Chapter One





Holly had never had a watch. There was a big old grandfather clock at home which had allegedly crossed the prairies in her great, great, great grandfather's wagon. That had always been the only clock in the house. Out here, time didn't run in carefully measured increments, and there were no appointments to keep or meetings to attend.

Time moved at its own pace here, and for her, slowly enough not to have to worry overmuch about its progress. She knew it was nearer to sundown than she'd have liked, but as Licorice picked her way carefully through the uneven scrub-land just below the Black Hills she knew there'd be no rushing home.

Riding in the dark wasn't a good idea, but racing along the grassy ground strewn with gopher holes wasn't a good alternative. Even if she'd taken the Honda bike, she'd have had to keep her pace fairly slow through this valley.

Licorice was a sure footed, jet-black mare with a solid six years of experience under her hooves, and not likely to make a misstep unless some bone-headed rider pushed her into it. Holly was not about to be that bonehead.

The problem was that darkness came fairly quick once the sun set below the hills. And she hadn't brought any light. She hadn't expected to be out this long or to travel this far. She'd been searching for a calf which had strayed from her small herd. She'd soon discovered it wasn't coming back, when it's hooves met with the footprints of what looked like an awfully big wolf.

Well, wolves were no longer an endangered species in Wyoming, and she was not feeling in a generous spirit after she found the calf's remains. She had a 30-30 in her saddle and her daddy had always told her that predators were like ants. Once they found a good feeding ground they tended to tell all their little friends, and come back for more all the time.

She was not about to let her little herd become that feeding ground.

She had tracked the wolf, sweating under the unseasonably hot, late afternoon sun, until somehow or other it'd disappeared as if it'd never been. It could have jumped up onto the rock strewn hillside heading up towards the hills, but that wasn't something a wolf would normally do. Since the incline was too steep for Licorice, and it was getting late, she'd decided to head on home.

Her hat wasn't anything fancy at all. She had a fine leather cowboy hat made by Struthers and Martin and given to her on her nineteenth birthday by her father. It fit perfectly, had a purple leather band around it, and a small, artificial sprig of heather on the side.

But that wasn't a working hat. She just had on a cheap white straw hat for shade now. It was lightweight and breathed a lot more. Still, she was feeling the glow of the warm air around her as the sun headed towards the top of Bishop's Peak. She'd be in the shade, then, thankfully, but soon after, the shade would deepen and darken.

The temperature would fall off even more rapidly. Drops of thirty degrees were fairly normal, and you could go from sweating to what her aunt Brenda called 'stiff nipple weather' all too quick. Given Hannah was wearing nothing more than a light, peach colored short-sleeved shirt currently unbuttoned and tied together under her breasts, that was not something she was looking forward to while still in the saddle.

She shrugged off the thought. You got used to wild temperature swings out here, and got used to enduring them without complaint. Could’ve been worse. In her younger days she'd been known to ride bareback, meaning pretty near naked. They were more than isolated enough for that, and she'd been kind of daring in her youth.

She clicked her tongue and tugged the reins to the right to move Licorice around what looked like a suspiciously uneven patch of ground likely to contain gopher holes, and looked up along the rim of the hill. It was darn unlikely a wolf would head up. But what if it wasn't a natural wolf? There was supposed to be a werewolf pack off to the east. She'd never had any issues with them, but those prints had been awful big.

You couldn't shoot a werewolf except in self-defense, though if you could prove who it was you could sue him or have him arrested for damaging property. Of course, first you had to catch him. And then there was the opposite problem. What if you did catch him? Not all those were people had their heads screwed on right. She supposed she'd probably be a little screwy if she turned all hairy too, so could sympathize with that. But werewolf attacks on humans were not unknown, and she had no silver bullets.

Come to think of it, there'd been a full moon recently, not last night, but the night before. Could it have been one of them? Maybe she'd call the sheriff and see if he could come out and have a look at the carcass. She had no idea if werewolves had a different feeding pattern than regular wolves, but the sheriff would likely know.

The sun dropped below the peak and she sighed with relief. The broad brimmed cowboy hat kept it out of her eyes, but her skin fairly glowed with the long exposure. Sunblock might keep her from burning but it did nothing to cool her down!

The air began to darken and the land to cool. She kicked Licorice just a bit to urge her on. They were past the worst of it now, and if they could get out of the foothills and onto solid ground she could sprint for most of the rest of the way home and get there before full dark hit.

There was a lot of tall brush nearby, and she wasn't sure quite what caught her suspicions. Licorice hadn't sensed anything, and was starting to move faster. Holly put her hand on the butt of her Henry rifle, almost unconsciously as her head turned to the left. Licorice sensed it just a moment later and reared up with a scream, throwing Holly backwards. Her hand had closed on the Henry, though, and yanked it back as she fell, tumbling into the grass.

The wolf was massive, and snarling at Licorice, who was rearing again, kicking at it with her forefeet, eyes rolling with terror. Holly landed with a cry of pain, almost knocking the breath out of her, but managing, somehow, to hang onto the rifle.

She managed to sit up, swinging the rifle around and clicking off the safety. The wolf, proving it wasn't natural, turned its head and leapt at her so fast she barely had time to squeeze the trigger before the world was full of fur and muscle.

It's snarl turned into a scream, but its heavy body still slammed into her hard enough to send her  slamming back against the ground, this time hitting her head on something and succeeding in knocking the wind out of her.

Her pounding heart and the adrenalin surging through her system forced her to roll quickly over and reach out for the Henry again as the wolf spun, snarling, and dripping blood from a wound in its chest. It was still far too healthy looking for her taste, though, as she tried to bring the gun around for another shot.

She didn't have time. It leapt and she jerked her legs up with a scream. They held it, its snarling teeth inches from her shocked face. It was enormous, and heavy, and it was all she could do to hold its teeth off her as it struggled to get past her feet and legs to her throat!

Then something she barely saw flew past her head, and the thing was gone.

Light-headed, gasping for breath, she pulled the rifle around and saw the giant wolf fighting with another one a few yards beside her, both animals snarling and snapping and clawing at each other like rabid dogs. A sound behind her spun her around as another huge shape raced towards her She raised the rifle and fired in one motion, only to have her legs knocked out from under her and hit the ground hard, face first.

That was one too many hits for her head, especially as dizzy as she was from lack of air, and she felt the world fading into a skin prickling wave of black dots.


She woke with her cheek against something soft and warm, which, given the coolness of the air, was welcoming. Her hand moved up against it, and she groaned low in her throat, eyes fluttering. The first thing she noticed was that her head hurt. The second was that her knee hurt. And the third... the third was that nothing was right about anything.

She wasn't laying comfortably on her bed, and the world was kind of moving up and down around her. Then she realized the warm something her hand and face were pressed against were skin, and not her skin. She opened her eyes and tried to focus. Her brain seemed to be sputtering like car trying to start on an ice cold day.

And it was kind of chilly, but the ice that ran down her spine as she realized a man was carrying her was a lot colder.

“Don't be afraid,” he said.

She squirmed wildly and half fell out of his arms. He'd been carrying her like a baby, and she staggered backward with a cry of fear, then of pain as her left leg tried to take her weight and shot up a bolt of pain that dropped her to her butt on the ground.

She couldn't have been out long, for while shadows swept along the grass and it was rapidly getting dark it was still light enough to clearly see the naked man standing in front of her!

He was, at a guess, somewhere around thirty. And even in her shock Hannah couldn't not be surprised at how... impressive an example of the masculine gender he was. She'd not seen a naked man in a while, but the ones she remembered hadn't looked like this!

He had longish hair for this area, which was to say his brown hair spilled untidily across his forehead, and along the sides of his head with a slight curl around his ears. He had a square cut face with open, honest eyes, but the rest of him kind of jerked her attention downward.

It wasn't often you came across a naked man full-frontal, so to speak, while you sat on the ground in front of him. He had a muscular build, too, firm, flat stomach all the way down to that small, thin line of hair which traced downward below his belly button, then spread out around – .