t wasn’t his idea of an ideal place to discuss such matters, but he was willing to be flexible considering whom he was meeting with. And, to be honest, Niles Van Holtz—Van to his friends and family—preferred that this meeting take place in a large, open area, in neutral territory with lots of people around.
He stepped out of his car and allowed his young cousin to follow. Six-year-old Ulrich was staying with Van and his mate for the summer because, to quote his relatively new bride, Irene, “That young man needs to realize that his father’s an idiot now rather than later when the damage is done.” The kid wasn’t exactly a challenge, though. All he did was read and work on his knife skills in the kitchen. He didn’t even need TV, and seemed to find it a distraction from his books. He didn’t talk much at first, but Irene had a surprising way with kids, drawing Ric out of his self-imposed shell until he’d turned into quite the chatty pup when the mood struck him.
So Van knew he could have left the kid back in Seattle, but in just a few weeks, Ric had become, as Irene called him, Van’s “shadow.” And that meant that leaving him behind just didn’t sit right.
Besides, it was just a business meeting. Nothing dangerous or anything. Even if it was with one of his Pack’s sworn enemies. Business was business to Van, and he assumed everyone else felt that way as well.
“Stay right here, Ric.” Van placed the kid on the hood of his rental car: a speedy little Porsche he’d picked up near the Memphis airport before traveling out for the meeting in this neutral territory. “I’ll be right over there, okay?”
“Okay.” The kid pulled out a book from his backpack and began to read.
The Count of Monte Cristo
. A six-year-old was reading the
Count of Monte Cristo.
A book Van had been forced to read in high school and only after the teacher warned him that the CliffsNotes edition wouldn’t help him during the midyear exam. But the kid had picked out that book himself at the store. Along with twelve others and a pocket dictionary for any words he might not understand.
And the newest handheld video game Van had gotten for Ric straight from Japan? That was still sitting on the kid’s bed, in the box, untouched.
Van patted Ric’s head, adoring him despite his lack of priorities, and turned to head off to the meeting, but he quickly jerked back. The wolf he’d been coming to see stood right in front of him in a worn Led Zeppelin T-shirt, torn jeans, and old combat boots. A long chain hooked to one of the front loops of his jeans snaked around his leg to his back pocket and probably his wallet. His dark brown hair reached his shoulders, the front nearly obscuring yellow eyes. His beard was full and covered the entire lower half of his face. He looked like a crazed homeless vet who hadn’t yet gotten over what he’d been forced to do during the Vietnam War.
“Mr. Smith?” Van asked, almost hoping he was wrong.
He wasn’t. The grunt told him this was, in fact, Egbert Ray Smith of the Tennessee Smith Pack.
“Niles Van Holtz.” Van held his hand out. “Nice to meet you.”
The wolf didn’t take his hand or look away from glaring into his face. Van had to remind himself he was the Alpha Male of his Pack now. He wasn’t going to be intimidated by this possible serial killer.
“Watcha want, boy?”
This wasn’t exactly starting off well, now was it? “I’m here to offer you a job, Mr. Smith. With my organization. The Group.”
“The Group’s a bunch of pussies.”
“Perhaps, but I’ve taken over and I’m moving them forward. Making them more like the Unit.” Smith’s eyes narrowed a bit. He’d been in the Unit for years—and it showed. From every line on his not-that-old face to every scar on his neck and probably all over his body. But things inside the Unit had changed recently, the shifter-only military team within the U.S. Marine Corp was planning to move its members out of the Unit—whether they wanted to go or not—after ten years. Smith had been in the Unit for nearly the entire time he was in the Corps and he’d been the first casualty of the new procedures. From what Van had heard, Smith had been non too happy with his choices of taking an honorable discharge or assimilating with his full-human Marine brethren. He’d taken the discharge, but that was probably because he would never assimilate with anything full-human. Smith had gone straight from boot camp to the Unit, and in the process made quite a name for himself. As a killer.
Because that’s what Egbert Smith was. He was a killer and a very good one. And Van was sure that Smith would be a perfect addition to his team, because he was moving the Group in a new direction. Molding it into a protection unit that would neutralize any dangers to shifters within the United States.
An important step now that things were getting more and more dangerous for their kind every day.
“I need people like you on my team, Mr. Smith. The pay will be excellent with full benefits, safeguards for your immediate family, and the kind of flexibility a man like you needs.” Van’s nice way of saying, “We both know you could never hold down a real day job, sport.”
The wolf grunted again, his yellow-eyed gaze unwavering.
Van dug into the back pocket of his jeans and pulled out a slip of paper. He handed it to Smith. “That would be your starting salary.
The wolf glanced down at the piece of paper, looked at Van, then glanced at the paper again. Van was sure that Smith had never expected to get that kind of money from any job, but the Group had ample resources and had no problems using them for the right recruits.
“That sum will, of course, go up the more time you put in with us and depending on how well you do your job.”
The wolf glanced off across the big parking lot where the flea market had been set up on this Saturday afternoon. He cleared his throat and finally admitted, “Promised my mate I’d settle down.” His voice was low and gravelly and, if Van looked close enough, he could see an old scar right over where the wolf’s vocal chords should be. “Don’t think she’d like me leaving her again for so long.”
“You won’t need to relocate for this job, Mr. Smith. There’s no base for you to live on, no country you’ll need to go to. Although, trips to Alaska and Hawaii may be necessary. Short trips. To be honest, I’ll need you to merely be available when you’re called. But whether you’re working a day a week, every day for three months, or sitting around with nothing to do for six months, you will get paid. Every other week, like clockwork.”
“And if something happens to me?”
“Your family will be taken care of and your Pack reimbursed for the loss of its Packmate. The Group takes care of its own, Mr. Smith.”
While Van waited for the wolf to say or do
in response to his offer, a young girl walked up. She couldn’t be more than nine or ten, unable to even shift yet. But she had her father’s eyes. Bright yellow and cold. So very cold.
She glanced at Van, seemed to deem him non-threatening, and tugged on her father’s shirt. “This one,” she said.
Her father looked down at the enormous bowie knife she held in her hand. He took it from her, examined it closely. “Why?” he asked.
“It’s a good weight. The blade is well-made steel and a length that’ll penetrate chest bone. The handle is strong, and when my fingers get longer, I’ll still be able to use it. I thought I’d want one of those folding knives, but I’ll be able to pull this out faster and use it quicker. If I have to use a weapon, I won’t have time to be fumbling around with a folding knife to get it open.”
Her father nodded in agreement while Van could do nothing but gawk at the girl. Sure, he’d spent the last few weeks with Ric teaching the kid how to use his knife set to quickly and efficiently butcher deer and wild boar, but that was for cooking purposes only, so he could one day take his place in their Pack’s restaurant business. This little girl, however, was talking about knives going through chest bone—Van didn’t think she meant the chest bone of a zebra.
“How much?” Smith asked her.
“He wanted two hundred for it. I got him down to eighty.”
“How’d ya do that?”
“Stared at him ’til he made it eighty.”
The wolf dug into his pocket and gave her four twenty-dollar bills, then handed over the blade. “Take good care of it, it’ll take good care of you, Sugar Bug.”
“I will, Daddy.” She ambled off to the vendor and Smith faced Van again.
They locked gazes and stayed that way for how long, Van really didn’t know. But it must have been long enough, because Smith finally said, “Don’t much like feelin’ hemmed in.”
“You won’t be. You have my word.”
The wolf snorted. “The word of a Van Holtz. That don’t mean much.”
it does.” Fed up, Van finally asked, “In or out, Mr. Smith?”
Smith looked him over one more time and said, “In.”
The little girl returned, her new knife clutched in her hand. “He even gave me a sheath, Daddy. It’s real leather.”
“Good girl.” He motioned to Van. “This is one of them Van Holtz wolves I’m always warning you about. They all look like him. Kinda skinny and snobby. Smell like him, too. Avoid ’em, if you can. Gut ’em if you can’t.”
Not exactly the introduction Van expected but . . . whatever. It didn’t matter.
At least it didn’t matter until he realized that his young cousin was no longer on the hood of the car but standing right next to Van, leaning against his side, wide eyes fastened on Smith’s little girl.
She scowled down at Ric, but as he continued to gaze up at her in awe, her scowl faded and she smiled. “What’cha lookin’ at, shorty?” she asked, her young voice teasing.
Ric didn’t answer—Van had the feeling the poor kid couldn’t answer—but he did hold out one of the plain Hershey bars he kept stashed in his bag.
She looked at the candy bar, then up at her father. He nodded and she took the candy from Ric. After a moment, she said, “Thank ya kindly,” and her smile grew.
Ric let out a sigh and blurted, “Marry—”
Van slapped his hand over Ric’s mouth before he could finish. He might only be a defenseless six-year-old with more brains than sense and caught up in his first childhood infatuation, which he probably wouldn’t remember in another day or two, but something told Van none of that would matter to Egbert Smith when it came to protecting his daughter.
“All right then,” Van said, dragging his struggling cousin over to the car. “Time to go. I’ll be in touch, Mr. Smith.”
Van got the car door open and shoved his cousin inside. He followed, throwing the kid’s pack into the back seat. Once he had the door closed and saw Smith and his daughter walking off, Van let out a breath.
“Kid,” he said, “you have
to learn about timing.”
“But she’s perfect, Uncle Van. I think I love her.”
Van glanced over at the still-growing She-wolf. A too-skinny little girl with long legs and arms in a T-shirt and denim cutoffs and no shoes.
“Ric, you’re way too young to love anybody but your parents and, of course, me.”
“She needs to eat more,” Ric observed, ignoring Van’s comment. “And I’ll be the one to feed her!”
Rolling his eyes, Van started the car.
“Come on, Ric,” he tried desperately to reason with the kid. “You’re too young for all this crazy mate stuff. You need to focus on other things first.”
“Food, your hunting skills . . . even other girls,” he answered honestly.
“I hate girls.” He was six.
he hated girls. “She’s not a girl, though. She’s
The first time the kid had spoken so many words in a solid five-minute stretch and he was doing nothing but absolutely freaking Van out.
“She’s perfect for me, Uncle Van.”
“No, Ulrich. She’s not. From what I can tell she’s just like her father and that means she needs to be avoided at all possible costs. Understand?”
Ric nodded, carefully buckling his seatbelt and pulling out his book again.
“I understand, Uncle Van.”
“Good,” Van said, reversing out of the parking spot.
“I’ll wait until we’re both older,” the kid went on, “and then I’ll
Van hit the brakes. “What?”
“Like you and Aunt Irene.”
Panic beginning to set in, Van asked again, “
“That’s what you told her last night when I was scrubbing the pots from dinner. You were going to nail her. Then you laughed.”
“Uh, Ric . . .”
“And so I’ll just wait until my future mate and I are older and then I’ll nail her. Or we’ll nail each other. That sounds like more fun. Nailing each other.”