The Carrington pack ranch, Colorado, 2003
“You are not a Mitchell! Imposter! Usurp…”
The words died on the attacking male’s mouth as Ryder Carrington hit him square on the jaw. The blow sent the Lupine reeling backward into the oak bookcase. An iron bust of a wolf crashed over his head.
He collapsed to the floor.
“Busted,” Ryder murmured, flexing his sore knuckles.
The door burst open and his two lieutenants rushed inside. David and Marcus glanced at the crumbled Lupine on the Oriental rug.
“Another one. Punishment this time?” David asked.
Ryder sighed. As the pack’s new alpha wolf, he must maintain discipline, but damn, he hated this.
“Put him in one of the new cells. Let him cool off, then set him to work, supervised, mending the north fork fences. We need every available male working to repair the ranch.”
Marcus nodded and lifted the unconscious Lupine over one shoulder, carrying him out. Ryder sat in his predecessor’s leather chair behind a polished mahogany desk. Alastair Mitchell was dead and the pack had proclaimed Ryder their new leader after he’d defeated the alpha in a challenge eight weeks ago. Though Alastair had been cruel and unbalanced, a few loyal followers wanted no other leader but a Mitchell.
David remained standing. The young Lupine was a drifter who’d joined the pack shortly before Ryder assumed leadership, when everything was falling to pieces. He was stoic and formal, but an excellent assistant who’d already cultivated friendships among the pack’s old guard. “That’s the fourth one who tried to attack, sir. They’re getting bolder. They do not lower their gazes before you or bow their heads.”
“Fifth. And I’m Ryder, not sir. I don’t want bowed heads. I want a cohesive pack.”
“They think you did not win the pack challenge with Alastair fairly. The small band of his remaining supporters say you cheated and hit the alpha when he was already down.”
“And they want Alastair to rise from the dead and resume leadership.”
“No.” David shook his head. “No one says they want him back.”
“Do you know why?” he asked softly.
No answer. David did not know the pack’s past. Ryder steeped his fingers and stared at his lieutenant, who lowered his gaze.
“This pack has suffered more than you can imagine. Our former leader was cruel and neglected the people. Many still bear marks from his punishments.”
Old scar tissue pulled and stretched as Ryder moved a shoulder. He was among those Alastair had targeted. As the former pack omega, he’d endured many of the alpha’s reprimands.
“Begging your pardon, some in this pack still want a Mitchell. These followers say if you had a Mitchell here, even ruling at your side, they would readily accept you.”
He couldn’t afford any more divided loyalties. The pack had to work together or they might as well starve this winter. Ryder leaned back, thinking fast.
“Kara Mitchell,” he murmured.
David shook his head. “I thought she left the pack with her older brother, Aiden.”
But he’d never forgotten her.
He opened a drawer and withdrew a photograph of a smiling, lovely brunette with sparkling green eyes and skin soft and smooth as cream. When he was but a lowly omega, Kara had been the only spark of light in his life. Kara had been compassionate and kind, even sneaking him meals from the kitchen when he’d broken yet another rule and had been tossed into a cell as punishment.
Two years ago, he’d dared to steal an illicit kiss that left her weak and trembling, and left him hard as stone. Newly released from a month of solitary confinement, Ryder had been so lonely he ached for company. He’d been wandering the lodge, looking for anyone to say hello. Seeing no one, he’d hovered in the hallway, slumped against the wall and feeling like he wasn’t worth a shit just like Alastair had claimed.
And then he’d seen Kara, cheeks rosy from the cold, a spring in her step. Seeing him, she’d stopped, flung her arms around him and whispered, “Don’t let him break you. You’re important to us.”
Encouraged by her sweetness, he couldn’t resist touching his lips to hers. But denied contact with his pack for so long, Ryder’s wolf had surged, turning the kiss ferocious and bruising. She’d smelled fresh and achingly innocent, her fragrance triggering his wolf’s savage need. Kara responded eagerly to the increasing pressure of his mouth. She’d hooked one leg around his, and he’d shattered, grabbing a fistful of her long hair, tugging her head back to intensify the mating of their mouths.
Kara’s soft breasts had pressed against his chest, their nipples achingly hard. He’d reached down and cupped one, wild with frantic need to simply hold her close, taste her scent in his mouth…