After a dominance challenge ended with his parents dead, Mason left Willow Bend and his pack behind, choosing instead to live life on his own terms...as a Lone Wolf. A wanderer, he keeps his life simple and carefree--until an unexpected encounter brings him face to face with his tragic past and the woman he always adored. Determined to get her out of his blood, he teases her into an easy one-night stand...but one taste will never be enough.
Alexis Huston lived on the fringe of pack life, adopted as a young girl. She's never been strong enough, fast enough, or pretty enough--except to Mason, but then he left her. Allowed her freedom as an adult, with a promise to keep the pack's secrets, she's struggled to fit into the 'human' world. A chance meeting turns her hard-won life upside down.
The scrape of shoes, a grunt, and a woman’s scent spiraling between anxiety and anger dragged Mason Clayborne out of his preoccupation and he scanned the street. Humans roamed everywhere, repeating their twice-daily migration, always rushing in the city. The sun set an hour before, but he didn’t need the streetlights to see the people around him or to hear another grunt of sound and this time, beneath it, the distress of a woman’s voice.
The scent. The voice. Both were familiar. But neither mattered as much as the suggestion of hurt lingering beneath the sound. Pivoting, he stopped pretending not to notice the world around him and followed the scent. One moment walking, the next running, he easily dodged a passersby. The sound and scent grew and he raced into a damp alley. The strong stink of refuse made him sneeze and one street over, he saw her.
The woman held onto her purse with surprising ferocity. She’d hooked one hand and clawed the man trying to jerk her bag away. Her attacker drove his shoulder into her and slammed her up to a wall. Mason sprinted, sliding between the passing cars and forgetting for a moment that humans couldn’t move at that speed.
“Let go of me, you son of a bitch,” the woman bit out. Fury coupled with desperation and she drove the heel of her hand into the man’s face. A satisfying crunch of bone filled the air and Mason caught the hints of blood—the man’s and the woman’s. Plucking her attacker away, he flung him against the opposite wall.
The would-be-mugger hit the brick with a second satisfying crunch and rebounded to land on his back in a puddle. Not even a flicker of movement behind a thin line of blood trickling down his face. Movement to his left, and he blocked the woman’s swing. Her purse made a glancing blow off his forearm with enough force to make the bone ache.
“What do you have in that thing? Rocks?” His question brought her up short and she stumbled a half-step.
“Mason?” The strangled notes of recognition and disbelief served as his only warning before Alexis gripped him in a fierce hug. Closing his arms around her was the most natural thing in the world. Flashing red and blue lights filled the dim alley and Mason tucked her against his side even as he whirled to squint at the beam of light.
“Release the woman and put your hands up,” the officer ordered.
Alexis slipped free and stepped between Mason and the officer before he could stop her. A low growl rumbled in his throat, but he swallowed the sound. “Mason saved me from that guy.” She pointed to her attacker who still lay prone in the alley. “So stop pointing a gun at us.”
Despite the rapid race of her heart and upset, she projected confidence and poise. Where had the pig-tailed girl with her scraped knees and sassy mouth gone? And why the hell was she in the city—alone? The cops moved forward and Mason fought every instinct he possessed to snarl at them.
In the city and amongst humans, he had to cede to the authority figures and never rock the boat or threaten the packs with exposure. Lone wolves owed fealty to no Alpha, but they were subject to all of their laws. Certain he could handle the two officers if they turned out to be trouble, he kept his hands slightly away from his body, palms facing forward.
“Dial it down.” Alexis whispered so softly, he knew he was the only one who heard her. “You’re still growling.”
Surprised, he blinked and silenced the noise. The officer checked on Alexis’ attacker and gave a grunt of surprise. “He’s out cold—and his nose is broken.” He gave Mason a flat, hard look.
The man was lucky to not have a broken neck.
“I broke his nose,” Alexis interjected, and shifted so she was still between Mason and the cops. Though human, she’d grown up around wolves, and had to know it was a bad idea. “He attacked me.”
The second officer approached and it took genuine effort for Mason not to flex his hands and curl them into fists. They were too close to Alexis and his wolf rose to the surface. Glancing down, he concentrated on her heartbeat. The rapid tattoo of her pulse fluctuated, the barest hint of a murmur—one he half-remembered as an elusive dream and it grounded him in the reality of her fragility.
Protect. Caring for those weaker than himself had been instilled in him since he was old enough to walk. He remembered the day Alexis arrived in Willow Bend like it was yesterday. She’d been all of four years old. Mason’s mother had taken him with her to welcome the family. Ryan Huston spent two years in Chicago doing work for the Alpha and he’d sent home an unusual request. He wanted to marry and his bride already had a child.
For some ungodly reason, Mason had been forced to listen to the debate as the Alpha discussed the issue with his closest advisors—including Andrew, Mason’s father. The biggest concern had been the phrasing of Ryan’s request—wolves mated, they didn’t marry. So was the woman his mate or not?
As it turned out, yes, she had been his mate, but Ryan had phrased the request in such a way that if he’d been denied by his Alpha, he had grounds to break from his pack. It had been Melissa, Mason’s mother, who’d pointed it out in hushed conversation. The clever phrasing and even more devious plan had worked. Toman had no interest in losing the best lawyer the pack had nor Ryan’s ability to move in and out of human situations without trying, so his request had been granted. He’d probably gotten his ass kicked in person for trying to pull a fast one, but there were all kinds of games dominants could play.
Dull pain knifed through Mason’s soul at the memory. Alexis had been a terrified kid surrounded by pack as they welcomed the family. It wasn’t until a week later that Mason realized Alexis had no idea they were wolves.
And what a fucked up day that had been.
“Sir,” the obsequious voice of the second officer intruded and Mason fought the urge to snarl.
“Can you confirm Miss Huston’s statement?”
Fur ruffled beneath Mason’s skin. His wolf crouched, watching and wary. If he wasn’t careful, he’d end up scaring the cop. Mason stuffed his impatience down. “I was on the street and I heard her cry out.” From two blocks away, but not a lie. “I looked in the alley, I saw her struggling with that asshole.” Also not a lie. “She broke his nose.” Pride made him grin. “And I knocked his sorry ass out.” He should have killed him, but he’d been more concerned with Alexis’ injuries.
Alexis shouldn’t be on her own in the middle of a fucking city. What the hell was wrong with Ryan? Or Toman? Why wasn’t she in Willow Bend?
The officer was a little too close to Alexis, so Mason took a step forward. The cop glanced from Mason to his notes then jerked his head back up again. The majority of humans had no idea the wolves existed and the wolves liked to keep it that way. But that didn’t mean humans didn’t understand a threat when they saw it, and the cop made a wide choice when he retreated a step.
“I have your contact information. How do I get ahold of you, Mr…?”
“Clayborne,” Alexis said and took the business card the officer held out. “And you can reach him through my number. Mason travels a lot, so it would be easier for everyone. Though…I can’t imagine you’ll need anyone’s testimony but mine, right?”
The charm in her take-charge attitude had the same effect on the cop that it had on Mason and, for the barest second, interest flickered in the man’s eyes. This time, Mason didn’t bother to disguise his dislike and the cop snapped his notebook shut. “Pretty sure, but someone from the prosecutor’s office will be in touch. Do you need a ride home? That leg looks pretty bad.”
Reminded, Mason glanced down. She’d worn some kind of nylon and it had been shredded over her left knee. Blood flecked the fabric of her skirt and trickled down her calf. She’d all but torn the skin from her leg.
Fresh violence, hot and swift, boiled through him. He caught Alexis’ arm and turned her away from the cop. “I’ll take care of her. Just make sure that trash doesn’t bother her again.”
Dismissing the man, he hauled Alexis out of the alley and toward the street, though he was careful to shorten his stride. Her faint limp had him pausing after several steps to pick her up, but before he could put thought to action, she planted a hand against his chest. The contact froze him in his tracks.
“I am not some sack of groceries for you to haul around.” A scowl filled her pretty upturned face and her eyes flashed. She withdrew a step from him and pulled her purse onto her shoulder. Having had the weight of it slam against him, he slid two fingers under the strap and tugged it away easily.
Her mouth compressed into a thin line and his gut tightened in expectation. The weird feeling probably had more to do with all the blood in his body rushing south to his cock than any real worry about the retribution her tight smile promised.
“What the hell are you doing?” Demand colored her words. Alexis had always possessed a temper, one she used to swallow rather than start a fight with the wolves around her.
It made the dominants more protective—and it had also brought out more than a little bitchiness in her contemporaries. He’d intervened on several occasions when they’d taken it too far. Challenges were fine and to be expected.
Taunting her, knowing damn good and well she’d never beat them in a physical fight, wasn’t.
“Carrying your bag. Where are you staying?” Dallas had plenty of hotels, and they were near the West End. Chances were good she was at the Sheraton, which was only a couple of blocks away. He’d get her back, then track down the wolves she traveled with—his lone wolf status didn’t prevent him from handing them their collective asses for failing to protect a packmate.
Alexis blew out a breath and cast her gaze skyward. Her mental count to ten turned audible at eight and she pushed the word out between gritted teeth. Tiffany, her mother, used to lecture Alexis on controlling her temper and for some reason she’d always advised counting. It didn’t work for Mason, but Alexis didn’t seem to share his struggle.
“Ten,” she finished with a sigh. “I live off Industrial in the new high rise. I was on my way to get dinner because I’m hungry. I’m also perfectly capable of walking myself home. Now give me my damn purse back or do I have to beat you up like the mugger back there?”
Maturity had been kind to Alexis, leaving her tall and long-limbed. The deep brown of her skin had gone almost cocoa—rich, milk chocolate. She’d still been a gawky kid when he left, but she’d filled out in all the right places. Soft, generous curves, and excellent muscle tone that suggested the fact that she’d broken her attacker’s nose had been deliberate rather than accidental.
The bad mood he’d been living in for the last several years evaporated at the ferocity of her stance. The blatant challenge added more force to the pounding of his cock. No fear occluded her scent. If anything, the musk of her arousal wreathed her like the most provocative of perfumes.
And it was all Alexis. No hint of another male clung to her and that fact gave him a savage sense of satisfaction and he relaxed. “You’re not going to hit me, Lexi. That would be rude.”
Quoting a woman’s mother to her would have a she-wolf clawing his face off, but Alexis gaped for all of about three seconds before she laughed. A real, honest-to-god, belly shaking laugh. With a roll of her eyes, she threw up her hands and said, “Fine. You can walk me home.”
Falling into step with her, he spared her leg a long look. “How bad is it?” It was bloody and torn, from what he could see, and the alley hadn’t exactly been clean.
“Well, I’m just fine, Mason. I get mugged all the time. As muggings go, that was pretty lame. You’d have seen what I could really do if you hadn’t interrupted.” Her flip go-fuck-yourself tone aside, hurt hummed beneath the anger. The further they went from the alley, the thinner the street traffic became. That suited Mason fine.
“Why are you living here? Who’s looking after you?” He cupped her elbow when it came time to cross the street and eyed a driver who paid more attention to his phone than the fact that pedestrians were in the crosswalk.
Humans, like all creatures, possessed a survival instinct. Sometimes it took a large predator to wake them up to it, but then Mason was exactly that kind of a predator. The man’s eyes went wide as he focused on him. Satisfied, Mason nodded to him. At least he wouldn’t edge forward any further and potentially hit Alexis—not that he’d have allowed it to happen.
“Because I want to.” She jerked out of his grasp and Mason took her arm again. “God, four years. Four years I haven’t had to listen to one of you order me around or act like I’m going to fall apart if the wind blows the wrong way. You’re not in charge of me, Mason, and I don’t answer to you.”
No, she didn’t. On that point, he agreed. “Does your father know where you are?” Ryan had never been a wolf to mess with. Some of the younger wolves thought his suits and refined manners meant he wasn’t as primal as the rest of them—a fact he’d corrected the first time someone insulted his new family and word had got back to him.
And word always got to Ryan.
It had been Ryan who saw Mason noticing Alexis’ growing maturity. Ryan who’d taken him for a good long run then beaten the ever-loving crap out of him. Mason grinned at the memory. Her father just wanted it to be absolutely clear that while Alexis wasn’t a wolf and didn’t have teeth and claws of her own, Mason risked his balls if he hurt her.
“As of a matter of fact, he does. So you can get the shit eating grin off your face.” She slowed at one of the newest high rises in the region. Mason canted his gaze at the five-year-old building.
He’d helped build it. The closest university was SMU. Maybe she was going to school. At the doorway, she paused and gave him a look. “What are the chances of you handing over my purse and not insisting on seeing me to my door?”
“None.” He returned his attention to her. In the light from the lobby, he could see the faint lines of pain around her eyes and tightening the corners of her mouth. “You’re hurting, Alexis. Let me take care of you and then you can kick me out.” It was the closest thing to concession as he was willing to make, though he should have taken her offer to walk away.
Leaving her was the smart move. He was a lone wolf, she was still a part of Willow Bend. The two worlds shouldn’t mingle, especially if she had no escort. Still, that she had none irked the hell out of him. Ryan should be taking better care of her.
She dropped her chin to her chest and sighed. For a moment, he expected her to continue to argue. Instead, she simply said, “Fine. But you start that dominant shit and order me around again and I’m going to show you what I’ve learned about dropping big, bad boys on their asses.”
Intrigued, he caught the door after she unlocked it and held it open for her. Her glare added to his amusement, so he crowded right up to her at the elevator doors. He would have preferred to walk, but he didn’t know what floor she lived on and if he took the stairs, he’d carry her so she didn’t hurt her already injured leg.
Alexis made a great show of ignoring him in the elevator, but the enclosed space let him soak up the layers of her arousal. He didn’t know whether it was the fight or his proximity turning her on. Oddly, he hoped it was the latter, not that he had any business hoping for such things.
She was pack, which meant off-limits. He’d been on his own long enough to appreciate his freedom and mourn the cost. No others to run with, save for the occasional Enforcer—and they only tracked him to see what he was doing. It had been a few months since Margo’s last ‘drop by’ visit. If he never saw the she-bitch again, it would be too soon. Alexis leaned against the wall, arms folded and her expression closed and hostile—utterly at odds with the sweet invitation in her scent.
She’d selected the fifteenth floor.
Too far for a straight leap from the ground, but the balconies on the east and west facing sides of the building were easily ascended. When the doors dinged open, he extended his arm allowing her to precede him. Pausing, she gave him a skeptical look then snorted.
Yes, he picked up a number of other scents in the hallway—other humans who lived on the floor. Mostly women, at least two small children and few men—what scents were present were sparse. No wolves.
What the hell is Ryan thinking letting her live here? Exposed?
Her apartment was near the end of the hallway—one of the larger ones if his recall of the floor plans was correct, and one without a neighbor abutting right up to her walls. That meant a corner balcony.
Harder to access from the ground, but not impossible. At her door she turned and handed him the keys. Mason grinned and forgave her second eye roll of the evening. He unlocked the door and she brushed past him to deactivate the alarm.
“Good girl,” he approved and relocked the door before setting her purse down on a table next to the door. Opening it, he glanced inside.
She did have a brick in it.
Alexis stripped off her jacket and headed for the kitchen. Mason prowled after her, unsurprised when she made a beeline for the freezer and pulled out a pint-sized container of chocolate strawberry ice cream.
“You always did have a sweet tooth.” The apartment was modern, clean lines, and new furniture. Touches of her personality reflected in the cool colors and throw pillows. The quilt on the back of the sofa caught his eye.
Her mother had made that.
A wall hanging over the sofa made his heart hurt before he forced his attention away. His mother had made it.
Pulling two spoons out of a drawer, Alexis pointed to a small metal box on top of the refrigerator. “First aid kit.” She squeezed past him, but the brush of her breast to his arm sent another wave of need cruising through his system. She kicked off her shoes and headed for the living room, so he grabbed the first aid kit and followed.
When she chose a chair rather than the sofa, he perched on the coffee table and picked up her leg. The injury was superficial, if messy. Alexis made a great show of ignoring him and eating her ice cream. Leaning closer he pressed his nose closer to the injury, aware of the spice that was utterly her filling his lungs.
She froze, her spoon halfway to her mouth and tension threaded her calf muscle. Beneath her sweet musk, he scented only blood—no infection, and only a bit of dirt. Pleased, he ripped the rest of the hose away from her leg, splitting it to above the knee.
She seemed to remember breathing and went back to eating her ice cream while he cleaned and dressed her wound. When he was finished, he glanced up to meet her dark eyes.
“Thank you,” she said without a hint of reproach or her earlier antipathy.
“You’re welcome.” He kept her leg captive and continued to watch her eat the ice cream. Then because he couldn’t help himself, he said, “You grew up.”
“It’s been ten years,” she looked at the ice cream, and he found himself envying the sweet treat. It was an altogether unpleasant feeling.
“Why aren’t you in Willow Bend?” Why wasn’t she on pack lands? This far south—she was in one of the few unclaimed cities, though practically on the doorstep of the Crescent Delta pack.
She shrugged, and took another bite of the ice cream. “You don’t have to stay. I’m home. As you can see, I’m safe. You can go back to walking alone or whatever the hell it is you do.”
Trailing a finger down the back of her calf, he studied the way she purposefully ignored him. God, he’d missed her. Her sass, her temper, and the way she knew exactly how to give in just enough to make a dominant back off, but still maintain control of the situation. And damn if she hadn’t gotten better at it. “Alexis?”
Sitting forward, she pulled her legs away from him and handed him the second spoon. “I let you save me. I ran interference with the cops. I allowed you to walk me home and be all alpha male in charge while you checked out where I live and made sure my injury had been tended. I’ll even share my ice cream—but interrogate me? No. You want to do that—the door is there.”
He stared first at the spoon then at her. Her pulse gave away her gambit, but the steadiness of her hand and the clarity in her eyes was just too damn beguiling. The best decision for both of them would be for him to leave.
He was a Lone Wolf.
She was pack.
Her being human was inconsequential—he’d never cared about her race, only that when she smiled his world was brighter.
And he’d been living in the dark for a long time.
Accepting the spoon, he eyed the pint in her hand. She held it out to him and smiled.
There really was no other choice for him.