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Of all the damn times for his SEAL team leader, Hunter Greymere, to take a mate and fly off on a honeymoon to Hawaii, why did he have to do so now?
The problem wasn't only with the assassin, should he arrive here and target Hunter's sister, Meara, since Hunter was gone, but also with the fact that Meara was on the prowl for a mate. Finn Emerson had discovered that when he read the advertisement for cabin rentals that was lying on the white marble breakfast bar in Meara's cabin.
He would have been wryly amused if the situation wasn't creating even more difficulties for him. Glancing down at the counter, he reread the advertisement.
Cabin rentals with single occupancy located on Oregon coast. Great for rugged adventurers looking for a wilderness escape. No nearby shopping, theaters, or restaurants. Strictly a roughing-it getaway. For a special fee, management will provide a select menu. Cabin availability limited, so sign up now.
Meara Greymere, Owner and Manager
As he considered each point in the advertisement, Finn shook his head and slipped a bug into Meara's phone.
Single occupancy? After searching the five unoccupied cabins, Finn had found that each had two bedrooms and a living area furnished with a fold-down couch for additional guests.
Rugged adventurers? From what Hunter had told Finn, Meara had been searching for a mate for some years now, and he assumed she wanted only alpha males to rent the cabins.
Cabin availability limited? Yep, limited to five alpha males, if she could ensure she only rented to alphas.
Meara Greymere, Owner and Manager? What had happened to Hunter in the equation? Finn knew Hunter wouldn't have given Meara total control over the rentals.
As to the special fee for a select menu, he just wondered what—or more appropriately, who—she would be offering.
Finn spied a notebook sitting next to the phone and flipped it open. A woman's handwriting listed guests due to arrive this week—with abbreviated notes beside their names.
Joe Matheson, investment broker–sounded sexy, first arrival.
Hugh Sutherland, thrill seeker–rugged voice.
Ted Greystalk, bank president–promising.
Caesar Silverman, dive-shop owner–sounded wet and wild.
Finn snorted. He didn't think she liked Navy SEAL types much because he and Hunter were SEALs. So why would the owner of a dive shop be appealing? Maybe she covertly was impressed with SEALs but refused to admit it, and the diver reminded her of a SEAL.
Rocky Montana, independently wealthy–mysterious.
The guy sounded like he was a wrestler or something. But the "mysterious" bothered Finn most. A man with something to hide?
Five other names had been crossed out and had merited comments like "not rugged enough," "sounded way too controlling," "by own admission, strictly loner wolf," "too old sounding," "strictly human," and "mated!"
She had another list of eligible and ineligible wolves for the following week.
Finn slapped the notebook closed and set up a hidden camera in the living room, wedging it between books in the bookcase. He would have a couple of his buddies run background checks on each of the men to see if they could turn up anything. Because lupus garous lived so long, they had to change their occupations and locations after a time to avoid suspicion, so the background checks might not turn up much.
That was fine. Finn would interrogate the men thoroughly in person anyway. He smiled a little. He'd prove to them that none had what it took to turn Meara's head.
Still, Finn couldn't believe Hunter had left a couple of sub-leaders in control of the pack and Meara in charge of the cabins. So who the hell was in charge of Meara?
The worst-case scenario was that Meara would get stuck with a wolf she wasn't interested in mating due to a poor choice on her part. From what Hunter had told him, she'd always been headstrong and hard to heel, and Finn figured the years hadn't changed her. Besides, she was always picking up the wrong kind of men.
Finn stalked down the plush ivory-carpeted hall to her bedroom—a nicely appointed room with a queen-sized bed covered in an olive-colored silk comforter and pillows, all trimmed in gold. The walls were a marbleized olive color, and all the wood was rosewood, making him feel as if he were in a cozy woodland den. On the walls hung pictures of redwoods from the California forests Meara and Hunter had called home for more than a century. Finn wondered if Meara ever got homesick, or if she'd adjusted to living on the Oregon coast. He still couldn't believe they'd been forced to move because of some damned arsonist.
Used to living out of a duffel bag, Finn was surprised to feel an uncharacteristic pang of longing for an ocean-view cabin, comfortable, homey, and appealing for every season. He had a place of his own with an ocean view a couple hours south, having thought he might live there if he ever wanted to set down more permanent roots, but he rarely stayed there, renting it out to others for most of the year. Or using it as a safe house on occasion.
His home didn't feel like his own place, having been decorated by an interior decorator. Nothing there was his personally. It was just a spot to drop in when it was vacant, once in a blue moon, and he wasn't on a mission.
Meara's cabin had a different ocean view, and it was warmer somehow, filled with her enticing scent and smaller, homier than his place. A rosewood-framed collection of pictures of her family—Hunter, her parents, and her uncle, who had owned the cabin resort before giving it to Hunter and Meara—sat on the dresser. A silver-plated hairbrush engraved with her grandmother's name rested beside the pictures. A tube of lip gloss next to that made Finn think of Meara's moistened lips—succulent, full and petulant, and damned ripe for kissing. He scowled at himself for even going there and glanced out the window.
He could imagine a summer day like today with a refreshing, cool ocean breeze blowing through the open windows, or a wintry landscape where the pines were dusted with snowflakes while he ran through them in his wolf coat, or spring wildflowers filling the woods, or the leaves turning crimson, burnt orange, and brilliant yellow on a fall day.
He shook his head at himself. When had he become an old man?
He stripped out of his clothes and dumped them next to his duffel bag. If any of these vacationing wolves thought they had half a chance of making a play for Meara without Hunter around, they'd soon learn that they'd have to deal with another alpha male.
The situation could be a lot more serious than that—not that selecting the wrong mate wasn't serious enough, since lupus garous mated for life and lived long lives. Finn didn't know if, in an effort to get to Hunter, the assassin would attempt to grab Meara.
Finn snatched his cell phone from his belt and tried to call Hunter one last time. According to one of Hunter's sub-leaders, Chris Tarleton, Hunter would be flying out with his mate to Hawaii any minute now and he'd probably already turned off his cell phone. Hell, Finn had to warn Hunter to watch his back. If he'd only known sooner that Hunter had moved his lupus garou pack from Northern California to the Oregon coast, Finn might have caught Hunter before he left. A few months had passed since their last contracted mission, and Finn had just assumed that Hunter and his pack were still living in the same place they had for years.
The phone rang and rang. No answer. Finn would have to keep trying to reach him. For now, Finn needed to stake the territory as his own until Hunter returned. Finn extended his arms and summoned the quick and painless transformation into his wolf form, welcoming the stretching of muscles and tissue. The softer fur covered his skin close to his body, while the coarser outer coat added a protective layer. He dropped to stand on all four paws before loping down the hall to the kitchen where a wolf door was his ticket to the outside.
Once outside, he raced across the slate-gray patio, then dove into the woods surrounding the oceanfront cottage and ran along a trail already marked by Hunter and a female, probably his mate. By the time the two of them returned from Hawaii, their scent markings would be two weeks old, and another werewolf coming into the area might think it was unoccupied, allowing him to stake a claim to the territory.
Finn loped through the northern pine and Douglas fir forests, scent-marking the area surrounding each of the five rental cabins. Waves crashed below the cliffs, and the Pacific Ocean breeze shook the pine branches as the clean air filled his lungs. He paused briefly at the cliffside to take another heady breath and watch the foaming waves crest and fall against the beach. He could never get enough of the sea.
But instead of striking from the direction of the sea and returning there after accomplishing his clandestine mission, as he would have done while serving as one of the elite U.S. Navy SEALs, Finn was sticking to the land this time. Nothing about this operation would be clandestine. Finn wanted the assassin to know he was here protecting his own, if whoever it was decided to make a hit on anyone else who had been with the team.
Hunter had been like a brother to Finn while they'd served as SEALs, and Finn owed it to Hunter to keep him safe—and Hunter's sister also, knowing that she could be a target and Hunter wasn't here to protect her. Not that Meara would see it that way once she learned why Finn was here, he suspected.
Finn leaped over a fallen tree on a pine-needle path farther away from the ocean, breathing in the scents of pine and fresh water trickling by in an ice-cold stream. Neither could mask the distinct smell of another predator. A cougar. And farther in the distance, its potential prey, an elk.
Finn paused, twisting his ears this way and that, listening to the sounds of the ocean, the water in the stream, and the birds twittering and singing to one another, but he could detect no other sound of animals, human or otherwise, traversing the land.
Despite this not being Finn's territory, he was leaving fresh markings and making it his territory until Hunter returned home. Finn scratched the ground again with his paws to help ensure that any newcomer would know Meara had not been left alone without protection.
Finn loped back toward the house, satisfied he'd left enough of his scent to warn anyone who intended to get close to the territory to back off. He glanced at the drive in front of the wood-frame cabin. No vehicle there yet. From what Chris Tarleton had reluctantly told him, Meara should be returning from the airport in about an hour.
Chris definitely didn't sound happy to hear that Finn was back, nor that he was looking out for Meara's welfare. Finn wondered what interest Chris had in Meara. A pack sub-leader's interest—as in she was the leader's sister, and if she was in trouble and Chris didn't watch out for her, he would be in trouble? Or something of a more personal nature?
Baby-sitting Meara wasn't what Finn had in mind, either. But the assassin had already attempted to kill one of their SEAL team members and was suspected of going after another. Finn had the sneaking suspicion that the assassin intended to go after each of them. Fortunately for them, the assassin was batting zero, and with the SEALs aware of the menace, whoever this was would have a devil of a time succeeding now.
Finn ran around the pine trees surrounding the house to the back patio of Meara's cabin. He'd checked out the cabin farther down the coast and found it was Hunter's and Tessa's. Meara's sweet scent permeated this cabin. And here's where he'd stay until he could reach Hunter and apprise him of the situation.
Butting through the wolf door with his nose, Finn entered the kitchen and headed for the master bedroom to dress. If he had judged the time right, Meara would be arriving soon. He'd have a fight on his hands from the outset. Guaranteed.
Although thrilled for her brother and his mate and their new beginning, Meara was trying not to show how excited and anxious she was to see Hunter and Tessa off quickly on their flight. Meara impatiently waved as they headed to the waiting area past the security check station, and once they were out of sight, she booked it out of there.
Now was her chance to throw out the red carpet for the prospective bachelor alpha males who had leased the cabins. If none of the men this week appealed to her, she had a new batch of bachelor males coming the next week.
They were her cabins for now. The guests were all hers, too. When Hunter and Tessa returned, Meara intended to convince them to let her be in charge of renting the cabins permanently while they ran the pack. She would insist that would keep her well-occupied and happy, since she'd been none too happy to move here from the redwoods of California in the first place. Damned arsonists. If she could get away with it, she'd locate them and... well, they wouldn't be setting any more fires. Not unless they did so in hell.
Thankfully, Hunter had two sub-leaders, Chris and Dave, to watch over the pack while she was given the job of maintaining the cabins. That meant the sub-leaders would be occupied as she actively looked over her mate prospects. Two weeks. That's all the time she had without her brother interfering and saying no to anyone she might be interested in. Not that she'd totally listen to him. But she hated how he always made her doubt herself about the men she'd been intrigued with. And once she'd hooked up with them?
Yeah, as much as she hated to admit it, Hunter had always been right. In every case, they'd been the wrong sort for her. But she was determined to get it right this time. Without his brotherly advice!
Of course, if none of these men were suitable, she'd keep looking. But she didn't believe she'd ever have a more perfect opportunity to be out from under Hunter's watchful eye than now.
In her excitement, she rushed home to ready herself for her first guest's arrival, exceeding the speed limit just a little on the winding road. But she had to be prepared.
Let's see. Snacks, drinks. Maybe dinner, even though it wasn't part of the paid "meal plan." But a light meal—she'd made the perfect homemade German potato salad, just in case—and conversation might go a long way toward quickly finding out as much as she could about each of her prospective guests.
What would be the best way to entertain the male arriving tonight? A midnight, moonlit swim? The Pacific Ocean in these parts was cold any time of the year, but she was up for anything a potential mate might enjoy trying. A moonlit stroll in the woods? A run in their wolf coats? Dinner on the patio with glasses of red or white wine, the moon and a sprinkling of stars glowing overhead?
Getting too cozy too early would be a mistake. She loved to run and she loved adventure, so curling up on the couch to watch a movie wasn't what she had in mind. Later, sure. But she had to know he'd want to do fun, adventurous activities. Not just lie around watching TV while she cooked meals for him. If he also cooked, so much the better. And if he didn't mind vacuuming? Even better.
Okay, that was getting a little too domesticated right off the bat. But she did hate vacuuming. And if he liked to vacuum, that would definitely work for her.
As soon as she reached the coast and her rustic redwood cabin, she parked and got out of the car. But something didn't feel right. The blinds were still closed in the four windows facing the road, and the front door was shut like it should be. Everything seemed in order, but... she could have sworn one of the blinds in her bedroom had moved just a hair.
As wolves, well, part-time wolves anyway, she and her kind could see like wolves could. And catching a glimpse of movement that a human might not notice was one of the perks of being one of the wolf kind. Still, had it been her imagination? Maybe a trick of the pine branches dipping and rising in a graceful dance to the coastal wind's tune and casting shadows across her bedroom window? As she watched the interplay of light and shadows, she thought that might be the case.
She sniffed the air and smelled the scent of pine trees; the salty, fishy ocean breeze; a hint of sour seaweed; and even the smell of an elk. And, she narrowed her eyes as she shifted her gaze to the north, a cougar. He wasn't anywhere in sight, but she could smell him a few miles through the woods just the same. It was their territory. Not his.
But then she took another breath and frowned more deeply. Hell, a wolf had left his scent markings in the area. She sampled the air some more. Male. Had to be an alpha, or he wouldn't have been so bold. Had to be a lupus garou for the same reason. If it was the guy renting the cabin who was due to arrive soon and he'd gotten here early, she'd give him an earful. He was just a visitor unless she decided otherwise. And he had no business marking the territory with his own scent. Talk about having balls.
She looked quickly around. Where was he? There was no sign of a vehicle. No one sitting on the wicker settee on the front porch. No sign of a soul.
The scent markings warned her, though, that an alpha male was claiming this territory. She thought then he must still be running around in the woods in his wolf form. Fine. As soon as he showed up, she'd let him know in no uncertain terms what a mistake he was making.
Meara entered the main cabin that their uncle had given to her and Hunter. Now that her brother had moved into Tessa's home further down the coast, this place was all Meara's. But immediately she got a whiff of a male werewolf who had been inside her place. She stood stock still, lifted her nose, and sniffed the air with deeper purpose. A male wolf she didn't recognize had been in her home. No... the scent seemed vaguely familiar, but... she frowned. Finn Emerson?
No, he wouldn't be here when Hunter wasn't.
She glanced around the room, listening more than anything, although she scanned the living area, neat as usual, magazines on the table all about fishing and hunting—the kind of stuff she thought guys might be interested in, although she liked the subjects, too. As a young girl, she had been much more interested in wilderness camping and hiking, playing tug-of-war with the guys, and wrestling with them, than in playing with dolls or shopping with the other females when she grew older.
The bookcase against the wall was filled with knickknacks, photos of the giant sequoia trees that reminded her of home, nature books, and her treasured werewolf romance books by Julia Wildthorn, but nothing appeared out of place. She could hear her heart beating spastically.
She wasn't easily scared, but her innate wolf sense warned her to be wary. A wolf of a man had invited himself in when she was gone, and the door had been locked.
She swung around to look at the wolf door. He'd marked the territory and then let himself into her house in his wolf form?
Then she reconsidered. Sure, he would have left and returned as a wolf, but if he'd first arrived as a man, he most likely would have used a lockpick.
She thought she heard a couple of footfalls in her bedroom. Her eyes widened and her heartbeat quickened. Great. Her rifle was under the bed, easily retrieved if someone broke into her place when she was sleeping. But right now, it did her no good.
She backed toward the patio door that led to a small stone patio, the cliffside walk to a small beach below, and another walk that wrapped around to the front where her car was parked. Her plan was to make a quick getaway and call the pack for help.
But she backed right into someone solid who hadn't been there seconds earlier. She screeched and jumped several feet away, whipping around in terror to see one hunk of a male specimen. He was definitely a wolf type, a virile, dark-haired man with almost-amber eyes tinged with green. From the way his casual clothes hugged his chest and biceps, he had a body worth taking a second and third look at. His hair was cut military short, and because of his rugged appearance and the way he had moved so stealthily, he reminded Meara of Hunter's SEAL team members.
But he wasn't anyone she knew. And he didn't have the same scent as the other male wolf she'd smelled.
The stranger's lips curved up slightly, capturing her attention.
"Hey," he said in a deeply persuasive voice, putting his hands up to show he was unarmed. His wolfish gaze raked over her in an admiring manner that told her he was already interested in her. "Didn't mean to startle you, but the sign outside said this was the office, and I've got a cabin reserved for a week. Unless I've got the wrong place. I'm Joe Matheson." He lowered his hands slowly, as if to prove he wasn't going to harm her, and stretched his right hand out to shake hers.
Even though she'd heard him say the words she'd wanted to hear and the notion was finally sinking in that he was supposed to be here and was the first of the male guests scheduled to arrive, she couldn't shake the sudden chill she felt in her bones. Because?
She glanced back in the direction of her bedroom down the hall. She'd thought she heard footfalls in her bedroom. But now she imagined that had just been the sound of the ocean and the wind in the trees. After moving here from the redwoods in California, she didn't think she'd ever get used to how the Oregon coast sounded.
She lifted her nose and smelled. The faint scent of another male wolf still lingered in the air. She didn't think Finn Emerson would come here while Hunter was away and then stay, but she wondered: had he, and if so, why?