The snow was coming down faster than the windshield wipers could keep up with it. Courtney Mathews tightened her grip on the steering wheel, afraid she wouldn’t make it the last five miles to her mother’s ranch. Alaskan winter driving was nastier then she remembered. Years of living in a small town in Texas had dulled her reflexes, making it harder to keep the vehicle on the road. It had been more than a dozen years since she had driven in snow, let alone blizzard conditions.
Turning around or stopping until the weather passed wasn’t possible, since Nome was too far removed from civilization to have any place for her to seek shelter. She forged ahead, hoping the situation wouldn’t worsen.
She was scared and alone, and her mother didn’t even know she was coming. The word of her supposed death had probably reached her mother by now, leaving no one to know she was out in the blizzard alone. After Jeffery Park blew up her house, she ditched her cell phone in the burning remains, hoping everyone thought she was dead. It might keep her safe until she could make a plan and get in touch with the United States Marshal in charge of her protection. So far, witness protection wasn’t turning out as she had expected.
After agreeing to testify against Jeffery Park, she was told her life wouldn’t change in the least bit. On the contrary, she had to take a sabbatical from her job due to the danger that followed her everywhere. Her beautiful house was nothing but ashes, and her friends had abandoned her after the last attack on her life. Now she was running home, about to put her mother in danger because she didn’t know what else to do.
Steering the car around the bend, she wasn’t expecting to see a moose in the middle of the road, just lying there. She tugged the steering wheel hard to the left in an effort to avoid the large animal, and the car skidded on black ice, sending it sliding across the road, spinning around and around until she thought she’d be sick. She jolted forward when the car slammed into the ditch, and her head hit the steering wheel as pain shot up her arm.
No one will ever find me.
It had been miles since she’d seen another driver, and she would freeze to death before anyone stumbled upon her. Darkness settled around her, stealing away her thoughts and any hope she had of saving herself.
* * *
Even for Alaska, the blizzard came up quicker than Thaddeus Brown expected. Only three miles to go before he made it to the house. Thanks to his shifter eyesight, he was able to see through the heavy, wet snow coming down and his large four by four truck handled well. When he came around the curve and saw a little red two-door car sticking out of the ditch, he balked.
“What the hell were they thinking driving that in this weather?”
He parked the truck and jumped out. Snow was already piling up on and around the car, making the situation dire. No one could survive these temperatures for long, even with the proper winter gear.
He slid down the embankment, keeping his feet under him and his hand on the top of the car, swiping off the snow as he went until he could see inside. Slouched over the wheel was an unconscious woman. He pulled open the door, and the wind rushed around them sending snow and ice into the vehicle.
He reached in, placing his fingers to her throat and checked for a pulse. Electricity poured through him, telling him he’d found his mate. It seemed fainter than he expected, but pushed the thought away and focused on the exposed skin under his fingers. She was cold, but the faint pulse beating against his fingers gave him hope. Warmth was what she needed, and there wasn’t a chance a medical team would come up the mountain, since his vehicle was the last they’d allowed through before they closed the roads. He had to get her to safety.
He heard a soft moan and almost thought it was the wind. Then her eyelids fluttered.
He saw fear in her eyes as she pulled away from his fingers, which were still pressed to her throat.
Even with the panic pouring off her, she was beautiful. Her heart shaped face, her cheeks red from the cold, stole his breath.
“Ma’am, can you hear me? I need to know if you’re hurt.”
“Please don’t hurt me.” Her eyes drifted shut again. “I don’t want to die. Please, I won’t testify. Just let me live.”
“I’m here to help you, to get you somewhere warm.” His words were wasted as unconsciousness swept over her again. The terror in her eyes warned him someone had hurt her before, making the bear within him furious.
What—or who—was she running from? He didn’t have time to figure it out. He needed to get her somewhere warm. He assumed she hadn’t broken any bones, since she’d been able to move away from him, so he scooped her into his arms, letting her head fall against his shoulder before he moved up the embankment to his idling truck. His footsteps from only minutes ago were nearly covered.
He loved the way she felt against his body, as if she belonged there. He had to stop his hands from wandering along her perfect curves. She was a true woman, one he didn’t have to worry about breaking with his strength or weight.
He managed to get the door open without dropping her, and the heat from within rushed at him and melted the snow that had gathered on his shoulders. Placing her gently on the seat, he grabbed his jacket from where he had thrown it after the truck heated and wrapped it around her. The heavy jacket and the truck’s heater would help warm her until he got her to the house.
After doing all he could for her, he dashed back to secure her car and gather whatever belongings he could find that she might need. He grabbed her keys from the ignition, looked around and found nothing but a change of clothes with the tags still on the garments, and a wallet on top. The rest of the car was spotless, clearly a rental.
He glanced at the plane ticket stub he’d found on top of the clothes; she’d flown from California, which explained why she was out in this blizzard. A local would have returned home before the roads got this bad. The new clothes told him it wasn’t a planned trip. What brought her here in such a rush?
He gathered everything together, locked the car, and turned back to the road. At the top of the embankment he noticed a wolf on the hill, watching him. The wind turned, bringing the scent of a shifter toward him.
“Tate, is that you?” he called out.
Staying perched on the hill, the silver wolf tipped his head back and howled in acknowledgement.
“I’m up at Lisa’s house, if you want some company or anything.” Thaddeus opened the door to the truck and climbed in. Placing the woman’s belongings on the middle armrest, he looked over at his unconscious passenger.
When she woke, he had some questions for her. He put the truck in gear, and continued up the road. It wasn’t long before the sprawling red brick rancher came into view. It stood out against the white snow like a lighthouse beckoning to a sailor on a dark night. It was a beacon of hope and safety from the storm.
The woman beside him moaned and started to roll over until she realized she wasn’t in bed.
“What the hell?” Her eyelids shot open.
“It’s all right, we’re almost there. Just relax, and once we’re there I’ll take a look at your injuries.”
“Please, whatever you want, just don’t kill me.” She moved against the door, trying to find the handle without taking her gaze from him.
“I don’t know what you’re running from, but I’m not here to hurt you. If I wanted you dead, I’d have left you in the car on the side of the road to freeze to death. What the hell are you doing out in a blizzard like this anyway?” He turned onto the driveway leading up to the house, and she jolted when the truck skidded on some ice.
“Getting away. What are we doing here? How did you know?”
“Know what? This is a friend’s place. She asked me to look in on it while she’s away. I had a break in what I was dealing with, and planned to take a few days off here. Another friend, Milo, should be getting here at some point. Now that you know why I’m here, it’s your turn.”
“Where’s the woman who lives here? Lisa. What have you done to her?”
He parked the truck next to the garage and turned to face her, frustration eating at him from her constant accusations. After rescuing her, he thought she’d be grateful.
“What is it about me that makes you think I’m some asshole that could hurt women?”
She avoided his question, and repeated hers again. “Where’s Lisa?” She glanced around the grounds, her eyes wild with apprehension.
“Not that it’s any of your business, but she’s in Florida with a friend of hers.” He opened the door and glanced back at her. “Shall I carry you, or can you walk?”
“I’m not going inside with you. I demand you take me…”
He cut her off with a wave of his hand. “Take you where? Have you not seen the blizzard? This isn’t going to let up for a while. Now you’re going inside even if I have to carry you. I will not have you freeze to death in my truck after I just hauled your ass out of a ditch. Now grab your things and get out, we’re going inside.” The words were harsh and true; no one would make it far in this weather. He stepped out of the truck and grabbed the two duffle bags from the backseat.
The snow crunched under his weight, his black boots leaving deep grooves in the fresh snow. He shut the door and strolled to the house, knowing she’d follow him. She was scared out of her mind, the bear inside him enjoying it, but she’d follow him in, and then he could find out what she was hiding.
Reaching down, he swept a snowdrift away from the door. He didn’t turn when the truck door open behind him. Satisfied the snow wouldn’t fall into the house, he rose and slipped the key into the lock and opened the door.
“How do you have a key?”
“I told you the owner is a friend of mine, and she asked me to look in on the house while she was away. Another friend of mine, Tate, lives just over the hill, and he’s caring for the animals.” The door opened to the mudroom where he stripped off his snow-covered boots before continuing into the house. When he flipped a light switch, nothing happened. “Shit. Electricity is down, I’ll get the generator started, but the heater isn’t hooked into it. Lisa normally uses the fireplaces when she’s here, so she never bothered. Just hang your coat on the hook, I’ll get a fire started and this place will be warm in no time.”
“The electricity is always out in a storm like this. I can’t believe she went to Florida and didn’t bother to tell me.” She kicked off her shoes and followed after him.
“You know Lisa Mathews then?” He tossed his bags on the table and quickly moved to the fireplace. Tate had helped look after the house while Thaddeus was helping the Alaskan Tigers in Texas, knowing when he’d returned the house would be ready. The cabinets and refrigerator were stocked, and wood was stacked neatly by the fireplace. It was cozy, and just what he needed after the fight in Texas.
The woman’s words surprised him, but he didn’t show it.
“She’s my mother.” She dropped her stuff on the table next to his and sat there. “I don’t know you though. How long have you known her?”
He lit the kindling and began placing wood in the large river stone fireplace. “Years. Tate and his mother are friends of my family. I met Lisa through them on one of my visits. When I grabbed your belongings from the car, I found the plane ticket in the name of Tina West. I know she doesn’t have a daughter by that name. Don’t lie to me, who are you really?”
“It’s a long story.”
A knock pounded on the door and he watched her entire body tense. He turned to toss another log into the fireplace.
“It’s just Hazel, Tate’s mom. She must have seen my truck coming up the mountain, she’s probably just stopping by to make sure I don’t need anything.” When he turned around, the woman was gone. He took a quick look down the hall, wondering where she went. She wasn’t a shifter, but she could disappear quickly if she chose to. There was no use calling for her when he didn’t even know her real name. He suspected she wasn’t the Tina she pretended to be, if she was Lisa’s daughter, she had to be Courtney but he wasn’t sure that was true either.
He opened the front door. Hazel stood there, and Tate was in wolf form by the four-wheeler. She was a practicing witch who’d adopted Tate when he was young and orphaned. Her unique connection to shifters allowed her to help the Kodiak bears whenever they needed it, and she was also a wonderful neighbor to Lisa.
“Hazel, please come in.”
“I can’t stay. I just wanted to see if you needed anything. Tate mentioned you found an injured woman on the side of the road. Is she in need of healing?” Her face paled and she staggered for a moment. Tate bounded toward them with one quick jump, barking. “It’s fine, I’m fine. It’s just…”
“Just what, Hazel?” Thaddeus questioned, his hand on her arm to steady her.
“You’ve met her…your mate.” Hazel ran her hand through the wolf’s thick fur, then straightened. “Not until the three come together will the mating desire be released. Find your third before the man she flees from finds her if there is to be any hope of survival.”
As she collapsed, her energy expended, Thaddeus caught her.
“I’m okay. I just need a minute.” She took a couple deep breaths, and moved away from Thaddeus, wrapping her arm around Tate’s wolf body. “You’ve got a lot you need to do. She’s in trouble, but without the other piece to your trio, her life will be lost and possibly yours too.”
“In trouble from what?” The idea of losing his mate after he had just found her made his heart stop.
“She saw something she wasn’t supposed to, and he’s coming after her.” She brushed the snow from her body. “I should prepare, in case you need our help. Tate will keep watch, and if anyone comes around we’ll be ready.”
Thaddeus kept his hand on her arm, making sure she was sturdy on her feet before he let go.
“Don’t put yourself in harm’s way,” he warned.
“We protect our own.”
He watched Hazel climb onto the four-wheeler and start it up. The last rays of sunlight sunk low in the horizon as the snow came down in thick clumps. Hazel had known the scared woman inside was his mate. One he was expected to share with someone unknown to either of them.