Wolves of Willow Bend #6
Dylan Royce, Willow Bend Hunter, is a natural flirt and courted his fair share of she-wolves, but he’s never found the woman who makes his pulse race. With the new pack’s borders verging on Willow Bend territory, he’s tasked with keeping an eye on them. His job grows more challenging daily, especially since one seductive female keeps crossing the line.
Chrystal Landros knows she’s supposed to keep to her side of the Three Rivers-Willow Bend line. But she loves to explore, and Willow Bend is home to some spectacular sites. As a former Lone Wolf, she hasn’t always been certain of her welcome, but her new home in Three Rivers opens a wonderful world of unfamiliar opportunities. Too bad the wolf who makes her blood heat is tasked with keeping her away from the places she wants to visit.
While Dylan and Chrystal clash repeatedly over her border incursions, the game between them threatens to turn deadly. Tensions between Willow Bend and Three Rivers continue to rise. Could their forbidden dalliance be the spark to ignite a war?
Racing the wind, Dylan Royce danced over a thin shell of snow without sinking into the powder. A recent blizzard dumped three feet of fresh accumulation in twelve hours, all of it atop the ice-hardened pack beneath. Cold, crisp air flooded his lungs with his every footfall. Invigorated by the chill, he kept his mouth open to sample the breeze. The natural wonder from the weather made running his circuit a pleasure rather than a chore as he spun through the remote pack campgrounds.
Human families escaped to these campgrounds during the warmer summer months. The remote location, coupled with the bordering state park, also made it ideal for young wolves to learn to hunt, stalk and play away from day-to-day life. Winter often proved the second favorite season for families with older youths to escape and romp in the snow. With Three Rivers’ border so close, however, Mason slapped a moratorium on any vacation plans to the area for the pack.
The usually populated area remained virtually abandoned during Dylan’s tenure as Hunter guarding the border, a downside to Mason’s order. Such a critical position would typically have fallen on Owen Chase, but their Senior Hunter left for Hudson River eight weeks prior with his mate to train the pack’s young healer and to provide assistance to the Alpha.
So, while Dylan landed the miserable position, at least he got to enjoy the snow. And, in a few hours, he would get to enjoy Tawny, the sleek, svelte law student interning with Ryan Huston. Dylan pursued her for months before she finally consented to a drink.
Where he spent his weekend off hinged on the date. His wolf thrilled at the challenge. They would definitely enjoy taking a bite out of her taut ass. Still, better to burn off some of his frustrations…plus, he had all the gorgeous unbroken snow to himself. After climbing to the highest vantage, he growled his approval. Pristine powder lay in smooth waves down the hill.
Testing the ice crust, he found only soft powder. It clung to his fur and bunched between his claws. The swirling breeze carried the promise of more snow. Panting, he arched his head back and loosed a single call. Infusing power into the call to demand a response, he cut it off abruptly and listened.
Any wolves within his range would respond. Flicking his ears, he heard only the wind brushing the trees, the faint groan of branches heavily laden with winter’s kiss and the whuffs of his breathing. No scents teased his nostrils, no sounds alerted him to intruders, and all the magnificent snow lay waiting for him to play.
Tail wagging, he danced away from the edge and trotted several paces. Judging the distance to be perfect, he dashed forward, rushing on adrenaline-fueled muscles until he reached the edge and flung himself onto the slope, legs sprawling out. His trajectory and angle gave him additional speed. He flew to the base of the hill and crashed into a snowdrift.
Bounding out, he shook to free his coat of the snow and sneezed. Damn, that’s fun. He turned to make another climb and repeat the wild ride when a tangle of lemon and orchid teased his nose.
Whirling, he raised his head to catch the direction of the scent, because beneath the citrus was the musk of wolf—a wolf he’d already tossed three times in as many weeks.
Dammit, Chrystal. All at once, his plans for the evening began to disintegrate. If the Three Rivers bitch hightailed it over the line again, he’d have to track her, catch her, punish her, and drop kick her ass back to Luciana “I Have No Idea What the Hell I’m Doing” Barrows.
Tawny wouldn’t wait for him, either. Five minutes late, she’d warned, and he would be out of luck.
Snarling to himself, he trotted west slowly and caught the trace of Chrystal’s scent again. The swirling wind kept yanking it away from him like a tease, but he was a Hunter.
He would find her.
An hour of stalking and two false trails later, he’d finally narrowed her scent to a tract of land below the campgrounds near the old falls. The snow continued, fat heavy flakes crusting on his coat. His phone—like his clothes—were in his truck, parked more than a few miles away. He tried to bury his sour mood, knowing his date with Tawny slipped further and further out of reach.
Pausing in the shadow of a tree, he scanned the rocky slope where the water spilled from any icy crevice and flowed down into a sluggish moving pool. Ice shimmered around the shores, slicking the hard surfaces. Despite the wind, Chrystal’s scent grew stronger with each blast of wind skimming the pseudo valley.
With so much white on every surface, he expected to find her swiftly, but it took him some time to pick her out. She climbed the icy rock face along the edge of the waterfall.
His irritation switched to concern. What the hell is she doing?
Dressed in jeans, a sweatshirt, and a too-thin jacket, she climbed with determination, fighting for every hand and foothold as the slippery ice gave way beneath her grip. Straightening, he followed her progress and eyed the landscape in search of his best route to the top. A skittering of skin and shoe against the slick rock jerked his attention back to the curvy little pain in his ass. She’d dropped a foot from her upward progress and clung to the rock through will alone.
The little minx needed a damn keeper. Inch-by-inch, she continued her creeping ascent of the sheer shale. Between the composition of the stone and the ice, she risked serious injury to her bare hands. Even from his position, he could see the dampness soaking her jeans.
What the hell could be worth courting frostbite? With a leap, he bounded into the dip and sank into the wetter snow around the waterfall’s pool. Fording through the dense drifts, he found the path he’d been seeking and began to climb along the outer rim. Worn by the passage of many feet over the years, faint stone steps existed deep beneath the snow. In midsummer, the waterfall served as the perfect diving point. The pool below was a good twelve to fifteen feet deep, which meant high divers didn’t usually crack their skulls. Of course, the water wasn’t half-frozen or frigid in the middle of summer either.
Chrystal continued easing her way to the precipice. Ahead of her finally, Dylan scrambled onto the ledge and leaned over to judge the distance between them. He’d need to shift to grab her. She was beyond his neck range, even if he were able to snag her damp jacket. If she ascended another foot or two…only she didn’t. She stopped.
Dylan stared, disbelief sinking into his bones. Instead of climbing—or even holding on with her flimsy grips—she slid her free hand into her jacket and pulled out a cell phone. She stretched the phone away from her, angling toward the plunging water…why?
Forgetting the idiocy of her actions, he rushed his shift. Fur slid away, muscle twisted and bones snapped. Part of Hunter apprenticeship required shifting under high-stress situations. His mentor’s lesson had been brutal on the point. They needed to be able to change on the fly and, since they were at their most vulnerable mid-shift, hurrying the process was the only alternative.
Bliss and agony intertwined until he suddenly knelt in the icy snow with his palms flat against the chilly surface. The cold assaulted his overheated and sensitized skin like so many needling daggers plunging into his flesh. Fuck me. Blowing out a frosty breath, he did his best to ignore the wind shivering his balls and threatening to geld him.
The trembling in his muscles had more to do with the temperature than his shifting. Pushing to the edge, he found the idiot wolf with her phone angled at the spraying water, her thumb hovering over a button.
What. The. Hell?
He opened his mouth to snarl at her, but she hadn’t glanced toward him once and her scent hadn’t changed. Focused on whatever the hell her goal was, she failed to notice his position or the precariousness of her own. If he snapped at her…he clamped his teeth together, molars grinding, and waited.
Hating himself—and her more—he flattened to the snow. Working to ignore the way his dick threatened to fall off, he stretched out an arm. He could reach her. The snow blew sideways and a faint flicker of sunlight broke through the cloud cover. The light hit the water as his fingers brushed the back of her jacket.
“Yes!” she whooped. Her thumb slapped against the shutter control, snapping several shots in a row. The thin tendril of sunlight lit the water, dancing off the frost and ice around it, to shatter into prisms. Dylan might have even enjoyed the sight, save for Chrystal’s enthusiasm as she leaned further away. One moment, she dangled precariously. The next, she slid.
Even a wolf would take a beating on the rocks below.
Fisting her jacket, he ignored the scream in his bicep from lifting her falling deadweight and hauled her upward. Yes. I have her. Her howl of surprise gave him a measure of satisfaction. So did jerking her over the edge then tossing her sweet ass into the snow. She came up spluttering as Dylan rose above her and scowled.
“What the fuck are you doing Chrystal?” Not bothering to disguise the growl rumbling in his voice or the fury filling his veins, he glared at her. Instead of responding to him directly, however, she let out a sub-vocal moan and began to scramble through the snow.
“Where is it?” she muttered, not glancing at him once. “Where is it?” Plunging her already reddened palms into the slush, she spun onto her hands and knees. Panic wreathed her.
Insane. The little she-wolf was categorically insane. Seemingly oblivious to continued saturation of her clothing, she kept digging until she let out a whoop. “There you are!”
She rose to her feet, phone clasped in her hands. Rubbing it hurriedly against her shirt, she checked the screen twice before she turned those walnut colored eyes on him. Nose wrinkling, she held her phone toward him. “I thought I lost it. Give a girl some warning next time. Do you know how hard I had to work to get that angle?”
Folding his arms, Dylan wiggled his toes to test for feeling still in them despite being calf deep in snow. “You’re in Willow Bend territory, again.”
“No, I’m not.” She returned her attention to the phone and let out a deep sigh of relief. “Oh good. The snow didn’t hurt it. And, yes!” Her shout, accompanied by a fist bump to the sky sent a shock skating through him. “I got it! Isn’t it perfect?” She thrust the phone at him again. The thin tendril of sunlight refracting through the snow and water created an almost ethereal glow, rainbows exploding like fireworks.
Despite admiring the shot, he riveted his attention on her face, locking gazes with her. Aggravated both by her careless disregard for her own safety and the loss of his possible date with Tawny, he tapped two fingers on his arm. “You are on Willow Bend territory. You crossed the border more than a mile back.”
“No, I didn’t,” she protested, though her gaze slid away from his first to glance at her phone, then at the snow. She shuddered. “I mean, I don’t think I did. Sir.”
Shock mingled with his disbelief. “My name is Dylan.” Which she knew, since they’d met several times over the last four weeks. “Not ‘sir.’”
“Well, I know your name, sir, but Luciana said we’re always to use proper address with outsiders, to show how polite we are.”
Really? Because polite excused trespassing?
Shaking his head, Dylan snagged her arm. “You’re going to freeze to death, since you’re soaking wet, and…” He flipped her hand over. The red, chapped skin across her palm boasted several slices. Chances were, she didn’t feel the damage. Her low squeak of surprise confirmed his assessment. “Did you drive?”
“What?” Her gaze jerked to his again. Her pupils dilated a fraction and her nostrils flared. Yes, little missy, I am indeed angry. She bit her lower lip, and her shoulders collapsed inward as she angled away from him. “No, I hiked.”
Hiked. Dylan closed his eyes and counted to fifty.
While they were less than a mile from the border of the territory granted to Three Rivers, none of the Three Rivers wolves lived within fifty miles of the actual border. Most were contained within their town, located more than seventy-five miles from their current location. “How far did you hike?” Maybe if he displayed patience he didn’t feel, she’d give him a more accurate answer.
Chrystal rocked on her sneaker covered feet—which were likely soaked from the snow. Squirming, she tugged her arm. The motion wasn’t enough to really challenge him, but sufficient to demonstrate her desire for release. Refusing the nonverbal request, he tapped her chin with a light finger, urging her to face him.
“How far?” he demanded.
“I don’t know,” she admitted. Her chapped cheeks turned a deeper shade of rose. “I…I’ve been trying to get some shots for my next set of paintings. You have so many spectacular sites here. I’ve been trying to find them, so I just…sort of…wandered.”
Wandered. In a blizzard. Well, to be fair, it was a steady, but light, snow. Still, wandered? Her pack needed to assign her a keeper. Grinding his teeth together, he nodded once. “I’ll drive you back. My truck is a few miles from here, so we can get there faster if you shift.” She’d also be warmer. Plus, it would give her time to heal the injuries she’d given herself.
“I can’t leave my phone here. It will be ruined!” Panic resurged in her scent. Dylan fought the urge to roll his eyes or haul her over his lap and spank her silly ass for suggesting the phone was more important than her personal safety.
Snarling once, he plucked the phone from her hand and released her. “Strip.” Command flowed through him and he knew his order would be obeyed. She didn’t have enough dominance to fight him. “Now. Shift.”
Still, she apparently intended to try. “But…?”
Implacable, he drilled his stare into her until she began to fumble with her clothes. He caught her jacket before it hit the snow and used it to make a bundle. One by one she passed him the other garments until she danced in the snow, her teeth chattering. He set her phone in the center of the driest piece of clothing then wrapped the others around it, one-by-one, until the jacket became the outermost layer. It was at least mostly waterproof.
“You’re making it into something I can carry.” She exhaled between clicking teeth. Instead of shifting, she rubbed at her arms and kept dancing on her bare feet in the snow. Even her socks were soaking wet, so who knew how long she’d been out hiking in the snow.
“Yes,” he said, tightening the sleeves to form a noose. No, he wasn’t thinking about hanging her. Much. “Shift, woman, before you do get frostbite.”
Wide eyes blinking at him again, she swallowed. “You’re naked.”
“No kidding. And if my balls get frostbite, I’ll do more than snarl at you. Shift.”
“But you’re staring at me.”
It was Dylan’s turn to blink. Nudity wasn’t a big deal. She certainly had nothing to be ashamed of. Her long tumble of brown hair fell in damp waves against her soft olive skin. Blessed by generous curves and full breasts, she lacked tight muscle definition but her plush form didn’t betray any hint of weakness. If anything, it reinforced his need to see her safely shifted to a warmer form and out of the snow before she caught a real illness. Though wolves rarely sickened the way humans did, they could get ill if they didn’t take care of themselves.
Or if those who are supposed to be taking care of her fail to look after her properly. The failure to do so added another black mark against the new so-called Alpha, as far as he was concerned. “Just change, Chrystal. The faster you do, the faster I can slip this on you and change myself.”
Another hop from foot to foot as misery burst like a rain cloud over her head. “I don’t know if I can do it while you’re watching.”
Not a refusal, not a challenge, a cry for help. Grunting, Dylan said, “I’ll watch the tree line, but I’m not turning my back on you.” Then, because her continued quaking left him feeling like an asshole, he gentled his tone. “You’re safe, Chrystal. Nothing will touch you while you shift. I promise.”
Doubt clung to her expression, although her eyes remained downcast. She nodded slowly. “Thank you.”
Yep. Her gratitude at being granted protection while she did as he’d ordered increased his sense of being a jerk. The little wolf was in the wrong, and it was his task to correct her and send her from their territory. Her constant flouting of the rules, however, needed to be quashed. How the hell did she survive as a Lone Wolf when she didn’t know how to follow the simple restrictions outlined by the probation treaty offered to Three Rivers?
Scanning the tree line, Dylan waited for the sounds of her shift, but none seemed forthcoming. Sparing her a glance, he found her arms folded tight against her chest while she continued to alternate from foot to foot. Her shivering increased ten-fold, however, and a faint tinge of blue touched her lips.
“What’s wrong?” Why the hell isn’t she shifting?
“I don’t know,” she said with more fear in her tone than bite. “I’m trying, but nothing seems to be happening.”
Disregarding her earlier discomfort at his stare, Dylan studied her. Her shivering increased. His wolf rousing from their shared grumpiness, he clasped her shoulder. If she couldn’t shift, she was in a lot more trouble than frozen clothes, frostbite and violating Willow Bend territorial boundaries. “Chrystal.” He snapped out the two syllables of her name and her gaze jerked to his. Calling a wolf out was a job best left to an Alpha, but dominant wolves could do it if they could override the more submissive wolf’s tendencies.
His vision flickered as his wolf peered out of his eyes. Growling, he uttered the command, “Shift.”
One blink. Then two. Her walnut eyes bled gold as her wolf glared out at him. No, not glared. Her wolf wasn’t angry; she was terrified. Fisting his control, Dylan let his anger and frustration bleed out of him. Ordering her wolf around when she plainly didn’t know how to cope with a more dominant animal served no one.
“Come on, darling,” he murmured, giving her shoulder a squeeze. “Come on out and play.”
The change rippled over her, and her eyes went completely wolf. When the muscles beneath his hand began to tug, he released her and stepped back to give her space. Shivering cascaded into the violence of her change. Her moans turned to whimpers and growls. Finally, fur glided over her shifted bones and form. She landed on four feet in front of him, panting hard.
Giving her a moment to reorient herself, Dylan lowered to a crouch rather than towering over her. The stink of fear occluded her sweeter scent. Yes, she needed discipline. Yes, she broke their treaty. Yes, he needed to kick her ass, but none of those offenses interested him at the moment. The she-wolf’s terror ignited every protective instinct he had.
Extending a hand, he said, “Good girl. Beautiful job.”
A low whine vibrated in her throat, and she dropped to her belly. Dammit. His wolf’s frustration mirrored Dylan’s. They didn’t want her crawling. If he dragged her to him and gave her a hug, he’d likely scare the shit out of her. Settling his palm against her head, he gave her a gentle scratch.
“Sweet girl, thank you.” The wolf’s ears flicked toward him. She was a dusky black and white wolf, darker hairs sprinkled amongst the silver and white. In low light and at a distance, she’d look more like a husky than wolf. Her slighter build would help her blend in more urban areas. When she dared a glance at him, he gave her a small smile.
“Can you stand up, beautiful? Need to put these clothes over your head and around your shoulders.” If he fit it snug enough, they wouldn’t hamper her movements. With great hesitation and care, she rose to her feet, but kept her whole body hunched and tail tucked between her legs.
Ignoring the frigid air and his own discomfort, Dylan kept his touch on her light. Gradually, her slunk gave way to a better posture, and she darted another look at him. Maintaining a smile, he said, “Ready when you are, beautiful.”
She bumped his hand with a nod. Trusting her word, he retrieved her clothes then slid the sling he’d made of the arms over her head. Afterward, he checked the fit against front. She was so damn tiny. Getting the sling on her tight enough to stay yet not trip her gave him a moment’s pause. To the little wolf’s credit, she held still while he got it sorted. Once he finished, he rubbed between her ears again. “Test it for me, darling. Let’s see how you move.”
Chrystal took a couple of trembling steps, floundering in the snow, but the pack of her clothes and phone remained snug across the top of her shoulders. She tossed him a glance, and he read the question in her eyes.
“Looks good to me, sweetheart. What do you think?” The calmer he kept his voice, the more she relaxed. Though the little wolf might be a pain in the ass, he’d prefer her to bite and scratch back if he snarled. When she sank to her belly on the ground, it undid him. He didn’t see himself as cruel or unkind.
She bobbed her head slowly, taking a couple more steps and tested a leap—one that landed her smack in the middle of another drift. Biting back a smile, Dylan braced his fist to the ground.
“I’ll shift, you follow me.” He added a bit more command to the end.
Pausing, snow on her muzzle, she canted her head and watched him. Taking the risk, he called his wolf. The twisted bliss and agony rode over him until he stood on four legs. Chrystal didn’t make any move toward him as he rose. At nearly twice her size, he dwarfed her. Head down, she sidestepped toward him. Everything in her posture was non-aggressive. Nuzzling her ear once, he closed his jaw lightly around her muzzle. She relaxed at the touch. Once certain she’d obey him, he released her and glanced toward the snow-covered steps he’d used to make it to the top of the falls. She sidled into him and he turned, taking lead with the tiny wolf pacing his every step.
Plowing forward, he made way for her through the denser wet snow so she didn’t have to flounder. When they reach the ice crust, he danced atop it then paused. She tested a paw, then a second. Once she was certain the snow wouldn’t give way, she gave him a little yip of joy.
Amused despite his earlier sour mood, he whuffed at her to get her ass in gear and catch up. She scrambled toward him and he trotted, gradually increasing his speed as long as she didn’t seem to struggle. He’d see her safe out of the storm and back to where she belonged.
It was his job.