his flank, nor would any Sentry leave Tikaani to seek him out—not here.

They knew better.

So who dared to venture into his land?

The motion resolved itself into the shape of a wolf, a white shadow moving amongst the snow. Despite their location, no wolves in his pack were as white as he and the only one he knew of who would dare intrude on his time did not even belong to his pack.

Julian.

What the fuck did the Enforcers want?

Aggravated, he let his lip curl away from his teeth as he swung around to confront the interloper. The wolf didn’t slow its pace or drop its head as it stalked toward him. Not only were the Enforcers in his territory, their Chief Enforcer thought he could bully his way into seeing Diesel. Personal relationships aside, Julian knew better. Or he should.

Ten steps shy of tearing the Enforcer’s fur from his hide, Diesel paused. The visitor carried a scent that not only didn’t belong to him—it didn’t belong in the Yukon. The snarl in his throat died unspoken and Diesel rushed the Enforcer. The other wolf had the good sense to halt at his sudden approach. Chin raised, he glared at Julian and the blue-eyed wolf didn’t look away. With a low, throaty bark, he jerked his head toward Tikaani.

Diesel ignored the request, testing his nose against the wolf’s nearness. The vibrant spice he’d scented in Willow Bend clung to the Enforcer, but it didn’t belong to him. Had he brought the elusive beast with him? Circling Julian, Diesel scanned the tundra with all of his senses, but he detected no other wolves nearby. Julian had arrived at Tikaani and slipped by the Sentries including any who’d been set to guard him.

Fluff and Grinder would be annoyed.

They were not alone.

Snapping at the Enforcer, he ordered him toward Tikaani. Only when the other wolf began sidestepping did he stalk after him. Neither gave the other their back. Julian’s presence better have a damn good explanation—otherwise, Enforcer or not, Diesel would gut him.

Matching strides, they flew across the tundra toward Tikaani. His wolves called to him as he entered their range, and he answered with a sharp note. Despite the Enforcer’s invasion and avoidance of the Sentries on duty, Diesel would not rebuke them. Enforcers were skilled at concealment and hunting their prey, and none more so than their leader. Older than most of the current Alphas, he was more Diesel’s contemporary than even those among his pack. The elders gave way each year, more and more letting time and lack of interest carry them away. Diesel remained poised to follow; yet with every season, he found a single reason to stay.

Julian’s arrival bearing the all too familiar and provocative scent just above his own beckoned to Diesel in a way he hadn’t experienced since his time in Willow Bend. For a brief moment during his visit, he’d held hope that Serafina possessed the alluring markers calling to him, but his pursuit of the Delta Crescent Alpha ended as abruptly as it began.

On the edge of Tikaani, lights blazed at three of the homesteads kept stocked and readied for guests. The others would be warm, and locked, but darkened to hide their access to the underground compounds. Julian peeled away, heading directly to the homestead on the outer ring.

Fluff appeared in Diesel’s periphery, her ruffled fur and bared teeth a silent warning as she angled toward the Enforcer. Cutting off her assault with a single shake of his head, Diesel trailed their guest to the door of the homestead. Grinder appeared next to the homestead. Like Fluff, outrage radiated off of him. Diesel would either be soothing their bruised egos or punching them both in the head before the night ended.

They knew it.

He knew it.

Rising on his back legs, Julian hit the latch release. Door access allowed even the youngest wolf entrance to the homestead mudrooms. The exterior hatch opened, and Julian stepped into the broad room with Diesel right behind him. The door closed automatically, cutting off the cold wind. Red tiles lit up along the sides as the heat kicked in, warming the room. Without waiting, Diesel shifted. Julian shared the same thought and the men hit their feet within heartbeats of each other.

“What the hell are you doing here?” Politeness was for invited guests or guests who waited their turn. Julian didn’t fit in either category.

Grasping a pair of jeans, the Enforcer tugged them on without answering. Only after he reached for a shirt and the temperature monitor read fifty degrees did he glance Diesel. “I didn’t arrive alone. When that thermostat hits sixty, that inner door will open. You might want to get dressed.”

Ignoring the explanation of how the equipment he helped design worked, Diesel folded his arms. The temperature didn’t bother him in the least. “I asked you a question.”

“The packs have been trying to reach you for weeks. You’re not answering.”

“So they sent an Enforcer to check on me? How considerate.” Soft little shits. He’d gone years without answering.

“No one sends me anywhere.” Though his expression didn’t change nor his scent, Julian’s gaze chilled. “I offered to escort the Willow Bend Hunter when Mason decided to send her to check on you.”

Her?

“Hudson River’s Alpha was challenged by Russian opponents.” Julian buttoned his shirt. “He won.”

“Really not a reason to notify me.” Alphas survived challenges all the time. It was only of note when they lost and a new Alpha entered the game.

“Sutter Butte suffered a direct invasion attempt, more than a dozen, heavily armed and trained Russian wolves took out an entire family group, and nearly carried out the successful assassination of Cassius.”

Moderately more interesting. “Nearly carried out? Cassius isn’t dead?”

“No.”

The thermostat ticked over 55 degrees. Julian reclaimed socks and shoes and added them to the stack of insulated clothes he’d likely worn in when he came overland. In the narrow confines of the room, the scent Diesel detected on the tundra didn’t seem as obvious. Either Julian had played a game with him, or he’d come into contact with the female while in his wolf form. What Hunter had Willow Bend sent?

“You’ve come all this way to tell me Cassius and Brett are still alive. Mason as well, apparently, if he sent one of his Hunters. What of Serafina?” She interested him only in as much as he respected her strength. A part of him still mourned the potential he’d sensed before realizing it wasn’t her.

“She and her mate are fine, although Delta Crescent lost one of its Omegas to Cassius and one of their Hounds to the Russian invaders.”

No dead Alphas. “The Three Rivers upstarts?” During the summit, the others had all searched for reasons to let them live. Only Cassius had been willing to execute them.

“Numbered.”

“They are allowing the foreigners access through their territory.” It would be an unforgiveable sin. Russian wolf packs were brutal, bloody, and downright barbaric at times. The frequent mentions and Julian’s unreadable expression spoke volumes.

“We have yet to find conclusive proof.”

Proof. What more proof did they need that allowing a new pack to continue to flourish set a bad precedent? They were burying their dead.

The thermostat hit 58 and Diesel grabbed a pair of loose elastic sweatpants from the stacks left for company. They smelled only of fresh laundering and a hint of lemon he associated with Tiger, one of the housekeepers.

At 60 degrees, the inner door lit up green and the lock disengaged. Pushing it open, Diesel blocked Julian’s access long enough to inhale a lungful of the wolf waiting for them. A warm mix of ginger, clove, and orange combined with woody notes reminded him of the snap of a crackling fire and the comfort of a hot and aromatic cider.

The decadence drifted over him. Need to roll around in the scent until it coated him overrode his natural instincts toward wariness. One hand braced on the doorframe to keep Julian out, Diesel tracked his gaze around the room. Standing in front of the fireplace was a tall, athletic woman with long brown hair. She pivoted to face him, and her guarded expression warned him off even as her scent beckoned.

“Stay out.” He told Julian before entering and closing the door behind him. A split second before the door locks clicked, the Enforcer laughed.

Folding her arms, the wolf raised her eyebrows. She’d gone predator still, but a faint trembling in her jaw betrayed her struggle to hold his gaze. Lasting longer than most, she glanced at the thick, bearskin rugs insulating the floor for a split second before attempting to lock on his eyes again.

Fascinated, he fought the urge to stalk across the room and stake his claim. He settled with resting his hands on the back of the sofa. The flimsy piece of furniture wouldn’t keep him away.

“Alpha.” Admirable. Her voice didn’t quaver once as she inclined her head sharply. “I’m Ranae Buckley, Hunter of Willow Bend, and I am here on behalf of Mason Clayborne to deliver grave news as well as to urge you to contact the other Alphas.”

“What does Mason want?” He couldn’t care less, but he did want to hear her speak again.

The firelight danced over her in a play of shadows. Her gray-green eyes bled gold as her wolf dared a peek at him. The level of control she maintained over her expression didn’t betray her, but her eyes? Yes, they revealed a great deal.

“The packs are concerned about a number of attempts on the part of Russian wolves to undermine and destabilize packs in the North American region. Your locations may be compromised, as they were able to invade Sutter Butte by attacking one family group specifically. Enforcers and packs alike are tallying all wolves within the national borders.”

“Didn’t they do that after the Three Rivers debacle?” He vaguely recalled statements about missing wolves and census taking.

“They did, at least in the case of Lone Wolves and any wolves reported missing from within the packs proper.” She shifted her position, resettling her weight. Discomfort kept her shoulders stiff. While power cascaded from her every word, she leaned heavily on her wolf and kept her posture erect. How young was she? She couldn’t have been a Hunter for long, or perhaps this was her first mission outside of Willow Bend borders? Though she didn’t aggravate his wolf, her actions and behavior were hardly that of an outsider communicating with an Alpha.

Another flick of her gaze away then back. Determination punctuated every action. “Julian can brief you on those specifics, it’s why he came.”

“No, that’s why he said he came.” Was it courage or obstinacy keeping her shoulders straight?

Ranae blinked. “I’m sorry?”

Smart enough to note his phrasing, green enough to call him on it. “It’s a mistake to believe the Enforcers are ever only doing one thing or on a mission for one reason. Only a fool would expect less from their Chief Enforcer.” The most senior of their kind and far too old for these kind of games.

Her lips compressed into a thin line. “You should let him in.”

“No.” He dismissed the suggestion. “Tell me what else Mason sent you here to say.”

“I told you, I’m here to bring you up to date on the attacks, to verify that the Yukon is secure, and to make you aware of the potential threats. I have reports on the number of wolves killed and descriptions of those identified as liaisons with the Russian packs…”

When she would have reached for her bag, Diesel shook his head. “I don’t care about those details.” Surprise flickered in her gaze. “What did he tell you to say to me? Specifically.”

“About you or to you?” An element of challenge roiled in those syllables. His cheek muscle ached, and it took him a moment to realize he’d smiled.

“Both.” Though he wanted the latter. Why had Mason sent this wolf with her alluring scent? The longer he stood there, the more certain he grew. He’d scented her in Willow Bend. The draw of it pulled at him, demanded he close the deal, but he needed to be sure. Alphas did not like to have their wolves stolen, but if Diesel had his way—Ranae Buckley would not be leaving the Yukon again.

“He said you were old and set in your ways. That I should be patient with you and to obey the restrictions about waiting to contact you.”

Old.

Set in his ways.

For a split-second, amusement flared in her eyes. “He also said I only had to wait two weeks.”

“For what?”

“To deliver the message and verify that you still ruled the Yukon.”

“If you couldn’t in two weeks?”

“Then I was to return to the airstrip in Prudhoe Bay, make my way to Seattle, and from there go back to Willow Bend.” The corner of her mouth turned down, and her knuckles went white.

There it is… Uncertainty. “How are you supposed to verify I’m still ruling the Yukon?”

“You’re alive aren’t you?” Irritation won the battle with uncertainty. “I think we should invite Julian in, complete this briefing, and then we’ll be on our way.”

Yes. He was very much alive. “Julian can wait.” Diesel circled the sofa and stalked toward her. “Do you have any idea how beautiful you are?”

Three strides brought him right in front of her, and only the slap of her hand against his bare chest halted him. “I came to deliver a message—verbal—that’s it.”

Sweet contact of her flesh on his sent a shudder through his wolf, confirming what his nose already detected. “I heard your message…but you’re mine.”

A flush turned her skin pink and her pupils dilated. “The hell I am.”

Riding the high of her nearness, Diesel leaned into the force of her hand on his chest. “I know my mate’s scent. I searched for you all over Willow Bend. Why else would Mason send you?” The moment the words left his lips, he reconsidered the phrasing. Her eyes narrowed and her nostrils flared.

“I’m a Hunter of Willow Bend. I am here to deliver a message from my Alpha—and I don’t care what century you were born in old man, but we don’t arrange matings. You don’t just get to walk in here, thump your chest and say mine.” The ferocious light in her eyes sent a quiet thrill through his bloodstream. His wolf roused to the hunt, every color and nuance sharpening under their study.

“No?” He didn’t want to miss a moment of her reaction. Her dilated pupils constricted even as her mouth tightened. Anger soured her scent and her nails bit into his muscle as he pressed into the contact. Despite a faint tremble, she didn’t shift her grip or attack him. Would she? If he provoked her enough? The idea intrigued the hell out of him. No Alpha wanted a weak mate.

“No.” She withdrew the contact then retreated one step. Crowding closer, he refused to let her abandon him. “Dude…get a grip. I came here to do a job.” A muscle in her jaw twitched. “Or maybe you are trying to prove you don’t hold the Yukon?”

Challenge wound through every syllable. Canting his head to the side, he raised one eyebrow and waited.

“What? Playing crazy, eccentric keeps the other packs at bay and allows you to dictate the terms of your interactions. You don’t want to talk; you walk away or slam a door. You want to shut me down; you declare I’m yours.” Folding her arms, Ranae raised her chin and, although the gold circle on around her gray-green irises faded, it didn’t diminish completely. “It won’t work and I’m really not interested in the games. We have serious issues to discuss with you, Alpha. You can get on board or be left behind to cope on your own should the Russian packs turn their gaze on your territory and your pack.”

Amusement curved through him. Passionate determination etched into her expression. “Our pack will be fine.”

My pack will be, absolutely. Your pack is debatable.” The aggravation in her scent muted beneath the sting of frustration. “Now you’re baiting me.” Sidestepping him, she tried to put some distance between them. He allowed her three steps before intercepting her again. He wanted her gaze on him, nowhere else. “Seriously, you have a problem.”

“No, I have a mate, but continue telling me why our pack is in danger.”

Pausing, her lips tightened and her eyes narrowed. The curl of her fingers into a fist telegraphed her next move. Would she do it? He pressed into her space, and she rewarded his effort with fresh contact in the form of a blow. It caught him square above his heart, and the second with her elbow connected with his jaw. He accepted both blows, but refused to retreat.

“Your training is incomplete.” Whatever response she’d been expecting, his comment surprised her. “Otherwise you’d understand that two hits will not take down an enraged male, if you want to escape you have to incapacitate or kill.”

“I don’t want to fight you.”

“Wonderful. I have no desire to fight you, but if you need to beat on me to make yourself feel better, go right ahead. I’m very sturdy.”

The corner of her mouth kicked into an involuntary smile, and his breath lodged in his throat, the single glimpse of sweetness a better reward than he could have imagined. “Are you insane?”

“Depends on your definition of sanity.” The tangle of her hair contrasted with the wool of her pullover. How soft would the strands be? When she failed to respond, he reached out to test his theory. She slapped his hand away, and the sting intrigued him.

“Stop.” Command reverberated through the single syllable. “I came here as a messenger, nothing else. Keep your teeth and your hands to yourself. Am I clear?”

In all things, an Alpha could command. He could take a life. He could grant it. Wolves who pledged to an Alpha could be sent into the heart of danger and forfeit all that they owned. The heart, however, could not be commanded nor could he take what she would not willingly give.

His wolf bucked at the rejection, but Diesel withdrew three steps to give her space. Clasping his hands behind his back, he studied the beautiful Hunter before him. She would not tumble easily, nor would she accept his direct pledge. Very well, if he had to learn to court, then he would find what enticed her. “Dress,” he ordered. “Several layers. We will be leaving the guest quarters.”

Expecting obedience, he turned to the entrance and pressed the code to allow Julian entry.

“Are you staying with her or leaving?” Her presence was non-negotiable.

“Since you asked so nicely…” The Chief Enforcer’s expression barely shifted, yet a smirk echoed beneath his words. “I’d be happy to stay.”

Uninterested in the old wolf’s games, Diesel spared his mate another studying look. Ranae gaped at him, and she hadn’t moved a muscle.

“Trust me when I say it will be more comfortable if you get dressed, but if you insist on testing my patience, I’ll happily take care of stripping you first then dressing you.”

The taunt did what the order would not. She moved.

His wolf rose, stretching and raking his claws. Yes, they had the scent of this hunt.