Chapter 1

Nia's fingers whitened around the steering wheel as she wondered what she’d been thinking, taking backroads to get home from Morgan Hill.

The wiser choice would have been along main arteries, on a well-lit freeway through South San Jose. Even if it took longer. These winding, narrow backroads? Dark as Hades, and way too isolated to be safe.

Cabin fever had hit hard that morning, and she’d been desperate to be outdoors, to shed that trapped feeling. The one she’d lived with for six interminable months in a small, concrete cell. She stuffed those memories back down where they couldn’t hurt and concentrated on the road.

Driving all the way to Morgan Hill with her furry bodyguard riding shotgun, and indulging in a much-needed hike around the Coyote Valley Open Space Preserve, went a long way in restoring a semblance of normal, of freedom, in her. She rarely strayed from the tiny community of New Almaden, but sometimes the trapped feeling sent her scurrying away from the small enclave.

Having escaped captivity and Denton’s painful experiments almost a year ago didn’t mean she was safe, though, and she really shouldn’t take chances like this, driving on a seldom traveled road after dark. She’d turned onto McKean five minutes ago, her headlights piercing the inky darkness a measly hundred feet ahead of her rusted bumper. It was as if it sucked every bit of ambient light past that point into a huge, black hole.

Learning to embrace the night because of her disease didn’t mean she wanted to be out traversing inky roads after dark. If not for Max, her big Belgian Malinois sitting next to her, she’d be a quivering mass of nerves, instead of merely scared shitless and ready to jump at every damned shadow.

What if Denton had found her and was simply biding his time until she was foolish enough to be out like this? Alone and vulnerable, where he and his guards could scoop her up with no one the wiser.

She suppressed a shudder and felt a bead of sweat snake down her spine at the thought of being back in that small cell, or the stark, sterile laboratory strapped to a cold, hard table awaiting another needle and painful infusion.

Every crossroad became a possible ambush. Every light in the distance threatened to be headlights of a car containing his bullyboys, ready to drag her back to his facility in the middle of the Umpqua National Forest in southern Oregon.

She shook her head, pushed back the impending panic attack and concentrated on her surroundings, searching out and noticing the occasional pinprick of porch or barn lights gleaming in the hills.

A shaky sigh of relief and a soft whine of commiseration from Max broke the silence as she sped past the gently lapping water of Calero Reservoir, signifying she was finally close to home. A glance to her left revealed the stingy reflection of a quarter moon in the water, although the stygian morass surrounding her continued to suck all light from the night.

Her all-terrain tires hummed as she sped down the lonely road, rolling through the foothills like a tumbleweed trying to outrun a dust storm. She rotated her aching shoulders and fervently thanked every god and goddess she could think of for guiding her safely down this two-lane road with no nasty surprises.

She was almost home and couldn’t wait until she was safely behind her security system and sturdy locks. A glance at Max, tongue hanging out in a goofy grin, had her quirking her lips in a fond smile as she came to a stop where McKean t-boned Almaden Road. His dark eyes gleamed with intelligence as the streetlight bounced off his handsome, classic Malinois face.

She injected a lighthearted tone in her voice and reached over to scratch behind one ear, eliciting a groan of pleasure from him. “How about a juicy bone when we get home?” Her mouth quirked even higher at the low whine she got for an answer, the human translation of ‘yes, faster’ easy to discern.

His whines, grunts, and growls were all she needed to know exactly what he meant. Didn’t need words. Which was a good thing, considering Max couldn’t use words as much as he seemed to exhibit human intelligence.

After suffering through Denton’s experiments, her innate ability to communicate with animals was even more refined and attuned to not only dogs, but wolves, too. She could practically have conversations with them, both verbally and psychically.

At least she could trust what they said, even if it was only growls and grunts. They didn’t deceive with their every word, every breath. Didn’t kiss you one day and betray you the next. Like the asshole who’d played on her emotions, sucked her into trusting him and then betrayed her, landing her in that 5 x 5 cell in Denton’s converted metal barn turned torture facility.

As terrifying as the thought was, she wanted nothing more than to go back to that facility, free any other captives still locked up, and avenge her sister’s death. But she needed to get well first. Get her strength back. Not practically collapse after any adrenaline rush or outlay of energy. She was already feeling depleted just from her hike at the park today. She couldn’t afford to wind up a prisoner. Never. Again.

She turned left on Almaden Road, heading deep into the heart of New Almaden, and glanced at the occasional house as it passed by, wondering what was going on behind the walls. Wondering what it would be like to be part of a family. To have a partner waiting for her, watching her back. Worried about her. Loving her. Protecting her as she would protect him. Missing her if she went missing; someone who would turn the world upside down to find her. Rescue her.

Quit dreaming, girl. Wish in one hand and spit in the other, the grandpa in one of her foster homes used to say. See which gets filled up first.

Annoyed with herself for even going there, she slowed to a crawl as a tidy, yellow bungalow set back from the two-lane country road came into view on the right. Its verdant green, immaculately manicured, postage-stamp-size yard had every blade of grass standing at attention in military precision, like a Marine’s haircut. High and tight, not a blade out of place. Vibrant flowers rioted color where they rimmed the yard.

She shuddered as she remembered, just yesterday, the child who’d toddled unsteadily from that front yard right into the road. Directly in the path of her big nubby tires. The young mother had been hot on the tike’s heels, screaming hysterically. Too far away to save the little girl.

Sharp reflexes on Nia’s part were the only thing that averted disaster. Her yank on the wheel as she’d stomped on the brake pedal and veered onto the shoulder had nearly tipped the vehicle, and would have sent Max to the floor if not for the harness snugged around his chest, firmly anchored to the seat.

 

When she’d flung herself out the door and swept the child from the road into her arms, the mother had surprised the hell out of her by wrapping them both in a fierce embrace, her head barely reaching Nia’s shoulder. She’d frozen, the toddler clutched in her arms. It had been so long since anyone had hugged her. So long since she’d felt a kind touch. She’d just wanted to stand there and soak it in.

Her initial shock aside, she’d led the woman out of the harmful sun and into the shade of a tree and learned, within the space of five minutes, that her name was Simone.

She was single, new in town, didn’t know a soul, and hadn’t realized the lock on the screen door was faulty or that her daughter would pick today to discover she could walk.

And the child’s name was Rachel. One-year-old, apparently already walking, as of today, adventurous and cute as a button.

Simone had cried buckets of happy tears that Nia had stopped on a dime. She remembered wanting so badly to accept Simone’s invitation to step inside for a glass of iced tea.

How she wished she’d been free to accept that invitation, but knew in her heart there was no way. She couldn’t make friends. Couldn’t expose people to danger. It was imperative she stay invisible. Alone. Lonely.

Shouldn’t be too hard in New Almaden. The unincorporated community about twenty-one miles south of downtown San Jose was like an isolated town unto itself.

She was practically invisible. As long as she stayed under the radar.

And that, unfortunately, meant no new friends. No friends at all. Period.

Shrugging off the memories and her melancholy, she slowed as she rolled closer to Simone’s place. Her eyes narrowed at the old beater parked cockeyed in front of that tidy bungalow, its front tires crushing the pretty peonies at the corner of the drive, its grill buried in the huge oleander bush close to the street.

It wasn’t Simone’s vehicle, which was a vintage Jeep Cherokee. She’d seen it parked in the driveway yesterday. And there was no house across the street or next door anyone would be visiting.

No way Simone would let some stranger in her house. She’d gleaned that much about the woman in their brief conversation yesterday, nervousness practically broadcasting its own frequency from the petite woman.

Nia pulled to a stop in the middle of the empty road twenty yards from the house to scrutinize the car and around the cottage.

No way in hell did that car belong there. Nope. Not as protective as that mama was of her daughter. Not with the fear she’d seen swirling in Simone’s pretty hazel eyes. Fear that had nothing to do with the toddler’s near miss.

She’d recognized a kindred soul. Recognized the wariness and caution beneath the surface. Recognized the same stark terror mirrored in her own eyes.

Simone had mentioned not knowing anyone in town. Nia had known deep in her bones the young woman was hiding something.

Something bad if she’d read those deep shadows in her eyes accurately.

Nia’s need for anonymity immediately went out the window as fear shot through her at what that sweet young mother and her daughter could be suffering.

Her career as a security expert BA, before abduction, gave her the expertise to make split-second decisions and defend herself, honed even sharper in the last year.

It was the only reason she was still alive. And free. She sped up, pulled behind, and barely nudged the crooked bumper of the beater with her ancient Land Cruiser.

After she flipped the dome light off, she eased the door open, giving silent thanks to the WD40 she’d liberally applied to the hinges just yesterday, and motioned Max out her door to follow.

As she rounded the rear of her vehicle, Max bounded in front of her and stopped with four paws planted, ears flat to his head, sharp teeth silently bared in a snarl, halting her progress.

She blessed her incredible night vision when she saw a man slip out a side window, a small bundle tucked under one arm.

Her eyes widened in shock, then narrowed in rage when she realized the bundle was the little girl who’d been in her arms just yesterday. Her dagger was out of her boot, sunk into the rear tire of his car, and back into her boot before he had both feet on the ground.

No way in hell was she risking him getting away with that precious bundle. His car disabled, she crouched and sprinted soundlessly across the grass to the front corner of the house, Max a lethal shadow keeping pace.

With her back pressed against the clapboard wall next to the small porch, a hand signal from her sent Max under the hedge across from her.

She figured she had one chance, and only one chance, to get that little girl out of his arms without injury.

Her almost telepathic connection with Max had them moving in tandem as the man crept to the front corner of the house, the still girl tucked under one arm. Max followed her silent command and shot from under the bush, growling fiercely.

The bastard’s eyes widened in fear and he bobbled the toddler like a doll, just as she’d hoped. Her hands snaked out and snatched the little girl away from him while Max went for the guy’s leg, but the gun he whipped out and pointed at her snarling protector made her heart stutter.

She tucked the little girl tightly but carefully under one arm like a football and felt a shaft of fear as she hung there, lifeless like a rag doll. Enraged and scared to death for the little one tucked up against her, and for Max with that damned gun pointed at him, she pivoted and kicked sideways, her Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu training bursting forth. Her boot hit his hand with a crunch and his gun went flying under the hedgerow, bisecting this lot from the next.

“Fucking bitch! Gimme the kid.”

“Hell no, asshole!”

Instead of running, he whirled and swung, catching her with a hard fist to her temple. Unable to duck the blow and keep hold of Rachel, she stumbled and grabbed the porch rail while tightening her hold around Rachel’s little torso, wishing to hell the house wasn’t so damned isolated, and Simone would burst out of the door with a bat or something.

Where were neighbors when she needed them? Her heart skipped a beat to think the reason their fight hadn’t woken Simone and brought her outside was because this bastard had done something to her.

He snatched at Rachel, and she dodged back toward the front door. Knowing she couldn’t fight him off and protect the unconscious child too, she slipped her hand into her pocket and palmed her car fob, pressing hard on the panic button, the blare of the alarm and flashing lights accomplishing what she couldn’t.

“You fucking bitch!”

With one last punch connecting painfully with her collarbone and a hard kick to Max’s head when he went in for another snarling bite, he dove for the hedge where his gun lay. He scooped it from beneath a bush and ran to his car, only to realize her SUV blocked him in at the ass end and the large oleander at the front.

He swiveled and aimed the gun at her but must have thought better of it since she was holding Rachel, turned and sprinted across the street through the sparse orchard and was soon out of sight.

Nia stumbled to the door and sank to the porch, her collarbone throbbing, head pounding and dizzy from the punch to her temple. If she thought the hike had depleted her, this was going to cause a major crash, and soon.

She pressed the button on her fob again to silence the alarm, the sudden quiet jarring after the fight, and gave a careless swipe at the warm trickle of blood tickling her temple.

Scared to death at the stillness of the child, afraid whatever he’d given the little girl could be fatal, she scooted back and held her finger on the doorbell. Max whined and wobbled his way to the porch, the kick to his head having knocked her poor pup for a loop.

 Seconds later, she heard light footsteps on the hardwood floor and a curtain at the window above her head fluttered in her peripheral vision just before the door flew open.

Simone peered out, eyes snapping down to connect with hers before widening in shocked recognition. Nia grabbed her hand and tugged, knowing there was no time to waste.

“Get us inside, quick.”

The woman’s eyes widened even more when she saw her baby nestled against Nia’s chest. “Rachel? What are you doing with Rachel?”

Simone’s eyes narrowed as she focused on what Nia knew was a rapidly rising lump on her temple and the blood now trickling down her cheek to her neck, then quickly tracked the yard. Her eyes swept to Max, wobbling at Nia’s feet, then to Rachel again.

Nia gasped in pain as the young woman grabbed her arm and dragged them into the house as if they weighed nothing, Max padding through the door behind them.

Simone was a hell of a lot stronger than her size indicated. Nia stayed just inside the door, watching in relief as Simone slammed and locked the door, then sat down right there with her on the warped hardwood floor and reached out her arms for her daughter.

Nia handed the unresponsive child to her mother and pulled her phone from her pocket, swiping to unlock before hitting the phone icon and tapping out nine-one-one.

While she waited impatiently for an answer, she turned to Simone to see her check Rachel’s pulse and respiration. Open her mouth. Lift her eyelids and check her pupils with a calmness that belied the terror shining in her eyes.

Everything a doctor or nurse would do. It was glaringly apparent Simone was scared to death and worried about her daughter. But she’d pushed all that aside and was performing a medical triage of a patient. Medical training or common sense? Doctor, nurse, paramedic?

Nia spoke up to clue her in while waiting for emergency services to answer the phone. “Was driving home and caught a guy climbing out your side window with Rachel in his arms. Fought, got smacked a coupla times, he got away. Had a gun.”

The dispatcher’s gritty voice in her ear interrupted, asking her the nature of her emergency. “I need an ambulance at… what’s your address?”

“Nine thirty-seven Almaden Road.”

“Nine thirty-seven Almaden Road, about three quarters of a mile south of McKean, on the right. Attempted child abduction. The child’s about one, pulse strong, but she’s non-responsive. He must have drugged her.”

She watched as Simone’s eyes snapped to hers at her words, widening in terror before narrowing and flashing back to her daughter. “No, the man’s gone. We’re inside, doors locked. Yes, okay. We’ll be fine until they get here.”

Ignoring the operator’s reassurance help would be on the way and instructions to stay on the line, she disconnected the call, opened the back and ejected the sim card, then tucked the burner phone back in her pocket and the sim in the small change pocket, making a mental note to run it through her crosscut paper shredder when she got home.

Her smart phone was safely in her purse, and she would never use it for something like this, where they could track her.

She turned to the distressed mother and hoped Rachel would be okay until emergency responders arrived. “There may be a delay due to a huge crash and fire near Blossom Hill and Almaden.”

She pressed one hand on the floor and braced the other against the front door, trying to stand, only to fall smack onto her butt again. “Ohhh, man.”

Choking down a wave of nausea and dizziness, she dropped her head between her hands; her elbows propped on her knees. Dammit all to hell! She had to get away before the cops showed. Needed to stay off the grid.

At the feel of a small, strong hand gripping her bicep, Nia raised her head cautiously, hands braced on her quads and tried to temper the nausea.

She marveled at how Simone battened back fear and questions, admiration for the young mother when determination filled her eyes.

With the smaller woman’s hand cupping her elbow, she stood and stumbled to the couch, then laid a trembling hand on Simone’s shoulder. “Rachel’s pulse still strong?”

“Yes. What happened? Thank God you were here!”

She watched a crack break open in Simone’s emotional armor when she realized if not for Nia, she’d have woken in the morning to an empty crib. Nia’s eyes lowered to the precious child in her mama’s arms and reached out a finger to brush soft, curly red bangs from the little girl’s forehead.

“I was driving home from a hike in Morgan Hill and saw an old beater-car parked half on your lawn; it’s still there, by the way. I flattened a tire.” She met Simone’s shimmering hazel eyes.

“I just knew, after meeting you yesterday, there was no way you’d let a stranger in the house at night with your baby here.” On another wave of dizziness, she leaned back against the soft cushion, arm shielding her eyes, and swallowed hard against the rising sickness in her throat.

“I need to tell you this, then get out of here. I can’t be here when the cops show and can’t tell you why. Just say you aren’t sure who helped. That you don’t know where I live. Which you don’t.”

Simone’s eyes sharpened. “Why? Are you in trouble? Do you need help?”

“It’ll buy me some time. The fewer people who see me, the less chance of me being recog…” Nia caught herself. The knock to her head must have knocked her good sense right out.

She didn’t know this woman from Adam. Even if she felt deep in her bones she could trust her to keep secrets, it wouldn’t be safe for Simone to know anything about her.

A knowing light flitted through Simone’s eyes, and she saw them widen when they locked on the small scar high on her right cheekbone, courtesy of Denton.

Nia watched in shocked fascination as Simone held her gaze and nudged her colorful hairband up to reveal a matching scar on her right temple at her hairline.

A unique pattern that would be too much of a coincidence they hadn’t gotten the scars from the same man, especially since the ring he wore was a one-of-a-kind antique. Or so he’d bragged on more than one occasion. Too damned much of a stretch.

But how were they free, and here in the same small town deep in south San Jose, California? If in fact Simone had also been popped in the head by Denton, no way would he have voluntarily let her go. She’d escaped, too.

Nia didn’t believe in coincidences, and she’d never seen that pattern before–the scientific symbol for mercury set above a howling wolf’s head–until she’d watched the ring on that ham of a fist just before it connected with her face. How did she miss seeing the scar yesterday on Simone?

Her bangs must have covered it, which were currently pulled back from her forehead and covered by that hairband.

When their eyes locked again, a bond of pain, of recognition, of sisterhood, flashed between them. Two souls, bound by abduction, agony and more than likely a shared illness–lupus, but with a twist. Running. Hiding. Terrified of being found. Of going back to the torture and confinement they’d both suffered.

A sisterhood based on fucked-up genetics, mysterious DNA and hidden family history. She saw fierce determination settle in Simone’s eyes and the bond strengthened.

Simone grasped Nia’s hand tightly. “Tell me quick what happened. I’ll keep descriptions vague, say that I was in shock and remember little about you. That it was dark, and you didn’t come into the house. Hurry!”

Nia knew they would need to talk. To share how Simone and she had escaped from the same fringe group, as crazy as that sounded, they were both hiding from. She knew Simone understood, at a primal level, the danger associated with being recognized. That safety was in staying under the radar. All the way under. And maybe in finding an ally, someone who would know if they disappeared again. Someone who would give a damn and do something about it.

“We’ll talk, later. I’ll contact you. What’s your phone number? Will it blow your cover, to have the paramedics and cops show up?”

Simone gave a quick shake of her head. “No, it’s okay. My features, my hair, even my body are different enough, and I won’t let them take her to the hospital. My ID will hold up under scrutiny, too. Give me some info I can share to keep them appeased, and then get going.” She recited her number, Nia putting it to memory. She sagged in relief and filled her in.

“As I mentioned, when I exited the truck, I saw a man climbing out of the window at the right side of the house. I’m guessing Rachel’s room?” At Simone’s nod, she continued, “Max and I confronted him. I grabbed Rachel, but he was quick and got in a couple of hits before Max scared him off. You need to up your security. If this isn’t random, then they’ve found you. If so, I’m betting kidnapping Rachel was a way for Denton to lure you back into captivity. He’ll stop at nothing to get us back.”

 

§  §  §

 

SWEAT BURNED CARRICK'S eyes as he launched another kick at one of the Muay Thai heavy bags suspended from the barn rafters. He dropped to his feet and shook his head in disgust as it ripped free and crashed against the thick, timbered wall.

“Hey, what’s that,” his annoying brother called out, “number four, just this week? I thought for sure that new cable was strong enough to hold.”

Carrick glared across the room at Reese, currently on a flat bench powering through a barbell press, then switched his glare to their buddy Dak when he snickered. The thought of wiping the smirks off their faces was tempting, but he knew if they started grappling, they’d never get back to working out.

He looked around the converted barn in satisfaction, taking in the alternations they’d made in the past six months. The Quicksilver Council, formed over a thousand years ago, had tasked him, Reese and Dak with protecting the Garou who lived in the area, and to look into the recent disappearance of two long-time residents. In order to provide that protection, they needed to stay in top shape and be able to work out at their full potential, hence the barn converted into a gym on his property.

The Garou thrived here, close to what was buried in the Capitancillo Hills, near enough to reap the physical and mental rewards. This ranch was perfect, set two-thirds of the way back from the road on one hundred acres, at the edge of Quicksilver Park. Isolated. Just what they needed to establish a base of operations as local Garou law enforcement, while masquerading as volunteers for local emergency personnel and the forestry service.

Sweat dripping, breath sawing in and out, hands on lean hips, he sauntered to the fallen bag, squatted and grasped it on each side, then hefted it onto one shoulder as he rose. He strode over to Dak, fifteen minutes into a plank, and dropped it with a thud next to the man’s head.

“Wasn’t the chain that broke. The damned leather isn’t strong enough.”

Dak gave another quirk of his lips without breaking form as Reese settled the barbell on the bar catchers, rose from the bench and squatted next to the bag. “Need to order some bags those big-ass MMA fighters use. Maybe last a coupla weeks, instead of a coupla days.”

Carrick strode to the old-fashioned round-top fridge to grab water, spinning before he opened it at his brother’s shout of, “Catch!” He turned just in time to wrap both arms around the bag as it winged across the room and crashed against his chest. Rocked back a step, he narrowed his eyes and considered winging it right back, then grinned. “You’re still a brat, little brother, just like when you were a snot-nosed kid.”

He tossed it into the corner of the kitchen area, then turned and pulled open the fridge door to grab three icy bottles of water. One he launched at his brother’s head, the other at Dak, now upside-down in a handstand, heels against the wall while he powered through push-ups.

The man was stronger than an ox. Had better balance and dexterity than a ballet dancer. Carrick grinned to see the big man catch the bottle with one hand without wobbling, then push up one handed, flip, and land right-side up in a crouch.

He relished having these guys close at hand, living in their own cabins on the property. Also relished having this gym. Somewhere they could train out of the public eye. No way in hell could they work out in a regular gym for any length of time. Before they’d finished converting the barn to a custom gym, the fitness club down the street had been the only game in town.

They’d toned down their workouts; hadn’t been able to lift at their full capacity. Hadn’t been getting a good, strong workout and the need to hold back, to ensure they didn’t draw untoward attention to themselves, frustrated them all. After all, exhibiting superhuman strength didn’t help them stay under the radar.

He toasted his brother and Dak with the water bottle. “Damn, it feels good to lift and work the bag again without holding back.”

Reese nodded. “We kicked ass getting the reno done. Who’d of thought a drafty old barn could turn into something rivaling Pump and Press?”

Dak gave another quirk of his lips that passed for his smile. “I can just see sending one of their bags through a window.”

“Yeah, wouldn’t go over too well, would it, Dak?” Carrick guzzled half the water. “You hungry? I’ll spring for a couple of meat lover’s pizzas when we’re done here.” He turned to Reese with a frown. “Did Hale get back to you with the information he’d found on Denton and the Garou history?”

His brother’s scowl said it all. “Got some Garou history, but still waiting to hear if he found info on Denton. I hope to hell he finds out who’s been sniffing around and gets a lead on where the two missing men are.”

Carrick’s money was on Denton, the sadistic ass. There were rumors he’d gone from just suspecting the Garou existed to somehow getting hold of actual proof. They didn’t know what form that proof was, unfortunately, or where he’d got it from.

They’d long suspected traitors in the Garou community, but had ferreted no one out yet. The Council feared Denton had resorted to kidnapping Garou to conduct experiments or, god forbid, dissecting them like lab animals to reverse engineer their DNA.

Carrick jerked around as Sea Wolf blasted from his phone on the kitchen counter, crooning needin’ to get to the river ‘fore I run too low. Dak’s phone chimed in right behind with Wolf at the Door, and Reese’s simply howled. It would have been funny had it not been going on midnight and no reason for any of their phones to ring. Much less all three. At the same time. It was either the council calling about another abduction or a local emergency. Neither was good news.

They turned and ran to the counter, Carrick’s quick glance at the phone screen before he swiped his thumb to answer it showed the local Almaden fire station was calling. “Canavar!” Dak and Reese grabbed their phones but didn’t answer, knowing Carrick would get the info and fill them in.

Twenty seconds later, his eyes snapped to Dak’s, then Reese’s. “We’re on it. Be there in five, tops.” He disconnected and pivoted. “Attempted child abduction. Asshole took off, the kid’s unconscious, mother’s home alone with her.”

They ran for the big double doors, not bothering to change or dress, covered in nothing but gym shorts, workout shoes and sweat. Carrick snapped out orders. “Nine thirty-seven Almaden is just over the hill, same side of the road. We’ll take the Ducatis.”

It was damn lucky they lived so close to the attempted abduction, about a mile down on the same side of the road, accessible via a trail that ran behind the properties fronting Almaden Road, and they’d left the bikes outside after a tour of the property before working out.

They’d all gotten the same call because Reese and Dak were sister-city volunteer Forest Rangers with EMT and emergency services training, and Carrick volunteered with the local Search & Rescue.

As volunteers, they were ready to pitch in when local emergency response couldn’t get to a scene on time, allowing Carrick and his buddies to be first responders and suss out the situation, providing medical care, and even protection when needed, until Fire or deputies sheriffs could arrive. He hoped to hell the child was unhurt, and the mother was holding it together.

They weren’t formally on call this weekend, but as volunteers were never really off duty. Carrick knew emergency dispatch had tagged them because of the multi-car, multi-injury accident currently blocking the intersection of Blossom Hill Road and Almaden Expressway.

It was apparently tying up the bulk of South San Jose emergency crews and had called out their local Almaden area Fire folks, too. A paramedic engine was heading back in their direction, but no way in hell were they going to wait and chance fifteen or twenty minutes, not when it could mean life or death. And what if the son-of-a-bitch was still in the vicinity? Dispatch said the mother and kid were alone. Unprotected.

They’d get there in time. There was no way he was going to fail. Not like he did in New Idria years ago, when the faction they were fighting had blind-sided them, succeeding in almost mortally injuring his aunt and uncle because he hadn’t been fast enough, or clever enough, to thwart the bastards. Guilt still battered him over that.

Their phenomenal speed and night vision had them on the Ducati Multistrada 950/950 dirt bikes and up to forty miles an hour in two seconds, across his field in a flash. All three knew every pothole, bush and rock on Carrick’s land and cranked up to motocross speed on the barely there trail from his house to the gate on the south side of the property.

As they crested the small hill a quarter-mile from the boundary of his land, the light on the back porch of their destination shone like a beacon, being the only house on his side of the street in that direction. He remembered it being a desolate looking little cottage from the rear, with a surprisingly manicured, immaculate front yard rimmed in color with a compact porch at the front door.

He’d checked out all properties within a two-klick perimeter of his before he’d bought the ranch, and no one had been living in the house. That had changed just a couple of months ago, though.

He’d seen glimpses of a petite dark-haired woman and red-headed child as they’d moved in but had paid little attention, and hadn’t seen them since. If they weren’t a threat or didn’t need help, or weren’t part of the Garou community, they weren’t on his radar.

As they approached the narrow gate in the fence bordering his property and public land, he reached into the small pouch hanging from the handlebars and pressed the security fob to open it. With inches to spare, he shot through the opening, Reese and Dak hot on his tail, pressing the button when they cleared the opening to close it behind them.

He was thankful for the dirt trail that stretched for a few miles running between his property and Quicksilver Park, dipping closer to the road near his gate, continuing between the back of their target’s house and Quicksilver Park, before continuing on for another couple of miles.

“This is it!” Carrick gunned around the house to the front and stopped just short of running his front tire into the bumper of an older SUV slowly rolling away from the gravel bordering the small lawn and pulling onto Almaden Road, lights off, the license plate smudged with just enough grime and he couldn’t make it out.

He jumped off his bike and knocked the kickstand down. “Hey! Wait!” He stared after the Land Cruiser and wondered if he should give chase. Was that the bastard who’d tried to take the kid?

His inner debate ended when he looked at the driver’s reflection in the SUV’s side mirror and locked onto moss-green eyes set above high cheekbones and a strong nose, currently illuminated by an oncoming truck. Not their perp, but a woman. An extremely beautiful woman with a fall of mahogany curls framing her bewitching face.

He stood frozen, couldn’t look away as a wave of heat flashed and burned just under his skin, dizziness assaulting him, almost dropping him to the ground. What the hell? Their personal Garou doc had recently given him a clean bill of health. If not for that, he’d think he was having a seizure.

“Woah. Damn.” He wavered on his feet and stumbled back, grabbing the seat of his bike to keep from falling on his ass, unable to look away from those mesmerizing eyes in the rearview mirror. He narrowed his eyes to keep her in focus as shadows claimed the SUV and his glimpse of the mystery woman.

His skin prickled and his senses sharpened as an alluring scent tickled his nose, making his cock twitch and his skin feel even tighter, the fire to flash hotter. What the ever-loving fuck? Notes of cinnamon and nutmeg danced through the air, and he clenched the muscles in his abs and ass when he realized he was suddenly one stroke away from coming in his pants.

He was at a fucking emergency call, for god’s-sake! Nothing like this had ever happened to him before. He stood there dazed and tried to catch hold of an elusive memory as it tickled his subconscious, something he’d heard as a kid, but for the life of him he couldn’t grasp it. Fuck, he could barely stay on his feet!

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