Genre = Paranormal, Fantasy, Romance
LENGTH: 58,000 approx.
Reed’s time as Alpha of his pack should be over.
Didn’t a six-hundred-year-old wolf deserve to retire? But life doesn’t always work out the way a wolf wants. Some mad scientist used him and his potent werewolf blood to turn three human females. Now he has two packs instead of one, but none among them are stepping up to take his place.
Too many secrets among his children have all but destroyed his original family. Now with the deaths of both his Alpha descendants haunting the pack, there’s no one left in his gene pool to lead. Duty and a healthy fear of the agencies his grandson Travis told about the pack requires that Reed lead them until a new alpha can be found, no matter how much he wishes otherwise.
While Ariel’s nanotechnology blood transfusion returned some of his physical youth, science did not change his mental age or negate the weariness he feels in his very bones. The only bright spot is the Russian werewolf. Katarina Volkov is so full of fire—so full of herself. The touchy female wolf makes him feel things he hasn’t felt in years. Too bad he isn’t free to enjoy her.
“Does no one fix your roads?”
Reed grunted as he glanced at the female beside him. He couldn’t remember the last time a female had captured so much of his attention. Women were nice—at times even necessary—but the burning need for one hadn’t plagued him in a couple of centuries. He was reacting to the diminutive Russian alpha like a young wolf who’d never met an attractive female before.
He cleared his throat and tried to stop thinking of Katarina like that. “Alaska does its best to keep the roads passable, but our winters defy most repairs. When the rain and the mud come during the warmer months, the roads always end up like this.”
Katarina snorted. “Land here is like Russia. I see why Nicolai Vashchenko stopped when he found your pack.”
Reed had no knowledge of Russia other than the stories he remembered Nicolai telling him when he was a small child, which was centuries ago. Having no reply to make, Reed instead shifted his nearly seven-foot form in the driver’s seat and tried to find a more comfortable spot.
Though he’d driven his pack’s community truck many times, and for longer trips than the one between Matt Gray Wolf’s pack and his, he hadn’t had Katarina Volkov’s thigh pressed against his before. Her body heat penetrated the denim he was wearing, and no matter how hard he tried to put some space between them, it kept disappearing.
The trip was turning out to be a torture for him. They were fortunately over two hours into the three hour journey and Reed couldn’t wait to get out of the confined space. If he’d run the trip in his wolf form, he would have been back to the village already. There even would have been time to get in some hunting along the way. Since he needed to carry his two Russian visitors and their gear back, he’d decided driving would be better.
Frankly, he hadn’t given any consideration to what three hours sitting next to the restless Katarina Volkov would be like. He definitely wouldn’t make that mistake again.
Better still, next time he’d send someone else to get them. His crazy interest in a female that annoyed him more than she charmed him was still no reason. Age and the wisdom of a few centuries ought to offer more emotional insulation.
Even the Russian she-wolf’s stoic staring out of the truck window was distracting to him. Her younger sister—a near twin to Katarina in many ways—sat squished against the truck’s passenger door. There was room enough for Yana to scoot a bit closer to Katarina, but the younger she-wolf seemed determined to maintain their physical distance. He actually felt sorry for Yana. A person should never fear physical contact with a close family member.
Reed shook his head at his rambling thoughts and wished he could go back to a time before the sexy Russian alpha had attacked him because she thought he was Travis. Any male would be flattered to be confused for his son, much less his grandson. But simple flattery couldn’t explain his growing obsession.
And why wasn’t Yana as equally distracting to him? Physically, she and Katarina were practically duplicates. Plus, Yana was certainly the more pleasant female of the two. The answer to his fascination eluded him at the moment, but Reed knew he’d figure it out eventually, especially since the two females were intending to remain with his pack for a time.
Yes, he’d figure it all out, and hopefully before he ended up following up on the primitive urges Katarina kept inspiring in him.
When a wolf had been alive for as long as Reed had been, he learned to be patient with himself and pretty much everyone else he encountered. Very few things were worth the aggravation of caring or the work of analyzing something that might pass away in a short while. Chemistry between people did that. It rose like a bonfire only to die down to embers at the first sign of someone’s true personality putting in an appearance.
Winter damaged roads presented multiple problems for what was basically a work truck. Every few minutes one sent it jarring off the side of the road and Reed’s efforts to keep it on the blacktop sent it bouncing back across the uneven road surface. Normally, Katarina’s discomfort about being jostled would be funny, but today he fought hard not to sigh at the Russian swearing that accompanied each pothole encounter.
He mostly wanted to get home and get this trip over with. He wanted to meditate on what Heidi had told him about her Devil Wolf form. And he had to inform his children—Travis’s parents—that their errant son was at last dead.
Seeing to the comfort of the Russian she-wolf was not high on his list of tasks.
“Keep eyes on road, Temptation,” Katarina ordered, as she pointed out the windshield. “You drive on mud and grass more than pavement.”
“I told you why the roads are such a mess this time of year. Do you want to drive?” Reed demanded, bristling at her criticism.
Katarina shook her head and refused to look up at him. It was one of her many actions that irritated him for no good reason.
“Me drive? Nyet, comrade. I do not have ability, but even non-driving wolf knows to stay on pavement.”
Yana leaned forward and turned to smile at Reed. “How much longer until we get to your village?”
Not wanting to dwell on Katarina’s snarkiness, Reed turned his attention to the truck’s windshield and shrugged. “We should be there in another thirty or forty minutes if the truck survives. Sorry not to be more precise. I tend to ignore the passage of time.”
Yana smiled and leaned back. “This trip has taught me that Katarina does not travel well. I will keep my fierce alpha sister from attacking as best I can.”
Beside him, Katarina snorted at Yana’s comment, which had Reed looking down at the top of her head. Attacking? Like attacking him? He felt no fierce vibe from her. The petite Russian alpha appeared to be calm. “Is something the matter, Katarina?”
Katarina chuckled at the question. “No, nothing is wrong, Temptation. Yana is full of words that tend to float away when she speaks.”
Reed wanted to laugh at Katarina’s snarkiness, but that would only make things worse. He didn’t know whether Katarina suffered from the same physical awareness he did so Reed decided talking would pass the time more quickly for the last jaunt of their trip. “My village built a lodge for visiting packs many years ago—back when whole packs migrated out of the more frozen areas every winter for survival reasons. The lodge sleeps over thirty wolves in human form. I admit it’s fairly spartan when it comes to amenities, but I thought the two of you could stay there until I can come up with better arrangements.”
Reed jerked the wheel too hard when Katarina put her hand on his knee and squeezed.
“You worry too much, Temptation. Yana and I are grateful to visit Alaskan home of the great Nicolai Vashchenko. We would sleep on ground in our wolf forms to do so.”
“Get your hand off my leg,” Reed ordered with a low growl.
Katarina grinned as she squeezed his knee again. “Am I temptation for the mighty Black Wolf alpha?”
Reed grunted at the question. “Da,” he answered snarkily in Russian.
When a grinning Katarina showed no sign of moving her hand away, Reed used one of his hands to pry her gripping fingers off his knee. He wasn’t sure what to think when she and Yana both laughed at his defensive action. They tended to tease each other non-stop, but had mostly left him out of the loop of their joking around… at least, they had until now.
Both of them had a lot to learn about him. Honesty was in his sexual programming. Teasing was not. “Hear my words, Katarina Volkov. You may think the chemistry between us is a joke, but I don’t.”
Katarina waved the hand Reed had shoved off his leg. “Bah… chemistry always big joke. That is life.”
As they crested a hill in the road, their attention left the truck and each other as they peered at a pillar of black smoke rising above the trees and curling high into the sky some distance ahead.
Yana rolled down the window and sniffed. “I smell burning, but more than to heat a home. This is smoke from serious fire. Maybe forests?”
“Not likely. The forests are still winter wet and we’re in our rainy season,” Reed answered as his gaze took in the rolling black plumes. “That’s a dry smoke.”
“You think your village on fire?” Katarina asked, leaning forward to stare at the smoke.
“Maybe,” Reed answered quietly as he stomped his foot to the pedal. “Hang on. This could get real bumpy.”
The last fifteen minutes of their drive was rough on all of them. What greeted them in the village was chaos.
Strangers dressed in dark military clothes were running from angry werewolves. Many were carrying auto-weapons, but only those with tranquilizer guns shot at Reed’s people.
Without a word, Reed slid out of the vehicle as soon as they were stopped. He shifted to a wolf half the size of the truck. Seeing him slowed the men with weapons. Several pointed and exchanged surprised looks.
Finally, one lifted his weapon and took aim at the gigantic wolf stalking toward them.
Katarina’s feet the ground and never stopped. If they got Reed… no, she could not let that happen. He was powerful, but power was only good if he could get past the attackers weapons.
“Mind our things, sister,” Katarina commanded, shifting and running toward the man without glancing back.
“Sure. I am helpless wolf. I am nothing important,” Yana answered with an eye roll at being so easily dismissed.
“You are important to me,” Katarina declared just before she shifted.
Yana watched as her sister’s large white wolf sprang into the air to land in front of Reed. A tranquilizer dart meant for Reed hit Katarina’s shoulder and dropped her to the ground.
Reed’s giant wolf leaped over Katarina’s fallen body and landed in front of her to growl in warning at the men. The ones with tranquilizer guns argued for a moment with those carrying more serious weapons. One of them threw a small canister on the ground that rolled and released a heavy blue smoke that soon filled the air and made it hard to breathe.
Using the distraction for her own purposes, Yana ducked and ran through the smoke to get to her sister’s side. She yanked the tranquilizer dart out of Katarina shoulder and threw it away, but the damage was already done. Her fierce alpha sister was out cold.
Reed turned around when he sensed Yana’s presence. Even through the think smoke Yana winced at the sight of Reed’s enormous pointed teeth flashing white as he showed his displeasure. He was the biggest werewolf Yana had ever seen in her life—bigger than even her father.
“Katarina was saving you from being knocked out so you could continue to fight,” Yana informed him. Was she telling a lie? Maybe. This was no time for Reed to be pissed at yet something else Katarina had done today.
Katarina had never lived in a pack, so her sister had no idea that her sacrifice might not be appreciated by the alpha of this one. Trying to better understand her elder sibling, Yana had discussed Katarina’s character with Heidi the Healer, who seemed to know Katarina best. Understanding did not, however, make her volatile sister easier to deal with, especially when she risked herself.
As the smoke cleared away, Reed shifted back to human, with his clothes completely on, Yana noticed with regret. She wouldn’t have minded getting a look at him and it would have been great fun to tease Katarina.
Unfortunately, the fully dressed alpha now glared down at both of them. Yana draped herself over Katarina’s wolf.
“Is she alive?” he asked.
Yana shrugged. “It is hard to kill a Russian wolf. Katarina breathes and her heartbeat is strong.”
Reed grunted. “Watch your meddling sister until our healer can take a look at her. I have other things to do.”
With a final warning to be careful, Yana heard Reed ordering a couple men to stop everything and follow the attackers to see where they had disappeared to so quickly.
Yana could only sigh at yet another alpha ordering her around because in the absence of attackers to fight, Reed headed to talk to those fighting to put out fires from two nearby buildings that were still burning.
She muttered to herself as she stood and looked around. “First chance I get, I make giant batch of werewolf vodka. Strong drink take the edge off stress for everyone in village. Yana will be everyone’s friend then.”
The smoke was almost completely cleared out. She could see people and children peeking out of their hiding places in several of the nearby buildings. Her eyes scanned for a place she could move her sister’s form until she came around.
As if reading her thoughts, Katarina suddenly rolled and groaned before shifting into a naked, large-breasted woman wearing only the shoes she’d taken from Matt Gray Wolf’s donation bin.
“Trakhni moyu zhizn’,” Yana said in Russian as she scanned for gawkers who might be amused by her unconscious sibling’s nakedness.
It was embarrassing that her strong, alpha sister couldn’t keep her clothes on when she shifted. Yana had mastered shifting with clothes as a young wolf. Educated wolves in Russia had scoffed at human scientists making such a big deal of string theory. Shifting from wolf form to a fully dressed human was far less complicated than remaining naked when your mind was in the right place.
Ariel, the alpha nano wolf, was the only exception and she’d secretly decided that was a mistake coming from the nano wolf’s creation. Until she’d met Katarina. Her alpha sister shifted on orders from her gut and without regard for the dangers to her body—whatever its form. Somehow that also translated into flashing your womanly assets to all with eyes to see them.
Yana sighed as she stared down and wondered what to do to help her sister.
Muttering again to herself in Russian—because English had no adequate words to express her level of frustration—Yana hurried back to the truck to retrieve the rest Katarina’s clothes.
Yana told her that none of the wolves who had been tranquilized woke as quickly as she did. For her rapid return to consciousness, Katarina was deeply grateful. Yana had also warned her about Reed’s anger as she dressed in her clothes that had magically ended up in the truck during her shift. She wasn’t surprised that Reed was angry over what she’d done, but the stoic Black Wolf alpha had yet to express that anger to her.
In fact, Katarina noticed Reed said little to anyone. Was he always so passionless? He should be livid and growling and angry beyond his ability to reign it in. If this was what a long life did to you, she would rather die fighting.
She shook her head at the sad thought that Reed’s personality no longer allowed expression of what feelings might be ruling him. Many Russian males were like that. They drank away their feelings or hid them behind futility borne of a helplessness they didn’t bother to keep fighting.
That kind of stoicism did not bode well in a bed partner and Katarina found her desire for the handsome alpha waning for the first time since meeting him.
Sill she watched him. She watched him and wondered what he was really like—or what had he been like at her age.
Reed nodded and listened to his people giving their reports about what happened during the attack. Like covert operatives from a TV show, the attackers had carried real weapons, which for some reason they never used, not even when several of the Black Wolf males shifted to their wolf forms to defend the village.
Rather than shooting to kill any pack member, the attackers had instead used tranquilizers to stop the shifted wolves. They’d also used fire bombs to create a distraction the villagers had no choice but to fight. While the non-shifted wolves scrambled to constrain the damage from the fires, the attackers had run away like the cowards they were.
It had taken over five hours to put out the fires. A few of the defending wolves were still sleeping off the effects of the tranquilizers. Katarina shook her head. If they had only arrived sooner, things might have not gotten so bad.
After all she’d experienced since her abduction from her home in Russia, Katarina would never believe this situation was some random event. Someone had intentionally targeted Reed’s pack. And the attackers wouldn’t have been so merciful if they’d accomplished what they’d truly come to do.
When she finally caught Reed standing alone, Katarina went to confront him. If he wanted to yell at her for interfering, she’d rather get it over with than worry about it for days.
“Too bad ghost of Nicolai Vashchenko was not paying attention today. Ghost of your bastard clone took advantage of situation,” Katarina joked, but then winced at the guilt flashing through Reed’s gaze.
Her hand instantly went to his arm to rub in comfort. The enormous Black Wolf alpha and his prehistoric-sized wolf irritated her nearly all the time, but that was no reason for her to be a thoughtless ass about what was not his Reed’s fault.
“Forgive me, Temptation. I spoke without thinking. Is terrible flaw in my character—or so I hear.”
Reed shrugged off the apology with one shoulder as he stared at the still smoldering buildings. “I need to call Brandi and let her know about this. She warned me this could happen if Travis told the wrong people that he’d come from a whole village of werewolves.”
Katarina frowned as she looked at the damage done to the buildings along one of the two or three walkable streets in the center of the small village. She could see clearly that a couple of stores had barely missed being set on fire. There was a school with children of all ages still peering from the windows, and an open-area community space wrapped in canvas that had been rolled up on all sides.
Though this place was only a fraction of the size of the Gray Wolf pack in Wasilla, the Black Wolf pack’s village looked far older and more established.
No, that wasn’t proper description. It was more proper to say his village looked like everyone in it all lived a much simpler life and had done so for a very long time.
Truth was, Reed’s home reminded her of her father’s village. Though she hadn’t been there long, it was the only pack environment she’d ever known until she’d landed in Alaska.
“Okay. We tell Brandi, and then what? Do you move whole village to hide your people?” she asked.
Katarina’s shoulders grew heavy when Reed’s head dropped in contemplation of her question. Long ago, Nicolai Vashchenko found solace here in this tiny, secluded place of peacefulness. Now Reed’s village was peaceful solace for no one.
“I don’t know what to do yet,” Reed reluctantly admitted.
When he started to step away, Katarina moved in front of him to block his exit. Her tongue ruled the moment. “Whatever happens, I will help you and your people. It is maybe why Nicolai helped saved me from bastard clone, yes?”
“That’s some fanciful thinking, Katarina Volkov.”
Katarina lifted a shoulder. “Maybe—but no true Russian wolf would think being here was accident. Nicolai would be ashamed of me if I did not admit this.”
Chuckling dryly, Reed lifted a hand to the young alpha’s face. The woman had stupidly taken a tranquilizer dart for him—a tranquilizer dart that likely wouldn’t have affected him—at least not nearly as much as it had her. At nearly a hundred and fifty years old, Katarina wasn’t young by werewolf standards, but she was incredibly young to someone of his advanced years.
Too bad his wolf side didn’t see their age differences as the same kind of problem his human side did.
He tried to smile. “Once this village was the safest place on earth to be. I intended to offer you and Yana sanctuary and perhaps a new home here. It would no doubt make Nicolai’s spirit very happy to know some of his people found their way here too.”
“Okay. Make offer again later,” Katarina ordered, pulling his hand away from her face before she gave into the urge to wrap her arms around him. Telling Reed that everything would be fine was not a promise she could make. Or one he could make to her. “We call Brandi and Gareth. Then we have big meeting and talk to everyone who fought attackers. Yana is good at getting people to talk. She is very friendly she-wolf—not like me.”
Reed pulled himself out his funk and grunted in answer. Her empathy did not absolve her of interfering in his fight, but he’d deal with that later. “What are you good at, Katarina Volkov?”
“Being trouble—some would say,” Katarina immediately answered with a wicked grin that took all her effort to fake. She stepped away from the hurting male she badly wanted to comfort. “I hear I am also good at being pain in ass of Black Wolf alpha. It would be fun theory to test. Seem everything now must wait until later though, agreed?”
Reed nodded while inside his wolf howled about the challenge Katarina Volkov was potentially offering him and his beast. “Yes. Everything must wait.”
By the time Brandi and Gareth got to the village hours later, Katarina, Reed, and Yana had talked to everyone they could. A head count after the attack revealed two of Reed’s remaining grandsons were missing as well as the pack beta that had taken Reed months to replace.
As Brandi went through her perspective of what happened, Katarina studied the nano wolf beta with as many alpha tendencies as she herself possessed. The woman was far more fierce than she let people know. Her mate, Gareth, didn’t seem bothered by Brandi’s need to be in charge.
Katarina felt a bit envious. It would be nice to be yourself and not worry about what the person sharing your bed thought. Such a relationship was one more thing she’d never had.
Brandi punched the table with a finger as she made her point. “We know there’s a group in Canada doing illegal human and animal experiments similar to what the two Crane siblings were doing. Diane Crane—the sister we recently took down—was working with that group in a top of the line lab they gave her. We’ve had their headquarters under surveillance, but they’ve been staying under everyone’s radar.”
Reed frowned at the news. “If it’s not the Canadian group who took our people, or the US group you’re working for, who else could be responsible?”
Brandi sighed and stared at the floor for a moment. Finally, she lifted her head. “I can’t confirm anything yet, but I have a theory about who your attackers were.” Her gaze shifted to Katarina. “And I think a group of Russians were the informants responsible for sending them here.”
Yana sighed internally when Katarina only stared at Brandi without commenting. Her alpha sister rarely gave away her thoughts. She turned to Brandi herself. “No one heard Russian being spoken. Many here would recognize the language. Centuries ago, the great Nicolai Vashchenko taught whole village to speak it.”
Brandi tore her gaze away from Katarina’s intense stare to answer Yana. “The attackers were part of a private apprehension group out of New Zealand that works for hire. English is the primary language in New Zealand, but I’m guessing no one heard the attackers speaking much at all. That’s how professionals work when they’re collecting their targets.”
“Da. Is true,” Katarina admitted. “Villagers heard sharp, short commands in English.”
Brandi nodded at her in acknowledgment. “After Heidi was taken, we learned Travis sold his apprehension services to the highest bidder. We learned he was in touch with nearly every global group involved in these sorts of experiments. My theory is that someone in Russia—probably the same someone who helped Travis abduct Yana and Katarina—got paid for the information about the exact location of the Black Wolf pack.”
Katarina rubbed her forehead as she swore over that bit of news. Her gut was screaming at her. She wanted to scream for real. “Trakhni moyu zhizn’,” she muttered in Russian instead.
Yana gasped and stared at her sister. “Fucking is sacred, Katarina Volkov. It is bad luck to swear about fucking.” She went silent when Katarina held up a hand to stop her rant.
Brandi cleared her throat to hide her urge to laugh at Yana’s outburst. Finally, she went on with her explanation. “Gareth and I both suspect the group we’ve been watching in Canada now has the Black Wolf pack members who were taken. Two of our best agents are attempting to confirm our suspicions. A retrieval team is standing by to go in there once we know more. We were intentionally delaying the complete shutdown of the Canadian facility until we could figure out the Russian connection that keeps surfacing.”
Katarina studied Reed whose expression showed no emotion about what he was hearing. While he looked calm in his eyes, she also could feel a storm gathering. She turned to Brandi. “Do you think Canadian scientists kidnap wolves hoping to make more like you?”
Brandi shrugged before nodding. “I can’t say for certain, but we know Randall Crane’s work got disseminated to lots of people through his sister, Diane, who would have told anyone anything to get scientific funding. Diane Crane didn’t know specifically about Ariel, Heidi, and I until Travis lost Katarina and took Heidi instead. The other Crane sibling, Sheldon Crane, has spent his career trying to save those who ended up being experiments for Randall and Diane.”
“Then we don’t know anything for certain,” Katarina concluded.
Brandi shook her head. “We know some things, and if I had to make a guess about what’s happening, I would say the Canadian group hopes to replicate Randall Crane’s work. They intend to make werewolves using Reed’s blood.”
“Why did they not stay and fight to capture Reed?” Katarina asked.
Gareth pointed at the Black Wolf alpha. “Reed was definitely their first target, but he wasn’t here when they arrived. Timing was off, and since Travis is no longer around to feed them information, they probably made plans that included a contingency for Reed’s absence. Once the village was on fire, their original plan likely changed to escaping with as few casualties as possible. This is why they settled for stealing two of Reed’s remaining grandsons and his beta.”
Katarina rose and paced a while before turning to look at Reed who was not responding. His stoicism worried her far more than his ranting in anger would have. Was this truly his nature? She frowned deeply and fought off the sigh that had been building up.
She looked only at Brandi. “Russian werewolves are not like werewolves in America. In motherland, werewolf alphas rule with sharp fangs and iron claws. My father killed without remorse—family, friend, or foe. By pack law, I could have challenged my father for his pack after I killed my two younger brothers which he sent to kill me, but I did not. I regret that now.”
“Your father is still your father even though he made himself your enemy. I’m sure that’s hard to accept, no matter what he’s done to you,” Brandi added.
Katarina nodded. “Da—I see Matt do good things.” She chopped the air with her hand. “My mistake was letting my father know where I lived. I told myself it showed everyone how I was not afraid. As I got older, reality sank into here,” Katarina explained, pointing to her head. “With a whole pack of wolves to help him, my father could have killed me anytime. I waited my entire life waiting for him to make attempt. Now I think my father saw future and decided to make profit on his biggest problem. When I escaped, he betrayed Yana too. In his view, females are possessions to be used.”
When Brandi started to speak, Katarina held up her hand to keep her from interrupting. She needed to get the whole thing out.
Katarina held up her hand to keep them from interrupting. She needed to get the whole thing out.
“Travis never say my father made deal for me to be taken, but he never say my father did not. On plane from Russia to America, Travis talked on phone to the person who told him about me and arranged money to be sent. Yana’s mother sent her away as young wolf to protect her. Instead of killing her, our father ignored her like he did me. Who told Travis where to find the one female wolf who was my blood sister? Answer is obvious. Everything circles back to the bastard who made me.”
Yana rose and walked to her sister. “If our bastard father now betrays all wolf-kind, then we take his life to teach him and his whole worthless pack a lesson. We go back to Russia, sister—you and I. We find a glorious destiny in fighting our bastard father to his death.”
Katarina chuckled and patted Yana’s face. Her sister was fierce, but she was too young to understand the danger. “Do not be so quick to seek death, Yana Volkov. Our father hate that he made an alpha daughter instead of an alpha son. That does not mean he betrayed all wolves.”
Yana shrugged her mouth a grim line. She patted her stomach as she stepped away from her sister. “Gut still say it is good guess that our bastard father sold us both.”
Brandi crossed her arms. “My gut is saying the same thing as Yana’s. That said—I’m glad I wasn’t the first person to suggest your father was the informant. I knew you’d hate hearing it.”
Katarina lifted one shoulder and let it fall. It wasn’t the first time she’d had to accept that her father was evil. “So what we do until we know truth? Reed’s people must be protected. Pack has suffered many losses and now more of his strongest wolves are gone from village.”
Brandi nodded—her mouth tight with determination to fix this. “I know and I have an idea about how to keep everyone safe. However… my solution is a bit off the wall,” she explained, turning away from Katarina’s questioning gaze to look at an equally bewildered Reed. She smiled, hoping to reassure him. “So… tell me, Reed. How do your people feel about bears? I’m talking bears of the shifter sort.”
Brandi’s question was so unexpected, Reed laughed at her for daring to ask it. “Wolves leave all bears alone, but especially shifter ones. Despite our wintery conditions in Alaska, there aren’t many bear shifters here. Most bear shifters prefer desolate, isolated places like the forests of Siberia where they can be completely alone. Like all true predators, they don’t hang around creatures who aren’t on the menu for dinner.”
Gareth chuckled in agreement. “True, but the bears Brandi’s referring to aren’t natural shifters. They were created like she and her pack were. They aren’t typical and haven’t been shifters for very long. They’re having a similar problem in trying to find ways to stay off the radar of ambitious mad scientists. Before they were turned into science experiments, they were a quirky human environmental group living off-grid. Learning to live as bears has been quite a challenge for them. But like Brandi and her pack, the bears have done what was needed to protect themselves.”
Reed blew out a breath hoping it would let his resignation settle into place. “My first instinct is to say it could never work, but with my people in constant danger of being abducted, I don’t have the luxury of being close-minded. How many bear shifters are we talking about?”
The question was directed at Gareth, but Brandi answered for her mate. “Their group contains thirty-ish shifters plus their human children. Last time I took a real headcount, the group had close to fifty people total living in it. This includes a still human teacher and another guy who wasn’t there when the adults originally got abducted.”
Human adults and human children weren’t the problem. Reed ignored everything but the thing that was. “Thirty bears shifters are a lot of bears running around a wolf pack.”
Brandi laughed a bit nervously as her mate lifted an eyebrow. She knew this would be a hard sell. She’d admitted as much to Gareth on the trip here. “If it helps, most of the bears are normal-sized black or brown bears like the kind you find natively in Alaska. They’d likely blend in with the real bears here. Only two are different.”
“I’m afraid to ask, but I have to. What are they?” Reed asked.
Brandi ran a hand through her recently cut and very short hair that grew six inches every time she shifted as she searched for words. “The leader got injected with a DNA cocktail consisting of multiple bear species. Mostly he’s an enormous Russian Big Brown. Last time I saw him, Jon’s shifted form was already larger than any natural bear on record, including Polar Bears and other Russian Browns. His wife is also a Russian Brown, but not nearly the same size as him.”
“How can I contemplate doing this, Brandi? You’re talking about over-sized, recently converted, very dangerous bears who one day could decide werewolves are prey instead of fellow predators.”
Brandi barked out a laugh. The idea of Jon and Susan eating wolves was not out of the question, but it was highly, highly unlikely given they were vegetarians when in human form. Both had said the only food they ate in bear form was fish. If Reed said yes, she’d tell him this. Right now, her alpha prime couldn’t hear anything that clearly.
“Look… I’m not suggesting you take them all into your pack as members, Reed. I mean, they’re not wolves. They’re bears. That’s unnatural, right?”
Reed snorted. “Unnatural is an understatement, but you do want me to offer them all asylum like Matt did for the three of you.”
Gareth stepped close to his mate before turning to look at the most reasonable alpha he’d ever met. If Reed was this concerned about the mere suggestion of letting the bears live with his pack, they’d have to convince him long before he’d ever let the bears anywhere near his people. “There’s also another good reason to let them visit your pack that Brandi hasn’t mentioned.”
Reed lifted an eyebrow. “My instincts just went on high alert, Gareth.”
“You’re wise to trust them, which is why I want to tell you upfront,” Gareth admitted. He looked at Brandi who nodded before he looked back at Reed. “Having the bears here would help the people Brandi and I work for to not to have to divide their protection efforts between the bears in their Colorado location and your pack here in the wilds of Alaska. With the bears here with your people, we could ask for a few agents to be assigned here to protect everyone until this is all over. They’d be hybrids too—not fully human. I’d get as many werewolves as possible and put as few prey species here as we could. However, most of the prey hybrids are intelligence workers and they’re necessary too.”
Reed stared at Gareth for a long time, then finally nodded. “I’m not keen on having anyone here from the government, but I can see how the logistics of having us all in one place would make sense to the people you work for. Before I can give you an answer about the bears, I need to think about this more—and talk to the pack. I can’t imagine how my already frightened people are going to react to the idea of living alongside bears for any reason.”
Brandi smiled at the male who was like a father to her. “If you don’t want to bring them here, temporary relocation of your pack somewhere else is another option. For example, we could reverse things. We can move all your pack out to Colorado—maybe to a Native American reservation near the bears. That would still allow us to protect everyone at once.”
Reed nodded but didn’t reply.
Brandi sighed. “I appreciate that you’re at least willing to listen to the idea. Don’t worry. We’ll come up with something you can live with, Reed. Whatever you decide is good for the Black Wolf pack, Gareth and I want you to know that you don’t have to fight the bad guys alone. Your grandsons may have created this mess, but we’re going to help you end it.”
“Okay. I’ll try to think of the positives,” Reed promised and hugged Brandi before slipping out the door to take a walk.
The room was silent while they watched Reed leave.
Katarina eventually turned to Brandi after she was sure the Black Wolf alpha was well out of hearing range. “Reed’s guilt is like large dark cloud over his alpha good judgment. Those of his blood brought harm to the rest of his people and he cannot see beyond that fact. This sort of shame I understand. My sister was taken by Travis only because I managed to escape him. What is good for one is often not good for the many.”
Brandy nodded as she stared at the door where Reed had exited. “Maybe that’s true about how Reed’s feeling at the moment, but the reality is that a wolf with his blood also saved his people from the tyranny of his evil alpha grandsons. Did Ariel tell you this story?”
“Da. But I never tire of hearing that good wins out over evil. It helps me keep faith,” Katarina admitted.
“Because they looked identical, each took a turn being alpha and inflicting torment on the pack. Ariel killed Hanuk—the alpha at the time—in an open challenge for the alpha role. Reed’s hope that Travis could be saved prevented his death, but later Heidi killed Travis when he left her no choice. Both Hanuk and Travis were driving the Black Wolf pack into the ground with their violent dictates. Reed was trying not to destroy them because they were family. Unfortunately, no one’s gene pool comes with a guarantee of goodness.”
Katarina grunted in agreement. “Violent alphas must have been terrible burden for a village full of such peaceful wolves.”
Brandi frowned as she nodded in agreement. “By pack law, Ariel killing Hanuk earned her the right to be the next Black Wolf alpha of this pack. Reed only took pack leadership back so Ariel could go live with Matt in the Gray Wolf pack. He doesn’t want to lead anymore, but there’s no choice. Werewolf politics aren’t any easier here in Alaska than they are where you come from.”
Katarina nodded. Life was strange. What long ago seemed her biggest torment was now her greatest blessing. She had the instincts of an alpha but no knowledge of living under the rule of one. At this moment, all those years of living alone looked like a much easier path in following her destiny.
She walked to Brandi and put a hand on the brave nano wolf’s shoulder. “A lone wolf needs no guidance, but I think most werewolves need strong leader. I think bringing giant bears here is good idea, but Russian wolves not afraid of bears. Fear, I know, often creates desperation. Despite all this, I think Reed will say yes to your plan. He just needs time to accept this fate.”
Brandi grinned at the petite Russian alpha. Katarina might be tiny in some ways, but she well remembered what the woman was like in full wolf form. When she looked at her, she saw the courage of Katarina’s giant wolf side. “Fear rules most people’s decisions, even the small daily ones. Reed makes good decisions and moves on quickly from any drama surrounding them. He also seems to have less daily issues than anyone I’ve ever met.”
“Or perhaps he has lost ability to give two shits. Guess time will tell,” Katarina said
Brandi grinned. “I don’t think that’s the case, but I guess we’ll see. Everybody has a weak point. What are you afraid of, Katarina Volkov?”
Katarina looked up and studied the ceiling as she gave serious contemplation to the question. “When I figure out answer, comrade, I will let you know.”
“Yes, comrade. You do that,” Brandi said, chuckling at the Russian alpha’s innate arrogance.
“I assumed they were sending a pilot. You never told me you could fly a plane.”
Brandi snickered into her headset as she turned to Gareth. She pointed at his lap until he put his own headset on.
“It’s only a small plane. It’s not like I can fly a jet or a rocket,” she said after Gareth put it on. “And I remember telling you that I learned to operate all kinds of vehicles because I hated being trapped anywhere waiting for a ride.”
Gareth grunted from the co-pilot’s seat. “What other secrets are you hiding from me?”
Brandi laughed. “I wasn’t hiding this one. The subject never came up. Most of our conversations are about cattle breeding or how to keep the kids out of trouble. The rest of time we’re having sex and not talking about anything trivial.”
“I wouldn’t call flying a plane trivial. Never having a mowed a lawn? Now that’s trivial. And it’s still hard to believe.”
Brandi snorted and made her headset crackle. “What is your real problem with this, Longfeather? Lots of agents have their pilot’s license. Do my multiple achievements as a female agent make you feel less masculine in some way?”
Gareth swore under his breath. “Don’t be stupid. I just don’t like being the last to know things, especially when they involve my mate.”
Brandi grinned about his continued complaining. It was fun knowing she’d surprised Gareth. “Maybe we need to play twenty questions now and again, but if we do you’re not allowed to get mad if you don’t like my answers. I was a normal human in the US military when I learned most of what I know. Unlike you, I wasn’t always a kick-ass werewolf.”
Gareth didn’t bother responding to his mate’s snarky praise. Instead, he shook his head at the mystery woman he’d mated. “I’m changing the subject. Why did you bring Stewart on this trip? Kent and Aggie are not your biggest fans right now.”
Brandi nodded. “Yeah, I know. I have a lot of reasons. One is that Stewart is evolving faster than they are. He’s doubled in size and they haven’t done that yet. Kent’s idea of handling their physical discrepancy is to exert even more power over Stewart, even though I’ve explained that will not happen on my watch. I think Steward needs to see in person what he keeps seeing in his head. I want him to get in touch with and feel his own power. I’ll deal with Kent’s anger over this when we get home. Aggie already understands, but she’s worried about the boys fighting. Everyone will have to deal because I’m right about this.”
Gareth snorted at her confidence in reasoning with Kent, who was shaping up to be quite the little alpha-in-training. “You could have told them you were intending to spend some ‘quality alone time’ with each of them. Then Kent would only be mad that he didn’t get to go first.”
Brandi sighed, even as she laughed. “Yeah—maybe. I don’t have any fancy words for my logic, but what you said is exactly what I’m planning. They all need to learn that they’re individuals and not just a unit of three. Each of them needs to be free enough to live his or her own life. Ariel and Matt are good about not interfering too much. One way or the other, I will make sure Kent learns to be the same.”
Gareth grinned. “All I can say is that you better bring back some damn terrific souvenirs from this trip.”
Brandi barked out a laugh. “Gareth, I’m bringing back bear shifters for them to meet. What more could any kid want? Kent and Aggie will be ecstatic. Trust me.”
Knowing she was right, Gareth smiled and nodded.
“Aggie speaks Russian. I’m sorry I don’t speak Russian. I would totally speak it with you if I could.”
“Speaking Russian is unnecessary. I speak English too. Who is Aggie?”
Steward wiggled in his seat. He could feel his legs growing again. It hurt, but he didn’t want anyone to know. This trip was the coolest thing he’d ever done in his life.
“Aggie is my sister. Well, not my actual sister. We were all orphans together—Kent, Aggie, and me. Now we’re wolf pack mates, though none of us have shifted yet. We’re experiments like Mom and her pack mates.”
Katarina’s eyes shot to the cockpit, where Brandi and Gareth smiled and talked through their headsets. This was news Brandi had never shared. She finally turned her gaze back to the boy sitting beside her. He’d been talking non-stop to her, and she was barely keeping up. His mind was so… expansive.
“Kent is our alpha, but Mom made him stand down when he said I couldn’t go on this trip with her. Mom’s only a beta, but I’m thinking she’s like all but an alpha. Kent gave in to her awfully easily. Do you know what I mean?”
Katarina chuckled. “Yes. And I completely agree. Brandi is alpha material and is already alpha in many ways. So is your father. Only alpha prospects are chosen for betas, or so I have been told. Packs are mysterious to lone wolf like me.”
“Lone wolf? Does that mean you don’t have a pack?” Steward asked.
“Nyet. I mean, no. I do not have a pack.”
Steward shook his head. “What do you do when you have a problem? Or when you’re hurt and scared? When I get my visions, Aggie pats my head and Kent tells me everything will turn out fine.”
Katarina sighed at his innocence. She couldn’t remember ever wishing for such comfort. “When I am scared, I guess I comfort myself.”
Steward reached over and put a hand on the pretty Russian wolf’s arm. “That must be very hard.”
Katarina lifted a shoulder, but she patted the small hand on her arm. “In a hundred and fifty years, I’ve had a lot of practice. Thank you for caring. How old are you, Steward?”
Steward bit his lip because he hated the question. He never knew what to say to people who asked his age. “Like in real years or wolf years?”
Katarina laughed. “Which answer will shock me more? I want to hear that one.”
Steward laughed. “Both probably. When Mom got us, we were about four. Then suddenly a few months ago we were somewhere around eight. Now I’m like twelve or thirteen—I think. Kent and Aggie are still eight though. What’s happening to me is strange. Mom says it’s just my normal. Apparently, we can all have different ones.”
Katarina nodded. “I agree with your mother. I do not find it strange. That’s what destiny is like—always bringing big surprises. All you can do is pray for help to accept what life brings to you.”
Steward snickered. “Well, actually, I have been praying a lot lately because I really, really, really want to shift into an actual wolf.”
“That is a very specific request. I am curious, Stewart. What god do you pray to?” Katarina asked because the boy’s openness and positivity charmed her.
Steward lifted a shoulder. “I suppose it’s fair to say that I trade up gods frequently. Aggie finds me a new one whenever I get tired of waiting for my shifting prayers to be answered.”
Unrestrained laughter bubbled up and out of Katarina. When she heard a masculine snicker, she glanced over and saw that a sleeping Reed hadn’t really been sleeping. His eyes were all but closed, but a grin tugged at his mouth, proving he listened to the boy. Reed looked very appealing with that grin, so she turned her focus back to the male beside her.
“When I was kidnapped and running for my life, I prayed to ghost of famous Russian werewolf who left my father’s pack and came to live with Reed’s pack in Alaska. The spirit of Nicolai Vashchenko answered my desperate prayers and sent your mother and her pack to save me. Turns out he was also Reed’s great-uncle through friendship. I think sometimes the best family is the one you create for yourself as you go through life. Nicolai was lucky like that—he was lucky like you.”
“I suppose I have been lucky. You need to get lucky too,” Steward insisted. “No wolf should be alone—not even a lone wolf.”
Katarina nodded as she grinned. “Well, I recently found a sister I didn’t know I had. Her name is Yana. So I guess I have begun process.”
Steward nodded. “That’s awesome. Is your sister Russian too?”
“Da. And she looks like me. Except much, much younger. I was my father’s firstborn. She was one of his last.”
“It must be cool to know who your actual father is,” Steward whispered.
Katarina shook her head. “No. It is not good thing. My father is evil wolf. Hundreds of times I wish he had never been part of my life.” She lifted her finger and pointed at him. “You are luckier to have parents who chose you and love you for yourself. That is special blessing. Never take it for granted.”
“Oh, I won’t,” Steward promised as he looked to the front of the plane where his parents were fussing with each other. They were passionate about life, which made them passionate about the three of them. He really did feel lucky. “Dad said Mom made a deal that made our Grandpa give us up to her. My grandpa’s not evil, but he sometimes does some things my parents don’t approve of. I get why Mom refused to leave us there with him.”
“You have young body and old soul, Steward Longfeather. You will be make fine wolf one day. I need to sleep now,” Katarina told him, then leaned her head back so she could pretend to shut out the world.
The last thing she needed in life was to confess her envy of a young boy who knew with absolute certainty his parents loved him.