by Rebecca Royce
The Westervelt Wolves - Book 1
Available from Liquid Silver Books
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Ashlee Morrison has a secret obsession—with a dark and mysterious male. The only problem is that he’s a wolf and she’s becoming convinced that she’s insane. But Ashlee’s wolf is no ordinary canine; he is Tristan Kane, third son in the royal family of the Westervelt Wolf pack.
Trapped in his wolf form by his evil father’s men, Tristan has desperately sought a way out of predicament and is shocked to find that the sad but beautiful redhead who has come to the wolf cage can not only hear him, but awakens in him the knowledge that she is his mate, the other half of his soul.
Ashlee, unaware that she is half wolf-shifter, agrees to accompany Tristan back to his pack in Maine to seek answers to her past and understand her future. But as Tristan and Ashlee grow closer, familial betrayals will threaten to destroy the fragile love they have started to build.
With the odds stacked against them, Ashlee and Tristan will either embrace their love to save the Westervelt Wolves or be lost forever to despair.
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Ashlee Morrison automatically searched for him in the crowd. When she found him, she stopped breathing for a second as pleasure swirled within her chest. With his dark mane and his proud posture, he would have stood out even if he didn’t avoid the others. She walked closer, just to the edge of where he was visible to her, careful not to draw attention to herself.
Loneliness hung like a tangible cloak around him. Ashlee chuckled at her crazy thoughts. God, if anyone heard her inner dialogue, they’d think she was talking about a man, not a wolf.
She strolled around the outskirts of the Polloza Park and Zoo’s large wolf enclosure and stopped every few feet to look through the fence. In the last week, the wolves had started playing together like puppies. They ran after one another, the bigger ones pouncing on top of the smaller ones as they nipped and bit. It wasn’t really play—she knew that—it was all about getting the attention of one of the females who was in heat. That’s what the zoologists explained to her yesterday when she’d asked about the strange pack behavior. Well, it seemed strange to her anyway.
But who was she to judge anything as odd or different? If she hadn’t literally lost her mind and started ranting about impossible scenarios to anyone who would listen, she would now be finished with college and not living at back at home with her mother and father. She’d have a real job instead of her volunteer one at the local zoo. The doctors her father had taken her to see had helped her. She could finally tell the difference between real and imaginary.
Real was day-to-day life. Work, family, and friends were the things she needed to focus on. They actually existed. Neurotic daydreams of her sister being locked up in a cage were nothing more than manifestations by an inner psyche that was still devastated by Tom’s betrayal. Coupled with the internal jealousy the doctors insisted she had towards her sister, which was evidently, in Ashlee’s head, a recipe for disaster. Even if she had never been aware of any green-eyed feelings towards Summer before the episode six months ago. She believed the psychiatrists; if they said she was envious, she wasn’t really in any position to argue with them. They were highly sought-after professionals and, to Ashlee’s relief, at the last session they had told her family she was doing better.
Which was exactly why she didn’t tell anyone about the feelings of claustrophobia that nearly overwhelmed her each time she got too close to the wolf cage or about the strange male voice she heard in her head on an almost daily basis now.
A stab of pain pierced her stomach and she pressed her hand there. Nothing like hunger to take her out of her inner musings and back to reality. She needed to stay in the here-and-now and, moreover, she shouldn’t have skipped lunch. At least her appetite had returned; that must mean she was getting back to normal. She leaned against the outside wall of the enclosure and tried to enjoy nature’s mating show.
Not all of the pack joined in the fun. “The lone wolf,” as she had come to think of him did not seem in the least bit interested in the pack’s antics. In fact, he looked bored. The others avoided him as if he was diseased. Maybe he was. Didn’t animals know when one of their kind was sick and avoided them? Even kill the one who was unwell? Was that true for pack animals? She wasn’t an animal expert, just a volunteer whose job was to point the visitors towards the gift shop or the restroom if they asked for it.
The thought of him being ostracized, or worse, put down, made her sad but she shoved it away. Sad thoughts were not allowed to form in her mind; they got out of control in there. She pulled her olive green fleece volunteer jacket tighter around her to protect against the cold fall breeze. For some reason over the last few months she’d come to think of him as hers, which was stupid, of course, but she’d adopted him in her heart anyway. Even convinced herself that it was his voice she could hear. His intonations that watched her walk and worried about her health and well-being while ranting about being locked up and betrayed. Ashlee supposed it could be worse. Her delusions were at least kind to her and concerned for her welfare. They weren’t asking her to shave her head or kill anyone.
A woman pulled on her sleeve and caught her attention. “Excuse me, miss, which way is the restroom? My son’s had an accident.”
Ashlee looked at the mother and her little boy. Thirty-five, maybe older, with brown hair that already held some grey. She guessed the boy was around three years old. She noted his Halloween costume—a pumpkin—had a urine stain down the front. Ashlee smiled at his big round face and dimpled cheeks.
“Straight down that path and to the left.” She hoped she didn’t look sad. Cute kid.
“Thank you, pretty lady.” The three-year-old boy gave her a big grin and pulled his mother toward the bathroom path.
Pretty lady? Not lately. Twenty-two years old and so tired, she could barely see straight. Her red hair, once strawberry blonde, seemed to have dulled along with her brain. With bland green eyes, pale skin, and a figure that needed another ten pounds to be curvy, she wound up looking sick, instead of slender.
She cleared her throat and looked at the wolf. These days all she needed were those brief glances to feel content, another fact she kept from her team of psychiatrists.
Her father had signed her on for this job even as she sobbed in her bed every day. He’d thought it would get her mind off Tom and keep her from having another incident. He was right. Her summer volunteer position had extended into the fall, and now, two weeks from Halloween, she hadn’t earned a dime, but she no longer mourned the five-year relationship that had ended so badly. More importantly, she wasn’t having any more strange manifestations of impending doom. She assumed Tom had married the mother of his almost-time-to-be-born child by now.
Ashlee shrugged and let the memories fade. She walked to the gate of the wolf pen and stared in. Usually, she didn’t get close to the animal cages; it felt invasive to do so and sometimes she would swear it felt like she was personally trapped in the cage. The animals spent all day with people pushed up against their enclosures pointing and staring. She preferred to give them some space. She blinked and squinted. The lone wolf had red fur in its coat. Why hadn’t she noticed that before? Because she hadn’t been able to focus on anything before and she was going out of her way to not spend too much time focused on the lone wolf.
Ashlee smiled, and the wolf raised its eyes to look at her. She blushed, which made her feel ridiculous. He was a wolf, for God’s sake, but his eyes looked so human, so compassionate. That compassion drew her in. She leaned closer to the cage. She snorted. For the last ten minutes, she’d done nothing but personify animals. Talk about desperate. Maybe it was time to go back to school.
“Can’t be fun for you to be so alone in there. Maybe you would have been happier with a different pack.” She’d just broken her cardinal rule and spoken to the animal. She closed her eyes at the slip-up.
Ha! Not this pack, that’s for sure. My family actually walks on two legs some of the time. I’d love to take you to meet them. I bet if I got you there, you might actually smile. I hate that half-grimace thing you seem so fond of.
Ashlee jumped back from the enclosure, so startled she fell on her behind. Had the wolf just talked to her in her mind or had her hallucinations gotten worse? She stood and looked around her. Her cheeks burned. No patrons or other volunteers were about to see to see her act like a lunatic, which was fortuitous or she’d soon be fired from her volunteer position.
She cleared her throat and looked around again. No one nearby, just the trees with their colored leaves, the wind, and the wolves. Her butt hurt from her earlier fall. She narrowed her eyes to stare at the wolf. “Did you say something?” She groaned. Why was she playing into this? You don’t talk to figments of your imagination.
Did you hear me, little one? The wolf’s ears perked up, and he stood up on all fours to walk towards the side of the enclosure she pressed against. Is it possible you have been here with me all this time and you can actually hear me? Why have you not answered me before?
She should put a stop to this right now and walk away. But, she didn’t. Her feet felt glued to where they stood on the ground. She felt a light wind pick up and blow her hair off her shoulders. Not knowing what else to do, she swallowed the nervous bile that had formed in her throat. “I don’t know how I hear you, but yes, I can. Unless I’ve cracked up, which is most likely what’s going on here. That’s why I don’t answer you. I don’t want to be crazy anymore.”
Crazy? You haven’t cracked up. Perhaps I have. Her wolf sniffed the air and walked closer. He howled and Ashlee took a step backwards. That smell. Your scent. I know it. You never get close enough to let me smell you. The spell, it must have limited my other powers. My sense of smell is worse than some humans. Could it be?
Ashlee’s heart pounded in her chest. “Wow, we’re really having a conversation, aren’t we?”
She looked around again to be sure that no one approached. “What does that mean?”
How could you be here so often, for so long, and I did not know? I will kill Rex and any others who inflicted this intolerable state upon me.
Kill? Ashlee’s pulse sped up. Her palms grew sweaty and she wiped them on her pants. “I’m sorry, I’ve got to go.”
No, no little one, you cannot leave me in this pen. You must get me out and return with me to my home where my pack can restore me. I need to tell my family about the one who has betrayed us.
“Get you out of the cage? Are you nuts? See, I knew it was just a matter of time before my delusions wanted me to do something that was against the law. No. I’m in charge of my own mind. I get to say what I will and won’t do. This whole thing goes so far beyond the realm of normal I can’t even see the border anymore. I can’t get you out of the cage. I can’t let a wolf run around the park where there are children. They’ll lock me up and shoot you.”
I would never hurt a child. But you still believe I am a mere animal and for some reason you think you are not mentally well. Not until I return home can I show you otherwise. The wolf lay down on his belly. His head pressed to the ground. Damn.
Ashlee’s eyes filled with tears at the distress in his voice and the defeat in his body language. It had been a few weeks since she’d gone on a crying binge and she didn’t want to start now. “I have to go. I’m sorry.” Why was she apologizing to her phantasm? She wiped the one tear that escaped from her eye with her hand and turned to go.
Wait. Her wolf growled and stood up. Ashlee turned back to him, her eyes wide. Do not cry. I cannot stand it. Please, beautiful girl, won’t you tell me your name?
“My name? Oh.” She blushed. “My name is Ashlee Morrison.” She started to leave again but whirled around. “What is your name?” At least she could give her delirium a label.
My name is Tristan Kane. My family calls me Trip.
She raised her eyebrow. They’d had a kid in her high school who had been called Trip. She hadn’t realized it was such a popular nickname. “You have a beautiful name like Tristan and they call you Trip? Hey, wait a second, a guy I knew with that nickname, they called him that for a reason. He was the third son in his family. Is that true for you? Are you the third son?”
I am. I’m sorry I am moping around. Five months I have been in this cage. Please don’t worry about this tonight. We can sort it out tomorrow when you come.
She shook her head. “I’m not coming tomorrow. It’s my day off, and then the next day is Sunday so I won’t be back until Monday.”
That long? Tristan shook his head. Do not worry for me. I will not have you upset. Ashlee, whatever you do, don’t let anyone tell you this isn’t real. What is happening is very complicated, but explainable just the same. I am real and you can hear me because you belong to me.
Ashlee turned and ran as if someone chased her. She didn’t turn around to look at Tristan. When she reached her black Lexus RX hybrid SUV, she swung open the door and drove her monstrous car as if her life depended on it. What should have been a fifteen-minute drive home, she made in less than five minutes. It wasn’t ‘til she got home she remembered her shift wasn’t over for another hour. She was sure to get a stern lecture.
* * * *
Tristan paced the pen for maybe the thirtieth time that evening. How could his mate have been standing outside this godforsaken cage for five months without him smelling her? It was the spell. That had to be the reason. Traitorous Rex had trapped him in this form and taken away all of his extrasensory abilities, which now made him the weakest, most pathetic wolf in existence.
A wolf trapped with human senses. What kind of wolf-shifter didn’t automatically recognize their mate? He sighed in frustration. If he’d been in his human form he would have pounded on something. But since his only options for relief were the non-shifter wolves in the cage with him, he was out of luck for stress relief partners.
His mate. But, God, she was beautiful. Ashlee. He’d watched her for months now. Every week wasting away and, truthfully, he worried for her health and before today it had concerned him that he’d been so obsessed with her. Now, at least, his level of interest made sense. Was she unwell? The healers could fix it, whatever it was. She was Wolf, even though she didn’t know it yet. The pieces were finally fitting together. She was the right age. She must have been sent away for protection. His pack had come to believe all their females were dead. But his mate lived. It was too extraordinary to believe.
He would convince her to let him out and then he would take her home. She was so young, but she was his. As soon as he got out of this zoo, he would guard her until he had no breath left in him. His body shook at the thought. If he lived another hundred years, no one would ever cage him again or keep him from Ashlee.
* * * *
Ashlee struggled to wake. She opened her eyes and tried to calm her breathing. Her heart pounded hard in her chest and tears fell down her cheeks. Tristan, her wolf. She’d dreamt of him. Not dreamt, she corrected herself, she’d had another episode and this time it hadn’t been about her sister Summer, it was Tristan who had featured in it. But he hadn’t looked like a wolf—no he’d been a man, but she had known it was him. Tall, with brown hair that held specks of red in it. His nose long and regal, bordered by cheekbones a GQ model would envy. He had a five o’clock shadow across his chin. His brown eyes were hooded and sad. Men were on their way for him, the men who had trapped him in his wolf form, and they would kill him if they found him. They would finish the job they’d started months ago.
How did she know this? The dream or hallucination or whatever it was had seemed so real. No, she corrected herself, it didn’t just seem real, it was real. Tristan had insisted she wasn’t crazy. But wasn’t that just what a senseless illusion would say? Ashlee closed her eyes against the conflict that raged in her head. There were two options. Either she needed to be institutionalized and watched by professional doctors who could help her sort out real from imaginary or she was sane and all of this was really happening. Did mentally ill patients know they were not well? Didn’t the very fact that she questioned what was happening to her mean she was still able to tell what was true and what was not?
She opened her eyes. She needed to make a decision about this immediately. If there were men after Tristan then she was running out of time.
Ashlee didn’t hear any noises in the house; her parents weren’t back from their evening out yet. They were out at a gala where her father was receiving yet another award. He was the head of plastic surgery at their local hospital. She wasn’t sure where he got the time to do all the things that he did. He devoted hours to pro bono surgeries that helped restore the facial features of burn victims. It was nice that he was getting recognized, but she really could have used her mother’s advice and she couldn’t help but wish they had gotten home already. Her mother would know what to do and, ironically, Ashlee wasn’t sure that Victoria Morrison would doubt her sanity.
An image from her childhood swirled into her mind, taking over and for a moment Ashlee felt like she was there again. She’d sat on the bed, eight years old, while Victoria brushed her long strawberry-blonde hair. Summer lay next to her, blonde and blue eyed like Victoria, almost their mother’s perfect copy. Ashlee had felt disturbed by the horror movie they’d watched—or at least she felt like she should have been bothered by the graphic images, since all of the other girls at the sleepover had been scared. She asked her mother if there were such things as monsters.
Victoria had paused the brush mid-stroke and looked down at her with a startled expression marring her otherwise perfect Nordic features. She’d regained her composure quickly.
“Do you think there are monsters, Ash?”
Ashlee hadn’t known what to say. Something about her mother’s tone had made her more nervous than the monster movie with the chainsaw-wielding psycho killer. What was it? Thinking with her adult mind and not that of her younger self, Ashlee realized her mother had sounded anxious. Fourteen years later, Ashlee couldn’t remember ever hearing Victoria sound quite like that again.
Summer had interrupted then; she was never satisfied until she had every answer she needed. “Do you, Mom? Do you believe?”
Ashlee thought she knew what her mom would say. It was the job of grownups to reassure you, to tell you that nothing scary was real.
“I do believe, girls. Some of the things that go bump in the night are real and we must always be on guard for them. But don’t worry, nothing will ever harm you here while I am with you.”
The memory, like dust in the sky, floated out of her mind and Ashlee was back in the present with her decision already made for her. Why wasn’t it possible that Tristan could speak to her, even if he was a wolf? It wasn’t any more unreasonable than anything else. People believed in ghosts and no one called them crazy. Hell, she’d had a friend whose mother attended conferences about aliens. Declaring herself a lunatic hadn’t worked out so well, maybe it was time to try a different approach. Just for tonight, she would believe.
Tristan was a talking wolf and she was going to save him from the men who were out to get him.
She looked at her small black alarm clock on her nightstand. 10:30 PM. She’d only been asleep for an hour. Wearing her flannel red and black pajamas, Ashlee jumped from her bed and ran out of her bedroom. She didn’t have time to change her clothes, the urgency to reach Tristan at the zoo too great. She rushed through the house pausing only to write her parents a note.
Mom and Dad, I may have gone off the deep end but there is a wolf that talks at the zoo. I know, I know. I’m nuts. But he needs me to break him out and I’m going to do it. If you need to call the doctors and send me away, I understand. I love you and I wish I didn’t have to do this. But, I do, even though it makes no logical sense.
I love you.—Ash
She rushed into the garage. She grabbed the key off the wall where it hung and climbed into her SUV.
She pulled out of her driveway fast and rounded the corner down the suburban street. Her tires squealed and she forced herself to slow down. Jail...she might do hard time for this. She was going to break a wolf out of a government-owned zoo. That meant it was a felony. She swallowed the saliva that pooled in her mouth and clenched her teeth together until they hurt. Too late to back out now. At least her parents could afford a good attorney when the police arrested her, and they had her note to prove how out of her mind she really was.
She pulled into a parking space close to the employee gate—the zoo was empty of people, she had her pick—and rushed out of the car. Her key fit perfectly in the door and she stepped inside. Quickly, she plugged her code into the silent alarm. Its unique numbers would identify her to zoo security. They would know exactly who had broken out the wolf based on that alone. She sighed.
Quietly, she followed the path towards the wolves. The monkeys screeched when she passed them, but otherwise only the hiss of the dully-lit gas path lights acknowledged her arrival. She reached the pen and looked down. Tristan’s ears shot upwards as he became alert and he stood to run towards the wall.
What are you doing here, my Ashlee?
She swallowed. She could still hear him. He was still a talking wolf. That hadn’t changed. “I’ve had a dream.”
A bad dream? He paced around in a circle in front of her.
“It felt very real to me. I’m getting you out before the men who did this to you arrive.” She paused. “Some men did this to you, didn’t they? Trapped you like this?”
That’s correct. Do you have these psychic dreams often, little Ashlee?
She shook her head and walked towards the gate. “No. This was my first and hopefully my last.”
It would be easy. She would let Tristan out, he would go wherever it was that he went, and then things could go back to normal. Assuming, that is, she didn’t get caught in this jailbreak (which of course she would), and also assuming her parents didn’t lock her up and throw away the key.
“Tristan, I can’t let the other wolves out. Unless they’re also humans trapped as animals?”
Tristan snorted in what might have been something like a laugh. No, they are wolves. They will not come near the gate. He turned around, growled at the pack, and showed his teeth. His meaning was clear—back off.
Ashlee opened the door and Tristan trotted out. He sniffed the ground in front of him. Ashlee closed and locked the gate. Up close, Tristan was an even more impressive animal. Thick brown fur with red patches, deep sunken brown eyes specked with grey, and filled with intelligence. Absentmindedly, she reached out to stroke his fur but jumped back when she caught herself. She sucked in a breath. It was one thing to contemplate breaking out a wolf, another thing to actually be alone with one, let alone touch it. Those teeth could take off her hand. She stepped backwards and hit the wall behind her hard.
Tristan followed her retreat and nudged her with his head until she touched him of her own volition. With great trepidation, Ashlee petted Tristan on his head and then on his back and sides. He was coarse under her touch and he smelled clean, like the first scent of fresh air on an early summer morning. She laughed at the thought and he nudged her.
You must never fear me. I will never hurt you. Only to you will I ever make that promise.
“Come with me. We’ve got to get you out of here.” She heard the click of the nails on his paws as he followed behind her. She ran towards the front gate. She looked around and opened it, noting the way the moonbeams played on the bars, giving it the impression of swimming in the moonlight. Tristan loped through the gateway and into the shadows.
Her breath shook in her throat. “So what happens now? Do you run home or something?” She didn’t know what to do with her arms and legs. She felt lost in the space around her. How did you say goodbye to a magical talking wolf? For a moment, only silence met her query.
Ashlee, I cannot leave you. I am hopeful you will take me home to my pack and you will meet my family. But if you cannot, then I will stay with you.
She knew she shouldn’t have just accepted all of this as commonplace, certainly it was weird, but if she was in for a penny, she was in for a pound. Weird prophetic dreams, talking wolves, shifters...why not? It felt right to her. In the same way that she knew she had red hair, she knew this was real. “You can’t stay with me. Where would I put you? Besides, if you get home, they can help you, right? They can make it so you can be a man again?”
So that I can be a man when I choose to and a wolf when I want, yes. They can help me with this.
She blew out the breath she’d been unaware she held. “Then I guess I’ll take you home. Where do you live?”
On an island, off the coast of Maine.
“An Island off the coast of Maine? We’re in New Jersey. That’s what, eight, nine hours from here?” She shook her head. How would she explain where she’d gone? Her family would worry. She’d need a good excuse. Her parents had taken to treating her as if she were a child ever since her breakdown.
I would guess more like ten hours considering we will need to wait for the boat.
A really, really good excuse.
She walked towards her waiting SUV and popped open the door. “Hop in. I’ll drive you to Maine, and then I’ll turn around and come back. I can be back for dinner tomorrow night. I’ll make up some excuse.”
The wolf snorted. You will not be back for dinner tomorrow night.
She furrowed her brow at his authoritative tone. “Yes, I will.”
Tristan remained silent. She narrowed her eyes and rubbed her nose. She knew she hadn’t won the argument, he’d humored her. This day really wasn’t going as planned. She turned to get into the car but stopped when she saw Tristan’s head jerk upwards. His nose moved frantically in the air as he sniffed something. He growled and she shuddered.
Her voice wavered. “Tristan?”
Get in the car, little one.
She followed his gaze and turned around. Behind her car, three men stepped out of the shadows. They were the men from her dream. She whirled around and stared at Tristan. His teeth flaunted, he growled loudly. Gone was her sweet, gentle wolf and in his place stood a terrifying animal. She had a feeling this situation called for just that kind of creature.
The first man stepped forward. His hair, long and blond, hung down his back. He turned in the light and she saw that half of his face was tattooed with the symbol of a serpent. “Hello, Tristan. We’ve been looking for you,” the blond man lisped. He really sounded like a snake.
Tristan snarled and moved towards the snake man who turned around to smile at the other two would-be attackers, both dark haired. One of them was small in stature, the other the exact opposite, huge and built like a linebacker.
“Look boys, I don’t think he can shift back yet. I think the beloved boy is still stuck.” He laughed. “Classic.” The other two men snickered. “Get the leash and catch his little girl before she runs.”
Linebacker turned around to grab Ashlee. She didn’t think, just reacted. She swung open the back door of her SUV as he stepped forward. It collided with the man’s gigantic gut. He fell backwards a step. He made an oomph noise and stalked forward. Instinct made her run. She went no more than ten feet when her mind screamed for her to turn around and help Tristan.
A scream of agony cut through the night air as Tristan attacked Ashlee’s pursuer. Her wolf went right for the giant man’s throat. Tristan ripped and tore him to pieces as he bit and attacked the huge man with his teeth and claws. Blood splattered and coated Tristan’s fur. The concrete beneath them turned red from the gaping wounds.
Ashlee tried not to gag and spun around in an attempt to avoid the scene as it unfolded. She lost her balance, tripped and hit the ground. She grunted as her shoulder took the brunt of her weight, followed immediately by her head as it hit the pavement. Her teeth tore into her tongue. She saw stars and spit out the blood that came from the bite she’d given her tongue.
The smaller attacker stood over her now. He reached down to grab her. Suddenly, he was down on the ground. Another wolf, not Tristan, attacked him and literally ripped the skin from the man’s face. The scream was short-lived, as only moments later the wolf locked onto his throat.
How hard had she hit her head? Where had this second wolf come from?
Unlike Tristan, this wolf was entirely black. The attacker reached into his belt for something hidden there. He pulled out a knife and struck the black wolf on his left shoulder. It was an act of desperation because Ashlee guessed the man was already on his way to death’s door. The wolf whimpered for a moment, but didn’t stop his assault as he shredded the hand that held the knife to nothing but bone.
Ashlee rolled onto her side and looked for Tristan. He growled and stalked the blond snake-man who held the leash he’d ordered the others to get. She’d seen this type of lead before. If Snake-boy managed to touch Tristan with the end of it, an electric shock would be released and render Tristan paralyzed for a moment. Enough time for him to be caught.
She had not gone through all the trouble of breaking Tristan out only to lose him to that electric stunner.
She crouched and her body screamed with pain. Fury filled her body and she smiled. Had she ever been this angry before? Before she could stand up a third wolf, this one small and white, leapt from the darkness onto Snake’s back. He went down onto his belly. Tristan attacked from the other side as the white wolf finished him off from behind by ripping out his throat. Growls filled the air and drowned out the screams. Moments later, there was nothing but silence.
Ashlee’s head spun. She sat back on her butt and touched her forehead. Blood stained her right hand when she pulled it back. She must have really gashed open her head. Gagging at the sight of her own blood, she looked at the ground to regain her equilibrium. Two bare feet obstructed her vision and she jerked her head upright to look. A man stood before her, completely nude. His hair was the same shade of black as the wolf who’d attacked the short assailant and saved her.
He knelt on the ground next to her. His hand pushed up against his shoulder to put pressure on a bleeding wound. This man was the black wolf. She’d thought she’d accepted the fantastical when she broke Tristan out of the wolf pen, but her stomach still rolled at the thought that this person and the wolf were the same being.
His eyebrows raised, he looked at her. “Are you hurt badly, ma’am?”
Ma’am? She had one second to register the man’s kind voice in her brain before Tristan attacked him. Her wolf leapt into the air and toppled the stranger onto the ground. His teeth shown, he growled just as fiercely as he had at that their attackers. Tristan’s face loomed over the stranger’s only inches apart.
Ashlee staggered to her feet “Tristan, he saved me!”
He didn’t struggle under Tristan’s attack. The black haired stranger lay perfectly still. “It wasn’t me, Trip. I swear it. I know you think it was, but I didn’t do it. I got there too late. I swear it, brother. I’ve searched for you for six months. I didn’t betray you to Father’s men. I’ve been following them, looking for you.” His voice sounded raw with emotion, Ashlee could hear him gasp as he tried to get enough air. “Rip out my throat brother, if you don’t believe me. Rip it out.”
Tristan stared down at his brother and stopped growling but didn’t move from his attack posture.
“I saved your woman. She is yours, isn’t she? I can smell it. Why would I save her if I wanted you dead?”
Tristan bowed his head and his brother took a deep breath. Ashlee watched Tristan step off the other man’s body and limp over towards her.
She gasped. “You’re hurt?” She leaned down to touch his front paw. He yelped.
“Yes, they’re both hurt. And it’s exactly this kind of grandstanding that I haven’t missed for the last thirty years.”
Ashlee jerked her head around, her mouth dropped open. Her mother stood before her, completely naked. Suddenly embarrassed, Ashlee covered her eyes with her hand to not see her mother’s nude form.
She swallowed and turned around so she couldn’t see her mother. She opened her eyes. “Mom, what are you doing here? I mean...I can explain.” She didn’t know how she was going to explain, she’d already confessed her intentions in the note she’d left. Wait a minute, what was her mother doing there and why was she naked?
“No, Ashlee, I think I’m going to have to explain. When I got home I read your note and I could smell your fear all over the house, so I followed the GPS signal your father had installed in your car.” Her mother’s voice sounded tired.
The GPS signal in her car? Why had her father felt the need to spy on her and what had her mother meant by smelled her fear? Ashlee opened her mouth to question her mother but Rex answered her first.
“Victoria?” Ashlee opened her eyes and saw Tristan’s brother had stood up and walked towards Ashlee’s mother, his hand on his shoulder again.
“It’s me, Rex. Only everyone here calls me Vicki. I’m exhausted. I haven’t been in wolf form in nearly two decades. Come. My mate is a surgeon, and he knows about all of this.”
Tristan growled at that last statement.
“Oh hush it, Trip. Why would he expose us? He’d be dooming his own daughter if he did that.”
Ashlee turned to look at her mother, her mouth hung open in disbelief. Her mother was also a wolf? What the heck was going on? Her mother stared at Ashlee, her mouth slightly ajar. “I knew you were extraordinary, Ash, but I thought it was just a mother’s pride talking. Never in a million years did I think you would end up the mate of one of the Royal Six.”
Mate? “The what?”
Tristan nudged at her leg with his nose and she moved to the car.
She’ll explain this to you when we get to your home. Or I will. Tristan’s voice soothed Ashlee’s strung out nerves.
Her mother turned to walk towards the darkness. “I’ll take care of cleaning up this mess and I’ll meet you back at home. Ashlee, take the princes back with you to our house.” Ashlee nodded even though she doubted her mother could see her.
Her car door still hung open and despite his injured paw, Tristan leaped easily into the backseat. Ashlee closed the door behind him and got into the front. Rex, that’s what her mother had called Tristan’s black haired brother, climbed into the passenger front seat. Ashlee handed Rex the emergency blanket her parents made her keep in the backseat. He wrapped himself up in it. Tristan growled.
Rex groaned. “Come on, Trip. I just got you back. I am certainly not making a play for your mate. She already shares your scent. She’s yours. I get it. I’ll climb in the back if it makes you more comfortable.”
Rex turned around in his seat, still holding his shoulder, and manipulated himself over the console to the backseat. Tristan climbed through the center and sat in the front passenger seat next to her. Ashlee, unable to resist the need, reached out and stroked his fur. He lay across the front seat, eyes upwards and gazed at her. She swallowed away the strange unknown feeling that had formed in her stomach.
She put the key in the ignition and started the car. Rex stretched out in the backseat and yawned before saying, “My brother isn’t usually so possessive. But then again he’s never been mated so maybe this is just how he is.”
Can it, Rex.
Ashlee laughed and so did Rex. She pulled out of the zoo parking lot, leaving behind three dead bodies, all with their throats ripped out, and her alarm code plugged into the zoo security system to explain it. She was going to be in so much trouble.
“I’m going to get blamed for those bodies.”
Rex leaned forward in the backseat. “I can hear your mother in her car. She’s on the phone with some people who are going to handle this. You won’t be in any trouble. Victoria appears to be a woman of influence, even in some less than upstanding circles.” Rex paused. “Excuse me, miss, I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”
Her name is Ashlee, pup. But I don’t see why you need to use it.
Rex laughed again and then groaned. He grabbed his shoulder. “Because it’s more polite than saying ‘hey you’. Ashlee, do you think I could borrow your cell phone?”
“I don’t have it with me. I ran out of the house in my pajamas.” She took her eyes off the road and examined herself for a moment before she groaned at her appearance. She grimaced and returned her eyes to the dark road. “I have so many questions.”
Of course you do.
She touched his head again. She wasn’t usually this affectionate but she needed to touch Tristan. “Are you in much pain?”
He closed his eyes under her touch. A bit. Ashlee looked in the rearview mirror at Rex. His eyes stared out the window for a moment before he closed them. The two wolves in the car with her were exhausted. Two wolves. In the car. With her. Why did the nonsensical seem so okay?
And what had her mother meant by mate?