Noreen is One Lucky Gal
Wolf Clan Shifters, Book 2By Ann Gimpel
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Publisher: Liquid Silver Books
ISBN: 978-1-62210-058-3Genre: Paranormal romance
On the run from blood-crazed cult members, Noreen accepts the protection of wolf shifters Les and Karl. When the mate bond spins its magic, the three discover passion beyond their wildest dreams. With danger waiting to ensnare them all, Noreen risks everything for the men she loves.
It’s 1936 in Calgary. After a terrifying experience, Noreen is frantic to escape the Garden of Eden cult, so she catches the night train north out of town. An ominous stranger and a farmer who’s furious she slept in his barn remind her just how alone she is in the world.
Wolf shifters, Les and Karl, eke out a primitive existence on the flanks of the Canadian Rockies. Between Hunters who want to kill them and a wildfire raging out of control, they’re relieved when their clan leader, Jed, shows up.
Jed has a surprise in his car, though. While passing through the nearest town, he spied Noreen by the side of the road picking straw out of her hair and offered her a ride. Before Jed’s car even stops rolling, Les and Karl know she’s their mate. So skittish she’s barely willing to exit the car, Noreen busies herself helping Jed and his pack mates unload supplies.
Can Les and Karl convince her to stay? If she does, will the risks she faced as a cult member pale in comparison to being mated to shifters?
The swish of tires on wet pavement drove Noreen deeper into the shadows of a band of oak trees. She pulled her black wool cloak tighter against her body and set her teeth to keep them from chattering. Maybe running away from the Garden of Eden cult hadn’t been such a hot idea, but staying didn’t work either. Not after what she’d witnessed last night. When she’d joined the group two years ago, they’d been warm and welcoming. The rituals were a bit risqué, but harmless all in all. She squeezed her eyes shut to block out the image of a cheering mob that had segued from chanting while scantily clad to blood sacrifice. Exposing her body was one thing, a thirst for human blood quite another…
She pried her eyes open. No one would save her except herself and there wasn’t much she could do by playing ostrich. Escape was essential, the only thing that mattered. Never mind she’d be walking away from what little she owned, since her things were in one of the cult’s many apartments.
Noreen took another step backward. One boot sank into sticky mud; cold water ran into it. Reality hit home and terrified her. She couldn’t go back to work. Nearly everyone she knew at the insurance exchange was related to the cult in some way. Or to another similar group. Occult fervor had risen during the twenties in the wake of World War I. By the middle of the nineteen thirties, it had a well-established toehold. Fascination with the supernatural ran high and had grown like an out-of-control weed. Most spiritual cults were rooted in the States, but it hadn’t taken long before Canadians picked up the banner, enthralled by the unseen world.
Despite Noreen’s best efforts, shudders racked her body, and her teeth banged against one another uncontrollably. October in Calgary meant the air was dry and crisp. She’d seen frost on the roofs this morning. Tonight would likely see another freeze. It didn’t take much of an imagination to realize winter would set in soon.
Somehow, she’d sat at her desk all day. When co-workers commented she seemed subdued, she’d just said she wasn’t feeling well. It was the only way she’d gotten out of mandatory attendance at tonight’s cult meeting. Midday, she’d slipped out of the office and stopped by the bank. Closing her account would have engendered suspicion, so she’d withdrawn two hundred dollars, half of what she had saved. Even that earned her a stern lecture from one of the bank vice presidents. Likely afraid she’d fallen for some scam, he drew her into a side office intent on discovering why she needed such a vast sum of money. Noreen rolled her eyes at the memory. She’d fabricated a story about a mythical aunt who had unexpected medical bills.
“Yes, and I’m wasting precious time standing here,” she muttered, the words barely discernable against her chattering teeth. If she was going to follow through with the plan she’d hatched during the day, she needed to be out of town and well-hidden before someone looked for her. If she got really lucky, that wouldn’t be until after she didn’t show up for work tomorrow.
Or they might send someone to my place tonight to see if I need anything.
That last thought galvanized her into action. Noreen broke into a shambling trot and ducked into a coffee shop. She needed something hot to drink, and then she’d head for the train station and catch the evening express north toward Edmonton.
“Looking pretty wet there, hon.” A smiling waitress hustled over to her. “We’re closing soon, but I can get you some soup.”
“Just coffee,” Noreen managed. “And I promise I’ll drink it fast.”
The waitress, a buxom blonde with gray roots, cocked her head to one side. “You okay, sweetie?” Her brown eyes flickered kindly.
“Fine.” She dug a nickel out of a pocket. “Here’s for the coffee. I like it black.”
The waitress frowned and then shrugged. “It’s six cents now, but seeing as how we’re just going to toss what’s left in the pot, keep your money. Looks as if you need it worse than we do.”
Tears threatened at the woman’s unexpected thoughtfulness. Noreen blinked them back and murmured, “Thank you.” She sank into a red leather padded chair at the counter and waited while the waitress poured steaming liquid into a heavy, white ceramic mug. The heated crockery felt heavenly when she cradled it between her hands. The coffee burned her tongue, but the jolt from the caffeine was instantaneous and welcome.
Noreen glanced at her watch. How had it gotten to be nine p.m.? Her train left in an hour; it was a thirty minute walk to the station, and she needed time to purchase a ticket once she got there. She didn’t have extra money to waste on streetcars or taxis. Setting her cup down, she nodded at the waitress and hurried out of the café. The streets weren’t exactly deserted, so she pulled the sodden wool of her cloak’s hood over her bright hair. She didn’t want to have to explain why she hadn’t been at the meeting if anyone recognized her. After all, her excuse had been she was too sick to leave her home that night, and it would be blown to hell if she were seen wandering around in marginal weather.
Stop that! She lectured herself. Everyone else is at cult headquarters. No one’s out and about who might recognize me.
Brave words. Too bad I don’t believe them.
Her heart thudded so hard, she was afraid everyone she passed could hear it. Noreen counted off blocks as she walked through the heart of Calgary’s business district. Her wet sock squished in her boot. She wished she had time to take it off and wring it out. Another café, this one advertising it stayed open until ten, looked inviting, but she walked on by.
I’ll take care of my sock problem at the station. I’m cutting the timing close as it is.
Noreen felt ill. The coffee she’d welcomed going down ate at her stomach like acid. If she met up with anyone from the cult at the train station, she’d be finished. Cult members signed on for life. There weren’t any early out clauses that she knew of. A tear dripped down one cheek; she brushed it aside. No point in feeling sorry for herself. She’d made a bad decision and didn’t have any fallback position. There was no family to run home to—or call for help. They’d all died in the flu epidemic of 1918. She’d been seven at the time and had ended up in the Calgary orphanage.
“Even if I had relatives,” she mumbled, “they’d be the last place I’d go. Wouldn’t want to implicate them.” There hadn’t been anything truly wrong with the orphanage, but there hadn’t been much right there, either. Noreen understood perfectly why she’d been so attracted to the cult. For the first time in her twenty-five years, she felt as if she belonged somewhere. Like she had a family.
What a joke! Noreen castigated herself for being a fool, and a gullible one at that, and then gave it up for wasted effort.
The station lights shone through ground fog that had misted out of nowhere during her flight across town. A few more steps and she pushed the door open, walking into warmth so welcome it took her breath away. She didn’t realized how cold she’d gotten. Not just body-cold; her spirit was frozen to the core of her soul.
Noreen gazed around the station. A few people milled about, but not many. Resolute now that she was here, she marched to an open ticket counter and said, “Edmonton, please. Economy coach.”
The man didn’t bother to look up. “How many?” In his fifties or sixties, he was rail thin with sparse, gray hair.
His fingers shook as he wrote out her ticket. “That’ll be a dollar-fifty, miss.”
“Oh.” She bit her lower lip and fished in her handbag.
He glanced at her, rheumy blue eyes shrewd. “You got a problem with that?”
Noreen swallowed hard. It went against the grain, but she spoke up for herself. “Since you asked, yes I do. I don’t have much, and I thought the advertised fare was a dollar. I, um, called today and asked about it.”
He shrugged. “You got a buck?” She held it up so he could see. “Okay, missy. Here’s your ticket.” He stamped it and held it out to her, but Noreen was still nonplussed he’d tried to overcharge her, so she didn’t reach for it. “Ain’t you going to take your ticket?” He sounded annoyed.
“Uh, sure.” She pushed her money under the bars and took the ticket.
“Gate seven. She boards in twenty minutes.”
Noreen scuttled away, not wanting to deal with the clerk who’d tried to cheat her. If she wouldn’t have said anything, he would have pocketed the extra fifty cents. Outrage flooded her and left a bitter taste at the back of her mouth. Someone really should report him.
Yes, someone should, but not me. The last thing I need is to draw attention to myself. Following the signs, she settled in to wait near where the train would come and bent to unlace her boot. Her sock had soaked up most of the water. She wrung out what she could and put it back on before the wool could cool off and become clammy. Some strands of her white-blonde hair had escaped from beneath her hood; she tucked them back out of sight and drew in a shuddery breath. Fifteen more minutes and she’d be safe on the train. Well, maybe safe, though it seemed unlikely she’d run into any Garden of Edeners on the night train to Edmonton.
She’d studied maps during the day and decided to get off around Red Deer. Buying a ticket all the way to Edmonton was a hedge in case anyone tried to find out where she’d gone. From Red Deer, hopefully she could hitch a ride west into some of the smaller communities dotting the Rockies. Maybe, if she were really lucky, she could land a job before her money ran out. Insofar as she knew, cult activities were limited outside major cities.
Wonder how much trouble they’re going to go to to find me?
The loudspeaker announced her train; after a final glance around the station, Noreen strode toward the door and out onto the platform. The steam engine’s headlamp lit the night. With a whoosh and a roar, the train clattered to a halt. She waited until a flood of travelers disembarked, went up the steps, and found her way to a nearly deserted coach.
Her seat was soft and the train car warm. Before the train had even pulled out of the station, her eyes felt heavy. Noreen pinched her hands. Sleeping, at least until they got underway, wasn’t an option. She had to stay alert and keep an eye on the few passengers entering her car.
It wasn’t easy to stay awake. She’d barely slept the night before as her mind replayed the horror of a man she’d known and respected chopping off two of his fingers while lost in cult-driven zeal. If it had just been him, acting by himself, it might have been one thing, but hundreds of other cult members were screeching, cheering, and egging him on. They’d put his fingers in a brass bowl and used the blood to lure a spirit guide. Two men had gone into a deep trance after that. Noreen had excused herself, barely making it to the ladies’ room before her stomach rebelled. She hadn’t returned, but the cult was so high on bloodlust, she figured no one even noticed her absence.
Finally, the wheels squealed against the rails and the train chugged northward. Her car was still mostly empty. As she sank deeper into her seat and drew her hood low over her eyes, Noreen dared to let herself hope. She’d made it this far. Maybe, just maybe, she’d escape to start a new life, one where she’d make better choices.
* * * *
The phone jangled again. Loud and strident, it made Les’ sensitive lupine hearing ache. It took him a moment to realize he needed his human form to make the noise go away. He’d tried to ignore the damned thing, but whoever was calling wouldn’t give up. Every time he ventured near the house, it was ringing. With an aggravated snort, he commanded his body to shift. As soon as he had feet rather than paws, he strode through the door of his cabin deep in the woods, jaw tight with annoyance. His remote location a few miles outside Rocky Mountain House often lost phone service for long periods of time.
“Yes and too bad this isn’t one of them,” he muttered, snatched up the receiver, and barked, “Yes, I’m here.”
“It’s about damned time. I’ve been trying to get hold of you for days.”
Les’ eyes widened. “Jed?”
“Who the hell else?”
Les brayed laughter. “Good point. It’s not as if very many people have this number. What’s up, boss? I thought you were coming my way months ago. The boys and I wondered what happened.”
“Now that I have your attention, hang up.” Jed’s voice had a sharp edge that Les remembered all too well. “We’ll do this a more private way.”
“You got it.” Les dropped the black receiver back in place. He kicked the door shut to keep the cold breeze out. It didn’t bother him as a wolf, but he was naked and the air had a chill edge to it. He trotted into the bedroom and had begun to dress when Jed’s voice sounded in his mind.
“Where the hell have you been? I’ve been trying to reach you for a week.”
Les sank onto the bed and pulled a quilt over his still-bare legs as he considered where to start. Jed was clan leader for wolf shifters. He needed all the information Les could provide. “First off, we’re all still okay.”
“That’s a relief. When I couldn’t raise you, I was afraid Hunters had killed everyone. Made me half-crazy not to know anything. Anyway, we pulled into Calgary last night.”
“With your new mate?”
“Affirmative. Bron, Terin, and Alice are with me.” Jed blew out a breath. “You may have heard through the grapevine, we’d originally decided to come north as part of our wedding trip, but Hunters nabbed half a dozen of us in northern California. It took a major offensive to free our people. Even so, we lost a couple.”
Les nodded, and then realized Jed couldn’t see him. “Yes, I know. We’ve had problems of our own. First it was Hunters. They almost got your cousins Ron and Chris. I’m still waiting for the fallout on that one since we killed the whole posse that came after us. All five of them.”
“Was there any choice?” Jed’s voice was stern.
“No.” Anger tightened Les’ muscles. He’d like to kill every goddamned Hunter in the universe, but he wasn’t about to tell Jed that. And there hadn’t been any choice, not really. They’d been surrounded. The only thing that saved them was taking a firm offensive position.
Jed broke into Les’ thoughts. “What’d you do with the bodies?”
“Don’t worry, boss. No one will ever find them. We dragged them to the very bottom of a cave system where there’s a vent to an upper cave and burned them.”
“How long ago?”
Les thought about it. He’d spent much of the last month as a wolf which skewed his time sense. “Maybe a week.”
“You still haven’t told me why you weren’t answering your phone.”
“We’ve all been in our wolf forms. There’s a fire burning out of control between our pack and the crest of the Rockies. A couple of the cabins farther west incinerated—”
“Hmph,” Jed interrupted, obviously not concerned about an out-of-control wildfire. “Any of you find mates yet?”
“What do you think? It’s not as if the odds are in our favor.”
“Maybe Alice can change that. Women trust her. She’s actually scared up three mates since she joined Bron, Terin, and me.” A hesitation. “How close did you say that fire was?”
“My cabin’s not in any immediate danger. It’s fall and I’m expecting it to rain soon.” Les scratched at month-old beard growth on his chin. “It’s pretty primitive here, boss. Nothing like your digs in Hollywood.”
A different voice sounded in his head, rich, vibrant, and definitely female. “I’ve been listening in. Shameless of me not to have said something earlier. Don’t worry about me. My life was a whole lot simpler before I met up with Jed and my other two mates. Besides, I’m looking forward to meeting the clan members here in Alberta.”
Les’ mouth twitched into half a smile. “You must be Alice. We’ve heard a lot about you. Are you really six feet tall?”
Alice snorted; it made Les wish he’d kept his mouth shut. After all, Alice was mated to his clan leader. “How about if we leave the details open and you can see for yourself when we get there? Jed says it’s a four or five hour drive and we should arrive sometime tomorrow. Is there anything we need to bring from the big city?”
Les gazed around his one bedroom cabin as if he expected a grocery list to materialize. He cleared his throat before remembering he didn’t need his actual voice. “Um, we’ve been pretty much living off the land this past month, so anything you bring would be welcome.”
“I get the picture.” Jed broke in with a laugh. “We’ll fill up the trunk and the rest of the back seat.”
Les couldn’t help himself. “Who gets to sit next to Alice?”
Female chuckling made his heart lighter than it had been in a long time. “Oh, they fuss and snarl a bit, but they sort of take turns. It’s nice actually, to have three doting mates.”
“I’m sure it is.” Les brushed a wave of sadness aside. He’d love to have a woman to fuss over, alongside Karl, his pack mate. They’d hunted for years for a female to grace their lives without success. A few promising candidates had crossed their path when they’d lived in Edmonton, but Hunters had driven them out of the city fifty years before.
“We’ll be there by tomorrow afternoon.” Jed’s voice was gruff, and Les figured his clan leader could read his mind.
“I’ll alert the troops, boss. Everyone will be really glad to see all of you. And to meet your mate.”
Les waited, but a certain emptiness told him Jed had signed off. He shoved the quilt aside, finished dressing, and called Karl through their telepathic link. It didn’t take long before paws scrabbled against the door, and Les remembered he’d shut it. By the time he crossed the small space and pulled the door open, Karl had found his human form and stood shivering, arms wrapped around his tall, spare frame. Black hair hung to his waist in tangles. “Thanks. Damned cold out here.” The wolf shifter bounded into the room, giving the door a shove as he passed through it. “What’s up?”
“Jed’s here.” Les spread his arms wide and rolled his eyes. “Along with his lieutenants and their new mate. We’ve got to clean this place up.”
“Why? It’s always been good enough for us.”
Les slugged him in the arm. “You weren’t listening. Jed’s mate will be here.”
“Oh, I get it.” Karl chortled, dark eyes gleaming with glee. “Maybe if we didn’t do anything, she’d take pity on us and—”
“Right. Find some clothes and we’ll get to work. I don’t think Jed, Terin, or Bron will want their new mate waiting on the likes of us.”
Karl sprinted for his sleeping alcove toward the rear of the log cabin’s main room. Drawers banged open. “Fire’s getting closer,” he called over one shoulder. “Maybe it would be better for all of us to get together in Red Deer.”
Les considered it. “Nope. Too soon since we axed those Hunters. That’s where they were from—there and Edmonton. I don’t want any friendly sheriff asking questions if they discover we live out here. Are you sure the fire’s closer? Maybe the wind just shifted direction.”
“It’s definitely closer. The smoke’s thicker, and I can actually hear it burning from the rise a couple miles west of here.” Karl slid his legs into trousers and pulled a sweater over his head before shoving his feet into an ancient pair of sheepskin slippers. He turned to Les. “Where do you think we should start? Come to think of it, when do you want to alert the rest of the clan, or should I do that?”
“We can take care of that later tonight. How about if you work on the dishes? I’ll sweep and get the kettle going for laundry.”
Karl strode to the sink and pumped the handle for water. “Eww.” He wrinkled his nose. “How long have these plates been here?”
“Does it matter?” Les lugged a large, cast iron kettle in through the back door and hefted it onto a wood-burning stove. He opened the firebox door, levered a pocket knife out of his pants, and started shaving tinder. “Let’s warm some water. That should help.” As he worked, Les dialed in his lupine senses and scented fresh air coming through the back door. It was indeed tinged with smoke. What bad timing for a major fire. If it drove them into one of the nearby towns, they’d risk discovery because Hunters could scent them.
He looked up from his half-built fire. “Um-hum.”
“Maybe it’s time to move on.”
“No!” Les banged a fist down on his thigh. “I’m sick of running. If the fire gets this far, we’ll come back when it’s over and rebuild.”
“But we’ll never find a mate out here.”
“Just do the damned dishes. We’ve got enough problems without adding to them.”