Here’s chapter 3 of my most recent paranormal romance I’ve entitled “Howls in the Night”. If you remember from a past blog, Erica and Dominic met in his antique shop and he gave her a special gift. This is the aftermath of that act of generosity, and it tells a little more about Dominic as the Prime Alpha wolf shifter of Tolstone.
As Dominic locked up the shop, he cursed himself for his behavior again. Not only did he just give away a valuable piece of merchandise, but hindsight allowed him to see that he had been blatantly flirting with a customer. He wanted to justify his actions. He wanted to make some excuse that the way she looked at him with those mystifying hazel eyes made him lose his mind. The way she walked into his shop, bringing with her that presence that drove him wild and calmed him all at the same time both confused and startled him.
She did all those things and so much more, but no amount of logic could save him from kicking himself ever since she turned the corner and walked away. Erica Barrett was a breath of fresh air and quite possibly the most beautiful creature he had ever seen. The way the sunset brought out the fine, natural golden highlights in her chestnut braid that hung over her shoulder, the way she smiled to reveal the cutest pair of dimples in Tolstone, how her clothes hung in just the right way over her curves to make him want to reach out and grab her about the waist.
Oh, how he wished there weren’t rules to dictate what he could and could not do with a perfect stranger. He would have broken every one of them if he thought he could. He had never felt this drawn to any woman before, so curious to know more about her and who she was. Maybe it was the stress getting to him. He was under so much pressure that it was liable to break him like this.
Dominic pulled on the door handle to make sure it was firmly locked and turned toward Second Avenue, almost following in Erica’s footsteps. He passed by the display window where the Rolleiflex used to be. It had been a gift to his grandfather from a German alpha that took refuge in Tolstone after moving his pack to the states to escape the chaos of World War II. His father hated to put it up for sale after his grandfather passed, and so did Dominic, but realistically he wouldn’t have used it for anything. He didn’t even have any film, but something told him that he had sold it to a worthy customer.
Erica blew him away with her knowledge of the camera’s history and if he hadn’t been swept off his feet by that quiet strength she seemed to exude, then her little recitation would have surely done it. There were few within his pack who appreciated history as much as Dominic, and to find someone else who took the time to study something restored his faith in humanity – just a little.
It was likely they would meet again, especially if she had just moved to Tolstone. Cole and Hank had told him someone new was coming into town today, but he didn’t expect it to be a woman with so much fire behind her eyes.
He had been taught that women were meant to be taken care of. They needed husbands, fathers, brothers, or alphas to look after them and ensure that they were safe at all times. Dominic was trained up in the gentlemanly fashion by his father, who was educated by his father before him. The former Prime Alpha of Tolstone must have been rolling in his grave the way Dominic didn’t offer to walk Erica home, but there was more to consider.
If he had taken Erica home, it was likely that he wouldn’t have left. Dominic was also taught how to read and interpret body language. He could look at the simple way a person stood and understand their intentions. It was a useful skill for what he had to do every day with the packs that took refuge in Tolstone. And if Dominic was as versed as he believed himself to be, this attraction was not one sided. Erica might have invited him in for coffee, he would graciously accept, one thing would lead to another and…
Dominic felt his jeans tighten at the thought of it as he shoved his hands deeper into his jacket pockets. No, he couldn’t have that. This was just as phase. A burning curiosity over someone he hadn’t met before. It didn’t happen often. Actually, it never happened at all. There was something about Erica that fascinated him, but there was nothing in her conversation that would have instigated such desires. They were polite, professional, and the meeting was too brief. Far too brief.
The sun was gone now, completely submerged below the horizon and the moon was just barely visible through the treetops. The silver glow reflected off the grainy blacktop as the live oak branches swayed above him. A dog barked in the distance and he could keenly hear families sitting down to their evening meal behind closed doors.
It was a night like any other, a typical walk back home, but something seemed so different. Scents were stronger, sounds seemed louder, and even the muted colors of coming night seemed to stand out in his keen vision.
It wasn’t until Fox Way, just a block away from Crescent Lane at the corner of Prince Cutoff, that Dominic realized he hadn’t even been thinking about the way home. His feet just kept moving, following his nose. And his nose was following Erica.
Dominic slowed his steps as he tried to rid his mind of her for the dozenth time in the short hour since they met. He ran his fingers through his hair.
“Come on, Dom,” he whispered to himself. “Get a grip.”
It was something his father had said to him so often when he was being an unreasonable child or recalcitrant pupil, which was the majority of the time. Every time he rolled his eyes during a lecture, every time he was caught running off with the other boys when he should have been home or at the antique shop. He could almost hear his father’s voice still rumbling in his ear, telling him to forget about the girl. But he couldn’t.
His mind played back their conversation and his lungs seized in his chest. He had to know her. He just had to.
With renewed purpose, he strode faster toward Crescent Lane, but the lingering trail of vanilla perfume – Erica’s perfume – haunted him with every step. When he turned the corner, he saw his home on the far side of the street and let out a breath, knowing once he was inside, he could distract himself and cure this curiosity with a good night’s sleep.
But a sight made him stop dead in his tracks. The house beside him, the old Donaldson place, was not vacant. Its once darkened windows came alive, light cascading through the glass for the first time in a year. Hank hadn’t told him that the new arrival would be taking up the house next to him. That’s something he should have been informed of and his beta would receive the scolding of his life for not mentioning such an important detail.
But more than that, he realized where Erica’s trail final ended.
In his pockets, Dominic’s hands tightened into fists as he stared up at the newly occupied home. Her black jeep sat on the curb, an empty U-Haul parked just at its tailgate. She must have arrived that morning, which would have explained why she had takeout from Gwen and Jaime’s restaurant. It was unlikely she had everything unpacked yet.
If he listened close enough, he could hear the sharp slap of bare feet on the wood floors and the hiss of cardboard boxes being moved and opened.
His home was no longer a safe refuge. He’d be up all night, listening to her roam about the house and wonder which room she was in and what she was unpacking. He shouldn’t daydream about what she wore when she slid between the covers once the lights were out. He shouldn’t have wanted to know if she had a bedtime routine. Dominic shouldn’t have cared. But she was such a pleasant, delicious distraction from other things that should have occupied his mind.
Even his wolf wanted to walk up to her door and offer to help her get settled in. He couldn’t allow himself to be so stupid. His inner beast, the one he had been born with, liked her like a dependent puppy that wanted her affection. Such a feeling was rare. His wolf barely liked anyone, even Hank or any of the other alphas, and would often urge him to growl or snap at any other werewolf who intruded upon his space. But with Erica, he wanted more of her and that small taste he received in the shop wasn’t enough.
Dominic’s lips tightened into a grim line as he started back down the street, walking as far from Erica’s property as possible before turning to his walkway. He had to clear his head and in his experience, there was only one way to do that.
Once inside, he hurried up his stairs and to the massive grand bedroom. Under his poster bed, he grabbed the duffle bag that was already packed with a spare change of clothes, a stick of deodorant, baby wipes for wiping off dirt and mud, and a bath towel. All the things he would need for a night running as a wolf outside of town. He knew, once the wind was in his bristling fur coat and the soft earth sank between the pads on his paws, he’d forget about Erica, if just for a moment. Maybe then, he could recover from their first meeting and come to his sense.
He raced out of the house, locked the door behind him, ignored his silver Toyota Tacoma parked on the curbside, and set off for Highland Road that led straight north toward Larson Caves Park. It was a safe place to run, monitored by a member of his own pack who ensured that no campers or tourists would wander down paths segregated for all the werewolves and shifters who came to Tolstone. He could go there, far out of range from Erica’s scent and all that was now connected to her memory.
Just when the strong vanilla was fading, Dominic heard the familiar growl of a vehicle he knew well. He didn’t have to turn to see Cole Spradley’s police squad car roll up beside him, keeping up with Dominic’s long, determined strides.
The whirl of mechanics told him the passenger side window rolled down and the stout smell of a warm car interior and subtle scent of chilidogs wafted out.
“Where ya headed?” Cole called from the driver’s side.
Dominic looked over and met the sheriff’s dark eyes.
Cole, along with Hank, had been an invaluable asset in training Dominic to take on his role as Prime Alpha. As an alpha himself, he knew a thing or two about how to best protect a pack in danger. His own pack had survived a hunter epidemic almost twenty-five years ago. Dominic remembered those months when Tolstone was flooded with imperiled packs and his father had to make tough choices. Cole and his pack of three were permitted to seek refuge, but, from what he remembered, at a steep cost. The pack never left, which was unheard of, but Cole proved himself to be useful in helping to enforce order in Tolstone, so he was permitted to stay.
“Larson Caves,” he replied shortly.
He heard the click as Cole unlocked the car doors. “Hop in. I’ll give you a lift.”
Dominic wasn’t expecting that. He almost tripped to a stop and the squad car screeched to a halt. Cole’s brakes were in desperate need of replacing. The passenger door flew open and Dominic was too stunned to refuse.
Hank would have told him that running off to Larson Caves alone was a dumbass move in itself. He’d be away from his phone, out in the open, and though the park was secluded enough for a shifter, it was too secluded for a Prime Alpha unaccompanied by his pack. If an incident like last night with Madison happened again, no one would have been able to reach Dominic. And Dominic always had to be available.
But Cole didn’t seem to mind and was even encouraging his young Prime Alpha to go. Dominic buckled himself in and saw the discarded chilidog wrapper on the floorboard at his feet. Cole sped away down Highland Road and turned off onto the County Highway that led toward Larson Caves.
“Rough day?” Cole asked, the blue lights of the dashboard reflecting on his face. The alpha was old enough to be Dominic’s father and the touch of gray around his temples and in the stumble on his chin showed his age. Maybe that was why he was a little more lenient than Hank, who was a good decade younger and seemed to always have a stick up his ass.
Dominic adjusted the duffle bag in his lap and sighed. “Rough week,” he replied.
“I heard about what happened with Madison last night,” he said. “And you still want to go running? You should be resting.”
He couldn’t speak a word about why he really wanted to go to Larson Caves. A good night running around would certainly release a fraction of the pressure he was under, but his reasons were far deeper and more complex than that. Thinking of Erica in that moment reminded him of Cole’s negligence. Along with Hank, Cole played a major role in keeping Dominic informed about new developments in Tolstone.
“Why didn’t you tell me the new human was taking the Donaldson house next to mine?”
Cole glanced at him as a car passed them in the opposite lane. “I thought Hank would have told you that.”
Dominic glared out the windshield. “He didn’t.”
“Well, now you know,” Cole replied with a humored lilt to his voice. He didn’t have to look to know the cop was smiling. “Do you at least know who it is? Hank didn’t give me much to go on, though I’m sure I can send Ronan out to take a look.”
“No,” Dominic barked. Just the thought of sending Cole’s deputy out to bother Erica set him on edge and he wasn’t sure why. Ronan was trustworthy, but having the tattooed police officer show up on her doorstep was not the way to welcome her to Tolstone. “I’ve… I’ve met her.”
He hated the self-conscious way the words seemed to stutter out. Once more, his father’s ghost harped in his ear about being confident and sure of himself, especially speaking with another alpha.
“Oh? And what’s she like?” Cole didn’t seem bothered, but intrigued. Dominic didn’t know whether to appreciate this moment of candidness or let his wolf come out and tell Cole that it was none of his business who the girl was.
“Fine, I guess,” he replied with a shrug as he scratched his thumbnail against the nylon strap on his bag. “She came into the shop just before closing and bought the Rolleiflex in the window.”
He didn’t see the wisdom in telling Cole that he just gave it away. That would raise even further suspicion. He never just handed off an antique to anyone.
The sheriff chuckled. “That old thing? I’m surprised. Your father told me it didn’t have any film.”
“It doesn’t, but she seems to know a thing or two about cameras. She’ll probably buy some film from online or something.”
The squad car slowed as it turned off the highway. His headlights illuminated the sign that read “Larson Caves Park” in gold lettering, with a giant arrow pointing down the dirt road. Trees closed in the dirt trail that rocked the squad car. Cole also needed his suspension replaced.
“Do you think she’ll fix up the place?” the sheriff asked.
From what he could assess of Erica’s character, he wasn’t quite sure. Repairmen and inspectors would have made the house habitable per the occupancy codes, so the hardest work was already done. But he wondered how she would manage mowing the lawn and trimming the overgrown gardenia bushes around the porch.
An image formed in his mind of Erica laboring in the yard, a pair of shorts showing off her shapely legs and a white t-shirt drenched in her sweat. Her long brown hair was pulled back, but a few flyaway strands escaped out of her ponytail and stuck to her damp face. Dominic imagined her pushing a lawnmower, panting and working that perfect body of hers. He cut himself off when the fantasy produced a water bottle and Erica taking a long drink.
He cleared his throat and shifted in his seat as if that would make his boner go away. “I don’t know,” he replied a second or two too late. “We didn’t talk about the house at all.”
“What did you talk about?”
Dominic could feel Cole’s curious gaze pin him in the chair and that’s when his wolf took over to compensate for his vulnerability. “Nothing of consequence. You can just let me out here.”
Cole obeyed and eased the squad car to a stop. The path was just wide enough that he could open the door without hitting a tree. Dominic had to restrain himself from opened the door too fast or slamming it on the way out.
The heady scent of grasses, tree bark, and the residual trails of other forest creatures that snaked through the thicket wrapped around his mind, inviting him to strip right there and run. He could never forsake the company of these pines, spruces, and dogwoods. Not after all they shared. The park wasn’t just a place to run as a wolf, but a second home, a refuge within a refuge since he was a teenager and just getting the hang of his shifting abilities. His father hated when he went to run without permission.
“Are you going to be good for the alpha meeting tomorrow night?” Cole asked before Dominic had a chance to make his final retreat.
Even here in this wilderness, he wouldn’t be allowed to forget his new responsibilities. He let out a heavy sigh and nodded without looking back to the car. “Yeah, I’ll be fine.”
The alpha meeting came bi-monthly and served as a time for all the alphas and betas of the packs that were currently in Tolstone to meet and talk. Alphas who were visiting were to give their progress report on how soon they could leave, and it was Dominic’s job to tell them of any new happenings in the town that they needed to be aware of.
With the recent departure of one pack, Hank and Cole would be giving their reports on what addresses were now available, what jobs were left open, and any new applicants that were up for consideration. The whole meeting usually took hours and was held at the antique shop’s upstairs apartment just after closing. After two nights of running on fumes, Dominic was tempted to keep the store closed for the whole day and stay home to recover.
That wouldn’t have worked because Erica would most likely still be next door and getting settled into her new home. Her presence would distract him from any possible sleep he could get. Maybe he could go to the shop, but keep it closed so he could take a nap or two. No doubt Hank would keep his phone ringing, though.
Dominic suddenly felt trapped and his wolf clawed for release.
“If you’re not feeling up to it, you know you don’t have to be there.”
Cole’s assurance was laughable. He could never get away with missing an alpha meeting. His father never did, and everyone expected him to run Tolstone in the same way. Hank would drag him kicking and screaming to the meeting if he tried to skip out of it.
“I’ll be fine, Cole,” he returned, forcing his tone to stay neutral when he was far from calm. “You don’t have to worry about me.”
A pause of silence made Dominic turn and look at Cole, who stared back at him, wholly unconvinced.
“It hasn’t even been a year yet,” the alpha said severely. “You’re allowed to – “
“No, I’m not,” Dominic snapped, cutting of Cole’s attempt at encouragement. He didn’t need it and it wasn’t true. “Tolstone still needs a Prime Alpha and right now, that’s me. I’ll own up to this and I don’t need anyone to make exceptions for me.”
That harsh admonition seemed to silence whatever Cole had planned to say and he only nodded. “Just be careful out there. Do you want me to pick you up in the morning?”
Dominic only shook his head, turned and bolted into the woods before the sheriff could say any more. With his inhuman speed putting more and more distance between him and the road, he could feel a bit of the tension slip away.
The roar of the car engine faded in favor of crickets and the rustling of critters as they scurried out of the predator’s way. With the duffle bag banging against his hip with each step, he kept running faster and faster, dodging in and out through the trees until he was completely and utterly alone. No Cole, no pack, no Erica to torment him with complicated feelings. Even his father’s commanding voice seemed a little softer in his subconscious.
He slid to a stop in some nameless, trackless part of the park and stripped down to stand naked. Only the stars, trees, and moon witnessed him tuck his things away under a sheltering bush and begin the shift from man to wolf.
The excruciating pain of the change was unaffected by age, rank, or dominance. It hurt all werewolves equally, without prejudice or mercy. It was the only equalizer amongst shifters that they could never escape from. But the rewards outweighed the intense agony that they all felt. Because when hands became paws that dug into the soil, when human skulls morphed and elongated into that of a wolf’s, when their screams were displaced by howls, beneath it all there was the oneness that could be as addicting as any drug.
It had taken him months to learn how to keep his mouth shut and muffle his cries as bones and joints became dislocated. His once blue eyes became golden, and a muscled body became covered in black fur. The mark of the Prime Alpha was seen in his pelt, a marbling of silver streaks that trailed from his chest, around his thick mane, and down his back like a royal mantle.
He shook off the last achiness of the shift and his tail quivered, disturbing some of the fallen leaves around his hind feet. Completely wolf with the heart and understanding of a man, he took off through the forest, outrunning all he tried to escape from, all that threatened to push him to the point of madness. Tonight, there was only him and the forest. If only it could have stayed that way.
It took a while, but Erica finally found it. With the heavy box propped against her hip, she flipped through the rows of CD cases until she spotted the right one. She pulled it out, checked the label and grinned before popping it into the old radio she had set on the fireplace mantle in the living room.
She hit play and the first track pumped the fast Latin pop beat through the speakers. Instantly, she was twelve years old again, sitting in the passenger seat of their new Honda the day her mom turned in the old Mustang. It was the first time she heard Let’s Get Loud by Jennifer Lopez, but certainly not the last. Her mother, no matter how difficult life became through the trials of being a single parent, never forgot to have fun. And neither would Erica.
She set down the box as she felt the excitement build in her chest, warming her core and lifting her spirits. She danced, shaking her hips and shoulders like her mom would whenever this song came on. For a moment, they were together again, celebrating another victory for their independence. The Mustang held a lot of memories, including the time she locked them out at a gas station when she was six, but the Honda was a milestone – just like buying this place in Tolstone – and Erica could think of no better way to spend her first night than listening to this fun workout mix her mom made.
Spinning, twirling, and rocking to her mom’s CD, she lost all track of time, but her progress was seen in the piles of empty boxes in the foyer. The kitchen, bathroom, and all her studio equipment was finally set up.
With her socks on, floor clean, and boxes scattered about the house, Erica went from room to room, dancing and sliding to the beat as she unpacked. She could think of no joy better than this, except maybe one.
All through eating her dinner and sorting through her things, Erica thought of Dominic and the way his soulful eyes called to her so inexplicably. She wondered what he was doing, if he was still at the antique shop or if he was home already. It was hard not to watch the street for him from her bedroom window while she laid out her blankets and bathroom linens.
When she finally gave in and took a peek from one of the back bedrooms, she found his house completely dark. No lights, nothing. It was as if the place was as vacant as hers had been before she moved in. The only exception was the flatbed of the silver truck she saw sitting on the far side of the house opposite from her on Highland Road, but that was there earlier, which told her that he must walk to and from work.
Surely he didn’t sleep at the antique store? There was an apartment-like space on the second floor from what she saw on the street, but she imagined that would have been either empty or packed with more antiques. Who actually lived above stores anymore?
That didn’t keep her from constantly checking the windows, looking up and down Crescent Lane. If only she had a good set of curtains or blinds to hide her peeping or the fact that she had changed into a pair of soft flannels and a tank top to unpack in.
Each time she looked for him, Erica laughed at herself and how ridiculous she was being. Dominic lingered in her mind like a catchy song, unwilling to leave and pestering her in the best way possible while he was stuck there between her ears. He was just a guy. A really cute guy, but that didn’t warrant her to be watching for him like his presence on her street mattered so much. She didn’t even know why she cared. Never had a man captured her imagination as Dominic did. This borderline obsessive checking only pushed her to stay busy and unpack faster.
Erica pulled out her first box of pictures, the ones that were small enough to be placed on tables and shelves. The mix CD was on its last song when she found the eight-by-ten portrait of her and her mother.
She had to be three or four at the time when it was taken, dolled up in a dress dotted with red roses and trimmed in white lace on the sleeves and neckline. She was propped on her mother’s hip, feet dangling and clad in little black loafers over frilly socks. Her mother, elegant and smiling, looked toward the camera as they stood on the church steps. She wasn’t sure who had taken the picture or what the occasion was. All Erica knew was that they both looked happy and she must have lost a front tooth recently because there was a nice little hole in her smile that she wasn’t the least bit ashamed of.
Erica gazed at the picture and felt the need for Dominic’s company dislocated by a need for her mother’s warm embrace just one more time. With a tear pressing at her eyelids, she placed the picture on the mantle right next to the radio.