“Wolf.” Granny leaned into the table, her liver-spotted hand resting on Maizie’s. “You hear me, Little Red? The man’s a beast.”
“I hear ya, Gran.” Maizie glanced over her shoulder at the Armani suit strolling toward the front doors of the Green Acres Nursing Home. “He’s a wolf. Got it.”
The word iced through her brain. Maizie didn’t like wolves or dogs or pretty much anything four legged and furry. But pushing the nightmare images of fur and fangs from her mind wasn’t hard when her brain had better things to entertain it.
Salt-and-pepper hair curling over his collar had Maizie guessing Granny’s wolf-in-an-Italian-suit was about forty-five, maybe fifty. No rings or tan lines on his fingers, and the sprinkle of dark hair over sun-kissed skin contrasted nicely with the stark white of his shirt cuffs.
Smoother, taut skin on his hands bounced his age down to forty-five, maybe forty-two. The expensive suit jacket hid the details of his ass-not that she was checking him out, strictly diagnostic. Although if she were checking him out, she’d be intrigued by the way his slacks cut a fine line down to the gray shine of his shoes.
He stretched a hand toward the push-bar on the door, looked back as though he felt her watching.
“Whoof.” Her reaction was purely chemical, instinct, no higher brain function needed. Heat flushed through her, burning her cheeks, wetting her panties.
The man couldn’t be a day over thirty-five with ice-blue eyes that found hers as though he’d known exactly where to look before he’d turned. He paused, his hand resting on the push-bar, and stared at her.
Reflex nagged her to break the eye contact. She didn’t. There was something about the way he stared at her, as though daring her to shy away. Shy was so not Maizie’s thing. She lifted her chin, feeling her expression turn hard, confident.
Nostrils flared, making the trim shape of his nose seem more delicate. His face was all sharp angles and hard lines, a squarish jaw and a gently rounded chin to match his nose. His brows were black, thick, just like his lashes, and set off the contrast with those pale blue eyes.
He was clean-shaven, although he’d probably look just as good with day-old beard stubble. From this angle his hair appeared more silvery-gray than speckled, with thick waves that rolled back from a scowl-wrinkled forehead.
Just when she thought she might have pushed her bold stare a second too long, his brow smoothed and a faint, lopsided smile dimpled his right cheek.
Great googly-moogly, his mouth was too perfect. If he was a wolf, she’d let him gobble her up. Maizie stiffened, worrying her thoughts might show on her face. She turned around, ending the sex-charged staring contest. The back of her neck tingled like thrumming fingers rippling across her shoulders and down her back.
He was still watching her, she knew it, but she’d had enough. No sense toying with the idea of something she didn’t have the time to finish. There were only so many hours in a day and she’d already wasted more seconds than she could spare on Gran’s sexy silver-haired wolf-man.
Every minute was accounted for, a half-hour visit with Gran then back to the shop. And her neglected libido would not steal another second of it.
Maizie knew the moment he left, the warm tingle of his stare vanishing from her skin. Good. What’d a man like that even want with her grandmother? “So why’s he a wolf?”
She hated eating up their time together discussing him, but Gran was getting up there in age and it wouldn’t take much to confuse her, take advantage. Maizie wouldn’t let that happen, no matter how sexy the guy was.
“Because he’s after the cottage, of course.” Granny nudged Maizie’s plate closer. She’d been feeding her peanut butter sandwiches since she was seven. Now she made sure the nursing home staff had one ready the moment Maizie walked in the door.
Didn’t matter that she wasn’t hungry and the things were like a gazillion calories. Gran said eat, she ate. Old habit from an obedient childhood. Maizie picked up a triangle half and took a bite. Besides, peanut butter sandwiches had always been her comfort food.
“No one wants the cottage, Gran.” The two-bedroom hovel had only been one good storm away from being a pile of rubble when she was a kid. It hadn’t gotten any better since they’d both moved out.
“Bah, course not. It’s the land. He wants the dang land. Gonna tear down all my trees and build one of them malls. You hear me?”
“Uh, sure, Gran. I hear you. The big bad wolf is after your land.” Maizie swallowed the knot of emotion in her throat and shifted her attention to the wicker basket she’d set on the table beside her, pretending to sift through its contents. She didn’t want Granny to see the tears welling in her eyes. The cottage was in the middle of nowhere. No one would want to build a mall there.
As good days and bad days went, this was still one of the better days for Granny. She called them “spells” when she described them to Maizie. Days when the world was a whole different place where everyday things got twisted in her head and memories, real or imagined, mixed with the reality of present day. The worst part was when the spells passed and Granny remembered-everything.
“I brought you some of my chocolate-chip cookies,” Maizie said, hoping to pull Granny out of her fantasy world. “The ones mixed with white chocolate and almonds. You still bribing Nurse Ron for extra time on the back veranda?”
Granny’s face wrinkled, her bright eyes wider, confused. She nodded. Did she know she was locked inside one of her spells right then? Maizie didn’t want to think about it. She owed this woman everything. Making her feel as comfortable as possible was the least she could do.
“I brought some of those cinnamon sugar twists Clare at the front desk likes. And two boxes of the gingerbread cookies so you have something to offer your room guests.” Maizie busied herself unloading everything she’d brought from her Pittsburgh bakery onto the table.
“He said I should sell him the land. I remember…” Granny’s voice wobbled. “He said I was being selfish holding on to it. That you needed the money.”
Maizie snapped her attention to Granny. “Who said that?”
“I…I’m not sure. Riddly? I think it was my Riddly.”
“No, Gran. It wasn’t Dad. Riddly Hood’s been dead for twenty-one years. He died in a car accident when I was seven. Both him and Mom. You remember that, don’t you?”
Granny blinked, the droopy skin of her eyelids making her confused expression painfully adorable.
“It’s okay, Gran. I forget things sometimes too.” Maizie reached over and smoothed the white wisps of hair framing Granny’s face toward the neat little bun at the top of her head. She straightened the edges of her cardigan and fastened the top pearl button.
Everything about Granny seemed so fragile, so unlike the woman who’d taken her in, raised her, given her everything. Granny should’ve had the last twenty-one years to focus on herself. She’d raised her son. But she’d set her own needs aside and raised Maizie anyway. By the time Maizie could fend for herself, age had begun toying with Granny’s mind. It wasn’t fair.
Confusion vanished, Granny’s bright-blue eyes turned steely with determination. “You need money, dear? Tell Granny. I’ve got a little something in the coffee can on top of the fridge. Take what you need, Little Red. That’s why it’s there.”
Maizie squeezed Granny’s hand, gently, careful not to harm her brittle bones or bruise the velvet soft skin. “No, Gran. I’m good. The bakery’s finally turning a profit this year.”
It was half true. The bakery she’d opened two years ago, Red Hood Bakery, a play on her flaming hair color and nickname, was in the black for the first time, mostly. Maizie’s personal finances, however, were a brighter red than her hair. Nursing homes, good ones, weren’t cheap.
In a perfect world Maizie would’ve kept Granny with her and cared for her on her own. The world is far from perfect though, and Granny’s medical needs, her hatred of the city and the time demands of a new business made a nursing home the best and only option for both of them.
Of course that didn’t stop Maizie from brutalizing herself with guilt. She’d bankrupt herself, and the bakery if she had to, to make sure Granny had the best care. With any luck, the bank would approve her loan application and none of it would be a concern anymore. The truth was, selling the cottage she’d grown up in and the hundred and three acres it sat on would solve so many problems.
“When’s the last time anyone checked on the cottage?” Maizie asked.
“Oh, my handsome silver wolf checked in on it just the other day. Everything’s fine. He said he put fresh violets in the vase on the sill. They’re my favorite, you know?” Granny’s smile bunched the extra skin on her cheeks, a flush of color making her look ten years younger.
Maizie hissed an oath under her breath. Just like that, Granny was lost to one of her spells again. At least this one Maizie knew. This wolf, Granny’s big silver wolf, had been a part of her childhood, a character in her bedtime stories. Granny seemed to forget he was make-believe sometimes. Maizie could play along though and still have a relatively sane visit with her grandmother.
“What else did your silver wolf say? He didn’t air out the place by any chance? Maybe check the gutters and the cellar, make sure no critters had moved in.”
Maizie hadn’t had time to stop by and check on the old place for months. Surrounded by Granny’s hundred acres and the neighbor’s four hundred acres, the little house was nestled chimney deep in dense forest. All manner of wild things tended to take over in no time.
Granny nodded, her smile never faltering. “Yes, dear. He checked everything. My big silver wolf knows how important that place is to me. Says he’s keeping it just how I left it for when I move back.”
Maizie swallowed the sudden knot in her throat. She’d had no idea Granny believed she’d return to the cottage one day. “Gran…”
“Relax, dear. You’ll blow a fuse. We both know living in that cottage is too much for me like this. I can barely take a tinkle on my own. He’s just a tease, is all. Tempting me. I like it. Makes me laugh.”
“Makes you laugh, huh? You always told me he was a big bad wolf. Gave me nightmares with those stories about how he’d eat me up if I went playing too deep into the forest. Told me all about his great big ears and razor-sharp teeth…”
“Oh, that. Well I suppose he could’ve mistaken you for a tasty fawn or a fox or something, but mostly I just didn’t want you wandering off too far and pestering the poor thing.”
“So it was a parenting tactic? Nice.” Maizie squeezed a playful wink at Granny. “Maybe I’ll go out there and see what’s so special about this handsome silver wolf that you’d terrorize my childhood to protect him.”
“No, no, I don’t think that’s wise. He’s decent and polite, but there’s still a wild beast in him. Don’t ever forget that, Little Red. No. It’s best you just leave him be. Besides, you hardly lived your childhood in terror. You were the most fearless little thing I’d ever seen. Worse than your father. I can’t think of anything that could shake you, except…”
Maizie’s heart stuttered. The two of them fell silent. She knew where Granny’s thoughts had gone, same as her own. The night of her parents’ death. The car accident. The haunting eyes a luminous green through the windshield. There and then not. It was too dark, too much rain. Her father couldn’t see, couldn’t stop in time. He swerved, but it was too late. The vicious roll down the embankment was inevitable, unstoppable.
How had she survived? She didn’t know. Couldn’t remember. But she remembered those eyes.
Maizie still saw them long after the image of the aftermath had faded, the broken body of a wolf pinned beneath the car, her parents in the front seat, their faces and bodies cut and battered beyond recognition, glass everywhere, twisted metal, the smell of burnt rubber and gasoline, the coppery taste of her own blood in her mouth. Wild green eyes had tormented her for years. God, she hated that wolf.
“Yeah, well. That was a long time ago.” Maizie didn’t want to remember anymore.
“Yes, it was dear. You’ve come so far since then.”
Maizie forced a smile and steered the topic away from those dark memories. “And here you are still talking about that mysterious silver wolf coming around here, making you laugh, tempting you. C’mon, Gran, what’s he tempting you with? Is it something that’ll make me blush?”
Granny didn’t bat an eye. “With becoming one of them, of course. That’s the only way this old body would ever make it back to the cottage, isn’t it?”
“One of them?”
“Yes, sweetheart, a lycanthrope. A shape shifter.” She sighed at Maizie’s continued confusion. “A werewolf, child. A werewolf.”
“Annette, it’s Mr. Lupo.” Gray adjusted the BlackBerry against his ear.
“Yes, Mr. Lupo?”
“Get me everything there is on a Maizie Hood. And I mean everything, business and personal. I want it all. We should have her numbers on file with her grandmother Ester’s.” Hell, he’d helped Ester file for the kid’s social security number when she’d realized Maizie’s parents hadn’t. Back then it hadn’t been automatic.
“Maizie? The little girl from the-”
“Yes, Mr. Lupo.”
Gray punched the disconnect button with his thumb and slipped the wide phone into his breast pocket. He stared out the darkened privacy window of his limo at nothing as they pulled from the driveway of the Green Acres Nursing Home.
Jeezus, he still couldn’t believe it was her. She’d changed so much, matured…beautifully. But her scent was the same, exactly the same, despite having taken a second to place it. Twenty-one years was a long time, even for him.
Gray shook his head, rubbed the weariness from his eyes with both hands. Maybe he was imagining it, the smell of broken trees, of sap, of gasoline and burnt rubber. He could still smell the blood in the air around her, the earth and rain. He could still taste the tears, hers, and his.
He had to be imagining it. His enhanced olfactory sense was good, but not twenty-one years good. Still, seeing Maizie Hood just now proved he’d made the right decision all those years ago. The memories swamped over him like quicksand, pulling him under so he could hardly breathe.
Back then, it would’ve killed him. He was right to ask her grandmother, Ester, to keep her away, at least keep her from venturing into his part of the forest. He just couldn’t bear her scent, the scent of death. She was told to stick to the paths, and he avoided them. It’d worked. Until today.
Gray snatched the newspaper from the pocket on the car wall. He leaned back, unfolded and refolded it with noisy crisp snaps. The ink was still moist, not so much that humans could smell, but they felt it on their fingers just as he did. It was a good feeling, a good smell, mundane. Innocuous.
He turned to the real-estate section first-who’s buying, what’s selling. Business foremost in his thoughts, Maizie Hood would fade away into the dark recesses of his mind where he wanted her. He scanned the listings.
Cinnamon. The other scents were there, or not, but he’d smelled cinnamon on her for sure. And chocolate. Ester always had a peanut butter sandwich waiting for him, his favorite, or rather his compulsion. But then she’d offer some sort of delicious pastry or cookie for dessert.
He’d noticed Maizie had one of those quaint wicker baskets with the double handle and red-and-white-checkered lining. Was she Ester’s pastry supplier? Ester had never mentioned Maizie’s visits, what she’d brought.
Why would she? Ester knew how he felt. He’d made it perfectly clear all those years ago and Ester was a true, understanding friend.
What he’d sampled of the sugary confections, though, was heavenly. Better than most professional chefs he knew. Did Maizie bake for fun or profit? He wanted to know.
Sweet peat moss, what’s taking Annette so long?
The wall of trees along the country road broke for a wide open field and drew his gaze. He stared, only half noticing the huddle of cows, the barn and corn silos in the distance. His mind wandered too quickly to red hair and long silken legs.
Maizie looked good enough to eat. He’d known her hair was red. He’d remembered that much. But the luminousness, the thickness. Jeezus, he’d had no idea. The color reminded him of autumn leaves, the ones that made the forest seem ablaze with cool fire. And with those thick locks tumbling all the way down to the top curve of her ass, it seemed more a cloak than hair.
Gray tried to blink the vision from his mind and focused again on the paper. He found the name he’d been scanning for in seconds.
“Anthony Cadwick, you old prick.” The man certainly was busy. Harassing Ester in the morning and closing a major real-estate deal in the afternoon. Strong-arming homeowners and manipulating eminent domain laws was his specialty.
Cadwick was every bit the stereotypical wolf Ester had called him. Gray just hoped Ester could keep her wits about her when he came around again. He couldn’t let Cadwick get his hands on the Hood land. Just the thought of housing developments or discount supermarkets so close to his forest made his balls shrink.
Gray knew without looking the moment they turned onto the highway. The limo’s suspension was superior, but the difference between country roads and smooth highway was like cobblestone and glass.
No. Ester had Cadwick’s number, and Gray had her back just in case. Convincing her to sell would be like pushing water uphill for Cadwick. The wildcard was Maizie. Blanking her from his reality had knocked her off his radar completely. She was an “in” for Cadwick that Gray hadn’t considered.
No doubt she held a lot of sway with her grandmother. That alone was a danger he couldn’t tolerate. How easily could Maizie be manipulated? Did she need money? Was she easily seduced? Was she smart or gullible? Did she have skeletons to be exploited, dreams and goals Cadwick could hand to her on a platter?
Gray checked his watch. “Jeezus, Annette.”
Cadwick would do anything to turn a profit and with the kind of Fortune-500 clientele he dealt with, he had a lot of play room. Of course with Maizie’s looks it wasn’t hard to guess which tactic he’d try first.
At seventy-eight Gray looked the same age as Cadwick who was in his midforties. Though Gray was as fit as a man in his twenties. But Cadwick could still turn a pretty head or two. He had Romanesque features, larger nose, broader shoulders, stockier build.
His eyes were a dull brown, his hair as black as Gray’s, once upon a time. But where Gray’s had turned a silvery color, speckled with hints of black, Cadwick’s still held the dark tones, only turning a dirty ash at the temples. He wore it shorter than Gray, neatly trimmed over the ears and a half inch above the collar.
Which one of them was more Maizie’s type? Which one of them could seduce her best? Gray didn’t have a clue. But what if it came to that-to seduction? Could Gray do what needed to be done to keep the Hood land from being sold? Could he seduce Maizie Hood?
His gaze drifted out the window, to the cars falling back as his limo cruised past them. But it was a vision of fiery red hair and shapely long legs that filled his mind.
She’d looked like sinful innocence, if such a thing existed. The nubile body of a woman cloaked in a snow-white sundress spotted with daisies and a contrasting forest-green apron. Her full breasts had strained the dress’s low rounded collar, pressing against the apron so he’d been utterly incapable of shifting his attention enough to read the white lettering on the front pocket.
He’d noticed the sexy little sandals she wore though, and her painted toenails, a shade of red that paled in comparison to her hair. And he’d sure as hell noticed her lips. A ripe hue that had nothing to do with waxy makeup and everything to do with a woman in full bloom.
But beyond all that, it was her eyes that captured him. Green, the color of new alder leaves, they’d looked on him unabashed. He could still feel the heat of her gaze vibrating down his chest to his groin. Sweet peat moss, he’d almost come in his pants at the thrill of it.
Of course she couldn’t know what she was doing. The rules were different in her world, but the challenge had felt just the same. Without a word, she’d questioned his authority, defied it, demanded he prove his place otherwise she’d stand as his equal or dominant. And perhaps she was his equal. Certainly no one else had dared challenge him since he’d been bitten forty-three years ago.
He’d had no idea how much he missed it, how much a part of what he was needed that challenge. The beast in him craved the battle, ached to win his place, to win the female. Maizie’s bold defiance touched the very core of what he was, charged him with adrenaline and a primal lust he was only now fully absorbing.
A growl rumbled in his chest of its own accord, his hands fisted the paper, his eyes squeezed shut fighting the growing need. Blood surged through his body, hot tingling through his skin, pooling in his groin.
His cock grew heavy and thick, straining inside his slacks. He shifted in his seat, but the rub of his clothes against his sex only made the need worse.
“Fuckit.” After a haphazard fold to the paper, he tossed it across the compartment to the opposite seat. The limo was roomy, plenty of space to stretch, but Gray wouldn’t need much to find at least a small taste of relief.
Jeezus, he felt like a hormonal teenager. Couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken advantage of the privacy barrier between him and the driver, the dark windows to the outside world. Had to be more than a year, but this would be the first time he’d indulged alone. The beast in him had simple needs, but when those needs arose they could be all-consuming.
The swirl of emotion that surrounded Maizie in his mind-resentment, anger and pain-mixed with the desires she stirred in him as a man-lust, loneliness and attraction. He had to do something or lose all control.
He leaned back against the thick leather seat, tugging his slacks, trying to loosen the growing tightness. That helped, but his hard cock was still squeezed inside his briefs, and he wanted to do more than just give the Big Guy some room.
He closed his eyes and allowed the image of Maizie’s plump breasts, swelling over the edge of her sundress, to consume his thoughts. He could imagine the full ripe flesh filling his hands, her nipples puckering hard as cherry pits against his palms. God, he wanted to squeeze them, to twist and tease the little nubs with his fingers, with his teeth.
Gray stroked his cock through his slacks, the taut fabric almost providing enough of a barrier to trick his mind into believing it could be someone else’s hand. Her hand. The sensation rippled electric tingles through his balls, along his thighs. The muscles tugged, pressing his cock harder against his slacks, against the stroke of his hand.
He worked his belt and button, unzipping, freeing himself. He wiggled, holding his shaft firm in his right hand, his left hand freeing his tight, way-too-sensitive balls. Jeezus, that feels good. The ache was like he hadn’t come in years.
His fingers shifted, collecting his sac and sending a jolt of pleasure through him so fast a bead of white cream peeked at the head of his cock. He smoothed his hand up the solid trunk, his thumb darting over the head, wiping away the wetness. He gasped when his fingers caressed over the ridge of its head and moaned out loud when he stroked over it again.
Another long stroke and then another, the velvet skin warmed against his palm, a building need dizzying his head. His right hand worked on instinct, fondling his sac, feeling his balls rolling over his fingers, squeezing, tugging gently and then not so gently.
He couldn’t help it, images of Maizie flashed through his mind. Her long fiery hair brushing his belly while those sweet lips wrapped around his cock, sucked him dry. He could almost feel her tits squeezed between his thighs, bouncing against his balls.
“Shit…” Gray let go of his balls to punch the intercom overhead to his driver.
“What?” He barely sounded human, but then again he barely felt human at the moment.
“We’ve arrived at the Cadwick building, sir.”
“Fine.” Gray’s right hand kept a steady stroke, his hips rocking with the rhythm. “Give me…a minute.”
He poked the intercom button and returned his left hand to its previous duties.
His mind zeroed in on thoughts of the fiery woman again. “Maizie…mmm.” Her sexy curves, those daring green eyes.
Gray stroked his cock faster, squeezed his balls. He pictured Maizie sprawled between his legs, her pink tongue teasing the tip of his penis before she took the full length of him between those luscious lips.
Hot and tight, wet and slick, he could almost feel his cock ramming hard into that sexy mouth, her tongue firm against his shaft…
The cell phone buzzed.
“Fuck!” Gray yanked the phone from his breast pocket. “Speak.”
A moment of silence passed, just enough for Gray to regret his harsh tone with his dear Annette. He’d known it was her. The phone only buzzed like that when the call came from the office.
“Mr. Lupo, I have some of the information you requested. I…I thought you’d want it as quickly as-”
“Yes. I’m sorry, Annette. You assumed correctly as usual. What’ve you got?”
Annette cleared her throat, banishing the previously timid tone. “Ms. Maizie Hood has a C+ credit rating while maintaining minimum monthly payments on a sizeable business loan and mounting fees to a Green Acres Nursing Home in Glide, Pennsylvania. She recently applied for a personal loan.”
“No official word yet, but it doesn’t look good.”
“Hmm… Go on,” Gray said.
“Yes, sir. She has a small one-bedroom apartment forty-five minutes away from the nursing home on the South Side of Pittsburgh for which she pays four-hundred-fifty dollars per month.”
“Extortion.” Gray’s cock softened in his hand.
“Yes, sir. She’s received three traffic citations and two speeding tickets in the last six months. She has a regular gynecologist but not a general doctor. She has fillings in both her lower molars and a prescription for birth-control pills. Her credit-card statements show a good deal of grocery purchases.”
“I thought you’d say that. The, ah, business loan is for a small bakery, also on the South Side. Ms. Maizie Hood is listed as sole proprietor. She has two employees. A young woman named Cherri Pi fresh out of the culinary institute and a high school dropout with a commercial driver’s license named-”
“Bob. No last name?”
“Smith, sir. Bob Smith.”
“Perfect. Anything else?”
“No, sir. I’m still waiting to hear back from my sources on her personal affairs. This is all I could find on public record.”
“You said minimum monthly payments on the loan? Is she making the nursing-home payments on time?”
“Yes, sir. But she’s cut it close a few times. Same with the business loan.”
“The business turning a profit?”
“If she doesn’t list her salary, just barely.”
Damn, it was worse than he’d thought. Cadwick wouldn’t even break a sweat buying her. Hell, maybe he’d already charmed her out of hearth and home.
“Call Chuck Woodsmen.”
“Judge Woodsmen?” she asked.
“Yes. Tell him I’m going to need that information we discussed. It looks like we may have to use our last resort after all.”
“Get back to me.”
“Of course, sir.”
The phone went dead before Gray pushed the disconnect button and shoved it into his jacket pocket. His hard-on completely evaporated, Gray tucked all his precious bits back in place and fastened his slacks. Maizie Hood had officially become business and Gray Lupo didn’t fuck around with his business.
He’d known Anthony Cadwick for twenty-four years. He was a competitive, backstabbing, envious prick who thought he was a lot smarter, a lot better looking, and a lot more deserving than he ever was. Which basically meant that outside of himself, Gray didn’t know anyone more dangerous.
If Gray wanted a chance in hell of protecting everything that he cared about, he’d have to play this on the sly. Find out how far Cadwick had already weaseled his way into the Hoods’ good graces, which meant Gray would have to do a little competitive weaseling of his own.
He punched the intercom button to his driver. “I’m getting out.”