Wolf's Vengeance (After the Crash) (6 page)

BOOK: Wolf's Vengeance (After the Crash)
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Marc snapped a command for silence at the dogs, and stepped out with Snake beside him to meet Tom. Snake must have just changed from his wolf form, because he was buttoning his jeans as he walked. He moved to one side of Tom, his face set in harsh lines that made him seem like a different man than the one Mel slept beside last night. Her brother stopped a couple of feet from Tom.

“Hey, Tom, what brings you out this way?”

Tom leaned down from the saddle to shake Marc’s hand. “Just running an errand. We know how you always want your mail delivered right away. Since you were in town just two weeks ago, I didn’t figure you’d be in again for a while.” He reached into his shirt pocket to draw out a small rectangle of paper. “There ya go.”

Marc took it. “Thanks.”

Mel’s heart jumped in her chest. That was the letter. The letter! Finally, they could take the first steps to finding Mama and bringing her home.

“Hey, where’s your little sister? Heard she went off to be a prize for a Bride Fight. Gorgeous woman like her must’ve had hundreds of men lined up to win her.” Tom made his goofy, two-eyed wink. “Wish I would have known about it. I’d have gone with her to Ellsworth. Not to fight, but I’d have loved to watch!”

A growl lifted to Mel’s ears. Snake shifted a step closer to Tom, moving like the feral animal he was. The way he stood, poised on the balls of his bare feet with his face directed at Tom, screamed aggression. Tom reined his horse back a few steps. “Hey, stranger,” he said in a wary but friendly tone. “I’m Tom Hatcher, postmaster of Hill City.”

Looking down, Mel could see the stiff line of Snake’s bare shoulders, each hard muscle outlined by the light gleaming on the perspiration that coated him. Her husband really was a well-built man.

Marc answered in a casual tone. “This is Snake. He and his cousin are stopping off here for a day or two. They’re doing some chores to earn a little money before they move on. Right, Snake?”

When Snake didn’t answer, Mel tensed.
If you do anything to hurt Tom, I’ll kick your ass out of bed tonight,
she inwardly swore.

Did he sense her? His head tilted as if to look up at her window, but he caught himself. “Yeah. We’re here to lend a hand.”

“Oh.” Tom didn’t seem to know what to say. He turned back to Marc, but not in a way that would put his back to Snake, as if he wanted to keep an eye on the stranger.

Mel didn’t blame him. Snake could be scary.

“So, where’s Melissa?”

“She left over a week ago for the Bride Fight,” Marc answered.

“Oh. That letter from her?”

Marc jerked one shoulder in a shrug. “Didn’t look like her handwriting. I guess it’ll be a while before we get a letter from her. Thanks for bringing it out. Need some water before heading back to town?”

“No, thanks. I gotta get back.”

Tom hardly cleared the yard before Mel was downstairs, glaring at Snake in the living room. “Don’t be mean to my friends,” she hissed at him.

The angry look fell away from his face, replaced by surprise before settling into granite lines. “He wants to be more than a friend to you.”

“What?” Mel choked on a guffaw. “
Tom?
That’s hilarious. He’s been my friend since I was twelve years old.”

Snake folded his arms over his chest. “I could smell pure lust on him when he talked about you.”

“Yuck!” she began, but forgot everything else when Marc came in, letter in hand. “Is it from the man?” she asked anxiously.

Marc nodded. He walked to the fireplace and placed the folded paper carefully on the mantel. “We wait until Mike and Mord are here to open it. Shouldn’t be long. It’s about time for lunch, right?”

Her fingers itched as she forced herself to turn to the kitchen. “Yeah. Sara, let’s get the sandwich makings ready.”

Sara followed her to the kitchen, hung her rifle on the rack by the door, and turned to her with shining eyes. “What letter is that? Is it from your mom?”

“No, it’ll be the instructions for where to bring the money. We’ll find a note from her waiting at the place we put the money.” Mel couldn’t keep the excitement from boiling up in her chest. If she were a wolf, she’d howl. “We’ll have her back soon!”

* * * *

As Snake built a sandwich from the things the girls brought out from the kitchen, he decided he didn’t like what he was feeling. Jealousy was an ugly thing. His mate clearly didn’t have romantic feelings for Hatcher, so why did he have an overwhelming urge to kill the man? He took his sandwich to the table and sat beside Stone. His cousin’s eyes were directed at his plate, and misery oozed from him.

“What’s the matter, Stone?” he asked quietly. “Your hunt went well. I saw how many rabbits you brought in.”

“The hunt was fine,” Stone said. “She doesn’t want me. It’s not like how it was with the Chief and the Lupa, or even how it is with you and Mel. The Lupa didn’t fall in love with the Chief the minute they met, but she didn’t hate him. And Mel is holding you off a little, but she likes you. I can tell. Sara just hates me.”

Oh, boy.
Snake wasn’t good at this. “Maybe it’s still too new for her. Give it a little time. She married you, right? She’ll come around.”

Stone assented gloomily. “I hope so. What am I gonna do if she doesn’t? My wolf will die.”

That was a horrible thought. What happened if a wolf’s mate rejected him? Their cousin Quill survived his mate marrying another man, but he never asked Ellie to be his mate. Paint, another cousin, was rejected by his mate who married another man and then died in childbirth. Paint was never the same. He was a good man, but his smiles were rare, and he seemed only to exist, not live, not happy. Snake glanced sharply at Stone. Of all the men in the Pack, Stone was the one Snake would least like to see hurt. He was everybody’s little brother, a goofy, sweet kid with a knack for saying just the right thing to make everyone laugh. Some people thought Stone said funny things by accident, but Snake knew he chose his words carefully to give the impression of guilelessness. His apparently innocent words relieved tension time after time.

“It’ll be okay,” he told Stone firmly. “She’s really young, so you have time to court her. And even if she hasn’t accepted your mate claim, she married you. She’s your wife, so you don’t have to worry about any other man taking her away from you.”

Mel married him, not Hatcher. The little twist of jealousy at the base of his throat loosened. Hatcher could yearn for Mel all he wanted, but she belonged to him. Snake bit into his sandwich with savage satisfaction.

Mord and Mike came into the dining room together, hands and faces freshly washed, and headed to the sideboard. They were joking good naturedly while making sandwiches until they caught sight of Marc’s face. The brothers quit jostling each other. Mike dropped the slice of bread he was buttering.

“What is it?” he asked sharply. “Bad news?”

“No,” Marc said. “We got the letter. As soon as you’ve finished eating, we’ll open it and read it.”

It seemed like they couldn’t eat fast enough. Mord finished his sandwich in monster bites, guzzled his water down, and shoved his plate away to indicate he was finished. Mike was only half a second behind him. They sat straight, hands opening and closing on the edge of the table, their breaths audible and fast, staring at Marc.

The oldest Dirk brother looked around the table. Mel was at his right hand, just as tense as Mike and Mord, sitting opposite her.

“Okay.” Marc rose from the table, fetched the paper from the mantel, and brought it back to the table. He sat, and with great deliberation, opened the letter. He read in silence before looking up again. His face was a shade grimmer than before. “We have to bring the money to the old gas station by McLinnville by July seventeenth. That’s Friday.”

“Let me see!” Mel demanded, and snatched the letter to read it for herself. “We’ll never make it by Friday! That’s only three days from now.”

“We can if we cut through The Empty.”

Mel shuddered, and Mike and Mord’s scents changed from the prickliness of anxious excitement to the pungent reek of unease. Silence fell over the table.

Snake broke the silence. “What’s The Empty?”

Marc answered in a careful calm voice that held an Alpha’s directness. “It’s a piece of land that begins about twenty miles south of here. It’s around fifty miles wide and forty miles deep, I guess. About twenty years ago, it was hit hard by the Woman Killer Plague. You know what that is, right?”

“Sure.”

Who didn’t know about the sickness the evil men who started the Terrible Times created? Millions died from the plague between 2014 and 2018, and outbreaks still recurred every decade or so. Men who caught the disease often recovered, but women almost always died. Kearney saw an outbreak only six years ago.

“Well, no one survived that outbreak. The whole area is abandoned.” Marc shrugged. “For the last twenty years, everybody’s detoured around it, even though it adds eighty miles to a trip. Folks say it’s haunted.”

Stone nodded. “I can see that. There would be lots of unhappy spirits that never were released to the other side stranded there.”

“Superstition,” Marc snorted. “We can cut straight through and be there on time.”

“What would happen if we were late?” Snake asked.

Mord and Mike exchanged glances with brows pulled low. “Don’t even want to think about it,” Mike muttered. “We might get another of Mom’s fingers.”

“Right,” Marc said decisively. “Can you two be ready to leave at sunup tomorrow?” he asked him and Stone.

“Yeah,” Stone said, glancing at Snake briefly.

Snake nodded. “Whenever you say.”

“Good,” said Marc. “Us three will head out tomorrow at dawn.”

Mel’s head came up. “I’m going too,” she said.

“No, you’re not,” Mord spat. “Gimme that letter.”

Mel handed it over the table. She looked at her oldest brother and must not have found what she wanted in his face, so she turned to Snake. “I want to go,” she said.

She wasn’t begging, not quite. Snake stroked his thumb over her wrist. Last night he’d only dozed, too overwhelmed by the feel and scent of his mate sleeping beside him to miss a minute of it. It would be several days, or perhaps even weeks, before he could experience that again if she stayed behind. “It’s okay with me, but it’s up to Marc.”

She turned back to her brother. “Please? I’m dying to find out about Mama.
Please
. I’ll do whatever you tell me if I can come along. I can cook and wrangle the horses.”

Marc hesitated. “A woman on the trail is risky.”

“It’s not like I would be alone. There will be three of you with me, and I look like a man from a distance. I can cut my hair.”

“No!” said Snake, remembering the silkiness of her hair against his shoulder while she slept.

“Or I can braid it and stick it up under my hat.”

Marc looked at Snake with one eyebrow raised. Remembering the sweetness of having his mate so close last night, Snake nodded.

Marc gave in. “All right, the four of us, then.”

Sara sat straighter to lean forward. “I’m coming too.”

“You’re staying here,” Stone growled.

“Why?” the teenager whined. “Mel’s going.”

Snake watched his cousin take a deep breath to calm himself, but Snake could almost smell his temper teetering. “It’s about her mother. She has the right to go. You stay here.”

“I don’t want to.”

Stone’s temper slipped over the edge of his control, and he slammed his fists on the table, making the dishes jump. “You’ll stay here!” he thundered.

Snake blinked at his little cousin. Stone tended to be a little more emotional than the rest of the men in the Pack, but an outburst like this was unheard of. Of course, he’d never dealt with a stubborn and spoiled mate before. Snake slid his gaze to Sara, who half twisted in her chair to glare through narrowed eyes at Stone.

“Oh,” she cooed mockingly, “you want to leave me here with two handsome young men to guard me. Me, alone with two men—”

Before she could finish, Marc stood up, a flush dark on his cheeks. “No Dirk would poach another man’s wife,” he said in a voice almost as loud as Stone’s outburst.

Sara shrank slightly.

“Mike will go with Stone, Snake, and Mel, and Mord and I will stay here with Mrs. Wolfe.” His jaw was set at a proud angle when he spoke to Stone. “I promise you, your wife will be safe and
left alone
until you get back.”

Stone nodded as he stood, not looking at Sara. “That’s fine with me. Thanks.”

Snake watched Sara watch Stone leave the room. She was biting her lower lip, and something in her eyes looked bruised. Was she trying not to cry? He sniffed to try to scent her emotions, but he wasn’t as good at it as Stone. He turned away to give her the privacy to regain her composure. He squeezed Mel’s hand. “Better start packing,” he suggested.

She gave him a smile. “Right.”

Chapter 4

“This place is kind of creepy,” Mike said over his shoulder to Mel riding behind him.

“Yeah, it kind of is.” Mel used the bandana around her neck to wipe the sweat on her upper lip. “And hotter than hell too.”

Mike was a few yards in front of her, sweat marking his spine in a dark line on his blue cotton shirt. Stone rode about a quarter of a mile ahead of them, too far to see if the heat was affecting him, but Mel doubted it. Neither he nor Snake showed any signs the weather bothered them at all. Of course, they wore as little as possible, just breechcloths and moccasins, although they had jeans and shirts in a saddlebag. The heat affected the horses, keeping them to a slow pace. They had only three horses with them, since either Stone or Snake would be in wolf form on the trail, and their saddlebags were loaded with food and clothes. The extra weight wore on the horses.

“Yeah, it’s hot,” Mike agreed. He slowed his horse so she could catch up. “But that’s not what makes my shoulder blades twitch. Just look around.”

Mel did. The terrain showed indications of a long ago road overgrown by tough prairie grass. They had yet to see any signs of working ranches or farms once they left the area they knew. This was their second day of travel, and they’d seen no indications of life. Only the occasional broken stumps of fence posts and a few tumbled down buildings that must have been houses or ranch buildings decades ago revealed this portion of Kansas was once home to an industrious agricultural economy. Snow and ice in the winter and hot wind and rain in the summer bleached the buildings of all color and sent roofs into drooping disrepair. Somehow, it made Mel feel sad, not frightened.

BOOK: Wolf's Vengeance (After the Crash)
3.82Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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