Wolves of Hunter’s Rock
Lukas Vance rolled into Lorton just after dawn.
His old Chevy Caprice sputtered as he slowed for another stop sign, reminding him it was tune-up and oil change time. Had the trip been planned, he’d have done it before driving for six hours. It’d be twelve after he figured out it was all for nothing and made the trip back home.
At least he hoped that was how it worked out.
He eyed the small piece of paper he’d tossed onto his cracked dashboard. Lukas had looked at it so many times, he didn’t need to read it to know what was written in a dark, unsteady script:
The list had been tucked under one of his wiper blades while he’d been in the grocery store the night before. He’d tried to shrug it off as a prank or someone who’d left the note on the wrong car, but the strangeness of it kept pulling at him. And if the cryptic list of towns wasn’t bizarre enough, no human scent clung to the paper. Could be the breeze washed it away. Could be something else.
He’d figured Lorton was only six hours away. It couldn’t hurt to check it out. But it could hurt like hell, it could haunt him, if he ignored his instincts and didn’t go.
He knew that from experience.
You were a kid, Lukas. Give yourself a break, his brother’s voice sounded in his head, the same words he’d said more than a few times. Then, as now, Lukas heard bitterness underneath. Blame. The words sounded like lip service when the voice saying them was tight with pain that would never go away.
Pain he could have prevented, if he’d have been less stubborn. Less proud.
Lukas shook his head to clear it. He rubbed his cheek, the usual two-day stubble rasping under his fingernails. He felt trapped inside his skin and wanted to pull over and run, so he pressed his nose to the sleeve of his leather jacket, letting the scent calm him as it always did. Even though guilt came with it, as it probably always would.
A boy on a bicycle passed him and chucked a bagged newspaper over the top of his car. The kid’s back tire skidded as he turned at the intersection, and he went down.
Lukas frowned. It would be wrong to sit there and do nothing, even though he’d rather stay in the car until the boy got up and rode away. If the kid had a bone sticking out somewhere or started screaming, of course Lukas would help him. But if it wasn’t necessary, he’d rather keep to himself.
The kid looked up at him, their eyes meeting through the dusty windshield. Lukas sighed and opened the door to stand with one foot in and one foot out.
“You okay, kid?”
“Yeah. Dumb bicycle!” The kid hopped up and kicked at his bike.
Pack came to Lukas on the air, the scent unmistakable. He opened his mouth to taste it and breathe it in. Blood. Death. He whipped his head side to side, took a few steps left, then right, trying to hone in on the exact direction it came from. A growl rumbled in his chest.
“Dude, what’s your problem?” The boy scrambled onto his bike and zoomed away.
Someone in his pack was dead nearby.
He didn’t recognize the scent as anyone specific, couldn’t place the strange undertones, but Lukas should have recognized it. He could identify distant relatives in extended bloodlines like the Merrick and Emery families, even relatives through marriage, by scent.
He didn’t know this lost wolf who shared his blood. And that wasn’t possible.
Lukas tumbled into his car and squealed away from the stop. He raced too fast through the residential streets, stomach knotting as he got closer to the dizzying scent of blood, of pack, the shock and strangeness of it all making it hard not to howl.
Chris Keenan, running full out for his car, didn’t turn as he shouted back at Albert. “What? Can’t hear you!”
“Slow down, asshole!”
Chris didn’t slow, but held up a raised middle finger, laughing. Albert was the one who’d wanted to race, though they’d been parked all the way across campus. Parmenter was probably one of the smaller community colleges in Illinois, but it was still a solid run from the science building to the corner lot where Chris had parked.
The distance was enough that Albert had to know he couldn’t win.
“And Albert Molasses Gage loses again,” Chris said as Albert took the last few steps, panting and shaking his head. Chris patted his cheek. “When’re you gonna learn, bro? If you’re flirting with a pretty girl and want to show off, challenging me to a race isn’t the way to do it.”
“But, how? When?” Albert gulped air between words. “Did you get? So fast?”
Chris had asked himself the same thing. “That growth spurt I had as a junior, maybe?”
Albert laughed. “If it’s a protein bar or espresso or something, you could share your secret with your ol’ buddy Albert, you know.”
“No secret. Just got taller, I think.” Chris unlocked the car and laughed when Albert collapsed into the passenger seat as if his bones wouldn’t hold him up anymore.
“So, do you think she likes me?” Albert rolled his head enough to look at Chris and grin, eyebrows wiggling.
“Not if she has any sense.” Chris carefully backed out and made an effort not to go over the 10 mph limit. He didn’t need another ticket from the rent-a-cop campus officers.
“She’s pretty, though, isn’t she? Like really, amazingly pretty. And so smart. Smart and pretty.”
Chris sighed. “Yes, she’s smart and pretty. Just like Elizabeth Brainerd, the one you were all a-flitter for yesterday. And Ashley Brown, the week before that.”
“Elizabeth chews with her mouth wide open. And Ashley asked me where I was from. When I said I was from Hunter’s Rock, she said no, I mean, where in Asia. Which is annoying on its own, right? But when I said I was born in South Korea, she said, and I’m not kidding, I was lucky to get out with that Kim Chung guy running things the way he did.”
Chris laughed. “What did you say?”
Albert fished a water bottle from his backpack and took a long drink. “I just agreed with her. I could have corrected his name and explained things, but she’s probably challenged trying to tell left from right, let alone north from south. Can you imagine?”
He cupped his own cheeks and spoke in a soft, Valley girl accent with comically wide eyes. “Oh my god, you were only there as a baby and you still look so Asian, isn’t that something? She was stacked, but I have my standards.”
Chris turned and headed toward The Cream Machine up the road from the college. “So is this one a little more intellectual? Maybe you’d have better luck if you’d stop picking potential dates by their bra sizes.”
“Oh, ho! I could say the same for you, buddy.”
“I’m reasonably sure none of the guys I want to date wear bras.”
“No, they all have rippled abs and perfect pecs and butts you could bounce a quarter off of. But I’m the shallow one? Nope. You’re as guilty as I am.”
Chris smiled, but he knew it wasn’t true. Of course guys like that were attractive, but Chris only flirted with them because he was pretty sure nothing would ever happen. If they were way out of his league, he wasn’t in danger of being asked out or propositioned.
It was safer that way.
As Chris pulled into a spot in front of The Cream Machine’s front window, Albert said, “Oh, look. Elizabeth’s here with some guy. I hope he enjoys the entire process of mastication, because she doesn’t mess around.”
Albert unbuckled his seatbelt and turned to lie down with his head in Chris’ lap. “Why does it have to be so hard? I should start working out and then we can date each other. You don’t gross me out, you’re smart, and you have a car.” He batted his eyes at Chris. “And I know you like dark hair, baby.”
Chris snorted and smacked the top of his head. “I have no boobs. Get off.”
“Getting off, that’s what I’m talking about!”
“Oh my god, get up, get up!” Chris laughed and hoped nobody in the restaurant noticed Albert lifting his head from Chris’ crotch.
Albert slammed his car door. “I know why you picked this place today. It’s the guy with the long sideburns who you thought flirted with you that one time when he was scooping your mint chocolate chip.”
Albert licked his fingertip and touched his own butt, arching his back. “Bet he’s real . . . smart.”
“You’re imposs—” Chris’ voice caught in his throat as he noticed a guy about a dozen cars away and three rows over in the strip mall parking lot. Dark hair, dark stubble, dark eyes. Dark intense eyes that looked back at Chris. A decent distance stretched between them, but Chris could make out his features as well as if he were in the next car. He came crisply into focus in a way nothing else did.
“Chris?” Albert turned in the direction of Chris’ gaze. “What you lookin’ at? The dark-haired guy?”
Chris managed a nod.
“Hmph. Shitty car.”
Lukas followed the dark green Toyota from the college campus to the ice cream shop up the street. He wondered how it had been so easy to find this kid when the girl in Paleyville had been a pain in the ass to locate. This time, he’d decided to cruise through the nearby college campus with his window down on a hunch, since the other two had been students.
The boy in Lorton had been a mangled mess when Lukas had found him. The local police had beaten him to the scene, which was a good thing. If he’d been there, hunched over the body as they approached, the overwhelming scent of death and blood might have kept him from sensing them until it was too late. He didn’t have time for jail.
He’d stayed in Lorton long enough afterward to listen to the gossip but not long enough for locals to notice a stranger hanging around right after a murder. Asking the cops about it didn’t seem like a smart thing to do.
The victim was Brent Hollister, twenty, not from Lorton but there visiting an uncle on a short road-trip from college. The uncle was the immediate suspect, but was ruled out pretty quickly in the minds of the townspeople. None of them believed he was capable of such a thing.
Besides, the initial impression from law enforcement and the coroner was an animal attack or the kind of murder that took someone deranged to carry out.
After he had that information, he drove to Paleyville, a state over in Missouri. It took him three days to catch the scent of pack, this time without blood and death clinging to it. The pack scent was still wrong, there where it shouldn’t be, but at least the person it belonged to was alive.
He’d followed her around for a few hours, and then some idiot texting and driving had rear-ended him and insisted he stay for the police.
“It’s totally my fault, just . . . leave out the texting okay? My insurance’ll cover everything, but I’m gonna say I didn’t see you.”
Lukas didn’t care, but it took too long to convince the guy he’d fix his own car and didn’t need a police report. Before the grateful driver zoomed off, it started to rain, scrubbing the scent of the girl he’d been tracking from the air.
He’d picked it up again later that night, but this time it was drenched in blood. The smells of grass, leaves and bark from his vantage point in a tree several blocks away from the scene couldn’t block the scent of death and pack. He’d perched in the branches of a huge, nearby oak that made it easy to hear when someone showed up at the crime scene screaming her name. Jennifer was dead.
He hadn’t stayed around long enough to find out much else about her aside from her full name—Jennifer Bray—and that she was a college sophomore on her way to an accounting degree. He could come back and investigate if need be, but he had to get to the next town on the list, Hunter’s Rock, as fast as possible.
And not lose the scent this time.
If not for the accident and delay that made him lose Jennifer’s trail, he could have saved her.
Whoever waited in Hunter’s Rock wasn’t going to get out of his sight once he found them. He couldn’t help the first two, but maybe he could save the next one.
Parmenter Community College seemed to serve several small towns in the area, including Hunter’s Rock. It was as good as place as any to start looking for a sophomore-aged kid. As soon as he’d driven onto the campus, window rolled down to make it easier, the scent hit him.
Pack and something else.
Not blood this time. Not death. Something . . . intriguing. Lukas’ heartbeat picked up, the pulse in his neck vibrating as blood surged through him. If the scent had hit him on any ordinary day, he would have pursued it until he found the source. It called to him, teased him.
The boy—no, not a boy, his scent wasn’t a kid’s but a young man’s—dashed across paved walks and grass, weaved through and around other students, and disappeared into a crowded triangular lot. The angle made it hard to see much, but what he could see—warm-looking skin, carefree, dark brown hair, a lean build—he liked. Lukas stopped his car right in the road before the lot to watch another young man running behind him, much slower, less gracefully. He wasn’t pack.
The first one, though, he smelled so damn appealing.
The light sweat the guy had worked up rode the breeze right to Lukas. Oh, yeah, he’d have definitely chased down that scent under other circumstances to find out who it belonged to.
A car honked behind him. He drove on and turned into the lot of a gray stone and glass building with a sign in the window advertising the drama department’s performance of Our Town. His breath steamed up the windshield glass though it wasn’t a particularly cool day.
He followed the pair to the ice cream shop, parked and watched.
When the first young man turned his direction, he wasn’t sure how he managed to keep himself in the car.