Wolves of Willow Bend #13
She doesn’t seem to be anyone’s favorite wolf…
Luciana Esposito Barrows never imagined her dream of uniting the Lone Wolves and giving them a home could go so terribly awry. First, her brother rejected her, repudiating her from Seven Hills and leaving her without a powerful ally. Then the U.S. packs put her on notice, monitoring their movements, keeping them contained…then the Russians came. The last person in the world she expected to turn on her, was her own mate.
She was everything to him…
Rayne Barrows never thought of himself as much of a romantic. In his heart, he was a soldier and had always risen to the task where he was needed. Born in the heart of the Delta Crescent pack, he’d grown up alongside a future Alpha and willingly served her father as a faithful Hound. When the battles for ascension began, he couldn’t face those he loved in combat. He chose a solitary path instead. Journeying around the world, he found himself in Italy…and discovered a wolf he could love. Luciana Esposito captured his heart and he followed her—even when he didn’t believe in her cause.
To save the woman he loves and the pack they formed, he challenged her and took her position as alpha. Can their mate bond survive such a betrayal?
Read An Excerpt
Rayne Barrows didn’t know if he’d been done an honor or served up a threat. Sitting across from the most senior Enforcer in the United States—now the newly minted Alpha of the seventh pack—was not the most comfortable situation Rayne had ever found himself in. The wolf’s ice blue eyes revealed nothing of his mood nor did his scent. If anything, he could be a ghost—except ghosts didn’t radiate lethal power.
It didn’t help that the man’s mate was out roaming Three Rivers, unsupervised. To insist on an escort would have been insulting, even if the last thing Rayne wanted was the notorious rogue Dallas Dalton running around his pack. He didn’t know why she’d been forgiven nor did he care, but he’d heard stories about her for years.
She wasn’t to be trusted.
“You seem distracted,” Julian said as though to pull his attention back to the room. Rayne didn’t need the reminder. He was very aware of the other man’s presence, just as he hadn’t missed how every member of his pack had slipped off the streets the moment Julian and his wild mate arrived.
The unexpected drop in had been designed to put him on his heels. Adapting, however, was Rayne’s strength.
“Not distracted so much as uncertain as to why you’re here and what you hope to accomplish.” Allowing that show of vulnerability was a choice he’d normally avoid. “I would offer you my congratulations, but the idea of Enforcers as a pack flies in the face of tradition.”
“As does allowing rogues to form an unsanctioned pack,” Julian responded with a faint smile. “We all have to get used to disappointment.”
The dig struck. “Three Rivers is no longer unsanctioned or on probation.” It had been the result of Rayne’s first act. He became Alpha, and it removed the blade from their throats. Three Rivers was no longer beholden to anyone. Except perhaps for whatever retribution it was the Chief Enforcer sought. “We have a seat at the table.”
“You do—because you defeated your mate.” Disbelief coupled with frank disgust echoed within the words. “Another first. Perhaps Three Rivers should embrace more tradition rather than breaking every single one.”
The man was granite. Unforgiving. Unyielding. “Traditions have their place in their packs. This is mine.” If Julian expected him to justify anything to him, then he’d come to the wrong place. “Your mate is taking the nickel tour on her own. You wanted to talk to me. So—let’s not play games and talk.”
Instead of responding immediately, Julian merely raised his eyebrows. “As you are aware, you’ve had observers in the pack since discovery.”
Yes, their fucking Hunters and Enforcers, coming and going all the while unaware of what was happening in the background. “They’ve also been leaving and returning to their own homes for the last week. Coming by to make sure none have come over to the dark side?”
The corner of Julian’s mouth quirked. “No, I’m here to discuss our role going forward. As the current Alpha of Three Rivers, it’s expected that you will be the one contacting me about issues requiring our intervention and enforcement.”
Was the man serious? “I don’t want your help. No one here does.” The Lone Wolves who’d come to accept Luciana’s initial offer had been treated as rogues and second-class citizens no matter their origins since the formation of Three Rivers. If they’d managed to track he and Luciana down before settling in Nebraska, they would have cheerfully killed him and returned her to her brother. For the length of several heartbeats, he’d awaited the bullet from Margo Montgomery’s gun that she’d pressed to his skull. There would have been no avoiding that shot.
“That’s a short-sighted approach for an alpha, and you’re aware of that. You may not want our help, but you do need it. Normalizing relations requires active communication and interaction on a national scale—not just your half-built ramshackle little village.” The cool judgment radiating in every syllable raised the hairs on the back of Rayne’s neck.
It was bad enough to be stuck with Julian, worse with Dallas roaming the town and pure hell that Luce wasn’t even talking to him and he hadn’t seen her in since the afternoon of the day before. The last thing he needed was Julian patronizing him. The sooner they got this over with, the better.
“Fine.” He waved a hand and leaned forward. They could just ignore the veiled insults. Julian didn’t have to like him. In fact, if the man hated him so much maybe he’d stay far away. “Our laws are simple. Secrecy is sacrosanct. Borders are to be respected, our major offender isn’t with us anymore so that won’t be a problem.”
It was only a moment after he said it that he realized the unintended dig landed. Julian’s mouth flattened and his gaze grew chillier if that was possible. The man was granite. “Chrystal is no longer your concern.”
“No, she isn’t.” Then Rayne sighed. “I never had a problem with Chrystal. She was a good kid, a little confused and shy, but she was appreciated here. I admit—I didn’t realize she was an Omega until too late. That’s on me. I accept the fuck up. No other wolf will ever face that negligence on my watch.”
He’d lived with omegas; he understood the precious resource squandered and the near miss Chrystal experienced. It could have gone so much worse.
The Chief Enforcer studied him for a long moment, then he nodded and his expression relaxed. “Good. Now let’s discuss what you need.”
“Time.” They had their issues, but the pack was entirely viable. Projects were already underway to finish rehabbing their town. His wolves were sorting themselves out both personally and within the power structure. They’d been under a tremendous amount of pressure from all sides. “Stop crawling up our asses, take your observers and go. Let the healing happen, and if an issue comes up—you have my number and I have yours.”
“The other packs have generously offered their experts and specialists…”
Rayne cut him off with a shake of his head. “I appreciate their generosity.” Even if the word turned to ash on his tongue. Of all the alphas he’d dealt with so far, the only one he came close to trusting was Serafina. She seemed to want very little to do with them. “We need to do this on our own.”
Julian proved impossible to read. The man gave away nothing. “Very well, let’s discuss supplies. Trade between the packs is important to all sides. You haven’t been receiving goods through any of the established routes.”
If he had to keep turning him down, he would…
“Before you tell me no, you want to do it on your own this isn’t about underwriting you, it’s about continuing a thriving process that benefits every pack.” Julian’s frankness was appreciated. “Currently, Serafina and Brett control most of the trade coming in through the Eastern seaboard and the Gulf. Storms not withstanding, moving their imports out and onto the roads is a vital proposition and they need purchases to help keep the flow of goods up. Willow Bend provides a tremendous amount of produce and wheat as well as electronics, Sutter Butte—well they provide infrastructure, construction and specializations.”
Interesting. “And the Yukon?” Because what the hell they could possibly get out of the bowels of Alaska and northern Canada he’d love to know.
“Diesel buys, he doesn’t sell.”
Of course he did. “I appreciate it, but we’re still…”
“Yes, you’re still rebuilding. You have some wolves—Arturo Libre and Della Maxwell—both are truck drivers. They were popular on the runs. Their work would suffice as a trade for the first six months, after you can negotiate prices. It gains you the time you need and your people some amenities that they can enjoy while participating on a grander scale. Trading on the expertise of the wolves within the pack is fairly common and benefits everyone.”
The other wolf was serious. Six months of food and other goods shipping in could go a long way towards easing the harsh conditions. They’d finally gotten the power grid stabilized, rehabbed several houses and apartments. The businesses were slow to get off the ground but this could…
“Let me discuss it with the wolves you mentioned. And I’ll do a call for volunteers from any of the others familiar with the routes and the trucking requirements. Once I have the names, I’ll send them over to everyone. They’ll have full permission to cross pack lines?”
“Standard procedures, they notify the seconds when they cross into the territory, and they’ll receive the name of who they need to meet with.” Something in his manner seemed to relax as he leaned back in the chair.
Rayne had done time on the docks during his training as a Hound. He remembered the trucks coming in, but he hadn’t made the leap. “Excellent. I’ll get you an answer soon. What else do you have in that offer bag?”
Maybe dismissing the assistance wasn’t such a good idea. The packs were talking more now than they ever had when he was younger. Maybe there were trades and deals that could be reached to benefit the pack and help them grow stronger.
They could all use a win.
“Offer me some coffee, and we can discuss it seriously.”
Fair enough. He had been rude, but he hadn’t wanted the Chief Enforcer or his mate present. The fact the Chief Enforcer hadn’t minded in the least when his mate wandered off to explore spoke volumes about his confidence. Rayne hadn’t objected because he really hadn’t wanted to deal with the question of why.
“Let’s take it to the kitchen,” Rayne suggested as he stood. The office was too much of Luciana, and every minute spent there reminded him she wasn’t. He hadn’t made his mark on it because he didn’t want to erase her presence. “We can actually get food with the coffee. Hope you like gravy and sausage stuffed biscuits.”
Rising, Julian allowed him to go first. A notable concession, but he would accept it as graciously as it had been offered. Maybe the visit wouldn’t be so bad after all.
Wind raced across the grass, sending ripples out like an ocean wave coming in, but never retreating. The land around them—so flat and ordinary—reflected the weather like a tidal sea, relentlessly surging. In the distance, a black thunderhead climbed into the sky, darkness rumbling behind it. The flashes of lightning held Luciana Maria Esposito Barrows captivated.
Of everything she’d experienced since leaving Italy and coming to the United States, she would never tire of thunderstorms and their wild demonstration of nature’s might.
The Enforcers were still in her town. Sitting in her office. Meeting with her mate.
The new Alpha.
Every single word grated and her wolf lashed inside of her. Three Rivers had been her dream, her goal to build a better pack, a home for every wolf who’d been turned out or abandoned. The American curse of Lone Wolves always being alone seemed a cruel and vicious joke on everything it meant to be a wolf.
Wolves needed family. Friends. Pack. Even the old veteran who retreated to his farm in the distance hills, as far from civilization and other wolves as he could—he was still important to the pack. It was their duty to see his needs were met. Even if those needs were solitude.
Closing her eyes, Luciana sighed. In her hand was a cell phone and on the screen the contact information she’d sworn never to use. Yet, she still sat here on the edge between everything and nothing, seeking a solid reason to make the call—a reason not born of anger or grief or even loneliness.
She was not alone.
Alpha. Mate. Enemy. Two of the three words she would never have applied to the man she loved. The man who betrayed her. The wolf who kept her hostage. The individual she’d turned her whole life into a crusade to support. Rayne would never let her go.
Once more her wolf snapped and snarled, but all that escaped Luciana was a long sigh. The Americans were a passionate people, but they tempered their passions with cold pragmatism and the oddest sense of morality. Loving and loathing someone or something in the same breath was not a new sensation for her.
Just one she would never have applied to the mate she and her wolf had adored without measure.
The wind raced passed her, tangling her hair and pulling it across her eyes. Shaking her head, she glanced at the phone in her palm. Her thumb hovered over the call button and she still couldn’t bring herself to press it.
“Luciana Esposito Barrows,” he vocalized her full name. Salvatore hadn’t used her full name since they were children. “I repudiate you. Seven Hills is closed to you and yours. Never darken our land, never call to us for help, never invoke us to your need. You wished to be alone, so shall you have it. We do not know you.”
Pain sliced through her. An unexpected agony as it cleaved her heart.
“She is yours,” he told his mate, the bitch Enforcer, Margo. “The Enforcers may do as they will, I withdraw my protection and free you from the promise you made.”
Skating her thumb away from the call button, she elected instead to shut the phone’s screen off with a squeeze to the button on the side. Seven Hills repudiated her, but only after she had repudiated them first. It had taken her months to accept her brother’s censure. Months to understand Salvatore had no other choice, but to let her go.
She couldn’t call him. She could never call him for help. All they had built, all that occurred—the town, the pack, even her mate—had been her choice. Unshed tears burned behind her eyes and her throat went scratchy. Still, she would not let them loose. Pride straightened her shoulders and stiffened her spine.
A hushed whisper of sound, and a crunch of grass or maybe it was the slide of foliage against leather, but she sensed the presence of other before she scented it. Twisting, she glanced behind to find a woman with a lean, athletic form and shrouded in her own power approaching. Shrouded because it was so contained, yet beneath the cool façade crackled an alpha in her own right.
Long dark hair flowed as she moved, the wind tugging at it as it had Luciana’s. She strode with purpose, and strength seemed to resonate with every step. The woman also had a familiar look to her—only where Luciana had seen similar features before had been on a far more delicate, and seemingly fragile frame. Chrystal was no longer Three Rivers, the wolf having chosen to follow her mate to his pack even as she broke from Luciana’s.
“Dallas Dalton,” she said by way of greeting. “Or has the Dalton changed now that you have mated Julian?” The Chief Enforcer had no surname that Luciana was aware of, nor had she asked him on the three occasions she’d met with him. The wolf was as prickly as her brother Salvatore on a bad day.
“Doesn’t matter. Dalton is fine.” The woman prowled with a kind of deadly grace. It would be a mistake to think of her as anything, but dangerous whether she was with her mate or alone. She’d let Luciana hear her coming, and Luciana recognized the choice. Distraction left her vulnerable.
A mistake she wouldn’t make again.
When the other woman dropped to sit in the grass next to her, Luciana returned her attention to the oncoming storm. If she’d wanted to attack her, she’d had ample opportunity.
“I expected to see you at the meeting.” Dallas said without preamble. The wolf’s reputation as the fiercest Rogue in North American pack history didn’t do her credit. Luciana had little use for the ways of Lone Wolves and the separation between packs—Seven Hills bound their packs together. They were all one; even the most minor pack had an ally to call upon and Salvatore…
No. She shook her head. Wandering down that path, even in her thoughts could have treacherous results. It mattered little what the woman thought, so Luciana let the statement brush by.
“Have you elected a name for your pack?” The last she’d heard they were merely the seventh pack, and whispered about as though a scandal all their own. Three Rivers had its share of former Lone Wolves, and transplants who came from other packs including Hudson River and Sutter Butte. Only a couple came from the Yukon—though the Shaw twins were most welcome.
None of which mattered, but the Enforcers had formed their own pack. What hadn’t been made clear was whether the Lone Wolves were a part of it. Did it matter whether they wanted to be or not? The North Americans were a canny group.
“Did you pull Three Rivers out of a hat?” Question. Counter question. Despite the chill in the air, and the promise of moisture on the wind, Dallas leaned back on her elbows. The indolent pose was an act. Nothing about the woman read as relaxed or idle. Luciana debated whether this would turn into real battle. She was older, but age only mattered so much when it came to a true battle. Julian’s mate wore her confidence like a banner for everyone to see.
“Did you grow tired of the meeting and decide to wander?” They could do this all day. Interestingly, Dalton appeared to have been wandering alone. Though they had limited resources, they did have plenty of wolves to act as guards and escorts. Had she slipped them?
Laughter floated upwards on the breeze, and Dallas leaned forward mirroring Luciana’s posture. Crossing her legs into a yoga position, she pointed at the storm. “That’s moving swiftly.”
“They often do—but it is only wind and water.” The torrential force of these storms appealed to Luciana on a soul deep level.
“So it is…” Dallas trailed off and the silence stretched until it became unbearable.
Forcing herself to rouse from the meditative state, Luciana cut a glance to the side and found the woman studying her. “Did you want something?” Curt to the point of rudeness would have appalled her mother. Yet she’d not spoken to Mama since settling in the states. Salvatore cut her off, and it seemed their mother agreed with his ruling.
“Yes,” Dallas answered, her eyes offering no clues to the enigma of her presence. “I wanted to see you.”
The question of what did she see curled unspoken on Luciana’s tongue. Instead of giving voice to it, she merely raised her eyebrows.
Finally, the other wolf said, “You didn’t take care of my daughter.”
Of course. Chrystal. “No,” she admitted. Failing to recognize the omega for what she was fell wholly on Luciana’s shoulders. The nascent bonds of pack, the weight of them, had tangled around her and she’d been fighting to sort out disparate personalities and balance them even as she wrestled with her own demons; demons that seemed to take on a life of their own. Her failure, however, had been her own. “I didn’t.”
She made no pretense of defending her actions. An alpha took care of their pack; they put the needs of their people above their own. For all her considerable skills, Luciana refused to abdicate how complicit she’d been in what could have happened to the young omega had she not found her mate when she did.
“Huh.” The grunt surprised her. The other wolf transferred her attention to the storm in the distance. Though she said nothing, the air seemed to vibrate with all the unspoken words rustling in the grass between them.
The blanket of quiet settled over them, muffling the world as the rush of wind blotted out sound. The restlessness of her wolf demanded she challenge the woman for being in her territory, for being in her presence, for…breathing. The droll thought silenced the beast’s objections. As yet, Dallas hadn’t proved herself a threat. Nor has she proven herself otherwise. Luciana didn’t see the point in borrowing another fight. Her resources were utterly tapped to manage the battlefields upon which she already waged.
“You really aren’t what I expected,” Dallas injected into the hush.
“Should I apologize for disappointing you?” It would be a cool day in hell when she did so, but it didn’t hurt to ask.
“No…you really shouldn’t.” Rising abruptly, Dallas took a step away but the weight of her gaze remained a prescient thing. It pressed in on her, searching and demanding answers, but Luciana refused to be pressed into a discussion she neither sought nor desired. Chrystal had been a gift she’d barely understood and lost before she could appreciate. Just another black mark in her book.
Tingles of awareness prickled along her spine. Rayne was coming. He was downwind or she would have scented him already.
“Keep your chin up,” Dallas said abruptly. “And if you change your mind about needing someone to talk to, I’ve been known to be a very good at keeping secrets.”
Then the woman was simply gone. Twisting, Luciana tracked what might be her passage through the field across the way, the grass there was taller than most men. They hadn’t cleared it yet.
Surprising offer aside, she had no interest in seeing Dallas’ mate or her own for that matter. Luciana rose, and scanned the horizon—he was close but he wasn’t there yet. Sliding her hands into the pockets of her skirt, she set off down the dirt road and headed for the incoming storm.