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Moon Crossed Episode #1 (Forbidden Love Werewolf Romance)

Crescent Hunter Series

Moon Crossed (Season 1 – Episode 1)

by

Bella Roccaforte

The characters and events in this novel are entirely fictional. No similarity between any of the names, characters, persons, and/or institutions in this book with those of any living or dead person or institutions is intended, and any such similarity which may exist is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by Bella Roccaforte

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form by any electronic or mechanical means including photo- copying, recording, or information storage and retrieval without permission in writing from the author.

BellaWrites.com

    

For though we dwell in the same darkness our song will forever be a discordant symphony, barely perceived.

Prologue

I am a killer.

My kind have an important purpose to the wolf-borne. We were created to love and serve the wolves, even when it hurts.

Every summer at hunter training camp, a shaman told the story of our creation. Hunters of all ages would circle the campfire, enthralled by the weaving of the tale playing out in the embers.

“Wolf-borne were cursed with moon-touch. When infected, they lose their humanity and become bloodthirsty killers. An afflicted wolf is unable to shift into human form or travel across the moon bridge when they die, condemning their spirit to wander aimlessly for eternity.

“The original seven Elder Shamans convened to find a solution. They decided to create a race of wolf-borne that were unable to shift and, therefore, be immune to the touch. Their purpose: to exterminate the moon-touched and guide them across the moon bridge to heaven.

“Faramund, the oldest of the original seven, understood the importance of compassion and affection the new race would require. They must never use their power against the wolves able to shift, and the new breed would need to love—with every part of their being—the ones they were designed to kill.

“These shamans tried many times to conjure the perfect hunter, but there was never the degree of unconditional love necessary. The earliest iterations were cruel or apathetic.

After numerous failures, Rayel looked thoughtfully into Faramund’s eyes. ‘Brother, you know what it is they lack?’

“Faramund’s look of knowing still haunts Rayel. ‘Yes, they lack heart.’

“At the next conjuring, Faramund sacrificed his own heart; it was the only way to hand down the love he felt for his people.

“Rayel, with moist eyes, cut Faramund’s heart from his chest, and while it was still beating, placed parts of it in each of the original seven hunters.”

The Elder Shamans gifted us with an intense, if not irrational, love for the wolf-borne. Hunters are incapable of feeling true happiness unless we are among wolves. Being part wolf, we have special abilities: heightened speed, strength, hearing, sight, smell and wit. But the greatest of our power can only be accessed in the presence of a wolf.

Hunters heal quickly, but not as fast as wolves. We are not immortal. Aging comes at a normal rate; however, many of us never see our forties. I’ve never met a retired hunter, but I have made the acquaintance of many hunter orphans.

Because the power we were given will grow too strong, hunters and wolves are forbidden from living or being with one another for extended periods. This is the hunter’s curse. We pay the price for our magic, pound for pound, with the sorrow of unrequited love. The inherent draw hunters have to wolves is every hunter’s undoing, even when we want to hate them, we can’t. Faramund’s heart beats in my chest, and no matter how much pain and destruction wolves bring to me, I am helpless to do anything but love them.

My life will only ever have small slices of happiness—like when lightning cuts through a dark room for a split second. Everything is clear; but it’s fleeting, and the darkness returns. You struggle to remember what the room looks like, fumbling through, waiting, hoping for the light to shine again. But it never comes.

Finding the epitome of your completion is beautiful; never being able to have it is an ongoing cycle of emotional death. Denying the allurement when everything about you visibly glows and hums when you are near him is torment. No words can describe the irrefutable magnetism that has to be fulfilled lest it cause the universe to be consumed by a giant black hole opening only to swallow the sorrow from the deprivation. Without a doubt, my heart has been cut open, and bleeds his blood, because I hurt him just by existing.

It is said that we should be careful with our words; misplaced, they cut deeper than any blade. People who believe that have never felt the true pain of silence. Regardless of the silence, or the brief stints of joy, I will always be what I am first: a hunter.

I am a killer.

Chapter One[
**]My Heart

“Clarice, you must never trust them. You must never allow them into your heart because they will destroy you.” My father’s Irish brogue always has an extra edge when we’re having this talk.

“But Da, they can’t all be bad.” I hop over a downed branch in the forest, then look up at him expecting a different answer.

“No, they are all bad. Straight to the core.” He wraps his huge hand around mine, helping me over a small creek cutting through the landscape of our property.

“But you haven’t met them all; there still could be good ones out there.” Even now, hearing myself say those words, I yearn to feel innocence just once more.

He kneels down, putting his hands on my shoulders, then motions to the creek. “I have seen this creek run red with the blood of the innocent. Most days, they look like us, act like us, love like us, but when they become moon-touched their instincts take over They are killers.”

“But so are we.” I look him straight in the eye.

“We are different; we only kill when they become feral. It is our purpose, our duty.” He straightens himself and we continue our walk. The crisp October air nips at my nose as the afternoon wears on, and I wrap my black cloak tighter around me. There’s an extra chill in the north Georgia mountains.

“I don’t see the difference, but I’m trying to understand.” My hope is that this is the day I’ll convince him they aren’t all bad.

“At some point they all become moon-touched and can’t control themselves in wolf form.” He inhales a breath. “Clarice, I understand how difficult this is. I’ve lived it my whole life.”

“It doesn’t make sense. Our magic is supposed to only work near them. Wouldn’t it seem like we’re meant to be together?” This simple fact is something that has bothered me since my Da first told me about my power.

He stops and turns to me with a look of desperation and anger in his eyes, “No, we are not meant to be with them. You should never be near them unless you are killing them. Do you hear me?” He shakes my shoulders, sending a fright through me.

“Yes, Da.” My head hangs in shame as I bite back tears of fear and frustration.

“No, you tell me you understand. Your life depends on it.” He pleads with watery eyes.

“Yes, Da.” I don’t mean it. Even though I’m only eight years old, there’s something in me that knows this is a promise I’ll have difficulty fulfilling.

My adopted cousin Trevor is wolf-borne; when we’re together, the feeling of magic flowing through me is one of the best things I’ve ever felt. I’ll never forget that wolves killed my mother, but this yearning to be with the wolf-borne is undeniable.

Satisfied that he’s gotten his daily dose of anti-wolf propaganda to sink in, we continue through the forest. He occasionally points out different herbs and their uses: everything from healing to making you feel good when you’re sad. I love these walks in the woods.

A question has burned in me for as long as I can remember, but I’ve always been too afraid to ask. Something inside me, a part of my being, doesn’t want to believe that all the wolf-borne are evil. Today I gather the courage. “Da?”

“Yes, mo chrois,” he answers, looking straight ahead.

“Do you hate wolf-borne because they killed Mom?” Regret rides on the words as they leave my mouth.

“No, I hate them more because wolf-borne killed your mother,” he answers coolly.

“What if I were a wolf-borne?”

“You aren’t. You are a hunter. Be that.” His adamance is scolding.

“But what if I wanted to be a wolf-borne?” My tone is quiet, part of me hoping he can’t hear the words.

“You can’t. You can never be.” The frustration in his voice is growing.

Several more minutes go by as I gather the courage to ask my next question. “Why can I feel my magic when I’m not with Trevor?”

“Because you are special.” He showers me with a kind expression.

“Maybe special enough to shift one day?” My eyes brighten at the thought. I’ve had so many dreams where I can shift and run with Trevor as a wolf.

“You will never be a wolf. Now stop, you are scaring the birds. How can you learn to listen to the sounds of the forest if you’re always chattering away?” he admonishes, causing me to shrink back into my hood.

For the rest of our walk the only sound is the bubbling creek that leads us home. The silence of the forest has us both on edge. The squirrels aren’t foraging through the leaves, no birds are making a sound.

Mom’s headstone in the family graveyard comes into view. “Da?”

“Yes,” he blows out a breath, expecting the worse.

“What is mo chrois?” I look up at him.

A smile spreads across his lips, “It means ‘my heart.’”

“You call me your heart?” I follow him through the black iron gate of the graveyard that is perfectly manicured.

He kneels down in front of Mom’s headstone, laying the bunch of wild flowers he picked. “Yes, you and your mother are my heart.”

“I love you.” I throw my arms around his neck, knocking him down.

“You are getting so strong, little one,” he laughs, lifting me up. “Your training is going well.”

“When will I train more with my magic?”

“When you are older. You have to go away for that and your ol’ Da just isn’t ready to let you go!” He tickles and pokes me; our laughter fills the yard.

An ominous silence falls like a heavy rain that stills us; we both feel the presence of a wolf-borne and it’s not Trevor. “Da?” My voice shakes with unease. Hot energy spikes through me as muted tears of terror pour from my eyes.

“They’re coming.” His eyes scan the tree line of the yard.

“I’m scared,” I whimper.

He stands, wrapping his arms around me, concentrating on the woods. “Five. I count five. How many do you count?” He’s taken on an instructor’s tone in an attempt to bring me to focus.

“Seven.” It’s not that I see them; I feel them.

“That’s a good little hunter.” His praise doesn’t put me at ease. The wolves come in and Da slowly turns us in a tight circle, watching the wolves surround us. “Do you see the break in them? The weak point?”

“Yes, I see it.” Immediately I know he’s going to tell me to run and I don’t want to leave him.

“When I say fly, I want you to imagine that you are able to fly, feel the magic run through you.” His voice begins to waiver. “Go to Aunt Rain, tell her.”

“I don’t want to leave you.” The panic in my tone prompts him to wrap his arms tighter around me.

“You have to get help.” He kisses the top of my head. My head shakes vehemently as I feel the moisture from his own tears wet my hair. “Fly, mo chrois!” He releases me from his arms like a bird into the wild. Energy bursts through me and I speed past one of the smaller wolves toward my Aunt Rain’s house. The wolf nips at me, catching my forearm. The skin tears and bright red blood seeps from the wound. He gives chase and I feel the burn in my legs as I run faster than ever before. Screams get trapped in my lungs as I see Aunt Rain’s house through the trees, but terror has stolen my voice. I can only run.

Aunt Rain comes out on the porch in a panic. “Claire!” She runs to me, picking me up and raising her hand to the wolf. He slides to a halt in front of the stairs to the porch.

“Stop, you may not enter.” Her voice is commanding.

“Auntie Rain, Da, you have to help Da,” I say through the sobs beating against my insides.

She puts me down and looks at the wolf at the bottom of the stairs, then at me again. “You get in the house. He can’t get you there. Trevor’s in his room. Go to him; he’ll protect you.”

“You have to save Da!” I can barely choke out my broken words.

“I will. You stay inside.” She closes the storm door and jumps from another part of the porch, disappearing into the trees.

The wolf doesn’t follow Aunt Rain; he stays at the bottom of the stairs looking up at me with haunting blue eyes. He licks my blood from his lips and the wound on my arm begins to burn. Our eyes are locked, neither of us able to turn away. I’m not sure if it’s because I so rarely feel my magic this strong and it’s flowing. A calm blankets me and a smile rises to my lips from the euphoria of being near him. I want to go to him, pet him, throw my arms around him and bathe in the comfort he’s sending me.

The wolf sits clumsily, as though he’s not sure how to use his gangly legs. He lets out a playful yelp, shaking his head at me like there’s a bug in his ear. He doesn’t look very scary. The urge to go out the door to play with him is so strong.

When I start to turn the doorknob, he hops up, wagging his tail with his big pink tongue hanging out like a goofy dog. Slowly, I walk toward the top of the stairs with no fear. My father’s words waft through my mind and my feet won’t move forward.

The wolf puts one paw on the bottom step cautiously. Both of us ready to run, the mutual draw is so strong; we want to be closer, but neither of us can move ourselves toward the other. All sound and senses are dulled except feeling one another. Lost in the magic in this moment, I feel like I’m floating. My insides are on fire to be closer to him. I take a tentative step onto the stair, then the next. He looks up at me excitedly, his eyes pleading.

Aunt Rain’s voice cuts through the air. “Claire!” She moves her hand in a sweeping motion and the wolf is pushed several feet to the left. He yelps out in pain when he hits a tree. His pain shoots through me and my side is aching.

She scoops me up, hugging me. She’s covered in blood, her skin and clothes are torn. “I’m so sorry,” she says in a broken whisper.

“No, Da!” I break away from her using my enhanced power. Fly, I say to myself, and move swiftly through the trees. My father lays in the graveyard, his weak heartbeat ringing in my ears. There’s another I can hear, but I push it away, wanting to only hear my Da’s heart. I need to hear it to know he’s alive, but it’s getting faint.

“Da!” Tears blur my vision and drop onto his shirt, leaving faint stains.

“Oh, mo chrois,” he scolds in a weak voice. “You never listen.”

“I’m sorry.” I pull at his arm. “We have to get you inside. We have to start healing you.” I do my best to hold my hands over him, concentrating on restoring him like he’s shown me.

Nothing happens.

My magic is running through me feverishly. But nothing is happening. “Heal!” I command it like my small voice will change his fate.

He coughs and I feel his essence seeping from his body. With my hands on his chest and belly, I try to keep it in. “No!” I cry and shake my head.

A deep rumbling growl comes from directly in front me. I don’t care; I won’t leave my father. “Go away from here,” I say through gritted teeth.

The huge wolf mocks me; approaching us slowly, his haunches making exaggerated peaks across his back with each step closer. Everything about him is evil – even the puffs of breath coming from his nose carry a corrupt stench – and his darkness runs through me, leaving a haunting chill in its wake.

The smaller blue-eyed wolf runs into the graveyard and nips at the heels of the bigger wolf. Without so much as a warning, he turns around, locking his teeth on the blue-eyed wolf’s neck. Blood drips from under the bigger wolf’s mouth as my protector whimpers and wails in pain.

“No!” I screech, moving my hand like I saw Aunt Rain do. The bigger wolf stumbles and is pushed away, but not far enough. Aunt Rain enters the yard and chases after both wolves, armed with her sword. They run into the trees, but she doesn’t follow them.

My father coughs and the urgency swells in my heart. I try to focus on healing him, but the power in me is fading. “Bring them back, Aunt Rain. We can heal him if you bring them back.”

She shakes her head, “No, Claire. They will kill us, too.”

“Your aunt is right,” Da sputters and gasps, trying to suck the life force back into his body.

“No, Da, no!” I put my hands on his chest, trying to focus; there’s a slight surge in my power, but it’s not enough.

He takes my hand in his. “Never trust a wolf. You must resist them; they will kill you one way or another.”

“Da, please stay with me.” Tears fall from my cheeks onto our hands, creating tiny pools in the lines of his weathered skin.

“Be the strong girl I know you are.” He tries to inhale. “Is breá liom tú, mo chrois. Stay away from wolves, promise me.” His hand goes limp before I can make the promise.

Incoherent cries spill from the deepest feeling part of my soul as the last of my father’s breath escapes his lips, blowing across my damp cheek. “I love you too, Da.”

A banging sound pulls me out of the nightmare. “Claire!”

“I’m okay,” Sitting up, I try to run my hand through my tangled hair.

“Claire, please open the door. We want to see that you are okay.” It’s Rabbit, always the bastion of concern.

“Really, I’m fine!” My breathing regulates. “I’ll be down in a few minutes.”

“Okay, I just want to be sure you’re okay,” he says through the door. “Locke is worried, too.”

“I’m fine.” I’m sure he can hear my eyes roll.

I force myself out of bed, pull on a pair of sweats, and push aside the hanging sheet of silver chain that covers my door to keep the wolves out. When I get to the top of the stairs, the smell of bacon and coffee fills my senses. “I love you, Rabbit.”

When I get to the bottom of the second flight of stairs, a smile spreads across my face as I see my boys sitting at the breakfast table. Bacon or coffee first is the first real challenge of the day. Watching the boys devouring the giant pile of bacon in the center of the table, I decide it’s wise to get a piece before it’s gone. “You guys are pigs. Were you going to save any for me?”

“Shut up, we weren’t going to eat it all,” Trevor snaps.

“Yes you were. I know how you are.” My eyes roll as I grab a coffee cup from the cabinet.

The sweet nectar of the gods swirls into my cup and I draw in a long, luxurious breath to smell it. Rabbit is standing so close behind me when I turn around it startles me. His arms are outstretched. “Another nightmare?”

My lips press into a hard line and I nod while hugging him. “The nightmare.”

“I’m sorry, I wish I could help.” He pours his consolation into me while still holding me.

“I know you do, but there’s nothing anyone can do.” I force a smile and put my best face on, trying to put the imagery of my dying father out of my mind. It’s been fourteen years, but it still feels like yesterday.

I take my seat at the head of the table with the boys. “Tor, can you please pass the eggs?”

Everyone is dishing out the breakfast Rabbit slaved over. There aren’t any biscuits, but I’m not going to complain. I’m just happy there’s hot food that I don’t have to somehow burn in the microwave.

A dissatisfied frown pulls at the corners of my mouth as I eye each one of the boys at the table. None of them are wearing shirts, except for Locke. Most girls would be in heaven because they are all well-built, but to me they are all brothers and they’re gross.

Locke sees my stare. “Oh sorry, Claire, we forgot.” He ticks his head at the boys and tugs at his shirt.

A chorus of “Sorry, Claire” fills the kitchen, along with the sound of them all getting up from their chairs to get their shirts.

“Are you sure you want me to cover up all this manliness?” Tor says, rubbing his chest proudly.

“You, of all people, with those giant pepperoni nipples, should always wear a shirt.” Locke lowers his chin, giving the dig just the right tone for delivery.

I crinkle my nose since Locke mentioning said pepperoni nipples made me look, and I shake my head in revulsion. “God was unkind when he gave you those.”

“Yeah man, they’re like satellite dishes. How many channels do you pick up on those things?” Rabbit chides while pulling his shirt over his head.

“You’re all just jealous that you don’t have big manly nipples like these. The ladies love them.” He flexes his chest as he slowly pulls his shirt down.

“Trevor, you know how I feel about naked kitchen,” I warn, continuing to give them all the stink eye.

“It’s not really naked; we’re all wearing pants,” Trevor protests as the last to leave the table.

“You mind your manners, young man,” Aunt Rain comes through the back door that leads into the kitchen, carrying a basket of biscuits.

“Thank you, Aunt Rain.” My tone is mocking as I stick my tongue out at Trevor. He actually is my brother. Well, sort of. Aunt Rain adopted him, and since she also raised me we grew up like brother and sister.

He rolls his eyes. “And you’re supposed to be more mature?”

“I am.” I tilt my head upwards. “Besides, my house, my rules.”

“We’re sorry, Claire.” Rabbit takes a seat at the table with the rest of the boys, now in proper dinner table attire.

“Yeah, sorry.” Locke chimes in.

You were wearing a shirt,” I remind him.

“Yeah, but I should have told these nucks to put their clothes on after our run.” He arches his brow.

“It’s fine.” I grab a biscuit. “Oh my God, they’re warm.”

“For those of you that have finals today, I wanted to be sure you got a good breakfast.” She smiles and sits at the opposite end of the table after filling her coffee cup.

Trevor reaches for a biscuit; Aunt Rain slaps his hand. He grouses, “Hey, what’s that for?”

“For not being in college. You may have some after everyone gets their fill.” Her word is final, even in my house.

“What is it? I hate Trevor day?” he says with an offended expression.

“We do hate you,” Locke says without looking up from his plate.

Trevor gives Locke the finger. Aunt Rain slaps him in the shoulder. “Manners!”

“Okay, that’s it.” Trevor picks up his plate and moves to the breakfast bar with a harrumph.

We all get a chuckle at Trevor’s expense and Tor moves into his chair so he’s now next to me. “Wow, you really showed us.”

Trevor shakes his head. Locke can’t help but pick at him more; it’s his job. “Maybe if we’re just a little meaner he’ll actually go home and we won’t be able to smell him.”

I look up from my plate. “That’s not far enough.”

Trevor inhales one of his long thoughtful breaths. I turn to Locke, giving him a bored look. Here we go, one of Trevor’s half BS explanations of how science works.

Locke nods and takes a bite of his eggs.

Trevor, watching our exchange, shakes his head, “First, I hate when you two do that. Second, of course you all could smell me at my house, considering a wolf can smell something as far as a mile and half away.” He turns his entire body, addressing only me. “Since you are not wolf-borne, it’s likely you can only smell something that is a half mile away, possibly rendering you incapable of smelling me when I’m at home. Sorry, you are inferior.”

“Shots fired,” Tor says through a full mouth.

“Trevor?” My words are dripping with condescension and everyone braces themselves. “I can smell you ten miles away, simply because you don’t shower.” I pop a piece of bacon in my mouth and continue, “Something you might remedy should you ever want to feel the touch of a woman.”

“And shots returned.” Rabbit sits to the right of Aunt Rain with a full plate.

“It’s not like guys are beating your door down,” Trevor taunts.

“Um, actually–” Locke starts, but Aunt Rain cuts him off.

“Okay, let’s pull it back a bit, shall we?” she warns and we all know to listen.

“I’m just saying, I’m not the virgin here.” Trevor just can’t stop himself.

We all exchange an amused look. “Yeah, that’s true. But does screwing a crusty skank that’s like the town bike really count?”

“Claire!” Aunt Rain scolds.

“Just sayin.’” I shrug and look to Locke for backup.

“Yeah, that was about the same as losing your virginity to a hooker,” Locke adds, watching Aunt Rain closely for her reaction.

Aunt Rain gives us a look that says we need to ease up. Trevor shakes his head and continues eating.

“Sorry Trevor, you know we love you.” I try to not let the sarcasm shine through.

“Yeah, whatever.” He comes and grabs more bacon and I blow him a kiss.

“Hey, at least we’re paying attention to you.” Tor shrugs. “Usually we just point and laugh for thirty seconds and forget you exist.”

“Isn’t that about how long your first relationship lasted?” Rabbit adds.

“Okay, we’re going to make him cry if we don’t stop. Besides, I think it’s someone else’s turn to get picked on.” Rabbit scans the table for the next victim.

I shrink down in my seat. “I volunteer as tribute.”

Laughter and banter fills the room with the love I feed on in this house. Looking around the table at the boys with a contented look, I meet Aunt Rain’s stare. She smiles knowingly and we both give an approving nod.

These boys are my family; they are everything to me. Locke is the strong, responsible one that helps me get onto everyone. Tor is the quiet, calculating one, but always there to back you up in a fight. Rabbit is the helper and the sensitive one that handles all matters of the heart. Trevor, of course, is my brother, and we do like to pick on him; he’s an easy target, but we all have to have a role here.

Kyle and Brogan aren’t here yet. I’m not sure what escapades they were up to last night, but it had better included studying for finals. Kyle is sweet and the one who comes up with those short bursts of wit that make us all laugh, then think. Brogan is my hardworking people-pleaser. Usually he has his nose in a book, but comes out on occasion to join in the fun.

They all make me happy; they all fill my days with life and, yes, they are all wolves. We are drawn together, we are part of one another. Maybe I’m crazy, and this will all come crashing down one day, but they are my heart and soul. They are my pack.

Wrapping on the screen door pulls me out of my thoughts. “Is it safe?”

“Brogan! Yeah, come on in.” No one wants to take a chance that I’ve put up entry protections and get hurt trying to come in. It might not be deadly, but it will be painful.

Kyle follows behind him. “Who’s the asshole that ate all the bacon?” Kyle’s eyes shoot straight to Trevor sitting at the bar.

“What? Why are you looking at me?” He feigns offense, but truth be told he is the biggest bacon glutton.

“Because you’re a pig,” I shrug.

“Anyway, who’s ready for finals?” Aunt Rain asks to pull some of the heat off Trevor; she knows he’s reaching his limit.

“I am…I think,” I answer, not wanting to elaborate. Organic chemistry is kicking my ass.

“I’m with Claire. I think I’m going to do well,” Locke says with confidence.

“I’m done with finals; I had my last one yesterday,” Rabbit adds through a full mouth.

“How do you feel about it? Think you did good?” Aunt Rain asks almost accusingly.

“I’m sure I passed.” He smiles and goes to the stove. “Do I need to put on more bacon?”

A resounding “yes” echoes in the kitchen. “Thanks for breakfast, Rabbit, you rock. I’m gonna git, on the off chance that any of you losers decide to shower today.” I pop the last piece of bacon from my plate into my mouth and push back from the table.

“Anytime.” Rabbit gives me a sweet smile.

“Are you going to be long? I don’t want to be late,” Brogan asks with concern.

“No, give me like twenty? Is that cool?” I ask from the doorway.

“Yeah, no problem.” He sits in my chair at the table.

“Claire has to get all gussied up,” Trevor chides with his mouth full.

“Oh yeah, whatever you say.” I don’t even turn around to respond but I’m sure to give him the one-finger salute on the way out the door.

Chapter Two[
**]First of Many

Organic Chemistry. This may be the single most important class I ever take and so far it’s been the toughest. Needless to say I’m super nervous about how I did.

“Claire!” I hear Lili’s sweet voice calling from the back of the room as we all start to file out. I stop and wait for her to catch up.

“Hey babe, how did you do?” She’s so bubbly.

“I think okay, but that was rough.” I roll my eyes.

“I’ll bet you did great.” We get into the hallway. “Was that your last final?”

“Yeah, I need to find Brogan. I rode in with him.” I take out my phone to text him.

“Oh my God, he is so hot.” Lili’s eyes widen.

“Lili, stop. Seriously.” I give her a stern look.

“I’m sorry, but I just don’t understand how you can be around these guys all the time. Walking around without their shirts on, with those muscles and ugh.” She bends her knees a little as we’re walking.

“You’re going to hurt yourself.” I shake my head. “First, I have no interest in dating anyone, least of all any of them. They’re rude, crass, juvenile, and smell bad.”

“Whoa, hold on. Locke smells like candy.” She says it as though I’ve spoken ill of a deity.

“Yes, that’s true, but nonetheless they are all like brothers to me. Therefore, I have no interest.” I check my phone to see if Brogan has answered.

“So are you excited about the party tonight?” She pulls one shoulder to her ear.

“Sort of. It’ll be nice to let go for a night and relax.” I check my phone again; he hasn’t gotten back to me. “But then clean up…”

“You know I’ll help with all that. And of course the mandatory clearing the house of drunks by three p.m. on Saturday.” There’s a pop in her step.

“Yeah, there’s that.” My phone dings.

[* Hey, sorry. I'm not going to be heading out for a couple of hours. Can you catch a ride? ~Brogan *]

Yup, NP. ~ C

I breathe out a sigh “Well, Brogan just said he’ll kiss you on the lips if you take me home.”

“What? Really?” She lights with a higher level of excitement than normal.

“No,” I deadpan, “but he did say you should take me home.” I smile sweetly.

“Don’t tease me like that.” She swats my shoulder.

“Sorry, but seriously. You have to take me home.” I nod into her.

“Can I go home first so I don’t have to drive all the way out there to drop you off then back into town to get my stuff?” She whines a little.

I check the time on my phone. “That’s fine, but let’s hurry. I have to go to the grocery store and get ready for the party.”

“We’ll get it done.” She whips her keys out of her way-too-big purse.

“Thanks, babe,” I say with the girly head-tilt.

We don’t have a lot of parties, specifically because the less exposure others have to our “family,” the better. Most wolf-borne really don’t approve, hunters are neutral, but in general groups like ours keep to ourselves.

If we are too reclusive, then people will talk. They talk anyway, but who cares if everyone thinks we’re living some sort of sex orgy? Gross.

“Okay, the Solo cups are stacked, the coolers are full of ice. Now what?” Lili asks, sitting down at the breakfast bar.

“Are the lights on the porch plugged in?”

“Yup, it’s all twinkling magic.” She flutters her eyebrows.

“Awesome. I’m going to go down and lock my office. I don’t need anyone getting in there and screwing with my stuff.” I put down the dish towel and head for the door.

“Yes, you must hide your secret lair,” her voice mocks me in a low tone while she rolls her eyes. “The bat cave.”

“Ha ha. Joke if you will, but I don’t want anyone in there.” Truthfully, I’ve invested a lot of cash in the equipment down there. It’s where I do all my research.

I flip the lights on, then open the door that’s hidden by a bookcase leading to my lab. I check on my latest concoction, picking it up and swirling it around the beaker. “Are you going to be the magic potion?”

I have a lot of hope that I’ll be able to find a cure for the moon-touched. If we could stop the blood lust during the full moon, so many good wolves would be spared. I would love to think of my kind becoming obsolete.

“Hey.” The voice from the door startles me. “Locke, you scared the shit out of me.”

“Sorry, I came down to lock up and saw you in here.” He looks at the beaker in my hand. “Do you think we’re getting closer?”

“I’d like to think so; we’ll find out next full moon.” I offer a hopeful smile.

He comes to where I’m standing and studies the liquid in the beaker. “Have you thought about what you’d do if one of us…you know.”

“I don’t want to think of it. That’s why we do what we do on the full moon.” I shrug. “Besides, I know you guys are all so good at heart; I doubt you could ever hurt a soul, moon-touched or not.”

Locke inhales a tentative breath. “I’ve been giving it a lot of thought and I’m not so sure you’re looking at things realistically.” He worries the edge of his t-shirt. “I worry for you. I worry one of us might hurt you.”

“Locke.” I take his hand in mine. “First of all, I seriously doubt any of you would ever try to hurt me. Second, I could whoop any one of y’all’s asses.” A nervous laugh rumbles in my throat.

“I think you need to start taking this more seriously. We’re all entering the age of the moon-touched.” He rattles my hands. “It could get bad; we’ve all turned during the last four cycles.”

“I know, don’t think I don’t feel it breathing down my neck.” I press my lips into a thin line. “I just keep praying that it will be okay. I know it will be; as long as we are all together, we can overcome anything.”

“At some point, this place may not be able to hold us. It could get bad.” His voice trails off; staring at the jail cells, they are locked in during the full moon.

“I know.” I drop my gaze. “But I know I’m going to have a breakthrough, I know it. I have to for Trevor. For all of you.”

“Hey, are you guys down here talking about your periods?” Brogan stands in the door of my office, peering back toward the lab.

“Yes, I’m having a heavy flow day and was asking Claire what tampons she recommends.” Locke delivers his smart ass response. Then turns to me, exasperated. I swear to God he’s a douchebag sometimes. Locke’s voice sounds in my head; he’s the only one I’ve ever been able to speak to like this. Sometimes it really pisses everyone else off. He gives me an exasperated look.

I purse my lips and nod knowingly. “Brogan, all the guys know that this is a mixed party. No shifting, right?”

“Yeah, of course.” He nods confidently.

“And if you’re wolf-borne, two drinks max?” It’s an order more than a question.

“Yeah, yeah.” He looks upward then directly at me. “Hey, by the way, are you sure I can’t hook up with Lili? I really think she’s into me.”

“No!” Locke and I answer in unison.

“Okay, fine. I just really like her. She’s hot and smart. I like that.” An evil grin rises to Brogan’s lips.

“No.” I leave it at that and push them both out of my lab, then out the door to my office and lock it.

The sound of many heavy footsteps above puts me on alert; as a hunter, my sense of smell is very keen and there’s a plethora invading the house. “We have party guests arriving and I still need to get ready.”

“What are you going to throw on: a clean pair of sweat pants?” Brogan jokes.

“No, I’m going to put on a pair of jeans, thank you very much. I may even run a brush through my hair.” I swirl my ponytail around.

“You know it’s really sad that Locke pays more attention to his appearance than you do.” Brogan elbows Locke in the side and they exchange a look of warning.

“I don’t think it’s sad. I could never keep up with mister perfect.” It’s true. Locke uses more product on his beard than I do on my whole body. “Maybe one day I’ll be more girly.”

No, you will not ever be more girly, and no, I don’t use more product on my beard than you use on your body. Locke smiles at his silent words.

Walking up the stairs, Brogan starts complaining. “I really hate it when you do that. It feels like you’re talking about me.”

“Trust me, if we were going to just have small talk, we’d do it out loud,” Locke says in his cool, deep voice. Locke and I have always been close; we have a mutual respect for each other and impart some of our deepest, darkest secrets.

Sometimes it feels like he’s the alpha, but none of the boys have ever really cared about having or being a leader. Locke has been there for all of us at one time or another. He would make a good alpha if they ever decided they needed one.

I give him a knowing nod. “I’m gonna get ready. I’ll be back.”

I run up to my room and throw on some makeup to hide the dark circles from being up all night studying. Pull on a pair of jeans, a tank top, and my boots. I give one check in the mirror and notice the ponytail. I guess I could run a brush through my hair. I pull the hair tie out and let the black curls fall down my shoulders. I brush my hair and go to put it back up, but decide it looks pretty good down. If it gets too hot, I’ll put it back up.

The house fills with wolf-borne energy that runs through me while I’m getting ready. I can always tell the difference between my boys’ energy, and they are all here now. There’s comfort knowing they are all nearby and safe.

I come down the stairs and the sound of the house filling with people is a little overwhelming at first. I have to be just as careful not to use my power as the boys do not shifting.

“Claire!” I hear a couple of people call out my name. I wave in their direction and head for the kitchen. Time to get a drink in my hand so no one gives me one. It’s always safer that way.

“OMG Claire, can you believe how many people have shown up already?” Lili hops up and down. “This is going to be epic.”

“Yeah, epic.” I try to show a little enthusiasm, but it just doesn’t come.

“Oh, don’t be a party pooper.” Lili mock sulks.

“Yeah, okay.” Another eye roll.

Someone runs their fingers across my back. “Hey Claire.” His touch is unsettling to say the least.

“Corey.” My tone is layered with loathing. He was my attempt at dating a hunter. Yeah, not so much.

“How have you been?” He makes his way around to face me.

“Good.” I don’t ask how he’s been.

“Have you missed me?” He tugs at one of my curls.

“Yeah, but I’ve been working on my moving target practice.” I flash a sarcastic smile.

“Ooh, still a little hostile?” He pulls his head back.

“Yeah, my idea of a fun date isn’t you trying to get me drunk and putting your hands all over me,” I dead pan.

“That’s not how—” I cut him off.

“Look, it doesn’t matter.” I put my hand up. “Who invited you?”

“I thought it was an open invite?” He shrugs.

“You did not read the fine print. It said no assholes allowed.” I sneer at him.

He puts his hand on my shoulder and runs it down to my fingers; my skin is crawling. It’s not that I couldn’t handle him on my own, because believe me, I could snap his neck and have him out the door and in a hole before anyone notices, but that could be bad. I reach out to Locke. Hey, get this asshole off me before I exhibit my amazing and terrible power.

In an instant Locke shows up behind Corey. “Hey man, I thought the invitation said no assholes. You’ve got to go.”

“I’m just here to have a good time,” Corey protests.

“So is everyone else. Time to go.” Locke takes him by the arm and leads him to the door. He’s flanked by Kyle and Brogan and escorted to his car.

“That guy is such a creeper.” Lili snarls her lip.

“Tell me about it.” I roll my eyes.

“Whatever happened between you two?” She asks, coming around the breakfast bar.

“We went out a couple of times, but he kept trying to get me drunk and he was way too aggressive. He thought his dick was made of candy and that if he whipped it out I would magically end up wanting it.” I shake my head, taking a bite of a carrot stick. “So gross.”

“Did he know you were a virgin?” she asks in a scandalous whisper.

“Yeah, told him I was interested in staying that way, too.” I go to the fridge and notice the calendar counting down the days until the next full moon. My mood makes a thud as it drops through the floor.

“What’s up with you tonight?” Lili asks.

“I’m just tired, I guess. A lot on my mind.” I pop open a soda and take a sip. “I’m going to get away from the noise for a minute. I’ll be out back.”

“Sure thing, babe. Let me know if you need anything,” she says, heading toward the parlor. One thing I love about Lili is that she knows me well enough to pick up on when I need some time to myself and when I don’t want to talk.

“Will do.” I do a quick once over through all the rooms, saying hello before I get out the back door and onto the porch. I sit in my rocking chair, prop my boots on the railing, just look up at the stars, and listen to the energy in the house.

I’m always on edge, looking for something. It revolves around what I am. If only I could reach into my past and just be normal. I seek forgiveness for the lives I’ve had to take, for the ones I couldn’t save. A cure for the touch, some sort of approval from my dad for my lifestyle. Even though I know he would never approve. His last words ring in my head: “Stay away from wolves.” And here I am, living with four of them. He doesn’t approve and I’m sure my mother doesn’t either.

Sometimes I feel like my whole life is one big disappointment to anyone who’s ever loved me.

My life is dedicated to finding a cure. Making the madness stop, and maybe we can all live together and stop the killing.

The chain of crescent moons tattooed on my wrist burn when I think of it. One for every kill. It has to stop before I run out of arm. I shake my head.

A bolt of something inexplicable runs through me, yanking me out of my pity party. A new wolf has just arrived, one I’m unfamiliar with. I sniff the air trying to identify him. With all the people around I can’t smell much of anything but booze, Listerine, and BO. No wonder I don’t date.

My stomach lurches with a peculiar nervousness I’ve never felt. The scar on my arm burns and my tattoos tingle and itch. I run my fingers over the symbols, blow out a breath, and look back up at the sky.

A deep resonant voice from the doorway brings me out of my trance. “Anything new up there?”

I turn toward him, somewhat bewildered. He’s leaning in the doorway holding a glass – not a solo cup – of bourbon, if I’m smelling it correctly. I’m captivated by his light blue eyes that flash from narrowed lids. I say nothing for what seems to go on forever; we’re both trapped in a never ending gaze.

Trevor comes running through the door, knocking the man out of the way, “Hey!” He’s winded and takes a minute to catch his breath while he rests his hands on the stranger’s shoulder.

“Trevor? You okay?” I ask with a chuckle.

“Yeah,” He gulps a breath. “I just wanted to introduce you.”

“Okay?” I question. This is out of character for Trevor.

The man puts his hand on Trevor’s back. “It’s okay dude, take a moment.” He looks at me, flashing a cool smile. I return a shrug and bewildered head shake.

Trevor rights himself. “Okay, sorry. Claire this is Cole; Cole, Claire.”

Cole offers his hand. “Nice to meet you, Claire.” His southern drawl rolls over me like caramel.

I take his hand, noticing how big it is, how big he is. Tall and broad, he takes up most of the doorway. His hand is rough and worn. It makes me wonder how old he really is, even though he only looks to be about twenty. “Likewise.”

This is my sister.” Trevor brims with warning.

“I get that.” He gives Trevor an innocuous smile, then flashes me a sly one, arching his brows.

I purse my lips. “Thank you for protecting me from the big bad wolf.” I’ve handled many a wolf in my day and I’m sure this guy is no different.

“Hey Cole,” Rabbit comes out and gives him a hug; Cole’s giant frame completely swallows Rabbit’s slender body.

“It’s been a minute. How’ve you been?” Cole asks, patting him on the back to retract from the hug.

“Busy with school. How about you?” Rabbit asks with his hand on Cole’s shoulder.

He holds up his hand but obscures two fingers. “Same as always, rough day at the lumber yard.”

We all exchange a laugh. Mine perhaps a little nervous.

The back porch fills with the boys, everyone pulling up a chair. I don’t mind, really, even though I usually come out here for solitude. It’s also nice when it becomes a place for jokes and good times. Balances things out, I guess.

Lili drags a rocker over next to me and leans in while looking at the boys. “Seriously, how is it that you live with all these hotties and don’t care?”

“You’re so ridiculous.” I can’t help but watch Cole kick Tor out of one of the more comfortable chairs and drag it over to sit directly across from me in the circle, as though he’s claiming a position.

Lili tracks my gaze. “Oh, except maybe that one?”

I rattle my head to snap out of watching him. I don’t know why it’s so fascinating. The way he lights a cigarette, but I note every motion. How he pulls it out of the pack, lights it with his fancy flip-top lighter, and inhales the first delicious puff of smoke seductively. He’s making me want one.

Claire? Stop it. I hear Locke’s voice in my head. I search for where he is in the circle and give him a questioning look, quirking one eyebrow. Just trust me, stop.

Stop what? I shrug innocently.

He really is the big bad wolf. He tilts his chin down in seriousness.

And I’m Red Riding Hood? I cock my head, pursing my lips. Cole seems pretty harmless, but I’m captivated by his mannerisms and listening to the charm of his country accent.

I’m more concerned about the way he’s looking at you like you’re the picnic basket. Locke’s eyes widen.

Oh please, that’s so not how he’s looking at me. He’s made it pretty clear I’m not his type. My ass is too big. He’s already said he prefers rail-thin girls; that, I am not. I try not to let the disappointment bleed through on my face.

Just be careful. He concedes, since he knows I can take care of myself.

K Dad. I wink at him and smile.

When there’s a slight lull in the conversation, I lean forward toward Cole and ask, “Where did you come from?”

Everyone turns to me like I just asked him to tell me the meaning of life. I take a second to mull it over and decide for some reason this needs more clarification. “Like, how do you know the boys?”

He smiles and oh God his eyes sparkle with intensity. He takes a drag from his cigarette, preparing to answer, but Trevor answers for him. “Oh, Cole transferred from Tallulah High the year after you graduated.”

That high school is just across town. “Ah, that explains why we haven’t met.” There’s an uneasiness that shows in him for a split second. “Why did you transfer? Did you move?”

Trevor interjects before Cole is able to speak. “No, he had to transfer because he ran through all the pussy that would have him over there.”

Everyone in the circle laughs except for me and Cole. I look at him in a new light, pinning him with a judgmental stare. “Is that so?”

Trevor answers for him again. “Hell yeah, Cole’s like a hero, and lucky for him he only had two more years of high school when he transferred.” He lowers his voice slightly before adding, “It’s a small school.”

Cole shifts in his seat uncomfortably as he gauges my reaction. He wants to be proud of his prowess, but not here, not in front of me. I decide it may be time for a little dig, put this cocky bastard in his place. “So Cole, tell me, do you drag Trevor around everywhere so that he can speak for you? Or do you actually speak for yourself on occasion?”

Trust me, I know how hard it is sometimes trying to get a word in edgewise with Trevor; he just gets so excited.

Locke’s voice of warning goes off in my head again. Claire, he’s a wolf in cowboy’s clothing.

I look over at Locke again. I’m just having some fun.

Trevor inhales to speak again and Cole leans forward, putting his hand over Trevor’s mouth, “Wise men speak because they have something to say; Fools because they have to say something.” He surprises me with a Plato quote. My stare is unrelenting; awaiting a real answer, I quirk my eyebrow to taunt him.

When he doesn’t respond to my question I bite at his comment. “Did you just drop Plato?”

“I did.” He nods once, leaving his head down for a moment and letting his blond hair fall over his ears and eyes.

My whole face brightens at the prospect of him actually being an intellectual. I don’t really get that with the boys. “I’m impressed.”

“Don’t be. He probably read that from a fortune cookie on the way over,” Tor says flatly, then awaits everyone’s reaction.

“Wouldn’t that be Confucius?” Rabbit scratches his head.

“Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.” Cole smiles smugly at Tor, then watches for my reaction.

“Was that Confucius?” Rabbit asks.

“Yes, it was,” I confirm, then exchange an impressed glance with Cole. He winks at me and takes another long drag from his cigarette. “I am capable of speaking for myself, just rarely when Trevor is around and there’s a pretty girl nearby.” He looks directly at Lili when he says that last part. Huh.

I sip my drink, pondering that last move far longer than I ever should.

“Is your glass empty?” Cole asks, watching me tip the cup all the way back.

“It is.”

“Allow me.” He puts his hands on the armrests to stand.

“No, that’s okay. I’m capable of getting my own drink.” I go to get up and Locke stops me.

“But you should never have to.” Locke takes my glass. “What were you drinking?”

“The usual.” I offer a smug smile, knowing that Locke totally just blocked Cole out of getting my drink.

“Diet Coke?”

“You know me so well, number one.” I close my eyes and nod dramatically.

Locke bows and heads for the kitchen, but Cole grabs my cup from him on the way by. “I’ve got it.”

I shake my head, rolling my eyes.

When Cole returns he hands me the cup. “Let me know if this is to your liking.”

“What is it? A mint julep?” I lay on the fakest Southern accent I can muster.

“No, but it’s blue,” he says, handing it to me.

I take a sip and it’s super sweet and delicious. “It’s okay. Thank you.”

The night progresses with many stories from all the boys, escapades back in high school. Then there is a plethora of stories regarding Cole’s many conquests.

Tor finishes telling one story and the laughter is still going strong at the punch line. I’m a little disgusted that this is all at the expense of some poor girl who thought she was getting a boyfriend, when in fact she was only getting screwed. Literally.

“I didn’t care that you guys caught me. I just wanted to make sure y’all didn’t tell anyone I was screwing a three!” Cole defends.

I shake my head, now completely disgusted.

As the night goes on, the crowd dwindles down. I prefer it when the party is wolf-borne, hunters, and sympathizers. Lili is the only one left that isn’t in the know, and she’s all but passed out. “Hey, why don’t you go up to my room and get some sleep?”

She yawns. “Yeah, I think that’s a good idea. Will you be up in a few?”

“Yeah, I may go down to my office, but I’ll be up soon.” I put my hand on her wrist and get up. I walk to the opposite end of the porch so I can make a discrete exit and hop over the railing while the boys are still enthralled with walking down memory lane. The sliver of moon is beautiful in the sky and a walk right about now sounds nice to clear my head.

As I reach the treeline of the yard, I can feel Cole close to me and I hear Locke’s warning. Claire?

I offer Locke some reassurance. I know he’s there. I’ve got this.

“Want some company?” His deep timbre rumbles through me in the dark.

“Not my intention, but sure, why not?” I don’t slow my pace through the trees.

“I just thought it might be nice to have a conversation where I get to speak for myself.” He huffs a laugh. “That kid.”

“Yeah, Trevor is special.” There’s a long stretch of silence as we walk. I’m okay with this; it doesn’t feel uncomfortable. We are both just listening to the sounds of the forest.

“You are very good at walking quietly.” Cole is unable to take the silence between us.

“My father taught me,” I answer in a low whisper. There’s another stretch of silence.

I hear him inhale a breath and release it through his nose. “I know what you are.”

“Good.” I stop and look up at him. He’s frozen in place. I’m not sure exactly what he was expecting. “And I know what you are, so you’re wasting your time.”

“I’m not wasting my time.” A sly smile lights his face.

“You are, actually.” I smile back knowingly. “I’m not interested in whatever it is you’re selling.”

“I’m not selling anything.” He can’t even try to pretend to be hurt. He pauses. “I may be buying, though.”

“Sorry, darlin,’ I’ve got nothing for you.” I turn and continue walking, faster, louder than before.

He matches my pace easily with his long legs. “I was hoping to be friends,” he says with an earnestness in his tone. One that I believe.

“Friends would be cool.” I concede, not slowing down.

“Perfect, I’m glad we’ve settled that.” His voice is laced with satisfaction. I can’t help but notice that his footfalls sound like a ten man wrecking crew coming through the woods.

“You know you could be a little quieter.” I look down at his feet.

“Sorry, it’s the boots.” He points to his cowboy boots that were shiny when he arrived. Yeah, I noticed.

“I don’t think they are any clunkier than these.” I hold up one of my combat boots. “There are just some of us that don’t have a talent for stalking or being quiet.” I cut a half smile into my cheek. Will he bite at the challenge?

Cole puts his hand on his chest. “Oh, that hurt.”

“If the cowboy boot fits.” I pull my shoulder to my ear.

“You think you can out-stalk me?” He’s dubious.

“Nope.” I open my eyes wide then draw a serious expression, looking him directly in the eye. “I know I can.”

“Do I feel a challenge coming on?” he says with a playful look in his eyes.

“You putting one down?”

He nods slowly. “Yes, I think I am.”

I lower my chin and from under hooded eyes answer, “It’s on.”

“Rules?” he tilts his head to the side.

“No wolf form.” I hold up one finger.

“No powers,” he offers, and I add a finger. We stare at each other for a minute, trying to think of some more rules. I really can’t think of anything.

I turn and bolt. “Count to sixty and come and find me if you can.”

The advantage is mine. This is my territory; I walk in these woods every day. My scent is as prominent here as the blooming gardenias. Excitement is coursing through me and as much as I hate to admit it, I love the hunt. I’d also like to put Cole in his proper place. I think he needs to be knocked down a notch or two.

In my own head I count to sixty and hope that we are counting at roughly the same rate. My go-to is the trees. My father taught me early that the trees are my friends. Most don’t ever look up when they are looking for something. I’m going to use every advantage that I have. Even not in wolf form his sense of smell and hearing are likely keener than mine, but I’m pretty sure I’m smarter.

His footfalls are so heavy, I have no idea how he ever sneaks up on anything. I have to contain the snigger as I look down at the top of his head from my perch. I toss a pine cone I grabbed on the way up to get him away from where I am. If I linger in one spot for too long, he’ll likely catch on from the saturation of my scent. I’m already sweating a bit from the running.

After half an hour and trying so hard not to laugh at hearing his frustrated breaths, knowing that he’s always one step behind me I decide to let him off the hook and make him the hunted. I scale down and lean quietly against the tree. He walks right by. When he passes me I say it low, “Hey cowboy, gotchya.”

He freezes in place and his head shakes from side to side. “You are a tricky little thing, aren’t you?”

“I am.” The satisfaction in my voice is almost grating to me.

He turns around. “Well you bested me this time. But next time, I’m going to bring my A game.”

“I’m shaking in my boots.” I raise an eyebrow.

“Want to go again?” he suggests.

“Nah, let’s just walk.” I rub my hands on my bare arms, wishing I’d brought a jacket. I walk past him. “Come on.”

“Are you cold?” There’s genuine concern in his voice.

“A little, but I’ll survive.” I keep walking. He unbuttons his flannel and takes it off, wrapping it around my shoulders. “I don’t want you to get–”

The look on Cole’s face stops my words. “I’m a walking furnace. I’m not going to get cold.”

Thankfully he’s wearing a tank top underneath, but it doesn’t stop me from noticing his broad chest and strong arms. Clair, stop. He’s no good, I tell myself; it’s like I have Locke built into my head. Still his scent envelopes all of my senses, making me feel lightheaded. I’m wrapped in his shirt and can’t stop inhaling. Stop. Being this close to him feels different than anything I’ve felt before. It’s a cross between a glow and a hum. That burns.

“We aren’t heading back?” he questions.

“Did you want to?” I ask.

“No, I just thought you did.”

“Nah, let’s keep walking for a little bit.” I move ahead of him and try to maintain a safe distance of at least five feet, but it doesn’t help the glowing, humming, burn.

“Sounds good to me.” He seems to be respecting the distance and it rolls through my head that he could be feeling the same thing.

We reach the clearing at the ridge I like to meditate in. “Watch the sunrise with me?”

“I’d love to.” He smiles. His eyes flash and sparkle when it’s genuine and I could watch him smile all day. He looks at the worn earth in the clearing. “Come here often?”

“Yeah, a lot.” I widen my eyes. “This is where my dad used to take me to meditate. We’ve watched many sunrises here.”

“Where is your dad?” he asks cautiously, but there’s something else in his voice.

“He’s gone,” I answer plainly, pushing the melancholy back.

“Like left–” I cut him off.

“Wolf attack.” It rides out fast, so it won’t hurt as much, like a band-aid.

“Oh,” he offers with regret.

The sky has gone from dark hues of blue and purple to brilliant reds and pinks. We sit in silence as God puts on a magnificent show. The sun crests the horizon and a smile rises to my lips. I look over at Cole; his eyes are closed, letting the sunlight bathe his face. His satisfied expression is calming all on its own. He’s feeling the sun, the light, the peace.

I take the time to study his features. His blond hair meets his jawline, which is strong yet rounded, cheeks that were made for smiling and full lips made for…well you know. I huff a little laugh when I notice the tiny bit of blond scruff on his chin.

“What are you laughing at?” he asks without opening his eyes but his cheeks remain pinched up in a smile.

“I just saw something funny.”

“Care to share?”

“Nope,” I say and turn to salute the sun.

This is so nice sitting with him. We aren’t holding hands, touching, kissing, talking or anything more than just enjoying this incredible moment together. Being near him sends a certain feeling of comfort through me; it makes me feel safe, happy.

We both stiffen when we feel the presence of other wolves. As I turn around I see Trevor in wolf form lunging at Cole. “Trevor, stop!”

He shifts into human form. “I told you to stay the fuck away from my sister!” Trevor has his arm across Cole’s throat. This is a very dangerous thing for Trevor, considering how much larger Cole is.

“I wasn’t doing anything. We were just watching the sunrise.” Cole chokes it out through labored breath.

“Trevor, get off him.” I feel the presence of the other boys approaching. I go to Trevor and put him in a headlock, dragging him off of Cole. I throw him to the ground and put him in an armbar. “Are you gonna stop?” I say through gritted teeth.

“Get off me, Claire,” he sputters.

Locke, Tor, Brogan, and Rabbit appear in the clearing and shift into human form. This always makes me feel so uncomfortable.

“Trevor, are you going to behave yourself?” Locke comes over to where I have Trevor on the ground.

“I don’t want him fucking with my sister,” Trevor protests.

“That’s not up to you, dude. And judging from your current position, I’d say she can take care of herself.” Locke can’t help the smile.

All the boys are smiling except for Cole. He has a look of deep consternation. “I’m really sorry, Trevor. I wasn’t doing anything. We really were just watching the sunrise.”

“Get off me,” Trevor growls.

“Are you going to behave?” My tone could cut glass.

“Yes, I’ll behave,” he reluctantly agrees.

“Fine.” I release him, roll off, and stand up, brushing the grass and debris from my jeans and hair. “Now apologize.”

“No I will not–” I stop him right there.

“He was being a perfect gentleman,” I tell Trevor, trying to look him only in the eye because of the naked.

“Not possible.” Trevor shoots Cole a hateful look.

“Trevor, I can take care of myself. I’ll let you know if I need you.” I turn to everyone else. “Would you please all shift back into wolf form? I’m sick of your twig and berries just hanging out.”

They all enjoy making me squirm like this. The smiles on their faces tell me that I’m right.

They all shift except for Cole and Trevor. Trevor goes to Cole, “Dude, she’s my sister.”

“I know, I wasn’t doing anything. I promise.” He puts his hands up in surrender.

Trevor shifts, and the pack runs into the trees.

Cole watches them go longingly. I get closer to him. “Been a while since you’ve been on a run?”

He nods and presses his lips together. A smile blooms on mine. “Why don’t you join them, and I’ll show how a hunter can run.”

“You run with them?” Curiosity twists his features.

“Oh yeah, I’m also faster than them.” Yeah, buddy that’s a challenge. “I’ll get your clothes.”

His eyes dance with excitement and he unbuckles his belt. I spin around so as not to see him naked. “Oh, sorry.” Cole’s confidence has waned due to his scolding from Trevor. I’ve never seen a man this arrogant shrivel so fast at the hand of someone like Trevor.

“No problem, you just stay behind me until you’ve shifted. Then I’m betting you’ll be behind me when we run,” I tease, but I already know by his size that I’m faster than him. There’s no way he can move all that wolf very fast.

He shifts, then nudges my side with his nose. I look at him and notice that he’s even huge in wolf form. “Ready?”

He prances on his two front paws and throws his head playfully. I gather his clothes up. “Ready, set, go!”

We run through the woods toward the boys. I love feeling the wind in my hair and I would swear that I’m even faster drawing from Cole’s power.

This is so free, and it’s as close as I can get to the boys. This makes me feel like I’m part of the pack. I know I’ll never be a wolf, so this will have to do.

Chapter Three[
**]Flight of the Firefly

Trevor sits brooding at the kitchen table. I roll my eyes at him. “Stop pouting.”

“I’m not pouting.” He downs a huge glass of milk.

“Why are you here? Drinking my milk?” I snap. He’s killing my high and he needs to stop.

“Mom put the protections up last night.” He wipes the milk from his face with his sleeve.

“Fine, I’m going to take a shower and get some sleep.” I continue to the kitchen door and start assessing how many people are still passed out from the party.

“Claire, I want you to stay away from him.” He tries to say it without a growl.

“Excuse me?” I turn around and walk to the end of the table. “I am a grown ass woman and can make my own decisions.”

“Yes, but this is a bad decision.” He blows out a breath, shaking his head.

“If he’s so bad, why is he your friend?” I challenge.

“Because he’s a good friend, but he’s not…” He’s looking for the words. “He’s bad with girls and I don’t know that he’s safe.”

“None of you are safe.” The first thing that runs through my mind is that this is some sort of alpha thing. All the boys are coming to the age where they are instinctively priming themselves for alpha. They can’t help it.

“But he’s just not a good guy for you,” he pleads. “He’s not a good guy for anyone.”

“Look, I’m not dating him. Nothing happened. We just talked.” I try to calm him with the truth.

“That’s how it starts, though. We all saw how you were looking at him in the clearing.” He isn’t wrong. Cole does fascinate me. But there is nothing there for him; there can’t be. It’s forbidden.

“So, I was watching someone enjoy the sunrise as much as I used to, like my dad used to.” My tone sounds rightfully defensive with an edge of melancholy.

“Claire, he’s dangerous. Stay away from him.” His insistence boils my blood for a moment, but staying angry with him isn’t going to help. I need to reason with him.

“He’s so lost and sad. I think we can help him.” I say it quietly, afraid of his reaction.

“You can’t. No one can.” He gets up from the table.

“I don’t believe that. No one is beyond help.” I watch him go to the sink and put the glass in and I’m impressed.

“Just please listen to me on this.” His tone is sincere; he really believes what he’s saying.

“Claire, Trevor’s not wrong.” Locke comes into the kitchen with wet tousled hair.

“Not you, too.” I look toward the heavens for help.

“Have you not stopped to ask yourself why he’s never been around before?” Locke raises a brow.

“No, I never knew he existed.” I shrug.

“Yeah, because we were afraid you would become just another one of his conquests.” He comes to where I’m standing and puts his hands on my shoulders. “Trevor’s right, he’s not good.”

“You know what?” I shift Cole’s clothes to my left hand and put my other on my hip. “We are just friends. I am a grown woman; I’m not some boy crazy girl, and I’m not going to have any of you telling me what to do out of some stupid insecurity.” They look at each other, puzzled. “You know he’s more alpha material than any of you.” I drop that bomb and scurry up the two flights of stairs to my room. There’s little comfort in knowing they can’t follow me because of the protections on my room. I feel bad saying that. I feel small.

That’s not fair, and it has nothing to do with how we feel about this. Locke reaches out to me telepathically.

I don’t answer. I close my mind and my door. Inhaling a deep breath, smelling Cole’s shirt that I’m still wearing, trying to regain the feeling I had during the run is cleansing. My eyes close and I press my back against the door. I will admit that I’m feeling a kind of way I’ve never felt before.

“Um, are those Cole’s pants?” Lili pops up from under the comforter on my bed.

I look down at Cole’s clothes in my hands and panic runs through me. Shit, think fast Claire. An evil grin spreads across my lips. “Um, yeah?”

“Why do you have his pants?” She says it slowly, trying to work out the possibilities.

I inhale to buy myself some time. “Well, it’s quite simple, you see.” I cross the room and put his boots, jeans, and tank top on my closet floor. “The boys and I played a little trick on him.”

“Oh?” She pulls her lips to the side. “What kind of trick did you and the boys play that involved you having his jeans?”

“We said we were all going skinny dipping, so when he stripped down and jumped in, I grabbed his clothes.” Simple, easy, lie. Way better than the truth: that he shifted into a werewolf, we ran through the woods together like wild animals, and he ran straight to the front yard. I’d like to think it was because he knows how uncomfortable it would have made me if he shifted into human form. But him being that considerate might be a stretch.

Lili spins around in the bed, looking out the window, “So he’s out there running around naked?”

“No, I’m pretty sure he went home.” Wow, I hate to disappoint her. “A few minutes ago I heard a loud truck start up and I’d bet that was him.” He seems like the big obnoxious “sorry about your penis” truck type.

“Bummer.” She looks down at her hands. “But you felt compelled to wear the flannel?”

“That was before the skinny dipping thing. I was cold.” I feel my cheeks redden.

“Uh huh. So did you kiss him?” She leans forward on the bed.

“Oh. My. God. I’m not having this conversation. I’m taking a shower.” I head for the bathroom.

“You kissed him!” She hops up from the bed and follows me into the bathroom.

“No. I did not.” That’s the truth.

“But you like him,” she teases.

“As a friend. That’s it.” I say it firmly. “Besides, Trevor had a shit fit that we went for a walk. He says he’s not a good guy.”

“Oh, Trevor’s right.” She nods vehemently.

“What do you mean?” Why is everyone hating on Cole, but everyone’s his friend?

“He’s a serial man-whore. He sets his sights on something, conquers it, and moves on.” She recalls this like she may have some personal knowledge.

“Did you…” I trail off, not wanting to finish the question.

“No, I didn’t, but only because he did it to a couple of my friends.” She shakes her head. “He comes off as super sweet and attentive. Then as soon as he gets in your pants and fucks you a couple of times, he disappears.”

“Who does that?” I ask, astounded that sort of behavior actually exists.

“Cole Jackson, that’s who.” She shrugs. “Just be careful, babe. That’s a wild one who can’t be tamed.”

Interesting choice of words. “I’m not looking to tame anyone.” I shoo her from the bathroom. “But I am about to tame the stink in my armpits!”

“K lady. I’m gonna run downstairs, get some coffee, and head home.” I hear the outer door click.

Oh shit. I try to connect with Locke. Hey, I told Lili that we tricked Cole with the ol’ skinny dipping steal your clothes gag to explain why I had his jeans.

Got it, Locke answers. It’s curt, but that’s okay. I’m still a little pissed myself. Who the hell do they think they are, telling me what to do?

In the shower I let the good feelings seep back in. Then, as always, I think about the next full moon. They are always a tough time for us. The boys have to be locked in the basement with the protections up around the rest of the house so they can’t get out.

It’s by far my worst nightmare for one of them to get out and become moon-touched. Once that happens, there’s only the final solution. Death.

I shake the thought out of my head and become even more driven to work on my potions. If I can just keep them from shifting on the full moon then they won’t kill a human. If I could come up with a cure for a wolf that has become moon-touched that would be the holy grail for our people.

We don’t want to be at war. It never started that way. Aunt Rain explained the lore to me. That hunters were created by the wolves to regulate and not let them run rampant murdering. The biggest problem is that once a wolf is moon-touched, they can’t shift back to human form because their humanity is gone, and they become a rabid animal. Wreaking havoc on the population. It’s in everyone’s best interest if werewolves continue to be folklore to the masses.

I get out of the shower and pull on a pair of jeans and a tank top. I throw my hair in a ponytail and head down to the kitchen.

I’m relieved to find no one’s there. I get a cup of coffee and grab a yogurt from the fridge. Looking around at the epic mess from the party, I wrestle with my desire to clean it and my drive to work on the potion.

The cure wins.

Walking through the parlor to the basement door, I notice Brogan stirring on the couch. The room is very bright from the sun. I kneel down in front of him and gently rattle his shoulder. “Hey sweetie, why don’t you go up to one of the bedrooms? It’ll be more comfortable and dark.”

He opens his eyes sleepily. “I wanted to talk to you before you locked yourself in the lab.”

“What’s up?” I sit on the coffee table and put my cup down.

“I want to be the guinea pig. I don’t want Trevor to do it.” He sits up, pushing his palms into his eyes.

“Why not?”

“Because he’s not been himself lately.” He looks at me with concern.

“He’s just a little wound up. He’ll be fine.” I try to put him at ease.

“No, I think there’s something more to it.” He gives me a look of warning. “You know we’re all getting to the age…”

“I know, we’re coming into some pretty dangerous times. But in all reality, I don’t think we need an alpha.” I shake my head, hoping that we can avoid it.

“How do you mean? We have to have an alpha,” he argues.

“No we don’t,” I explain. “Look, there is always a natural leader in any group. We have that, we don’t need to give anyone the title. You are all going to eventually find girlfriends.” I huff a laugh. “Even Trevor.”

Brogan laughs. “That’s a lot of hope you’re holding out there.”

“That’s the thing. No one is vying for a mate; no one is trying to take my territory. It’s my land; I have the deed and no one wolf-borne or otherwise is going to take it away from me.” I stop and think for a moment. “So I guess, basically, I’m the alpha. See, that settles it.”

“I’m still worried.” He presses his lips into a thin line. “Can we have a pack meeting?”

“You betchya. Why don’t we do it next moon?” A huge grin blooms.

“Deal.” He ruffles his hair, causing dust and some dried grass to fall out.

“Now get off my couch, head upstairs, and get some rest.” I stand up to leave.

“Claire?”

“Yeah?” I turn around.

“I love you, and I really appreciate what you’re trying to do for us.” The sincerity in his tone touches me.

“Thanks, Brogan. I love you all so much.” The pressure of finding the cure pushes on my heart. I feel the need to lighten things up. “I wouldn’t want to have to kill you.” Fail.

“Claire.” He stands to meet me. “If I become moon-touched, I want you to kill me if you can’t cure me. Don’t let me go feral, don’t let me be evil.” He’s pleading with tears threatening at the corners of his eyes.

“I’m going to do everything I can to keep everyone safe. I don’t want to have to kill you, but if I have to, I will.” Those words feel so heavy on my tongue.

“And I don’t want you to feel bad; it’s the right thing.” He pulls his lips in. “Don’t be sad.”

“Brogan, you aren’t going to become moon-touched. We’re going to do it. I’m going to find a cure,” I reassure him, even though I’m not so sure myself.

He throws his arms around me. “I love you.”

“Love you, too.” I break away from him and head down to the lab.

At first I was relieved that it wasn’t going to be a stay-away-from-Cole talk. But after what we just talked about, I would have welcomed that from Brogan.

Sometimes life is hard to focus on, when all I want to do is find a cure. I check on my beakers, seeing that the consistency is coming along nicely and will be ready by the full moon. I may let Brogan take the potion. It might make him feel like he’s doing something, really contributing.

My computer powers up and I sit down, reading some of my findings from the previous month. See if there’s anything I can anticipate. The words on the screen start to get fuzzy. I’ve been looking at this for way too long; my head is heavy so I lay it down on my desk for a quick catnap.

The moon is a stunning, shimmering silver orb dancing in the blue of the sky, the witch’s ring around it enraptured. I take slow, deliberate steps toward the clearing where I like to watch the skies.

Calm fills me, even though I can sense, hear, and smell wolves all around me, and I feel no fear. They are running and frolicking, having fun. I’m sitting, watching, waiting.

A peculiar feeling runs through my veins; it’s strong and undeniable. The burning is unbearable and I writhe on the ground in pain, unable to control any of my motions. My body contorts and bends in ways it wasn’t meant to. My eyes pinch shut to staunch the pain, but it doesn’t work. Screams choke into my mouth, turning into guttural growl.

When the aching subsides I open my eyes, trying to sit up, but I can’t. Not like I usually do. I look at my hands; they aren’t hands, they’re paws. I sit back on my haunches and try to look at myself.

I’m a wolf.

I’ve shifted.

The sound of the boys running through the woods calls to me and I can’t wait to catch up. Stretching my wolf legs for the first time takes a moment. But in no time at all I’m whipping through the forest with great speed, leaping and bounding about everywhere. I feel happy and free.

A rabbit catches my eye. I need it, I have to get it. I give chase and hunt it, catching it right before it goes into its hole. I rip and tear at it, eating the whole thing and crunching on bones and not caring about the fur getting caught in my teeth.

When I’m done I lay in the clearing soft with pine straw, cleaning myself and feeling the need for a nap, even though I can still hear the boys. I lay my head down for a moment until I smell it, an intoxicating scent. Without realizing it I’m on my feet moving toward it; something primal sets off an urgency to be closer to it. My pace turns from a walk to a trot to a gallop. I have to be near it. I need to feel it, touch it.

“Hey, Claire?” His deep timbre floods my senses, but I still follow the scent. Finding it is all I can conceive of.

“Claire?” A touch on my shoulder startles me awake.

Sitting up fast, I have bits of my curly hair in my mouth and stuck to my face where I was drooling. I know I have the imprint of a book on my cheek; I’m sure I’m a real vision. Regaining my bearings, I focus my eyes on him. “Cole?”

“Hey there. Kyle told me you were down here.” He looks around. “I hope you don’t mind.”

Through a yawn I nod. “No, not at all.” I wipe the rest of the spittle from my chin. Yeah, nice. “What’s up?”

“I was in the area and wanted to stop by.” He doesn’t make eye contact; he does that a lot.

We live in the middle of nowhere. Weird. “Oh, okay, well cool. Good to see you.”

If I wasn’t half asleep, I would be more mortified about my appearance. There will be a session of self-deprecation later. “Let’s head upstairs.”

“Sure, I brought some drinks in case you wanted to hang out.” He holds up a bag.

“I’m not really a drinker, but we can hang out for a bit.” He follows me up the stairs. “Watch out,” I call out behind me as he approaches the broken stair.

He falters on the loose wood. “Whoa.”

“Sorry, broken step.” I stop and turn around with an apologetic smile.

“I can fix that.” The corners of his mouth turn up slightly when he says it.

“That’d be awesome. I’ve been asking Locke to do it forever.” I continue up the stairs and into the main house and I want to die of embarrassment. The boys have done nothing at all to clean up from the party. “Holy crap!”

“What’s wrong?” Cole looks around.

“This place is still a disaster.” I inhale a breath to start yelling for them to get their asses down here since they promised to clean up.

“Hold on.” Cole puts his hand up. “I’ll help get it all cleaned up. It won’t take us long. Let them get some sleep.”

“It’s six p.m.; they can get up.” I might be feeling a little punitive.

“I’ve got this. We can get the big stuff taken care of.” He walks into the kitchen. “Where do you keep the trash bags?”

“Under the sink.” I follow him in and look around. “Okay, it really won’t take long.”

We get busy cleaning and just like he said, it isn’t taking long at all. I get all the dishes loaded and I hear him running the vacuum in the parlor. I’m astounded that someone of the male persuasion other than Locke is capable of actually cleaning. I watch as he wraps the cord up on the vacuum.

He puts it in the closet and comes into the kitchen. “See, just about done. Now you go outside and get all comfy and I’ll bring you a drink.”

“But I don’t–” He cuts me off.

“Shhh, you’re going to relax tonight.” He pushes me out the back door onto the porch.

“Okay, but just one.” Did I just succumb to peer pressure?

I sit on the porch and look out over the backyard; the fireflies are doing their mating dance. He comes out the door carrying two drinks. He hands one to me. “Okay, let me know if you like it.”

I take a sip and it’s the same as what he made last night. “Not bad, a little sweeter than the one last night.” I put it down and lean back in the chair.

He lights a cigarette and inhales a big puff. I have to struggle not to study him. “You know smoking isn’t good for you.”

“No.” He tilts his head, dragging it out. “Bitching about my smoking isn’t good for you.”

“Um, I wasn’t bitching. But I’m not wrong.” My brow arches; I’m not really appreciating his tone.

“Yeah, unless they start putting silver in cigarettes I’ll be fine. One of the perks of immortality.” He kicks back and puts his boots up on the table between us.

“I guess, but still…” I shrug, really with nothing to add. “Sometimes I forget.”

“I can see that,” he answers. He doesn’t let one beat of silence go by. “So how is it that you and Trevor are brother and sister?”

“That’s an odd story,” I say flatly.

“I imagine since he’s a wolf-borne and you’re a hunter.” He takes a long drag off his cigarette.

“The story as I’ve heard it goes like this. My father and Aunt Rain were called by a group of hunters up north. An entire pack had become moon-touched. So of course, they had to…” It’s always hard talking about what we’re built to do when with a wolf-borne. “You know.”

He releases a sad sigh. “Yeah, I do.”

“Apparently, because Trevor was too young, he had not become moon-touched. So after the rest of the pack had been…” God this is hard.

“Yeah.” He lets me off the hook.

“He was an orphan, so my aunt took him in and raised him.” That is the happy part of the story; now, the other tragedy that makes us siblings. “And when my dad died…she took me in.”

“How did your mom die?” He asks and I can see the regret in his eyes as soon as the words leave his mouth.

I press a defeated smile. “Wolf.”

“Oh,”

“Yeah,”

“Wow, that’s…” He can’t find the words.

“Yeah.” I stop him from trying.

“But you two look so much alike,” he remarks, and I can see him picturing Trevor and I standing side by side.

“I know. It’s weird, isn’t it?” I’ve always thought so.

“Yeah, when I met you last night and could tell you weren’t wolf-borne, I thought you were just plain ol’ human. But then I felt you.” He smiles roguishly.

“I’m not plain ol’ anything.” My brow arches as I take a sip of my drink, then lean back in my chair holding up one finger toward him. “And you should know that you can’t feel me, I’m a hunter. We can feel your presence, but you can’t feel ours.” I dip my chin downward to drive home the lesson.

“That’s where you’re wrong. Last night, I could feel you. Before we went on the walk, I thought that it was just being around a bunch of wolves. But in the woods, when we played, I could feel you.” His tone is curious, but insistent.

“Interesting.” I don’t know what to make of it.

“I thought so.” He empties his drink. “I need another; are you good?”

“I’m fine.” I look in my cup and realize that my drink is nearly gone. Shit.

He returns with his fresh drink for himself, along with the bottle of bourbon. “Are you sure? I mean, aren’t you gonna try to keep up?” He quirks his eyebrows.

“Um, no. I think you have a lot more experience with that than I do.” I suck in my bottom lip.

“That,” he pauses, “is a true statement.” He raises his glass to me.

“Why do you drink so much? I mean, the boys talked about a lot of your excessive exploits.” My eyes narrow in on him, trying to see beyond his bad-boy facade.

“To kill the pain, darlin’” He wipes his upper lip.

“Tell me about your pain.” My tone is sympathetic, but curious. I want to know everything about him; he’d be fascinating to study, but that’s the scientist in me.

He pulls his cell phone from his pocket and checks the time. “We don’t have that kind of time. I have to be home by eleven.”

“Curfew?” I ask, almost mocking him.

“Yeah, one of the few downfalls to living with my parents.” He inhales and widens his eyes, “The rent is cheap, but the rules are a bitch.”

“I can imagine.” I roll my eyes. “Aunt Rain has always been pretty lenient with us, giving us enough rope to hang ourselves. She says it helped prepare us to make better decisions as adults.”

“Funny.” He huffs a laugh.

“How’s that funny?” I fail to see the humor.

“Well, she raised you both preparing you for adulthood, when we all know there’s a good chance neither of you, or any of us, will survive that long.” He empties his drink again and sets the glass down on the railing. “Sort of why I’m not bothering with college.”

“Aren’t you the thanatophile?” I pull my head back, and yes, I’m judging him. I’m also remembering the tidbits of his intelligence from last night. Now let’s see if it was just a regurgitation of some cool phrases he saw on a restroom wall or if he actually is well read.

“Oooh, and she pulls out a bonus word.” His knowing smile says he’s familiar with this word. “And yes I am.” He pours more bourbon in his glass and raises it, taking another drink.

“Why so morbid?” Sometimes, everything feels like research.

“Our life, what we are, lends itself to fascination with death.” He shakes his head. “One of the first things we are taught when we shift is how to kill. How to satiate that need.”

“Still, it doesn’t have to be all doom and gloom.” My features droop in sadness at the thought.

He takes a long contemplative drag off his cigarette with his eyes shut. “A normal human being does not want the Kingdom of Heaven: he wants life on earth to continue.” He tilts his head down and looks me square in the eye. “I’m not a human and I’m not normal.”

I try to mask my astonishment. “George Orwell, not from 1984.”

A prideful smile plays on his lips. “Lear, Tolstoy, and the Fool.”

“I’m aware.” I study his features and he bathes in it, watching me. “But are you saying you welcome death?”

“I’m playing with it right now.” He squares his shoulders when he says it.

It takes a moment for me to process what he’s saying. “Me?”

He cocks his head, “That’s what you are to me, the one thing that knows with absolute precision how to destroy me. Yet, here I am.”

I’m not sure whether to be offended or flattered. It hurts me that he thinks of me that way. I would never hurt him unless I had to. I narrow my eyes at him as my anger wells up inside me. It’s my choice at this point how this evening goes and I consider carefully. “People living deeply have no fear of death.”

“Anais Nin, well played.” A satisfied smile bleeds across his features.

“It’s true, though, and our kind have no choice but to live deeply.” My features soften.

“Somehow, I’ve just always known I’ll die bloody.” He nods with a hint of sadness in his tone.

“Maybe you won’t. Maybe you’ll find a beautiful she-wolf, have lots of little cubs and get old watching your grandchildren grow.” I’m surprised how it stings when I say the words, knowing I could never have that with him, and there’s a slight pang of…something, making that realization. “Which is why you should go to college. You don’t want to have to feed a family working in a lumber yard for the rest of your life.”

“How do you know I work in a lumber yard?” he questions.

“First, because you smell like cut wood, and second, because you mentioned it last night when you were telling a story of how you cut your thumb off and had to pretend to go to the emergency room,” I remind him.

“Oh yeah, it’s a pain in the ass. Every time I get hurt I have to take time off work, even though I’m fine. I had to basically run off the job site when I cut my thumb off. I couldn’t let them see the sucker growing back.” His eyes dance on the smile in them.

Giggles erupt from me, imagining him trying to explain that. “Yeah, I can see how that would be a problem.”

The conversation continues well into the night, ranging from serious to funny stories I’ve never heard about Trevor and the boys. He fills my drink one more time. I’m still well within my limit of good decision-making. That was the goal.

I’m a little ashamed that I let my initial judgment of him cloud my opinion. He is not just intelligent, he’s intellectual. Having read some of the classics that I haven’t even read. We share so many of the same life views, although I candy coat mine a bit from time to time to keep things from getting too dark.

The conversation comes back around to serious again. I look up at the larger sliver of moon looming in the sky. Each night for the next two weeks it will get bigger and bigger. A slow menacing reminder of what’s to come.

“So what are your plans for the full moon?” I run my finger around the lip of my glass.

“Go runnin’ wild in the woods.” His eyes light up and he quirks his brow. “Can’t hold in the wolf.”

“Aren’t you afraid you’ll become moon-touched?” This concerns me.

“I’ve never been worried before, why should I now?” It comes out as almost a challenge.

My desire to save him takes over and I struggle with not wanting to say what he wants to hear. I don’t want to, but say it anyway. “Because it would make me sad.”

He fires off the question fast. “Really?”

“Yes, really.” I answer quickly, before the words turn to sand in my mouth.

“Is it because you would kill me?” he asks waspishly.

“I wouldn’t like to, but if you become moon-touched, I have no choice.” My voice feels hollow and I want to change the subject. I don’t like this line of the conversation.

“But you would still do it?” He squints his eyes, watching for my expression to waiver.

“Yes.”

“Would you kill Trevor, Rabbit, or Locke?” There’s an edge of the hunter/wolf rivalry in his voice.

“If I have to, yes.” I match his challenging tone. “But I’d rather not.”

“Then don’t.” His nostrils flare, but he’s trying to hide his irritation.

“It’s not that simple.” My voice waivers only a little.

“It is.”

“No, it isn’t and that’s why I’m working on a way to keep it from happening.” I shake my head to lose the frustration. I want to get back to the way we were five minutes ago. “You should come for the full moon, we have a big LAN party in the basement to keep everyone safe.”

He puffs out his chest. “You really think you’ve got a cage that can hold me?”

“I do.” I smile with hooded eyes. Oh God I think I’m actually flirting. Weird.

“Huh, whatchya got down there?”

“Reinforced steel bars built into the ground, set with concrete top and bottom, coated with silver.” I tilt my head, waiting for his response.

“That might be strong enough if I get the urge to moon-shift,” he concedes begrudgingly.

“It is,” I add. “I also place protections on the upstairs so even if you get out, you’ll not be able to get through to the outside of the house.”

“Smart,” he comments.

“Yup.”

There’s a long silence while we both swish our drinks around in our glasses, looking around at everything but each other.

Cole inhales a tentative breath. “So you think you’ll be able to find a cure?”

“I have a lot of hope. And I’m really trying.” My words sound pleading.

“That’s what you do down there? Look for a cure?” His tone is foreign as though he’s debunking some sort of fairy tale.

“Yes, it is. That and study for school,” I answer.

“Trevor mentioned you were too serious.” His accusatory tone isn’t lost on me.

“Did he now?” I purse my lips.

“He did.” He smiles. “But I’m going to fix that.”

“Really?” I arch my brows in mocking disbelief.

“Yes, really.” There’s a playful part of me that wants to lick that smug look off his face. Oh, did I say lick? I meant slap.

“We will.” I nod, sipping on my straw. “I’m an epic killjoy; it’s what I do. It’s the only way to keep these boys in line.” I return the smug smile.

“Best of luck. Wolves don’t walk the straight and narrow,” he says, eagerly awaiting my retort.

“Locke does.” He’s my number one. My confidant, my best friend. He’s usually pretty level-headed and mature beyond his years.

“He’s also too serious,” he adds, pointing at me with one finger while the rest of his hand remains wrapped around the glass, holding a cigarette.

We’re both sitting on the edge of our seats, leaning toward one another, exhibiting an offensive posture. Just because I’m not a wolf-borne doesn’t mean I was spared the aggression they can sometimes have. We’re also apparently very passionate about what we’re saying. I lean back to stand down. Hopefully that will relax things between us again. “Nah, just focused. He wants the cure just as much as I do.”

“So that’s what you do with all of your spare time?” He’s genuinely curious.

“Mostly, when I don’t crash and fall asleep.” I roll my eyes at having fallen asleep and realize I probably still have crusty spittle at the corner of my mouth even though it’s been hours.

“Ha, yeah. It felt good to sneak up on a hunter.” He gets a serious edge to his tone. “What were you dreaming about? You were kind of making some noises.”

The smile that lights my face gives him the wrong idea. “Oh, it was one of those dreams?”

“No, I don’t have those dreams.” Oh God, I’m so embarrassed. “I was dreaming that I could shift.”

“Really? That’s odd.” He’s taken aback.

“Not really, I watch the boys shift all the time. I obsess on figuring out how to get them to not shift on the full moon. I’m a…” I trail off; we’ve spent enough time tonight discussing the finer points of me being a hunter. “Anyway, it doesn’t seem all that far-fetched.”

“I guess when you put it that way,” he concedes. “Before I reached shifting age I used to dream about it all the time.”

“Really? The boys never mentioned that.” I resist the urge to run downstairs and get my tablet so I can make notes. “What were your dreams like?” I want to compare his with mine, to see if there is anything I can glean for my research.

“My dreams…I would shift, then I would run. It was like I was trying out my legs.” He stops, in thought. I remain silent, studying his features. His thoughtful eyes, his jaw, the way it softens when he’s in deep contemplation. There’s a quality about him that’s so different than anyone I’ve ever known. “It was like I was preparing myself for what I am, for what I’m meant to be.”

“Wow, that’s really profound. I wonder if other wolf-borne have the same experience.” I look upward, losing myself in my own thoughts about the psychology behind it.

“I’ve talked about the dreams with my dad. He had them. There are others who still have them even though they shift regularly.” Watching him, hearing his voice resonate through me, is affecting me on a level I’ve never known. The danger, the sadness in his eyes, the way he looks at me all send a shock wave of unknown emotions through my being. I want to understand him, help him, and run away from him all at the same time.

“Difference is, I’ll never shift.” Our eyes lock for a moment pensively. It goes through my mind that we are the same, but oh so different. Somewhere deep in my soul, in his, I know we are having the same thought. I can’t help but say the words, “Because I’m a hunter.”

“And I’m a wolf.” He breaks his gaze from mine, turning his attention to the fireflies in the yard. I get up and go to the edge of the porch, sit in the chair facing outward, and rest my hands and head on the railing.

He’s as captivated by the glimmer as am I. The way they call out with their light to find the perfect mate. The poetry in this nature is something I envy; for them, it’s simple. Find the unequaled light that speaks to your soul, go to it, love it, be one with the light creating a beautiful blinding spark of life together. Simple.

Cole leans forward on the railing, resting his chin on his arms and still looking out. “It is that simple, you know.”

“For them.” The sadness in my tone seems to dim the fireflies’ light.

“For everyone.” He turns his head toward me. “For us.”

Our eyes lock again, our elbows are nearly touching, and the intensity of it sets something on fire in me that I didn’t know was there. I have to put some distance between us by going to the stairs and sitting on the bottom step.

He follows me, but sits on the top step, maintaining a safe distance. I look over my shoulder to watch him. Something sparks a memory I can’t quite recall. It makes me feel uneasy, so I shake it off and go back to watching the light show.

“Wanna go for a run?” he asks with a devil’s edge in his voice.

“I do.” Excitement broils me from the inside. I hear the sound of him sliding his cowboy boots off and unbuckling his belt. I’m careful not to turn around.

“Hey, can you carry my jeans? I don’t want to offend your sensibilities if I get the urge to shift back while we’re out there.”

“Do I have to carry your boots?” I’m reticent to be too weighted down. He brings out the competitor in me.

“Nah, just my pants.” He throws them and they land on the step next to me. I grab my backpack off the porch and stuff them in. I tighten the laces on my boots and get ready to fly.

A low, playful growl emits from behind me. I turn and I’m face to face with Cole in wolf form. I do this to all the boys and I can’t resist doing it now. I take his face in my hands and scratch under his chin and work my way around to behind his ears. His eyes are reduced to slits from pleasure and he starts patting his hind leg on the porch. I look at him with a big, silly grin on my face. I love spending time with the wolves. It makes me feel happy, alive.

Cole lurches forward and licks from my chin to my forehead. There’s wolf slobber all over my face. “Oh, that’s so gross and totally unacceptable.”

He tilts his head to the side and I swear I can hear his voice say, “Oh well, darlin.’”

I take two steps backward, swinging the backpack over my shoulder. “You’re it!” I take off running and look back to see him cock his head to the side before he leaps off the porch.

Feeling his power surging through me as we run effortlessly through the moonlight is an adrenaline rush like no other. This feeling is better than any drug, drink, or any other high. Not music, light, dark, nothing can describe this, nothing can capture this feeling, only doing it.

We dart and run sometimes side by side, other times I take to the trees where he can’t reach me.

After hours of running and playing my legs start to tire. I bring my full run down to a jog, then stop. He’s nowhere in sight, but I can feel him very nearby. I look around, trying to see through the dark forest. My eyesight is keen, but I can’t see in this much darkness.

Focusing on the sound of him stalking closer, I purposely turn away to give him the idea I’m unaware. He stills and I’m sure he’s preparing to pounce on me. I remain statue-still and a sly smile bleeds across my features. His steps change from four-legged to two and I feel him directly behind me. Barely brushing my shoulder, he slides one of the straps of the backpack off. “My pants.” His tone is deflated and unreadable. I’m not sure what just happened to kill the fun we were having.

When I hear the zipper of his pants go up I turn around but remain silent, just looking at him through the darkness.

“Watch the sunrise with me?” he asks wistfully, turning in the direction of the clearing.

Looking to the east, I can see the horizon beginning to lighten. Wanting desperately to see his eyes light again, I smile playfully, poking him in the stomach. “I would love to.”

He looks down at where I poked as though he expected to see blood gushing from his guts. He looks back up at me then continues walking. “Don’t do that.”

“Do what?” I’m confused.

“Poke me.” His words are barely there, but I feel the seriousness in them.

“Sorry.” My cheeks redden, but I’m not really quite sure why.

When we reach the clearing, we sit in the spot we did yesterday, but he’s sitting further from me than before. I don’t get it, but it’s okay. I’m going to just enjoy watching the sunrise in his company.

We remain silent for the entire show. He fidgets with the cuff of his jeans a couple of times and breaks strands of pine straw into dust.

Just as the sky is changing to a more blue hue from the brilliant reds, Cole’s phone chirps. He startles and reaches into his pocket. “Shit.”

It dawns on me. “Oh no, curfew.”

“Yeah.” He looks over at me, pressing his lips into a tight line, “I think I screwed up.”

“I’m so sorry.” I have no idea what he’s facing having missed curfew. I honestly don’t understand it. “How old are you anyway?” I know how old Trevor, Locke, and the boys are. They range between twenty-five and thirty-two, but in wolf-borne years that’s more like nineteen to twenty-one. So yeah, technically speaking I’m older, but only in maturity.

He stands up, texting something on his phone, “Not old enough to not have a curfew.”

Standing with him, I brush the dirt off my bottom. “Sorry.” I feel really bad and responsible; I should have remembered he had to go.

“It’s my fault, I just lost track of time. But I’ve gotta go.” He looks down at the ground then back up to me. “See you later?”

“Yup.” I nod, sucking my bottom lip in. We shuffle in place for a minute. Both of us want to offer the other a hug, but neither of us will make the first move.

“I’m going to shift and run back to my truck. Will you keep my pants for me?” He leans down to be at my eye level.

“Of course.” A smile blooms on my lips. “I’m apparently starting a collection.”

He huffs a laugh. “Don’t get too attached; I only have three pairs of jeans that are wearable in social situations and I worked very hard getting those knee-holes just right.”

“Good to see you smile.” Crap, I said that out loud.

He quirks his brow in triumph. “You too.” He puts his hands on his button and gives me a look that says I’d better turn around if I don’t want to see him au natural.

“Oh, sorry.” This startles me and I spin around immediately.

“I’ll see you tomorrow.” His pants make a thud when they hit the ground beside me. I hear him shift and run off.

Chapter Four[
**]In the Line of Duty

Cole has come to see me nearly every night; it’s been so nice having him around. Our friendship has grown into something really beautiful. There is something that fascinates us both about each other. Of course, it’s just a friendship. It can never be anything more. First and foremost because of what we are.

When we are together, we do our best to avoid the topic of our nature. I don’t discuss hunter business and he doesn’t discuss wolf business. We stick to things like the meaning of life, literature, and just about everything not related to our nature. It’s nice.

My research is falling behind a bit, but I’ll catch up. Although, I got a nasty text from Aunt Rain yesterday that if I miss my patrol tonight I’m dead meat. I’ve only missed three patrols and I had them all covered by other hunters. I don’t see what the big deal is.

Cole is right when he says I’m too serious and need to learn to relax. It’s been nice not working myself to death and I’m taking advantage of my last summer as a student. I’m not sure if I’m going to go for my masters; we’ll see. Right now, the only thing I’m looking forward to is enjoying my summer.

Coming back from the clearing, I make a detour into the family graveyard and put the wild flowers Cole picked for me on my parents’ graves. It’s been a ritual of mine for years now to kneel down and ask if they still love and accept me even though I know neither of them can possibly approve of my choice to live with wolves.

It feels less like a guilt trip now, and honestly with how Cole makes me feel so light and happy it takes a lot to bring my mood down. The sound of Cole’s loud as hell truck starting does make my heart fall a little as I hear the truck make its way down the dirt drive, away from me. I mean he has to go home sometime, right?

When I get back to the house, there’s no one home. Strange for this time of day since they weren’t on a run. Silence has never suited me and I definitely don’t like not feeling any of the boys here. There’s an emptiness that grows inside me when they are gone for too long. Aunt Rain says it’s because I can’t feel my magic. The strange thing is that I always have some magic, whether they are around or not. It’s just stronger when they’re near.

I grab a banana and eat it on the way up the stairs to shower and lay down before getting back to work.

I wake up around one p.m.; I can feel Locke coming home. Curiosity gets the better of me, so I run downstairs to catch him before he gets to his room.

I meet him on the lower flight of stairs and I’m knocked in the face with the smell of a woman. “Whoa.” I look at him with mischief in my eyes.

“What?” He eyes me curiously.

“Hungry?” I ask him, dragging him by the shirt to the kitchen.

“Not really. I am tired, though, and would love to go die in my bed.” He groans.

“You should eat first.” My tone is calculating; I don’t bother trying to hide the fact that I want to know where he was and what he was doing.

“Claire, I really am tired.”

“Humor me. Five minutes, I’ll cook something for you.” We reach the kitchen; I sit him at the table and go the fridge.

“Good God, no. I’ll tell you anything, just please don’t cook,” he pleads.

I sit in my chair, resting my elbows on the table and my head on my hands. “What’s her name?”

“What do you mean?” He has the gall to look me straight in the eye with defiance.

Pulling my lips to the side, I arch my brow. It’s the face I make to back the boys into the corner when they are keeping something from me.

He looks up in frustration. “We were just hanging out.”

“Yeah, with someone that wears way too much perfume and likely had you high on her pheromones.” My knowing smile is grating on his tired nerves.

“I’m not sure what you’re talking about.” He gets up from the table to get a drink from the fridge.

“I’m talking about you messing with a human girl.” I lend a judgmental look.

“So what if I was.” He comes back and sits at the table.

“You know you shouldn’t be messing with a human, it’s just wrong.” I lean back in the chair, folding my arms across my chest.

He looks at me, astounded, then puts his hand to his ear as though he were answering a phone. “Oh yeah, she’s here.” He hands me the nonexistent phone. “It’s for you. It’s the kettle.”

“Ha ha.” Crap, I’ve been busted.

“I can smell him all over you.” His tone doesn’t match his expression. He’s clearly not pleased with me.

“What are you talking about?” Surely he can’t have a problem with Cole and me being friends.

“Please, Claire, don’t insult my intelligence or my sense of smell.” He leans toward me. “You shouldn’t be messing with Cole.”

“You’re making assumptions. Cole and I are just friends.” It really is all it is.

“Yeah, okay.” He purses his lips. “He’s dangerous and you shouldn’t be spending this much time with him. His scent is all over you. A dead giveaway that you’re messing around.”

“We aren’t messing around. As a matter of fact, we haven’t even so much as touched.” My tone is overly defensive, but it’s true.

“Really?” He tilts his head, arching his eyebrows. “Come on, Claire.”

“No, really!” He has to believe me.

“Then why do you reek of him?” He awaits an answer. “I can even smell him on you after your shower.”

“Pants.” I make the realization. “I carried his pants back.”

“That’s it? Pants?” He’s dubious. “You really expect me to believe that you smell so strongly of him because you carried his pants?”

“Yes. First, because it’s true. Second, because we really are just friends.” I shake my head that he doesn’t trust me. “Hey, don’t you dare turn the focus on me. Since your little witch hunt has reached a dead end, let’s get back to you.”

“I met her at a party. She’s super sweet, I helped her when she got sick and passed out on me,” he explains, but there’s more to it than that.

“Locke, please, I can see that little spark of elation in your eyes. You like her,” I tease.

“I do, but I know and follow the rules.” He gets up and pushes his chair in, searing me with his eyes. “Unlike some people I know.”

“Are you judging me?”

“Yes, I am.” He walks out the kitchen door, stops, turns around, and comes to give me a hug. “And I’m glad you’re a rule breaker, otherwise we’d be lost without you.”

“Yes, you would.” What I don’t say is how lost I’d be without them.

“But seriously, please be careful with Cole. He’s a great guy as long as you’re not a girl.” He warns, “Honestly, I don’t like the way he looks at you.”

“How does he look at me?”

“The same way you look at him, and it scares the crap out of me.” He pulls away from me, holding my hands. “I love you both and know it would be disastrous.” He blows out a breath. “He doesn’t know how to be sincere and you are so naive…” He trails off, not wanting to finish his thought.

“I am not naive,” I protest.

“Claire, you still think he just wants to be friends.” His tone is patronizing.

“Doesn’t he?” I pull my lips into a thin line. “He’s been nothing but a gentleman. He hasn’t expressed anything other than just wanting to talk and spend time with me, no different from you guys.”

“But he is different from us, and that’s how he sets up the kill.” He blows out a breath. “Don’t be flattered by him, don’t be taken in. He’s only interested in one thing, just remember that.”

This argument can go on for days; nothing Locke says to me about Cole is going to sink in because I just can’t believe it to be true. Cole has no interest in me for many different reasons, the least of which being that I’m a hunter and I’m not his type. “I will, and I’m telling you: we are just friends.”

“Okay.” He turns back toward the door. “I’m going to get some sleep. I’ll see you tonight?”

“Not tonight, I have business up north.” That’s our code for me being on patrol.

“Okay, be careful.” He calls out from the stairs.

“Always.”

Tonight should be pretty quiet. At this point in the cycle, any moon-touched wolves from the previous full moon have already been tracked down and dealt with. Most nights I enjoy patrol, providing nothing happens. Red Top Mountain is pretty calm, in any case. I have a great relationship with the Red Top pack; Locke and Tor are both from this pack and they usually give me a heads up if there’s any trouble brewing.

Things have been very normal tonight, not much going on. It’s been at least three weeks since I’ve had to make a kill. I always keep a close watch on the news, looking for animal attacks in my area. It’s almost always a moon-touched wolf attack. I’m not expecting any trouble tonight.

There are several wolves in the area; I can feel them. I spend most of the night avoiding them, staying as quiet as possible. I stay out of their business, sticking to the trees unless I smell trouble. Since part of my area is in the state forest there are often campers about this time of year. I’ve already noted the location of any campers and try to do multiple check-ins. If there is going to be trouble, it’s typically near campsites.

I’ve become somewhat of a voyeur, watching the happy families, couples, friends camping out. They roast marshmallows, tell ghost stories, drink heavily, and just have a relaxed time. I envy that; I’ve never been able to just go camping. Aunt Rain always tried to give us a normal childhood, but honestly, there is no such thing as normal for us. When we were camping it was always a training exercise.

We never did any of those family activities and we never cuddled up to mom and dad because we heard noises outside our tent. We would determine the level of threat and then decide whether it needed to be hunted.

We learned the difference between a good noise and a bad noise. When to hide and when to kill. I made my first kill when I was thirteen. It’s emblazoned in my memory. She was moon-touched and Aunt Rain was fighting two wolves that were protecting their mother. It was agony. I didn’t want to do it.

When I finally had the advantage over my wolf, Aunt Rain just screamed, “Do it, or so many more will die.”

I quickly glanced at the couple lying mauled to death in the middle of a campsite. Their tent was torn to shreds and there were body parts everywhere. It isn’t that it was the first time I’d ever seen blood or even death, but it was my first moon-touched attack and it was gruesome.

I kept the wolf pinned to the ground, with my magic holding her perfectly still. That’s when it happened. I looked into her eyes, mine heavy with sadness and regret. I loved her, even though I didn’t know her. She was a wolf-borne and I was her servant here to carry out a necessary function.

She lay there, paralyzed with blood and sinew dripping from her snout, not her own. Her coat mottled and dirty, Aunt Rain had been hunting her for several weeks, but her sons were helping her evade hunters.

I raised my sword over my head, focusing on the spot on her chest that I knew the blade had to go in to make it quick and as painless as possible. Our eyes met for only a second as the blade crunched through her rib cage to her heart. In that minuscule moment, that tiny glance, she was thanking me for my mercy. She was in pain; she wasn’t a killer by nature, only by circumstance. In her life, she was a kind and gentle woman. She did everything she could for her children to provide them with a normal life. But the moon-craze got her; that’s all it took.

That first time, watching the life leave her body was an incredibly painful experience. It’s an agony that only a hunter can know. It’s never gotten any easier; nine years and several kills later, it’s doesn’t hurt me any less to take the life of a wolf.

What followed was even more heart-wrenching. When the she-wolf yelped it drew the attention of the two wolves Aunt Rain was battling. They ran to the she-wolf’s side, both shifting into human form on the way.

They knelt down beside her, watching her take her last breaths. They were her sons, still just pups. They had no idea what to do or how to help her. Their instincts told them to protect her and they did their best.

I looked at them and knew their pain with every fiber of my being. I watched my father die; I know the despair running through them like a hot knife, like my sword went through their mother’s heart.

Aunt Rain took a blanket out of her backpack and wrapped it around the younger one. I covered the older of the two with my cloak; as I did, the words came out in a choked whisper to hold back the tears. “I’m so sorry.”

He looked up at me with watery eyes. “Thank you.” A single tear spilled over and trailed its way down his cheek.

With one finger I caught the tear, studying it for a moment as it absorbed into the grime on my skin. That tiny little tear was full of a grief that I was well acquainted with, and I wanted to take it back. “I really am so sorry.”

He threw his arms around me, burying his face in my chest as he began to sob. “You had to.”

That was a very difficult night; my first kill, first blood. I performed the internment rights in the presence of the boys. I tried to do it right and Aunt Rain helped me, but I was so nervous because I wanted to be respectful and I wanted to be gentle because of the pups. From that moment, I felt a sense of responsibility to them and knew they were going to be an important part of my life.

That was the night I met Brogan and Kyle. It was also the night I decided I had to find a cure.

Brogan never had to forgive me; he was old enough to understand what had to be done. Kyle, on the other hand: I believe there’s a part of him that has never forgiven me. We love each other, and always will. But we’ve never been as close as Brogan and I. Honestly, I can’t blame him. Regardless of the circumstances being so different, if I ever find the wolf that killed my father, I’ll kill him.

We brought Kyle and Brogan home with us until we could find a suitable home. Aunt Rain home-schooled them with Trevor and I even after we found them a family. I always suspected Aunt Rain didn’t really try that hard to find a home for them since it took her close to two years. She was sure to find someone local so she could continue their schooling until high school.

Even our happy endings are marred by tragedy. It makes me wonder if I’ll ever have anything good in my life that isn’t the result of a terrible event.

I have another hour of patrol, but there’s no harm in at least heading in the direction of the clearing. Hopefully Cole will meet me. He didn’t say he was coming to see me last night and I didn’t mention I had patrol. Nonetheless, he usually meets me for sunrise and I’m hoping this one is no different.

I’m nearly to the perimeter of my patrol area and I feel the presence of a large pack of wolves. I’d say there were at least thirty. I wasn’t aware of any groups that big in these parts. Immediately I take to the trees. It’s better if I avoid them, we try to remain invisible to the wolf-borne unless we are needed.

They start filtering through the trees below me. I lose count pretty quickly, and considering I wouldn’t be able to see them all in the darkness, it’s just as well. My estimation is probably right on at about thirty. There doesn’t appear to be any moon-touched among them and I’m relieved that I can just let them go on by. I do know that if the small group of Boy Scouts camping about half a mile east sees them, they’ll crap themselves. I’m feeling a little nervous right now myself and I’m used to being around wolves.

A familiar whistle breaks my thoughts; it’s a hunter call. I’m close enough to the perimeter of my patrol area that it’s possible for me to run into another hunter. Another whistle comes from a different direction. I return the whistle, peering through the branches of the trees trying to find the other hunters.

The whistle sounds again, but closer this time. I look below me to see that the pack has passed by. I scale down the tree and head toward the whistle getting closer to me.

“Claire?” male voice questions.

Great. “Corey?”

He approaches me from the west. “Yeah.” He looks past me in the direction the wolves were walking. “Did you see that?”

“I did. I thought it was weird.” I maintain a five foot distance from him.

“Hey guys.” A small, slender girl jumps down from the tree we are standing under.

“Casey, hey girl.” I’m so relieved to not be alone with Corey.

“So what do you make of that?” She hitches her thumb in the direction the huge pack went.

“Not sure, but there were a lot of them. I’m thinking at least thirty,” I say, shaking my head at the oddity.

“Yeah, that sounds about right,” Corey adds.

“What should we do?” Casey asks as though there’s anything we can do.

“Nothing. I didn’t sense any moon-touched among them. They aren’t attacking anyone so we just let it go.” Corey leans against a nearby tree.

“But should we tell someone?” Casey asks with confused green eyes. She’s younger, only about seventeen.

“I’m going to let my Aunt Rain know. She’ll probably tell Hayden,” I assure her.

“Any campers in that direction?” Corey asks, picking his nails with his hunting knife. Gross, by the way.

“Yeah, a small group of Boy Scouts.” I say it while grimacing at Corey’s nail-picking.

Casey snarls her lip, also repulsed by Corey. “You don’t think they are in danger, do you?”

“No,” I answer. “I mean I’ve heard of some wolves attacking just because, but it’s so rare that I–” I’m cut off by the sound of screaming coming through the trees. “Shit!”

All three of us spring into action, running full speed toward the screams. The entire run I’m hoping that some kid saw a huge pack of wolves and pissed himself and now they are all hysterical.

No such luck. With hand signals we communicate what positions we need to take. We all have our weapons drawn and at the ready. Before we lose visual contact, I mouth to them, “No silver. No kills.”

The wolves have completely surrounded the camp. I don’t recognize any of them and wonder if they are actually part of the Red Top Pack. There are ten Boy Scouts and three troop leaders huddled in the middle of their camp, trapped.

In an attempt to disperse the wolves and not just walk through them like a badass having to explain myself to the Boy Scouts, I fire my gun in the air. Some of the wolves disperse. I really don’t want to have to engage the rest of them, and I have to refrain from using my magic if I can. Our secrecy is imperative to the wolf-borne survival, and having this troop running off and telling stories of werewolves is not good for anyone’s survival.

There’s still twenty or so wolves congregating and I have no choice but to start picking them off. I aim as carefully as possible, trying to only wound and avoid the heart. Even though they would not die permanently, a bullet or blade to the heart would bind them to me for life, and not in a good way. They would be able to feel my proximity the same way I feel theirs. I’ve managed to never be bound to a wolf and I’d like to keep it that way.

I take my first three shots and hit two of my targets in the hind quarters, causing them to run off. That’s what I wanted; a few more scatter with the wounded. Taking another count reveals there are seventeen left. That’s still a lot of wolves for three hunters to handle without being able to use magic.

The kids huddled in the center are all terrified still having a large pack of wolves closing in on them. We have to do something and fast. I hesitate too long and Corey swings into action, jumping down in the center of the circle and starts wielding his sword wildly. The Boy Scouts seem just as afraid of Corey as they are of the wolves.

“Corey, stop.” I’ve fought with him before and I recognize his sword as being his kill weapon. I run through the wolves at full speed and knock Corey to the ground. “I told you no silver.”

“Get off me.” He pushes on me, but I can hold him down.

“No silver. No kills.” I lean in as close to his face as I can stand while he struggles under me. “There are no moon-touched among them. Let’s just get these kids to safety and get rid of the wolves.” There’s fire in my eyes as I speak. I’d like to run him through myself right now.

Corey spits in my eye, catching me by surprise. “That’s what I would expect from a wolf lover.”

“Seriously?” I spring to my feet, trying to remain aware of all the dangers facing me right now.

“They are threatening humans. We have to take care of them.” His tone is smug as though there’s a righteousness in him. Scumbag.

“This is my area, Corey. You follow the rules in my playground.” I turn away from him, a big mistake as I find myself sandwiched between Corey attacking me from behind and a wolf pouncing on me. The three of us roll toward the fire, and to get Corey off of me I roll him close enough to the heat that he retreats and refocuses on disabling wolves.

Casey has taken out three wolves on her own and has created an invisible barrier around the campers to keep them safe. The trick is to keep them inside the protection.

I’m still grappling with the wolf that pounced on me, I maneuver my dagger from its sheath and jab the wolf in the throat. It collapses on me and I push it off fast, ready for the next wolf. They keep coming at us and we’ve got them down to about seven wolves. The only magic we’ve employed is the protection, and the campers can’t see it.

Corey, Casey, and I are all wearing down, even though we have good stamina. This has been one hell of a fight with each of us fighting a few wolves at a time. We are all scrapped, slashed, battered, and bruised, but so far nothing life-threatening.

I make quick work of a smaller wolf that jumps me by twisting and breaking its neck. I drop the carcass to the ground, knowing that in an hour or so he’ll be fine. I blow out a breath and check on Casey and Corey. Out of the corner of my eye, I see one of the Boy Scouts wiggle away from a troop leader. He makes a beeline for the trees. One of the bigger wolves also sees him and breaks from the melee to chase after the kid.

Crap! I head after them both and surpass the wolf with ease, getting to the child first. I scoop him up in my arms and keep running to get further away from the wolf chasing us. “Hey there.” I try to use a calming voice.

He’s shaking and smells of urine. I would have pissed myself in this same situation at the age of ten, too. I’m not judging him. “W-w-w-w-wolf,” he stutters out.

“I know, honey, but it’s going to be okay. We are putting them to sleep so you can go home.” I realize that I’m covered in dirt and blood, and I’m sure just as scary-looking as the wolves at this point. “I’m Claire. What’s your name?”

“B-b-brennan.” He’s pale and feels cold to the touch. I’m sure he’s going into shock.

I stop to rest, crouching down with Brennan. “You’re going to be safe now, okay?”

He shakes his head vehemently. “N-n-no.” His eyes are wide with fear.

“It’s okay.” I wrap my arms around him and curse myself for not having a blanket in my backpack.

“W-w-wolf,” Brennan sputters out, and points a trembling finger behind me.

I straighten up and turn around to see a wolf stalking toward us. I would evade his attack but I don’t want to leave Brennan exposed. I stand my ground and draw my dagger. “You have no business here.”

The huge wolf continues to come toward us, growling and gnashing his teeth. I look closer into his eyes looking for the telltale signs of moon-touch. I’m not seeing the blood-red eyes or any indication other than his aggression. “I don’t want to have to hurt you.”

Brennan’s sobs are grow louder; my anger swells that this wolf seems to be deriving great joy from terrorizing this little boy. The wolf comes within three feet of where I’m standing. I dig my feet in, ready for him to pounce.

He surprises me by shifting into human form and taking the four steps to me and back-handing me hard across the face. I fall to the ground, but recover quickly as the wolf picks up the child by his collar and starts walking away with him.

“Oh, hell no,” I yell out, and run after him, jumping on his back and plunging my dagger into his shoulder from the top. That move would drop anyone and it works.

Brennan turns his frightened eyes to the naked man on the ground. I’m going to have no choice but to use magic to make him forget this part of his camping trip. “You’re bleeding.”

I roll my eyes. “Yeah, I know. I’ll be fine. I do this a lot.”

“Bleed?”

“Yes.” I pick him up, holding him tight for his comfort, and head back toward the camp.

A sharp pain goes through my head as I feel my ponytail being yanked backward. I drop Brennan and yell, “Run, don’t look back.”

I spin around, but can’t dodge the wolf jabbing the knife into my shoulder. It doesn’t go in enough to disable me, only hurt like hell. My eyes pinch shut momentarily in pain and he takes the advantage. He pushes me down, punching me in the jaw. My head falls backward painfully on the ground. He straddles me and grabs my ponytail again. What is it with this guy?

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Blood is filling my mouth from having lost a tooth that I spit out so I don’t swallow it.

“You are meddling in affairs you have no business in, hunter.” He spits the words like poison.

“Everything that happens in this forest is my business, wolf.” I gather my strength and push him off me with my legs. We immediately take defensive stances.

“Walk away now or die,” he says with certainty.

I’m so over this ridiculous banter. I’m waiting for him to pin me and tell me his evil plan to kill me right before I thwart him. I don’t watch that many movies, but I know how this goes and right now I’m tired, hurt, and all I can think of is getting back to Cole.

Did I really just think that? Getting back to Cole? I don’t even know if I’m going to see him. We didn’t agree to meet at the clearing; I just assumed he would. Sharp burning pain cuts through my side. I lost focus. Damn it! I cry out in pain.

“I gave you the chance to walk away. Now you will die.” He pulls the knife out of my left side and it’s dripping with my blood. Bright red. All I can see is bright red until darkness takes over my vision.

In this moment, dread seeps into my veins like a poison. I know I will never see the boys or Cole again.

Many Thanks:

Sarra Cannon, my grown up besty! I would NEVER have gotten through this book without you!

Bolle – for being you, always checking on me and letting me see that awesome smile when everyone else thinks it doesn’t exist.

Bailey, Patrick, Houser (Mentsy – I swear to God I’ll kick his ass next time I see him), Dale, Lobster, Spicy Meatball, Squid, Cain, Derrick, Joey, Tyler, Justin (my #3), Tim, Joe, and Lenny (previously known as Randy).

Not House of Brotus, but still my boys: Jermiah, Harrison, Brennan, Dillon (previously known as Zack), Ki, and Garrett.

My girls: Melissa, Liss, Amanda, Page, Micheldon, Ivy and Lili – you ladies are way too kick ass!

Misha, my stalwart friend that looks just like the wolf on the cover, she doesn’t even mind when I roll over her tail.

You have all been the best part of what I believe family is. I would die for any one of you and love you all, you guys are my heart. Thank you so much for inspiring me, spending time with me and on occasion (the really great ones) bringing me coffee, cigarettes, chocolate, booze and other stuff. You all rock and keep me going even when I don’t want to!

Thank you for reading the Moon Crossed (Season 1 – Episode 1) I really hope you enjoyed it! Please consider leaving a review at your point of purchase, Goodreads and anywhere else where folks like to hear about books.

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Book List

The INK: Series

  • INK: Sketches (Book 0)
  • INK: Fine Lines (Book 1)
  • INK: Vanishing Point (Book 2)
  • INK: Abstraction (Book 3)
  • INK: Darken (Book 4)
  • INK: Bold Strokes (Book 5) Coming 2015


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  • Freebie Shorts From The INK: Series
  • INK: Christmas Past
  • INK: Fourth of July Past

The Crescent Hunter Series

  • Moon Crossed

Paranormal Transmissions

  • Season 1
  • 1:1 Push
  • 1:2 Mantis

About the Author

Bella Roccaforte grew up near Cape Cod, Massachusetts where her brother, sister and wonderful nieces and nephews live, but has lived all over the country. She currently calls Atlanta, GA home with her husband, five children and her stalwart dog Misha.

She loves to answer emails and interact with readers!

Contact her anytime [email protected]

For more information please visit her website.

BellaWrites.com


Moon Crossed Episode #1 (Forbidden Love Werewolf Romance)

★★★★★ Just wow! Bella has done it again. This werewolf paranormal romance sucked me in from the very first page and still had me hooked by the very last one. I didn't know it was possible to fall in love with a story and it's characters so quickly but I am absolutely done for. ~Paranormal Books R Us A Werewolf Urban Fantasy Claire O'Conlan is a hunter, her kind were created to protect humans from feral werewolves. She's desperate to find a cure for the moon-touch. Until she does, the hunt won't stop. Despite being raised among supernatural creatures, Claire is determined to make college as normal as possible. But childhood habits die hard. She can't seem to stay away from the wolf-borne, and worse, she's falling in love with Cole Jackson, the big bad wolf. Cole and Claire are falling headlong into a forbidden love affair. Hunter and wolf, a dangerous combination inciting war between factions, action from the council and the biggest risk of all, Claire fulfilling her duty and being the hunter that kills Cole. Will Claire find the cure? Or will their love end in tragedy? Embark on this werewolf urban fantasy and fall in love with the characters! ***WARNING: if you need a happy ending right away and flawless characters you will hate this book!*** Crescent Hunter Season 1 Moon Crossed Episode One - Now Moon Crossed Episode Two - Now Moon Crossed Episode Three – 10/29 Moon Crossed Episode Four – 11/5 Moon Crossed Episode Five – 11/12 Moon Crossed Episode Six – 11/19 Moon Crossed – Box Set - 11/19

  • Author: Bella Roccaforte
  • Published: 2015-10-20 22:40:09
  • Words: 24638
Moon Crossed Episode #1 (Forbidden Love Werewolf Romance) Moon Crossed Episode #1 (Forbidden Love Werewolf Romance)