Little Red Riding Wolf
"If I were anyone else you would be thrilled to get me out of the house. You would've shipped me off four years ago when I turned eighteen." Red forced her voice to remain calm despite the geyser of anger that threatened to spew out and drown her mother. "All I want is the chance to take a few college classes. All I want is to have a little freedom."
She'd been having the same argument with her mother all week. In fact for the last year, not that it made any difference. The youngest, the only girl, and small from birth, even Red's hair color made her stand out to her family. And not in a good way.
Everything had come to a head this week when her mother insisted she take time from her job at the family store and make jelly. Jelly. After a solid week of apple butter and grape and strawberry Red was irritable. More than irritable, she had become a bomb waiting for a spark.
Her life had to change.
Her mother's level voice repeated words as worn and familiar as the dish towels that hung by the sink. "Four years ago your shifting wasn't even under control." She never made eye contact with Red, just kept filling jar after jar of preserves. Why use the power of eye contact on someone you had utter confidence would listen to you? Her tall, alpha female mother kept talking in that reasonable, you should know this, tone.
"And you were recovering from that..." her mother almost spit out the next word, "misjudgment."
That was what her family called her brief fling with a boy, a human boy, who'd been passing through their small town of Radon, smack dab in the middle of the pack's section of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. She'd been eighteen and just out of high school, anxious to experience life. Now her "misjudgment" kept her from following her dreams, from going to college, from leaving the pack. Now it hung over her like a noose.
"But my control is tight now. I don't change if I don't want to, even when I'm upset." Red forced her tense body to relax. No changing now, please. "Just one, maybe two courses. I'll still help out in the store. I wouldn't even be gone every day."
If she didn't need the pack's permission she would've already started school this month. Another September, gone. Another semester, gone. Another year of her life would be gone with no chance of return, wasted away in small town isolation.
"Why can't you find a mate, settle down? What about your second cousin Ted?"
Red had never gotten why her mom liked Ted. He was boring, overbearing, and stupid. Not even close to her idea of the perfect mate. Someone who she would actually enjoy being with. Someone who would understand, unlike Ted, the fine distinctions between domination and subjugation.
"I don't want to get married. I want to go to college, get a real job. I'm twenty-two and it's time I move out of the house and did something with my life."
Her brother Seth snorted coffee out of his nose from his spot in the corner of the kitchen. Tall, dark haired, and male, he was full of supreme confidence in his position in the family. He stuffed his face with another bite of breakfast. He was close to being late for covering her shift at the store. Her shift. The lava of rage in her belly rumbled.
"You'd never survive in the big city." His upper lip curled in a superior smirk. "You're the runt of the litter. You need some big bad wolf to protect you." She sneered back at him, not caring if it was juvenile. They treated her like a kid, no matter what. She'd use what she could and retaliate.
"Seth, you're not helping. Isn't it time for you to go?" For Seth her mother took her attention off the endless row of jars, just enough to give him the ‘look'. The look that pack dominant females could give and everyone would behave. The look that her mother, and her grandmother, had down pat. The look, that as the ‘runt' and married to someone like Ted, she'd never wield.
Seth hopped off his chair and ruffled her short hair as he passed by. He grabbed the last piece of toast and avoided her antagonistic swipe with easy dexterity. Being the bottom of the pecking order and the only female sucked. Her mother had moved on to wiping the rims of the jars, no sign that she had thought about, or ever would, change her mind.
"Mom, listen. I have money saved. And there's some state help with tuition." Her mother's mouth turned down at the corners. She stopped wiping the jars, put her cloth down, and looked at Red. At last.
"I'll think about it."
"Please Mom! I need your support if I'm to get the pack's permission."
"I said, I'll think about it. Now, I know Seth is driving you crazy. Why don't you spend a week up on the mountain with Grandma? You can take her some of this jelly. And take that gingerbread you made yesterday. She needs something to go with all that game she subsists on."
"You're just avoiding the subject."
"That may be, but you're going. I can't take another day of you pestering me about college."
"Then I'll go back to work at the store." Her mom's body became stiff. She stopped looking at Red, turned her back, and returned to filling jars.
"Seth has that covered. I need you to go check on your Grandmother."
And that was that. She would be going up the mountain instead of earning some money to put toward her plan. No discussion, no argument, no going against an alpha female.
A low growl burned in the back of her throat.
She choked it back.
Most women her age were already out of school and into a job, but not her. "We're different, honey." Her mom always said. "You'll find a nice mate and settle down and you'll be happy."
For years her pack had interbred with the other known packs in the US Rocky Mountains, but over the last few generations the numbers of werewolves had dropped and the pressure on a young female to get busy having kids had increased. The pressure just made Red dig in her claws.
Even though she'd met a few possibilities, none of them had the right feel. The feel of a mate. "You'll grow to love whomever you choose," was her mother's response. But how could she grow to love someone who didn't understand her need to get out and see the world? All the pack males she'd met assumed she would be happy to be sequestered from the world, like other Were-females. No one seemed to understand her need to get out and do something different. Maybe even outrageous.
To have a career outside of her job in the family store. To go to college. To be someone besides the runt.
Ha! The pack would let that happen when there were icicles in hell.
"Don't forget to wear your red jacket. Don't give me that look! I know they're not supposed to hunt in the forest, but those hunters are sly."
Red swallowed her response, like she'd been doing for a long time now, and grabbed her bright red hoodie off the hook by the back door. One more reason to move out from under her mother's domination.
She shouldered the backpack her mom handed to her and made for the trailhead. The crisp autumn air, bright sun, and stellar blue sky made it almost too warm for the hoodie. Good thing she had on shorts. Her mom was right about the hoodie's color, but she would've been happier if she'd been able to decide to wear it for herself. She would have worn it, she was an adult and made adult decisions, even if her family persisted in treating her like she'd never grown up.
Red sighed. No good reason to spoil the perfect weather with stewing. She was out from under the obligation of endless bubbling pots of jam, even if it was because of her mom's reluctance to discuss her future.
She entered the deep woods, sniffing in appreciation at the cool damp piney scent. The familiar narrow path was little more than a deer trail through the brush. It would get her to Grandma's in good time. Grandma was a bit of a lone wolf who refused to have a phone. She lived up on the mountain in an area of the forest that you couldn't get to by road. Her independence drove Red's mother crazy. Good old Grandma. She insisted the old ways were best and she would live off the land until she died.
No wonder Mom had sent her to check on Grandma. Red's lips curved in a smile. Kill two rebel birds with one stone. Her mother was ever-efficient.
She mused about ways to get the old she-wolf on her side of the argument.
Red moved deeper into the woods, each stride loosening joints that had been tight from a week trapped in the kitchen with her mother. The warm morning sun coming though the trees dappled the earth in an ever-changing pattern and increased her pleasure in her body's movements. Her pace slowed and she became lulled into feeling there wasn't any danger.
She wished she dared to change into wolf form and really move. Feel the trail under her paws, smell the true scents of the woods, taste the air. But her mother's warning about the hunters in the park was fresh. Hunters wouldn't hesitate to shoot a wolf.
All they would have to do was say it had attacked them, their dogs or their squeaky duck lures and the new park ranger would side with them. No, ever since the new ranger had taken over, all the pack had become more cautious.
Her body moved her up the trail on auto-pilot while her brain continued to re-hash her problem. She was stuck in limbo, like a lamb before the slaughter. Alive, but going nowhere. She was desperate to get out of town. Her mating instincts told her she should search out a mate. But they conflicted with her personal instincts that told her to go find a career. Separate from her controlling family.
But instead of taking charge of her own destiny like a human woman, here she was, checking on Grandma like a good girl. She even had a Tupperware box of goodies stuffed in her pack in case Grandma wasn't eating anything but rabbit.
Zoned out on the familiar path, her sensitive nose picked up a smell. An appetizing smell, of cloves, and wood smoke, and something...something male.
She froze, all her senses on alert.
Her ears and nose almost twitched forward.
There, in the shadows, was a man. A man in a ranger uniform, next to a large frame backpack on the side of the trail. How long had he been watching her?
How could she not have noticed him before? She forced her body to look relaxed. She stifled the urge that flooded her system and threatened to overwhelm her. The urge to change into her wolf and deal with the danger.
She smiled, a smile that she hoped wasn't a toothy smile. Her instincts said she was a wolf, but all he would perceive was a young woman, not a threat.
This had to be the new ranger that Seth had talked about non-stop for the last week. How this new guy had taken Uncle Bob's spot when he'd died in a car accident last month. How no one was ready from the pack to step into Bob's position and handle their personal area of the forest. How the ranger had better watch his step or there would be trouble.
Seth had bitched and moaned, but what he hadn't said was how totally hot this guy was. Or how delicious he smelled. The ranger looked to be just under six foot, but that was tall compared to her petite five-foot two. Long and lean, he had the look of someone who spent a lot of time outdoors, hiking or maybe skiing. He stepped forward and swept back his shaggy brown hair, revealed warm brown eyes. His face held that look. That look that a man gave a woman, open, appreciative, but a touch guarded.
She returned it with a bold appraising one of her own. He was just what she needed to distract her from her family issues. He was hot, male, and a stranger.
"Hi, I'm Evan Brewster." He held out his hand, waited for her to take it. She hesitated. A slow smile crept across his lips.
She swallowed. Wolves didn't shake hands and she didn't usually meet anyone she hadn't known since birth. She stepped forward, held out her hand like she thought a normal girl would. And ignored her stomach's quivering.
"You must be Uncle Bob's replacement. Nice to meet you." Here was her chance to practice with a regular human. To prove to her parents and the pack elders she could function in the wide world. That her days of indiscriminate changes were over, and that she was a competent adult. He took her hand. His calloused grip was warm and strong.
Electricity shot straight up her arm and into her chest, sped her heart rate up like just before a kill. Sudden warm wet heat pooled between her thighs. She yanked her hand back, stopping short of rubbing her tingling palm on her thigh.
Oh man! She didn't even know this guy. He wasn't pack, wasn't even a Were, despite that his touch had her shaking. Shaking like a spindly branched cottonwood in the fall breeze. She took another deep sniff, reassured herself that he was all human. And knew he was not only human, but he was all male.
She wasn't in heat. Why would she respond to him like this? Like she wanted to strip him down and do him right here on the path. Maybe it was the uniform. This guy filled out his standard park ranger uniform nicely. This was what her family had been afraid would happen if she went to college and was around too many human males. That she would pick a human, instead of one of the not-so-distantly related wolves they kept parading in front of her. Mate with one of them, instead of her own kind.
Inter-species relationships between humans and Weres were common in the old days when populations were spread out and the choice of mates was slim. Now they were rare. Extremely rare. No one mated permanently with humans. It was wrong, just wrong. Maybe her family was right and she should just pick any of the available pack males if she was this desperate.
But she'd never felt like this about any of the pack males. Not even the human guy she'd been with as a teenager had caused this immediate tingling urge for sex. She swallowed and smiled a shy cautious smile.
She rolled his name through her mind, resisted the desire to taste the flavor of it on her tongue. Maybe if she wasn't touching him she could do this...carry on a normal conversation. She struggled for something to say, something that would cover this incredible desire to fuck a complete stranger.
"Welcome to Radon," she managed to get out. "How do you like it so far?" Inane. Moronic. But it was out now. She hoped he couldn't see the shaking that had started at his touch, or smell the moisture between her legs. Lucky he was only human.
Calm down, Red! You can do this. You have to do this.
"It's been interesting. It's a pretty tight-knit little town." His smile had warmed, become friendly. And interested.
She knew what that appraising look meant. She'd received it from all the available males her parents had invited to their house in an effort to entice her to settle down. But that look from the bachelor wolves had never made her feel like this. Feel like her whole body was tuned in to his. Like she should get on all fours and push her ass in the air, spread her legs, and beg.
Her palms were damp. She caught him checking her out and was glad her hoodie was zipped up tight and covered her chest. Her nipples had tightened so fast, so hard, they almost hurt.
"Town's been a little tough on you, huh?" she asked. Poor guy, he couldn't have known what coming to this area would be like. They hadn't had a ranger in the area who wasn't pack in her lifetime. The county was up in arms.
"You could say that." He shot her a conspiratorial smile that warmed his eyes to molten chocolate. She had a sudden vivid picture of a sheepskin rug and him lying naked in front of a fire, her lips and tongue tracing the contoured lines of muscles illuminated by the flames.
She dragged her mind back and forced it to focus on the present. Focus on the words coming out from between his sexy lips.
"You're the friendliest person I've run into in this town. Where have you been hiding?"
Wrong question ranger. The question was who had been hiding him from her? Now her mother keeping her home from work to make jam had begun to make sense. Maybe her mother would never think she was an adult. Although maybe her mother was right, given her lusty thoughts, maybe she should be sequestered.
"I normally work at the general store in town. I must have just missed you." Yeah right. Did that sound as lame to him as it had to her? She lifted her chin. Her mother had been making up excuses to keep her at the family's house all week. Despite being sent off to the boonies she had met the hot new guy in town. Her mother's plan had backfired.
"Is that Burdock's? It's the only general store I've seen." One long hand reached up, pushed his thatch of hair back off his face in an unconscious slow sensual movement. The hair fell forward back into place as soon as he released it, dark and thick.
"Yeah, I guess you've been in there."
"Yeah. Is the black haired dude with the bad-ass attitude who mans the counter related?" His eyes crinkled up at the corners when he smiled. An urge to spread her thighs slid through her. In an effort to control it, she clenched them tight.
What had he asked?
"Seth," she said, relieved she knew what to say. "He's one of my brothers. He's none too happy that you're here."
"Why is that?"
"Let's just say that we're a typical small town. Outsiders aren't really welcome."
"You know, you're the first woman I've met under thirty all week. I was beginning to wonder where they all were."
Dangerous territory here. She'd better be careful of what she said. Obviously the alphas had the few available females under lock and key.
"We have a surplus of men in this town. You probably just missed the women." She shouldn't be talking to him. He made her so nervous, she just knew she would slip and let something out. Something that would alert him that all was not as it seemed in small town Radon, Colorado. "Well it's been nice chatting, but I have to get going."
She smiled and started to move off down the path again, but he stepped in front of her, blocked her.
The back of her neck prickled.
She supposed he was eager to talk to the only friendly face in town, but she wished he would back off. She was having enough trouble controlling herself as it was. Her heightened senses told her to take action. Now.
He'd moved too close. His spicy male scent filled her nostrils, caressed her skin. Made her want to bury her face in the crook of his neck and inhale, suck him in like oxygen before going underwater.
"Where are you off to?"
"My grandmother lives up the mountain. I'm just going to check on her and stay a while."
His face lost its easy smile, grew concerned. "You're hiking up the mountain by yourself? A woman like you shouldn't be out here alone." She bristled at his statement. Just like her brother! What was it with men and their bossy attitudes?
"A woman like me? Slow down buster! I've been hiking this mountain since I could walk. You're out here alone, why not me?"
"But I'm a trained outdoorsman. You hardly look prepared in those shorts if the weather changes. What do you have in that pack?" He moved closer to her, and she backed up, suppressing the desire to bare her teeth. With relief she channeled her newfound sexuality into anger instead. This she understood. Human or not, he was beginning to get her back up, just like any other male.
"I'll be at Grandma's before dark. And it's an incredible day. No storm in sight. See ya." She edged around him and moved back onto the path, determined to put him and temptation, behind her.
"Wait, I'll go with you. There are signs of hunters in the area, you shouldn't be hiking alone." He picked up his oversize pack with ease. Then scrambled, trying to buckle the waist straps and keep up with her at the same time. She stepped up the pace.
She could feel him close behind, knew he was eye level with her ass. Knew he watched her backside swish with each step. Her tingling nerves began to send messages again. With him nipping at her ankles, she felt like prey.
"No, thanks. You won't be able to keep up." She moved faster, pumped her legs in a rapid rhythm on the familiar trail. His legs might be longer than hers, but she had Were stamina and a light pack. No way he could keep up with her for long.
"Hey, I've been through hell in the military. If I could keep up in basic, then I can keep up with you little girl."
She laughed, flashed a catch-ya-later look over her shoulder, and put on a hair more speed. He'd find out soon enough that she might be little, but she had more oomph in this little package than most. And he could just watch her swish her tail until she was out of sight.