Long before Mason left Willow Bend, Ryan met his mate and brought her home...this is the prequel to the Wolves of Willow Bend and the story of Ryan and Tiffany.
Ryan Huston serves the pack in all their public financial dealings. Connected politically and personally, he possesses a unique ability to segue into and out of human life. He’s never been afraid to use his animal’s dominance to his advantage and, though he and Toman—the Alpha of Willow Bend—are often at odds, his loyalty to the pack has never truly been tested. Not until he meets Tiffany.
Tiffany Anderson grew up hard in a world defined by its uncertainties. Meeting Giles Taglioni seemed like a happy accident turned fairy tale. Five years into the abusive marriage, Tiffany wants out. Tiffany knows Taglioni will never let go of his daughter—he’d kill her before he lets her take Alexis away from him. A desperate woman with no options until a chance encounter changes everything.
Ryan is like no one Tiffany’s ever met, but she doesn’t dare believe him when he offers to help her. Long ago made familiar with the monsters in the dark, she doesn’t dream of princes on white horses sweeping her away. She also never imagined a big, bad wolf was exactly what she needed.
Read the first chapter right now!
Ryan Huston settled into a chair of the Champion Club and lit the cigar he’d taken the time to prepare. Though smoking was a vice he rarely indulged, without a cigar he’d be rather conspicuous in his current setting. The smoking lounge reeked of wealth, privilege and, of course, cigars. His nose, more sensitive than most, found the stench irritating, but he allowed none of his distaste to reflect in his expression.
“Eighty year old scotch,” Will stated as the waiter delivered the drinks in their heavy crystal tumblers. It spoke to Will Montgomery’s position that the bottle also remained with them. Like Ryan, Will lit up a cigar and puffed it quietly until the waiter excused himself. “Its smoothness has to be savored to be believed.”
“So you’ve said,” was Ryan’s only comment. He ignored the drink for the time being. Will’s heart beat just a tad too fast, and he undoubtedly chose this venue to disguise his scent. The wolf was nearly a decade older than Ryan, mated and the father of three, yet he couldn’t quite hide his discomfort at their clandestine meeting.
If he were a kinder man, Ryan might try to set him at ease. Then again, the older wolf requested the meeting off the books, in Chicago, far away from the pack, while Ryan visited the city on business. Until he knew what the crafty old bastard was up to, he didn’t plan to cut him an inch.
Puffing quietly on the cigar, he waited. He’d always been a patient hunter, and today would be no different. Fortunately, Will didn’t make him wait long.
“I need your advice,” he said, then laid a check on the table between them. Written on the check was a staggering figure, but Ryan left it where it was. “Legal and personal.”
So, he wants to play that game. A retainer could create legal privilege to their discussions, both in theory and in human courts. Ryan often extending legal privilege to wolves in the pack remained a point of contention between he and Toman, one few realized went extremely deep. Of course, Ryan chose his battles carefully when it came to the Alpha. Although Toman needed him, making the man avoid most fights carefully and Ryan knew couldn’t take Toman in a direct fight, no matter how much he might wish otherwise.
Meaning they maintained a civil, if cold, war.
Will implored him, his mask dropping to reveal a haggard sense of worry in his eyes. “Please, Ryan. Just hear me out.”
Tapping the cigar once to clear some of the ash, Ryan shook his head slowly. “Not without more incentive, Will. This whole meeting stinks of a potential coup. I won’t be a party to that, not even as a favor to a friend.”
“Fair enough. If I give you my word it has nothing to do with displacing Toman and everything to do with Margo.”
To say he hadn’t expected that would be understating the matter. He picked up the check and slid it into the inner pocket of his suit jacket. “What’s wrong with Margo?” She was barely fourteen. What could the child have gotten into to require such secrecy?
“Her dominance.” Will pitched his voice low, a near subvocal tone Ryan could easily discern despite the presence of the humans throughout the club chatting, moving and otherwise polluting the air with sounds. “It’s growing every day. Her strength is tremendous. She went into her first heat a week ago. Her mother couldn’t keep her contained, nor could her brothers.” The man’s mouth tightened, and he dropped his gaze from Ryan’s. “I got her to stay in the house, but barely. If her dominance is this strong already…”
She was a threat to Toman, no one would ever convince the old man otherwise. Female or not, the alpha wouldn’t tolerate the potential challenge in one so young. “What are you planning to do?”
“Send to her boarding school.”
“Are you insane?” Sending a dominant with that much potential and riding the cusp of her hormones to a human boarding school practically invited disaster.
“Hear me out, Ryan.” The wolf’s voice rose, riding a growl, then he swallowed the sound with his scotch. After blowing out a breath, he set the glass down and said, “Margo’s a protector—stubborn and fierce to the core, but she protects. Surround her with weaker people, girls in particular, and she’ll rise to that challenge. She’ll look after them against herself as much as anything that could threaten them. It gets her out of Willow Bend and offers a solid chance at survival.”
But it remained a dangerous plan. “You’ve already located a school?” Why else would he be seeking counsel?
“Yes, in Connecticut.” Oh, good. Another Alpha’s territory, this gets better and better. Bad enough that Margo’s rising potential presented a threat to Toman’s rule, another Alpha wouldn’t want to have such a loose cannon to enter his territory. Most wouldn’t likely agree without…
Ahh. The retainer made sense as did the promise that this wasn’t about challenging Toman. “You want me to call in a favor.”
“Yes. I heard you did some work for the Hudson River Alpha, that he owes you. You’ve got contacts and connections. He would grant an exception if you asked him, wouldn’t he?”
The Hudson River Alpha was a reasonable sort, and he owed Ryan a tremendous debt, but not likely for the reason others believed. Discovering the embezzlement within a human investment firm had been about protecting Willow Bend’s assets. Mere accident revealed the Hudson River pack used the same company. Toman hadn’t ordered him to not reveal the information, so Ryan had made a phone call.
Nesting favors within favors allowed him a strong negotiator’s position, and the handful of joint projects Hudson River shared with Willow Bend benefited if the pack’s funds weren’t drained by thieves—Elias Carter recognized the value. Chances were he would see allowing Margo to attend the boarding school and keeping a tacit eye on her an equitable favor. It would cost Hudson River’s Alpha very little personally and clear a debt.
Still, it would be foolish to leap without considering all the ramifications. The debt of the Hudson River Alpha could prove fortuitous down the road.
“Will you ask him for me, Ryan? I know the kind of favor I’m asking of you, and I will owe you till my dying day.”
Waving off the promise and sitting forward, he weighed the benefits against the cost—a future, nebulous favor versus a tangible life saved. In his gut, Ryan had already made his decision. His intellect, however, argued with the wolf’s certainty about leaving Margo in a vulnerable position. Her rising dominance would make her very vulnerable to Toman’s paranoia. “Give me three days.” Time to research, to think, and to verify the choice was a sound tactic versus a kneejerk reaction to the fear of discovery.
Relief stamped Will’s features. “Thank you.”
Finally picking up his glass, Ryan eyed him. “Don’t thank me yet. This is far from settled. If you can’t control Margo, I can.”
Will’s shoulders slumped. “Will you? At least to keep her out from his notice until we can get her off to school.”
Yes, he could do that much. In the last twenty years, he’d seen a number of strong dominants pushed out, slaughtered before they could achieve their full strength or worse, tricked into leaving of their own accord. Toman allowed no one to flourish within his pack whom might truly challenge him. Ryan knew his own strength. He knew his dominance was no match for Toman’s, but he also had other talents and abilities which made him invaluable to the Alpha.
He could use those to distract, if necessary.
“I will see her when I get back to Willow Bend.” This was one promise he could make and keep. If he laid down the law with her, she’d have no choice but to obey. Her burgeoning dominance would bow for the time being, a lesson he wished Toman employed rather than weeding out potential threats.
Willow Bend was a strong pack and a relatively healthy one if a wolf didn’t look too far past the surface. Not that anyone was allowed to do so. A flicker of movement from his right drew him back to the present, and Ryan focused on Will. “Was there something else?”
The other wolf struggled. His gaze dropped twice before he cleared his throat and said, “Are you going to tell Toman? About Margo? I don’t want there to be any accidents—I don’t want her to have an accident or an incident.”
Making Will ask the question had been cruel, but necessary. Dominance played a vital part in the life of a pack. It created security and happiness. At least, it was supposed to. Ryan understood his role, more he embraced it. Still, he needed to know where Will’s concern focused—his daughter or his personal position in the pack.
“He has no need to know, Will. This is a personal request about your family, within your family. “
Sagging with relief, Will reached up to loosen his tie. “I am beyond in your debt.”
“Just go home and take care of your family. Why does Toman think you’re in Chicago?”
“Tech convention.” Will worked for an online company. His skills with computers had been fostered with his education and personal support until he’d found the right job. Fortunately, the company he worked for used remote employees. He’d been one of the driving factors behind putting Willow Bend on the Internet, including wiring the town with several high-speed hot spots to plug in and get connected.
Which ended Ryan’s rough understanding how it all worked. Will provided a valuable service, one that continued the protection of the pack and his information had guided purchases and legal maneuvers Ryan and his firm negotiated to keep Willow Bend protected on all sides. They had so much open land that suburban sprawl wanted to leverage, but all of it was owned by the pack.
Two more land deals were in the offing and Ryan would close them soon. They would own all the land within a three hundred square mile radius. No new towns or land developments would crop up around Willow Bend proper, keeping the pack’s hometown insulated and secure—and give us room to grow. “Then you should get back to your conference, I will mention we had drinks to Toman. Since we were both in Chicago at the same time. It makes sense and it’s perfectly reasonable.”
The other wolf couldn’t contain his flinch, but he squared his shoulders and took a deep breath. “If you think it is reasonable, then I believe you.” Another benefit of dominance, or maybe simply proof that Will trusted him.
“Margo will be okay, Will. We’ll make it okay for her.” She was a child, a teenager on the cusp of womanhood. Dominant or not, Alpha-potential or not, she deserved the chance to explore her freedom through maturity and discover who she could become without fear of an old man’s reaction.
“Thank you, Ryan. We will owe you everything.” The thanks would be enough, but Ryan waved off the rest. Like so many favors he’d collected over the years, he couldn’t say when one would be useful.
Will left first, and Ryan continued to mull over his drink. Without his own conversation to focus on, his sharp ears picked up on the quiet cigar lounge noises. His cigar had gone out, but he ignored it. The stink of it irritated his nostrils, yet he would give Will another five minutes to get away from the club before Ryan excused himself.
“I’m telling you this is an opportunity Taglioni won’t want to miss.”
“I don’t know, Mr. Taglioni doesn’t like the high tech stuff. He prefers the tangible—land, businesses, that type of thing. Bits and bytes don’t mean much.”
“Well he’s not taking the land deal in Wisconsin, word has it that a private bidder doubled the highest offer, and no one is going to beat that.”
The voices of two men in deep conversation caught Ryan’s attention, the doubled offer from a private bidder and the land deal in Wisconsin specifically. Part of the land parcel abutted the northern portion of Willow Bend’s personal territory. He’d placed that order earlier in the morning.
A private bid was exactly that—private. So how did this man know how much it was?
Sliding forward on the seat and miming taking a drink while only letting the alcohol wet his lips, Ryan moved as though to stand. He’d crumbled a chunk off his cigar so it looked finished before depositing it in the smokeless ashtray. Scanning the room, he found his target immediately.
Bruce Heller, a negotiator for the law firm holding the land leases he’d come to Chicago to purchase.
“You know Taglioni wants that land. It’s perfect for a landfill, and we can use it for dumping. Who cares about a thousand acres of wilderness?”
Jaw tightening and eyes narrowed, Ryan concentrated on keeping his actions smooth and easy. He cared about the idea of their dumping waste in the so-called wilderness. Pollutants could escape into the water table and food chain. So many landfills had toxic chemicals and junk in them.
Not recognizing the man Heller spoke with, Ryan considered his options. He could stalk, identify, and then find a way to crush or he could put Heller on notice.
Fear was a powerful motivator.
“Maybe I lose the bid. Mr. Taglioni may not appreciate good computer skills, but the bids are sealed and no one would know.”
“Better,” the other man said.
That decided it, fear it was. Crossing the room, Ryan had a smile in place before he reached them. “Mr. Heller, forgive the intrusion. I saw you from across the room, and it would have been remiss of me not to say hello.”
Heller’s pupils dilated, and his respiration increased. Sweat beaded along his forehead, and his scent took a sharp, bitter decline. “Mr. Huston. I didn’t see you there.” Despite all the severity of his physiological response, he stood and held out his hand.
“No worries. I didn’t mean to interrupt.” The handshake was quick and polite. He glanced at Heller’s companion. “Ryan Huston.”
Unlike Heller, his drinking buddy remained cool, if assessing. His gaze was flat—a predator sizing up a predator. Ryan smiled and gave the man no options. He could stand, be polite, and introduce himself or make a scene. The type of gentlemen the club catered to would not appreciate the latter.
“Hugo Gabel,” he said, his reluctance hardening the vowels in his name. He shook Ryan’s hand after a noticeable pause as though not quite willing to touch him. The rudeness didn’t bother Ryan in the slightest. He preferred an enemy that didn’t want to kiss his ass before he stabbed him in the back.
Gabel was definitely such an enemy.
“I hate to be a bother, Mr. Huston, but Mr. Gabel and I are talking business.”
“Of course.” Ryan let his smile grow as though attempting to smooth over any social faux pas. “I just wanted to say hello. I have work of my own to get back to.” He lingered another minute, invading their space before saying goodbye and striding across the room toward the exit.
“Okay, maybe I won’t lose any bids.” Heller said, his voice trembling.
“Why?” Gabel’s response carried no trace of pity.
“Because that’s the lawyer for the locked bid, and he saw me talking to you. No, we’ll find another way to make Mr. Taglioni happy.”
Amused, but nowhere near confident in Heller’s waffling choice, Ryan left the club and bypassed the valet. He always rented a car when he was in Chicago, and he always made his own plans. Tonight he’d left the car at the hotel on the off chance Toman decided to send someone to check up on him. The paranoia of their Alpha knew no limits. What he didn’t know couldn’t hurt anyone. As for Ryan, he didn’t know who the hell Hugo Gabel or Taglioni were, but he’d have answers to both before he slept.
Uncaring of potential predators along the way, Ryan headed for the elevated train. He’d take a ride back to his hotel and investigate. The deal had to be locked in before he went home. Someone wanted to poach Willow Bend land, and no way in hell would he allow that to happen. Scenting a hunt in the offing improved his mood. He’d take care of Margo and Heller, and satisfy both sides of his nature at the same time.
The platform held a scattering of individuals, all waiting for the same train. Ryan checked his watch once then found a post to lean against where he could watch everyone coming or going while he protected his own back. The population of the train station was a disparate group—a couple of businessmen, three teenagers who shouldn’t be out this late in Chicago, and an elderly man with a bottle of booze in a paper bag tucked under his arm. A faint scuffing sound echoed up the concrete steps leading to the platform—a series of sliding shoe hops.
Curious about the noise, Ryan studied the top of the staircase. The arrival of a slender African-American woman and a young girl who couldn’t be more than four rewarded his attention.
“Twenty-five,” the little girl announced breathlessly, and aimed her triumph up at the woman smiling down at her. “I hopped all of them.”
“You did.” Affection and approval rang between the two words. “Well done.”
“Thank you, Mommy.” The little girl’s delight perfumed the air, chasing away the stench of cigars and bad business. She started to skip forward, but her mother caught her arm and tugged her back.
“You know better, Alexis. You stay with Mommy.” Even as she spoke the words, the mother scanned the occupants of the station then urged her daughter away from the raucous teenagers and businessmen. Her path took her nearer the older man, but she still circled away from him, and chose a spot about midway between Ryan and the others.
Awareness of her surroundings and angling her body between her child and the strangers were all behaviors Ryan recognized. Human cities weren’t safe. They were never safe for women alone, much less for a woman with a small child. Her hand was in her purse and Ryan felt the corners of his mouth tug wider in approval.
She was armed with something, which meant she wasn’t as helpless. At the same moment, she glanced at him and Ryan’s wolf stood up inside him, every hair bristling. His smile faded. The woman’s gentle expression sported the faint traces of a bruise around one eye. She’d covered it with cosmetics, but the puffiness and hint of hurt in her scent reached him all the same.
“Mommy?” The little girl, Alexis, tugged at her mother’s arm. The woman glanced away from Ryan, and the moment snapped. “You said staring at people is bad.” The hushed whisper of warning carried to his ears and he bit back a smile. The little girl gave him a sharp look, so he erased the expression and bowed his head to her as though suitably chastened.
Four years old and desperate to protect her mother?
Yes. Ryan would be killing someone before he left this city.
“You’re right, darling.” The woman gathered her daughter close and kept her gaze firmly averted from Ryan’s. “Staring is bad.”
Alexis met his gaze again, eyebrows raised in challenge. Ryan grinned and made a point of looking away, but still kept watch from the corner of his eye. The little girl’s face scrunched up into a frown. After she stared for another minute and he didn’t look at her mother, she seemed satisfied. Alexis settled into leaning on her mom.
With the little girl distracted, he glanced back and found her mother watching him. It took everything he had to stuff his wolf down and try to keep his posture relaxed. He wasn’t a threat.
Never would he be a threat, not to her.
So he tilted his head in a faint nod and she gave him an empty smile. The woman tightened her grip on her daughter and looked away, pointedly ignoring him.
Oh, she would be fun to chase. The thought skittered through his mind and Ryan paused.
Chase? The woman wore a wedding ring. Human or not, she was taken. His wolf didn’t give a damn. Whomever had her hadn’t taken care of her. On that point, he and his wolf were in absolute agreement.
When the train arrived, Ryan boarded the same car as they did. When the rowdy teenagers got to close to the mother and child, he glared at them until they moved on to choose a different place to sit.
He didn’t even know her name, but he would make sure they got home safe. Once he had an address, he’d learn everything else about them. Satisfied with the plan to hunt, the wolf kept a watchful eye out and Ryan did his best not stare. Not that he had to, since he’d already committed every feature to memory. Her eyes were the color of toffee—perfect and sweet—and the loneliness within them scored his soul. Someone had hurt her and recently. Keeping his position proved the hardest task he’d ever faced.
Because all he wanted to do was kill whatever had put the bruised look in her eyes.