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Trouble in Action
I’ve never had any desire to be known as a bar hop but that seems an appropriate moniker in light of my path through this town tonight. Not that any fault can be laid at my feet or, rather, my paws. Nor do I suppose trailing a young woman from bar to bar could rightfully be called hopping. Still, the imagery is there in my mind at least.
Fortunately, up to this point, we’ve remained close to my human, Tammy Lynn. Unfortunately, I have a feeling that’s about to change. I did, at least, make sure to catch her eye as I exited the small but posh restaurant and bar where she hosted several authors after a successful book-signing. With that shared glance, Tammy Lynn knows I’m out and about and that I’ll find her when my work is done. We have a perfect understanding of one another in that regard.
Her popularity as a bookseller and Mistress of Ceremonies for book conferences and the like has garnered my human and me some nice trips of late. This visit to the state of North Carolina might be my favorite so far. The scenic drives have been breathtaking with the first hints of spring budding out in the trees and bushes along the roadsides.
Alas, the interiors of the bars I’ve frequented while providing my protection to this young woman do not hold the same appeal as the one where we left Tammy Lynn. Nonetheless, one does what one must in the line of duty. I could tell, at a glance, that my self-imposed charge had imbibed too heavily. Worse, she’d attracted the wrong kind of attention, even in the more genteel establishment where I first noticed her.
Wolf Stockton leaned against the bar. The beer in his hand had grown warm but he wasn’t there to get drunk. His gaze followed the girl as she twirled slowly across the dance floor and not because she was drop dead gorgeous – not, in truth, because of her looks at all. He watched her because she was a problem waiting to happen and when she became a problem, the problem would become his. He’d rather derail that train than deal with the aftermath of a head-on crash.
In the murky glow of neon, she stood out like moonlight. The sleeveless, white dress hugged her every curve. He didn’t recognize her and Albrecht was his town. She might have come in with the reenactors but she didn’t seem to fit with that crowd. He’d done some studying when he’d first learned what was to befall Albrecht. His research had been somewhat reassuring. Those enthralled with historical reenactments were said to be a serious-minded bunch, going to the same venues year after year, never causing any problem, rarely partying down. The history buffs who attended to watch the painstakingly recreated historical events were categorized the same, at least for the most part. This girl, however, seemed hell-bent on having a grand time and without help from anyone else.
She’d caught his eye when she came through the door, opening the small bag that hung across her shoulder and handing the doorman a handful of crumpled bills. Like the professional he was, the bouncer at the door had counted what was owed into the cashbox then handed the rest back to her, stamping her wrist and shaking his head as she’d moved straight to the dance floor. She’d snagged a glass of wine from the tray of a passing waitress without the server even realizing it was gone. That’s when Wolf Stockton had realized the need to keep an eye on her as, glass in hand, she executed some slow, dreamy dance moves all by her lonesome while couples swept around her. He was relieved when she finished the pilfered wine and placed the empty glass on the corner of a table that also wasn’t hers. At least broken glass wouldn’t be added to the mess when it came. She ignored or never even noticed the startled hey of protest from one of the table’s occupants.
She’d have been trouble enough sober. And she wasn’t sober.
His wasn’t the only attention she snared but she remained oblivious until a cocky dude in frayed jeans and a black tee-shirt eased close and slid an arm around her waist. Wolf tensed, ready to step in, when her slim, bare arm showed an unexpected flash of strength and well-toned muscle. Cocky dude found himself sprawled butt-down on the dance floor. To Wolf’s relief, the guy took it well, dusting himself off and laughing as he walked back to his table. His buddies continued to rib him for the next few minutes, spurring another of them to push his chair back and swagger toward the tangle of dancers as the music and her moves kicked up a beat.
With a sigh, Wolf made his way to the edge of the floor in front of the band. Sure enough, the dumbass reached for the girl when she got close enough but this one was better prepared for a show of strength. He wrapped his arms around her, pinning her arms to her side, nuzzling his chin close to her cheek. “Come on, honey. One dance. I’ve got a hundred bucks on it.”
“Hope you can afford to lose it, asshole.” Her voice slurred a little on the words. Wolf noted she didn’t bother asking him to loosen his grip. The heel of her cute little boot with lots of fringe came down on his instep and a second later her knee rammed his crotch. His howl stopped the band and Wolf stopped him by the simple act of snaring the collar of his casual button-down shirt and twisting until it caught said asshole’s Adams apple as well as his attention.
Wolf handed the guy off to the bouncer who’d made his way through the small crowd. The band resumed playing and Wolf turned to the young woman who watched him with solemn eyes. For a moment, she reminded him of someone but he was certain he’d never seen her before. He held out his hand to her. “Dance?”
“I don’t dance with men.”
“Think of me as one of the girls,” he suggested.
A faint smile curved her lips as her glance swept him. “Don’t know that my imagination is that good.”
“One dance and sit at my table. I’ll leave you alone but so will every guy in here, I promise.”
She lifted a perfectly arched brow. “Think well of yourself, don’t you?”
She reached up to touch his hair where it brushed against his collar. He hadn’t made time for the trim it needed. “Are you a bad boy?”
He gave a humorless laugh. “Not even close.”
To his surprise, she stepped closer. I don’t dance with men, she’d said. As she draped her slender curves against him, he couldn’t help but think it a shame if he didn’t have a chance with her. Not that he needed a woman in his life because he sure as hell didn’t, but a shame even so.
She danced with him as she’d danced alone, with fluidity and grace and damn little inhibition. By the time the song ended, he wasn’t sure it was dark enough that he could step away from her without every single guy in there knowing what he was feeling. Then again, safest for her if they did know.
True to his word, he left her alone after that. She sat at his table and drank or danced when a song drew her to the floor. He made one attempt to pay for her drinks and the look she cut him when she said no forestalled a second try.
When the waitress told them it was last call, she made a moue of disappointment and shook her head. “I’m not done dancing. Gotta find someplace else to go.”
Wolf touched her hand. “I can promise there isn’t another bar open now. Not in this town.” He stood. “If you don’t want another drink, how about one last dance?”
She surprised him again when she took the hand he held out to her and let him tug her to her feet. He wasn’t, however, surprised when she swayed. Although she’d had no more than two glasses of wine while she’d sat at his table, he doubted she even knew how many she’d had before that. He stifled a groan at the surge of pure lust he felt when she leaned into him and looped her arms around his neck. If she wore a bra, he couldn’t tell. Her hair smelled like clean rainfall. She whisper-sang every word of the song in a soft, husky voice that he suspected was above average on a bad day. Today wasn’t a bad day. It was a love song and not a happy one. He was relieved when the song ended and the lights in the room brightened.
Most often this would be the moment when a guy got his first good look at a girl he’d hooked up with for the night. Some would be a disappointment. Some wouldn’t. This girl was no disappointment. Not that it would matter either way. He wasn’t on the make and they weren’t hooking up for the night.
She blinked up at him with sleepy eyes and smiled. “I’m Kylah. You can take me home.”
This is not good. Despite the fact that the gentleman appears to be just that – a gentleman – I’m not naïve enough to allow Kylah, as I now know her name to be, to leave with him unaccompanied. My protection must continue for at least a while longer. I’ve managed to remain undetected thus far due to my excellent skills as master detective. One of the first lessons my father, the ever-famous Familiar, instilled in me was the ability to see without being seen. This is a useful tool, whether stalking another kitten in play, as I was at the time, or observing a suspect as a master sleuth. Sadly, most humans make such observation all too easy with their lack of awareness of their surroundings. That same lack makes them vulnerable to the dangers that lurk about them.
I don’t doubt it will take a bit of maneuvering to ensure I’m not left behind when the duo leaves the sidewalk for the roadway, but it won’t be my first episode as a stowaway and I suspect it won’t be my last. I have many talents.
Here we go then, out the pub door and into the brisk night air. Our female may wish she’d not selected sleeveless apparel but I do acknowledge it was nicely warm earlier. I enjoyed sunning myself in a window of the local library while the plethora of book discussions swirled around me. I note with approval that her escort keeps a careful eye on her progress. A time or two he steadies her with a light hand at her waist but removes it once she regains her equilibrium.
She stops in her tracks when he opens the passenger door of a dark truck. “That’s not my truck.”
“No, it’s mine. If you trust me with the keys, I’ll have yours delivered wherever you need it in the morning.”
Recognizing the unyielding tone, I slip into the back seat. It may be she heeds that tone as well, but I’m still a bit surprised when she shrugs and steps up into the vehicle. Heaven, I hope she doesn’t make a practice of this. There are places she would be very much at risk. I have her back at the moment, but she has no way of knowing it. I’m reassured by the trappings inside the vehicle, including the blue light on the dash, that identify it as unmarked law enforcement. All in all, the truck fits well with the vibes I pick up from this man.
Her escort steps in on the driver’s side and the engine catches with a purring sound. He pauses the vehicle at the intersection. “Which way?”
I peer over the console as she opens her purse and hands him a small card sheathed in a tiny envelope. I recognize it as a hotel key. The name of the hotel is printed on the side. I’ve seen many such in my travels with Tammy Lynn
He gives a huff of exasperation. “For all you know, I could be a serial killer.”
She turns her head to look at him. “For all you know, I could too.”
I’m not surprised that his second huff of exasperation is tinged with amusement. She’s a bit of a wiseacre.
The drive to her hotel was short but sufficient for a drunk girl to fall asleep.
Wolf put the vehicle in park and killed the ignition, then sat staring at the female who’d crashed, not drifted, into sleep. She was sure a looker but she was just as big a mess. He tried to rouse her with little success but then he hadn’t expected much, a major reason he was parked at the back entrance. The last thing he needed was to be seen carrying an unconscious female into a hotel. He tucked her room key into his shirt pocket, then stepped out of the truck and walked around to the passenger side.
He opened the door and stood for a moment looking down at her. It’d be hell of a lot better if she could walk under her own steam but he didn’t hold out much hope of that happening. “Kylah.”
“Kylah, wake up.”
When her response was to snuggle deeper into the soft leather seat, he sighed and unhooked her seatbelt to lift her. Her weight took him by surprise given the slenderness of her form until he recalled the strength she’d displayed with her unwelcome admirers on the dance floor. Turning, he shoved the passenger door with his shoulder to close it then nearly dropped the girl in his arms as a flash of black fur leapt from the back seat, landing on the sidewalk at his feet. He stifled a curse as he and the cat stared at each other. This was a night of surprises.
The cat followed him up the walk and to the glass door where he didn’t even attempt to keep the feline from entering. Luck was with him and the hallway was empty. Rather than pushing that luck, he took the stairs, the cat a silent partner in the climb to the third floor. By the time they reached the door that matched the number on the hotel cardkey, Wolf had reason to be grateful he lived a life that kept him physically fit.
With a secure hold on the sleeping beauty in his arms, he fished the room key from his pocket. It took some maneuvering to get the door open while the light flashed green but he managed. And the cat sauntered into the room with him.
The room proved to be a suite with a tiny kitchenette and sitting area. Moving past that, he walked into a bedroom neat as a pin. Somehow, he hadn’t expected that. Whoever she was and whatever she was doing in town, her stay didn’t appear to be a short one. Stacks of jeans and tee shirts lined the top of the long, low dresser. No less than three pair of riding boots stood side by side under the desk.
Not that any of this was his business. He placed her as far to the center of the bed as possible and watched as she turned on her side and curled into a ball. Morning wasn’t likely to be kind to her.
When Wolf turned to leave the room, the cat stood in his path. He was sleek and black and with green eyes that gleamed in the low hotel lighting. “What?”
The cat, of course, did not answer. Though not a cat enthusiast, Wolf couldn’t help but admire the fact that the creature had managed to remain with his owner undetected. If the cat were a dog, Wolf could have believed he had her protection in mind. That thought led to him remembering that the cat’s owner was now here without a vehicle. With a little luck, she might remember where she left hers when she woke up.
He picked up the pen and pad left on every hotel nightstand, wrote his number and a brief note and signed his name. That was the best he could do for now. Ignoring her cat, who still watched his every move with suspicion, he walked out. As he heard the lock click when he closed the door behind him, he realized he didn’t even know her last name.
Kylah bolted to an upright position as her phone alarm jangled. Her heart and her head pounded with equal unpleasantness as she took stock of her surroundings and struggled with the fact that her phone seemed to be attached to her chest. No, not attached, ensconced in the tiny clutch with a strap she wore over her neck and one shoulder when she didn’t want to keep up with anything heavier. She managed to unwind it from around her upper body, retrieve the phone, and hit stop on the alarm.
Eight a.m. She’d reset it two hours past normal before leaving the hotel room last night, not honestly believing she’d sleep in but hopeful anyway. Time to shower, eat – if she could – and drive to the county’s fairground barn. The shower was a must but she suspected breakfast wasn’t going to be very high on her list. The pounding in her chest had eased but not the pounding in her head and when she rolled over her heart did too.
Her shriek startled the cat as much as the sight of him had startled her but he was altogether more stoic. He ducked his head and his ears flattened but that green gaze was unwavering and he never changed body position. He sat regally on the hotel dresser beside the television she had yet to turn on and doubted she ever would though she’d be here at least two weeks. She leaned her head into her hands and closed her eyes. She was never, ever drinking again, so help her, but when she looked again, the cat was still there.
Moving to the edge of the bed, she slid to her feet and muttered, “If you’re gonna be dumb, you’ve gotta be tough.” She hoped she’d had fun. She wished she could remember it. Particularly since that was going to be her last attempt at being a party animal. Even at the wry thought, the familiar, faint sorrow swept through her. It was time to let go. She knew that.
The hotel bathroom was standard size and adequate. She turned the shower to the hottest setting, then stripped and stepped in, leaning her head against the tile as the steam rose up around her. She didn’t turn off the water until it began to cool.
It wasn’t until after she’d showered that she found the note on the nightstand and realized she had no idea how she spent her evening, where she left her truck, or how she got in her room. And she was beholden to someone named Wolf.
The cat seemed the least of her troubles.
She sank to the edge of the bed with her phone and entered the number on the note with a rare-for-her reluctance. She either did things or she didn’t do them. She didn’t do them hesitantly. Until now. To her relief, she got a recorded message. The strong, masculine voice caused her eyes to close again. Mother Mary, what had she done?
She cleared her throat and took a deep breath before answering. “It seems you got me back to my room last night. I appreciate that and the offer of help but I can find my truck. And you left your cat. I’m not much of a cat person so – ah – you’ll need to come get him. Or her.”
She ended the call then voiced a series of curses that even the cat seemed to understand as he uncoiled from his comfortable position on one of the pillows and sat upright giving her an indignant stare. Most of the words she’d never said in public or even aloud in private, but sometimes …
“May as well get this show on the road.” She glanced at the cat. “You included, but you’ll have to walk and keep up.” She could imagine the uproar if the housekeeping staff found a cat in her room.
Getting dressed in jeans and tee shirt took little time. Her hair would have to air dry and she could care less about makeup when she’d be covered in dust within the first few hours of her day.
With a frustrated glance at the time, she made another phone call, setting it to hands-free while she tugged on socks and boots. She started talking as soon as he answered. “Jake, I’m running late but we’ll get started as soon as I get there.”
Jake was her right hand, on the road and on the job. Not for anyone else would she give up the comfortable living quarters of her trailer for a hotel room. She despised hotel rooms. And not for anyone but Kylah would Jake leave his comfortable bunk room attached to her barn back home.
“No, problem,” Jake answered, “but you might want to get here sooner rather than later if you can.”
“Why? Is something wrong?” There was. She could hear it in his voice. But it wasn’t the horses or he would have called her before she could call him.
“I’m not sure what’s going on but there’s a dozen or so blue light specials here and a uniform around every corner.”
“I’m on my way.”
As soon as she figured out where the hell she’d left her truck.
Not a cat person? Hmph. It will be a while before I forgive that nonsensical statement. Regardless, this Kylah, for all her grit, has the saddest eyes of any human I’ve ever seen and if she’s walking into a police situation, my services may be needed.