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The pine tree creaked. The trunk split at the base and the thirty-foot tree toppled onto the frozen forest grounds outside the Northern pack's compound, situated thirty miles northeast of the Twin Cities.
Fellow pack member Jason Crews called, "Timber!" but they were the only two on the private land.
The men stood back, waiting for stray branches to finish falling from nearby trees before Jason picked up the chain saw in preparation to remove the branches.
"Wait," Ridge said.
Jason paused, chain saw held at the ready.
Ridge glanced up. The half-moon was already bright. The sky was gray and a perfect snow fell. Perfect meaning huge, downy flakes fell straight down, slowly, softly, without a sound.
"Just wanted to enjoy it a moment," he said, and then signaled Jason to go for it.
The chain saw snarled. The man ripped into the tree, making quick work and leaving a cleanly stripped trunk. This winter they were clearing out the dead and diseased trees. Ridge had plans to start a horse logging company that traveled from forest to forest, wherever the landowners wanted them to go, clearing and cutting back deadwood. A necessary service to keep forests healthy while also respecting nature. It was ecological and used no trucks, only horsepower, thereby leaving the forest in as good condition as when they arrived.
Jason shut off the chain saw and slapped the sawdust from his overalls. Both men had been bundled against the shrill January cold this morning, but over the course of the day they'd stripped to half overalls, flannel shirts and heavy-duty leather gloves as they'd worked up a good sweat.
Ridge was considering making Jason pack scion, since they were sorely in need of structure after the recent events that saw him become the new pack leader.
But then, how to structure a measly four wolves? The pack was dwindling daily. When yet another wolf packed his things and told Ridge he was leaving for a rival pack because he needed family, well, there was no argument to be served to match the werewolf's innate and instinctual need for family.
He and Jason had surveyed the land before Christmasthe pack owned well over five hundred acres, seventy percent of it forested land. As the new pack principal, Ridge was responsible for the pack and for the members' living quarters, if they chose to live at the compound. Only two remained at the compoundhe and Jason. The other two lived with their families in the Twin Cities suburbs.
A pitiful pack, but he wasn't willing to give up on building a healthy group that considered itself family.
"I say we call it a day," Ridge suggested, and received a confirming nod from Jason.
They packed the equipment into cases and duffels. Tomorrow, they'd lead out the draft horse from the stable, hook chains to the fallen tree and drag it back to the compound for cutting into lumber and firewood. More backbreaking labor that felt so good to complete.
"It feels good out here," he said, drawing in the brisk, sawdust-scented air. "Most of the bad karma doesn't cling to this sight."
Because the bad karma had all been invoked elsewhere.
Ridge had been principal almost four months. Formerly, he'd been the right-hand man to his predecessor, principal Masterson, though not the second-in-command scion. That was until Amandus Masterson had been revealed to be plotting against a local vampire tribe, Nava, in an attempt to stage an all-out war. There had been casualties, Masterson being one of themat Ridge's talons.
He did not for one moment regret killing the pack leader. It had to be done. At the time, all of the pack had stood beside him, showing their accord. Ridge had been protecting the leader's daughter, Blu, and the vampire tribe leader, Creed Saint-Pierre. And he'd been defending all werewolves against the heinous label of vampire killers. The Northern pack had been involved in the blood sporta wicked game that pitted blood-starved vampires against one another to the deaththat had left a bloody mar upon their familial image.
He'd do the same again if necessary. Ridge was not a man to jump into the fray without cause, but rather thought through every move, and never regretted those moves. Ever. He stood for what he believed just. Let no man challenge him without due strength and strong morals.
Whipping a stone across the open field edging the forest, he winced as the scar along his torso tugged. He regretted nothingexcept one incident over a decade ago that had left him with the scar. Funny how it was never the war and strife that wounded a man deeply, rather the emotional and feminine.
He never would figure out female emotions. Did any man have that figured out?
"So when you going to make yourself official?" Jason asked as they paused at the edge of a cornfield abutting the pack's property. Crisp brown stalks jutted up through the blanket of snow.
"Official?" Ridge hefted the heavy chain saw case over his shoulder. "I thought I already was. That little ceremony performed by Severo a couple weeks ago didn't do the trick?"
Severo was the lone werewolf on the Council, a group of paranormals who oversaw the paranormal nations. Their attempt to bring the werewolves and vampires to a peaceable understanding last year had worked to some degree. The wolves and vampires populating the United States maintained a tentative ceasefire. Mostly.
"What I mean is," Jason continued, "pack leaders generally have a wife and family. It sets a good example for the rest of the pack."
"Right." That made sense. "The rest of the pack."
"If you want the last few to stay, you have to step up, Addison. Family equals leadership. You seem like a family man to me."
"I am. I would love to have a family."
But the scar stretching along his abdomen reminded him family was impossible due to the medical malady the deep wound had caused.
"Then you need to find yourself a wife," Jason said. "Get her pregnant. A lot. And start to rebuild the pack by example."
Ridge smirked and closed his eyes to fluffy snow-flakes that fell from above the bare-branched tree canopy. He chuffed out a laugh and his breath fogged before him. "Actually, I think I already have one of those."
He smirked at Jason's utter surprise. "She's a witch," he said, feeling his jaw tighten. And, man, did his scar itch to think about her. "A very bad bit of witch, at that."
"Seriously? You're married? You don't seem very happy about it. Why didn't you ever tell anyone?"
"Because it was one of those drunken Las Vegas affairs I want to forget. Not that I can." He eased a palm over his hip, where the scar stretched down from his stomach. It had been so close to damaging the family jewels, but not quite. Yet the internal damage it had caused was monumental.
"So you're married to a witch, but you haven't talked to her since Vegas?"
"Exactly. Twelve, thirteen years ago, or thereabouts."
"Huh. Do you foresee a reunion any time soon?"
"Not particularly. Like I said, she's one bad bit of witch."
"Well, you need to ditch her if you want to start a real family. Not too many women would take to you having a wife. No dates without a clean slate."
"You've got a point. S'pose a trip to the city is in order. I've been putting it off for years."
"There's not a nastier bit of magic in the States, I'm sure. Think you can go on the computer and get me information on how to obtain divorce papers? I don't want to get any closer to the wicked witch of the Midwest than I have to. If I can email the papers to her, all the better."
Twelve or thirteen years earlier, outskirts of Las Vegas
Raging, high blue flames were visible behind the ramshackle brown barn set half a mile off the road. Ridge had pulled off the highway outside of Las Vegas, feeling the urge for a dash across the desert on this night following the full moon. A wise wolf never disregarded the call of the moon. But the run would have to wait. He smelled danger.
He raced across the barren dirt yard and through the garbage piled behind the barn scattered with old car parts, tires and scrap iron.
A woman screamed, and his heart clenched. Had she been trapped by the flames?
Arriving before the blaze behind the barn, he surprised a tall man in blue jeans and no shirt, bleeding from the forehead and wielding nothing more than his hand in a direct gesture toward a stacked pile of wood. Shouting a strange word Ridge didn't recognize, the man flicked his hand and flames shot toward the pyre-from his hand.
A damned fire witch, Ridge guessed. Speaking a spell in Latin. He hadn't thought they were common. Witches feared fire; it was the one thing that could kill them.
The strange blue flames suddenly flared higher and then parted to reveal, in the center of the vast pyre, a woman. Tied to a pole. Screaming as the flames threatened and crept closer to lick at her pant legs.
Ridge's heart choked up to his throat. How could anyone be so cruel?
He didn't give the horror another thought. Reacting to the angry growl inside his gut that abhorred violence toward women, Ridge ran toward the fire witch who directed the flames, and leaped. Soaring through the air, he landed the hard rubber sole of his boot on the man's jaw. Impact sent the startled pyromaniac flailing to the ground.
Without thought for his own safety, Ridge lunged for the woman tied to the pole in the center of the blazing pyre. His body hit hers. Like lava, her form felt molten and too hot. Thin and trembling as she was, her s...