HAYDEN sat back in his office chair and listened to the sounds filtering up from downstairs. Nine of his pack members were giving wine tastings to humans who had made appointments to try Chaucer Family Wines. Some of the humans were on vacation and some of them lived in Napa and had heard the buzz about the blends happening at Chaucer. None of them knew that the Merlot or the Pinots they sipped were produced every year by the local wolf pack, who, in between creating wines served in the finest restaurants in the world or stored in the wine cellars of connoisseurs everywhere, shifted into wolves every time the moon became full.
And Hayden preferred it that way.
His office bordered the living accommodations for his pack. One quarter of the winery was actually an elaborately constructed series of bedrooms so that his pack could come and go without having to find quarters somewhere where they might be discovered by the outside world. None of them had a lot of privacy, but the twelve members of his wolf pack didn’t seem to be complaining. They were all grateful to get to live in such a beautiful location that at least, for now, kept them undiscovered.
He wanted to go downstairs and watch people enjoy what, outside of his pack, he lived for. Instead, he worked. Turning his attention from the happy noises in his winery, he stared back at his computer screen. An email he couldn’t ignore waited for his attention.
Another death. Clarkson Petra, Alpha of the Austin Pack, had been murdered, along with most the strong males who swore allegiance to him. All evidence pointed to it being humans who ended their lives and not, as it would have been when the world still spun on the correct axis, other werewolves.
It was the third such murder in the last three months, and there was no question as to who was responsible for the acts: The True Believers, the human group determined to eliminate werewolves from the face of the earth. They’d always been around, but lately they seemed to have gotten stirred up and more active. They were succeeding where once they’d been a big joke.
No one in the werewolf community laughed anymore.
Hayden rubbed at his eyes. Cyrus Fennell, the Alpha of the Manhattan Pack, had sent him the news. They’d shared a strained but productive relationship since childhood. They’d both attended the Alpha training camps at Lucian’s, the now-deceased Alpha Prime, farm. In any case, Cyrus hated Hayden’s brother, Savage, with a passion, which was why there was virtually no communication between the New York and San Francisco wolf packs. Sitting quietly with his small pack in Napa, Hayden had been the acting secret go-between when talks had to happen, but no one else could know about the conversations.
Cyrus wasn’t emailing because he needed Savage this time. The other Alpha wanted Hayden’s particular talents. Cyrus wanted him to do what he hadn’t done since he’d stepped away from Lucian’s special counsel ten years earlier.
He didn’t torture anymore. Even if the world could be potentially crumbling around them.
Thankfully, Cyrus didn’t hold enough clout to force him to come east, and without an Alpha Prime to rule them all, Hayden didn’t have to take direction from anyone. Still, he might be able to help from a distance.
Cyrus, he wrote.
Not going to happen. Lucian is dead, and until someone makes you Prime, I’m not going anywhere to do that. You, Alexie, and Travis aren’t without your own skills. If there is no information flowing, I’d guess there’s nothing to get.
Maybe I can help in a different way. Someone’s got to follow the money. They’re getting funding from somewhere. This much power wasn’t created in a vacuum. Let me see what I can dig up.
He hit Send before he could change his mind and decide to be helpful in the way Cyrus wanted. Standing up, he stretched his arms over his head. He rubbed his itchy nose. His bones ached, and he didn’t know what that was about. At sixty years old, he was still a baby in werewolf years. He couldn’t be developing old-age problems yet.
A knock sounded on his door, but it was just a formality. His pack knew they could come and go as they wanted. They’d all lived through the hell of Lucian’s special training together. The Alpha Prime hadn’t thought they’d make good leaders—but good wolf soldiers? Yes, that had been all he’d believed them good for—fighting, bleeding, killing, and dying.
Whether or not they’d prove him wrong still remained to be seen. However, if this year’s Pinot Noir turned out the way Hayden thought it would, they’d be well on their way to distancing themselves from those years that needed to be forgotten.
“Come in, Sal,” he called out to his second-in-command. Sal entered, closing the door behind him. Unlike Hayden’s, Sal’s body didn’t retain permanent reminders of their time with Lucian. Hayden’s skin had been torn up so much during those years that he’d eventually developed permanent scars he’d never be rid of no matter how many Full Moon shifts he made.
Sal, taller and broader than Hayden, had skin the color of milk chocolate. The man had generations of half-human ancestry, but Hayden would never know it from how completely wolf he appeared every time Hayden looked him in the eye. He was a man who wore his animal like a protective coat, and Hayden couldn’t blame him.
The local women loved him.
Or so Sal likes to say.
“Everything all right?” Based on the high-pitched laughter downstairs, there was an abundance of women in the place getting tipsier by the minute. Sal should be in his element. Unless there was some problem with getting set up for that evening’s Full Moon. Had something gone awry? Lately the whole thing had been running like clockwork.
“Well, my Alpha.”
Sal and the others had insisted on the term the second Hayden’s brother had handed him Napa to run. Hayden had always suspected it had more to do with not wanting the survivors of Lucian’s special training in his own pack than any belief his brother had in his ability to lead that had propelled Savage’s act of generosity. Alphas didn’t usually give up territory, not even to their own brothers. But Hayden had never questioned him. He’d been glad for the space. Big city life didn’t appeal to him. Napa had always been quieter.
“Yes? Something wrong with the wine? The underground tunnels?” With no real wolves running around Napa or Sonoma to cover their tails, he’d had underground running paths created from the wine caves all up and down the property. It wasn’t ideal. His wolf self hated being contained on the few nights a year he got to come out and play, but as long as they stocked it with prey, no one complained. Manufacturing things to make their lives work proved to be the name of the game these days.
“There’s a woman here. She’s not making a lot of sense. I initially thought to send her on her way because she’s clearly out of it. I’m not smelling drugs, but something is wrong, and then I decided maybe she should get to see you.”
“Why?” They didn’t get a slew of crazy humans running around. Most of the ones who came for appointment only tastings tended toward the sophisticated, happy variety. If they had issues, they left them at home. It certainly didn’t fit Sal’s modus operandi to bring them to Hayden.
“Because she keeps insisting she has to see you.”
“Specifically? Did she get my name off the website or something?” There’d been a brief write-up in Wine Spectator Magazine that could have garnered the unwanted attention.
“At first she asked for you by name. She kept saying she needed to see Hayden, and then it changed. The last time, before I shut her in the back office, she told me she needed to see my Alpha. None of the other humans heard her, or I would have reacted faster.”
Hayden nodded. “You did the right thing. I can’t have some human who shouldn’t even know we exist running around spouting off at the mouth. You did check her for explosives?”
If she was a True Believer, she could be there to blow the whole place up. Weapons he could handle without Sal’s interference. He’d never met a human he couldn’t disarm. But if she’d come to bomb them, he didn’t want her inside. He’d end her outside where she couldn’t damage any member of his pack or any of the vines in the fields.
“I smelled no explosives on her.”
Haydon nodded. “Good news.” Unless the humans had found a way to hide that smell. Even one year earlier he’d never have considered that possibility. As an added thought, he continued. “The Alpha from Austin is dead, along with the males in his pack. It looks like True Believers.”
Sal growled. Hours from the appearance of the Full Moon, they all made strange noises he’d prefer to hide from the humans. Even Hayden found it hard to hold them in. Savage never had that problem. He was a much better Alpha and the San Francisco Pack flourished under his care.
“They won’t get to you, my Alpha. I guarantee it.”
Hayden patted him on the back. “I appreciate your loyalty. I doubt very much they’re coming for me.”
Other than his familial relationship with Savage, he didn’t have much of what the True Believers wanted. He would never be a prominent kill. Maybe an afterthought if they took out his brother and discovered Hayden existed.
Damn it. Things had gone horribly wrong if he had to figure out how the deranged humans would plot his death. But then again, he’d been trained to stay two steps ahead of his enemies at all times. Hayden followed Sal out into the hall towards the front of the vineyard.
“This office?” He pointed to the storage room where the head of their wine club, Max, kept the orders for the next shipment. Max had been severely damaged in his last fight for Lucian. His left hand barely functioned when he was in human form. Yet he never complained about the pain, and with his help, sales were up.
“Yes. I really didn’t know where else to shove her. The caves were out of the question. I wasn’t putting her anywhere near the wine barrels.”
“Good call.” No one went near his product if they didn’t have permission. He loved two—sometimes three—things in the world. His pack and his wine. His brother sometimes fell on that list. Their relationship shifted more than the fault line beneath their feet.
He sniffed the air before he walked in. Crazy had a particular metallic scent on humans. Usually it made his teeth hurt. But he didn’t get that scent just then. Nothing but sweet honey. He stopped moving at the thought.
Yes, the human female in the room, whom he could already place in her twenties based on the quality of her scent alone, didn’t give off the uncomfortable sensation of being ill. In fact, her scent reminded him of a Riesling he’d recently drunk. Sweet wine didn’t usually fit his palate, but he’d liked the taste, had bought a bottle, and had even mentioned to Sal that they might consider buying more land in the next two years to grow the grapes himself.
Using other vineyard’s grapes had never worked for him. He planted the vines, and he followed it to fruition.
Hayden pushed open the door. The honey girl on the other side needed his attention, and he needed to discover how she knew who the hell he really was.
Max’s office had large windows that looked out over the vineyard behind the tasting room. One desk sat in the center with a black leather chair behind it. A framed picture of the Napa Valley was the only artwork in the place, which counted as one more piece of artwork than Hayden had in his own office.
The opening of the door didn’t make the beauty seated at Max’s desk look up. In fact, she didn’t move at all. Her head rested in her hands, and she seemed to be rocking back and forth on the chair. Her scent filled the room, and it made him dizzy. For a second, he thought he might need to sit down, but it passed, leaving him with just a heady feeling of complete…happiness.
What the hell?
He rubbed his forehead. Had he been drugged? He turned to look at Sal. The other man appeared unaffected, so it couldn’t be some loopy poison gas.
The woman finally looked up, and she stared at him. Her pupils were huge. She didn’t smell like illegal drugs. That didn’t mean she hadn’t ingested something he had never encountered before.
“Oh, Hayden. Thank the universe.” She stood up. He had time to register her large blue eyes that matched the hair dye on the tips of her brown hair. She was small, barely five-feet-two, but she curved in all the right places. Dressed in a long black dress that hit the floor, she looked out of place for a Wednesday afternoon in his casual winery.
Where had she been before she’d come here?
She’d no sooner uttered her words than she leapt into the air. He caught her in his arms, and she snuggled up against him as if they’d known each other—quite well—for a long time. “I knew I’d get to you. I believed it. Even when they held me, I could see it.”
“Um…Miss…” Hayden struggled with conflicting emotions. This close to the Full Moon it was all he could do not to give into his animal need to carry her off and see if she smelled like honey everywhere. But the reasonable part of him, the part that still had control, at least for a few more hours, knew he had never met this woman before in his life.
He set her soundly back on her feet. “You seem to know my name, but I have to tell you that you have me at a disadvantage there. I have no idea who you are.”
She gasped and struggled out of his light hold. Her blue eyes, with their still-too-large pupils, stared back at him as if he’d just told her that he’d murdered her mother.
“No. That can’t be. It cannot have all been in my own mind the whole time.” She shook her head violently. “What did they do to me? You don’t know me? We didn’t share any of it? Oh God. Oh God. Then you don’t know yet. You don’t understand.”
“Miss…” He tried to interrupt, but her movements silenced him. He worried about the way she thrashed her head about. Whoever this honey lady turned out to be, he wouldn’t let anything happen to her. He’d figure out later why he felt that way.
“You need to listen to me, Hayden Chaucer. If you hear nothing else, if it was all just a dream the doctors made me have, then you have to believe me. They’re going to kill you.”
Behind Hayden, Sal sucked in his breath, but Hayden raised his hand to stop him from speaking. Still, the woman turned her glazed glare on his second-in-command. “Is this true, Sal? Does he not know me? Do you not? Is that why you wouldn’t bring him to me before?”
Sal looked at him and shook his head. He had no idea what she spoke of either.
“Oh, damn it to Hades.”
He grinned at her terms.
“Okay, listen. None of it happened. I get it. But you are Hayden Chaucer.” She visibly swallowed, her throat clenching. He wanted to reach out and stroke her long neck, but that would be highly inappropriate considering she so clearly needed help of some kind.
“I am Hayden. I mean, yes, that’s me.” He nodded before he crossed to the other side of the room. Max had a small refrigerator, and inside was just what he hoped he’d find: a bottle of water. He took it out and tried to hand it to her, but she didn’t raise her hand to take it.
“Then that much was real. You’re Alpha here. Of the werewolves.”
“Now that we have to talk about.” Hayden cleared his throat. “You have to tell me how you know that. Right now.”
“You wouldn’t believe me. You didn’t then, and you won’t now, but you have to listen to me. They are coming for you tonight, and if you don’t do something about it, they will kill you. They will kill every one of you, and all Savage will find are your torn-up remains.” She teared up, several of the drops falling from her eyes and running unstopped down the side of her face.
“Who is coming to kill the Alpha?” Sal obviously couldn’t hold back any longer. Hayden noted his second-in-command didn’t ask about himself or the others. Truly, Sal’s loyalty knew no bounds. Hayden by contrast, cared more about the second half of her dire prediction. His pack mates counted on him. He wouldn’t let them down.
“The True Believers. They’re coming in a black van. Five of them. A small number. But you’re all shifted and in the tunnels. You won’t hear them until it’s too late. You’ll fight, but they have guns. Big ones. The kind they use in wars. They’ll destroy you.”
She cried fully now. “That can’t happen. There’s too much for you to do. And there’s the moonlight. The way it hits you. The way you tell the Moon that you need to be a human to save me—I mean her—Lily. All of that has to happen, Hayden. Don’t you understand?”
She spoke of so many different things that he quickly lost track. Did she want to talk about the True Believers, or did she want to talk about the story of the werewolf creation? Lily and the Alpha Wolves?
He would have asked, but just then, her eyes rolled to the back of her head, and she collapsed. Hayden darted forward and caught her before she hit the floor. She really weighed nothing, at least not to him.
“Sal, come on, we need to bring her upstairs.”
His second raised a dark eyebrow. “My Alpha?”
“To my room.” He crossed past Sal and into the hall. “Clear out the humans here for the tastings. Kill the lights. Make it look like a power outage or think of something cleverer. I don’t care. Just handle it.”
“Of course, but as your second, I have to point out how ridiculous it is to bring her upstairs. She’s just talked about killing you. About ending all of us.”
Hayden shook his head. “She didn’t talk about doing it herself. She said some people in a black van would.” Or at least he thought she had. It had gotten downright confusing there at the end.
“The killing you in general is what concerns me.”
Hayden shook his head. “That would concern me too if it weren’t for one thing.”
“What’s that?” Sal didn’t move to let Hayden pass with the girl.
“She’s my mate.”
Saying it aloud stunned him as much as it did Sal, whose mouth fell open like a landed fish. At some point as Hayden stood holding her, the scent of honey everywhere, she’d gotten beneath his skin in the rare way he’d only seen happen on a few occasions. The way it happened if the person in question was a true mate. The rarest-of-the-rare findings, the thing some werewolves spent their lives searching for and died without finding.
And she’d rushed into his vineyard. As crazy as he’d ever seen anyone in his life.
“She’s my true mate. My wolf knows it. My destined love. A human woman—and clearly not in her right mind. I’ll ask you to get out of my way. She won’t kill me. Or, if she does, there’ll be some kind of poetic justice to the whole thing.” He growled his last words, and Sal moved out of his way. “I want a whole pack meeting tonight. I’ll discuss this with everyone. As for her prediction of dire circumstances and death, I’ll take it under advisement. We’ll set up extra security. No one will get in here with guns.”
Sal nodded, and Hayden passed him, heading up the stairs. The moon would be in the sky soon, and he wanted his mate in his bed. Not to fuck her, not yet anyway, and certainly not before he helped her get her mind back in order, if such a thing was possible, but he needed her in his bed, surrounded by his scent and protected in what little he claimed as his own.
He took the stairs two at a time. She hadn’t budged since she’d passed out, and that concerned him. The lady was on something or had something done to her. She’d fainted, and he had no idea how serious that was to the little human. His pack had to shift. He couldn’t be in the hospital with her.
Hayden felt her pulse. It was strong and steady, not too fast or too slow. That was good. She didn’t feel warm. He couldn’t help, however, noticing how soft she was beneath his fingertips.
His little honeyed human. How on earth was he supposed to take care of a human mate with the world falling apart?