The Wolf Prince
A novel by Karen Kelley
“I need a man,” Darcy Spencer said, moving her cell phone to her other ear.
The trail she was on ran through the park on her parents’ country estate so she didn’t have to worry about interruptions. Besides, it was too early for anyone else to be out and about. The sun was just coming up, painting an orange-red glow across the Texas sky with a wide stroke. The lush green grass was damp from the heavy dew and a slight chill hung in the air. Being outside this early felt good—fresh and clean.
“Do you realize what time it is?” Jennifer asked, her words thick from sleep.
“I don’t know.” She squinted toward the horizon. “Around six, I suppose. What does that have to do with anything?”
“It has to do with the fact I was still asleep, and besides, if you’d gone with me to the club last night, you could have found a man easy enough.”
Darcy didn’t sleep much, and often forgot her friends did. “A man from the club won’t work,” she told Jennifer. “And I’m sorry about waking you. I forgot you like to sleep late.”
“Nine is not… never mind. Why wouldn’t a man from the club work?”
“I don’t want that kind of relationship. I need someone long term.”
Jennifer’s deep sigh came clearly across the phone. “What about Peter or Dick? Peter thinks the sun rises and sets with you.”
“Peter was a mistake. Never date a man who’s always been more like a brother to you.” Darcy stopped walking and frowned. “Have you ever thought about my ex-boyfriend’s names? I mean, in reference to the male anatomy.”
“Merely a coincidence.”
“I’m beginning to wonder.” She continued walking along the edge of the dense stand of trees, but keeping in the open. “There was Willie—remember him? He loved garlic and onions, and always smelled faintly of … well … onions and garlic. Then there was Tom Johnson. And Woody.”
“Wait, I don’t remember a Woody.”
“You didn’t date him.”
“No, but I had a crush on him at one time. The guy has a seriously funny sense of humor.”
“A crush doesn’t count. Maybe you should date a guy with boyfriend approved stamped on his ass. Like FDA approved meat. Except this would be boyfriend approved meat.” Jennifer chuckled at her own joke.
“I’m not sure the FDA approval stamp carries as much weight as it once did.”
“I still don’t know why you’re looking for a man.”
Darcy turned and started back toward the house. “I sort of told my mother I’d met someone.”
“In other words, you lied through your teeth.”
She nibbled her bottom lip. “That’s one way to put it. I told Mom that she could meet him when she and Dad join me next month.”
“Why do you do these things?”
Darcy shrugged. “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” And it had. Now that she thought about it, maybe not so much. But no other plan had seemed plausible.
“You’re twenty-five,” Jennifer said. “You shouldn’t have to lie to your parents. Just tell your mother you’re not ready to settle down.”
“Except then she would try her hand at matchmaking again. Remember Albert?”
Jennifer chuckled. “He did sweat a lot.”
Shivers of revulsion ran up and down Darcy’s spine just thinking about the guy. “He was flatulent. I am not going to get stuck with another one of my mother’s attempts to fix me up with a man, and that’s exactly what she’d do. She would drag him down here for the whole summer. Some trust-fund baby who’s doing nothing but living off his parents’ wealth.”
“Uh, I hate to break it to you, Darcy, but you just described us.”
Darcy flinched, knowing her friend spoke the truth and feeling again as though she were caught between her guilty conscience and her overbearing mother. Enough already! This was the summer she’d convince her mother to untie the apron strings. If her mom dragged another Albert along with her, it would never happen.
“So, just what are you planning?” Jennifer asked, breaking into her thoughts.
“I’m not sure, but I have a month to figure it out.”
“The great procrastinator. Hey, keep me up to date with what you’re going to do so I’ll know which lie to tell if anyone asks. And don’t stay gone too long. I get so bored without you in the city, but I loathe the country. Too much fresh air. I’ll take smog and pollution any day.”
They talked a little more, then said their good-byes, and Darcy closed the phone, slipping it back in her pants pocket.
She kicked at a rock, sending it flying into the woods. Jennifer was right. Darcy had to get more control of her life. She was twenty-five, and had a freakin’ private investigator license, and a degree in business, except her mother cried every time Darcy even mentioned getting a job that might be remotely dangerous.
But Darcy was good at finding things. It was almost as if she had a sixth sense. She’d make a great investigator. She loved the thought of intrigue, stealth and danger. Actually, there probably wouldn’t be that much intrigue, stealth or danger. It would be a lot of research on the Internet, or spying on wives or husbands suspected of infidelity. She didn’t really think she would enjoy spying on cheating spouses. But finding things that might be lost intrigued her, making her pulse beat just a little faster.
Her shoulders slumped. That is, if she ever got the chance to work. She didn’t have an ounce of courage when it came to standing up to her mother.
Darcy loved her mom, but the woman really had to loosen up. The rooms, no matter how opulent, were closing in on Darcy. Trouble was, she understood why her mother was so suffocating, which made everything worse. Mary Spencer had had four miscarriages before adopting Darcy. She’d been smothering her only child ever since.
A large dog jumped from between the trees and into her path. Darcy froze. The dog turned and glared at her. It wasn’t unusual that people dumped unwanted pets in the country, but this dog was really big. Maybe not even a dog. She would swear it was a wolf.
Her palms grew sweaty. She glanced around, careful not to make any sudden moves. There was a large branch within reach. She cautiously leaned down and picked it up. Damn, it was heavier than she’d expected, but heavy was probably good.
“Go away or I’ll clobber you.” She spoke calmly, but fear coursed through her veins.
The wolf didn’t make a move to leave.
A thick fog began to roll in. Should she run? What if the wolf attacked and ripped her to shreds?
She hesitated too long. The fog was so thick now, she couldn’t see her hand in front of her face. There was a rustle in the brush. Darcy stiffened. Then she heard someone groan, and more movement in the brush.
Was someone else there? Had the wolf attacked somebody earlier? Maybe she’d interrupted the wolf eating its prey. Her stomach turned at the thought of finding body parts. Even worse the wolf might still be hungry and decide to eat her. She gripped the branch a little tighter.
The fog began to dissipate almost as fast as it had rolled in. She hugged the branch to her chest, ready for anything.
“Ow!” A deep male voice grumbled. “By the gods, is this place filled with thorns?”
“Who’s there?” she croaked, then quickly cleared her throat.
He stepped out from behind a tree as the fog completely cleared.
Her gaze swept over him, then jerked back to his face. “You’re naked,” she said, her voice trembling. Oh, God, there was a naked man in the woods, along with a man-eating wolf. She was going to die!
The man stepped toward her, holding out his hand.
She screamed and brought the heavy branch down on his head with all the strength she could muster. There was a distinct thud. His eyes widened as he stumbled forward a couple of steps. She quickly stepped back. The naked stranger’s eyes closed as he slowly collapsed to the ground in front of her.
Her legs were shaking so badly she had to lean against the side of a tree for support. Oh, God, she’d just knocked out a streaker. She closed her eyes and tried to slow her racing pulse. She could barely take a breath. Adrenaline surged through her veins.