Chapter 1 & Chapter 2
WERECON 2012: HOWLERS CHALLENGE WOOFERS
Exclusive WEREWORLD CELEBRITY WATCH report by Angela Sapworthy
(Denver) Excitement mounts on the eve of this landmark conference, the first of its kind in werewolf history. A star-studded list of attendees from the far reaches of the globe will gather at the elegant Stillman pack lodge in Estes Park near Denver this weekend to debate the conference theme, OUR FUTURE IN A CHANGING ENVIRONMENT.
As readers of WCW know, opinion is sharply divided on the topic. Weres have rebounded after being hunted nearly to extinction, but their presence as a significant economic force in all the major cities in the world remains unknown to the human community.
Extremely eligible bachelor and Scotsman Duncan MacDowell, younger brother of MacDowell pack leader Colin MacDowell, wants that to change. In May, he founded Werewolves Optimizing Our Future (WOOF), and his wildly popular blog Wolf Whistles champions his belief that wolves should stop hiding their shape-shifting abilities, openly partner with humans in business, and even consider inter-species mating. Obviously human females would rally to that cause if every male Were looked like Duncan MacDowell in a kilt!
But not all Weres are ready to climb on board Duncan’s tartan-clad bandwagon. This summer the Were blogosphere heated up as Denver-based Kate Stillman, granddaughter of pack leader Elizabeth Stillman, launched Honoring Our Werewolf Legacy (HOWL). Her well-known dating website Furevermore.com celebrates Were-Were mating as the only way to go. Kate, who claims she’s never dated a human, advocates the beauty of tradition and the safety of keeping our secret secure.
But is the tide turning in Duncan’s direction? This reporter recently spoke to the Wallace brothers of New York, both of whom shocked the Were community last year by taking human mates. From all indications, their human brides are blissfully happy. And why not if they share an address with sexy wolves like Aidan and Roarke Wallace?
Despite the apparent success of what’s being called The Wallace Experiment, Kate Stillman predicts that such unions spell disaster. Although Emma and Abby Wallace have proven trustworthy, Kate insists the Wallace brothers’ behavior may still adversely impact the Were community. Predictably, Duncan MacDowell calls the Wallaces heroes for bucking tradition.
For months Kate and Duncan have traded barbed comments on their blogs and via our online instant messaging system, affectionately named Sniffer. Adding fuel to the controversy, they’ve each published bestselling ebooks, available only through Were distribution channels, of course, defending their respective positions.
Duncan’s followers (Woofers) are poised to confront Kate’s supporters (Howlers) at the conference and will no doubt fill the room during the final session when Duncan and Kate face off in what promises to be a heated debate and great fun for this reporter! Duncan’s last Sniff before he left Scotland was a succinct call to arms – Woofers, it’s on #primedforaction.
And so am I, my friends! For on-the-spot conference updates and celebrity sightings, be sure to follow me on Sniffer @newshound or #werecon2012. I’ll be your eyes, ears, and nose!
* * *
Standing at the Denver airport’s baggage claim with her cell phone to her ear on Friday afternoon, Kate Stillman listened to her assistant Heidi Jenson rant about a an apparent server hack that had temporarily taken down their Were-Were dating site Furevermore.com.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if those Woofers are behind it,” Heidi said. “When you see Duncan MacDowell, you tell him that hacking into our dating site is the most despicable, underhanded –”
“I doubt my grandmother would want me to start our first conversation that way.” Kate checked the arrivals board and noted that Duncan’s plane was on the ground. “Her exact words were – Warm hospitality will disarm him, my dear. You’ll catch more flies with honey than vinegar.”
“Forget the honey, Kate. Just swat the bastard. No telling how many potential clients we lost, or how many romances will be derailed this weekend because of his damned Woofers.”
“We don’t know it was them.”
“We might not have proof, and I’m not saying Duncan himself did it, but his followers are insane.”
“I know. Listen, Heidi, I’d better go. He could show up any minute.”
“Okay. Text me if he says anything suspicious.”
“I will. ‘Bye.” Kate disconnected the call. Heidi loved conspiracies, but Kate hoped her assistant was wrong about this one. Trading insults was all part of the game, but interfering with a commercial venture was actionable.
Surely the Woofers wouldn’t be so stupid as to hack into her dating site on the eve of the conference. She would mention it to Duncan and see how he reacted, because he should know that it happened, but she couldn’t openly accuse him without evidence.
Not only would that be unfair of her, but Grandma Elizabeth, the Stillman pack alpha and a force to be reckoned with, would be furious. She’d been totally in love with the idea of Kate standing with a sign and a smile when Duncan arrived to collect his luggage. No accompanying staff, no fancy limo. Simple western hospitality.
The limo wouldn’t have worked, anyway, now that the first snow had hit Denver. The storm had begun around noon, dashing hopes that Denver could get through the month of October without the white stuff. Judging from what had already fallen this afternoon, Kate would need the four-wheel-drive capacity of her SUV to navigate the long winding road back to the resort.
The dicey road conditions didn’t bother her. She’d been driving on ice and snow ever since getting her license fifteen years ago. But meeting Duncan MacDowell face-to-face worried her more than she cared to admit to anyone, not even Heidi, and least of all her grandmother.
Offering friendly hospitality to the Were she’d called a pig-headed radical who had his head up his ass seemed hypocritical. But treating him like a bitter enemy seemed rude. Online interactions were so much easier. Knowing that Duncan would appear any minute had her pacing the baggage claim area.
She’d responded on Sniffer to his arrogant last statement – Woofers, it’s on #primedforaction with her own challenge – Bring it, Woofers. Howlers R ready 4 U #firmlyconvinced. Other Howlers had added equally feisty comments, which had sparked pushback from the Woofers, although nothing had come from Duncan yet.
Thinking of that, Kate checked her Sniffer feed. Sure enough, there was another Sniff from @DuncanMacDowell. Slippery landing in Denver. Can’t scare a Scotsman/Woofer #Braveheart.
Kate rolled her eyes. He was so blasted macho it was sickening. Tucking the printed sign under one arm, she quickly typed a response. Just don’t get off the plane naked with your face painted blue, Braveheart.
The response came almost immediately – How would you know if I did?
She answered with a few rapid taps. Turns out I’m your ride.
So he wanted to be sarcastic, did he? She started to type The honor is all mine and realized that would be ungracious. Her grandmother would disapprove. As she started a new message, she breathed in the scent of masculine Were.
Glancing up, she had no doubt she was eyeballing Duncan MacDowell, in the flesh. Judging from his purposeful stride and intent focus, he’d figured out who she was, too. His wool topcoat hung open to reveal a cream-colored cable-knit sweater and what looked like wool slacks. His leather dress shoes weren’t suited for walking in the snow, but she could work it so he wouldn’t have to.
She folded the unnecessary sign with his name on it into fourths and crammed it into her purse.
Hearing his rich baritone for the first time felt surreal after months of online communication. And the brogue. Damn, it was sexy as hell.
“Hello, Duncan.” She kept her tone neutral but pasted on the smile her grandmother had asked of her. “Welcome to Colorado.”
“Thank you.” His sculpted lips curved in an ironic answering smile.
As she looked into his eyes, she was momentarily distracted by how beautiful they were – soft gray and elegantly fringed with dark lashes. She quickly reminded herself of his arrogant attitude and reckless stance regarding Were security. He was ready to risk everything for some crazy Utopian dream. And his followers might have hacked into her dating site.
He regarded her with a heavy-lidded gaze that probably had more to do with jet lag than any attempt to be seductive. Yet he really was unbelievably gorgeous. She wasn’t immune to male beauty, and a quiver of sexual awareness shot through her system.
He was taller than she’d expected. The top of her head, minus her fake rabbit-fur hat, reached only to his shoulder. And speaking of shoulders, he had broad, powerful ones, the kind that inspired confidence and marked him as a leader.
His hair was longish and his jaw was darkened with new beard growth. He could have shaved on the plane if he’d been so inclined. Obviously he hadn’t troubled himself. Cocky Were.
His rumpled appearance only added to his sex appeal, though, as if he were silently demonstrating how he’d look after a long night of fabulous lovemaking. She’d read all the nauseating blog comments from his bevy of female admirers, so she’d expected him to be reasonably good-looking. She hadn’t been prepared for sensational.
Not that it mattered whether he was an Adonis. His physical attributes didn’t change the threat that he posed to the Were way of life. If anything, they made him a more dangerous opponent.
“I can’t say I expected you to meet my plane, lass,” he said.
Now would be the time for her to turn on the hospitality spigot as her grandmother had suggested, but sugary words stuck in her throat. “Maybe I wanted to get a preview of what I will be dealing with this weekend.”
He surveyed her with those bedroom eyes. “You do realize you’re giving me a preview, as well.”
“That depends on how much I allow you to see.” She hadn’t meant that to be a sexual comment, but it sure sounded that way once she’d said it.
His smile widened. “I’m very good at uncovering whatever interests me.”
There was that sexual quiver again. She ignored it. “Considering that we’re on opposite sides of this debate, I can’t imagine I’d be of any interest to you.”
“On the contrary. I’m sure you’ve heard the old saying – Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer.”
“I’ve heard it.” But never spoken with a Scottish brogue.
“Is that why you came to pick me up?”
“No.” She finally settled on the truth. “I’m here because my grandmother asked me to come. She thought the gesture would disarm you.”
“Oh, it has.” His gray eyes took on a wicked gleam. “It most certainly has.”
He laughed. “I’m not kidding. As tired as I am, I’m easily disarmed, which might have been your grandmother’s plan.”
“Maybe.” Kate decided the time for chit-chat was over. “We need to get your bags and leave before the snow gets any worse.”
“Aye.” Turning, he surveyed the luggage circling the carousel. He walked over, retrieved his suitcase with athletic grace, and returned to her. “Ready.”
He must have been tired, because she managed to talk him into waiting inside the building while she brought the Jeep around. Once they were on their way, he peered past the flapping windshield wipers at the snow that seemed flung by a giant hand. “I’m not sure it’s safe to drive in this. Perhaps we should stop somewhere and wait it out.”
“We’ll be fine.” She wasn’t about to admit that the snowstorm had become nasty enough to intimidate even her. “I’m used to snowy conditions.”
“If you say so.” Leaning his head against the headrest, he closed his eyes.
“I wanted to alert you that someone hacked into the Furevermore website today, and I –” A soft snore brought her up short. She glanced over at him and sure enough, he was fast asleep.
Impressed with his ability to surrender control, Kate drove slowly and kept to the plowed sections of the highway. Traffic thinned once they were outside the city limits, and she began to wonder if she’d made the right call. Hers were the only headlights taking the exit road to the resort. And she had several miles yet to go.
Turning back wasn’t an option, because the roads were getting worse and she’d have a problem retracing her path, too. As long as she moved slowly and didn’t hit a patch of ice, they’d get there. She’d always been lucky driving on snowy roads.
But not this time. When the skid started, she did everything she’d been taught so they wouldn’t flip, but nothing could have prevented them from plowing into a snow bank, nose first.
The impact woke Duncan, who sat up, startled. “What happened?”
She sighed. “We’re stuck.”
“Can we get out?”
The wind whistled as snow swirled around the Jeep and blocked the view from all angles. Kate surveyed the situation. It didn’t look good. “I don’t know. Maybe not.”
* * *
Duncan shook his head to clear the fog of sleep from his brain. “Let’s have a look, shall we?” He reached for the door handle.
“Hang on. Let me try to back it up and see what happens. Maybe we’ll scoot right out.” She put the SUV in reverse and tromped on the gas. The motor whined and the wheels spun like crazy, but they didn’t move an inch.
She let up on the gas and stared out at the driving snow. “Or not.”
“I’ll see what’s going on out there.” Once again Duncan grasped the door handle.
“You can stand out in the blizzard and assess the situation if that makes you happy, but I’ve lived in this area all my life and I can guarantee that we won’t be getting out of here without a tow truck.”
He glanced over at Kate. She looked so blasted sweet with her long blonde hair and big blue eyes, but he knew better after a summer of trading barbed comments on the internet. In the interest of getting to know his enemy, he’d decided to read her book, Sex and the Single Shifter: A Guide to Ultimate Satisfaction, on his e-reader during the long plane ride.
Kate was about as sweet as a dram of DeWars. And like that most excellent whiskey, she had the potential to addle his brain, and that would be unfortunate. If he’d been lucky, her likeness on the internet would have turned out to be Photo-shopped and her real self would be homely as a hedgerow. Instead she was bonnier than the heather in full bloom.
A blonde goddess who’d written a book about sexual satisfaction would tempt any male almost beyond endurance, but he couldn’t afford to be tempted. Any weakness in that area could compromise his goals. His followers expected him to stay strong, and he would. He would.
Still, he was fighting the effects of jet lag, and he had trouble not staring at her. She looked adorable in her red leather jacket and furry cap. “You know the lay of the land better than I do,” he said. “If we need a tow, then perhaps you should call for one.”
“Exactly.” Pulling off her black leather gloves, she reached for the phone in a holder on the dash, tapped on it, and held it to her ear. After listening for several moments, she frowned. “Automatic message. They’re flooded with requests. Let me call another company.”
Duncan watched her growing frustration as she tried various avenues to arrange for a tow. When she swore softly under her breath, he couldn’t help smiling. She must hate getting herself stuck with him as her passenger.
At last she put the phone in its holder with a sigh of resignation. “I’ve left messages, but this sudden snowstorm has created emergencies all over the area.” She pulled on her gloves and peered out the window. “It’s getting worse out there. I can’t risk having another vehicle from the resort get stuck while trying to rescue us, so I’m not calling them.”
“How far to the lodge?”
“Way too far, if you’re suggesting we walk it. Being so remote means we’re blessed with privacy, but bad weather makes the resort almost inaccessible.”
“What if we shifted into Were form and went cross-country?” He didn’t think she’d go for that because they’d have to take off their clothes first. Now there was a concept that would test his determination to resist his cravings. But if the alternative was sitting in the vehicle all night, they might have to consider it.
“If I thought we could make it up there easily as wolves, then I’d agree to shift, but we’d have a nasty slog that might not turn out well. Still, we can’t sit here indefinitely while we wait for somebody to call us back. Folks freeze to death doing that.”
“Wouldn’t that make a juicy story for Angela Sapworthy?”
Kate let out a martyred sigh. “She’s at the resort, you know.”
“I assumed she would be. She promised to be the eyes, ears, and nose for her faithful readers.”
“She’s been good for attendance, so I shouldn’t complain, but if I have to read one more reference to the virility of the Wallace brothers, or –”
“The virility of Duncan MacDowell?” he added helpfully.
“Yes, she does go on about you in a rather nauseating fashion.”
“I quite like it.”
“I’m not surprised.”
This was more fun than typing comments on the internet because he could see her reaction. She developed a cute little jut to her chin when she was irritated. “So, my devastating charm aside, how are we going to extricate ourselves from this cock-up you’ve got us into?”
“What do you mean, the cock-up I got us into? It’s very ungentlemanly of you to imply it was my fault.”
“If not you, then who? It wasn’t me, I can tell you that much.”
“It wasn’t me, either! It was . . . well, my grandmother suggested this, but I can’t blame her for the weather. So I guess it’s Mother Nature’s fault.”
“And . . . so? What are we going to do?”
“I’ve been thinking about that. Right before we spun out, we passed a turnoff to a cabin. I think we should take our phones and go there. If they’re home, they’ll give us shelter. If they’re not, we’ll break in and wait for a towing company to call back.”
“Break in? I don’t know your local laws, but won’t that get us arrested?”
“Not in an emergency like this. Besides, I’ve met the owners. They’re Edith and Bob Stewart, and Bob helped me change a tire when I had a flat on this road last summer.”
“That doesn’t mean he’ll be happy if we break into his house.”
“Seriously, he’ll understand. Mountain people help each other out like that. This is a summer home, so they’re probably not here, but if we can find a number for them, we’ll call and tell them what we’ve done and explain that we’ll repair any damage involved in breaking in.”
He peered at her in the growing darkness. “Have you ever broken into a residence before?”
“No, but I’ve seen it done.”
“You were an accomplice to a break-in?”
She blew out a breath. “No. I’ve seen it done in the movies. It looked easy.”
“Kate, it was a movie. Of course it looked easy! They used fake glass the actors could easily break or left a door unlocked so the actors could supposedly use a credit card. I’m sure these people have battened down the hatches on their cabin before leaving so no one can break in, at least not without great effort.”
“Do you have a better idea?”
“Unfortunately not.” Out of necessity, he started thinking like a burglar. “Do you have a torch?”
“Of course not! Why would I carry a torch around? This is the twenty-first century. We use flashlights.”
“Sorry. I meant flashlight. We call them torches in Scotland.”
“Oh. I vaguely remember that, now that you mention it.”
He smiled to himself. “From the movies?”
“Smartass.” She opened a compartment between the two front bucket seats. “Yes, I have a flashlight.” She pulled it out and switched it on.
“Hey, not in the eyes, please.” He put a hand on the flashlight and directed it downward so it wasn’t blinding him.
“Whoops. My bad.” She stuck the light under her chin. “What does this make you think of?”
“Blair Witch Project. Which, by the way, isn’t a comforting thought as we venture into the cold, snowy woods.” But he laughed in spite of himself. He shouldn’t allow himself to be so entertained by her.
“It’s only a movie, Duncan.” She mimicked his former patronizing tone. “They made all that up on purpose to scare you. It wasn’t real.”
“Thanks.” She marked an imaginary line in the air with one gloved finger. “Score one for Stillman.”
He let that pass. “So we have a flashlight, which we can use to see what the bloody hell we’re doing. Do you have a tire iron?”
“Wow, you’re gearing up to break some serious glass, aren’t you?”
“If we’re going to hike over there, we might as well go prepared to get in.”
She studied him for a moment. “I’m thinking you might have done this before, Duncan MacDowell.”
“If you must know, my brother and I locked ourselves out of the castle one night. It was late, and we couldn’t rouse any of the servants, so in order to get in, we –”
“You locked yourselves out of the castle and couldn’t rouse the servants? You say that so casually, like everyone lives that way.”
“I don’t think much about it, really. Is it so different from you living at the resort? You must have staff working there.”
“We do, but we don’t call them servants. We call them employees and most of them live elsewhere. I think it is different. You’re like a prince or something.”
“Nope. No title. My brother Colin has the title – Laird of Glenbarra. I’m just the lowly second son who’s a bit of a renegade.”
“And who knows how to break into a castle. Why were you giving me an argument before? This cabin will be easy pickings for you.”
“It’s one thing to break into your own place and quite another to break into somebody else’s. So do you have a tire iron or not?”
“I’ll take it from the back once we get out.”
“Then I guess it’s time to become criminals.” He pulled on his black leather gloves, which were oddly appropriate for breaking and entering. Then he wound his wool scarf around his neck and turned up his collar. “I’ll meet you round back and we’ll go from there.” He opened the door and snow hit him in the face. “Bullocks! It’s cold out there!”
“Wait a minute.” She grabbed his arm. “Do you have a hat in your suitcase?”
“No, but I’ll be fine. I have gloves and a scarf. Let’s go.”
“What about boots?”
He closed the door again. “You mean rubbers?”
“Over here we call them condoms, but that wasn’t my question.” She grinned at him, an imp in a furry hat.
He had the most powerful urge to grab her and kiss that saucy smile right off her face. Bad impulse. Instead he lifted his gaze to the ceiling and sighed dramatically. “I have no boots, as you call them.” Then he turned to her. “And I saw no need to pack condoms, either.”
“And that’s another point!” She wagged her finger at him. “If you have Were-Were sex, you don’t need those things, either to prevent pregnancy or disease. It’s an elegant system. But when you consort with humans, you have to put on a –”
“Spare me the sex education lecture, Kate.” Damn it, she almost seemed to be testing him to see if he’d snap. He was too close for comfort. “And for the record, condoms can be sexy, too.”
Her cheeks turned pink, but she came right back at him. “I don’t believe you. I can’t imagine how putting a latex gizmo on your penis can be anything but uncomfortable and ridiculous. As for the female, how horrifying to see something covered in latex coming at you like some alien creature! Ick!”
Time to end this discussion before he did something he would be sorry for, something that might betray his cause. “As they say in the USA, don’t knock it ‘till you’ve tried it. Ready to go burgle this cabin, lass?” Opening the passenger door, he stepped into a snowdrift at least two-feet deep and cursed.
At least now he wouldn’t have to worry about the erection he’d been trying to control. Five seconds standing in a snowdrift had taken care of that quite nicely.
* * *
Sniffer Update: @newshound – Blizzard conditions in Denver! Hunky Aidan and Roarke Wallace on site! Duncan MacDowell due any minute! #Werecon2012
“Oh, God, he’s out.” When Kate realized Duncan was determined to brave the snowdrifts without boots or hat, she swung into action. He might be part of the enemy camp, but if he became injured or caught cold because she hadn’t taken care of him, Grandma Elizabeth would not be pleased.
Grabbing her purse and the flashlight, she opened her door and hopped out, too. Then she gasped as the cold and snow enveloped her. She’d worn her best leather jacket and a warm hat, but this kind of cold penetrated all but the most serious outerwear.
She hadn’t expected to trudge through snowdrifts, so her outfit was designed to be cute and stylish instead of blizzard-worthy. Even her boots were suede lace-ups instead of vinyl, but they were better than Duncan’s dress shoes. He would be miserable until they got inside the cabin.
“Are you coming?” Duncan called from the back of the Jeep. “It’s a wee bit nippy out here!”
“On my way!” Activating the flashlight, she soon discovered it wasn’t much help. It lit up the incoming snowflakes beautifully, turning her surroundings into a psychedelic light show. But once she and Duncan reached the cabin, they’d need the flashlight. Rounding the back of the Jeep, she found Duncan stomping his feet and flapping his arms to stay warm.
“Here, take my hat, at least.” She pulled off her fur hat and handed it to him.
He shook his head, which already was dusted with snow. “I’m secure in my masculinity, but not that secure. Let’s get the tire iron and go.”
“All right. Your choice.” She tugged the hat back over her ears and opened the back of the Jeep. Taking the tire iron out of its storage niche, she handed it to him. “You’ll be in charge of that.”
“We’re going to follow our tire tracks back to the driveway. There’s a rural mailbox beside the road. It’ll be easy to find.” She hoped to hell it would be, because her face felt frozen in place. She was afraid if she tried to smile, her cheeks would crack. “Follow me.”
The flashlight worked a little better if she pointed it at her feet, so she was able to distinguish the SUV’s tire tracks without too much trouble. They’d spun out only a few yards from the driveway leading to the cabin, but the howling wind and blowing snow made the walk seem longer than that. She couldn’t hear Duncan’s footsteps, and after going several paces she worried that he might not be behind her, after all.
When she stopped to look over her shoulder, he ran smack into her. With a cry of alarm, she started to go down. Instantly his arm came around her, breast-high, and hauled her against him to prevent the fall.
“Try signaling next time.” His warm breath tickled her neck and his body created a firm support for her back.
She’d been in worse positions than being steadied by the muscular arm of a handsome Scotsman who lived in a freaking castle. She tried not to be entranced by that, but she wasn’t succeeding. She’d spent too much time watching Cinderella as a little girl to be able to ignore the castle connection.
His grip loosened slightly, as if giving her room to breathe, but he didn’t let go. “Are you all right?”
“Yes, thanks.” In the swirling whiteness of the storm, he was a warm, reassuring presence. A darned sexy one, too. Her body reacted with surprising alacrity to his casual touch. “I stopped because I was afraid you might not be behind me.”
“I’m right on your heels, lass.”
His Scottish brogue delivered directly into her ear was quite a turn-on, too. “Good. That’s good. Let’s go on, then.”
He released her. “How much farther?”
“Not much.” Immediately she missed his warmth. Pointing the flashlight at the ground, she started walking along the tire tracks again. As a mental trick to fight off the cold, she relived their accidental embrace, and soon parts of her became quite toasty.
What a concept. She’d never tried keeping warm in the snow by thinking about sex, but it worked like a charm, at least for her. Duncan wouldn’t be fantasizing about sex with her, though. He’d been extremely vocal on his blog about his preference for human females.
Remembering his enthusiasm for Were-human sex cooled her off again, but fortunately they were almost there. She’d never have found the driveway without the mailbox to mark the spot, but she was able to see its vague outline through the snow. Waving the flashlight to signal to Duncan, she turned right.
Once they were off the road, the snow was considerably deeper. She winced at the thought of Duncan navigating without boots, but it couldn’t be helped. At least he was behind her and could step in her footprints.
A pale glow straight ahead indicated that the dusk-to-dawn spotlight mounted on a pole near the cabin was working. Kate had known they’d have electricity because the Stewarts chose to leave their heat on low all winter rather than drain the pipes. Bob had told her all about it while he was helping her with the flat tire. Available electricity had been the other reason she’d decided their cabin would make a good safe haven until a tow truck arrived.
The cabin itself was completely dark. No smoke rose from the chimney and no vehicle sat by the side of the house where the Stewarts usually parked their rental. Edith and Bob didn’t seem to be in residence at the moment, which was what she’d expected.
The place was small but sturdy looking – a log-cabin structure that blended into its setting. The covered front porch held two rocking chairs all summer, but it was empty now. Double-hung windows on either side of the front door looked out on the porch.
Kate had never gone in, but from the outer dimensions she’d always assumed it was a one-bedroom, one-bath layout. Climbing the porch steps, she trained the flashlight on the door in case the lock might be the kind that would open with a credit card. But sure enough, the Stewarts had installed a deadbolt in addition to the lock on the doorknob.
Stomping his feet, Duncan came up the steps to stand beside her. “Looks like I’ll have to use the tire iron.”
“Yep, and the sooner the better. I’ll bet your feet are frozen.”
“They’ve been warmer.”
She walked over to the window on the left. “Guess it doesn’t matter which one. With the blinds down, I can’t tell what sort of furniture’s on the other side.”
“But it might matter where I hit it. Use the torch to find out where the lock is, if you can.”
“Sure.” Now that she knew what he meant, she liked hearing him refer to it as a torch. The word went with his castle persona and his brogue. He was an intriguing Were, and that could be a problem this weekend. She wasn’t supposed to be intrigued with the leader of WOOF.
After shining the light around the window casement, she reported that the window seemed to be of traditional design, with the lock in the center, where the two parts of the window met.
“Then I’ll try to break it close to that lock. Stand back.”
She didn’t have to be told twice. Duncan unbuttoned his coat and held the tire iron over his shoulder. Judging from his spread-legged stance, he planned to put everything he had behind the swing.
“And cover your eyes,” he added.
“What about your eyes?”
“Oh. Good point.” Lowering the tire iron, he reached inside his top coat and pulled out a pair of shades. “They’re not exactly safety goggles, but they’re better than nothing.” He put them on.
“Now you look like a hit man for the mob.” She made a joke of it, but he’d taken on a dark and excitingly dangerous air as the shades combined with the scruff on his jaw to produce a breath-taking effect. This was a Duncan MacDowell she’d be hard-pressed to resist if he chose to try seducing her. Good thing he liked humans better than Weres.
“I feel like a hit man for the mob standing here in the dark ready to swing a tire iron at a complete stranger’s window. Are your eyes closed?”
They weren’t, because she’d been staring at him in total fascination. “Yes.” She quickly squeezed them shut and waited to hear the sound of shattering glass. One second, two, and then came the mighty crash.
She opened her eyes. “Good Lord, you’ve destroyed the entire bottom pane!”
“Didn’t mean to, but I don’t know how to break glass gently. You have to put your back into it if you want the job done right. At least it was safety glass. No sharp edges.” He laid the tire iron on the snowy porch. “Warm air’s coming out. Did they leave the furnace on?”
“Yes, on low. That way they don’t have to drain the pipes every winter. You know, that hole’s almost big enough for me to crawl through without unlocking the window.”
“Aye, but I won’t have you doing that, lass.” Reaching inside, he pushed up the honeycomb shade before flipping open the lock. Then he eased the window slowly upward as small pieces of glass rained down on the windowsill and the porch.
“We’ll need to get this fixed tomorrow or the place will be an open invitation to thieves,” she said.
“Let’s hope that thieves won’t be out in this kind of weather. I’m also hoping we can find something to temporarily block the cold air from coming in the house.” After opening the window completely, he brushed away the bits of glass from the sill. “Let me have the torch.”
She handed it to him, and he crouched down to play the beam over the inside of the cabin. “Looks like a kitchen, and no furniture right next to the window.” He handed the flashlight back to her. “Just shine it on the opening while I get inside. Then I’ll unlock the door for you.”
“You seem to know your way around a break-in, Duncan.” Briefly she thought about the hacking incident, but this wasn’t the same kind of thing, and besides, she’d been the one who’d suggested breaking in.
He was a big guy and had to maneuver to get through the window. Glass crunched under his shoe. Once he was inside, he stuck his hand back out. “Torch, please.”
She gave it back to him and walked over to the door.
Within seconds, the locks clicked and the door swung open. “Welcome to my castle, milady.”
“See, now you’re even talking like royalty.” She walked into the house. Even with the heat on low, the place was ten times warmer than outside. “Wow, that feels nice.”
“It does. Let’s get some light on the situation.” Walking back to the kitchen, he swung the flashlight beam over the walls and settled it on a dimmer switch. “Ah, there ‘tis.” Crossing to it, he rotated the knob and an elegant little chandelier over the kitchen table slowly came to life. Each bulb was small and shaded, so the effect was romantic.
“So the Stewarts like ambiance. I had no idea.”
“I’m afraid we just compromised their ambiance.” Duncan gazed at the chandelier. “I can already tell they love this place, and now we’ve vandalized it. Not only will I pay to have the window fixed, but –”
“No, I will pay.” She laid her purse on the table. Then she pulled off her damp hat and draped it on the back of a kitchen chair.
“You ran this errand on my account, so I’ll pay.”
“Duncan, you’re an invited guest.” She put her gloves on the back of the chair next to her hat. “I’m paying.”
He laughed. “We’ll split the cost.”
“No, I –”
“Are you really going to stand here with the cold blowing in and argue this point?”
“Well, when you put it that way, I guess not. We’ll discuss it later. But just know that I’m going to –”
“Okay. Later.” She pressed her lips together to keep from adding anything more.
“In any case, I think they deserve some compensation for us barging into their home uninvited.”
“I agree, but because I’ve met them, I don’t think they’ll be upset. We haven’t ruined anything that can’t be replaced.” But she felt a twinge of guilt, all the same. The kitchen was charming with its tile countertops, rustic walnut table and chairs, and open shelving for a collection of dishes that looked as if they’d been made by local artisans.
“First order of business is to cover up that window and clean up the broken glass.”
She shook her head. “No, first order of business is thawing out your feet. We should probably start by putting them in some lukewarm water so the shock’s not too great. Then I’ll cover the window.”
“Sorry, but I’m not dipping my toes in warm water until that window’s sealed up to my satisfaction.” He started opening cupboards. “I don’t want to waste any more electricity than we have to, and some snow is blowing in.”
“I’ll take care of it.” She spied a turkey roaster in one of the cupboards he’d opened and shut again. Walking over, she pulled it out. “Sit down and take off your shoes before you get frostbite.”
“Not yet. Aha. Here’s a box of rubbish bags. Now all we need is tape.”
“My grandmother will be furious if you end up injured and I could have prevented it.” Maybe the thought of an elderly female pack alpha on the warpath would make him more tractable.
His commanding tone would have raised her hackles if he hadn’t combined it with that cute title. But she’d be damned if she’d fall in with his game and call him milord, which carried overtones of subservience, in her opinion. Holding the turkey roaster, she stood and faced him. “Yes, Duncan?”
“As you well know, because you sent me a Sniff to that effect, my ancestors fought the British in all kinds of weather while they were naked and painted blue. Don’t make a fuss over me. I’m a wee bit tougher than you’d be giving me credit for.”
She gazed at him standing there in his open topcoat and his feet braced apart as he held the box of garbage bags. His dark hair was damp and tousled and his collar was still turned up. He’d removed his shades and no longer looked like a mob boss, but the beard made her think of a dashing highwayman about to kidnap the woman he fancied.
When that image was combined with a sexy brogue, a girl could find herself wanting to be kidnapped . . . and ravished in the bargain.
“I won’t get frostbite, lass. We weren’t out there long enough. In the second place, I would never allow your grandmother to be angry with you on my account. You spent your valuable time driving to the airport to meet my flight, and you’ve done your best to assure my survival in a blizzard.” He smiled.
Oh, boy. That smile should be registered as a lethal weapon. Dazzled by its magnificence, determination seeped away and left her ready to surrender without a fight. No wonder Angela Sapworthy couldn’t shut up about him.
“You’ve acquitted yourself well,” he continued, “though it pains me to say it, considering that you’re the driving force behind the Howler movement.”
She blinked as if rousing herself from a trance. The Howlers! They were counting on her to stand firm against this leader of the Woofers, and yet she was allowing herself to be captivated by his Scottish charm. Shame on her!
“Thanks for reminding me of that.” She plopped the turkey roaster on the kitchen table. “You can make use of this when you’re ready. I’ll find some tape for that window.”
“Excellent. The job will go faster with two people.” He took off his gloves, scarf, and coat and laid them over the back of another kitchen chair.
“You’re right, though it pains me to say it, seeing as how you’re the driving force behind the Woofers.” Focus was definitely going to be a challenge when she was in the presence of this Scotsman. By removing his coat and scarf, he’d provided a more comprehensive view of his broad shoulders, massive chest, and narrow hips.
He winked at her. “That I am.”
Surely he wasn’t flirting with her. At least not on purpose, since she was not his species choice. Maybe flirting was his default setting. She began opening drawers in hopes one would contain tape. “FYI, somebody hacked into the Furevermore website today. It was down for hours.”
“I hope you’re not implying that the Woofers had anything to do with that.”
“I’m not accusing anyone of anything.” She found a roll of gray duck tape. “But I find it odd that this happened today as everyone’s gathering for the conference.” She held up the tape. “This should do the job.”
“Aye, but let’s go back to the other topic. Furevermore is your livelihood. My followers wouldn’t jeopardize that to make a point.”
“I hope you’re right.”
“Kate, I know them. That’s playing dirty, and that’s not what we’re about.”
“You can’t deny that my dating site goes against everything the Woofers believe, so why would they want it to flourish?”
He pulled a garbage bag out of the box. “Is it flourishing?”
“Of course it is.” Maybe not as wildly as she’d like, but the site was gaining new subscribers every day. “And I’ve had wonderful comments about my book. Whether you want to admit it or not, plenty of us prefer Were-Were sex and mating.”
“I’ve read it.”
“You’ve read my book?” She was surprised and a little chagrined that he’d taken the time. She’d totally ignored his.
He nodded. “Sex and the Single Shifter is a damned clever title.”
“Is that your way of saying the title’s great but the book sucks?”
“No, it isn’t.” He blew out a breath. “Let’s tape up the window before the Stewarts have an electric bill to rival the one at the castle.”
“Okay. Temporary truce.”
His eyebrows lifted. “Are we fighting?”
“It can’t be helped, can it? As you conveniently mentioned not long ago, I’m the leader of the Howlers, which means I stand for maintaining our standards. You want to blast them to smithereens.”
“I could respond to that outrageous statement, but I won’t, because then we’ll never get the job done.” Crossing to the window, he pushed it back down slowly as bits of glass rained onto the sill. “If we’re going to be walking around this area, we should sweep up some of this first.”
She hated to admit that he might be thinking more clearly than she was at the moment. “I saw a brush and dustpan under the sink.” She handed him the tape. “I’ll get it.” On her way back to the counter she unzipped her leather jacket and pulled it off. She’d be able to maneuver better without it.
She’d worn her favorite black turtleneck sweater under her coat for this first meeting with Duncan. The sweater was soft and classy, so it gave her a boost of confidence every time she wore it.
Returning with the dustpan and brush, she thought she caught a glimpse of male appreciation in his gray eyes, but she might have been mistaken. She hunkered down and swept up the glass immediately in front of the window. “That should be good enough for now.” She laid the dustpan and brush to one side and stood. “We can do a better job later, when we mop up the water we’ve dripped on the floor.”
“Is that sweater angora?”
“Yes.” Knowing that he’d checked her out provided a measure of satisfaction. If he rattled her this much, she’d like to think she’d had some effect on him as a way of balancing the scales.
“Thought so. Do you want to hold or tape?”
“Nothing like a decisive female, I always say.” He handed her the roll of tape.
“For what?” She met his gaze.
“Everything.” He turned and stretched the plastic across the top of the window frame. “Whether it’s business or pleasure, I appreciate dealing with someone who knows her own mind.”
“Even if it’s different from yours?”
“Especially then. I don’t like shadow boxing. Thankfully, you don’t do that. Hey, this is going to blow at the bottom, so maybe you should tape that part while I hold the top.”
“Yep. But you’ll have to step back so I can get in there.” His shadow-boxing statement had sounded like a compliment. Interesting.
Maintaining his hold on the bag, he walked his feet backwards. “I must look like a perp in a cop show about to be frisked.”
“You watch those?”
“Aye. I love trying to solve the case.”
“Me, too.” Crouching down again, she sandwiched herself between his legs and the wall so she could tape the bag to the bottom of the window frame. The scent of warm wool and warm male surrounded her from behind, while cold, damp air blew in through the broken window.
“At least we have one thing in common.” His brogue had an undertone to it that hadn’t been there before.
“So it seems.” If she didn’t know better, she’d think he was getting turned on by working with her in such close quarters. For her part, she was hyper-aware of his body hovered over hers. Without really wanting to, she found herself matching the rhythm of his breathing.
“So what’s your favorite show?” he asked.
“I love The Force. I have a little crush on the guy who plays Adam.” Now that she thought about it, Duncan reminded her of that tall, dark-haired actor, who was, of course, human. She’d never consider actually dating him, but he was great to watch on the screen.
“I’m looking forward to some American TV while I’m here.” Again, there was a husky quality in Duncan’s voice, as if he wanted to sound casual when he felt anything but.
“Stillman Lodge has a flat screen and cable in every room.”
There was no mistaking the sexual vibration in that comment.
She picked up the heady scent of arousal. Technically he shouldn’t be attracted to her because she wasn’t his type, yet it seemed that he wanted her.
The knowledge gave her a sense of power, but it also made her quiver inside. Against all odds, she wanted him, too, despite who he was and what he stood for. He was her physical type, as evidenced by the fact he looked like the TV actor she liked. But it would be foolish to get involved. She could easily compromise her campaign for HOWL.
Moving faster, she taped each side of the window, but she couldn’t reach the top. “I need to stand up to finish. Watch out for your chin.”
She stood slowly to make sure she didn’t clip his jaw with her head. Once she was upright, she found herself effectively caged between his outstretched arms. For the second time tonight she was being embraced by Duncan MacDowell.
Although breathing had become more difficult, she tried for nonchalance as she ripped off a piece of tape and smoothed it quickly against the window frame. “Well, isn’t this cozy?”
“Bloody inconvenient,” he murmured.
“I know.” She deliberately chose to misunderstand because she wasn’t ready to admit what was happening between them. Maybe if they ignored it, the tension would go away. “I didn’t intend for us to get stuck here, and I’m sorry.” She slapped on some more tape.
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it, lass.”
So he wasn’t going to let her sidestep the issue. She struggled to stay calm as she put on the last piece of tape. “You can let go, now,” she said quietly.
“But we’re all finish–” She gasped and dropped the tape as he took her by the shoulders and turned her around.
“No, we’re not quite finished.” And his mouth came down on hers.