Brandi slid gently out of bed, careful not to disturb the male still sleeping quietly in it. She gathered up her jeans and slipped them on, sighing when they barely fastened. Gareth’s cooking had been typical high-fat, mostly-protein guy fare. During her time with him, she had packed on a few extra pounds that not even their vigorous nighttime activities had kept off her butt.
Good thing she was leaving before the meager clothing supply she had purchased no longer fit. Her fake death had temporarily suspended her access to her normal accounts. She couldn’t afford to spend any more of the emergency rations her field handler had wired to Anchorage for her. Money was not something she craved in large quantities, but she appreciated the comfort it could buy at times.
She pulled on the bra she barely needed before covering it with a faded t-shirt she had fished out of the donation tub in Matt’s office. She would top the outfit off shortly with a new black leather jacket. Gareth had insisted she get the heavier coat to match the short, dark dyed hair he still professed to hate.
Lastly, she picked up her new Colt 911, acknowledging its welcome weight in her hand. Along with wiring her money, her handler had also express shipped a gun to a Federal Firearms License Holder near the Anchorage bank that had received her funds.
Both the money and the weapon had arrived five days ago, along with a plane ticket back to Virginia, a new burner cell phone, and a shiny new Federal Agent ID. A replacement driver’s license and passport had also been included to round out her return to reality.
She felt a twinge of guilt thinking about the woman listed on all the various pieces of her identification. Each was proof to the world that Agent Brandi Jenkins had returned to the land of the living. She found her reluctance to use them ironic for seveal reasons.
For one, this was not the first time in her agent career that her death had been faked. Secondly, unlike the other undercover incident, this time she’d actually enjoyed being dead. All the rest of the reasons could be attributed to the man she’d left warming the bed she’d crawled out of this morning.
Since weapon holsters had never worked for her, Brandi hadn’t wasted her scarce resources buying one. She checked to make sure the gun’s safety was on before tucking the loaded weapon into the back of her snug-fitting jeans.
Finally, she turned to study the sleeping man in the bed. One of Gareth’s silvered temples gleamed in the early morning light. Even asleep he looked confident and sure of himself, which he nearly always was around her. Whatever Gareth had done when he’d been younger, it had tightened his jaw and put a stubborn glint in his eyes, especially when things didn’t go his way. Rather than putting her off, his grounded personality drew her in and tempted her to let him try and ground her, too.
In sleep, Gareth’s body was sprawled over most of his king-sized bed. Though he wasn’t a large man in girth, he still took up a lot of space. Maybe it was because every inch of him was honed, hard muscle and he knew exactly how to use it to his best advantage. His toned and taut form was admirable, and very appealing to her werewolf side, though she’d never actually told him. Compliments and revelations would have only complicated today further.
Brandi walked to the bed, looked down, and felt regret grab her by the throat harder than it had when she’d made her phone call earlier in the week. It was a bad, bad idea to feel this way about a temporary lover, but she couldn’t kid herself about not liking Gareth. Because of her uncharacteristically high regard, she owed the man a real goodbye, not the typical sneak-away she did to most of her bed partners when the time came to exit their life.
Reaching out her hand, she shook Gareth awake, stepping back in case he woke up reactionary. “Gareth… it’s time for me to go.”
Gareth groaned and pried one eye open. “Go? Does that mean last night didn’t change your mind? What kind of sexual bliss does it take to content you, woman?”
Despite how sexist Gareth sounded, Brandi chuckled at his complaints. He was protective and argumentative and demanding. But it was nothing she couldn’t handle… and she still really liked him.
She lowered herself to the edge of the bed, hip checking him until he moved his toned ass over enough to make a space for her. “Great sex doesn’t have that effect on me. Sorry, Stud. I’m shipping out today.”
“Damn it. I don’t want you to go.” Gareth shifted a little more to let her lean in his direction. “I think you should call your boss back and tell him you’ve changed your mind.”
Brandi smiled. She reached out a hand and ran it over his face. “We had a good run, didn’t we? You saw me through my transition, and I’ll always be grateful for that. But I have to go back to where I started this adventure. I need to see if I can get to the bottom of it.”
Gareth lifted his hand and cupped her breast, enjoying the feel of her instantly peaked nipple through her shirt. Her reliable reaction to his touch meant she was already his as far as their wolves were concerned, but persuading her human side of that fact was not going to happen in the next ten minutes.
“I’d like to get to the bottom of you again,” he whispered.
Her companionable snort of laughter over his boob grab was worth suffering the uncomfortable glare she also sent his way. Just once he’d like to touch the prickly woman and know for certain she’d welcome it. They’d had a lot of sex over the last couple of months, but never once really made love to each other. It had taken him most of that time just to get Brandi to sleep an entire night in his bed.
And now she was leaving him. How the hell was he supposed to just let her walk out his door? Especially since he knew exactly what she was heading back to deal with? Gareth cursed himself and life in general. It didn’t change things, but it gave the frustration writhing inside him a voice.
“You’ll come back to see Ariel and Heidi, right?”
Brandi nodded. She was pretty sure she would. Those women were part of her now in a way she didn’t really understand, but had finally stopped trying to. Wherever those women chose to live was going to be a place she’d have to return to now and again. They were like family… an intimacy to other people she was not used to having, but had decided she didn’t want to give up.
Gareth’s voice was sleepy rough as he sighed, and at the same time, soothing to her soul. Her fingertips travelled over his bristled jaw to his talented lips.
“Maybe I’ll even come back to see you, Gareth. I’ve never done that with a man before, but I guess there’s always a first time.”
Gareth grabbed her wrist and used it to lever his body upright until he could wrap his arms around her. For once, Brandi let him without resisting. He sighed as he hugged her close. “Damn it. It took you long enough to admit you liked me.”
Brandi chuckled into Gareth’s shoulder. “Is that your jaded way of saying you actually want me to come back and see you?”
Gareth pulled back and put a hand into her hair, yanking softly to get her gaze to meet his. “Do you want me to admit how tempted I am to tie you to the bed and keep you here with me forever?”
“I know. You asked me not to go there, but you know I don’t want other women anymore. I just want you. And I know you want me back, so spare me the friendly lies you’ve told the other guys when you left them. I know how it is between us… and it could be better.”
Brandi laughed as she hugged him tight. “What woman wouldn’t want you? Your between-the-sheets talents are immense and you’re a decent guy outside of bed. But I still have to go. I have things to do. We’ve talked about this many times.”
Gareth snorted and tugged harder on her hair. She let him show his dominance and didn’t fight his efforts. It crossed his mind to capitalize on her concession and show her just how serious he was about keeping her. His fangs tingled in his mouth just at the thought.
He refused to believe Brandi was leaving him for good, even though no amount of wolf mating rightness was going to change the woman’s mind about what she felt was her duty. Hadn’t he suffered the same guilt enough to know? Brandi didn’t love him yet. Or at least she had herself convinced she didn’t. It was the primary reason he’d made his phone calls within hours of hers.
“Come back to me,” he ordered softly. “I don’t want this to be over between us.”
Brandi leaned in to cover Gareth’s mouth with hers, surprising both of them with the spontaneous action and the fierceness of it. She rarely initiated intimacy, but in that moment, it seemed the thing to do. If this morning was the last time she saw Gareth, she wanted him to know he would always be special to her. She broke their kiss and pulled back to look at his face one final time.
“You’re one of the few men I’ve ever liked in my life. Maybe I will come back to see you, but don’t wait for me. I’m not one of those women who make promises because I know I can’t keep them. You do what you have to do. I’ll be doing the same. We’ll see how it goes when our paths cross again.”
Gareth dropped his hands and turned her loose. After losing two other important females in his life, he wasn’t someone who made promises either. Brandi’s connection to him was his greatest quandary… and his Achilles heel as it was turning out.
“Go then,” he said roughly. “Take care of yourself.”
Her mouth on his a final time had him growling soft and low when she broke off the kiss. Gareth stayed in bed as Brandi rose and walked briskly out of his bedroom, his house, and his life. The moment his front door closed behind her attractive, tough-as-nails ass, he was calling himself all kinds of a fool for not telling her everything he’d been holding back.
Gareth sighed when his Alpha gave him his back. Normally such an action would have upset him enough to be disrespectful and provoke his leader’s wrath. Today he understood why the man looked away from him, and even agreed with his open show of disapproval. But he couldn’t waste his time worrying about Matt’s feelings, pack protocol, or werewolf politics. All he could think about right now was what he had to do.
“I told them to land the Osprey in the road in front of the house, so if you’re going to look for them, keep watch in that direction. The plane has some new technology they’re testing, so it might be cloaked. I don’t know who they’re sending to collect me. Since I was hitching a ride, I didn’t get to make any special requests for friends.”
Matt snorted at Gareth’s attempt to placate him. “I don’t know why you felt you had to call in those meddling bastards at all. We would have helped you, Gareth. All you’ve done by contacting your old organization is open the pack up to dealing with whatever shit storm comes out of this. When Brandi finds out the truth, she may shoot you.”
Gareth shook his head even though Matt wasn’t looking at him. “This is bigger than what the pack can handle… I feel it, Matt. I called them to come get me so I could keep the shit storm away. You know that’s how it works.”
Giving up on convincing Matt of his honest intentions, Gareth turned and stared Ariel down which was not easy. The female Alpha was more than a little intimidating. Her sharp mind made her natural Alpha aggression all the more formidable. Plus at the moment, she was both angry and afraid for someone she cared about. It was the worst combination of emotion to deal with in any female.
He lifted his chin. “If Brandi calls, don’t order her home, Ariel. If you force your Beta to come back here, she’ll hate you and her life—as well as me.”
Ariel glared and shook her head over the order. Who knew a person’s physical absence could cause such an empty hole inside her? She certainly hadn’t known it would be like this when Brandi left. She doubted Brandi had known it either.
She had known precisely the moment Brandi got on the damn airplane in Anchorage because every hair on her body had quivered in alarm at her Beta’s departure. A wild-eyed Gareth bursting into Matt’s house an hour later had eerily validated her sense of Brandi heading into danger. Now she was livid at herself for not having listened to her instincts more before she’d agreed to let Brandi go back alone.
“All I have is some sense of impending trouble. I’m almost ill with worry for her,” Ariel declared, yanking on her hair.
Her mate turned from his post at their picture window and raised his eyebrows. Ariel read the censure in his direct gaze and shook her head over another damn life lesson.
“Let me guess… this debilitating anxiety about Brandi is just another pesky Alpha problem, isn’t it?” She watched Matt nod and wanted to punch him. Her mate’s small smile told her he knew it too.
“Your worry for your Beta is not as overwhelming as it would be for me in these circumstances, but it is not something you can set aside. Whatever your instincts are telling you is without doubt the reality of Brandi’s situation. It must in some way be addressed. Sending Gareth to see to her safety is an appropriate action to take.”
“Damn it. I should have gone with her myself. She wanted me to go—expected me to. With Reed taking over his pack again, it was just bad timing for me to leave Alaska,” Ariel declared.
“No—it was never your place to go,” Gareth declared. “You are her leader, but I’ve come to realize she’s mine to protect. I knew it on some level the first moment I saw her. I did as good a job ignoring our connection as Brandi did, but the difference is my complacency stops today. You have my word, Ariel. Whether Brandi returns to Wasilla or stays where she is… I will be at her side from now on. I am her mate.”
Ariel snorted. “Her mate? Brandi doesn’t think that way about you, Gareth. She doesn’t feel that way about you either. I don’t think the woman has ever allowed herself to love anyone.”
“Forget love—Brandi doesn’t let herself feel anything—period. But I couldn’t force her to stay here just so I could teach her. That was never going to work. She’s… ” Gareth paused, swore, and raked a hand through his hair.
“She’s… what?” Ariel prompted.
“Brandi’s like I was a hundred years ago, and just as green about what’s important. I understand what makes her tick even if I don’t like it. Being around her is like seeing a mirror of my past. Brandi’s all about duty and little else. One way or another, she was going to find a reason to go back to her job.”
Ariel flexed her fingers, making fists and releasing them. She wanted to beat up on something or someone. It was her default reaction to mental pain since her conversion into an Alpha werewolf. Her eyes flashed when she heard her mate growling at her show of angst in front of a pack member.
“Listen to Gareth. Getting worked up and angry won’t help Brandi… or us,” Matt said firmly, turning back to the window and crossing his arms.
Ariel glared at Gareth without knowing why she was so angry at the calm man. There was no clear enemy for her to hate, so maybe Gareth was just a handy target. But when she spoke, she turned and directed her comments to the only man she’d ever met besides Reed Black Wolf who seemed to intuitively understand her internal conflict.
“I watched Brandi coldly kill a man she considered a threat to us when we escaped from Randall Crane. Since I had just killed two before that, who was I to pass judgment on her actions? I admit I put it behind me and forgot what she was. But no matter what kind of life the woman has led, nothing could have adequately prepared her to deal with a scientist doing what Crane was doing. He abducted and experimented on us without a shred of remorse. My gut says Crane’s benefactors have found out about us and know what we are.”
Gareth watched Matt nod in agreement with his mate, but his friend and leader thankfully didn’t say anything to confirm her suspicions. Matthew Gray Wolf was a solid rock. When he’d returned home to Wasilla after his retirement, Matt’s pull on him had been something he couldn’t ignore. Being the pack’s Beta had been the last damn thing in the world he had wanted… or needed at the time. But Matt had calmed a side of him he’d had a hard time living with after all he’d done.
He looked away from the honorable man he served to stare down his equally honorable, but less-in-control-of-herself mate. “My gut says the same, Ariel. I think Brandi is in trouble. That’s why I’ve decided to go after her.”
At the window, Matt barked out a triumphant laugh and pointed. “There they are—those sneaky bastards in their black suits and dark glasses. They think they’re being so stealthy. Why the hell did you call in the half-ass cats, Gareth?”
Gareth grimaced. They weren’t cats. They were panthers—well part panther. They were also highly trained and had very sensitive hearing. He hoped like hell Fallon and Lars weren’t listening too closely to Matt’s voice which had a tendency to project well beyond the walls of his house.
Sighing over drama he didn’t want, but couldn’t avoid, Gareth fished the keys to his truck out of his pocket and held them out to Ariel, who frowned but took them.
“What are these for?” she demanded.
“Mechanical parts freeze up fast here. Drive my truck while I’m out of town. I called in a favor to get to the lower forty faster than a commercial flight. With luck, I’ll get there around the same time Brandi does. The people she works for are going to want to find out about what happened to her. I just hope she’s smart enough not to tell them what she’s become.”
Ariel snorted, but walked with Gareth as he started toward the door. “I didn’t have a clue about werewolves before Crane experimented on me. From what I gathered from Brandi and Heidi—they didn’t either. I guess I’m glad you’re going after her, but who’s going to be Beta while you’re gone?”
Gareth stopped for a moment and grinned. “Matt will tell Quentin he’s standing in for me, but you’ll be the one doing any real helping if it’s needed. Quentin’s young for a werewolf. He tends to choke when he has to do something unpleasant.”
He opened the door and started out, then stopped and stepped back to Ariel. He put his arms around her and hugged, ignoring her surprise. When the distrustful female pulled away, he laughed at the stunned expression on her face.
“I forgot what it was like wanting someone to approve of me… or trust me. Other than Matt, I typically don’t give a damn what anyone thinks. It was hard enough when I found out I wanted approval from Brandi. Now I discover I want it from you too.”
Ariel frowned. “What form do you expect my approval to take?”
“Let go of the anxiety you have about her. Give Brandi’s care over to me—at least while I’m gone. I’ll be in touch with you and Matt as soon as I can to give you some sort of status about what’s going on.”
Ariel nodded, unable to give him the words, but she had already moved into acceptance of what Gareth said. Glancing at Matt, she saw him still glaring out the window.
She looked back at Gareth. “They have slow human heartbeats, not rapid shifter ones. What the hell are they, Gareth?”
Gareth sighed in resignation. He’d kept the truth quiet all these years, but now it was finally coming out. “You’re right about their human heartbeats, Ariel. They’re not full shifters… just damn close.”
“You’re telling me Crazy Crane wasn’t the only mad scientist doing experiments, aren’t you?” Ariel demanded.
Nodding abruptly, Gareth closed the door behind him, shutting out Ariel’s shock. There was no time to wonder why he’d blurted it all out like that. Maybe it was because he knew Matt wouldn’t keep any truth from the female sharing his life. His Alpha was the only creature alive who knew about his former job… and what he’d done because of it. All most of the pack remembered was he’d disappeared for about forty years, then suddenly came home and taken his place as Beta. It was mostly the truth.
Right now he couldn’t worry about what effect his revelation might have had on betrayed scientist, Dr. Ariel Jones. He also couldn’t concern himself with what Matt was going to have to deal with when his intelligent mate put it together and started hammering him with questions.
Instead of keeping peace between his pack’s mated Alphas, he had to save the fledging werewolf he’d accidentally fallen in love with. His personal epiphany after she left this morning had knocked the complacency right out of him.
The sense of dread he currently carried about Brandi’s situation was all he had energy for.