“HAVE YOU found him yet?”
“No,” Cole Ferris snarled into his cell phone, his fingers curling tight around the plastic. “It’s as though he disappeared into fucking thin air!”
During a trip to deliver his latest order in Redwood City, the closest neighboring city to his home in Emerald Lake Hills, California, Cole had bumped into a young blond man and nearly shifted on the spot. His wolf perked up and tried to take control. Keeping a tight hold on his beast took every bit of his concentration, and Cole knew with certainty the young man was his mate. He’d tried to follow, but somehow lost him in an empty alley not far from the Whole Foods Market he’d been delivering to. He still didn’t know how the man had outrun him or vanished without a trace.
“Do you need help?” his soon-to-be Beta, Nick Cartwright, offered.
Cole ran a hand through his hair in aggravation. “No. I think it’s better if I find him on my own. Besides, right now isn’t a good time for you to be separated from your mate. It hasn’t been long since the bond between the two of you was completed. Being away from each other right now wouldn’t be good for either of you.”
“You shouldn’t be out there on your own, Cole. Sara is worried about you.”
Sighing, Cole stared broodingly out of the window of the hotel room he’d rented for the night. The trail had run cold in Phoenix, Arizona. The name David Freeman, discovered from the registry for the bus company that had brought his mate to Redwood City, had been, as Cole thought, an alias. He hadn’t expected anything else, but it still frustrated him. “I’m fine, Nick. Tell my mother not to worry. I can’t return home until I find him.”
“The summit is in less than two weeks, Cole. Elijah expects you to be there for it.”
He’d forgotten about the summit, actually. Sneering, he resisted the urge to punch the nearest wall, not wanting to have to explain the damage to hotel staff. When Nick’s best friend and former Rho of the Emerald Lake Hills pack Seth Davies had mated with the soon-to-be Alpha of the Senaka, Wyoming, pack, there’d been an agreement made between both of the Alphas to meet once every six months to give the unmated wolves in the Senaka pack a higher chance of finding their intended mates. Elijah’s hidden intention behind the idea of the summit was to slowly introduce the other group to the idea of nontribal wolves as, until Seth’s arrival in Senaka, they had believed only Native Americans were born and true wolves. The Emerald Lake Hills pack knew there were others out there, having established a treaty with three different packs close to their territory in an effort to form alliances and keep the peace between them. The treaties also opened the door to others in neighboring states and even farther out from there. Over time they’d come to discover there were, in fact, at least twelve more packs scattered across the US alone, and they knew of another two in Canada and three in South America.
Cole had anticipated the summit originally in the hopes of locating his intended half, but now he had no desire to attend. He hungered to track down and claim the one destined to be his. Only he couldn’t ignore his duty to his father and their people. He would succeed Elijah Ferris as Alpha of the Emerald Lake Hills pack when his father stepped down, and the duties and responsibilities of the position would become his. His father, though still young by wolf standards, wanted to retire to enjoy his remaining years and have the chance to guide Cole through the trials of being an Alpha. Cole had argued with his father, telling him he wasn’t ready, but Elijah wouldn’t listen to him and announced his intentions to pass on the reins of the pack to Cole not long after the summit.
“I’ll be there,” Cole snapped.
“Keep me posted, Cole. Remember I’m here if you need me.”
Cole slumped down on the bed. “Thanks, Nick,” he murmured before disconnecting the call.
Where the hell had David disappeared to? It seemed as if he were a ghost and Cole had only imagined him. He’d managed to get a lead on David’s whereabouts from a private detective he’d hired and followed the breadcrumbs to Phoenix, but now he didn’t even begin to know where to look. Cole remembered the scent of fear clinging to David as if he’d bathed in it. What could cause his mate such terror? It brought out Cole’s protective instincts, and he wanted nothing more than to find whoever had frightened David and rip them apart.
For the first time in his life, Cole felt helpless. He couldn’t protect David if he couldn’t find him. There had to be someone here who’d seen the young blond man in the grainy photo from the bus station security cameras. Cole’s wolf prowled restlessly beneath the surface, demanding to be set free. He knew his wolf could find David by smell if he allowed it to take over, but he couldn’t risk it in a big city, and it seemed as though David had learned to stick to big cities to hide in. While proud of his mate for being smart, it frustrated him to no end to not be able to call on the instincts of his wolf.
In the last few weeks, Cole hardly ate or rested as he tried to remain right on David’s tail. He hadn’t even had the chance to shift, and his skin itched with the need to run. But what really concerned him was where David slept and if David had food to eat. Cole figured David wouldn’t be on the run if he had a lot of money in the first place. Was his mate sleeping on the streets where anyone could hurt him? What if David were starving? These thoughts haunted him anytime Cole stopped moving. His stomach churned more and more as the days rolled by.
Cole stood and snatched up his wallet and cell before leaving the hotel room. He needed to get out and walk around, work off the energy burning through his veins. With the approach of summer, the air outside was muggy and warm, causing his white T-shirt to cling to his upper chest, clearly outlining the large muscles he’d gained from the daily work in his greenhouses. Cole had never been a vain person despite his good looks or destiny to be Alpha. He had inherited his father’s height, six foot six, but instead of his father’s dark countenance, he’d been blessed with his mother’s auburn hair, green eyes, and fiery temper. The moment he’d hit puberty, he’d begun to fill out, even with little to no exercise, his wolf maturing and growing in size. His heritage added to his stature, and by the time he turned eighteen, he looked more like he was in his late twenties, early thirties.
As early as the age of sixteen, he’d captured both men’s and women’s interest, but Cole hadn’t been attracted to the idea of casual encounters as many other men were. He’d only had two relationships through high school and his early twenties: one girl and one man. Much to his parents’ dismay, he found himself more attracted to men than women, and he didn’t hide his preference from his parents. Now, at the age of thirty, he understood why, after having discovered his mate was male and younger by a good few years from what he could tell. He prayed David was over eighteen because he wanted to claim his mate more than anything he’d wanted in his life.
Cars rushed by as Cole walked. Phoenix seemed congested and dirty compared to Emerald Lake Hills. He hated feeling penned in by large buildings and crowds of people. His wolf didn’t like the different smells and sounds, causing him to become skittish. Cole kept a tight rein on his inner beast and continued his aimless wandering. Maybe he could sleep for a few hours tonight, at least if he tired himself out enough.
“Hey, gorgeous,” a female voice interrupted his thoughts.
Cole focused on the source and saw a woman in a tight miniskirt, high heels, and tank top—an obvious sex worker. Even if he hadn’t already found his mate, he wouldn’t pay for sex. “Not interested.”
She smirked and approached him, trailing one finger along his bicep. “Won’t cost you much. In fact, since you’re so sexy, I’ll throw in a blow job for free.”
Gritting his teeth, Cole stepped away from her. “I said not interested, lady.”
She glared at him. “Fuck you, mister.”
Cole rolled his eyes. He opened his mouth to retort when he heard a loud cry of pain from an alleyway nearby. The woman glanced toward the alley, a scared expression on her face, and started walking in the opposite direction, ignoring the sounds of someone who needed help. Cole shook his head. No one cared enough to help each other when they needed it in this world.
He strode to the end of the alley and saw three men surrounding another who crouched close to the wall, shielding his head with his arms. There were tears in the man’s clothing, and it was obvious the men intended to rape him or worse. He opened his mouth to shout at them to leave the poor bastard alone when his mate’s scent hit him. His cock hardened immediately, and his canines lengthened in response. Cole growled, his eyesight shifting between human and lupine. They dared to touch his mate? He picked up the smell of blood and knew it belonged to David. His growl deepened, becoming more ferocious, and the humans finally noticed his presence.
One of them, a tall man with dark hair tied in a ponytail, turned to face him. “Well, well. We have a good Samaritan coming to the defense of a whore.”
Rage burned even higher at that word being used to describe his mate. Cole snarled, lip curling upward at the corner. “Get your dirty fucking hands off of him.”
A glimmer of fear slithered through the bastard’s eyes, but it faded quickly when the other two thugs came to his side as reinforcements. “What you gonna do about it, asshole?” challenged the bulkier of the three.
Cole smiled, but the expression held no humor, merely deadly intent. “I don’t think you want to challenge me.”
“And if we do?” the third human taunted, pulling out a knife and flashing it at him.
When Cole didn’t do more than deepen his sneer, the first man turned abruptly and kicked David in the ribs, hard. Cole heard bones break, and David howled in agony, hugging his chest to try to protect himself from the next blow. The man didn’t get a chance to land another one. Cole roared in fury and charged, easily snapping the neck of the bulkier attacker. He felt the bite of the knife slicing through his bicep and backhanded the third human, sending him flying into the side of the building with a sickening crack. Warm blood dripped down his arm, but Cole didn’t even falter as he gripped the one who’d dared to injure his mate by the throat. Cole snarled in the bastard’s face, his teeth, sharp points, glinting in the moonlight overhead. “Never, ever touch my mate,” he said ferociously and promptly twisted the man’s neck.
Cole allowed the body to crumple to the ground as he struggled to regain control. Shit. Shit. Shit. This wasn’t good. He’d just killed two of them and he could barely make out the heartbeat of the one he’d tossed into the wall, but he needed to focus on the man still cowering near the end of the alley. Cole carefully approached David and crouched close to his side. It broke his heart when David whimpered at his touch on his shoulder.
“It’s okay,” Cole soothed. “They can’t hurt you again.”
Cole sucked in a deep breath when shimmering hazel eyes peered out from under slim arms. He felt as if he’d been punched in the stomach at finally seeing his mate up close. Blood trickled from David’s nose, and a bruise had already begun to form on his porcelain cheek, but the thing that struck him the hardest was how gaunt he appeared to be. His clothing hung on his thin frame, and Cole could just make out a black leather choker around the young man’s throat. David slowly lowered his arms, crying out when his ribs protested his movements. Cole winced and attempted to help him. David scurried deeper into the corner, eyes wild with terror.
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Cole murmured. “I promise. I want to help you.”
“Ju-just leave me alone,” David begged.
“I can’t do that, David,” Cole said in a quiet voice.
David’s eyes widened in shock and horror. Cole could smell David’s fear grow stronger still. “Wh-who are you?” David demanded, a bit of fire showing through.
Cole hid a smile. His mate had spirit, even if it was shrouded at the moment by his distrust. “My name is Cole Ferris.”
“Did-did he send you?” David spat out, attempting to crunch himself farther into the corner while holding his side.
Frowning, Cole tilted his head to the side. “He?”
David studied him for a moment. “He really didn’t send you?”
“I don’t know who he is,” Cole replied simply.
“How did you know my-my name?”
Cole lowered himself from a squat to his knees, resting his palms on his thighs. “I’ve been looking for you. I got the name from the roster of the bus you took from San Francisco to Redwood City.”
The scent of David’s panic increased once more, and Cole held up his hands. “I’m honestly not here to hurt you.”
“Then what do you want? Why did you follow me?” David asked suspiciously.
How the hell did he tell the young man before him they were mates? It wasn’t exactly something a human could understand, which made blurting it out not an option. Cole hesitated, and David shook his head, attempting to climb to his feet. “Wait,” Cole said, desperation in the one word.
David grabbed at the wall to steady himself, and Cole could see David’s face growing paler by the second. “Leave me alone.”
Cole searched in vain for words to keep David by his side—nothing sounded right in his head. David took several steps but didn’t make it far, his face becoming white as a sheet. Cole moved with lightning speed to stop David from injuring himself further as he passed out. Sighing, Cole slid an arm beneath David’s knees and picked him up, cradling him close to his chest. He needed to get David to a doctor. The problem was there would be questions about his injuries. And what would Cole do with the men lying in the alley? His own arm still bled from the deep cut by the man’s knife. Shit. This wasn’t exactly how he’d expected to find his mate.
Looking around him at the bodies of the three men, Cole hoped no one discovered them before he could return to clean up the mess. The last one’s heart still beat, but it wasn’t likely the man would wake up anytime soon, if at all. Cole needed to tend to David first.
Despite the late hour, the streets were still crowded with cars driving by. Cole managed to flag down a taxi. He took note of the street and buildings around them before instructing the driver to head to the hospital.
“Mind if I ask what happened?” the driver inquired as he put the cab into drive.
What the hell could he tell the cabbie? Cole searched for an answer, but when the driver saw his hesitation the man said, “None of my business. I didn’t see anything, mister.”
“It’s not what you think,” Cole protested. “He was attacked.”
The driver frowned. “Should I call the police?”
“No! Uh… no. We’ll figure it out at the hospital.”
The cabbie gave him a skeptical look but headed to the nearest hospital. The ten-minute ride felt like an eternity as he listened to the breath wheezing in and out of David’s lungs. “Please hurry,” he murmured to the driver, holding David closer.
Cole let out a sigh of relief when he saw the lights of the hospital and the ambulance just pulling out of the parking lot. He managed to dig his wallet out of his pocket to throw forty dollars at the driver and climbed out of the vehicle to rush into the hospital. As soon as they took David to be seen to, Cole would call his father. There might be a local pack who could help with the disposal and maybe even keep the police off him for David’s condition. “He needs help,” he shouted as he strode into the ER with David in his arms.
A nurse and two orderlies immediately rushed out to take David and put him on a stretcher. Every instinct in Cole screamed to not let them take his mate, but he knew they needed to tend to David’s injuries. Cole soothed his inner wolf and tried to hold on to his beast.
“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you some questions,” a woman behind the reception desk called out.
Cole gave a jerky nod and walked to the counter.
“What’s his name?”
“Ah… David Freeman.”
“Date of birth?”
He had no idea when David had been born. “I don’t know.”
She frowned, but continued. “How old is he?”
“I don’t know.”
The same answer kept coming as she asked him a couple more questions. “Can you tell me what happened?”
Cole hesitated and then said, “Some guys attacked him. I managed to scare them off and brought him here.”
A suspicious light entered the woman’s eyes, and Cole knew his uncertainty had caused her doubt about “some guys” being the ones to hurt David. “I see. If you’ll take a seat in the waiting area, someone will be with you shortly.”
Yeah, sure, he thought to himself, you mean the cops. He gave her another nod and went over to the room they had set up for family members and loved ones of whatever poor bastard had been brought into the emergency room. Cole pulled his cell phone out of his pocket and called his father. He quietly outlined everything that had occurred, ensuring the humans in the room couldn’t hear him relaying the information about David’s attackers. “Stay put, son. I know a few people in the area.”
“Just come home as soon as you can,” Elijah Ferris groused over the phone and then cut the connection.
Cole grinned, knowing he frustrated his father to no end sometimes. Except his father couldn’t fault him for this. David was his true mate, and Cole couldn’t begin to imagine not finding him. Seconds after he’d hung up, a couple of uniformed police stepped into the room. “Sir, we have some questions we’d like to ask you.”
Cole’s wolf snarled within him, knowing they believed him to have hurt his mate, but Cole knew they were only doing their job.
“Can you tell us what happened?” The officer, name tag giving the last name of Hawkins, eyed him critically, noting the blood on his clothing and the scrapes on his fists. The cut on his arm had already healed. Cole knew the shrewd man’s gaze couldn’t have missed the slice in the sleeve of his shirt but there being no wound.
He briefly outlined everything, leaving out the details of having killed two of them and critically injuring the other one. “They ran off, and I brought the man here,” Cole finished.
“And you don’t remember where this happened?”
Cole shook his head. “No, I’m just in town for the night and happened to be walking to my hotel when I heard the young man cry out.”
“Can you give us a description of the men?”
Of course he could. Would he? Hell no. They wouldn’t find them even if he did, and his father would make sure there were no bodies or evidence remaining. “I couldn’t see them very well. We were in a dark alley.”
Before they could ask him anything else, the second officer’s radio squawked, and he walked off to answer it only to return with a sour expression. “Time to go, Hawkins.”
“What? We’re in the middle of a report here!” Hawkins protested.
“Captain said return to the station now.”
Hawkins looked at Cole, furious, his mouth in a tight line. “Got some friends in high places, buddy?”
Cole gave him an innocent look, although he knew it didn’t fool the cop. Hawkins glared at him and said, “We’ll be back to check on the kid in the morning, so don’t go gettin’ any ideas about disappearin’.”
The “kid” wouldn’t be there tomorrow morning if Cole had anything to do with it. “Sure thing, Officer Hawkins.”
Satisfaction dripped through him as the two cops left the hospital, Hawkins glancing over his shoulder more than once. Cole spent the next hour pacing the waiting room until he heard David’s last name and spun on his heel near the far wall. A nurse stood in the doorway holding a clipboard and called out David’s name. Cole rushed forward. “Is David okay?”