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The stretch limo rounded a plowed country road that had segued from asphalt to gravel about three leagues south. The area was remote, perfect for a pack to live in relative privacy, though there was a village not far to the west. The village catered to mortals with a taste for quality skiing and secret liaisons in cozy cottage hideaways.
The gravel road was lined in frost-coated trees. The sky was white, the road packed with white snow. The proverbial winter wonderland.
A remarkable castle rose from the snow-blanketed valley and into Trystan Hawkes's backseat view. His father, Rhys Hawkes, had told him the fifteenth-century castle Wulfsiege was something to see. He had understated the remarkable structure.
Set in the Hautes-Alpes region of southeastern France, the multiturreted castle, forged from pale limestone, was surrounded by waves of pine forest, and mountains capped with pristine powder. The almost-white stone blended the castle against the landscape in an eerie effect that must have been a sudden shock to marauders from the past as they marched upon the fortressed structure.
A literal wall of snow, sheered off by a plow, fenced the left side of the road as they approached, as if a glacier, pushed just far enough, had decided to stop and rest for centuries. Pale winter sun glinted on the wall of snow and flashed as if across steel.
Trystan ached to ski or snowboard the gorgeous powder. His wolf pined to lope along the forest's edge under the moonlight on four legs instead of two.
"Should have brought along the board," he said to the driver, who pulled the limo to a stop at a massive iron gate coated with more of the hoarfrost and flashed his credentials to the gatekeeper. "Man, I'd love to shred that stuff."
"The Alpine pack hosts the games every other year," the driver said in a cheerful voice. "Edmonton Connor is the principal. Wolves from dozens of packs across the world show for the competition."
"Competition," Tryst muttered, feeling a blood-deep competitive streak flash through his veins. "Winter games, as in skiing and snowmobiling?"
"And snowboarding and two- and four-legged races. It's quite the spectacle. This isn't the year though. Next year."
Tryst gave a disappointed whistle. "I will most definitely be back."
"It's quite calm here today. One would never guess just yesterday the area experienced a fierce snowstorm.
Covered an icy layer of December snow with a foot of the fluffy stuff. Pretty."
Pretty, Tryst thought, but also dangerous. Mother Nature may be capable of producing stunners like the view he'd admired while driving up, but she could also be a bitch in areas like this set between mountains and valleys. Sudden storms could trap recreational skiers without warning.
"We've arrived, Monsieur Hawkes. Shall I wait?"
Tryst tore his gaze from the immense limestone front of the castle, where purple banners depicting a wolf rampant whipped in the wind, and dug in his pocket for his wallet. Then he remembered this was a limo the pack had sent to pick him up from the nearby village, and not a cab. Before that, he'd cabbed it from the airport to the village. The flight from the Charles de Gaulle in Paris had been rough. He hated flying, unless it was unimpeded through the air on a snowboard over extreme white powder.
"Must partake of the pow while I'm here," he muttered.
He lived for physical competition, and winter games were his sport of choice. Skimming down fresh powder, icy snowflakes misting his face, his body in complete control of the boardheaven. He couldn't believe there were actually games for his breed. Outstanding! Too bad he'd come here during a year when the games were not featured.
"I'd say drive on," he said to the driver. "I have to hand the package directly to the receiver, and it may take a while. Heck, I hope to have a look around while I'm here."
And learn more about the pack, was what he didn't say. Pack life intrigued him. He'd not grown up as part of a pack, and the allure of a tightly knit group of werewolves living together as family was irresistible to his wondering heart.
"Enjoy the weather, monsieur.''''
Tryst stepped out of the limo and tugged the small titanium case, handcuffed to his wrist, along with him. "Thanks, man," he said. "Be careful on that hairpin turn going out. That was a doozy in this long car."
The driver nodded and drove off.
The wind blew Tryst's scatter of hair across his face. Brushing it away, he trudged over the packed, icy snow that glossed the courtyard before the massive castle, eager to see the inside of this fascinating place.
"Wulfsiege." He loved the name. It conjured images of medieval werewolf warriors defending their homes and family against ancient marauders.
His father had been born in the eighteenth century, but he'd never regaled Tryst with tales of his past. Tryst figured his dad hadn't seen armored combat, though the man had certainly experienced defiance and struggle thanks to his mixed heritage of werewolf and vampire.
He paused, inhaling a breath of courage. Yes, it was required. For the haunting taunts of outsider lived in his brain. A slur used too often against him when he was younger and even, on occasion, now. Could he do this?
"Of course I can," he whispered. But a defensive clench of his fist was unavoidable. He never let down his guard.
A weird rumble, almost like thunder, alerted him. He cast a glance to the strange white sky that looked solid, as if he could take a bite out of it. "Couldn't be. Not in February."
Instinct prickled the hairs along his arms under the layers of sweater and ski coat Tryst wore. He cast a glance along the sharp wall of snow not five hundred yards from the castle grounds. Tryst tilted his head, wondering what he was looking for and sensing he should see it. But he did not, so he brushed it off as nerves. Never before had he entered a pack compoundor castleand he wasn't certain how they'd accept this outsider.
Once through the doors, the castle opened to a vast space that resembled more a streamlined airport lobby than a medieval stronghold. While the interior limestone walls had been retained, the three-story space was all glass, steel railings, and an escalator even glided up to the second level. Not very sporting for a werewolf to take an escalator, he mused.
Tryst exhaled. So far, so good.
To his left, a wall of windows looked over an open-air stadium that featured bleacher seating set up against the castle exterior, and looked out over a snowy field marked with flags and a judges' stand. A person didn't need a seat in the open-air stadium to get a good view of the action; they could stand and look out the window.
Damn, he wished this had been the competition year.
A pair of males wandered near the glass wall, heading toward the hallway that led north and he knew by their familiar scent they were wolves. They lifted their heads, sensing him, and eyed him curiously.
Here it comes.
Tryst gave a friendly wave but lowered his eyes. His father had told him a little about pack hierarchy, and it wasn't wise for an unaligned wolf to hold eye contact with a pack wolf unless he wanted to eat his own teeth for breakfast. Hell, Tryst hadn't needed a coaching session to know that one was truth. Some things he just needed to learn through experience, and he had a wealth of experience under his belt.
The wolves approached him, bruisers with wide shoulders and hands clenched in fists. Heads lifted as they looked him over, their sweaters stretched across ample delts and biceps. While Tryst was tall and broad, and had a tendency to always be the largest man in the room, he judged the two to be close in size to him.
He offered his hand to shake but they stared at it. "Trystan Hawkes," he said. "With a special delivery for the principal."
They exchanged looks and one asked, "What pack are you with?"
"Paris," Tryst answered easily. He didn't say pack because he wasn't going to lie. He waited to see how long it would take before they figured out he was not official.
"Paris pussies," one of them muttered, and smirked.
"Wait here," the other said. "We'll get Rick."
They strode off, keeping a keen eye over their shoulders as they did so.
The adrenaline racing through Tryst's body crashed and he exhaled, his tight muscles relaxing. He'd passed that test.
"All werewolves here," he muttered after the wolves must have decided he wasn't a threat, and assumed their path north. He'd never been around many of his kind in any particular instance.
Admittedly, he'd led a sheltered life. Growing up in Paris, and homeschooled by one of his father's good friends, Tryst hadn't begun to associate with other werewolves until his teen years when he'd go out at night in search of them. Learning the ways of packs had been an eye-opener, sometimes an eye bruiser. Though he had never been part of a pack, he was considered an omega wolf, like it or not. And most pack wolves did not like him because he was the son of a half-breed vampire/ werewolf. Son of a longtooth was his least favorite slang term used against him. Outsider, being the most bruising and mentally damaging. But he'd stood his ground against the pack wolves and had managed to gain their friendship, if not a leery trust. From a few, at the least.
The lure of pack life stirred his wanting heart now. It wasn't that he'd not felt loved growing uphe hadbut what he really wanted was to fit in, to be with his own breed and to know that kind of family. He'd missed something by growing up with vampires.
"Monsieur? Can I help you?"
As a suited young man who smelled like wolf, but who looked like GQ, approached him, Tryst explained, "I'm the courier from Hawkes Associates to see Principal Connor." His gaze darted quickly from the man's narrow shoulders to his polished leather shoes. "Are you Rick?"
"Yes." The man checked the iPad he held nestled against his forearm and then nodded. "That's Lexi's arrangement. Wait here. I'll get someone who can help you."
"No problem." Tryst saluted the man, who hurried off. "Real tight operation they've got around here." And not as imposing as he'd expected.
He started toward the north hall, the chain from his wrist to his case shushing across the titanium shell. He sensed a cafeteria close by for he smelled roasted meat. The crackers and peanuts on the airplane hadn't done much for his aggressive hunger. Hell, he was a big man; he needed fuel. All the time.
"Hawkes Associates?" a woman called after him.
Tryst swung around and sighted in a gorgeous, petite bit of darkness and light. Heeled white leather boots that rode to her thighs clicked on the stone floor as she strode purposefully toward him. A long white winter coat, pristine as fresh powder, swayed out about her knees. Her slicked-back black hair contrasted sharply with the coat, and the black, wraparound sunglasses flashed blue chromic lenses. She worked the winter Matrix look nicely.
Stopping before him, she hooked a white-gloved hand at her hip, which revealed she wore all white leather clothing underneath. The pose also exposed the white grip of a pistol she sported at her hip, but Tryst immediately knew it was a flare gun because he always packed one on any skiing venture.
Interesting. Matrix chick was sexy and deadly, in a safety kind of way. He nodded appreciatively. And a wolf, to boot? He could smell her wild pheromones enhanced with a burst of citrus, and his wolf howled inside at the prospect of standing so close to a gorgeous female of his breed.
Female wolves were not so rare in Europe as they were in America, but their packs and families protected them as if gold, and were very choosy about whom they were allowed to interact with and marry. Or so Tryst's dad had told him. He'd met a female wolf in a nightclub once, and indeed, members of her pack had carefully watched her every move. He hadn't been able to say more than "Hey, baby" when a bruiser had forced him to the opposite side of the dance floor where the vampires lurked. He'd challenged the guy to a fight, as his pride had demanded, and had limped for days after. Still, he'd counted himself a winner simply for surviving the beating.
It surprised Tryst this woman was out in the forefront and with no apparent male to guard her. He looked around. No guards posted in secret nooks, not even security cameras tucked at the ceiling or in corners.
"Trystan Hawkes," he offered, holding out his hand.
She shook it, firmly. The brief contact, though shielded by her leather glove, sent a scurry of excitement through his system. He was touching a female werewolf and no one was stopping him. A triumphant howl blossomed in his gut, and it was only with great restraint that he kept it silenced.
He wished he could see her eyes beyond the blue lenses, but the mystery heightened her appeal. Her mouth, prettily natural and not painted with bright lipstick, smiled softly, and Trystan imagined kissing those lush lips
"You're here to see Principal Connor?"
"Er.. " He snapped out of the fantasy. He shouldn't even go there in his mind, because if he so much as looked at a pack female the wrong way he suspected he'd never get out of castle Wulfsiege alive. "Yes, I've a package for your pack leader from Hawkes Associates." He tapped the case. "I've been instructed to hand it directly to him."
"Of course. I wouldn't have it any other way." She appeared to assess him from snowcapped boot toes, up his white-and-gray snow camo pants and over his Gore-Tex jacket to his shoulder-length hair, which he never remembered to comb. And no, it was not red, it was auburn.
Tryst winked, just in case her eyes were on his.
She gave him a "really" tilt of her head, and he felt the admonishment, but that didn't erase the smile he could not stop.
"Wait here," she instructed. "I'll check with the principal."
"No problem. I didn't catch your name?"
"No, you didn't." She turned and marched off in a precise line that took her around the steel railing that curved along the castle wall, and out of Tryst's sight.
"No, you didn't," he mocked. "Tough chick. But sexy. And a wolf. Whew!"
The howl still clambered for release and his smile went full-on goofy. Tryst shrugged his hands back through his hair. He figured every wolf in the castle had to have his sights set on Miss No You Didn't. But had they spoken to her as he just had?
Didn't think so. He was so ahead of the game.
On the other hand, a gorgeous chick like her was probably already mated to the strongest, most alpha wolf in the pack. He shouldn't get his hopes up. But the fantasy was always a kick. And hell, look up glutton for punishment in the dictionary and his face would be featured.
A sudden unnatural roar lifted the hair all over his body.