To enroll in Aden’s school, he’d taken Connall as a last name. Connall meant “great, mighty hound” in the ancient language. Victoria had suggested Ulrich, which meant “female warrior.” One of the first jokes she’d ever cracked. He’d been so proud of her, he’d almost done it. But Riley Ulrich was a little too foreign-sounding when he’d wanted only to blend in.
Maybe he should have gone with Riley Smith. Or Riley Jones.
Some of his past girlfriends had called him Riley the Asshat. Or, his personal favorite, Riley the I Hope You Contract VD, You Rotten Piece of Shit.
His relationships never tended to work out, for whatever reason. “Whatever” was always his fault, he knew. And not just because the girls told him so. He purposefully kept himself at a distance, for their good as well as his own. He had a possessive streak that went bone deep, and if he ever decided a girl was his, well, he’d keep her. Forever.
Sure, the girls might have wanted him in the moment, or even for a few weeks or months into the relationship, but that could change. She could change.
You couldn’t teach old dogs new tricks because the old dogs just freaking didn’t care to learn. Riley had lived over a hundred years. Among humans, he was old. Therefore, he wasn’t learning anything new.
Among his own people, he was still a babe, but that didn’t help his argument, so he wasn’t going to toss that into the equation.
Also, the girlfriend, when she truly got to know him, might not understand his lifestyle, might not like it and might decide to leave him. But if he’d taken things to the next level, it would be too late. Anyone you brought to Vlad’s home stayed in Vlad’s home.
Vlad wasn’t calling the shots anymore, but Riley understood the reasoning behind the edict. Protection of the species. Still. By bringing someone into the fold, you opened yourself up to challenges.
Look at Vic and Draven.
Riley hated challenges. What was his was his, and he didn’t share. And maybe he felt that way because he’d grown up in a pack, and every scrap of food, every piece of clothing, every room, bed and unmated female—and yes, every unmated male—had been considered community property. That had gotten old fast. So, like he’d said, he kept a part of himself distanced from his girlfriends and never allowed himself to consider one exclusively “his.”
Somehow she’d snuck past his defenses. Hell, maybe she’d muted them like she muted everything else. He’d wondered, finding it strange that he’d been intrigued by her since the beginning. And yeah, he’d also been panting for a little action. All that dark hair he’d wanted to fist, those so-deep-you-could-be-lost-forever eyes of fall-brown he’d wanted to search. That olive skin, pale with the slightest hint of color, he’d wanted to lick. (Hey, he was a dog.)
She was tall and slender, pretty in a quiet way, graceful in an even quieter way. Like, she might trip while she was walking, her mind lost in thought, but when she reached up to brush her hair out of her face, her fingers tracing over her cheeks and temples, she was all fluid motion, a study of sensuality.
She didn’t know her own appeal, and that had been obvious in the beginning, too. She sometimes looked down at her feet, shyly kicking stones. She never purposely sought attention; she sometimes blushed. She was reserved and nervous, yet determined to overcome every test tossed her way.
At first, he hadn’t known how smart she was. He’d just thought, wow, she’s pretty…and sweet…and more concerned with others than she is with herself. But he’d learned fast. Real fast. Her mind worked at an amazing speed. She took nothing at face value, researched everything and, though reserved and nervous, had no problem voicing her opinions with people she was comfortable with, believing what she said one hundred percent.
What’s more, she told the truth, always. No matter how harsh. He admired that trait because he was the same way.
She was emotional, too. Something he was not and had not realized he liked. Until her. She wasn’t afraid to cry all over him or hug him. Or to laugh and twirl around a room with happiness. Quite simply, she held nothing back. The complete opposite of him and everyone he’d ever dated, really.
She was vulnerable, and she didn’t care. She just…lived.
Leaving him hadn’t been about protecting herself. He knew that. Leaving him had been about protecting him. She didn’t want to hurt him, and he got that. He did. He didn’t want to hurt her, either. But separation? That wasn’t the answer.
So she was a drainer. So what? They’d deal. Every couple had their problems. And okay, okay. Her problem could kill him. They’d find a solution before that happened. Guaranteed.
A rock sliced into his paw, but he didn’t stumble. He kept running, sweat dripping in his eyes. Unlike non-shifter dogs, he could sweat (among other things) as human and animal collided inside him. And sweat he did. A lot. His fur was plastered to his pelt by the time he reached the big, bad city.
Panting, he whizzed past people—all of whom yelped in shock at the large (really large) animal streaking by—bypassed cars and barreled past other animals. Pets on leashes, wild things foraging for food.
So many auras, each boasting colorful layer after colorful layer. One for the physical body, one for self-directed emotions, one for emotions directed at others, for the logical mind, the creative mind, the practical mind, for truth and lie, for love and hate, for passion and finally, for peace and chaos.
People wore those layers like coats. Glowing coats that broadcast their thoughts and emotions—their everything. Wouldn’t be so bad, if each layer was a simple color from an organized chart. Red, blue, green or yellow, something easy like that. But, no. He saw varying shades of the same colors, different colors on top of different colors, colors blending together, colors, colors and more colors.
That was another thing he liked about Mary Ann. Her aura. He didn’t have to waste time interpreting the colors pulsing around her. They were too pure, too strong, each one stacked on top of the other, nothing murky or open for interpretation.
Where are you, sweetheart?
Last time he’d seen her, too many days ago, she’d been in Tulsa, Oklahoma. How she’d escaped him, he didn’t yet know. One moment he’d seen her, the next, when she turned a corner, he hadn’t. He’d smelled her, though. That sweet fragrance of wildflowers and honey. But just like her, the scent had faded, leading nowhere, and he’d lost her trail completely.
He would have stayed and continued searching, but when he’d called his brother Nate for an update on Vic, Aden and life at the mansion, he’d flipped. Hearing his personal charge was “crying a lot” and “shut in her room,” as well as “worked into a blood craze and threatening to damage people” had sent him into a tailspin of panic. He’d stolen a car and broken every speed law known to man to reach her.
He could have driven back here, that would have taken him only three hours, but he preferred to run in his animal form. To scent Mary Ann. To know who had interacted with her.
When he reached the street where he’d last seen her walking—smack in the middle of a busy shopping center—he at last slowed. Horns honked, cars swerved to avoid him. He moved into the shadows, staying close to building walls. Would be a major pain in the ass to deal with Animal Control and their tranq guns.
Adrenaline surged through him, thick and potent, making his blood like fire in his veins. The sweat kept dripping from him, leaving a noticeable trail along the sidewalk. He probably smelled. Good. Everyone would stay the hell away from him.
He sniffed…sniffed…so many odors, blending together. He sorted through them, continuing to sniff…caught a hint of magic, and the hair on his spine lifted, even wet and weighted as it was. Magic equaled witches, and the witches hated Mary Ann with a murderous passion.
A coven could live here, unaware of the drainer now in their midst. Or a coven could be following her.
He sniffed, sniffed…there. The drum, drum of his heart increased in speed and ferocity. Mary Ann. The scent of her hadn’t just lingered; it had grown stronger. She must have taken this path several times—and recently. Why? Had she run into the witches? If so, had she sucked the magic out of them or had they captured her? Or worse?
He studied the area. Clothing boutiques, a deli, cafés, a coffee shop. A short distance ahead was a hill, highlighted by a multitude of lamps, a yellowing lawn and a tall, sprawling building. It was older, comprised of brownstone, with steepled roofs and concrete steps. A library.
Riley closed the distance and clomped up the steps. Closing time had already passed, which meant the building was empty for the night. He turned, sniffing. Oh, yes. The sweet scent of Mary Ann saturated the air. She’d been here many times. Researching, as her nature dictated.
What was she researching? Drainers? Even the thought caused his stomach to churn with a bucket of acid. Paper trails were a bitch, and yeah, witches tracked that kind of thing. Who didn’t? They’d be on her—if they weren’t already—before she could click her heels together and pray for home.
Sniff, sniff. He frowned. He also caught the scent of something, someone, familiar. Dark, a little citrusy. Familiar, yes, but not enough to immediately register a name.
Then, Riley lost the scent altogether. Cigarette smoke wafted through the air, masking everything else as it wound around him. He growled, low and throaty. He hated that crap, and as soon as he found the source he was going to—
A dirty guy with a whiskey bottle sat behind one of the columns, the smoke snaking around him. “Here doggie, doggie,” he slurred.
Seriously? Riley threw another growl the guy’s way.
That earned him a drunken chortle. “Mean little thing, ain’t ya?” Little? Hardly. Dude, you’re lucky I don’t piss all over you. Riley flashed his sharp canines and turned. He could see the shopping area he’d just left and a good expanse beyond that, rundown apartments, most likely crack houses, and what looked to be several crime scenes, police lights flashing red and blue. Beyond even that was downtown Tulsa. Lots of lights and towering buildings, both glass and chrome.