Prince of Wolves

Prince of Wolves
Val Cache Series  —  Book 1
Bantam (September 1999)
ISBN-13: 9780553567755 ♦ ISBN-10: 0553567756

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Through with running from the past, Joelle Randall has come to the rugged Canadian Rockies determined to face her pain and begin anew. All she needed was a guide to lead her through the untamed mountain wilderness to the site where her parents’ plane had crashed so long ago. But the only guide Joelle could find was Luke Gevaudan, a magnetically attractive loner with the feral grace of a wolf and eyes that glittered with a savage intensity. She couldn’t know that Luke was the stuff of legends, one of the last survivors of an ancient race of werewolves… a man whose passion she would not be able to resist–no matter how terrible the price.

Read an Excerpt

Prince of Wolves

There was a stranger in town.

His keen sight picked her out from his vantage atop one of the rocky cliffs that formed sentinels on either side of the narrow two-lane highway that led into town. From here he could see the main street with its clumps of buildings, a warren of human habitation surrounded by wilderness. There were people moving about as there always were, even in this isolated place — but she stood out. She was different. An outsider. The townsfolk of Lovell, British Columbia, might not care for strangers, but he occasionally had use for them. At least the women . . .

His long suntanned fingers stroked slowly through the dense fur of the wolf beside him. It had been a long time since he’d enjoyed the company of a woman, and the desires that had awakened with the coming of spring had not been satisfied. There were women in town who would share his bed, who would be more than willing to overlook his reputation. But he had long ago lost any appetite for the entanglements that came with local relationships. The few times he’d tried it hadn’t been worth the trouble.

And he’d been alone so long. . . .

The wolf under his stroking hand shifted and whined softly. With a murmured apology, he released his grip on the heavy mane behind the animal’s neck. He didn’t care that the townsfolk regarded him with suspicion; they were not his kind. But their distrust limited his choices. When winter drifted into spring and the need came on him, there was only one way to meet it. Hikers and adventurers and tourists out to see their last chunk of real wilderness came year by year to Lovell’s single lodge, and nearly always there were women among them willing to share his cabin and bed. But this year had been a lean one. Until yesterday.

And she was lovely. It hadn’t been difficult to find her desirable.

It had been easy to observe her, to mark her out from the rest. She shone among the townsfolk, a flame among ashes, luring his senses with an undeniable attraction. She wasn’t the most beautiful woman he’d seen, but there was a vitality about her that burned as brightly as the sun on her hair.

He smiled slowly, a slight upcurve of lips that seldom resorted to the expression. Yes, she would do very well.

The wolf interrupted his reverie with an impatient thrust of its muzzle under his hand. Intelligent eyes, pale and rimmed in black, met his questioningly. He drew his hand over the broad forehead and scratched between the triangular ears. The wolf closed his eyes and stretched with a yawn that revealed rows of sharp teeth. Then it straightened, yipped once, and turned in a tight circle.

The impatient gesture drew a rough chuckle from the man. “Yes, my friend, don’t let me keep you from important business.” The wolf waived its tail once in answer and sat on its haunches, regarding him. “I won’t be joining you now. I’ve got other game today.” He turned again to gaze at the town, though the woman had long since disappeared. “I haven’t done this kind of hunting in some time — and I think this one might prove to be a challenge. I’ll have to be careful to stay downwind until I’ve caught her.”

Anticipation tightened his muscles, and the wolf yipped again. “Go. I’ll find you later. We’ll have to plan this carefully — and keep an eye on her in the meantime.” He pushed gently at the wolf, and the beast whirled and vanished like a gray phantom.

The sun rose higher, limning the serrated hillsides to the east with radiant yellow light against deep blue-green. The mountains beyond caught the illumination with the brilliance of a diamond. He breathed in the crisp air, savoring the myriad scents of a new day. Before it ended, he planned to know more about the stranger — and begin his hunt.

#

Night came altogether too quickly here in the north, Joey reflected grimly. Another day wasted, and no concrete leads on a replacement for her runaway mountaineer. She’d met with sympathy, indifference, and even ridicule among the townsfolk she’d questioned, but not a shred of real success. Someone knew somebody’s cousin who might be willing to help — but that somebody was out of town for two weeks. Old Jack used to do that kind of thing, but he’d retired three years ago. Joey didn’t like butting up against a brick wall. Not when she was so damned close.

Well, it was too late to do anything more. She stood in Lovell’s main street, hugging herself against the evening coolness. With the shorter days came colder nights, and the chill nipped at Joey through her light jacket. Townsfolk passed by silently, ignoring her. Across the road the neon lights of Red’s Tavern came on, promising warmth and some measure of companionship. Joey knew she didn’t want to spend another night alone poring over her maps, berating herself for past mistakes, or listening to Mrs. O’Brien’s well-meant lectures. She needed more stimulating company tonight.

A blast of warm air swept over her as she entered the smoky room, carrying with it the unmistakable smell of alcohol and humanity. Joey made her way between the close-packed tables and over to the pock-marked wooden bar, where Maggie was busy mixing drinks for a boisterous group of drinkers in the corner. The blare of a sports program rose above laughter and loud conversation.

Joey leaned on the bar, loosening her jacket and scooting onto an empty stool. The redhead barkeep looked up and grinned, tossing a mass of curly hair out of her eyes.

“Well, how are you, Joey? Glad you could drop by. Let me get this bunch taken care of, and I’ll be right back.”

With a graceful pivot Maggie pushed away from the bar balancing a fully laden tray of beer and liquor, and Joey watched her progress across the room, punctuated by well-meaning ribaldry and the occasional rude remark. Maggie bore it all with far better grace than Joey could imagine herself doing. The rough comments of the largely male clientele didn’t appeal to her in the slightest.

Maggie dipped back behind the bar and pulled out a chilled bottle of white wine, pouring a glass for Joey with a smooth, practiced motion. Her playful expression acknowledged Joey’s last censorious glance at the racket behind them. “Their bark is a lot worse than their bite.” The redhead shrugged, pulling her T-shirt tight against her bosom. “I’m used to it.”

Prince of Wolves

Joey found it impossible to maintain her grim mood in the face of Maggie’s perpetual good cheer, and she grinned back. The wine was cool and soothing, even if it wasn’t exactly top grade.

“You see, I made sure I had some of that wine for you. I know you’re not the beer type!” Maggie winked and turned back to acknowledge the shouted request of another patron.

Joey sipped at her wine, drawing patterns through the condensation on the scratched wood surface of the bar with her finger. She looked up again as a stream of wine gurgled into her glass, replacing what she’d already drunk.

“You look like you need it tonight,” Maggie explained. She leaned over comfortably and gave her full attention to Joey. “I can tell it hasn’t been a great day. Want to talk about it?” The warmth of her flaming hair and the matching warmth of her eyes and voice invited complete trust, and Joey felt some of the tension slide out of her.

She found herself telling Maggie everything — about the wolf, the note she’d received about her errant guide, and her fruitless search for a replacement. Maggie listened with real sympathy, breaking her attention only to deliver an occasional beer to a rowdy customer. The wine and good company were conspiring to make Joey feel considerably better.

“So now I’m really stuck, Maggie. I haven’t got that much time left.” She sighed heavily and drained the last of the wine in her glass. “Any suggestions? I’m feeling a little desperate.”

Maggie’s cheerful face lengthened. “I can see you are. And you don’t wear your heart on you sleeve the way I do, either.” She chewed her full lip and studied her bright red nails. “Don’t give up yet. Let me ask around a little — and you keep trying, too. Something may turn up. And you’ve still got a little time left.” She hesitated, meeting Joey’s eyes earnestly. “Did you ever consider maybe waiting until next year? You’d have plenty of time to prepare, that way, and . . .”

“No.” Joey kept her voice level, but her fist clenched on the countertop. “I can’t. I’ve waited too long.” With an effort she relaxed her hand. “I appreciate what you’re saying, Maggie. But I’ve got to do it this way. If you can give me any help at all, I’ll owe you.”

Maggie reached across the bar and touched Joey’s hand lightly. “I’ll do what I can, I promise.” A silence fell between them; Joey let the mild sedative of the wine calm her. Control. If she could just keep things under control.

She was too lost in her own musings to immediately notice the sudden hush that fell over the bar. The absence of human chatter caught her attention slowly, and she blinked as she looked around. The noisy clumps of men were still at their tables, but they seemed almost frozen in place. Only the television, nearly drowned out before, broke the quiet.

Maggie, too, was still, gazing fixedly in the direction of the door. Joey swung around, noting that every other face was turned the same way. There was a man standing just inside the doorway, as still as all the others, a silhouette in the dim light. It took Joey a moment to realize that he was the focus of this strange and vivid tableau.

Even as the thought registered, someone coughed. It broke the hush like the snap of a twig in a silent forest. The room suddenly swelled again with noise, a relieved blast of sound as things returned to normal. Joey shook her head and stared as the new arrival moved across to the single pay phone in the alcove near the entryway, turning his back to the room. She could just make out the man’s height, a certain lean grace in his movements, a head of darkish hair, but nothing about him indicated a reason for the peculiar reaction his entrance had provoked. The stranger picked up the receiver and began dialing, seemingly as oblivious to her scrutiny as to what had just occurred. She turned back to Maggie and met the woman’s distracted gaze.

“What was that all about?” she asked. Maggie was slow to answer, but the moment of gravity was short-lived, and the barkeep smiled again and shook her head.

“Sorry about that. Must have seemed pretty strange, I guess. But he tends to have that effect on people around here.”

Joey leaned forward on her elbow, avoiding a wet puddle on the counter. “Who’s he?” she demanded, casting a quick glance over her shoulder.

Setting down the mug she’d been polishing, Maggie assumed an indifference Joey was sure she didn’t feel. “His name is Luke Gévaudan. He lives some way out of town — up the slope of the valley. Owns a pretty big tract of land to the east.”

Joey slewed the stool around to better watch the man, chin cupped in her hand. “I know you’ve said people here don’t much care for outsiders,” she remarked, “but you have to admit that was a pretty extreme reaction.” She strained to hear the man’s voice over the din but could make nothing out. He kept his back turned to her. “Gévaudan, you said. Isn’t that a French name?”

“French-Canadian,” Maggie corrected. There are a few people living farther out on the slopes and in some of the more isolated valleys. Sometimes they’ll come into town, though not so much over the past few years.”

“So he’s one of these . . . French-Canadians? Is that why the people here don’t like him?” She studied Maggie over her shoulder.

“It’s not like that,” Maggie sighed. “It’s hard to explain to someone from outside — I mean, he’s strange. People don’t trust him, that’s all. And as a rule he doesn’t make much of an attempt to change that. He keeps to himself.”

Prince of Wolves

Unexpectedly intrigued, Joey divided her attention between the object of her curiosity and the redhead. “Don’t kid me, Maggie. He may be strange and he may be standoffish, but you can’t tell me that wasn’t more than just mild distrust a minute ago.”

She pulled absently on her braid where it fell over her shoulder, examining what little she could see of Gévaudan. There was nothing particularly unusual about his appearance that she could see from here. He was tall and big and dressed in jeans and a green plaid shirt, like any number of the other men in town. She couldn’t get a clear look at his face.

Maggie leaned against the bar and sagged there as if in defeat. “I said it’s complicated. I didn’t grow up here, so I don’t know the whole story, but there are things about the guy that bother people. I hear he was a strange kid. And there’s the matter of his lands — he owns a lot of prime timber up there that would make work for local folks. So I’ve been told.” She hesitated. “He’s also got a bit of a reputation as a — well, a lady-killer, I guess you could say.” She grinned and tossed her red curls. “I’m not sure that’s the right word. Let’s put it this way — he’s been known to attract the ladies, and it’s caused a bit of a ruckus now and then.”

“Interesting,” Joey mused. “If he’s so popular with the local women, I can see why the men around here wouldn’t be overly amused.” She couldn’t help but consider the local men she’d met; some of them had been pleasant enough, but none of them had come close to attracting her interest. Not that that would have been likely in any case, after Richard . . .

“It’s not just local women,” Maggie broke in, falling naturally into her usual habit of cozy gossip. “Though there were a couple of incidents — before my time, you understand. But I know there’ve been a few outsiders who’ve, shall we say, taken up with him.” She gave an insinuating leer. “They all left, every one of them, after a few months. And none of them ever talked.”

Wondering when she’d get a clear look at his face, Joey cocked an eye at her friend. “I guess that could make for some resentment. He may be mysterious, but he doesn’t sound like a very nice guy to me.”

“There you go,” Maggie said, pushing herself off the bar. “Consider yourself warned.” She winked suggestively. “The way you’re staring at him, I’d say you need the warning.”

At Joey’s start of protest, Maggie sashayed away to serve her customers. Joey was left to muse on what she’d been told. Not that it really mattered, in any case. She wasn’t interested in men. There were times when she wondered if she would ever be again. But that just wasn’t an issue now. She had far more important things on her mind. . . .

Her thoughts broke off abruptly as the man called Gévaudan turned. There was the briefest hush again, almost imperceptible; if Joey hadn’t been so focused on him and what had happened, she might never have noticed. For the first time she could see him clearly as he stepped into the light.

The first impression was of power. It was as if she could see some kind of aura around the man — too strong a feeling to dismiss, as much as it went against the grain. Within a moment Joey had an instinctive grasp of why this Luke Gévaudan had such a peculiar effect on the townspeople. He seemed to be having a similar effect on her.

Her eyes slid up his lithe form, from the common-place boots and over the snug jeans that molded long, muscular legs. She skipped quickly over his midtorso and took in the expanse of chest and broad shoulders, enhanced rather than hidden by the deep green plaid of his shirt. But it was when she reached his face that the full force of that first impression hit her.

He couldn’t have been called handsome — not in that yuppified modern style represented by the clean-cut models in the ads back home. There was a roughness about him, but not quite the same unpolished coarseness that typified many of the local men. Instead, there was a difference — a uniqueness — that she couldn’t quite compare to anyone she’d see before.

Her unwillingly fascinated gaze traveled over the strong, sharply cut lines of his jaw, along lips that held a hint of reserved mobility in their stillness. His nose was straight and even, the cheekbones high and hard, hollowed underneath with shadow. The hair that fell in tousled locks over his forehead was mainly dark but liberally shot with gray, especially at the temples. The age this might have suggested was visible nowhere in his face or body, though his bearing announced experience. His stance was lightly poised, alert, almost coiled like some wary creature from the wilds.

But it wasn’t until she reached his eyes that it all coalesced into comprehension. They glowed. She shook her head, not sure what she was seeing. It wasn’t a literal glow, she reminded herself with a last grasp at logic, but those eyes shone with their own inner light. They burned — they burned on hers. Her breath caught in her throat. He was staring at her, and for the first time she realized he was returning her examination.

She met his gaze unflinchingly for a long moment. His eyes were pale — and though in the dim light she could not make out the color, she could sense the warm light of amber in their depths. Striking, unusual eyes. Eyes that burned. Eyes that seemed never to blink but held hers in an unnerving, viselike grip. Eyes that seemed hauntingly familiar . . .

Joey realized she was shaking when she finally looked away. Her hands were clasped together in her lap, straining against each other with an internal struggle she was suddenly conscious of. Even now she could feel his gaze on her, intense and unwavering, but she resisted the urge to look up and meet it again. The loss of control she’d felt in those brief, endless moments of contact had been as unexpected and frightening as it was inexplicable. She wasn’t eager to repeat the experience. But the small stubborn core of her that demanded control over herself and her surroundings pricked at her without mercy. With a soft curse on an indrawn breath, Joey looked up.

He was gone.

The shock of it had little time to register. “You there, Joey? Anybody home?” Maggie’s voice drew her attention reluctantly away from the place Gévaudan had been standing only seconds before. “I thought for moment you might be having an out-of-body experience or something.” The redhead lifted the half-empty wine bottle in invitation, but Joey shook her head with a sigh.

“Something like that, I guess. I’m just tired. I should probably turn in so I’ll be fresh to start over in the morning.”

She forced her body to move in accordance with her words, but she couldn’t shake the disorientation the strange encounter with Gévaudan — or more precisely with his eyes — had left her with. She slipped off the stool and immediately lost her balance; only a quick clutch at the edge of the bar saved her from her fall.

Maggie’s voice floated down. “You all right? Are you going to need some help getting home?”

The concern of the redhead’s voice was a welcome and familiar comfort Joey grasped at as she righted herself. “No, I’ll be okay,” she grinned wanly at Maggie as she searched her pocket for change. “Thanks for everything.”

Maggie waved away the neatly folded bills Joey retrieved from her wallet with an unswerving grin. “It’s on the house. You be damned careful heading home now, okay?” Joey nodded, starting across the room as Maggie’s words chased after her. “Don’t forget to watch out for strange men, you hear?”

For once Joey fully resolved to follow well-meant advice.

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Read the Reviews

“PRINCE OF WOLVES is a winner. This is powerful romance that goes straight to the heart of the market–and is certain to appeal to romance readers everywhere. Strong, mythic elements, passionate encounters, intense conflict, this one has it all. Susan Krinard was born to write romance.”

— Amanda Quick

“The best first novel of the decade. Written with tremendous energy, it exhilarates the senses and intoxicates the soul. Susan Krinard has set the standard for today’s fantasy romance.”

— Affaire de Coeur

“Haunting and mystical, PRINCE OF WOLVES will catch you up in its mystery and passion and, when the ride is over, it will leave you breathless in wonder.”

— Rendezvous

“A brilliantly talented new author… Ms. Krinard serves up a dandy werewolf tale that romance fans will rush to snatch off the bookshelves.”

— Romantic Times

“Wow!… an incredible story… one of the best books of the paranormal romances of the year and by far the best from a new author–definitely headed for the ‘keeper’ shelf!”

— The Talisman