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Past My Defenses
By Wendy Sparrow, Lewis Pollak
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Wendy Sparrow
All rights reserved.
The night felt empty. The encroaching evergreens on either side of the highway loomed and swallowed most of the light from the stars.
Dane wiped a tired hand down his face. Look at him getting all spooked and sappy just because he wasn't going to be welcomed home after a long day of work.
Dane flicked on the radio and let it search through scratchy stations for a minute before turning it back off. He hated the silence, but he hated the noise even more. Another twenty minutes, and he'd be home.
He should get a dog.
A cat wasn't a pet — and it wasn't even his. A cat went wherever it wanted and to hell with what the humans around it needed.
A dog was always happy when an owner came home — stupidly happy, possibly — though he'd seen intelligent dogs. If he got an intelligent dog, he could teach it how to track — or maybe it'd already know how to do that instinctually. Dane yawned; his jaw popped from the effort. Plus, with a dog, he'd feel like he was the master of his domain. His cat — or rather the cat, because it definitely wasn't his, by any stretch of the imagination — suffered Dane's presence as long as the infernal thing was fed.
But a dog ...
Up ahead, a light caught his attention, and he pulled his Jeep off to the side of the road beside an abandoned car. The driver's side door was open and the dome light on. It was in a ditch, the front end embedded in the soft soil from the impact, but looked still drivable. The air bag hadn't gone off. There was a bend in the road, but not one so sharp someone should have lost control on it ... not someone sober anyway. Where the hell was the driver?
He leaned in. The sour smell of bleach made him wince and his eyes water. There was a small bottle on the passenger's side that must have broken open when the car crashed.
"Hello?" he yelled, grabbing his flashlight and beaming it out into the surrounding trees. The forest was dense in this area. "I'm a park ranger. Dane Hansen. Do you need assistance?"
Just miles earlier, this stretch had felt empty, but now, faced with this abandoned vehicle, there was a menacing quality to the stillness and shadows. The forests around Glacier Peak were never empty during the day, and the bigger predators would come out at night.
"Hello?" he tried again. Leaning into his Jeep, he radioed the accident in to his dispatch and waited, calling out periodically.
"I've got someone from the sheriff's department en route," Ross from dispatch said. "Stay where you are."
"You don't think I should see if there's someone out there injured?" Well, that was weird as hell.
"Do you have reason to believe there is?"
Even though he couldn't see him, Dane gestured at the car. "Well, the door to the vehicle is wide open and there's no one around. The emergency lights aren't even on." Duh. Something wasn't right.
"Do you see signs of foul play?"
"No. There's a small bottle of bleach on the floor that must have leaked when the car crashed. It might be masking other smells, but I don't see any signs of blood or a struggle other than what would have happened during the crash." Why would someone be carrying a bottle of bleach in their car? Odd.
There was silence as if Ross was conferring with someone. Other than how inky black it was, there was no reason why he shouldn't be safe tramping through the brush. He tried calling out a few more times. No response. The car door's being open like an alien abduction had just occurred was creepy as hell. The hair on the back of his neck was standing up straight as if someone were staring at him from the forest.
"No, wait for the sheriff's deputy to arrive," dispatch said. "Better safe than sorry."
Better safe than sorry? What the hell? Sure, he was a park ranger, not a cop, but he carried a gun. Even though he was new to the area, he'd lived in Washington State most of his life. He knew what was out in the dark. Yeah, he wasn't going to hang out by his Jeep waiting for the cops to get around to this. Who knew how soon that'd be?
He looked both ways along the deserted highway before feeling like an ass and stalking toward the forest with his flashlight pointed at the ground. The brush and grass looked to have been disturbed but prints were difficult to make out in the dark. He was careful not to step on the path he saw. Once he crossed into the tree line, the trail seemed even more indiscernible, but the sense of being watched increased.
Pausing, he looked around. Where were all the animals? Normally, he'd have scared a few small critters into bolting.
"Hello?" He should've asked Ross for the vehicle owner's name. That'd been stupid. Then again, Ross should've volunteered it. He could go back and search the glove box, but something about this screamed crime scene, and he didn't want some pissed-off cop snarling at him because he had to touch everything. Especially since they were treating him like a preschooler who needed someone to hold his hand before he could go into the forest.
He scanned his flashlight around him searching for something to indicate there was a person to follow in here. There was the blink of reflected light as his beam caught the eyes of an animal, and he jumped, but when he jerked back to it — it was gone.
"Nice, Dane. You're real brave. Maybe you do need someone to hold your hand." He scowled. Where the hell should he go next? The bushes around all looked mostly undisturbed. "Pathetic."
A car was approaching. Swearing under his breath, he turned and stomped back out of the forest with less care than he'd used going in.
Huh. More than one car. The one in front was a police cruiser that turned on blinding flashing lights. He blinked rapidly and tried to shade his eyes.
"Are the lights really necessary?" he asked the cop — whom he could barely see now.
"Yup. I'll take it from here," the deputy said, sauntering forward.
Travis. He was the same age as Dane, and they'd met a time or two.
"I can help you search. I haven't heard anyone, and I didn't see anyone on foot from my direction. I'm assuming you didn't see anyone coming from yours."
"Nah, but I got this. You can go on home."
Dane stared at him. This didn't add up. "It makes sense for me to stay. And I don't mind working off the clock." He had nothing but an empty house and a cat to go home to. Spending a few hours doing something worthwhile might lift this mood he'd been in.
Travis shook his head. "I've got someone to help, and we'll call you back if we don't turn up anything."
He squinted at the other vehicle. "Who?" And why couldn't he help? If this was some sort of locals-only thing, he'd misjudged Travis. The man seemed intelligent, but he hid behind a fairly convincing image of an idiot.
"Tracker. He's a local. With it being so dark and all, we'll try it this way tonight and get back with you."
He met Travis's gaze. "You know sending away another set of eyes is stupid as hell."
There it was ... a shrewd look that was quickly smothered. "Yup. But that's how the sheriff wants this played."
"Then, the sheriff is an ass, and if something happens to whoever owns that car because you sent me away, I'm not keeping quiet about it."
Even with the flashing lights still blinding him, he saw the white of Travis's smile. "Dane, I don't think anyone expects you to stay quiet very long. I'll keep you in the loop."
Shaking his head, he went back to his Jeep and waited there, watching his rearview mirror. Travis was investigating the car, and the passenger in the dark SUV that had pulled behind the cruiser didn't get out. Why were they being secretive?
Travis straightened from a crouch and went to the dark SUV — which was still mostly camouflaged by the blinding cruiser's lights. A minute later, he approached Dane's Jeep.
Opening the passenger door, the deputy leaned on the seat and stared Dane down. "Get a hold of me when the sun comes up, and I'll deal you back in if I can. In the meantime, I can't have anyone extra out in the dark wandering around."
"Why not? Afraid I'll get lost?"
Travis tilted his head. "Wolves. We've got a pack in the area, and the leader doesn't take to strangers all that well."
"Seems like a local thing."
The deputy grinned. "I like you just fine, Dane. Maybe later I'll bring you some roses to apologize for shutting you out. Pink or red?"
Dane started his Jeep. "I will call in the morning."
"I don't doubt it. I've always thought you were sweet on me." Travis slammed the door closed before he could hear Dane's real opinion.
He made the rest of the drive home in sullen silence, and when he slid from behind the wheel, the ache in his jaw alerted him that he'd been clenching his teeth the whole time. Great. The door wasn't open more than a crack when the damn cat darted through and out into the night.
"Lucifer!" Normally, he didn't let him out at night. He didn't want his younger sister's pet becoming a late-night snack for something lurking in the woods. "Lucifer!" Hell, the stupid thing could fend for itself. He'd open the pet door, and hopefully, it'd have enough sense to come in if something was chasing it.
Shaking his head, he turned to go in when he heard a wolf howl in the distance ... and then the screech of a cat. Hell. Yanking out his flashlight and turning it on, he bolted into the woods in the direction of Lucifer's screeching and hissing. Christa was going to kill him. She treated that cat like a child.
A half mile later, he stumbled into a small clearing and stopped stock-still. Well, that was something you didn't see every day.
* * *
Her naked hip pressed against the cold concrete was her first indication that something was very wrong in her world. The bright light of the room burned through her closed eyelids, but she almost didn't want to open them anyway. Reality was about to kick her tail — and since she was back in her skin-wear, that tail would be a metaphorical one, not an actual furry tail.
"Meow?" a plaintive voice asked.
"Oh, hell no," she said in a raspy voice, barely recognizable. That would explain the thick feeling of cement in her throat. Cats — those bastards — sent her histamine levels rocketing upward. And they knew it, too. They sensed it. It was why they always cuddled up to her no matter where she was. She was a damn cat magnet. She opened one eye. There was a drain in the concrete near her cheek and outside of that, a metal cage with a feline pressed against it. The cat stuck a paw through the bars and tried to swipe at her naked shoulder, missing only by inches. Beyond the maniacal cat, a man — a hot, red-blooded, sexy male no less, stood with his jaw dropped.
She inhaled and exhaled — a long, raspy wheeze where she could practically hear the air scraping through her lungs. "While you're enjoying the scenery, do you think you could get that cat away from me? I'm seriously allergic. Unless you've got an EpiPen handy, this could get ugly."
He strode over, grabbed the cat, and without saying a word, went to the nearby door and tossed the vile beast outside. The cat yowled irritably but he slammed the door shut in its face. Well, that was more like it. Her respect for the man ratcheted up a dozen levels.
Vanessa sat up slowly, and it felt like she'd left her sinuses behind on the concrete. An involuntary groan slid out her hoarse, sore throat. She'd told the Alpha she'd be no good in this state. She'd warned him she had next to no skills when her allergies were this bad. She couldn't have caught the scent of a skunk if it'd sprayed her, let alone track anything. She was useless in either form. The Alpha was a man, though, and he thought he knew better. Typical man. Typical Alpha.
She should be in her home crowded against her air purifier, waiting for all of Snohomish County to stop blooming her to death. She wasn't deathly allergic to everything else like she was to cats, but it wasn't pretty. She'd been a snotty mess even before she'd padded out into the forest on four feet.
Then, it all got hazy — a histamine and altered-consciousness blur.
The man walked over to the tall island counter in the giant utilitarian mudroom and leaned against it, facing her, with his arms crossed. He kept staring at her.
"You were some sort of wolf," he stated, pointing at her.
She pulled up a leg and propped her chin on her knee, wrapping her arms around it. It covered much of the free peep show she was providing this stranger.
"If you say so." She sounded like a pack-a-day lifetime chain smoker. Real sexy. "Right now, I'm a naked woman in a kennel, hoping you have a couple of allergy pills and a shirt that furry spawn of Satan hasn't touched." She reached out a hand and rattled the four-by-five metal cage bolted to the floor. "I'll tell you what ... this reminds me of Reno — only that time involved a double-dog dare and a feather boa." Vanessa wrinkled her nose. "Actually, so far, this is better than Reno, but I wouldn't mind losing the kennel."
He grabbed a set of keys off the shelves across from her and crouched in front of the door. He was still wary of her, but it was likely hard to be afraid of a scrawny, naked woman in a cage who sounded like one of Marge's sisters on The Simpsons. The latch snicked open, and the lock dropped into his hand. With a show of false nonchalance, he turned his back on her as the door slipped open. Instead of moving, she watched the fluid grace of his limbs as he strolled toward the humming dryer in the corner, the picture of casual. It was for her benefit, after all — besides, he didn't look bad from behind.
They say when a person loses one of their senses, the remaining senses become heightened — what a crock of crap. She couldn't catch the scent of the dryer and the warm cotton contents that spilled out when he opened the door — or the scent of him, yummy, thirty-something male. Unfortunately, her ears felt plugged and gross from swollen passages and too long on the cold concrete, so she could barely hear the scrape of buttons on metal as he pulled a red flannel shirt from the dryer. Her eyes were all watery, but she glanced around and through the tears she could see a few other cages. She'd been in the largest. Most were for smaller animals — cats, raccoons, bunnies.
Where the hell was she?
If it weren't for the accommodating behavior of her captor, she'd be bolting for the door and running despite the fact that she felt two steps away from death. Her legs tingled with the desire to run ... or it was the lack of oxygen and the change from wolf to human? It could be either.
But seriously, what was with these cages?
The only thing that came to mind was poachers, but they'd have more large cages if that were the case, and he had unlocked the door.
Besides, there'd been a real look of shock on his face when she'd opened her eyes. He hadn't expected her to be anything other than what she'd been — a slight wolflike creature. A poacher would have known.
Plus, he didn't look evil. As far as she could tell. She blinked rapidly, hoping to focus on him through the wash of tears. It was no good. Even though her hormones, from being in heat, were telling her that he was a warm-bodied possessor of the XY chromosomes and a virile specimen at that, he remained a watercolor painting. Brown hair, tan skin, lean, tall ... and coming back toward her with the flannel held out and his cloud-gray eyes averted.
But also a big checkmark in the "he's not pure evil" category. Even if he had that cat.
She unfolded from the cage slowly, unaccustomed to fitting through a door the size of a small window.
"So, you like to keep cages around?" she asked as she stood. There. That had sounded casual. Well, as casual as she could be with this swollen, itchy-as-hell throat.
Please let him not be a poacher.
"I'm the new park ranger. I moved in a few months ago. Cages go with the territory. Typically I'm just holding animals for animal control or until they heal, not because they felt like a stroll on four feet instead of two."
Ah, huh, well, this blew. She'd managed to keep what she was from the previous park ranger for the four years she'd lived under the protection of this pack. She'd blown their cover in just months now. Who knew what the hell her Alpha would make of a two-legged knowing he'd caught a Lycan? Jordan didn't tend to take a light stance on things like that. Damn. Just damn.
Excerpted from Past My Defenses by Wendy Sparrow, Lewis Pollak. Copyright © 2014 Wendy Sparrow. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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