Jade Ashton had made a lot of mistakes in her life, but returning to her brother’s pack topped the list. She should have known the pack members wouldn’t accept her son, the product of a love affair with a human, despite pretending they were fine with it. She glanced at her three-year-old son, napping on the daybed in her office in her brother’s home where she alternated between sketching new designs for intimate apparel and for a new baby and toddler wear line she had developed when her son was born.***
Toby had just fallen asleep, looking angelic with his blond curls resting on his cheek, his dark brown eyes closed as he licked his lips. No way would she ever give him up, despite how everyone in her pack viewed him as a grievous error in judgment.
She felt a little dizzy, probably because she’d been so busy that she hadn’t had anything to drink in hours. She got up from her chair and headed out the door, practically running into her twin brother moving silently down the hall like a wolf. She fell back and gasped softly when he grabbed her arm to steady her.
“We need to talk.” Kenneth started to guide her to the den, his blond hair much darker than hers, his amber eyes focused on her in a way that said he had serious business to discuss.
Did he know she intended to leave the pack, again? Or did he want to tell her he didn’t think her being here was working out? “I need to get some water. And we can’t talk long because Toby will be waking in a half hour or so.”
“This will just take a minute.”
It had better, because she wasn’t going to be drawn into any long-winded discussions with her brother. She hadn’t told him she was leaving first thing in the morning. She wasn’t sure how he’d take it. She had to admit she was afraid he’d try to talk her out of it. But she was determined.
Every time he and the others had looked at her son in judgment, she’d been annoyed. Not only that, but she’d caught Kenneth and the others having secret conversations and then abruptly stopping whenever they saw her approaching. The pack members pretended to tolerate her son, but she saw through the facade. They didn’t like her having a human son who couldn’t shift. They believed he could be a danger to the pack.
Which was one of the reasons she had left just after her son was born. She had also wanted to save his human father from her brother’s wrath. But raising Toby on her own had been tough. When her brother had promised that the pack members wanted her to live with them and have the backup they could provide, she had agreed. She and her son had left southern Texas far behind, so she figured she’d never run into Toby’s father again. And Kenneth had sounded sincere in wanting to ensure her protection—just like a pack leader should. She wanted to be part of a family again. She didn’t have a lone wolf personality.
She didn’t believe Toby would be welcome in any other pack either.
Clearly, the members had changed their minds about having her and her son there. Unless they had never wanted her back and it was all her brother’s idea. He was the pack leader, so ultimately, it was his decision—one he was apparently coming to regret. He was just being stubborn, didn’t want to admit he’d made a mistake, and didn’t want to have to tell her to leave.
Then again, maybe he realized she was planning to leave. Being twins, they sometimes sensed things like that before they really shared with each other. She hadn’t packed anything yet. She planned to tell him in the morning, before he left for work at his auto body shop. She thought it would be easier on all of them that way. She’d call him when she got settled and let him know where she was staying. It was for the best—for her son, for her, and for Kenneth and the pack.
Having detoured from the direction of the den to go to the kitchen so she could get something to drink, Kenneth leaned against the granite counter, his focus on her, his expression still ultra-serious. “I have a job for you.”
She raised her brows, then grabbed a glass from the kitchen cabinet. Between raising Toby and running her own businesses, she didn’t have time for a whole lot else. But if this was something quick that she could do this afternoon, she would, to thank Kenneth for taking her in—and then she was through with the pack.
“It’s simple. And hell, you might get real lucky.”
She snorted, pouring water into the glass and adding crushed ice. “Lucky?” She drank several sips of the water.
The front door shut, and she figured Kenneth’s girlfriend, Lizzie, was running out for something. She was a wolf too, which meant they were sleeping together, but he hadn’t decided to mate her yet so they hadn’t gone all the way. If they did, he’d be stuck with her as his mate for life. Jade didn’t know why the she-wolf put up with her brother. If Jade was in a situation like Lizzie’s, she’d tell the wolf that either they mated or she’d look elsewhere. But Jade supposed Lizzie wanted to be a pack leader’s mate and was sticking around in case Kenneth decided she was it. Total beta wolf.
“You’re living off me so you can put more money into your apparel business that isn’t making enough to really sustain you and your son. So, I need you to do this job and—”
“Like hell my business isn’t making enough money.” She was extremely tight with her money. No fancy food for either of them. No special entertainment. No expensive clothes. Since lupus garous lived so long, she had worked other jobs to help pad her bank account before Toby was born. She wasn’t wealthy, but she got by just fine. As long as she was frugal. “That’s okay. Being here with the pack isn’t working out for Toby and me anyway.”
Kenneth’s eyes widened. “You’re not leaving.”
“Listen, Kenneth, you know no one wants my son here. And they barely tolerate me. You make Lizzie babysit Toby sometimes when I really need someone to watch him so I can work, but it’s not fair to her. The rest of the pack worries about him. I appreciate all you’ve done for me. I really do.”
She shrugged. “But…I know this is the right thing for me to do. And for you and the pack too. I’m leaving tomorrow, and we can get together from time to time…later.” She really didn’t believe that would happen, but she’d make the gesture anyway.
“Like I said, I have a job for you.”
What part of she was leaving did her brother not get? He was so stubborn! Or did he feel it was his place as pack leader to decide if she was leaving? He hadn’t decided things for her since before she left the pack nearly four years earlier, and she wasn’t going to allow him to start now.
Even so, she’d humor him because she was leaving tomorrow, with or without his consent. “What’s the job?”
“Do you remember when that doctor was taking blood samples from us last week?”
“Yeah, Dr. Aidan Denali. He wanted to take some of Toby’s, and I said no. What of it? He’s not asking to take blood samples from Toby again, is he?”
“No, but here’s the thing. I looked into his background, and his brother is Rafe Denali.”
“So?” She’d never heard of the guy. Not that she’d heard of Aidan Denali either before she’d met him at Kenneth’s house. Since Toby wasn’t a shifter, there was no reason for Aidan to take blood from him. Though she hadn’t given the doctor that reason since he hadn’t needed to know.
“Rafe Denali’s a billionaire. Real estate mogul.”
“So?” Her brother was usually much better at getting to the point.
“The good doctor told me he’s close to finding a cure for our longevity issues.”
“Okay. What has this got to do with me? Or you, for that matter?”
“I need you to find out where he’s living. Where he does his research.”
“What?” She narrowed her eyes. “Why?” She was getting really bad vibes about this.
“His brother is ruthless. Hell, he’s the reason our grandparents lost their manufacturing business.”
She closed her gaping mouth. She had never known anything about her grandparents. Since her brother had taken over the pack when their parents died, he’d been the one interested in all things family. She’d been rather a wild card growing up. She’d always known she would never run the pack, so she’d done her own thing. After her son was born, she’d thrown herself into her work and raising him. No room for getting into any further trouble. She was faced with enough already.
“Okay, so I don’t get the connection between what happened with our grandparents and what you want me to do. Or why you want to know where the doctor lives.”
“Rafe is well-known—”
She opened her mouth again to tell Kenneth she had never heard of Rafe, so he couldn’t be that well-known.
“—in financial circles. The kind that you don’t belong to. I know where he lives. He and his brother are close, but Aidan lives somewhere else. I want you to befriend Rafe and learn where Aidan lives.”
“Why would you want to know that? Besides, I don’t run in billionaires’ circles. You already said so yourself.”
“He’s a bachelor wolf. He’s not dating any she-wolves. I’ve checked. If he sees you, and you intrigue him, you can cozy up to him and learn where his brother lives.”
“I’m not interested. Besides, didn’t the doctor give you his business card and tell you to contact him if you have any concerns?”
“It has his phone number. That’s it.”
“Why do you want to know this anyway?”
“I told you. Rafe is ruthless. When he gets hold of a cure for our condition, he’ll sell it to only those who can afford it. What if lupus garous begin to age even more rapidly than we are now? What if we don’t just end up with a human’s life span, but our bodies begin to age rapidly to match all the years we’ve already lived? Hell, your boy would lose you, and he’d have no one to raise him. Think about it.”
She had thought about it. But she wasn’t one to live with a fatalist viewpoint on life. She hadn’t thought her brother was either. Until now.
“If you really want this information, ask Rafe yourself. Or call his brother. You have his phone number.”
“As if either would tell me.”
“Send Lizzie.” Jade turned to leave, and her brother seized her arm. She rounded on him, yanking her arm away from him, and said, “We’re family, Kenneth, but that doesn’t give you the right to make me do things that go against what I believe in. If the worst-case scenario ever comes to pass, I’m sure wolves can unite and make the brothers see the right in this.”
Kenneth folded his arms. “Lizzie isn’t right for the part. She’s not as classy as you.”
“Oh, wow, give me a break. I hope you didn’t tell her that.” Jade started heading back to her office, but she hadn’t taken more than a few steps when her brother cleared his throat.
“I need you to do this. Whatever it takes. After that, you and your son can be on your way. You really don’t have a choice.”
“Nothing would make lying to the Denalis worthwhile, no matter why you want this information. Toby and I will be leaving tonight.” Sooner—once she could get her car packed and Toby ready for the journey. She’d have to plot a course too. Had her brother known about the wolf geneticist before he’d asked her to return to the pack? She whipped around.
“How long have you known about Aidan? Is this why you asked me to return to the pack? So I could be your spy?”
When Kenneth didn’t deny it, she swore under her breath. “I thought you were concerned about me and my son. Or at least me. Thanks for letting me in on the truth.” Furious with her brother, she stalked off toward the office and had nearly reached the doorway when Kenneth let his breath out in a huff.
“You will do this for me, and then you can have your son back.”
His words made her stomach fall and her head spin as she rushed into the room.
Toby and his soft leopard blanket were gone. All that was left on the daybed was his blue rainbow-colored teddy bear.
Lizzie! She must have taken him when Jade heard the front door open. Lizzie was the only one who was close enough to Toby that if she woke him while taking him from his bed, he wouldn’t cry out. He’d settle in her arms and go back to sleep. Kenneth had stalled Jade long enough for Lizzie to gather up Toby and leave.
Shocked at what he had done and angrier than she ever thought she could be, Jade hurried out of the room, ready to kill her brother—but only after he told her where her son was. “Where is he, Kenneth? I swear I’ll—”
“You’ll do this one thing for me, and he’s yours. And then you can damn well leave the pack. But if you ever cause any trouble for our kind, I’ll kill both of you.”
So furious she couldn’t think straight, she beat on her brother’s chest with her fists, cursing at him until he grabbed her wrists and slammed her against the wall. “I’m serious about this, Jade. Do what I say, and your son won’t meet his father’s fate.”
“What?” Tears filled her eyes, but she tried to get a grip on her emotions so he wouldn’t see her as weak. Kenneth had promised he would leave Stewart alone if she left the area before he even knew she was pregnant, and she never had anything more to do with him.
She felt sucker punched. “Why? You said…” It didn’t matter now. All that mattered was Toby’s safety. “Damn you, Kenneth.”
She kneed her brother in the crotch with one good shove as a final comment on how she felt about him taking her son hostage. Kenneth collapsed to his knees, swearing that he’d make her pay if she didn’t do what he said.
Maynard Myer—one of the men who worked in Kenneth’s body shop—interrupted them, red-faced. He was a redheaded bulldog of a man who had brazenly shown his contempt for her and Toby when he dropped by the house. She suspected Maynard didn’t want to intrude on this scene, but the news had to be serious enough for him to do so.
“What?” Kenneth growled at him, still on his knees on the floor and holding his crotch.
“Grayton wants his money now. You’ve got two weeks to pay up or…” Maynard glanced in Jade’s direction.
She didn’t know who Grayton was, although the name sounded like he might be a wolf. If he had loaned Kenneth money, and now her brother was in arrears…
“What are you involved in, Kenneth?” she asked. “Gambling? The horse races? I’ve got money”
“Get out of here, Jade. You want to see your son in one piece, leave and do what I told you to do.”
No matter how angry she was, she knew she didn’t have a choice. She had to get her son back before her brother killed him. She grabbed Toby’s rainbow bear and hurried into her room to pack, praying she could pull this off without getting her son killed. If Grayton was threatening her brother, what if he took out Kenneth’s debt on his closest relations? Her and her son?
What would the Denalis do if they learned what she was up to?
Jade had driven by Rafe Denali’s house numerous times, watching for Rafe to leave so she could run into him wherever he ended up going. Accidentally. The palatial mansion was set back off the road, a long circular drive visible beyond the gates and providing a glimpse of the white stucco house with its ocean view, but not much more.
This was the first time she’d seen him leaving the estate. He was alone, driving a bright blue Maserati with the top down, and she followed him to a farmers market and parked several cars away.
Wearing a pair of blue shorts, sandals, a pale blue T-shirt, and mirrored sunglasses, he climbed out of his car. He didn’t look like he was a billionaire, except he had a hot car, but otherwise, he just blended in with the rest of the shoppers.
She hurried to catch up to him. She couldn’t imagine what he’d be buying. Wouldn’t he have someone else buy his groceries? If she were shopping, she’d get fresh corn and tomatoes.
He stopped at a colorful booth filled with flowers, a bright-red canopy shielding the bouquets and shoppers from the afternoon sun.
In all of the research she had done on Rafe, she hadn’t seen one thing that indicated he had a girlfriend. She let out her breath. Just her luck.
She hesitated, feeling jittery and uptight, but she had to run into him, making it look real and not faked, and then apologize. He’d smell she was a wolf and maybe get interested. God, how she hated this. But she had to do it for her son.
She drew closer, the crowd of shoppers helping to conceal her as she focused on the flowers as if they were her goal and not the hot wolf.
Just as she was getting closer to him, a fair-haired man wearing jeans, sandals, and a black muscle shirt approached Rafe. “Hey, getting something for Consuela?”
“Yeah, Derek. Not sure what else to get her. But I thought she’d like these.” He paid for the bouquet of red and pink roses, and the two men walked off.
Damn. If the breeze had been blowing in her favor, he would have smelled her, turned, and checked her out, at the very least.
She wasn’t going to get anywhere with this while he was with a friend—or whoever Derek was. But since it was the first time she’d seen Rafe leave his place, she decided to wait in her car for him to leave and see where he went next. Or maybe try running into him when Derek left.
She climbed into her car and rolled down the windows, then Googled Rafe on her cell phone. The site that mentioned him the most was written by a photojournalist named LK Marks. He seemed to be obsessed with Rafe’s lifestyle—how Rafe hosted charity events but seemed reclusive otherwise. A number of times, LK Marks mentioned that Rafe was one of California’s most eligible bachelors.
The last posting anyone had made concerning the billionaire was a week ago. So maybe the paparazzi were off chasing someone else for a change and Rafe was old news. Which was good news for her.
An hour passed. The breeze helped keep her cool, but she was annoyed that Rafe was taking so long to return to his car.
Then two hours passed. She left her vehicle and was searching for him when she spied him sitting on the veranda of a Mexican café, burritos on his plate and a glass of iced tea beside it. He was talking with Derek, a couple of packages on the table next to the bouquet of roses. So they must have gone shopping. She let her breath out in an irritated huff. She wasn’t cut out for spy work.
Now what? She needed to get Rafe alone. Unless she could take a seat near him and he caught her wolf scent and piqued his interest, but all the tables out on the veranda were full. She asked the hostess how long it would take to get a veranda seat. Approximately an hour. Across the street, there was a sandwich shop. She headed to it, figuring she could get a view of the Mexican café from there and watch until he left.
Twenty-minute wait there. Trying not to look obvious that she was watching Rafe, she quickly glanced over the menu and decided on a chicken and provolone sandwich. She was called to her table, and when she walked with the hostess through the restaurant to the outdoor seating, she saw where the woman was leading her. Perfect. Flowers obscured the men’s view of her, but she could peek through to watch them. She took her seat and thanked the hostess, then looked over at the men—but they were gone.
Early in the morning, Rafe Denali perched above the rest of the world, reclining on his poolside lounger and eyeing the aqua-colored Pacific Ocean, the foamy, white waves crashing against the beach with their usual unpredictable rhythm. A rainbow-colored hot-air balloon and a bank of puffy clouds drifted across the bright blue sky, pushed by the ever-present salty sea breeze. Seagulls called out as they soared high above, and long-legged sandpipers ran across the wet beach as the water began to recede, looking for a meal. A few beachgoers had erected colorful umbrellas in blues and yellows and pinks, along with chaise longues or chairs, and were sunbathing or reading. A few were walking the beach. Life couldn’t be better. Rafe had needed a break after making another thirty-million-dollar sale, and what better way to do that than by sipping a mixed-fruit smoothie while visiting with his best friend, Derek Spencer—also one of the filthy rich and, like him, a wolf.
But he couldn’t relax completely. Rafe was certain that different men had been following him for the past week or so, watching his every move. He’d had one of his private investigators trying to learn what was up, but without success.
He knew those following him hadn’t been paparazzi looking to capture shots of him to show to the world, or sexy women looking to catch his attention—he was used to that. After all, he was an extremely eligible bachelor, at least as far as the unknowing public thought. He was certain that if human women knew he was also a wolf, his single, male billionaire status wouldn’t have as much appeal.
The problem was that the men following him were wolves—just as wary and capable of concealment and evasion in their human form as in their wolf coats. What had tipped him off was that the men hadn’t been carrying cameras when following him as humans. And when he’d caught them watching him at various restaurants or stores, they’d quickly looked away. But when he’d tried to track them, they’d always given him the slip. Sometimes, they left a bit of a telltale wolf scent behind, as if they’d used hunter’s spray for concealment but hadn’t quite masked their own unique scent.
Rafe took another sip of his smoothie. This was so different from when he’d lived with the pack of his birth. He had moved on, left that life behind, wanting something more. The power to make things happen in the human world, not just with a pack.
“Has your brother learned anything from the research he’s been conducting?” Derek asked.
“When he’s running his experiments, he doesn’t like to discuss the results—or, I should say, details—with anyone. Certainly not with me, since that’s not my field of expertise. Just like I don’t discuss the details of my real estate ventures with him.”
“I heard he was off to check some other leads besides testing lupus garou blood samples.”
“Yeah. He’s let me in on his other research so I’ll know where he is at all times. He’s studied children with progeria, a premature aging syndrome. He also investigated an eight-year-old girl who still had the physical maturity of an infant, having barely aged in all that time. Another case was that of a forty-year-old man who looked like a ten-year-old boy. A couple others: a twenty-nine-year-old man who appeared to be ten, and a woman who was thirty-four but looked like she was two years old. So the rate of aging was significantly different for each of them.
“Aidan had wondered if any of them were wolves, which was one of the primary reasons he checked into their cases, but he learned none were. Since lupus garous age at the same rate humans do until they are young adults, he really hadn’t believed they were our kind, but he still wanted to determine if any of their conditions were similar to ours.”
Derek finished his smoothie and set the glass on the table. “With all the research he’s doing, I think he needs a bodyguard. Knowing how to return us to our original wolf life spans could be dangerous in the wrong hands.”
“Agreed. I have a man watching his back, even though Aidan wouldn’t approve if he knew. So I haven’t mentioned it to anyone. Aidan doesn’t believe he’s close to learning anything.” Rafe studied a couple of bikini-clad babes running along the beach below his estate. He swore the women were plants, seeking to catch his attention. Most of the wealthy landowners up here were older. Truth be told, he was much older than them. But in human years, he appeared to be thirty. He was also looking for anyone who seemed to be watching him, but he didn’t see anyone like that here today.
What really caught his eye was a woman wearing a pair of white short shorts with what looked like a one-piece bathing suit underneath, though the back plunged so low that all he could see were the royal blue straps. What piqued his curiosity even more was how low the front of the swimsuit was cut. It was funny how sometimes a one-piece and a pair of shorts could be more enticing than a tiny bikini.
When she began wading up to her thighs in the surf, watching the sea, her golden hair whipping about her shoulders in the warm summer breeze, he sighed, reminding himself he couldn’t be interested in a human woman for any kind of permanent relationship.
“Enticed yet?” Derek asked, smiling, his attention focused on the scantily clad bathing beauties jogging along the beach.
Rafe finished his smoothie. “Are they different ones, or the same two who were out here yesterday?”
“Hard to tell. They have all the right curves, the tanned bodies, the skimpy bikinis. I think one was a redhead yesterday though. So you think it’s a ploy to see if one of them would appeal more to you?” Before Rafe could reply, Derek tacked on, “Given a choice, which would?”
“None of them.”
“Not even if she was a wolf?”
Rafe glanced at his lifelong friend. Tall, tanned, and muscular like him, Derek was much fairer, his hair blonder and his eyes amber. They didn’t exactly appear like the billionaire type. Not to mention they had a wolfish wild side to them. Both were wearing board shorts—his green with a blue ocean wave, Derek’s an orange-and-white floral—and they looked more like surfer dudes, except neither of them surfed. As a wolf, Rafe preferred swimming, hiking, running, boating, or climbing—freestyle.
In a gesture of feigned exasperation, Derek threw up his hands. “Okay, so most are interested in our money more than anything. Sometimes it’s important to just have fun.”
Rafe checked out the woman walking deeper into the water. He grew worried when he saw the telltale signs of danger. The surf was flatter there, looking like a road heading out to sea. The color was lighter than the surrounding water, the foam on the surface moving out to sea, instead of being drawn into the shore like the regular breakers. A rip current. Which could imperil the woman.
Instantly, Rafe bolted from his lounger and raced to his private stairs to the beach, wishing like hell he’d noticed the water before. His attention had been solely on the woman the last time he looked.
“Hey, where you going?” Derek asked, jumping up from his lounger and hurrying to catch up as Rafe ran down the stairs.
“To rescue the third woman this month who’s headed for trouble in the surf.” Rafe reached the electronically locked gate, threw it open, then sprinted across the sun-warmed sand.
A summer of storms and hurricanes had altered the landscape of the ocean floor along the Pacific coast, creating more rip currents, which had resulted in more lifeguard rescues in the area. Except they didn’t have any lifeguards here. That meant whenever Rafe took a breather from work and relaxed poolside, he watched the situation in front of his estate as if he were the local lifeguard. He couldn’t help it. If he saw someone in danger, he was compelled to lend a hand.
Rip currents typically flowed faster than any human could swim. If the woman he saw walking into the rip current was caught up in it, she could be pulled out to sea as much as half a mile or more before it ended. It wouldn’t pull its victim under; usually, those who drowned had attempted to swim against the flow, panicking in an effort to return to the shore through the path of the rip current, tiring them to the point of exhaustion. If she was a good swimmer and knew how to navigate horizontally to the beach, or remained calm and treaded water until the rip lost its drive, she should make it just fine.
But he didn’t want to risk her safety.
He raced around the beachgoers soaking up the sun. No one seemed to notice the possible danger.
Rafe reached the incoming waves, bolted through the water, and heard his friend splashing behind him. The woman was up to her shoulders in the surf, and Rafe dove for her just as the current swept her off her feet and pulled them both out to sea.
[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’]http://4.bp.blogspot.com/-5ZlOYJr5bS8/Ue1s0HzRnYI/AAAAAAAAIos/w85zI7lA6dA/s1600/Terry+Spear+Photo.jpg[/author_image] [author_info]