If you haven’t read Wolf Trap yet, this post contains spoilers!! Please stop reading now and grab your copy of book one while it’s marked down to 99 cents.
Ready to continue Tru’s adventure? Read on…
The landscape, however, was ominous from the start. Above us, the branches of winter-bare trees curled like a giant’s fingers. And our choice not to bring flashlights was cast into doubt by the new moon’s complete absence, not even a sliver brightening the sky.
No wonder my foot caught on a root. But before I could do more than tilt off balance, Drake’s hand caught my elbow, stabilizing me while provoking a different sort of upheaval beneath my skin.
“You’re cold,” he rasped, misreading the cause of my shivers.
I shook my head then layered words atop the gesture since it was too dark for even shifter eyes to read body language. “No. Just concerned about Lynette.”
And that was true, if not the entire truth. Despite being the one who had browbeat me into setting up this outing, our sixteen-year-old ward had decided it would take way too much effort to climb up to the graveyard where Ambrose had been buried. Instead, she’d invited herself into a game of tag being played by four young werewolves down where we’d parked our cars.
Which, in a way, was good. Lynette needed friends. She deserved a normal childhood to counteract the magical hands that tended to scorch those she touched if she wasn’t careful.
Still, I couldn’t help voicing my worries now. “She wasn’t wearing gloves and it looked like she was going to win. If she burns somebody, they’ll bite back.”
Drake’s growl promised immediate, bloody retribution. “They wouldn’t dare. Plus,” he continued, his rasp warming, “Lynette’s control is improving. You’re a good influence.”
The final words, aimed in my direction, felt like a caress. Despite his job, despite his voice, Drake was a protector of those he cared about. Lynette, the Strays…
The question was, could I allow myself to be included in that list when my previous leap into a romantic relationship had proven so disastrous? When I now had a teenager depending on me to protect and guide her out of an equally traumatic past?
I shivered for a reason other than Drake’s delicious proximity, then I returned to the conversational point before my companion could remark upon my bodily reaction. “The influence between me and Lynette flows primarily in the other direction. Did she tell you we went clothes shopping last week while you were in Montana?”
Despite my best intentions, I found myself picking at the sliver of bared skin where my sweater V’ed down in a very unladylike manner. The choice of wardrobe had been Lynette’s, and I’d accepted her fashion advice because doing so made her smile. Plus, as I’d reminded myself half a dozen times since then, what would have been a societal faux pas in the time I hailed from was now considered not risqué in the least.
Still, I found myself hoisting the neck of the sweater upward, which had the unfortunate side effect of producing a cold breeze down my back. And this time, Drake didn’t even bother asking if I was cold. Wool swirled around my shoulders, bringing with it his signature lemon-meringue-pie aroma plus a hug-like warmth. Clever fingers buttoned the pea coat beneath my chin to hold it in place, cloak-like. He didn’t fumble once despite the pitch black.
“I’ll speak to Lynette about being pushy,” he murmured into my ear, and I shivered even though I was now toasty warm inside his overcoat.
With an effort, I leaned my body in the direction it didn’t want to lean—away from the tantalizing werewolf. Drake had left the relationship ball in my court and I wasn’t quite ready to pick it up again.
So I stuck to words rather than embracing the physical attraction spinning between us. “You don’t like the clothes?”
“Your clothes are your business. Not hers. Not mine.” A pause, then a purr replaced Drake’s usual rasp. “But, yes, I like what you’re wearing very much. My coat. What’s under my coat.”
I could almost taste the words he hadn’t added. What’s under the sweater and skirt beneath my coat…
Now it wasn’t just the extra garment raising my core temperature and I could no longer talk myself into holding the relationship line I’d drawn in the sand. Yes, for Lynette’s sake we needed to make sure the volcano I could feel building between us didn’t erupt in ways that would fling burning relationship lava onto our ward. Yes, it would be so easy to lose myself in the eruption before I’d really found myself.
Still, despite the darkness, my right hand had no problem finding his left hand. Skin grazed skin then I let my fingers slide between his fingers as if they were coming home to rest.
Perhaps I was ready to bounce that relationship ball just a little bit off the ground after all.
“Okay?” Drake asked, even though I was the one who’d reached out and touched him. Even though the intimacy level of our contact was moderate enough that grade schoolers wouldn’t have blushed.
“I want this,” I admitted, resisting the impulse to do more than interweave our fingers, “but I still wake up in cold sweats, afraid I’ll bind myself to an alpha werewolf and harm not only myself but also Lynette and Neko.”
Neko was the kitten Drake and I also shared unofficial custody of, the uninspired name (cat in Japanese) making me feel grounded to my forgotten past every time I spoke it. The cat in question was currently napping in the pocket of the coat Drake had lent me, and I let my unoccupied hand slide between layers of fabric to cup his furry warmth. In response, Neko stretched a silky back against my palm, the contact soothing away some but not all of the tremors memories aroused inside me.
Drake was the one who soothed away the others as he had before and likely would again. “I don’t want anything you aren’t ready for.”
“You’re content with this?” I raised up our hands, palms pressed close together.
“More than content,” he rasped. “Thank you for inviting me along tonight.”
The truth was, Lynette had stolen my phone and hit the send button before I could talk myself into deleting the message requesting Drake join us here. The laughter Lynette and I had shared as I threatened to ground her for life colored my subsequent words now. “Very romantic, taking you to visit my husband’s grave.”
First husband and first alpha werewolf who’d expressed a romantic interest in me. Ambrose Reed had lured me halfway around the world as a picture bride, had intended to kill me, and had instead stuck me in suspended animation for over a century.
That suspended animation—helped along by the spirit of my sword parasol—had wiped out most of my memory. So I didn’t actually know many of the facts involved in Ambrose’s awfulness. Couldn’t dig up any recollection of how Drake and I had met, although he’d filled in those blanks verbally. Didn’t know my real name or much of my past.
Which was part of why I was here. I hoped visiting Ambrose’s grave might revive some sliver of knowledge about my history. Well, I’d come for that, plus the childish intention of stomping on the earth Ambrose had been planted beneath while celebrating his belated demise.
To that end, my footsteps quickened as we stepped out of the trees and into a clearing on the hilltop. Out from under the bare-branched canopy, I could see just a little better, enough to make out headstones dotting grass that someone likely hiked up to mow once or twice a season. In the near darkness, it was hard to tell where the newest grave might lie.
“This way.” Drake, as usual, was prepared. He turned us south, his hand guiding me as if my arm was a boat’s rudder. The gesture should have been awkward but it wasn’t. Instead, I imagined we were dancing. An old-style gavotte perhaps, the sort that ended with a kiss.
My cheeks burned by the time Drake’s free arm lashed out in front of me. Fox reflexes kept me from losing my balance and fox-assisted eyes let me see, one moment later, what my escort was reacting to.
The ground in front of us wasn’t grassy lawn like what covered up other grave sites. Instead, a hole deep enough so I couldn’t make out the bottom and long enough to lie down in yawned before us.
Someone had dug up my husband’s grave.
For one split second, fear gripped me like a cold hand around my throat. Memories flirted with my consciousness, memories of Ambrose using my marriage vow to turn me into a willing participant in the draining of every drop of blood out of my body.
Then I swallowed past fear. Whatever had happened to his grave, Ambrose was dead. This was a puzzle to be deciphered, nothing else.
To that end, I focused on mundanities. “Do you mind if I destroy your night vision?”
Rather than answering aloud, Drake’s phone flared into flashlight mode, illuminating the pit and the mound of earth on the far side while making the dark forest around us impenetrable. The benefit we’d gained by walking up here in the dark was lost.
Which was fine. We’d gotten permission to spend time in this territory. Still, danger itched at the back of my neck as I peered down into a hole as deep as I was tall. At the bottom, the lid of a plain wooden coffin lay askew, the slant just sufficient to prove grave robbing had been the cause of the digging while not allowing us to see inside.
“This isn’t fresh,” Drake rasped, kneeling down to crumble dirt between his fingers. “It’s been rained on but it’s not wet.”
Which meant whoever had dug this hole likely wasn’t waiting in the darkness to pounce on us. Still…
The fear that had flitted through me a moment earlier solidified into a solid thrum of urgency. Our ward was running around in the darkness down where we’d parked our vehicles. The parents of the shifters she played with were inside nearby buildings, but a lot could happen before a teenager would think to call for help…
I yanked out my phone and punched the number beside Lynette’s face. It rang and rang and rang, long enough for my rushing thoughts to coalesce into images that would provide fodder for new nightmares.
Whoever had dug up Ambrose’s grave could capture Lynette. Cage her the way she’d already been caged for over a year, picking partially healed scabs off the wounds of her earlier emotional abrasions. Her hands could be turned into weapons. Her…
“What’s up?” Our ward was out of breath when she finally answered, but I could hear the smile in her voice. She was fine and I didn’t want to scare her. Still, my words came out terse.
“I want you to get into one of our cars and lock the doors.” Because, yes, there were adult shifters in houses nearby…but who could say whether one of them might be responsible for the grave robbing?
Immediately, the joy in Lynette’s voice disappeared. We were back in neighboring cells, preparing for unknown danger. “I’m not leaving the kids behind,” she bit out before calling in her playmates.
And even though I wanted Lynette to be able to act like a child, her presence of mind still made me proud. “Good work,” I told her, talking fast and low before the young shifters got close enough to hear me. “Turn it into a new game. Clown car. See how many of you can cram inside and…”
My mind went blank. How exactly was it fun for tweens and teens to sit cooped up in a too-small vehicle while waiting for us to return and rescue them?
Drake’s fingers curled around my fingers, tapping out a question. Could he add his two cents’ worth? I nodded and he raised my phone up to his lips.
“My spare key is in a magnetic case beneath the passenger-side rear wheel well,” he rasped. “Take them on a joy ride.”
I had to stand on tiptoe and lean into Drake’s warm bulk to get close enough for the mic to pick me up now. The tremor that ran through me as a result made my voice breathy when I told Lynette, “Just a sec.”
I managed to firm up my tone by the time I addressed Drake. “Lynette already has a key to my car and it’s already scratched up from that mailbox I didn’t quite clear last month. She barely has her license and your car is…”
Drake’s car was new and shiny and part of the image he projected for his job. Executioner—an alpha whose entire role was to be so imposing that even pack leaders toed the line of good behavior rather than risking his wrath.
But Drake seemed to understand a different point than the one I was making. “My car is armored,” he rasped as if we were in complete agreement. Then, into the phone. “Go now. Stay on the line until the car is moving. Don’t stop driving until I call you back.”
With the kids taken care of, I couldn’t put off the secrets of my husband’s grave any longer. But here too, Drake had other ideas.
“I’ll check it out,” he offered as I eyed the bottom of the hole with the same sort of enthusiasm I’d applied to Lynette’s shopping-trip suggestion that I don head-to-toe spandex. The earthen walls weren’t sheer, so it wasn’t as if I risked getting stuck down there. I just wasn’t quite ready to see whatever was underneath that askew lid.
Still, I shook my head. “No. I need to do this.”
Drake growled very low but he didn’t stop me. Just turned my phone into flashlight mode and handed it back so he could use his for its primary purpose—communication.
Over the month we’d spent as part-time housemates and full-time co-guardians, I’d come to learn that Drake preferred texting everyone other than me and Lynette. But he must have sensed my need for his piercing eyes to stay trained on me now because he dialed up his apprentice the same way I’d contacted our ward.
“Drake,” Kira answered, voice redolent with amusement I could almost smell as I picked my way down the sloping incline. I was glad of shifter hearing because interest in the conversation above me kept me from obsessing over the coffin lid I was aiming for, a plain surface made of what appeared to be un-sanded lumber roughly screwed together. The gap between lid and coffin was too narrow to peer through, but I wouldn’t have to wrest the entire lid up to see what was going on inside. Because it appeared as if someone had already hacked one board free from the others, making it easy to access the end of the coffin closest to my feet.
“Let me guess,” Kira continued, her perky voice a stark contrast to what I imagined lay beneath that loose board I should have moved out of the way already. “You’re going to pull me away from date night to go strike fear into the hearts of scary werewolves with my wit and beauty.”
“Close,” Drake rasped. “I need you to meet up with a car full of kids and bring them to the Reed cemetery immediately.”
“Well, that’s nearby at least,” Kira answered. “Think I can make it back in time for the second movie? It’s a double-header tonight at the drive-in. You should come sometime. Bring your mate.”
I’d already grabbed onto the loose board, which wasn’t quite as loose as I’d thought it would be. But my hand stilled, waiting for Drake’s reply. Because Kira had misspoken. We weren’t mates.
I had only a single memory of a kiss between the two of us and that recollection was fuzzy around the edges, laid down before I started retaining my memory at the break of each dawn. Soon thereafter, I’d made it clear that I wasn’t ready for a romantic relationship and Drake hadn’t pushed the issue.
Still, even when he was out of town rather than just down the hall at Rosa’s house, we’d talked on the phone every night, ostensibly for Lynette’s sake but often about topics that had nothing to do with our ward. Drake had dropped everything to meet me here even though he was in the middle of a job currently, and he’d made no complaint when the hem of his expensive coat dragged in the dirt while protecting my back.
So I didn’t wiggle the board to free it from the earth that had slumped on top of it. Just crouched there inside my husband’s grave and peered up at the alpha werewolf whose gaze, even from this distance, warmed me. His eyebrows shot up as if he was asking a question.
I wasn’t quite sure what I was agreeing to—a simple double date or mating this man who enticed me so thoroughly I often forgot my reasons for not succumbing to his overtures. Either way, I nodded. And the scent of lemon-meringue pie abruptly overwhelmed the must of dirt and decay.
“We’d like that,” Drake answered. “Later. Right now, there are five scared kids in a car who require an armed escort.”
After that, he hung up and dialed Lynette again, giving her instructions on where to meet Kira while passing along the latter’s number. And even though I longed to bask in the near contact of eyes focusing unwaveringly on me, I forced myself to focus on something very different.
Now wasn’t the time for basking. If I wanted to see what kind of future Drake and I might create together, I first needed to deal with the most unpleasant part of my past.
To that end, I jerked the loose board a little harder. This time, it came free, allowing a cascade of dirt to spill down into the homemade coffin.
I expected to find my dead husband’s face there, or perhaps his skull. Rates of human decomposition weren’t something I was intimately familiar with.
What I found was worse. No face. No skull. No evidence at all that my murderous husband was dead.
It wasn’t the most rational reaction, but I abruptly needed to know if this rough wooden box was a mere decoy. So I fell down onto my belly and thrust my arm through the opening where the board had been, straining into the darkness.
Nothing. Nothing. Then my fingers hit something hard and Ambrose’s booming laugh carried previously forgotten memory back into full focus.
“Your blood is delicious.” He’d stood over me, one of the hundreds of glass vials he’d carefully filled with a mixture of my blood plus a clear preservative pinched between thumb and forefinger. His lips were bloody from the taste he’d already enjoyed and he didn’t bother wiping away the red splattering his lips.
“Why?” I choked on the word, barely able to talk. I was so lightheaded. If I hadn’t been lying down already, I would have fallen.
“Look.” He spread his arms wide and I blinked, trying to focus. My husband’s face seemed to shimmer slightly as if he was shifting to lupine form even though his shape remained resolutely human.
Then I understood what was happening. The small wrinkles around his eyes were smoothing. The few streaks of white in his hair had returned to glossy brown.
Ambrose was stealing my life to extend his own. And, given my marriage vow, there was nothing I could do about it.
He laughed again, the sound deeper, more resonant. A hand landed on my shoulder…
Not in memory, in life. Ambrose was here. He wanted to drain me dry again and…
Luckily, I wasn’t the innocent I’d been last time. “My oath died with you!” I gritted out.
I didn’t know if that was true but I wasn’t waiting around to find out. I fumbled for the slit in my skirt, the one Lynette had come upon me sewing into place and proclaimed “sexy” until she understood its purpose. The Velcro I’d used to close the long gash ripped beneath my fingers. The knife I’d strapped to my thigh was in my hands even as I spun to fight the man who’d killed me once already.
Grabbing the knife, however, had required dropping my phone. Face down on the earth, its glow provided only a tiny rim of light between the two of us. So all I could see was my enemy’s massive size as he bent over me. All I could smell was the fur waiting beneath his skin.
His huge hands were raised to the sky though. No wonder when my knife was at his throat. I’d won this round.
“I shouldn’t have touched you.”
The familiar rasp curled around me and I sucked in a gulp of air more frigid than it had been a moment earlier, not realizing until I did so that I’d been holding my breath. “Drake?”
The bulky shadow nodded, the motion working against my knife and cutting into his skin. I could smell his blood, just as salty as the liquid that had lined my husband’s lips. My fingers trembled. My weapon tumbled down to join my cell phone.
“Ambrose Reed is dead,” Drake continued as if he’d read my mind. “I saw him die and I’ll prove he’s gone.”
Over the next hour, Drake did exactly that.
He began by ripping the first two boards loose with his bare hands, revealing the shoulders of a desiccated, headless skeleton. And when I still couldn’t seem to stop shivering, he pulled out a multi-tool and worked every screw loose along the top of the coffin, revealing the rest of my husband’s remains.
Rotting clothes sagged over bones and connective tissue, dirt that had cascaded inside weighing down portions without obscuring the whole. Unless someone else had been put in this grave, I was indeed a widow.
And Drake swore he’d been personally responsible for transporting Ambrose’s body across the country to return it to the Reed pack this past spring. “Palms required greasing,” he rasped. “We don’t embalm our bodies and human laws can be difficult when crossing state lines.”
“If you say he’s dead, he’s dead.” Then I frowned, paying attention to the man in front of me at long last. “I cut you.”
And, okay, so maybe I just wanted an excuse to touch someone alive and lemon-scented. After all, the thin line of red from my knife was already coagulating and clearly didn’t require treatment. Still, I reached into the kitten-containing pocket and drew out the cloth handkerchief Drake always kept there, using it to dab at the wound I’d created while lost in memory and fear.
“Not the first time.” Drake’s rasp vibrated through the cloth and into my fingers, completely eradicating fear of the past while warming the air around us. Perhaps it hadn’t turned so unseasonably cold as suddenly as I’d imagined. Perhaps I’d just lingered too far from Drake’s tantalizing heat.
Which is how Lynette found us, arriving along with four young wolves and the apprentice Drake had called to collect them. The latter shone a huge flashlight beam down on us while the largest wolf swiveled around to guard against anything coming up behind us out of the forest. And Lynette hopped down into a hole that abruptly felt overcrowded. Only quick reflexes managed to save Drake from a bloody nose as our ward saluted.
“Reporting for duty. Which piece did the bas…” She coughed and seemed to change her mind about wording, cheeks pinking in a way that reminded me of myself in a modern fitting room. “Which piece did the grave robber touch?”
The stumble over words made Lynette seem younger than she actually was, and I opened my mouth to tell her she didn’t need to do this. I hadn’t thought through how having a teenager analyze an open grave might layer new traumatic memories atop old ones.
Plus, it wasn’t as if the current mystery was pressing enough to require interrupting Lynette’s newfound childhood. My husband was dead. Whatever had happened to his grave wasn’t important enough to mess with the normal life I was trying to create for our ward.
But Drake, who never naysaid me, shook his head very slightly before wordlessly pointing Lynette’s attention toward the single board that had been askew from the beginning. She reached out to touch it, taking advantage of scorchy fingers that also let her see fragments of the past when in contact with inanimate objects.
Her eyes closed and her cheeks seemed to sink under the stark lighting from Kira’s flashlight. Now Lynette looked nothing like the kid we’d left playing tag with young shifters. Instead, she was once again a young woman doing whatever she had to in order to survive.
Involving her in this mess had been a terrible idea.
Then Lynette’s eyelashes twitched. And when she opened her eyes, it was me she spoke to. “You’re not gonna like this.”
I already didn’t like this. “Tell me.”
“It was Kami.” Lynette rocked back on her heels, putting as much distance as she could between herself and the piece of wood she’d been touching. “She dug up the grave and took dead dude’s head.”