Crimson Hollow Book Two
She stepped out into the cold night air, shut the door behind her, and stood there for a moment. Taking a deep breath she opened up her senses. No one was about, so she stepped off her porch and headed away from the town, toward the road. She couldn’t take her car because starting the engine would wake the entire tribe. But that meant she’d have to hoof it to the road and hope that someone passing through in the middle of the night would pick her up. If not, she’d have to make her way nearly twenty miles to the next small town before she could hitch a ride. Truckers would be her best bet to put some miles between herself and the bears.
In case anyone might have been moving about inside one of the houses and happened to look out the window, she kept to the trees. A branch cracked nearby, and she scanned the grounds. It was doubtful any animal would venture this close to the compound, not with all their scents lingering. They were predators and any creature that strayed near was fair game.
“Going somewhere, precious?”
She spun toward the voice with such force that she nearly dropped the bag slung over her shoulder. “Ahh…”
Kaden stood steps in front of her, blocking her path. “You weren’t running out on us, were you?”
“No, ahh…” She couldn’t think as he closed the distance between them. Her lioness darted forward, purring with great excitement. Mate. She shook her head at her lion. He can’t be.
“Than what were you doing out here at this time of night?” He pulled the bag off her shoulder and unzipped it. “Couldn’t sleep so you thought you’d take your clothes for a walk?”
“I ahh…” She was beginning to sound like a broken record, but she didn’t know what to say to him. Her lioness just wanted him naked, and that made it harder to think straight. “Kaden, please.”
“Please what, precious? Press you against that tree and have my way with you until you’re screaming my name for the whole tribe to hear? Or maybe you’d prefer to be naked, riding me, as the moonlight shines down on us like a spotlight?” He pulled her close to him, pressing her against his body so that she could feel how ready he was for her. “Your lioness wouldn’t be growling like that if you’d only give in to her.”
“I just can’t.” She forced herself to back away from him.
“Because of your secret.” He advanced on her, closing the distance that she had just created between them.
“I have no secret.”
“Oh, precious,” he said silkily. “There’s no need to lie to me, I know all about it.” He took her hand in his.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” A shiver of fear ran up her back. If she screamed for help would Jase or one of the guards get to her before he had a chance to kill her? Even if so would Jase order her death to revenge one of his species? Which would be quicker and painless?
“Kitten, we know about the man you killed.” Ari strolled from the shadows. “The bear.”
Crimson Hollow was off the beaten path, making it difficult to locate. So when Ari arrived in the late afternoon, he was surprised to find that the community was like its own little town, hidden in the middle of the forest. Log homes were scattered in a clearing, all situated around a large meeting place—an open field with a fire pit. Across the fire pit, on the far side of the grassy expanse, was a road where Garret had told him he’d find his new home. Garret and Sin had the house at the end of the road, next to Jase’s, who was the tribe’s Chief and Sin’s brother.
His best friend Kaden leaned forward to stare through the dirty windshield of Ari’s pickup. “Well this is unexpected.”
He gave a halfhearted grunt and continued to drive down the dirt road into the compound. He couldn’t help but wonder how Garret expected him to make this place safe. He could secure the homes individually, but to keep the whole compound safe there needed to be a perimeter and a gate blocking trespassers from wandering onto this road. Ari ticked through his mind the few issues that were readily apparent. These issues would need to be addressed immediately, even before he provided recommendations for each home’s individual security measures. The question was how much expense did the Chief and his Deputy want to get into?
He pulled the truck in front of Garret’s house, shut off the engine, and took in the area. There were guards sporadically placed, but none of them seemed prepared for an attack on the tribe. Two stood off in the distance chatting, another leaned against a tree, and most shockingly, one fiddled with his phone. Only a few of them looked to be armed and paying attention to the surroundings. One, in particular, watched them closely. “Looks like we’ve got our work cut out for us.” Shaking his head he reached behind the seats for his bag, also grabbing Kaden’s and tossing it to him.
Kaden gave a low whistle. “It’s more work than I thought. Are you sure you’ve got our upcoming jobs covered?” He dragged a hand through his nearly chin length hair, pushing it away from his face, only to have it fall back to where it had been. His work boots, worn jeans, and T-shirt made him look like an average blue collar worker, no one would suspect he was the financial genius behind getting their security business off the ground. Even to this day he was the one handling that side of things, and investing it wisely, so they’d always be comfortable. Unlike Ari, who did his best work with his hands, Kaden had a business mindset.
“Our crew can handle the work for the next two weeks. After that, if we’re not back home, I’ll have to see what I can juggle.” He shrugged because he’d find a way to make it work. They’d committed to helping Garret and that’s what they’d do. After Garret’s call, Ari dropped what he was doing, passed the work that needed handled onto his crew, and headed out.
Friends helped friends when they needed it. That’s just what they did, especially their kind. But if he was honest with himself, he was curious to check out the woman that convinced his friend Garret and his wolf to settle down. He wondered what Garret’s feisty sister thought of him moving across the state and joining a tribe instead of a wolf pack.
“Who knows what we might find here.” Kaden pushed open the passenger door and hopped out. “Maybe she’ll be here.”
Ari climbed down from the truck and slung his bag over his shoulder. While they might have seemed so different from each other, Kaden was his best friend, and since childhood they both knew they’d share a mate. They just needed the right one to satisfy both of their needs, and the one that both of their inner beasts could desire. That last requirement had proven the hardest to fulfill. Their beasts were demanding in different ways. But soon, they’d have to settle on one mate because their animals were getting impatient. Though Kaden might have hopes they’d find the one here, he didn’t. They had looked far and wide, and had yet to find one who sparked their interest.
Instead of voicing his doubts, he made his way around the truck and toward Garret’s house. They were here to do a job not find their illusive mate, and it was time they found out what exactly was expected of them. They were security experts not miracle workers. Hopefully Garret was realistic about what could be done here.
“Where is everyone?” Kaden asked as Ari pressed the doorbell. “Besides the guards standing out like sore thumbs there’s no one around, no children playing outside. It’s weird not to see anyone moving about.”
He hadn’t realized it until Kaden spoke, but as his gaze scanned the grounds an unease settled into his shoulders. A group of shifters this size should have had people moving about. People gathered outside enjoying the cool weather while children ran around. There was nothing but an eerie silence.
“You’ve noticed it too.”
Ari turned around to find Garret standing in the doorway.
“What’s going on here?” Kaden asked.
Garret stepped back, allowing them to enter, and shut the door behind them before answering. “The attackers have been captured and dealt with, yet the tribe remains uneasy. Parents are keeping their children inside for fear of what might happen. They’re apprehensive and don’t trust our new members. Jase and Sin are doing what they can to allay fears, but added security might give them the peace they need.”
Ari nodded. “The first thing that needs to be done is establishing a defensible perimeter. Otherwise, anyone could stumble upon you. You’re pretty much hidden in the forest, but that same isolation also puts you at more of a risk because you are all alone. Anyone could come across the houses here and decide to cause some problems. In the winter, the smoke from your fireplaces would attract people.”
“I’ve already discussed that with Jase.” A beautiful red head strolled into the living room. “You must be Ari. I’m Sin. Please come in and make yourself at home.”
They sat their bags near the door and took a seat on the sofa before Ari got back to what he was saying. “So, you’re not against a fence?” he said, directing his question to the woman, since she was the Deputy of the tribe.
“No, we have a crew ready to begin work, but Garret talked us into waiting until you arrived. He thought you might have some suggestions for improving the design of the perimeter fence.” Her words were brusque and businesslike, but Ari couldn’t hide a smile as Garret reached out and pulled her onto his lap.
Garret gave Sin’s supple thigh a pat. “We’re open to whatever suggestions you might have. Our goal is to protect the tribe, and we’re aware changes need to be made.” Garret ran his hand down his mate’s arm. “Since humans became aware of us there have always been issues, but recently the growing numbers of hunters looking for shifter skins have increased.”
“When will they learn that even if we’re killed in our animal form we’ll revert to our human skin when we die?” Ari growled.
“I don’t think they will until someone catches it on video,” Kaden muttered.
“Even then someone will say the footage is a hoax.” Sin shook her head. “I just don’t want it to be one of my people killed because of some stupid hunter.”
The front door opened and a man stepped through. His wide shoulders and the authority that poured off him left little doubt in Ari’s mind that it was the tribe’s Chief, Jase. “So they’re here. What are their suggestions?”
“Jase,” Sin scolded.
“I’m busy dealing with another issue. One my Deputy couldn’t be bothered with.” Jase said, his gaze narrowing on her.
Sin’s mouth thinned. “I know you mean Swift, and this is not the time.”
“We can—” Kaden’s words were cut off when Jase turned to him.
“Who the hell are you anyway?” Jase snapped.
“The name’s Kaden.”
Jase turned toward Garret, his dark eyebrows lowering. “I thought you invited one person, not two?”
Sin stiffened on Garret’s knee. “I swear to you that my brother isn’t always a grumpy bear.” She gave Ari a quick, tight smile. “He really is a kind guy. He’s just dealing with a lot right now.” Her gaze swung back to her brother. “Jase, could you please be hospitable?”
Ari waved a hand, not the least put off by the growling bear. “That’s why we’re here. We’ll take some of the weight off your shoulders, and do what we can to make sure that you can provide a safe place for your tribal members.” Ari hoped that knowing someone was working on the problem would ease the tension the leaders were feeling. “I had hoped to get here earlier to get started right away, but darkness is already falling.”
“We’ll start with the perimeter in the morning.” Kaden leaned forward, clasping his hands in front of him and resting his elbows on his knees. “We’ll go over it with a fine tooth comb, looking for places for access points and mark your most vulnerable areas.”
Jase sank down into a chair across from the sofa. He rubbed a hand over his face before meeting Ari’s gaze. “Sin will show you around and get you anything you need. How long do you think it will take before you can give me a list of your suggestions?”
“We should be able to meet with the crew you have ready to build the fence tomorrow evening. The rest will take more time. We’ll have to inspect each house—” His words were cut off as Jase rose abruptly and moved toward the window.
“After the perimeter, I want you to focus on this house first.”
“What?” Sin’s voice held surprise. “If anything, they should focus first on yours.”
“The attacks have been against foxes.” Jase pinned her with a steady glance. “I want to make sure you and Zoe are safe. Once these guys are done here, they can look at my place.”
“We can go over the house tonight,” Kaden offered.
“Whatever you’d like.” Jase turned back to them. “Sin’s right. I was an ass, and I apologize. I’m sure Sin and Garret will be excellent hosts tonight. I won’t be able to join you, but I’ll catch up with you sometime tomorrow.”
“Jase…” Sin called to him as he strolled toward the door. “Is something happening?”
“Just the normal…Swift, the parents…I’ve got it under control.” With that Jase was gone.
“Why do I suspect there’s more?” She rose from Garret’s lap and went after her brother.
“Why didn’t you tell them there’d be two of us?” Ari eyed Garret, watching his friend’s reaction.
“I told Sin, but as for Jase, he’s been dealing with…” Garret paused and glanced behind him. “Swift. She’s Sin’s cousin, and when their tribe was attacked years ago, she came here too. But lately, she’s been having a harder time.”
“Because of me.” A soft voice announced as a teenager stepped out of another room, hugging books to her chest. Her long reddish-brown hair was pulled back from her face in a ponytail and her forest green eyes held sadness. She met Ari’s gaze. “I brought back all the memories she buried, and now she hates me.”
“Zoe,” Garret said softly. “This isn’t your fault, and she doesn’t hate you. She just needs time to process the grief she bottled up over the years.”
“She won’t even talk to Sin,” Zoe whispered. “If only Jase hadn’t brought me here…” Tears rolled down her face as she turned and dashed up the steps.
“Excuse me.” Garret rose from the chair and followed her.
Left alone, Ari and Kaden shared a glance.
Kaden leaned back against the sofa. “Why do I feel like we’ve stumbled into family drama and we should leave?”
“Because we did.” Ari shook his head and let out a light chuckle. “And you’re the one desperate to find our mate.”