Danika Whitney's frustration had mellowed somewhat by the time she reached the edge of town. Pushing the worrisome puzzle of her latest defeat in tagging one of the wolves terrorizing the area to the back of her mind, she searched her pockets with one hand for the list she'd made for herself before she left the cabin.
"Shit!" she muttered when she discovered it wasn't in her shirt pocket. When a similar search of her jeans pockets came up empty, she glanced at her carryall frowningly and finally let out a huff of irritation that ruffled the brownish blond tendrils straying from her ponytail over her brow and along her cheeks.
So much for thinking she'd let one trip into town suffice to hold her for another week! "I made a list," she muttered to herself. "I know I did. I must've put it in the bag."
She didn't feel very reassured, but after contemplating turning around and heading back to the cabin she'd rented for her investigation, she dismissed it. She was hungry, damn it! That was probably why she'd forgotten the damned list. She'd had her mind on a nice hot 'I didn't cook it' meal at the diner, and her latest failure, and she'd probably lain the note she'd made for herself down somewhere, or maybe just left it on the table where she'd sat down to write?
The roar of an engine behind her jerked her out of her preoccupation about her missing list. Danika flicked a glance in the rearview mirror of her truck and froze.
There was a pack of motorcycles roaring up behind her.
She stared at the leather clad men on motorcycles for several moments, feeling a jolt of adrenaline rush through her when it occurred to her that it didn't look as if they had any intention of slowing down or stopping behind her. Transferring her gaze to the light at the intersection where she'd stopped on 'autopilot', she realized it wasn't actually a traffic light at all but rather a blinking caution light.
Discomfited when it dawned at her that she'd been sitting at the intersection searching for her list while she waited for the light to change--which was never going to change--she took her foot off the brake. Before she could move forward, the men on the cycles, who did actually slow, whipped around her like the tide rolling around a bridge piling, three on one side, two on the other.
To a man, all five turned to stare at her as they moved around her.
Unnerved, Danika stared back them, glancing from one side to the other before it dawned on her she probably shouldn't be looking at them at all. They looked rough, and dangerous, and it was never a good idea to encourage the notice of obvious gang members--probably felons and drug addicts.
They might think she was interested--as in flirting!
They might think she was angry because they'd broken the law by passing her at an intersection--on both sides--and consider it a challenge!
Averting her gaze as one unnerving thought after another flitted through her mind, she watched them surreptitiously as they turned the corner.
"Well shit!" They'd turned and headed down main street, which was where the 'business' district lay--her objective. "Now what?"
She didn't want to appear to be following them, especially not when 'the incident' at the light might be something they could take exception to. One never knew with gangs, she was sure.
Not that she'd had any experience with gangs, or even studied gang mentality and behavior, but she did watch the news. People might think she was too out of step with the real world to notice things, but she did!
She decided to go straight instead of turning, hopeful that they meant to continue right on out of town. She was almost positive they weren't local. Both the leather they were wearing and their bikes had looked dusty as if they'd been riding a while. Besides, she was pretty sure she would've noticed if there'd been a local biker gang even though she hadn't been in the area long. It was something she felt certain would have stuck out in a community this tiny, particularly when it was mostly made up of farmers.
They'd looked a good bit younger than the bikers she'd seen riding up the interstate back home from time to time.
Not that she'd checked them out, but she'd been stunned enough to look and she'd seen a lot of shaggy hair that didn't seem to be threaded with any gray at all and she'd caught a glimpse of smooth shaven faces that didn't look weathered.
The hard muscles certainly didn't look like anything that would belong to a more mature male. She hadn't noticed any middle-aged, or beer, paunches.
Disturbed that she'd noticed so much when she'd been certain she hadn't stared, she pulled in to the first parking spot she came to, grabbed her carryall and dumped the contents into the passenger seat, raking through it hopefully it in search of her list. Irritation flickered through her again when she saw it wasn't in the bag either.
When she'd shoved everything back into the bag, she decided she'd delayed long enough the gang would've cleared town. She started the vehicle again. She would go eat first, she decided. It was never a good idea to go to the grocery store hungry and she could try to compile her list again while she was eating. It hadn't been a long list. She didn't need much, but she didn't want to get all the way back out to the fishing camp where she was staying and discover she'd forgotten something it was going to be hard, or impossible, to do without, necessitating another trip into town.
Beyond the fact that she didn't like to waste her time doing the same task two or three times because of something she'd forgotten, she had work to do and not much time to get results.
Truthfully, although she couldn't quite put her finger on it, the locals made her uncomfortable. They seemed almost ... hostile.
It didn't make any sense. She'd been sent because of the wolf problem that had been reported. She was sure, given the fact that there'd been several cases reported of attacks on livestock, and even one on a resident, that they thought sending her was a waste of time, but she couldn't see that that would account for the brooding sense of hostility she'd noticed when she'd arrived the week before. Mostly people just ignored her or considered her with amused contempt. She wouldn't have been surprised at either reaction.
The antagonism she'd felt seemed out of place, but then it seemed to be a tight knit community pretty much isolated from the rest of the world. Maybe they just didn't like strangers at all? Or maybe it was directly related to her purpose for coming. Maybe they thought sending her to do studies before they took action was just a way of paying lip service to their problem without actually doing anything?
She supposed she could understand how it could look that way to the casual observer, or that they might think they were being called liars for reporting the attacks at all. The behavior of the wolves was unprecedented, though.
Their existence in the area was startling enough when they were hundreds of miles from where there should've been any wolves, let alone a pack so large. She supposed that might explain the attacks--them being out of their element--but there seemed to be a plentiful food source in the forests. Why the wolves were going after livestock when they should've been content with the abundant wildlife, and should want to avoid men, was another mystery.
And then there was the man that had been attacked.
Of course, she hadn't been able to verify that attack. Everyone had clammed up. She hadn't even been able to learn the source of the original report let alone the victim.
Parking her vehicle near the diner, Danika got out and locked her doors by force of habit. Shoving her keys into her pocket instead of the bag, since it took too much time to search the thing for them, she headed into the diner, still mulling over the mystery she'd been sent to solve.
The bell over the door tinkled as she shoved the door open. The sound triggered earlier thoughts that had dogged her all the way into town, her latest failed attempt to tag one of the wolves. She'd been pissed off when she'd found the first tag but took it philosophically enough since she'd clipped it in his ear and figured it must have been loose enough for him to scratch it off. However, she'd brought the wolf down with a tranq the second time and embedded the tracker in his hip. He shouldn't have been able to find it, let alone remove it, and yet she'd found that one discarded in the woods just like she had the first--discarded and mangled beyond use.
Wolves were intelligent, she knew, and she still found it almost eerie that she hadn't managed to locate the pack--only the one lone wolf that she'd tagged, twice, because he'd been brazen enough to come almost right up to her cabin. Otherwise, they were almost like ... ghosts--ghosts that left a lot of footprints and nothing else.
She came face to face with a local as she crossed the threshold. He narrowed his eyes at her, his lips tightening with anger. Surprised since she recognized him and he'd flirted with her when she'd first arrived, she moved aside for him to leave, turning to watch him curiously as he limped to his car.
Shaking her head to dismiss his strange behavior, she continued inside, allowing the door to swing closed behind her. The crowded diner quieted noticeably--enough that Danika become aware of it when she would ordinarily have been deep enough in thought to be oblivious. Feeling awkward at attracting so much attention, she struggled to pretend she hadn't noticed as she moved further inside, since retreating didn't seem to be a good idea. The restaurant appeared to be full, but, after glancing around, she decided to walk to the back to be sure before she beat a retreat.
One booth was vacant at the back and, as luck would have it, it was one of those huge u-shaped booths designed to accommodate a large group. She stared at it uncomfortably for a moment, undecided, torn between her growling stomach and her discomfort. Finally, she moved toward it, deciding she'd leave if they told her she had to.
Everyone seemed to return to their own interests as she slid into the seat and settled. Relaxing fractionally, she grabbed a menu and opened it. She'd been unnerved far more than she'd realized. It took her several moments to actually focus on the menu.
Her skin still prickled from all the staring eyes that had watched her progress through the diner. Trying to dismiss the feeling that everyone in the diner was still observing her, though more discretely now, Danika pretended an interest in the menu she didn't particularly feel anymore.
She'd just managed to dismiss her uneasiness enough to actually begin reading when the bell over the door tinkled again. Focused now on trying to decide what she wanted off the menu she might've been oblivious except for the fact that the first tinkle was followed by another and then a third in quick succession. Suddenly aware that there seemed to be a lot of traffic at the door and that she'd settled her ass in the only available booth--built for a large party--she glanced up from the menu and froze when she saw that she hadn't, as she'd hoped, heard people leaving.
The biker gang had just entered the diner.
The lowering volume she'd noticed when she'd come in was nothing compared to their reception. The diner went dead quiet.
They seemed unaware they had the attention of everyone in the place.
Her gaze collided with one of the men and a jolt went through her. For a handful of seconds, she couldn't seem to drag her gaze away. Finally, the realization hit her that by allowing him to catch her gaze she'd drawn attention she didn't want and she quickly averted her gaze to the menu again.
She couldn't concentrate on it. Her ears felt as if they'd elongated with the intensity of their focus on the men. She heard the heavy tread of booted feet as they sauntered unhurriedly through the diner.
"Mind if we join you?"
Danika looked up automatically at the deep masculine voice. Startled when she discovered the man--the entire pack of men--was standing right in front of her booth and worse, the man was talking to her, Danika felt her eyes widen. Her thoughts went chaotic in a frantic attempt to find some reasonable excuse for why she minded that wouldn't arouse their antagonism. "Well ... uh...."
The man who'd spoken to her slid into the seat. Frozen in place, she felt her eyes grow wider and wider the closer he came. Brought abruptly to the belated instinct to flee by the man's proximity, Danika slid away from him, only to discover that three of the others had slid into the seat from the opposite side, pinning her in.
Wide eyed with panic, she stared at first one face and then another until she'd catalogued a mental photograph of each. It didn't help that her imagination instantly kicked in and supplied her with a kaleidoscope of horrific images that all featured her as a victim and the pack as violent offenders.
"The name's Balin."
The voice was the deep rumble of a high testosterone male and it sent a wave of prickling sensation through Danika that she dimly recognized as a purely feminine reaction to an attractive male. She blinked for the first time in several minutes, realizing only then that she'd been staring slack jawed at the man who'd slid in beside her. Sucking in her first breath in as many minutes, which made it obvious by the dryness of her mouth that she'd been staring at him with her mouth open, she licked her dry lips and brought them together abruptly. Her eyes slid away as she pasted a nervous smile on her lips. "Danika," she said weakly.
Where was a cop when she needed one?
Danika stared at the huge paw the blond man had extended across the table toward her, wondering if he was admitting to being a con man.
"Connor," he amended as if he'd read her mind, "but everyone calls me Con."
Or maybe it was just the blank look on her face?
Like a sleep walker, she extended her own hand, watching as it disappeared in the man's clasp.
Still with the feeling that she was in the grips of a dream, or maybe a nightmare, Danika removed her hand from the man's grasp and watched it disappear as the second enveloped it in a firm shake.
"Jared," said the last of the five, who'd settled on the other side of Balin.
Marginally relieved when the five men grabbed menus and turned their attention to studying them instead of her, Danika tried to shift unobtrusively to put a little distance between herself and the men crowding her. She discovered it was useless. For all that they seemed more rangy than big, they were big men and the booth wasn't nearly as big as it had seemed before they'd descended on her. There wasn't much more than a couple of inches between her and the men now firmly entrenched on either side of her, Balin and Dakota.
Surprise flickered through her that she actually remembered the names. Ordinarily, she was very bad with names and it wasn't as if she'd actually had her wits about her when they were making the introductions. For one, they were unnerving just by virtue of being a biker gang. She'd never been this close to the criminal element of society and she was sure she was petrified with terror, although she was in a state of shock that, fortunately, made it impossible for her to either faint or scream, and she sure as hell couldn't run.
Secondly, although she was well aware that it was psychotic even to have such thoughts, despite their rough appearance and the fact that all of them were sporting at least a day's growth of beard, Xavier was the closest to 'just average' of the bunch and he wasn't actually average but several cuts above the best looking man she'd ever actually seen in person. They were all handsome enough any one of them could have made it as a model, or actor, despite the intimidating multitude of tattoos and piercings she could see at a glance that unnerved her more than she would've thought possible. Along with the unfashionably long hair they all had, though, the tattoos and piercings seemed to add to the wild, untamed air of the bunch.
The last time she could recall being this unnerved was when she'd looked up from taking notes in her wildlife studies and discovered one of her 'subjects' had noticed her and wandered close enough to study her.
Balin had a tiny ring at the outer corner of one eye brow she saw when she glanced at him again and her imagination took flight as to where else he might be pierced--his nipples, certainly. She couldn't resist flicking a glance at the t-shirt molded to his rippling physique and the nipple rings brought her focus instantly to his hard pecs.