Jingle Bell Wolf by Terry Spear
It had been ten years since that fatal accident in the snow in Montana that changed Gabrielle’s life forever. She now stood at the edge of the outdoor part of the swimming pool at Timberline Ski Lodge, Silver Town, Colorado, the snow falling on her knit cap and ski jacket, mist rising from the heated water.
Although her last name meant “wolf cub” or “little wolf” in old French, Gabrielle Lowell hadn’t been a cub for a very long time. After that night when her parents died, she’d returned to Pensacola to sell off their veterinary clinic and finish her degree. Once she had her license, she’d joined a veterinary clinic co-op in Daytona Beach, Florida. There wasn’t any way she could have worked in her parents’ practice with them gone.
Her jaguar friends, Odette and Zelda Bellamy, had convinced her to go on this winter adventure—she suspected as a way to prove to her that being in snow could be fun and not always deadly—and now they weren’t even here yet. Coming here, Gabrielle realized, had upset her whole known world of beaches and sun and sea and reawakened her fear of snow and ice.
She loved the water—swimming, boating, waterskiing—but snow skiing? She figured she would end up killing herself in the process. Not to mention that all she could think about were the ski-vacation plans she’d had with her mom and dad before the fateful night that ended her dreams…and theirs.
Recollections of that terrible night made her hesitate to strip off her clothes and dive into the pool. It wasn’t the same, she told herself. The night was cold and snowy, sure, but the pool was heated, and she wouldn’t be trapped in a car, fighting for her life. As much as she hated to admit it, she still suffered from some level of post-traumatic stress disorder after dying in the crash, being revived, and finding she’d lost both her parents.
Gabrielle had arrived at the Silver Town Ski Resort after a late flight from Daytona Beach the day after Thanksgiving, having had client cases all day at the veterinarian clinic, and she felt the strongest urge to swim, to get the kinks out the best way she knew how. But the pool was closed, darn it. She was not normally adventurous, and she didn’t usually break rules. But the water beckoned to her, the only thing in this snowy winter wonderland that didn’t seem alien to her, if she didn’t think of snow in conjunction with water and the lake that had swallowed her parents’ rental car.
She figured she could swim a few laps in the pool before anyone would notice she was in there, and she would be as quiet as a mermaid, no splashing in the water. Just slip in, swim, and slip out, and nobody would be the wiser.
She would run later tonight as a wolf—though running through snow would be a whole new experience. All the snow made it so much more Christmas-like than living in Florida. The Christmas lights strung on the inside and outside of the lodge and restaurant and the decorations—Christmas trees and poinsettias and mistletoe—were so festive. Several fir trees were covered in lights reflecting off the outdoor part of the pool. Aqua, silver, and white balls and bows filled the trees. She felt like she was in a winter wonderland. The place was just beautiful.
Gabrielle swallowed hard. She knew she would feel better once she swam. Since she was wearing her bikini under the ski clothes, she hurried to strip out of her jacket. She was going to be at the ski resort for a little over a week, and she was determined to get over the phobia she had about snow and ice.
* * *
Landon Wolff had two pet peeves when it came to running the Timberline Ski Lodge at Silver Town: guests swimming before the pool was supposed to be open first thing in the morning, and guests who swam in the pool after it was closed.
If he’d known how many guests would ignore the posted rules, he would have suggested to his brother, Blake, and sisters, Roxie and Kayla, that they design the layout differently so they could lock the swimming pool area whenever the pool was closed to guests.
But they had wanted the area to be more open and picturesque. The Howling Wolff Bar and Grill overlooked the outdoor part of the pool on one end and had a great view of the mountains on the other. Plants and a glass wall provided a barrier to the swimming pool from the lobby, except for one entryway that had a sign posted with the pool’s hours. Right now, the pool was closed. The lobby itself had a double-sided fireplace for anyone who wanted to sit and warm up while taking a break from snow activities. Large leather chairs and couches, warm honey-oak-paneled walls, and marble floors with tapestry throw rugs adorned the lobby. Not to mention a ten-foot Christmas tree that was decorated for the season.
The deep end of the swimming pool extended beyond a plexiglass wall, so that guests could actually swim underneath the divider and into the pool outside, which was surrounded by a snow-covered patio. Landon loved swimming outside while it was snowing, the flakes falling on him and the heated pool water.
The pool was closed to guests during certain hours so that he and his family could have private use of it. They posted signs that said: PRIVATE PARTY ONLY. POOL CLOSED
So the day after Thanksgiving, when Roxie told Landon someone was splashing in the pool before the night-shift staff came in—just after he had thrown on his board shorts to swim a few laps, his nightly routine—he was feeling like a growly wolf, ready to bounce the rule breaker out on his ass in the snow.
Roxie reminded him, “Remember, the swimmer is a paying guest.” Then she frowned at him. “Maybe I should handle it.”
Rosco, their avalanche-trained Saint Bernard and a loving family companion and mascot for the lodge, eagerly greeted Landon, his red-and-green bell collar jingling at the same pace as his tail, while his little barrel of doggy treats—decorated with a snowman and the words “Merry Christmas”—wobbled around his neck.
“Hey, Rosco.” Landon petted him. “You stay put.” Rosco was good about not swimming in the pool, most of the time. Landon just didn’t want to have to get him back out of the pool, because then Rosco would shake all over and smell like wet dog next to the fireplace in the lodge. Landon said to Roxie, “I’m on my way to the pool anyway, and then I’ll go home and have dinner with you and Kayla.”
Landon headed for the pool with a beach towel in hand and wearing a red T-shirt with the name of their lodge and a wolf featured prominently on it, this one wearing a Santa hat. They didn’t sell the T-shirts, sweaters, or sweatshirts in their gift shop, though several guests had asked if they could buy them. Instead, the owners and employees wore the special gear so everyone would know who was on staff if they needed help. Kayla was a marketing genius when it came to thinking up fun ideas to promote the lodge and the bar and grill.
In this case, wearing the T-shirt would help to show Landon had the authority to tell a rule breaker to get out of the pool. He knew he shouldn’t get so steamed about it, but it was ingrained in him to live by the rules. His former girlfriend had been just the opposite. For her, rules were meant to be broken. Nothing really bad, just stuff like this. As wolves, they really didn’t want to have to do any jail time. Not that royals—shifters who had wolf roots so far back that they could change at will—would be compelled to shift with the full moon like the others, but any wolf could get aggravated enough with being locked in a cage and dealing with a prison population and guards to go off the deep end and want to shift.
Christmas music played overhead: “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas,” which was totally appropriate as the ski lodge and ski resort had record snowfall this winter. The Wolff family had knocked themselves out decorating the whole lodge and bar and grill for Christmas, since the sisters were here too this year. Now that Blake had a mate, Nicole, she and her brother, Nate Grayson, had also helped. Even the siblings’ parents had a blast helping to decorate the fireplace mantels, the check-in counter, and the gift shop—a new addition. It was truly a family affair between the Wolffs and the Graysons, who were now part of their extended family.
Landon finally made it to the pool and frowned at the woman swimming in it. From the moment Roxie had mentioned the guest swimming in the pool, Landon had thought it would be a man. For a second, he thought his ex was here, causing trouble for him. But the woman was wearing a white swim cap, something his ex would never have done, and a red-and-white-striped string bikini—like a candy cane—that showed off her curves in a revealing way. He just stood there like an idiot when he should have been hollering at her to leave, watching her swimming on the surface of the water and then diving under, headed to the opposite end of the pool.
Blake joined him, wearing a red sweater with their seasonal lodge logo of a wolf in a Christmas hat and pants and boots, dressed more for going out into the snow than swimming. “Roxie told me we had a rule breaker in the pool.”
“Yeah. The swimmer just swam to the outside part of the pool.”
Blake folded his arms, his eyes riveted to the pool. “Are you going after him?”
“Did you need me to stick around to make sure you don’t have any trouble with him? I was going to head up to the bar and grill for a hot chocolate before I head home.”
“No.” Landon didn’t want Blake to see the woman, or know that the swimmer was a woman, though his brother could see her if he went to the section of bar-and-grill seating that overlooked the outdoor area of the pool. He was sure Blake would, if nothing more than to ensure Landon didn’t have any trouble with the swimmer.
Landon was seriously considering letting her continue to swim in their pool once he saw what she was wearing and how good it looked on her. She was all sleekness and curves. A candy-cane package. Human? Wolf? He didn’t know. But he sure wanted to.
“I’ve got it, Blake.” Landon put his phone and towel on a chaise lounge, then stripped off his shirt. He’d hoped that Blake would just leave, but his brother was still standing there watching for the swimmer to reappear.
“You don’t think he’s in trouble, do you?” Blake asked.
“Yeah, the swimmer’s in trouble. The guest shouldn’t be swimming after hours!” Landon wasn’t as annoyed about it now that he’d seen the rule breaker, but he didn’t want to let on to his younger quadruplet brother that a pretty woman was the reason.
Frowning, Blake shook his head. “I mean that maybe he is having issues swimming.”
“I’ll check it out.”
“Okay. I’ll check from the restaurant.”
Great.Then Blake would see why Landon didn’t immediately take the swimmer to task or correct Blake about the sex of the rule breaker. Landon kicked off his sandals and walked over to the deeper edge of the pool, worried when he didn’t see the woman return to the inside pool. It was snowing like crazy out there tonight.
He dove into the warm water and swam to the divider with powerful strokes and dove under to reach the other side to make sure the woman was all right and remind her of the rules. When he came up into the chilly air, the snowflakes falling all over his hair, he found the woman had…vanished.
* * *
Gabrielle had swum five laps the length of the pool before she figured she was tempting fate and a scolding and left. She felt good, having finally gotten over her fear of jumping into the pool in the snow. She knew her fear of snow and the water wouldn’t go away overnight, but maybe this would be a beginning.
On the snow-covered patio surrounding the pool, she pulled off her white swimming cap, freeing her blond hair, and shoved the cap into her bag. Shivering, she yanked her green sweater over her head and her bikini top, and then struggled to pull her skintight black ski pants over her wet bikini bottoms. She slipped on her favorite Christmas howling wolves socks and shoved her feet into her snow boots. After pulling on her red-and-pink-striped ski hat, she shouldered her bag. Even though she knew she had dressed quickly, it felt like it had taken forever. She was just not used to this kind of cold.
At least she was well on her way up to the bar and grill on the crunchy, snowy walkway before anyone caught her entering the restaurant from the outdoor pool area.
She took a seat in a booth as soon as she entered the warm restaurant where guests were sitting and eating while Christmas music played overhead. She loved the way the glass dividers providing privacy for guests had illustrations of wolves etched in them. White Christmas lights were hanging everywhere, making the whole restaurant festive. A waitress came to take her order, and she realized several of the staff at the lodge were wolves.
The waitress, Minx, her name tag said, smiled at her. “We close in half an hour, just to let you know.”
“Okay, thanks. I’ll just take”—Gabrielle quickly looked at the menu—“the baked potato, salad, and a medium rare T-bone steak. And a cup of hot chocolate. On the salad, blue cheese dressing, if we have enough time for all that.”
“We sure do. I’ll bring it right out.”
Poinsettias and lighted red candles sat on each of the tables, which were covered in red tablecloths. It was the perfect place for a couple to have dinner, Gabrielle thought.
She noticed a man watching her, and then he smiled at her. Another soon joined him and garnered his attention.
“Did you find your swimmer?” the first man asked the newly arrived guy who looked so similar to him, they had to be brothers or cousins. They were both a little over six feet tall, the first one having light-brown hair and blue eyes, and the other light-brown hair and dark-brown eyes.
At the mention that the brown-eyed man had been looking for the errant swimmer, Gabrielle felt her heart hitch and she turned to look at the view of the outdoor part of the pool from the restaurant. Had the blue-eyed guy been watching her dress outside by the pool while he was in the restaurant?
Her whole body warmed with embarrassment.
“Nah. When I reached the pool outdoors, there was no sign of the swimmer,” the other man said.
Well, the deed was done, and there wouldn’t be any reason to talk to her about it unless she’d committed some major crime. She hadn’t realized the restaurant patrons could have been watching her outside in the snow dressing poolside, or undressing before that. At least right now no one was eating in the section of the bar and grill with a view of the pool. Most were sitting where they could watch the nighttime skiers on the slopes before the lifts shut down for the evening.
The lodge owners probably had security cameras that would have caught her actions. But again, why look at them if she hadn’t really done anything bad?
So who were these men? Part of the security for the lodge? She suspected as much. And she guessed the guy who might have seen her dressing wasn’t going to tell on her. She just hadn’t expected one of them to be wearing soaking-wet board shorts that were clinging to his wet legs. His hair was also wet, and even his T-shirt that indicated the name of the resort was damp and clinging to his muscular chest.
The waitress brought her water, hot chocolate, a salad, and fresh-baked bread. Gabrielle’s stomach rumbled, she was so hungry. She began to eat her salad and buttered her bread.
“Are you going to go swimming, Landon, or just drip water all over the restaurant?” the other man asked the one in the board shorts.
Gabrielle hid a smile.
Landon smiled at him a little evilly. “I’m swimming. See you in the morning, Blake.” Then Landon, who must have actually swum after her in the pool since he was all wet—but thankfully missed catching her—left the restaurant, and the one named Blake grabbed a cup of hot chocolate, smiled at her, and left too.
Gabrielle sighed, relaxed, and enjoyed her delicious meal. After she finished her dinner, she was about to head up to her room when she got a text. Her jaguar friends were running late on a JAG mission they were working. They would see her tomorrow afternoon instead of tonight.
Great.They were the reason she was here at all!
Oh well, Gabrielle would run tonight as a wolf and then swim tomorrow, doing the things she loved anyway, and she wouldn’t have to snow ski for a while. Normally, she wasn’t afraid of anything…but falling down mountains in the cold, wet snow? It didn’t appeal. She couldn’t imagine how her friends had gotten into snow skiing, since they were jaguar shifters, but they loved the snow. Then again, with their catlike actions, she could imagine they would do well on the slopes.
She sighed, paid her dinner bill, and walked up the carpeted stairs to her room on the second floor to ditch her wet bathing suit and dress in other warm, dry clothes. She carried a bottle of water for after her run and a backpack to stuff her clothes into when she was ready to shift in the woods. The backpack was white and would blend in with the snow. But she would bury it too, just in case, not wanting anyone to find it and steal it or worry about a missing person. She could find the buried backpack with her enhanced sense of smell as a lupus garou.
Once she was ready to go, Gabrielle headed downstairs past the pool, though she glanced through the entryway to see Landon swimming with muscular strokes, his back, arms, and shoulders well sculpted, and she smiled, glad he hadn’t caught her swimming.
Then she left the ski lodge and trudged through the snow past two beautiful two-story brick-and-stone homes, rustic but new, with white lights hanging from the eaves and around the trees out back. She headed for the tree line where she figured she could run safely through the woods on a snowy eve. She did briefly think about running into a frozen lake on her travels, but if she did, as a human or a wolf, she shouldn’t be able to break through the ice. Not as cold as it was and for as long as it had been cold in Colorado. A big Saint Bernard barked inside the first of the homes, peering out a glass door. It looked like the one that had been sleeping by the fire earlier tonight when she’d first checked in and had to stop and pet him, minus the barrel around his neck.
Gabrielle moved a little faster through the snowdrifts, worried she might be trespassing in the houses’ backyards, though there were no signs or fences, so she couldn’t be sure.
When she finally reached the woods, far away from any residence, she hurried to yank off her clothes, stuff them in her backpack, and bury the bag quickly before shifting. The shift warmed her body all the way through at once, and she felt better as soon as she was covered in fur, standing on four legs, and ready to run as a wolf. Then she tore off into the woods, wanting to howl her delight but stifled the urge. She didn’t want to alert any lupus garous in the area that she was running as a wolf in these parts if it wasn’t allowed, or if hunters were illegally hunting to rid the area of the wolf “menace.”
She was running along happily, the glorious, waning crescent moon peeking through the snow-bearing clouds, when she came into a clearing and saw four wolves—three females and one male—frolicking with each other in the powdery snow until the largest one caught sight of her and stood still. The others all turned to see what the male had seen. Two of the she-wolves were lighter-colored with brownish masks on their faces, their chests white. The second female was a little taller than the other. The third female was more reddish, her face a white mask, her chest light-red. The male had darker brown fur and more black guards on the saddle on his back.
But were they real wolves? Or lupus garous?
Maybe a whole pack of lupus garous lived here. Gabrielle had smelled wolves at the lodge. The waitress had been one and so had several of the staff members; was it a wolf-run lodge? Had to be and that’s why so many of the decorations throughout the lodge featured wolves.
Her friends had found this out-of-the-way ski resort in Colorado and thought they might even get some running in as shifters in the backcountry. Like she was doing now. But the lodge hadn’t been open to guests then, having recently been built when her friends came to Silver Town. Maybe the wolves at the lodge were all new to the area.
One of the she-wolves barked at her in greeting. Okay, Gabrielle thought, they were some of her kind and not a wild wolf pack that wouldn’t want her in their territory. She exhaled the air she’d been holding in and breathed out a frosty mist.
The other two female wolves barked at her, and she barked back to let them know she was safe to be around. The male didn’t respond, eyeing her, protective of the females in his harem, Gabrielle thought facetiously.
She wasn’t sure what to do. Should she turn around and return to her backpack, shift, dress, and head back into the lodge? But then the three females approached her, greeting her in a wolf way, telling her they were safe. One turned her head, indicating she wanted Gabrielle to follow her and the others.
Okay, so this could be fun. She hadn’t expected to come across any other lupus garous out here and she ran with them. The three female wolves began playing with her, and she hadn’t expected that. The male was a little aloof, but he might have been worried about making her feel uneasy. The way he had been running close to one of the females, Gabrielle thought he was with her, as in courting or mated. The other wolves seemed just as familiar with him, so maybe related? She couldn’t be sure.
She’d been playing with them for about an hour, and it was getting to be about eleven when she felt really tired. She hadn’t gotten used to the time difference yet, and it was two hours later for her back home. She barked at them, telling them she was leaving.
They barked and followed her until she reached her backpack and woofed at them to let them know she was fine.
They woofed and she barked back and they hurried off to give her privacy, which she was glad for. She tugged her clothes out of her backpack with her wolf teeth, shifted, and hurried to dress. Cold, cold, cold. This was nothing like shifting after a run in Florida at night, even on the coldest winter days. Certainly, there wasn’t any snow to stand in.
She finally finished dressing and trudged through the woods, past the two houses where the outdoor Christmas lights were still on. She could see the trail left behind by two wolves, the male and female she thought were mated. The other two females had left tracks to the house closest to the lodge.
So they weren’t guests at the lodge, but owned the homes here in Silver Town.
Just then she saw the man called Landon heading toward the first house, and he glanced in her direction.
She mumbled “Hi” and hurried off as fast as she could through the deepening snow to the lodge. She glanced over her shoulder and found him still watching her.
He had to be a wolf like the others. Was one of the females his mate? He seemed wary. She hoped he wasn’t putting two and two together and realizing she was the one who had been swimming in the pool, if he’d seen her face at all.
She kept going and finally made it inside the toasty-warm lodge, where she saw a new night staff working the front desk and a man polishing the floor. Gabrielle stood at the entrance to the pool and eyed it for a moment. Tomorrow, before it was open and before the restaurant opened, she would go for another swim when no one would be watching the pool.
She headed up to her room, eager to take a hot shower and climb into bed and sleep.
The funny thing was that she never broke the rules anywhere, so why now? She hadn’t planned to do that until she realized the pool was closed because she’d arrived so late. But now, the business with Landon trying to locate her made her want to do it at least once more, to challenge him, to see if he would give up the search or if he would catch her—and then what? He had to be a wolf since so many of the staff were.
She smiled. He’d brought the devil out in her, and only the jaguar sisters had ever done that!