<p><b>Copyright © Crissy Smith 2018. All Rights Reserved, Totally Entwined Group Limited, T/A Totally Bound Publishing.</b></p>
Cassandra Wilson pushed open the bedroom balcony doors and stepped out into the cool morning air. The bite of the wind was sharp, but it cooled down her heated body. The bad dreams and sense of betrayal had her feeling ill.
She was still reeling from the events of the night before. Someone had broken into her studio and destroyed…everything. Hours of hard work ripped, torn, and broken to litter the floor. It’d appeared as if a tornado had gone through to ruin every piece she’d put her heart and soul into.
Her evening had started so normal but the end… Tears pricked her eyes again. After she’d eaten dinner with her brothers, sister-in-law and nephews, they’d taken the horses for a ride. The journey through the canyon had been freeing and she’d enjoyed the time with her family. It was nights she was able to spend in nature that helped feed her muse. Cassie knew she saw things differently from other people and believed she was blessed. On the back of her horse, she felt a connection to the world around her almost like when she was shifted. Even a short ride normally had Cassie so motivated that she’d spend the entire night in her studio.
But the previous night hadn’t gone as planned. The glorious sunset and warm sensations she’d had after their ride had vanished when she’d opened her studio door and seen the destruction. Her canvases had been torn and ripped, paint splattered over the floor and walls, and every brush had been broken in half.
She had a security system and cameras but had forgotten to set them that evening. Everything that had been ruined was really her fault. Alex was forever getting on to her about remembering to set her alarm, but in the middle of the Pack territory, Cassie never worried. Now her whole life had been destroyed.
It wasn’t just the loss of months of work that bothered her. She felt violated. And scared.
A knock on her bedroom door interrupted her, but she ignored it. She just wanted to be alone. Was that too much to ask? She didn’t want to go to her workspace and nor did she want to talk to anyone. The police, her family, her assistant, even some of the Pack had shown up the night before. While she appreciated their support and concern, they just didn’t understand. Someone had been in her house. Since her studio was located in her residence, there was no place that seemed untouched. A stranger could have gone through her things before tearing apart her creations.
She didn’t know what to do now, how to act or what to say.
Her first instinct had been to hide, covers over her head, and cry, but she knew that wouldn’t solve anything. As much as she wanted to pretend nothing had happened, she’d gotten up and showered to start the day. Cassie had made it as far as walking to the balcony to stare out at the territory she called her own. But that was as far as she’d made it. She just couldn’t force herself to go into her studio yet.
The rapping on her door grew louder and more persistent. She suspected it was her older brother. When the door opened and Alex called her name, she sighed. Her solitude was over.
“Hey,” he said as he joined her on the balcony.
Cassie glanced over her shoulder. “Hi.”
“You okay?” He groaned. “That’s a stupid question. I’m sorry. But what can I do to make things okay?”
She turned back to look at the sun rising above the canyon. That was the question all right. What could she do? Or Alex? Or any of them. It wasn’t just Cassie who was suffering. This was the home of their family. A home they’d protected for generations.
They were lucky. The Wilson ranch was one of the few privately owned properties that shared the public canyon land. The estate had belonged to their family long before the government had come in and sectioned off acreage for a national park.
The government had tried to claim their property, too, but years of legal battles had ensured that the Wilson land would stay in the family. Cassie got to rouse every morning to one of the most beautiful views in the world. Even after the night of heartbreak she’d experienced, there was nothing like standing outside and watching the earth wake up. Alex leaned against her and she soaked up the warmth coming from him. Her oldest brother might have a tendency to hold on too tight at times, but she appreciated it more than he’d ever know. Cassie wasn’t like others in the Pack. She wasn’t as outgoing and was most at peace inside her studio with a paintbrush in her hand. “I don’t know what to do.”
“I just got off the phone with the Alpha,” Alex told her. “We have a meeting with him this morning about how to handle this situation.”
Knowing that she couldn’t avoid the issue any longer, she turned and gave her brother her full attention. He’d set two mugs onto the rail and she hadn’t noticed. She smiled and relieved him of one of the cups. The scent of fresh, strong coffee drifted up and she was grateful. She was extremely dependent on caffeine to carry her through long days.
“What time?” she asked before taking a drink. Flavor burst over her tongue—she knew her sister-in-law must have made the coffee that morning. Alex tended to make his more sludge-like.
“An hour,” he replied.
So soon. Which made sense, because their Alpha would want to make sure she was safe. The traits that made her Alpha such a great leader were always right on the surface. Alpha Shawn was strong, dedicated, and fierce. She couldn’t have wished for a better protector.
“You’re going to get tired of everyone asking you if you’re okay,” Alex commented. “Just remember that we do it because we love you.”
To have time to phrase her answer correctly, she took another long drink. Her brother always worried. He said it was because as the eldest, so he was responsible for her and their younger brother, Jacob. Cassie just thought he was a worry wart.
“I’ll be fine,” she assured him.
“Cas.” There was a growl in his tone.
“I just don’t understand. Why would someone break in and destroy my stuff?” She shook his head. “Why? Alex, I’ve never done anything to anyone.”
“Fuck.” Alex kissed the top of her head. “I want to tear out the throat of whoever did this.”
That shouldn’t make me feel good, should it? Instead of trying to get her brother to calm down, Cassie wanted to sic him on whoever had invaded her privacy. But she had to be an adult. “Is it because…we’re shifters?”
“Hopefully, we’ll find out. Alpha Shawn is concerned about the publicity you’ve gotten lately. That’s one of the reasons he wants to meet.”
Publicity? She snorted. Most artists wanted to receive credit for their work. All Cassie had ever needed was to paint. Her parents had supported her through the beginning stages and after their death, Alex had continued with encouragement. She’d made a good living, then the shifters had announced their presence and became public. There had been a surprising demand for her work after that.
The strangest part to her was that the Pack hadn’t gone public with the others. Alpha Shawn had decided to remain in secret. The fact that her art was considered as an authentic representation of the shifter world by both humans and shifters was surprising.
And a little uncomfortable.
The press constantly pressured her about her knowledge of shifters. She’d gotten to the point where she didn’t do interviews anymore. She just wanted to paint. She didn’t really care about the rest of it.
“I never meant to draw attention to us.”
Alex hugged her. “Ah, honey, there’s nothing to be done about it. I’m proud of you. So is our Alpha. We’ll get to the bottom of this and it’ll all work out. I promise.”
She wanted to believe him, but the wound was too fresh. She hoped Alpha Shawn had some ideas. He was one of the smartest men she knew and just a tad devious.
“I spoke to James also,” Alex said. “He’s going to bring over everything we have in storage and order more supplies for you. We’ll have you back to work before you know it.”
Cassie always had back-up supplies. She lived in the guesthouse and her studio was one of the rooms. At the main house, where Alex lived, he kept a supply room for her so she didn’t have to have an order rushed to her.
“I’m almost ready for the show anyway.” She was supposed to be having a showing in less than a month. “If we even still have it.”
“We’ll have it,” Alex said. “I told you not to worry about it.”
She nodded and stopped herself from telling him she was going to worry anyway. The threat they’d received in the mail to stop the show or else still weighed on her mind. Even though everyone told her it wasn’t her fault, she knew it was. The crazy Church that had been after the shifters for months now had narrowed in on her town.
“We’ll talk about it with Alpha Shawn. He is aware of the threat and has Chase looking into it.”
“Okay,” she relented. It was never worth arguing with Alex. He would eventually get his way by wearing her down. Hopefully Shawn could talk some sense into him. He was one of the few people Alex listened to.
“Let’s go then.” Her brother motioned her back inside.
Cassie followed him through her bedroom and into the hallway. Her house consisted of four bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a small fenced-in area for a backyard. The guesthouse was just yards away from the main residence where Alex lived.
Alex hadn’t even wanted her this far, though. He’d tried to talk her into just remodeling a portion of the main residence, but Cassie needed space. She was an adult and way past living under the same roof as her brother. Plus, she’d gotten to design the entire place. She loved every inch of her home. And she was close enough to her brothers, sister-in-law and nephews to see them every day.
Jacob and Peyton resided a couple of miles down the hill in their own home. They had a nice six-bedroom dwelling that fit their family perfectly. Jacob worked for the Parks and Wildlife Department stationed in the canyon. Peyton stayed home and took care of their boys, one aged four and one aged six. Cassie enjoyed having her family so close to her most of the time. However, she would’ve preferred a little more distance right then. Alex strolled through her place like he belonged there. She didn’t comment as she followed him. Normally Alex tried to show her that he respected her space, although once in a while, he went overprotective on her.
Since she’d found the destruction the night before, Alex had been in full alpha male mode. She would never admit it to him, but his protectiveness was easing some of her fear.
The drive to the Alpha compound took thirty minutes. Shawn lived deeper in the canyon. If they’d taken the horses, it would have only been ten minutes.
Not all members of the pack lived inside the canyon. Most had houses and businesses in town. Only the oldest families had claim to any canyon land.
As he drove, Alex talked about the horses and his upcoming plans for the ranch. Cassie had heard it all before, so she was able to tune him out and respond with some sounds.
By the time they arrived at the large Alpha cabin, she’d almost fallen asleep. She’d barely slept at all the previous night and was bone-tired. The winding roads that led to the house, and the familiar trip, soothed her further.
Her brother stopped the truck and patted her knee. “Let’s get this over with, then you can get some real sleep. I can tell you didn’t get a wink.”
“Yeah, okay,” she agreed and pushed her door open.
There were other vehicles parked nearby, but that wasn’t a surprise. She’d never been to Alpha Shawn’s when the house didn’t have several guests. Having all those Pack members around would drive her crazy. She couldn’t stand to have people constantly underfoot. It was one of the other reasons she lived in the guesthouse instead of the main home. Alex worked from home, and Cassie couldn’t handle all the people who came in and out to do business with him.
The door opened before they reached it and her Alpha stepped out. Shawn Mathewson stood on the porch and opened his arms. He was an attractive man with dark skin and hair, his eyes and smile dazzling her. The power that rolled off him could be quite intimidating, but he was truly a good man and a great leader.
She grinned and walked up the stairs where her Alpha engulfed her. He held her tightly then patted her shoulder.
Taking a step back, she peered up at the impressive man in front of her. Just being in his presence helped calm the wolf inside her, which had been agitated since she’d found the break-in.
“Let’s go inside,” he said, placing his arm around her shoulder.
They entered his home and went through to the living room. Cassie saw the Beta of the pack, Chase Lawson. She inclined her head toward him in respect.
“Hey, sweetie,” he greeted. “You doing okay?”
Cassie nodded. “As well as can be expected.”
“We’ll find out who did this.”
A promise that she knew Chase would do his best to keep. The Lawson family had been part of the Pack for as long as hers had. Chase owned the local diner and was one of the best cooks in the area. She made a point of stopping by for home-cooked meals as often as possible.
He always greeted her with a smile and a kind word. He was Alex’s age and the two had grown up together as the best of friends since they’d started school.
Chase welcomed Alex with a hug and a manly slap on the back while Alpha Shawn moved Cassie to the couch, taking a seat with her. Alex sat across from her in one of the chairs and, after making four mugs of coffee, Chase passed them around before he joined them.
Cassie placed both hands on the large cup as she settled back in the corner of the couch. She felt protected and secure with the three men. If she closed her eyes, she had no doubt she would be fine.
Their voices flowed over her as they discussed who could have been responsible and why. Cassie couldn’t imagine anyone who would have wanted to destroy her work. Even with the shifter controversy, she was only an artist.
“We’re just guessing here.” Alpha Shawn’s words drew her out of her thoughts. “And until we get to the bottom of this, the entire Pack will be on high alert. I don’t want anyone alone. I’ll double the guards around town and here.”
“Cassie can stay at the main house,” Alex added.
“Wait!” She sat up straight. “I’m not moving out of my house.”
Three sets of eyes turned to her.
“No.” She shook her head. “I have to work hard to make up for the canvases that I lost.”
“It’s just temporary,” Alex assured her.
“I’ll set the alarm. I’m sorry I forget. And we have the cameras.”
“Cass.” Alex leaned forward and braced his forearms on his knees. “It’s more than that. We don’t know who or why someone did this. Luckily, you weren’t home but…”
Cassie saw the struggle on his face. He was concerned about her.
She set her mug down and spoke directly to him. “But if I just move to the main house, then they win.”
“This isn’t about winning! This is about keeping you safe!”
Cassie ignored the rise of Alex’s voice. “I’m not giving up my house.”
“Yes, you are!”
“Hold on!” Alpha Shawn tried to interrupt.
“No, I’m not. I’m a big girl and I can take care of myself.”
Alex rose and towered over her. “You…are…staying in the main house.” Each word was clipped.
She seldom argued with him, but she just couldn’t give in this time. She’d worked hard to gain her independence after their parents’ death. She was thirty years old and refused to be treated like she was five.
Alex stepped forward, but Chase stood and got between them. “How about a compromise?”
Both she and Alex turned to him.
Chase motioned Alex back down and waited until he had settled again before taking his own seat.
“What’s your idea?” Alpha Shawn asked.
“Well, you know Max is back. He’s working in the diner right now, but we can use him as Cassie’s personal security.”
Max Lawson, Cassie mused. She hadn’t seen Chase’s elder brother in a long time. He was older than both Alex and Chase so Cassie hadn’t been around him much growing up. By the time Max had left the Pack at seventeen to join the Navy, she’d only been seven. She knew about him because he was the Pack’s only non-shifter. Not that he was human. Max was a shifter. He carried the DNA that made them different from humans. However, Max was unable to shift into his animal. Cassie didn’t know much about non-shifters, but Alpha Shawn had never allowed Max to be treated any differently, from what she could remember.
There were rumors about Max being part of one of the elite Navy Seal teams in the military, but that could have been all talk.
Alpha Shawn was smiling. “I like that idea.”
Cassie wasn’t so sure. “I don’t really think I need personal security. I hardly even leave the property.” She just didn’t feel right about having someone follow her around all the time. Yes, the situation was scary, but assigning a bodyguard? It was a little too much.
“I disagree,” her Alpha said. “The break-in was at your residence. Max would be able to keep an eye on you and look into who might have been responsible.”
She knew the expression on his face. Alpha Shawn had made up his mind.
“I’ll spend most of my time in the studio anyway,” she argued. “He’ll be in my way.”
Chase chuckled. “I promise he won’t.”
Knowing she was coming up against a wall, she sighed. “This is stupid.”
Alpha Shawn reached over and patted her knee. “Then just humor me. I want you safe.”
“Fine.” She rolled her eyes. She would make the best of the situation—she always did. Besides, how bad could it be? Chase was a good guy, so she doubted that Max was much different.
* * * *
Max Lawson pulled the skillets off the stove then dropped them into the sink full of soapy water. He stretched his arms over his head and rolled his neck. He liked working at the Canyon Café with his brother, even if it was dissimilar from what he had always done before. The most important thing was that he had something to do. He could concentrate on a task and not have to think or remember.
Not having enough to do worried him and made him nervous, so he was glad for the hard work.
He glanced over his shoulder and saw his brother in the doorway. “Hey, bro.”
His brother had been summoned to the Alpha house earlier that morning, leaving Max to handle the breakfast rush for him.
“Got a minute?” Chase tilted his head, indicating that Max should join him out front.
“Sure.” Max turned and followed him out of the kitchen into the dining area.
The rush was over. Only a few customers were still eating. Sue Ellen was taking care of the patrons, so Max didn’t have to worry about them. He always liked being in the back more than waiting tables.
He’d only been home about six months, so when the Pack members saw him, they wanted to know about his time away. And Max honestly couldn’t talk about it. Too much of what he’d done was still classified.
Chase took a seat on one of the chairs in front of the counter, next to another man. Max followed but remained back where the scarred countertop separated them. He still didn’t like to be too close to people.
Once he reached the two, he recognized Alex Wilson. Chase and Alex had remained tight, even as the years passed and they’d found different interests. Max grinned at Alex and offered his hand. “Nice to see you again, Alex.”
They shook hands and Alex smiled. Max tucked his hands behind his back. Just the small, polite gesture of shaking was hard. He didn’t want Chase to see his struggles, though. Being Beta of the pack was hard enough. At least he got to share the role with Alex, the two of them having someone by their sides. It reminded Max of how he’d been with the men in his unit. The men he’d promised to protect.
“You too. Glad you made it back safe.”
Max nodded but didn’t say anything. Yes, he had returned safely, but… No, he couldn’t think about that now. Instead, he noticed his brother’s obvious worry. Max offered Chase a small smile before giving his full attention to Alex.
The Wilson family was one of the oldest members of the Pack. Chase, of course, was closer to them, living as a Pack, but Max still had a connection with the family. He’d been out of the country when he’d received word that the Wilson parents had been killed in an accident.
Chase had been devastated and had told him how hard it had been on the kids. It seemed Alex had stepped up and done a good job getting his siblings through the grieving process.
“Coffee?” Max picked up the pot from under the counter.
Chase and Alex nodded.
He poured three cups then slid the first two across to them. “So, what’s going on?”
They exchanged a look that stood the hair up on the back of Max’s neck. “What?”
“We need your help,” Alex said.
“Of course,” he offered. He would do whatever he could to help any of the Pack members. Even though he hadn’t quite fit in with the kids growing up, they had never been mean to him. Their Alpha would not have allowed it.
Max didn’t understand why he was different from everyone else. What had gone wrong to make him unable to shift? But it was what it was and there was nothing he could do about it.
“Good.” Chase drew his attention. “Do you remember Cassandra?”
“Your younger sister?” he asked Alex. He could picture the freckle-face girl with skinned knees, running around in shorts. She had always been tagging behind Alex and Chase as the boys had grown up. “Sort of.”
Alex nodded. “We need security for her.”
As Alex and Chase filled him in on what was going on, Max found himself growing angry. He knew he had to get a handle on his reaction, though. After his last mission, he had gone through a debriefing and had been shown several techniques to control himself. The military did not want him to go off on civilians.
But the thought of anyone threatening a member of his Pack made his blood boil. He listened intently as Alex explained the entire situation.
“What do you need from me?” he asked when the man was finished.
“Cassie won’t agree to move into the main house. She wants to stay in her residence and studio. I’m not comfortable with her being alone.”
“You want me to watch over her?” he asked, surprised. He wasn’t a guard. He didn’t have a position with the Pack. His brother was the Alpha’s second, his Beta, but after Max had left for the Navy, he’d given up any rank within the Pack.
“Yes,” Chase answered. “Alpha Shawn agreed. We’re doubling all security for the Pack, but we want Cassie to have someone with her full-time.”
Max owed his Alpha a lot for always supporting him. Hell, he owed his brother, too. Chase had welcomed him back with open arms. His brother let Max stay in his house and had given him a job. “Okay, when do you want me to start?”
Alex sighed heavily and dropped his head. “Thank you.”
Max wasn’t a touchy-feely kind of guy. Normally he did everything he could to avoid contact with others, but he found himself reaching over and patting Alex’s shoulder. “Sure, I’m glad to help.”
“I knew you would be,” Chase said proudly.
Max warmed to his brother’s praise.
“Chase can go over everything with you.” Alex stood. “I need to get back to the house. Cassie is with Jacob right now, but he has to work today.”
Max nodded and waited until Alex was out of the door before turning to his brother. “What else?”
Chase rubbed his hands roughly over his face. “Alpha Shawn is concerned about the publicity the gallery is getting. Several of the artists, Cassie in particular, have gotten a lot of attention. Last week we received a threat that if we didn’t cancel the upcoming show, we would regret it. It was from the Church for Humanity, the people the wolves have had problems with ever since we went public. Our Pack didn’t go public, and Shawn isn’t sure how much longer he can hide us if the Church has targeted us.”
“Is that really a big concern? From what I’ve seen, there have only been a few issues since the shifters announced their presence.”
“It’s a concern,” Chase told him. “The Coalition between all the shifter species is brand-new. We’re hoping that will protect all shifters, but until we know for sure, we still want to remain secret. Some of the human lawmakers are talking about forcing shifters to register.”
“Yeah, so they can have a database on all of us.”
“That’s not right,” Max said in disgust.
“I know. Shawn is talking with the council about what we can do, but he’s worried.”
“Well, I’ll do what I can,” Max promised.
“Good. How are you feeling?”
He knew his brother was concerned. Chase might not know everything that had gone down with his last mission, but his brother knew him well. Chase had also witnessed some of his nightmares.
Chase didn’t look like he believed him but didn’t push. “Scott’s coming in. I thought we could grab your stuff, then I’ll follow you over to the Wilson ranch.”
“Sure.” Max picked up the empty coffee cups. “Let me just finish cleaning up real quick.”
“Okay, I have to grab a few things from the office, anyway.”
Max went back into the kitchen to wash the last of the pans he’d used earlier. He didn’t like leaving a mess. His brother might own the diner, but Max always pulled his weight. He hoped he would be an asset for the Wilson family. He remembered they had always been so happy. Very similar to his own. They’d never treated him any different either.
He was scrubbing the last pan when Scott Little walked in the back door.
“Hey, man!” Scott waved at him.
Max inclined his head since his hands were still in the water. “Thanks for coming.”
“No problem,” Scott assured him. “Didn’t have anything planned today anyway.”
Scott attended the community college in the next town over and was an okay kid. Max enjoyed their shifts together as well as Scott’s quirky humor.
“You about ready?” Chase called from the front of the diner.
Max rinsed off the pan then placed it in the strainer. “Yeah.”
He waved to Scott as he joined his brother out front. He grabbed his jacket and keys from under the counter. Together, they left.
One of his first purchases when he’d returned to the States had been his Harley. Chase had tried to get him to use one of the Alpha’s many vehicles, but Max enjoyed riding the bike. He craved the freedom that the motorcycle provided him.
He’d found that the best time to ride down the canyon was just before sunset. The gorgeous views on the back of his Harley could not be seen the same way in a truck or an SUV. Max threw his leg over the bike and turned the key. The machine came alive under him. He couldn’t suppress his grin. Yes, motorcycles were dangerous, and he loved every single second he was on his.
Chase waved at him as he climbed inside his truck.
Chase’s house was just outside the city limits. He needed to be close to the Alpha in case any problems arose. The fifteen-minute ride was smooth and without a lot of traffic. Max’s brother was ahead of him as they both drove in the same direction.
The Wilson ranch was farther inside the canyon lands. He would be able to take his bike there and hopefully would have time to ride some of the private roads. Plus, there was good hiking around the Wilson place. He didn’t know if Cassie Wilson hiked, but he sure hoped so. It would be nice to be able to get some fresh air and just be away from everyone and everything.
He pulled up beside his brother’s truck then turned the engine off. Chase’s abode was small compared to a lot of the other Pack houses. But the three-bedroom structure was enough for them. Chase had welcomed the company when Max had come back to town. Their parents had offered to let Max stay with them. However, he was glad Chase had suggested they live together. He loved his mom and dad, but at forty, he didn’t want to live with them again.
“I’m going to take a shower while you get your things together,” Chase informed him.
Max nodded and made his way to his bedroom. He didn’t have a lot. Just clothes and a few things he’d kept in storage. Even the furniture in the bedroom was his brother’s.
Finally, Max felt like he was putting roots down. Eventually, he would buy his own home and concentrate on discovering what he wanted to do with the rest of his life. Whether he’d stay in Canyon or move on, he wasn’t sure. He had time to decide.
He grabbed two duffels out of his closet then started to pack. He didn’t know how long he would be needed at the Wilson ranch. It was better to have too much stuff than to have to leave Cassandra to go pick up what he needed.
He threw in jeans, T-shirts, boxers, socks and a light jacket. Back at his closet, he reached up to the top shelf and brought down the lock box. Max carried the box to the bed and sat.
It had been six months since he’d opened it.
He removed the keys from his pocket and carefully unlocked then lifted the lid. Inside was his favorite gun. A .45 Desert Eagle.
He ran his fingers over the stainless-steel barrel and sighed. He hadn’t held a weapon in his hand since he’d left the Navy. He wasn’t sure he would even be able to fire it again.
As he sat on the bed, he could still smell the smoke from the last gunfight. He hadn’t been shooting his Desert Eagle that day. The M4 that he’d had on his shoulder had run out of ammo and Max had looked down in horror when he’d realized the entire team had used all the bullets they’d brought with them.
The house they’d been hiding in was small. Evan Cruise had lain at Max’s feet, wounded and crying out in pain.
Deep down, he’d feared that was it. They were all going to die over in some godawful place and no one would know all they had wanted to do was rescue the captured aid workers.
The missions were classified and Max wondered if Evan’s family would even be given his body.
The guerilla fighters who had gotten the jump on them had still been shooting into the house. Max had knelt beside his friend and gripped Evan’s hand. He’d been in charge of his five-man team. It’d been up to him to get them out.
Max started at Chase’s voice. He slammed the lid closed on the gun box and stood. Quickly, he stuffed the container at the top of one of the duffels and faced his brother. “Yeah, just about done.”
Concern was evident on Chase’s face. Max had to ignore it. He wasn’t ready to talk about what he’d been through. Actually, he couldn’t speak to anyone about anything. He rushed into the bathroom then quickly packed everything he would need for the next several days.
When he returned to the bedroom, Chase was zipping up one of the bags. Max dumped his toiletries into the other then closed it. They each grabbed one as they headed out of the door. Max was relieved that Chase wasn’t pushing him. He knew that he would have to share something with Chase soon. At the moment, his brother was giving him time.
“I’ll take your bags over for you,” Chase offered.
“Thanks.” He passed the second duffel to his brother. Ready to go, he strode to the bike.
He could probably find the Wilson ranch on his own, but any time he had a flashback he was always a little shaky. He needed a few minutes to get his bearings, but he would have to follow Chase so he wouldn’t get lost.
Chase backed out and Max waited until the dust settled, then followed. He was happy to have something to keep his thoughts off what he’d been through.
Hopefully this new job would help him clear his mind.
It took longer than he expected to reach the Wilson property. He slowed at the large gate where Chase was waiting. His brother waved him through and Max drove on. He pulled off to the side as Chase closed and locked the gate again.
Max was glad to see that they were indeed taking precautions on security.
Chase climbed back into his truck and started south. Max followed, using his senses to get familiar with the area. The main house loomed in the distance, a strong, solid structure that appeared inviting. Max could remember the barbecues that he and his family attended there when he was younger.
Even with the passing of their parents, it looked like the Wilson children had kept the property up. Green grass filled both sides of the paved road. As he pulled next to his brother and turned off his motorcycle, he could hear horses not far from him.
He turned his head to see if he could spot them and couldn’t. He hadn’t ridden in over a decade. His family didn’t keep animals, and in the service, he hadn’t had the opportunity. Excitement had him swinging off his bike. He’d always enjoyed the freedom of being on the back of one of the large animals. Luckily, even though the horses could sense the predator in a shifter, as long as a mount was treated with respect it didn’t have any problems accepting shifters as riders or caregivers. The stallions and mares sure were trusting. In that regard, Max was envious of them.
“They still have horses?”
Chase nodded. “Yeah, Alex puts a lot of time into them.”
“I thought he worked in the gallery.”
Chase waved his hand. “He does. But his love will always be the horses first.”
The front door opened and the subject of their conversation stepped out. “Hey, guys.”
Smiling widely, Alex stomped down the stairs to greet them. He’d changed out of his slacks into jeans. Max was relieved to see Alex more relaxed, and glad he had agreed to help. It was great to be needed again.
They shook hands and Alex motioned toward the house. “Cassie’s inside. Let’s talk here before you go over to the house.”
Max nodded and followed Alex and his brother.
The cool air hit him as soon as he walked inside. Max hadn’t noticed just how hot he was until the air conditioning blew over him.
He must have made a sound, because Alex glanced back at him. “Cassie keeps the air on frigid. She can’t stand being hot.”
Since Max had spent way too much time in deserts and jungles, he agreed with her. “Feels good.”
Alex grinned. “You’ll fit in just fine.”
He hung back, taking in the homey feel of the ranch house. The Wilsons had money, but he wasn’t uncomfortable walking through the hall. The simple touches around the place were welcoming, not intimidating.
The hall opened into a large living room with beautiful wood flooring. Dark-brown leather couches dominated the space and a huge flat-screen television was placed over the stone hearth. In the corner, standing by the curved bar, was the most gorgeous woman he’d ever seen.
She smiled wide when their gazes met. “Wow! You grew up.”
Max opened his mouth to respond then closed it again quickly. There was no way this sexy creature in front of him was Cassie Wilson. Gone were the braids and the crooked teeth. Instead, she had a pixie cut of short brown hair with streaks of blonde. She had to be only five foot five or so. She was tanned and had a body built for a man’s hands. He had to clench his teeth to keep from reaching out for her.
He groaned mentally. Not what he had expected. Cassie Wilson was an attractive woman. Her soft chocolate eyes sparkled with amusement as she licked her lips.
Fuck! His cock hardened painfully. Max struggled to push aside his carnal needs and remember there were two other people in the room.