Drawn to the Wolves Excerpt

Drawn to the Wolves


Chapter One

The next time someone told her that finding something would be as easy as pie, Kate Ballard was going to have to clarify with the person exactly what kind of pie it was. Especially if that person was her best friend. Kate’s version of an easy pie usually included the words no-bake in the title. On the opposite end of the spectrum, her bestie managed to whip up apple pies with lattice top crusts like nobody’s business.

Which was probably why it’d taken Kate forever to decipher Cindy’s directions on how to get to the Brighton Hotel in Whiskey Grove, Tennessee, population 1168 according to a sign on the way into town. Of course, with a town that small, Kate would’ve thought she’d be able to find one simple hotel with a wonderful reputation fairly easily.

And now she just hoped that the pot hole she’d hit because she’d been paying attention to street signs instead of road conditions hadn’t done too much damage to the underneath of her car.

But she was here now and she could already see why Cindy wanted her to stay here. The sign in front read Brighton Hotel: Established 1857. The building itself looked like an old Victorian home turned into a bed-and-breakfast. The clapboard siding was painted a pale baby girl pink, and the shutters and trim were all white. It looked like a little girl’s dream dollhouse. The front porch wrapped around all three sides for as far as Kate could see, and there were multi-person swings at each of the corners. The rest of the space was taken up with rocking chairs and even a couple two-person benches.

The parking area in front was all gravel, and from what Kate could tell, there was open field immediately surrounding the hotel itself, but then that area was surrounded by woods all around.

She reached behind her and grabbed her purse and duffel bag before exiting her car. The screen door at the front of the hotel swung open and Kate was greeted by a woman, probably in her late fifties.

“You must be Kate,” she said with a huge smile, while drying her hands on an apron.

“I am.”

“We’ve been expecting you. I’m Mrs. Brighton. Your friend Cindy called and wondered if you’d made it yet. She couldn’t get a hold of you on your cell phone. I told her you were probably just enjoying the scenery.”

Close enough to the truth, although Kate probably wouldn’t go so far as to say enjoying. She would, however, love to go back out around town and take in the quaint sights of such a small, but old town with its cute main square and older buildings and facades.

“Yeah, it took me a little bit longer than she said it would.” Kate reached into her pocket and checked her cell phone. Yep. No Service. Oh well.

“Well come on in, child. I hope traffic wasn’t so horrible coming up from Atlanta.”

Kate followed the woman inside and felt nothing but warmth and welcoming from Mrs. Brighton. She also saw nothing of what she was expecting from the decor. She’d expected old-timey couches and lamps, lots of fussy knickknacks and pictures of people she wouldn’t know. Instead, on the left was a dining area set up with smallish round tables covered in white table cloths and four chairs around each. Rectangular tables with their covers folded on top lined the room. Except for one. On it were two multi-tier displays of cookies and fruit, along with what looked like coffee, iced tea and water.

“I see you eyeing the goodies table. Come on over and have some. That’s why they’re there.”

Kate headed straight for the iced tea and a chocolate chip cookie. The cookie was just a bit crispy on the outside but then soft and gooey on the inside. Perfection.

Mrs. Brighton was looking at her and Kate felt concern hit her. She realized she must have chocolate on her lips or chin. Her rule was to lick off the chocolate, but that was probably considered rude right now. She quickly grabbed a napkin and swiped her mouth.

“You haven’t said a word since you got in here. Are you all right?”

Oh. Non-chocolate-related concern. “Yes. Sorry. I’m fine. Traffic wasn’t horrible. I hate to admit this, but my biggest problem was getting lost right here in town. Cindy said it’d be easy for me to find this place, but it wasn’t. At least not with all the landmarks she gave me. Is the ‘Pay and Pump’ what used to be the ‘Gulp and Chug’?”

Mrs. Brighton let out a huge laugh and slapped her thigh. “Yes. Oh my. We were the brunt of too many jokes in these parts, even amongst ourselves. There was such huge controversy when the new owners wanted to change the name.” She shook her head but still had a huge grin. “I’m glad you’re fine. I was starting to get concerned. Cindy likes to talk and I couldn’t imagine her having a friend who was so quiet as you.”

“Well, if you know Cindy that well, you’d know that sometimes it’s easier just to nod and listen than to try to get a word in edgewise.”

“Now if that ain’t the truth.” Mrs. Brighton reached for Kate’s duffel bag. “Here. Let me take this for you and show you up to your room. Mr. Brighton was out fiddling in the garden last time I saw him, but he should be back in soon. We’ve had a couple storms come through here and the last one was pretty fierce. His tomato vines got knocked over and he has to try to stake them back up.”

“I’m good, thanks. I can carry my bag.” Kate followed her up the large curving staircase in the foyer, and made a mental note to check out the rest of the house. It looked like the room across from the dining area was actually a modern sitting room. She got a brief glance of a large screen TV and some couches. Both rooms had large fireplaces that practically faced each other across the foyer.

“By the way, I saw that there are woods surrounding the hotel. Are there paths that I can explore? I don’t want to get lost, but I’d love to look for some wildlife to sketch.”

“There’s lots of woods and lots of paths to follow. There are even some open meadows and such along the way.” They got to a room situated along the back of the house, and Mrs. Brighton stopped with her hand on the knob and the key in the lock. “Now, I doubt you’ll go out so far, but about a mile toward the north, there’s some private property and the owners don’t like trespassing. At all. But they’ve got signs posted throughout so you’ll know when you’ve hit their property line.”

“Sounds good.”

Mrs. Brighton showed her into her room. It held both a double and a twin bed. The colors were done in light purples and teal blues with some greens mixed in, and Kate found the entire color scheme for the room incredibly soothing.

Exactly what she needed after ten years of being a sketch artist with the Atlanta PD. Ten stressful years of feeling, perceiving every victim’s emotions and some criminals’ inherent evil.

Kate knew she was unusual in this respect, and she’d always chalked it up to an advanced sixth sense. But it wore on her and she needed out.

“This is beautiful, Mrs. Brighton.”

She gave Kate a broad smile. “Thank you, child.”

The one part of her gift Kate truly enjoyed was experiencing the positive emotions from others, like Mrs. Brighton’s pleasure at the compliment.

She wasn’t sure how long she’d be able to stay, but this was a good first step in leaving her old life behind and beginning a new one. One where she could focus on drawing for the enjoyment of it and not drawing because it was desperately needed by so many people for so many reasons.

“The bathroom is back there in the corner. Unfortunately, this room got one of the tiny bathrooms, but hopefully all this light coming in from these windows will make up for it.”

The lighting and view were amazing. The outside wall was all windows, overlooking a huge field and surrounding woods covering the side of the mountain that Whiskey Grove was at the base of.

“It looks great. Thank you for your consideration.”

“Do you need any help getting settled in?”

“Not right now. I want to head out and explore some before it gets too dark. I’ve been sitting too long in my car today and I’d love to get out for a walk. I just need to change into some more comfortable clothes before I head out.”

Mrs. Brighton pointed out the windows. “You have a few hours before it’ll start getting dark enough amongst the trees that you won’t be able to see any of those critters you’re wanting to sketch. I’ll pop into the kitchen and grab a water bottle for you to take with you. Come meet me downstairs when you’re ready to go.”

“Perfect. Thanks so much.”

Kate took the key from Mrs. Brighton’s proffered hand, and turned to her duffel bag once she was alone in her room. She dug into her stack of Atlanta Police Department T-shirts she’d brought with her and pulled out one of the long-sleeved, but thinner shirts. Seemed like it would be perfect for the cooler temperatures in the shady trees.

She snatched up her cross-body tote with her sketchbook and pencil case inside, and popped her wallet, car keys and phone in her bag as if on automatic. It was her normal gear for all jobs she went on, whether out in the field at crime scenes where she had to sketch a recreation or layout, or at a precinct where she sketched suspect descriptions.

Kate retraced Mrs. Brighton’s steps back downstairs.

“Here’s that bottle of water for ya.” She met Kate in the foyer between the stairs and the front door. “You can go out the back door, through the back porch, and be on your way for exploring before any more of the afternoon gets away from ya.”

“Thanks again, Mrs. Brighton.”

“My pleasure, child. Now go enjoy yourself. But don’t go getting yourself lost. I don’t want to have to send out a search party for you this evening.”

“I’ll try not to.” Kate didn’t bother explaining that she’d grown up playing in woods and had learned at an early age how to figure out which direction was what and which way was home.

She set out along the most northern path, hoping it would give her more opportunities to see and sketch animals she didn’t get to usually see back home.

Except it wasn’t her home anymore. She’d sold her little house and put all of her stuff in storage. That life was through and this was her opportunity to start anew, doing what she’d always loved doing.

She dragged her thoughts back from her previous job and focused on a chipmunk scurrying along the forest floor. It had an acorn in its paws that rivaled the size of its face. Kate sat on the ground, trying hard to make as little noise as possible, and began drawing. A couple rabbits gathered across the way, and they looked as if they were carrying on a silent meeting. She imagined they were plotting a takeover of the rodent world and added them to her picture. When she was through sketching the scene, she got up and continued along the path.

Mrs. Brighton had been right. It wasn’t too long before Kate came upon a meadow that was covered in tall grasses. Grasses that partially hid a couple deer grazing in the waning daylight hours.

Kate didn’t try sitting this time. She remained standing, and did the best she could balancing her sketchbook on her arm while she captured the image of the deer, one taller than the other, eating their late afternoon meal. They didn’t completely ignore her, each one taking its turn looking at her, letting her know they knew she was there, but she guessed she was far enough away that they didn’t view her as too much of a threat.

A noise like what she’d expect to hear in a tropical rainforest came from the trees. No. It came from the sky. The deer shot off into the woods like arrows, and Kate stared at an incredible bird of prey. The wingspan was huge, the body brown and the head white. But the noise it was making was like that of a tropical bird, not a screech like she’d expect from a…bald eagle?

It made a turn over the trees and she was in danger of losing sight of it. Instinct had her running after it. If it really was an eagle, she wanted a closer look. She wanted to see it better so she could draw it. And she also wanted to tell her brain she wasn’t crazy, because there was no way she would’ve ever expected that chattering noise from such a majestic bird.

As she ran, she managed to avoid large limbs, but the smaller twigs slapped against her. She ducked her face a few times to keep from getting scratched, but all the while, her focus remained on following the bird circling and soaring high above. There were fresh limbs down along the forest floor that she leaped over as if she were in PE class, and even a very large tree she used as a vault to catapult herself over and keep going.

Her lungs burned, her legs threatened to give out, and she began hoping for another open meadow or field of some sort that she could use to not only slow down or stop, but get a final long glimpse of the only possible eagle she’d ever seen, because she wasn’t going to last much longer. She’d left whatever paths had been worn down by hikers throughout the years, and the uneven forest floor combined with her gymnastics and running were taxing every tiny muscle in her body to the point she wanted to collapse.

The sound of rushing water came to her over her own gasping breaths just as the trees opened up to a river bank. She skidded to a halt down the incline, barely keeping her precarious balance. She gingerly stood and beat the dirt from her hands off on her jeans, then tried to wipe that dirt off as much as possible. As she worked on getting rid of the dirt on her art bag, the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end, and everything inside her froze.

She carefully, slowly raised her head and met the eyes of a man who held a rifle against his shoulder, pointed in her direction. He stood across from her on the other side of the narrow river, up on the bank, looking down at her.

His rifle was aimed slightly off to her right, back toward the direction she came from, which left her the options of going into the river or ducking into the line of fire. Or, what she did, remain in place.

His medium brown hair stood every which way, giving off a “bed head” vibe, and his scraggly beard rounded out his unkempt facial features.

The waves of menace pouring out of him flooded her system.

“You’re in my woods, and I don’t take kindly to trespassers being on my property.” His orange, brown and tan flannel shirttails flapped easily in the light breeze.

She opened her mouth to say something, to try to diffuse the situation, but stopped as two wolves exited the forest behind him. And then nonchalantly flanked him.

She might’ve squeaked had her inability to breathe not tried to choke her.

Those weren’t just wolves. She knew what typical wolves were.

A childhood friend wanting to play with the “big doggies” had turned into a life-changing tragedy as Kate watched her friend get mauled by those dogs-that-were-really-wolves. Her friend survived, barely, but was never the same afterward, and Kate had learned exactly what wolves looked like that day.

These weren’t the same as from her childhood.


These were man-size wolves.

Their huge heads, easily two if not three times the size of a human’s, reached the man’s shoulder, and their thick, furry bodies stretched out for many feet behind them.

Kate couldn’t begin to grasp how long they were. Six feet? Seven feet? Eight feet long? More?


And the man looking down at her stood between them, staying at ease, not recoiling. He continued glaring at her instead of the wolves, like it was a perfectly natural thing to stand between two vicious monsters. As if they were pets he could control without a collar or leash in sight. Was he out of his mind?

He tugged at the dingy brown T-shirt worn beneath his flannel shirt and tucked into his loose-fitting, faded jeans held up by a rope tied at the waist. “Well? What do you have to say for yourself?”

Her mind began panicking, wanting to crumble in on itself.

What could she possibly say to keep the crazy man calm and not shooting at her?

“Hi. Um, I’m a little lost,” she said, trying to keep things light.

Both wolves bared their teeth and growled while lowering into a crouch.

Oh shit.

Wolves. Wolves, wolves.

Even though she now faced only two compared to the four that had bitten and chewed and pulled on her friend, each one of these wolves was easily equivalent to two or three of the wolves her friend had faced as a child.

She was going to die.