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Moon Magic: Six Book Starter Library for lovers of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal

Contents

Title Page

SHIFTLESS 

MOONBOUND

BLACK MOON SING

CURSE OF THE ALPHA: EPISODES 1 & 2

MOONBORN

THE TOIL AND TROUBLE TRILOGY, BOOK ONE

 

MOON MAGIC

Urban Fantasy Starter Library

 

 

MOON MAGIC

Urban Fantasy Starter Library

 

 

Strap in and enjoy a rollicking ride through worlds of magic with six sizzling series starters from some of today’s hottest urban fantasy storytellers. Scratch the surface of the real world to find alchemy, were-creatures, and witches waiting! Prepare to fall in love with sexy alphas and the kickass heroines they live to chase. But be sure to keep your hands inside the ride at all times – because when it comes to these urban fantasy tales, love just might bite…

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[_From USA Today Bestselling Author Aimee Easterling – Shiftless: _]

After years of suppressing her inner wolf, Terra struggles to forget her old pack. But when her past finally comes calling, she has no choice but to reclaim the predator within.

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From USA Today Bestselling Author Sylvia Frost – Moonbound:

Seven years ago, werebeasts murdered Artemis’s family and marked her as the mate of a monster. Now that monstrous mate has tracked her down and threatens to make her his own.

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From Bestselling Author L. M. Hawke – Black Moon Sing:

A dark force is targeting a secret enclave of shapeshifters in the desert southwest, delivering them to grisly fates. Suspected of witchery and cast out of her human society, it’s up to Ellery Chee, a lone coyote shifter, to stop this dangerous magician before her world disappears into thin air.

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From USA Today Bestselling Author Tasha Black – Curse of the Alpha: Episodes 1 & 2:

As she struggles to come to terms with her werewolf nature, Ainsley Connor is thrust into the center of a steamy web of shifters, ghosts, witches and warlocks, caught up in a life-or-death struggle for control of the pack she tried to leave behind.

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From Bestselling Author Marina Finlayson – Moonborn:

Since childhood, Garth has lived on the edges of the pack, the human stepson of the pack leader and an eternal outsider. He always dreamed of becoming a werewolf—until one day he got his wish.

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From Bestselling Author Val St. Crowe: The Toil & Trouble Trilogy: Book 1:

Born into an underground ruling class of witches, eighteen-year-old Olivia has always tried to steer clear of both magic and monsters. But a struggle for power and a handsome face combine to turn her life upside-down until suddenly she’s knee deep in both.

 

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SHIFTLESS

by Aimee Easterling

SHIFTLESS

by Aimee Easterling

SHIFTLESS © Aimee Easterling 2014

Terra is shiftless—a werewolf uncomfortable in her own animal skin.

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A decade after learning to squash her wolf and flee the repressive village where she grew up, the packless ache still gnaws at Terra’s insides. But despite her yearnings, she struggles against being reeled back into her old life.

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To Terra’s dismay, her father and half a dozen of his henchmen finally ambush her and demand her return. Yet they do offer one way out—hunt down her nephew Keith, teach him to shift, and bring the youngster back into the fold in her place.

[_ _]

Problem upon problem piles up as Terra strives to do her father’s bidding. The female shifter has hidden from her wolf for so long that she finds herself unable to change back into canine form, and she also realizes that her nephew is too good-natured to survive for a minute walking in his grandfather’s footsteps. Plus, there’s an alpha standing in her way who’s equal parts enticing and terrifying.

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Will Terra be able to relearn her werewolf abilities—and overcome her morals—before her father steals away her hard-earned independence? And as that tantalizing alpha reels her in closer and closer, the question becomes—does she really want to stay away?

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Don’t miss the first book in a series that has been described as a “good choice for Patricia Briggs fans.”

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CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

EPILOGUE

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CHAPTER 1

 

“No, that’s just rude and inappropriate.” The soft male voice insinuated its way into my reading. A pause, then he continued his one-sided conversation. “Stop for one minute and imagine you’re a woman alone in the city and two guys walk up to you. You probably wouldn’t feel very safe, would you?” Pause. “Okay, one guy and his dog.”

At first, I didn’t realize they were talking about me. I was happily curled up in a comfy armchair with a copy of Patricia Briggs’ newest book open on my lap, already enveloped by the satisfying welcome of a werewolf pack, albeit a fictional one. Yes, this is what my life had come to—it had been ten years since I’d last seen a werewolf anywhere other than in a mirror, so I relied on books to get my pack fix. Depressing, but true.

Momentary pleasure aside, the whole day had been one long mistake. I usually tried to stay away from the big city, but when I woke this morning, my inner wolf had felt like it was gnawing at my bones and my stomach ached with the absence of pack. Filling the gaping cavity in my soul with an imaginary wolf pack seemed worth lying to my boss, putting my good sense on hold, and playing hooky for the day.

Only after I’d settled in a chair by the bookstore’s front window, paranormal fantasy in hand, did I see the error of my ways. Or rather, hear it. At first, I’d merely blocked out the man’s words as they drifted over to insinuate their way into my reading, but now I noticed the frustrated, yet loving, twist to the man’s tone. Despite my better sense, curiosity made me peer up from my page and crane my head around to seek out the source of the conversation.

The speaker was about my age, and he did have a canine with him, but the slight smile on my lips leftover from overhearing his words was quickly stifled as I realized that the monstrosity was no dog. It was a wolf, and not just any wolf—the man’s companion was a werewolf like me.

While you might think that would be a good thing given the yearning in my stomach, I had kept my distance from other werewolves for a very good reason. Now was not the time to go back. I could feel my cheeks heating up, and the man’s voice became distant as terror stole blood away from my ears, sending the nutrition to my tensed muscles instead. I had to get out of there fast.

This danger was the precise reason I rarely came to the city. Even though the area was out-territory, not owned by any wolf pack, who was to say I wouldn’t bump into another werewolf drifting through? As much as I hated my history, my father was an alpha and I was aware that I smelled like the best kind of mate material to male werewolves. The alphas, especially, were used to taking what they wanted, and one glance into this wolf’s eyes was all it took to prove he was as alpha as they came.

The reality was that I had fled my home pack a decade ago to prevent a forced mating. And even though the packless ache in my stomach was a constant reminder of what I’d lost, in the light of day, that pain still seemed like a good trade for my independence. No way was I going to let a momentary slip rope me back into being an alpha werewolf’s pawn—I needed to get out of this wolf’s sight immediately.

Even though I hadn’t paid for my book yet, I figured it was a worthy casualty to save me from being drawn back into the werewolf world. So I dropped the text onto the couch cushions, sprang to my feet, and speed walked out the door, back into the seeming safety of the street. My car—and freedom—were only two blocks away, and I could almost taste how good it would feel to slam the door, pop the locks, and hit the accelerator. I could be back in my empty cabin in half an hour, this close call forgotten.

But my car was still out of sight when I heard the bookstore’s door open and close behind me. No longer concerned with appearances, I broke into a run, Stupid, stupid, stupid echoing through my mind in time to the beat of my shoes on the pavement. I couldn’t let myself believe that this is how I would be sucked back into a pack, due to a chance meeting in a bookstore while reading about fictional shifters. If I’d picked up Twilight instead, would I have been treated to a sparkly vampire?

Even as that thought drifted through my adrenaline-charged mind, I realized that no one’s footsteps pounded after me. I would be able to see my car as soon as I rounded the corner, and for a moment, I thought I might be safe. Maybe I’d misread the acquisitive gleam in the alpha’s eyes; maybe a random customer had left the store soon after I did, not a hunting werewolf.

But I knew better. With one short bark, the wolf stilled my flight, then the man’s voice came a beat behind, asking me to wait. But it was the alpha’s command, not his partner’s words, that had stopped me in my tracks. Just like my father’s orders had been impossible to disobey, now another alpha had taken away my free will with one bark.

I was so angry and terrified, I almost expected to feel my wolf rising up through my skin the way it used to in the Chief’s presence. And for the first time in a decade, I would have welcomed her strong protection rather than being afraid of the wolf’s wild nature and sharp teeth. Instead, I heard only my human mind, which reminded me that there was no sense in running now that I’d been snared in the alpha’s net. Taking a deep breath, I let my shoulders slump as I succumbed to the inevitable.

 

***

 

As much as I wanted to stay in place and ignore the approaching alpha, I couldn’t let danger creep up behind me unseen, so I turned and waited for the duo to catch up. As they advanced, I focused on the man instead of the wolf for the first time and noticed that he was clearly a werewolf just like his partner. He was also apologizing profusely even before he reached me. “I’m sorry. I’m really, really sorry!” he exclaimed, switching the leash he held into his left hand so he could reach out to shake mine. “I’m Chase, and my very rude friend is Wolfie.”

Although I was both terrified and angry, I liked Chase on sight. He was the kind of male werewolf who didn’t have an alpha bone in his body—the golden retriever of the lupine world. He was also handsome, but not full of himself, and I could tell that this one werewolf was friend material. In fact, if there had been more Chases and fewer Wolfies in the world, I might have tried to join another pack after fleeing mine, but werewolf packs were inevitably run by alphas, and every alpha was like Wolfie…or like my father.

Okay, maybe not just like Wolfie. As ebbing adrenaline let rational thought once again fill my mind, I realized that it was decidedly odd for the alpha in question to be walked around in wolf form on a leash. But for all I knew, the two were tracking something that required the wolf’s superior senses. In human form, we could sometimes use our wolf brain to boost our sniffing power, but the effect was nothing compared to how in tune we were with the world when entirely wolf.

Fur aside, Wolfie had the arrogance of every other alpha I’d ever met. After forcing me to stop running against my will, he was now sitting at Chase’s feet and looking up at me with his tongue lolling out of the side of his mouth in a doggie laugh. Once he was sure he had my attention, Wolfie reached up one paw as if to shake…then winked.

“I don’t think she thinks you’re as cute as you think you are,” Chase warned his friend when I looked pointedly away from the raised paw. Despite myself, I smiled at the beta’s words, amused that a lower-ranking wolf could yank the alpha’s chain, even metaphorically. “Like I said, I’m really sorry,” Chase continued his earlier apology to me. “But Wolfie is pig-headed and I’m afraid he’s not going to give either of us any peace unless you agree to talk to us, just for a few minutes. Maybe you’d let me buy you a coffee?”

As I said, I liked Chase, and his words were perfectly polite, but I was 100% sure that spending another minute in the alpha’s presence was the last thing I wanted to do. I closed my eyes in an effort to collect myself, hoping this was just a hallucination brought on by my pack craving. But when I looked back down the street, Chase and Wolfie were still waiting expectantly in front of me...along with a kindergarten-aged kid who was pulling away from his mother’s hand in hopes of petting the huge, terrifying beast sitting beside me.

“Don’t worry, he doesn’t bite,” Chase said to the mother, who had taken in the situation just as the boy’s hand landed squarely in Wolfie’s eye. She had more sense than her son and seemed poised to yank her offspring to safety, but to my surprise, the alpha wolf put up with the mauling good-naturedly before offering the child the same paw trick he’d pulled on me. With the complete lack of self-preservation instinct typical of a human child, the kid took Wolfie’s paw and shook it adamantly, before being pulled away by his mother.

Greetings complete, Wolfie looked back up at me and tilted his head to one side, the meaning clear—he wasn’t a monster who ate small children. But I didn’t allow myself to be impressed. So what if an alpha wolf had let a human child manhandle him? That didn’t counteract the same alpha’s freeze-in-your-tracks command just minutes earlier. On the other hand, I hadn’t come up with any way of wiggling out of a meeting during the unusual interlude, so I shrugged my acceptance and allowed Chase to lead us across the street to a sidewalk cafe.

“Coffee?” the beta asked, handing the wolf’s leash over to me as I stood beside an empty table outside the door. I nearly dropped the tether in surprise, the rough fabric feeling like a poisonous snake in my hands as I considered the repercussions of my situation. No way did I want to be in charge of an alpha’s leash if the wolf suddenly decided that the restraint was beneath his dignity, but I realized we had to keep up appearances for the sake of the humans around us, so I kept my eyes averted from the alpha on the other end of the line and nodded stiffly. In light of the leash issue (and being dragged to the cafe against my will), it seemed like a small matter that I didn’t drink coffee, having found that stimulants were one of the danger points for a female werewolf struggling to control her shifts. But no one said I had to consume the beverage Chase would put in front of me. I probably would have choked on any drink given my current state of mind, so the flavor was irrelevant.

But the wolf disagreed with my unwillingness to state my preferences. Before his beta could leave to collect our drinks, Wolfie nudged Chase’s hand to attract his attention, then firmly shook his head. “You’re hungry?” Chase asked the wolf, surprised, but Wolfie only huffed in disgust. Then, just as I realized what the alpha was communicating, understanding came into Chase’s eyes as well. “You’d prefer hot chocolate?” the man tried again, returning his gaze to me, and I nodded despite myself.

And that’s how I ended up in such a ludicrous situation. After spending half my energy over the last ten years hiding from the merest hint of werewolf presence, I was sitting at a cast-iron table of a sidewalk cafe, clinging to the leash of an alpha werewolf while his beta headed inside to buy me a hot chocolate. I wasn’t even surprised when the wolf rested his chin on my thigh in search of an ear scratch, but I was surprised that I allowed my hand to drift over his soft ears. The fur was every bit as silky as it looked.

 

***

 

“You know, if you’d just put these on, you could ask her yourself,” Chase told Wolfie, exasperated as he shook a backpack full of men’s clothing under the wolf’s nose. Despite myself, the two were growing on me as I sipped my hot chocolate and watched them carry out a seemingly coherent conversation…despite the fact that one was a wolf. After the bark that froze me on the street, Wolfie hadn’t said another word, but he was quite adept at making his meaning clear, to Chase at least. While taking in the show, I had even started drifting into wolf brain, where Wolfie’s nonverbal language was more understandable, but I had quickly pulled myself back to the safety of the human world. The middle of a city was no place to turn my wolf loose, even if we had been on speaking terms.

“What does he want to know?” I asked, when a stalemate appeared to have been reached by the opposing forces across the table from me. Wolfie, for some unknown reason, preferred to stay wolf, Chase was unwilling to continue being his mouthpiece, and I was starting to get curious about the alpha’s question.

Only when Chase turned to me with a huge smile on his face did I realize that these were the first words I’d spoken in the pair’s presence. So much for the cold shoulder. But I shrugged internally and decided there was no point in freezing out Chase anyway, since he seemed to be a nice guy. I was reserving judgment on the wolf.

“Wolfie just wants to know your name,” Chase answered. “But I can tell you aren’t comfortable sitting here with us, and I didn’t want to pepper you with questions until you had time to see we were harmless.” In contrast to his alpha’s demand for information, Chase’s strategy for putting me at ease seemed to involve talking until the cows came home. So, with an effort, I pretended he wasn’t a male werewolf and interrupted the monologue.

“I’m Terra,” I answered, looking straight into the alpha’s eyes rather than at his beta. It was strange to be chatting with an alpha werewolf as if he were the guy down the street, but the wolf merely nodded his appreciation of the information then peered at Chase as if to say, I told you she wouldn’t mind.

I felt okay parting with my given name since I figured neither Chase nor Wolfie would know the first name of the second daughter of an alpha from out of state, but I was careful not to offer a surname, which would have instantly linked me to a pack. Wanting to stay as anonymous as possible, I decided some misdirection was in order to turn the conversation away from a potentially tricky topic, so I shifted my eyes back to Chase. “And his name really is Wolfie?” I parried, hoping Chase would be willing to play along with my obvious attempt to talk about something other than myself.

“Well, Wolf actually,” Chase answered. “But I always figured ‘Wolfie’ made him seem a little more human….” The alpha in question snorted, which sent a tremor of fear running through me until I realized the wolf was laughing, at which point I started breathing again with a jolt.

“That’s very…literal…of his mother,” I said after a minute. Once my heart rate had slowed back down from the effects of Wolfie’s laugh, I could feel my brow wrinkling as I tried to imagine naming a werewolf “Wolf.” We did tend to gravitate toward nature-oriented names, but this seemed more like the kind of appellation a two-year-old would give his pet.

“Well, it was my mother, actually,” Chase said, turning his attention back to me. “We’re milk brothers.” The old-fashioned term suggested Wolfie had been nursed by Chase’s mother, and probably raised like his brother. It also explained why the less-dominant wolf was able to hold his alpha on a leash, and why the two could communicate without words. Despite myself, I was becoming intrigued by the two werewolves in front of me, but Chase’s next words pushed away my false sense of security.

“So, which pack are you from?” the beta asked, and my jitters returned full force. Without meaning to, I stood, my chair screeching against the pavement as it was abruptly pushed backwards by my motion.

Chase’s words were enough to remind me that I was packless by choice and could easily be drawn back into this or another wolf’s pack, which made my slowed breathing begin to race once again. What would prevent Wolfie from asking around about a twenty-something werewolf named Terra, and what would happen when his words inevitably reached my father’s ears? I would end up right back where I started, and all because I’d been stupid enough to imagine I was simply chatting with two strange werewolves whom I’d met in a bookstore.

All of those thoughts zipped through my mind in the span of time it took to rise from the table, and by then the adrenaline had really kicked in. Fight or flight seemed to be my only options, so I fled.

But I wasn’t far enough away to miss Wolfie admonishing his friend. The wolf’s easy-going demeanor disappeared in an instant as the alpha bared his teeth at Chase, who quickly averted his eyes in submission. If I’d needed any proof that Wolfie was just as overbearing as every other alpha werewolf I’d ever run into, this was it. Not that I’d thought otherwise…well, not for long.

I almost expected there to be other werewolves in the wings, just waiting to rope me back into the pack life from which I’d escaped. Instead, there was just Wolfie’s commanding bark, ordering me to stop. But I wasn’t a member of his pack, and I didn’t have to obey. I ran down the street, and this time I didn’t look back.

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CHAPTER 2

 

That evening, I reached for my wolf for the first time in years. But she was gone, squashed beneath layers of iron control built during a decade of painstaking effort. So it was up to my human eyes and nose to hunt down signs of the lost toddler.

Well, it was up to my eyes…and to the eyes of a dozen other park rangers spread out across the rapidly chilling woodland. I’d returned from the city in time to put in a few hours of work at the park, and the monotony of desk-sitting abruptly ended when Mr. Carr barreled in to tell us his daughter had wandered away from the family campsite. I’d yet to meet Melony’s mother—she refused to come out of the woods until the little girl was found, but Mrs. Carr did yell her position through the trees when we arrived. In response, we spread out, each taking a vector that started at the campsite and arrowed out into the unknown. And we started to search.

Since then, it had begun to rain. A gentle autumn shower at first, but now the pounding storm was pulling leaves from the trees and was muffling even the sound of my own footsteps. Water was trickling down my spine despite my hooded slicker, and I could just imagine how a two-year-old would feel, cold and scared, lost in the woods. Her father had told us Melony was wearing shorts and a thin t-shirt—she might already be experiencing symptoms of hypothermia.

The light was beginning to fade, and urgency tempted me to push myself into a trot. Instead, I slowed down, took a deep breath…and sat. I would have received a phone call if Melony had been found, which meant everyone else was probably getting these same jitters of a hunt about to be lost. They would be rushing around like crazy people, and the night would likely end with at least a sprained ankle to remind some careless ranger of the hunt. Worse, my gut said that if Melony didn’t turn up soon, she wouldn’t turn up alive.

But my unconventional childhood left me equipped to handle the tail end of a difficult hunt…if I could just draw upon the memories I’d been hiding from for the last ten years. The problem was that, although I desperately needed to shift forms so I could sniff out Melony’s trail, the last time I’d been hunting through rain-darkened woods with my wolf rampant, the day hadn’t ended well.

I was seventeen then, newly fled from my home pack and trying to eke out a living in a forest much like this one. The woods had always been my safe, secret place as a child, but after I left Haven, reality set in. Without a home to return to, life was a constant battle against the elements…and against my wolf nature.

That year, it seemed that I was always cold and hungry, and the call of my wolf was endlessly enticing. While I was shivering under my lean-to shelter made of branches and a scavenged garbage bag, the wolf begged me to shift forms so her fur could keep us dry. When I was itching for a warm meal, she whispered that we could stalk a rabbit four-footed and slake our thirst with hot blood. No one will see us here, she breathed in my ear. It’s safe to be a wolf.

I knew she was wrong, but I was so miserable that one day I let the wolf have her head. As the days grew shorter, less and less wild food was available for the picking, and it had been over forty-eight hours since I’d found anything other than twigs to gnaw on. In the preceding weeks, I’d caught fish, had set snares, and had even ground acorns between rocks and pinned them in my t-shirt in the running water of a creek to leach out the bitter tannins. And, for a while, there had been enough to carry me through. But this week, no food was to be found.

The hunger gnawed at my belly, but if I was honest, it was the loneliness that really did me in. Werewolves weren’t meant to spend so long away from a pack, and the simplicity of my wolf’s brain made it easier for the canine to handle lack of pack mates—she missed the company but didn’t dwell upon what was absent. So, at last, I gave in to the wolf’s seductive promises. I shed my dripping t-shirt and jeans, then let my arms turn into legs and my wolf take control.

As soon as I shifted, my darker side went wild with the freedom, racing down a deer path that my human form had barely been able to make out amid the lush growth. She yipped and cavorted, dancing with shadows, and my human brain went along for the ride, riding the wolf’s exhilaration like a roller coaster. It had been so long since I’d felt any pleasure that the wolf’s simple enjoyment acted like a drug, impairing my ability to hang onto human thoughts.

After minutes or hours of headlong flight, we smelled a deer. The wolf slowed her pace and began to stalk the prey, even though we both knew that a single wolf was unlikely to take down an ungulate. We circled around behind the doe, our feet padding silently across wet leaves, and my human brain woke enough to remind the wolf of sharp deer hooves, of the necessity to chase a deer until she was heaving from lack of air and had slowed enough for us to puncture sharp teeth through her throat. This was a job for a pack, each wolf running in relay to spell her siblings until the deer collapsed from exhaustion.

So we run, the wolf responded, ignoring the reference to pack mates—to a wolf brain, there was no point in bemoaning an absence beyond our control. But before we could set out after the deer, the wolf stopped in her tracks and scented the air, her tail rising into an excited banner. Not far away was easier prey, tasty, small, and young. Together, my wolf and I salivated at the impending feast.

Human! It took me far too long to realize that in her headlong flight, the wolf had drawn us beyond our usual territory, to the edge of the forest where houses butted up against the trees. Until that moment, I’d steered clear of humanity because a teen runaway had no place in mainstream society, but now I knew we should have given the subdivision a wide berth for another reason. Even to my human brain, the child playing at the edge of the trees smelled like prey, and I was sickened by my own hunger.

As my human brain struggled to regain control of our body, it became the wolf’s turn to push me down into her cage. Again, the wolf began to stalk, and now I had to reach up through the bars to fight the canine every step of the way. We sidled and slipped in the leaves as I clawed against my darker half, but with the single-minded focus of her lupine heritage, the wolf ignored all my entreaties. I could only watch, aghast, as a young child came into view, playing in a sand box just beyond the forest edge.

There was no art to the hunt, but my wolf was hungry and didn’t care. She lunged out of the trees, her teeth settling around the child’s plump arm, tasting sweet flesh even as the girl shrieked at the top of her lungs. Scenes flickered in front of me, blood and terrified eyes, sand turning red. I banged on the door of the cage with all my might, to no avail.

Then an adult human tore out of the house, a gun in his hands. He fired, the bullet grazing our shoulder, and the shock was enough to make the wolf pause, to relax her iron control over my human brain. I leaped upwards out of the cage, pushed the wolf out of the way, and was shifting even as we fled back into the forest. I could hear the girl crying behind us, so I knew our prey wasn’t dead, and since werewolves are born not made, she would never start howling at the moon. But that knowledge did little to ease my guilt and horror. With the last of my strength, I pushed the wolf so deeply into her cage that she couldn’t even speak to me, let alone run wild, then I clanged the door shut and threw away the key. And although I felt her every day afterwards, gnawing at my bones, I hadn’t seen the wolf since.

 

***

 

It seemed like poetic justice that I would be forced to call upon my wolf at last in order to save another little girl alone in the cold autumn woods. I was terrified to even touch my wolf brain, let alone to bring an impulse-control-challenged wolf out to hunt a tasty toddler. I could imagine getting in touch with my wolf brain, tracking down the child, and then doing something unspeakable. But if I didn’t find the toddler, would a slow descent into hypothermia be any worse for Melony?

So I closed my eyes, ignored the way the wet ground was soaking through the seat of my pants, and began to count my breaths. In and out, slowing down, until I could hear past the rain dripping off the trees. The metallic chip of a cardinal settling onto its perch punctuated the evening. The musky scent of a fox coming out of its daytime den drifted toward my nose. I heard the snort and stamp of a deer as she pounded her forefoot against the ground to determine whether a strange object was danger, or just a fallen tree.

It had been so long since I’d changed that I almost didn’t recognize the first symptom: the sensation of hairs pushing out of my skin at a thousand times their normal speed. As a teenage werewolf, I remember shifting nightly to tempt the hair on my head to grow longer after a bad trim, never mind that I’d always have to shave my legs afterwards, even if the skin had felt smooth as a baby’s bottom before the change. Now the tickling itch was so unfamiliar, it almost pulled me out of my meditative trance.

In and out, counting breaths, I forced my focus back onto the shift. For some werewolves, the next sign of the change was the reason they stayed in human form whenever possible. Itching gave way to shooting pains as my bones became malleable, ready to morph into wolf shape. But I had a high pain threshold, and the invisible daggers were a welcome hint that I might actually shift this time, might actually find my wolf (and Melony) before it was too late.

But hope faded as I felt the wolf brain taking over my thoughts. No, erasing my thoughts and replacing them with wordless visions and drifts of feelings. I wanted to shift so badly…but I was terrified of the loss of control. Maybe when I’d lived back in Haven, isolated in our werewolf-only community, I could have let my inner wolf loose. There, if my wolf had gone feral, a dozen stronger wolves would have taken me down. Here, I was surrounded only by weak humans, their scent already making me salivate. I could sense the two-footers all around me, the closest one no more than a hundred feet away. His nose was running and he was out of breath, but I could tell he’d eaten pizza for lunch, the tomato sauce providing a piquant addition to his already enticing odor.

I jerked myself out of the wolf brain as abruptly as I often woke from a night’s sleep, but this time the reason was terror of my wolf’s appetites. With the wolf brain’s retreat came an absence of the extra senses my darker side had made possible, and the woods around me once again seemed muffled by the quiet fall of rain. Dropping my head into my hands, I knew I’d failed. I had hoped to find that happy middle ground between wolf and human, where I could take advantage of the wolf’s intuitive understanding of the woods without risking letting a predator loose on the unsuspecting human world. Instead, I’d gone too far and lost it all. Now I was back to 100% human, no intuition, and Venus already visible in the darkening sky.

One of the few good things about being an obsessively controlled werewolf, though, is that if I told myself despair wasn’t an option, I actually believed my own lie. Might as well keep stumbling around out here like everyone else, I thought. After all, my co-workers hadn’t given up, and they never even had the possible backup of a sharp canine nose to aid them. In human form, I could trick myself into believing that I wasn’t any further behind than I’d started, even if I had lost the one skill that might have saved Melony’s life.

“The poor dear,” my older co-worker Maddie had said when Melony’s father showed up at the ticket-purchasing counter. Why her words came into my head now was a mystery, but if Maddie—pushing seventy if she was a day—could head out into the sodden woods with hope in her eyes, so could I.

Wait a minute. The poor dear? Or…the poor deer? The stamping hoof, the startled deer, something where it didn’t belong. I could almost believe my nonlinear wolf brain was communicating with me in the best way it could from within its iron-barred prison cell deep in my subconscious. A deer would have run away from a walking adult searcher, but might stamp at a small child huddled on the ground, trying to stay warm and dry. I turned toward my memory of the sound, and could almost imagine the scent of baby shampoo wafting toward me from a bit right of my current trajectory. Leaving my designated sector to follow the imagined smell, I drifted into the near-sleeping state I sometimes enter after hiking for hours, where the world is both distant and present in a way it can’t be when my human brain is entirely awake.

A tiny cry of alarm made me turn ever so slightly further to the right. I knew I should switch on my flashlight, but instead I walked gingerly, using the rods in the corners of my eyes to soak up the last dregs of daylight. And to see the dark shape of the child curled into a ball at the base of a beech tree.

That was when I realized that the wolf brain was guiding me, was winning over my human brain. I gasped, alarm freezing me in place even as Melony looked up at the sound and cooed a welcome. I was terrified the wolf would parse the toddler as easy prey and tear into her, killing the child I had come so far to save, and that fear held me in place as effectively as the iron bars I so often hid my wolf behind.

You think we could tear into her with these puny human teeth?

The words seemed to drift through my head with a silent chuckle. Whether or not my wolf brain had a sense of humor, though, the human brain had woken enough that I was able to close and lock the wolf’s prison door, drop to my knees, and collect the little girl into my arms. Tucking her chilled body beneath my raincoat, I fiddled with my cell phone one-handed and pushed the device against my wet ear.

“I’ve found her,” I said, and dropped my chin onto Melony’s baby-shampoo-scented hair. Relief never smelled so sweet.

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CHAPTER 3

 

The Carrs were so exuberantly grateful for the safe return of their daughter that I was forced to pretend I had a pressing engagement elsewhere in order to escape their praise. Drifting toward the parking lot and my fictional date, though, I stopped in my tracks when I saw my fellow park rangers gathered beneath a picnic shelter at the edge of the lot. They were toasting each other with hot chocolate, high with the relief of having found Melony just as dark truly set in. I knew that my co-workers would have been glad to include me in their circle, and the wolf inside me begged to join the camaraderie of even such an ephemeral pack, but I couldn’t stand the thought of talking, so I slipped back into the rainy woods, retracing my footsteps instead. Reaching a spot just outside the illuminated circle cast by the battery-powered lantern in the center of the Carr campsite, I stood in the dark and watched.

For someone who craved a pack, the family tableau unfolding inside the tent was riveting but bittersweet. Looking in through the screen door of the dome tent, I could tell that Mr. and Mrs. Carr were unwilling to take their hands off their little girl, who had already warmed enough within their family huddle that her trauma was receding into the distance. The three curled together on top of an air mattress, intertwined in each other’s limbs, and the contact had made the mother’s drawn face relax and the father’s smile lines spring back to life. The same curiosity that had pulled Melony into the woods that afternoon was in evidence as well. As the toddler reached up toward the swaying lantern, her mother tangled the girl’s hands in her own, bypassing the child’s urge to leap out of bed and explore.

I could hear the murmur of loving voices, but I was just far enough away that the words themselves were a muddle of syllables, much like the patter that had flowed out of Melony’s mouth as I carried her back to the campsite. The babble of sound was familiar, though, since on many days, I felt like everyone around me was speaking another language, like it was all baby talk on the verge of being understandable. Even in daylight, when I showed up at my job, smiled at Maddie, deflected Fred’s flirting, I knew I was an outsider looking in. Later, I would go home to a dark cabin and thaw out the soup I’d obsessively stewed on my day off and then frozen in meal-size portions. Two cups of soup for one person, the same day after day. I’d imagine adopting a cat or drinking myself into oblivion, but would reject both avenues of escape as too dangerous. At last I’d crawl into bed with a book and would read myself to sleep.

My life hadn’t always been so lonely. When I was Melony’s age, I’d felt the same cocoon of love that the Carr’s little girl was now enjoying, but mine had been magnified by ten due to the tribalism of a werewolf pack. Haven was a small village by human standards, but was just right for an extended werewolf family made up of a few dozen offspring and relatives of my great-grandfather, the pack founder. If I had crawled out of my parents’ home at Melony’s age, not only would my cousins’ keen noses have found me in short order, someone would likely have picked me up and taken me home with them before I could walk more than a few steps away from my parents’ front door. I’d be returned, full of milk and cookies, a few hours later, once my mother had finished whatever task took her watchful eyes away from her baby. No searchers would ever have been forced to frantically stumble through the trees looking for my freezing form because the entire pack was always keeping an eye on its younger members.

With that memory so vivid, and the family in front of me so pack-like, it was hard to remind myself why I’d voluntarily left such a paradise. But as I watched the Carrs, I knew that my corner of Haven had lacked the supportive love that made this family’s bond so strong. Instead, the same village that had felt like a protective cocoon when I was two years old quickly morphed into a restrictive wet blanket by the time I reached my teen years. Before I reached my majority, it had become clear that Haven was no haven for me.

There were many factors that made my later childhood problematic, but in the end, I fled our pack’s village to escape my father. My mother’s death, the absence of my older sister’s buffering presence, and the pregnant stepmother who soon moved into our home shook up my world, but my father could have pieced the remnants back together into a family if he’d tried. Instead, the Chief retreated into his role as pack leader and only took notice of me to make the occasional paternal decree, which always seemed to fall on the morning of my birthday.

The first pronouncement came on the day I turned twelve, when I clattered down the stairs from my attic room and found my father waiting at the bottom. “You can’t run around like a wild wolf pup anymore,” Father told me coldly, taking in my unbrushed hair and bare feet. I had planned to sneak out into the woods to see if the hummingbird I’d been watching the day before had finished building her nest, and although I hadn’t really expected a cake and streamers upon my return, a simple “Happy birthday” would have been nice. Instead, I got the world’s most painful lecture about how I would soon be changing into wolf form for the first time and needed to start learning my place within the pack. According to my father, learning my place seemed to equate to spending every spare minute helping my stepmother Cricket in the kitchen, making up for the absence of my older sister Brooke, who had fled the family home just months before.

Although I’d immediately missed Brooke’s gentle presence after she left Haven, after my twelfth birthday, I realized that I’d taken her role in our family for granted. Without Brooke to fill the good-daughter shoes, my father was forced to turn his attention to me—and we all soon realized I was sorely lacking in that department. The daughter of an alpha was supposed to be a role model for the younger wolves, but I found it a struggle to keep my hands out of the dirt and my clothes clean, let alone to smile and help out around the village. And every time I failed, my father noticed and reprimanded me. For the first few weeks after my twelfth birthday, I hoped my father would eventually give up the struggle and focus on his new son, but instead, his rules simply became stricter and stricter, and Haven began to feel like a prison.

Meanwhile, I’d grown old enough to change into wolf form, and the more upset I got at my father’s restrictions, the more my shifts flew out of control. I hated the fact that I’d been born a girl, without the male ability to change form at will. In contrast, those of us unlucky enough to be born with two X chromosomes had to deal with what I liked to call “werewolf PMS from hell.” At that time of the month, human women cope with bloating, aches, and grumpiness, but the same hormones in werewolves cause us to change into wolf form at the drop of a hat, no matter how inconvenient fur and claws might be. This fact, more than anything else, was the reason werewolf packs were so repressively patriarchal, because the female werewolf really was the weaker vessel in need of shielding from the outside world. And I was even worse at controlling my shifts than most female wolves, which made my father’s disdain of my weakness yet more evident.

By the time I turned thirteen, I was flipping back and forth between wolf and human form dozens of times a month. My father was irate at my inability to control my wolf, and his frequent tirades made me shift even more often. Again, I had a hint of hope when I realized that the Chief was starting to give up on my potential to be a pack princess, meaning that I wasn’t likely to be married off to an alpha outside the pack to cement an alliance. But then I discovered that the only other alternative my father saw for me was to become the spinster daughter, hidden away in my attic bedroom for the rest of my life.

That realization prompted me to dive into my education, and for a while, school and books became a relief from my depressing home life. In Haven, all young werewolves studied at the village school, and most of us were expected to voluntarily end our schooling a few years after our first shifts began, when we were old enough to help out at home. But if a young werewolf showed aptitude for learning, he or she often continued studying under the schoolteachers, training to become a replacement teacher in the years to come. Since I wasn’t going to be a pack princess and was terrified of turning into a replica of my meek stepmother, I figured teaching would at least let me build a place for myself within the pack. However, on my fourteenth birthday, my father killed that dream just like all of my others. Waiting for me once again at the bottom of the stairs, the Chief informed me that I was no longer a student at the village school.

The ensuing shouting match woke Cricket and my one-year-old brother, the latter of whom soon drowned out my arguments with wordless complaints of his own. In my anger, I shifted into wolf form and fled to the woods, but I eventually came home hungry, my tail between my legs. My father was waiting at the door in his own fur form, and his reproving bite on the top of my muzzle wasn’t the ceremonial chastisement most alphas would use against an erring underling. Instead, the Chief’s teeth broke through my skin, and I picked at the scabs in human form for days thereafter.

The scabs were what finally pushed me over the edge and made me decide to leave the pack. “A werewolf can’t survive alone,” Cricket had told me months earlier when I sobbed on her shoulder about my hatred of Haven, and I’d believed her then. But I was starting to realize that my wolf couldn’t survive within my father’s pack either. It was quite normal for young males to leave the village and hunt down another pack in order to court unrelated females, and teenage girls sometimes spent time in the outside world as well, so the possibility was there. But only if I could learn to control my shifts.

So I began to hunt down the root of my uncontrollable changes to wolf form. Whenever I could slip away, I would retreat into the woods and practice shifting for hours, until my legs were so wobbly with the effort that they could barely carry me home. Out of spite, I maintained the illusion of being out of control around my father, but by the time I was sixteen, my wolf and I were acting more like a team and less like two duelists. As I practiced, I came to the conclusion that any unpleasant emotion could trigger the shift; even seeing a ball flying toward me out of the corner of my eye was sometimes enough to make the wolf pull out her fur to protect us both. So I worked on proving to my wolf that I could take care of myself, and I also learned to smooth over my emotions, even during that time of the month when they were especially hard to control.

I’m sure that Cricket knew what was happening, but she didn’t tell my father, and he was oblivious to anything that didn’t impact his iron control over Haven’s pack. Just learning to work with, rather than against, my wolf gave me a bit of peace, and I drifted through my restrictive life for most of my sixteenth year, not sure I really needed to leave the pack after all. Then my father’s eye came back around to his wayward daughter.

When I walked down the stairs on the morning of my seventeenth birthday and found my father waiting on the landing, I couldn’t resist thinking that perhaps the Chief had thespian aspirations. Why else would he always pin me down on the morning of my birthday? Unless—depressing thought—that was the only day my father could be bothered to spend a minute thinking about his disappointing middle child.

“What now?” I demanded, deciding to go on the defensive even as I sought to still the wolf inside me. My period had begun the day before, and the wolf was more awake than usual inside my body, making the dim house seem brighter and the sound of my father’s harsh breathing louder. I reminded my canine half that I had everything under control, that shifting to fur would do neither of us any good, and she quieted, although my senses didn’t diminish.

My father ignored my argumentative opening and merely said, “You’re old enough to give me grandchildren.” Then he turned on his heel, content in his knowledge that he’d laid down the law and I would obey his orders. But there was no way I was going to give the Chief the illusion of implicit consent by letting a statement like that stand, so I called out to him before he could leave.

“What, you’re saying I need to get married?” I asked, my voice turning shrill despite my best efforts. “When? Today? And with whom? I assume you already have my future husband picked out?” I was livid from this latest assault on my independence, and I could feel the fur starting to poke out through my skin despite my silent requests for my wolf to settle. Even though my father hadn’t allowed me to continue studying to be a schoolteacher, I’d assumed the Chief would leave me alone as long as I did enough around the house to prevent Cricket from complaining about my laziness. Apparently I was wrong.

My father didn’t even turn back to look at me, nor did he grace me with a reply, but I could feel my mind beginning to twist as it worked to obey the alpha wolf’s orders. The more specific an alpha’s demands were, the less leeway a pack wolf had to work around their leader’s command—our biology just wouldn’t let us disobey the alpha. It was then, while I struggled with my own body to squash my sudden urge to choose a mate, that I finally understood that while I was living under my father’s roof, I would never be able to follow my own path. So I did the unthinkable and broke the alpha’s hold over me.

“I’m not getting married,” I said slowly and coldly, and wasn’t surprised at all when the Chief stopped in his tracks, although the pack leader still didn’t turn to face me. “I’m leaving today, and I’m never coming back.”

The words seemed to float in the dim air for minutes while my father and I stood, frozen by my insolence. Then the Chief began to laugh, and I felt the first ache of packlessness in my stomach. “Go,” he said, when his chuckles finally receded. “I’ll be glad to see the back of you. But don’t let your wolf be seen by a human or I’ll come kill you myself.”

And, still without looking me in my face, my father strode out of the room and out of my life. That morning, I hitched a ride to another state, found a forest large enough to hide my wolf, and set into action the chain of events that led to mauling that poor little girl ten years ago…and to saving Melony today. I was packless by choice.

 

***

 

The memory had pulled me so deep into the past that I felt like I was wakening from a dream when I opened my eyes back onto the camping scene in front of me. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but the bond that held the human family together was even clearer than before. Mr. Carr stroked his wife’s damp hair, Melony nestled down into the cavity between the two parental bodies, and Mrs. Carr sat up enough to open her air passages and sing a quiet lullaby, her hand circling over her daughter to embrace both husband and child. As I stood in the chilly drizzle, I could imagine the emotional and physical warmth of the family’s hug, but after remembering both the seductive embrace and the strict rules of my own pack, the vision only made me feel colder.

Behind me, I could hear car doors banging shut as my co-workers finally headed home. A screech owl called mournfully in the woods, and I thought the rain had begun to fall harder, then I realized the water dripping down my face was tears.

With twenty-twenty hindsight, I now wished I’d put up with the status quo and stayed in Haven. I wished I’d agreed to marry young and turn into a baby machine, to bow my head when my husband entered the room and to forget my big dreams of finding my own way in the world. I hadn’t known then that the outside world was so cold and lonely. I hadn’t known anyone without a wolf clawing at their insides would inevitably stay a stranger.

But my vision at seventeen had been clouded by youth, and I’d chosen to leave the only pack I could ever belong to. As my stepmother would say, I’d made my bed, and now I had to lie in it. With one final sigh, I turned away from the lantern-lit scene to head home to my empty cabin and my cold quilt.

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CHAPTER 4

 

I dreamed about Wolfie. He was chasing me through the woods, and I should have been terrified of the huge alpha wolf on my trail. Instead, my dream self was playful and laughing as she eluded the canine, pausing once to rub up against his side and lick his face. Perhaps because of the confusing dream, I woke to an even worse ache in my stomach and to one word on my mind. Packless.

I couldn’t miss work since I’d already taken the previous morning off, but a little luck was waiting for me at the nature center. At our morning staff meeting, I learned that one of the back-country cabins an eight hour hike into the wilderness area needed repairs, and I quickly volunteered to do the honors. Carrying fifty pounds of camping gear and tools down the trail wasn’t necessarily my idea of fun, but the task meant I could spend three days away from civilization: three days when I wouldn’t have to look over my shoulder fearing that Wolfie had tracked me down, three days when I wouldn’t have to make inane conversation with my co-workers and pretend to be human, three days to think.

And, at first, the choice seemed to have been a good one. The straps of my pack creaked like the lines on a sailboat as the bulky parcel swayed with my steps, lulling me into a meditative state. Meanwhile, the sun was out and the scent of fallen leaves underfoot reminded me of simpler years. By the time I’d turned twelve, life in our werewolf pack was difficult, but childhood as a wolfling was bliss. I wasn’t able to shift forms at that age, but my mind was more than half wolf as I stalked prey in the woods above our settlement. My sister Brooke and I played for hours, only coming home when our mother yelled up the hillside toward us that dinner was ready.

But then Mom had died giving birth to our little brother, a bloodling who had emerged in wolf form and had torn our mother apart from the inside out. My father drowned the tiny wolf in the duck pond, and before long, I had a stepmother, a little brother, and a father who treated me to birthday-morning orders that sucked every ounce of freedom out of my life.

I shook the unwanted memories away and tried to pay attention to my surroundings. I’d already crested the ridge that marked the halfway point between the nature center and the cabin, and now I was following a boulder-lined stream that filled the air with the sound of running water. As I looked down the trail, appreciating the fall colors, I paused at the sight of a man’s form resting on a log by the side of the path. Although the human seemed to be napping with his broad-brimmed hat pulled down over his face, the unmistakable scent of wolf drifted into my nose from all sides, and I could feel my adrenaline kick back in. I was as distant from my wolf brain as was possible at that moment, so such strong odors meant there were several wolves around and that they were close by. Trouble.

“Don’t you want to say hello to your old man?” the figure called without looking up. I should have been relieved that this was a family reunion, not the ambush by Wolfie’s pack that I’d been expecting ever since my trip to the city the day before. But, if anything, the sight of my father was even less welcome than an invasion by Wolfie’s pack would have been. I unclasped the waist buckle of my backpack and let the mass fall to the trail so I’d be ready to run, but the Chief had anticipated my retreat. A dozen wolves stepped out of the trees behind me and advanced, herding me toward the father I’d escaped ten years before.

Father had straightened to a sit by the time I reached him, and he patted the log in invitation, but merely shrugged when I chose to remain standing. He looked exactly the same as he had ten years ago, and his commanding presence wasn’t dimmed in the slightest by the fact that his face was a foot lower than mine as I stood over him. I trembled as the breath of a wolf blew hot against the back of my legs, then almost laughed when I realized that I was terrified, for once, of someone else’s wolf rather than of my own. Another stray thought reminded me that Wolfie, despite his strangeness, had been a perfect gentleman the day before. In contrast, the alpha who was my father preferred fear tactics over subtlety.

“Father,” I acknowledged once I had gathered myself enough to speak. Even though I had safely yelled at the pack leader as a teenager, I had a feeling that any lack of respect now would be met with harsh repercussions, so I bowed my head even though I felt anything but submissive. I could tell my father liked the gesture even more because of my resentment, and his eyes took on the mischievous sparkle that I understood most women in our pack found irresistible. I detested it.

“Little Terra, all grown up,” the Chief said pleasantly, once my single word had been allowed to sit in the autumn air long enough to be swallowed up by the rushing water of the creek. “I’ve missed you,” he continued flatly.

I couldn’t prevent myself from sending my father a shocked look in response to that profession of affection. Was I misremembering the Chief’s farewell warning a decade ago? I’d thoroughly believed then that the alpha was willing to kill his own daughter if she made his life difficult, and I saw no reason to change my mind now. So why would my father want to pretend to have missed me?

Even though the memory only took seconds to rush through my mind, my father was apparently bored with my reverie, so he continued without waiting for a reply. “You’ve had enough running around time,” he intoned, making me wonder if perhaps today was my birthday and I’d somehow missed the date. This forced meeting and command felt like those other birthday ambushes, and the similarity was only accentuated when the Chief continued to speak. “It’s time to come home,” he proclaimed, and I could instantly feel my limbs moving to obey his thinly veiled command. The alpha smirked at the agonized expression on my face, then he added, “Unless….”

I took a deep breath to calm my stuttering heart, then drew my father out the way he clearly intended for me to do. “What do you need from me?” I asked.

“Well, since you’re offering,” my father began, “An old man like me needs an heir.”

 

***

 

So we’re back on the grandchildren train, I couldn’t help thinking, before blurting out, “What about Ethan?” By the time I’d left home, my spoiled-rotten half-brother had been good for only one thing, in my opinion—to keep Father’s attention safely away from me and Brooke. Ethan had been four years old at the time, and the little despot already seemed to be growing into his future role as alpha. Now he’d be…I added up the years in my mind…fourteen. Just old enough to shift into wolf form and make everyone else’s lives miserable with those teen-wolf temper tantrums. Unless…. “Cricket isn’t a halfie!” I exclaimed.

If I hadn’t been so focused on surviving, I would have been proud of the way my words broke through my father’s cold exterior. His reaction was just an angry twitch in one cheek, but it was there. “Your stepmother, unfortunately, does not appear to have come from the quality bloodlines we’d once thought,” the Chief confirmed. “Ethan is no use to me as meat.”

The words were like a slap. Yes, the kid was annoying, but using the slur “meat” for the son of a werewolf, even if he would never shift, was extreme. Somewhere beneath his alpha exterior, I’d always assumed my father harbored an ounce of compassion for his favorite child, if not for the rest of us. It seemed I’d been wrong about a lot of things.

I would have to worry about Ethan later, though. If my stepmother was a half-breed descendant of a werewolf and a human, that meant any other sons she’d borne would have a 50% chance of being “meat,” while 50% of her daughters would be halfies like herself with the same tendency to produce human sons. I had no clue if I had other little half-siblings running around, but from my father’s expression, it was clear none of them would make the cut as his precious heir.

My mother, on the other hand, could have traced her werewolf bloodlines back to the Mayflower. Any hypothetical sons I had would be just what my father was looking for, and I cringed at the thought. This had been my worst nightmare ever since I wrapped my mind around werewolf succession and my father’s plans for the pack. I was pretty sure I didn’t want children at all, if only because 10% of werewolves were born as bloodlings, which produced tough odds for werewolf mothers. But if I ever did reproduce, I definitely didn’t want my sons to be raised in their grandfather’s image. Who wants to be the mother of Genghis Khan?

While I worked my way through that train of thought, my father had risen, a smirk on his face. I wasn’t a small woman, but he towered over me, his human form more daunting than the wolves at my back. Despite my fear, though, I could tell the alpha was playing cat and mouse, which gave me a perverse sense of hope. If my father just wanted to drag me back to Haven and marry me off to someone with good bloodlines, there would have been no reason for this manipulative chat. So he still needed something. But what?

“You know, your sister had a son,” Father continued conversationally. I did know, because Brooke had sent my father a few letters after she left Haven and before I followed suit. She’d fled at an even younger age than I had, then ended up marrying a guy in medical school who was thrilled when he found out his girlfriend was pregnant. But Brooke didn’t invite me to the wedding, never offered to have me come meet Dale or their son Keith. I hadn’t heard from her after I left home.

Wait, had my father just referred to Brooke in the past tense?

“The silly girl died a few years ago,” my father confirmed, and shock made me miss his next few sentences. I’d felt abandoned by Brooke, but had never imagined she’d be permanently gone before I could forgive her. I sank down onto the log my father had risen from, my throat closing up as tears tried to force their way out of my eyes, but pretty soon my sense of self-preservation kicked back in. I could mourn Brooke later. Right now, I had to figure out what my father wanted, and how to get it for him so I could escape from this mess.

Then the pieces clicked together. “You want Keith to be your heir,” I mused out loud, not bothering to look into my father’s eyes since I was suddenly sure I’d figured out the alpha’s plan.

“You always were a clever girl,” my father confirmed. “A grandson is as good as a son, as long as he’s a wolf and in Haven. That’s your choice—teach the boy to shift and bring him to me willingly, or we’ll have to go back to plan B.”

I took a deep breath. This was my way out, as unsavory as it seemed. I didn’t even know the kid, but chances are that if he had my father’s blood running through his veins, he was an arrogant alpha and would be thrilled to follow in his grandfather’s footsteps. “Just so we’re clear,” I said, raising my voice to make sure the wolves behind me heard the deal being struck, “what you’re saying is that if I can talk Keith into being your heir, I’m off the hook. You’ll leave me alone. No more surprise visits.”

“I’ll be glad to see the back of you,” my father agreed, the words echoing his dismissal a decade before. Then he pushed his hat back down over his hair, whistled to his wolves as if they were hunting dogs, and brushed past me up the trail.

“One month,” he called back without turning. Within seconds, my father was out of sight, but the scent of wolves lingered in my memory for the rest of the day.

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CHAPTER 5

 

My boss tried to talk me into simply taking a leave of absence, but I knew I wouldn’t be coming back. During the five years I’d worked for the park, I’d merely been marking time, and I realized now that I’d never so much as gone out for drinks after work, let alone made any deeper connections. There was no one here who I would miss. I might send Maddie a postcard once this whole mess had been sorted out, but that was about it.

As I drove my ancient Toyota back to my cabin to pack my sparse possessions, though, I realized I had no idea where I was going. How long ago had my sister died? Did Dale know his wife and son were werewolves? As much as I would have loved to use the absence of information as an excuse to malinger, my father was efficient in getting what he wanted, so I wasn’t surprised to find a dossier waiting on my kitchen table, even though the cabin door was just as firmly locked as when I’d left. I suspected there was an equally thick file on me floating around the Chief’s office—just how a daughter hopes for her father to remember her, with a sea of facts in case she can someday be of use.

The contents of Brooke’s file hit me hard. I had to sit down to keep from falling when I saw her young face in the top photograph, tilted up to smile at the lanky man beside her. That had to be Dale, and I could tell even from the photo that he was the furthest you could get from an alpha werewolf. My brother-in-law was skinny and unimposing despite his height, the kind of man you might call cute instead of handsome. Just the type of husband my loving and lovable sister would have gravitated toward.

More photos slipped out of the folder, but Brooke didn’t get much older. By the time her curly-haired son was three years old, the family was short a mother. My sister had died before I even left Haven.

Although the reality of my sister’s early death was shocking, the true surprise came when I flipped to the end of Brooke’s folder. The last item was an unopened envelope, addressed to me in my sister’s looping hand. Peering at the postmark, I saw that Brooke had mailed it months before I fled Haven, but our father had clearly deemed the letter not worthy of my young eyes. Yet he’d kept it and added the envelope to Brooke’s file. Probably after steaming open and resealing the flap in order to decide whether the contents would be an appropriate bait to add to my trap, I thought sarcastically.

Even though I was itching to know what Brooke had wanted to say to me, I stilled my fingers before they could open the envelope. The letter inside was from my sister, but I knew the real message came from my father, and I’d been manipulated enough for one day. So I tucked the unopened missive back into Brooke’s file and got to work packing up the few possessions I wanted to keep. Once again, my father’s actions were forcing me away from my home.

 

***

 

As I crunched up the winding gravel driveway from the country highway to Dale’s house the next day, I realized my brother-in-law was wealthy. Yes, the rundown nature of the yard gave the residence a homey and lived-in look, but the sheer size of the house at the top of the hill made it clear I was outclassed. I pulled to a stop beside a brand-new minivan, and even the soccer balls and scratched bike in the yard weren’t enough to keep me from cringing at the comparison between my rusty vehicle and my brother-in-law’s van. I knew without turning around that the garbage bags of clothes and cardboard boxes of books in my backseat went even further toward giving me the illusion of being a vagrant. Heck, who was I kidding—I was homeless at the moment.

During the two-hour drive to Dale’s house, I’d mostly worried over the issue of how to tackle Dale and Keith’s ignorance. My father made it clear in his file that my sister hadn’t spilled the beans about our genealogy to her family, so Dale was to be kept in the dark. Keith, obviously, would have to be told since I needed to help him learn to shift, but how would a hormone-addled teenage werewolf take the news? Looking at their house, though, I now realized those problems were secondary to my first big hurdle—insinuating my way into my sister’s family. What would prevent Dale from assuming I was some kind of gold-digger, then sending me packing before I even got in the door?

The front porch was bigger than my entire cabin back at the park, and the structure was imposing in its sheer size. I was intimidated enough to try to walk lightly, but my hiking boots were still loud on the boards as I made my way to the glass-paneled door. Cupping my hands around my face, I peered inside, where a beautifully modern kitchen sparkled with cleanliness. My imagination could easily place Brooke in the scene, pulling homemade cookies out of the oven. The role of a fifties-era housewife would have been the perfect fit for her cuddly personality, and it broke my heart to think she’d escaped Haven only to die of cancer four years into her perfect life.

“Can I help you?” I turned so quickly at the words that I nearly twisted my ankle, slipping and having to catch myself on the side of the house to keep from falling. Yep, this is the exact kind of first impression I’d hoped to make, I thought, taking in the form of my brother-in-law in front of me. Dale was older than he’d been in the last photo, but he still exuded the air of kindliness that I’m sure had attracted my sister in the first place. Even when startling an intruder, the doctor couldn’t quite make his face look stern.

“This is so embarrassing,” I said, trying to figure out where to start with my explanation. Despite Dale’s gentle nature, a tall male figure catching me in his territory was enough to set my senses on high alert, and I had to struggle against an urge to jump back into my car and spin out of the driveway. Only the knowledge that my father would track me down and drag me back to Haven if I failed kept my feet rooted to the spot as I tried out a shaky smile.

But then Dale surprised me with my own name. “I can’t believe it! Terra?” he asked…then pulled me into a bear hug.

I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been hugged, and my body stiffened in response, then slowly relaxed as Dale’s brotherly affection washed over me. What kind of man would recognize on sight the sister-in-law he’d never met? Would catch her snooping, but assume her intentions were pure? My sister had clearly found a winner—too bad I was here to turn this kind-hearted man’s son into a psychopath.

“And you’re Dale,” I responded once he released me from the hug. I could just make out the hint of a tear welling up in one of my brother-in-law’s eyes, probably because my sister and I had a strong family resemblance. Just thinking about Brooke made my own eyes tear up, so I swiped at them as I turned a more honest smile on Dale. “I only just heard about Brooke,” I continued, “and I couldn’t stop myself from coming right away to meet you and Keith.”

Clearly I’d said the wrong thing. For the first time, Dale’s face became shadowed, and he paused for a minute before giving me the brushoff I’d been expecting, but for a different reason. “I’m not sure now’s a good time,” Dale said, and I realized the unhappiness on my brother-in-law’s face was for his son, not for the wife he’d lost a decade ago. Unlike me, Dale would have had plenty of time to put Brooke’s death behind him, but the inevitable changes in Keith as he approached his first shift would be worrisome to a human father. Unfortunately, those changes were only going to get worse.

“You’re worried about Keith,” I said, hoping to get Dale talking while I figured out how to approach the issue. Since my brother-in-law was a medical doctor, I’d be hard-pressed to pretend Keith had any kind of physical disease, but what about a hereditary mental illness? Something very vague and rare…and easily overcome with the proper therapy.

As I worked through the intricacies of a lie about my private therapy practice, Dale was spilling his worries that his son had fallen into a bad crowd in school, had started experimenting with drugs. “There’s a major problem in our area with young people abusing prescription drugs,” my brother-in-law told me earnestly, and I almost rolled my eyes at him. I had a feeling Keith was as straight as an arrow just like his father, and I was 99% sure any behavioral changes Dale noticed were due to his son’s approaching change. “I don’t want my son to make a bad first impression on his only aunt,” Dale finished. “Maybe you could come back in a few weeks?”

“Actually, I’m really glad I came when I did,” I told my brother-in-law, putting on my best pseudo-professional manner. “Did Brooke ever tell you about the…um…mental instability in our family?” Dale paled a bit, and I spun my tale as best I could. Good thing my brother-in-law was an easy mark since my abilities as a con artist left something to be desired. Between Dale’s gullibility, though, and facts pulled from his dossier, I was soon being shown through the house and into Keith’s bedroom. Where it became obvious from scent alone that the boy had already reached the bone-melting phase of a shift.

“Could you leave us alone for a moment?” I asked Dale calmly, then I quickly shut and locked the door behind him.

 

***

 

“Who are you?” the kid grunted from the bed. The curtains were drawn and the lights were off, so the room was dim, but I could feel the imminent shift pushing into my bones. Keith’s pheromones were drawing out my own wolf, but I had a plan to use that effect to my advantage. My nephew would have to help me, though, and there was no time to explain what we were doing. I needed to get him to shift back to human, and fast. Now was neither the time nor the place for his first change.

“I’m your aunt Terra,” I told Keith soothingly, coming to sit on the edge of the bed. “Brooke was my sister.”

“I heard you telling Dad you’re a shrink,” Brooke’s son said, turning to face me with piercing brown eyes just like my own. “He thinks I’m on drugs, but I swear I just tried pot that one time….” He stopped speaking abruptly, twitching involuntarily as the pain hit, and I reached down to take his hand.

“I believe you, Keith, but I need you to trust me for a minute,” I said gently. “Can you match your breathing to mine? And keep looking into my eyes.” Keith’s attention had turned inward when the ache hit, but he clearly had some of his grandfather’s iron will because the boy was able to obey my request. I slowed my own breathing to lead Keith into a calmer place, then reached for my wolf brain.

What I was planning to do would be tricky, partly because I had such iron control over my wolf nowadays that I couldn’t seem to let her out when I wanted to. But also because I needed to be able to pull my wolf brain out far enough to yank Keith back to full humanity when I stopped my own shift…without letting my wolf escape all the way. Since a younger werewolf like my nephew would mirror any shift of an adult in close physical proximity, I figured my wolf and I could easily shut his wolf down, but only if my own darker half cooperated. It had been so long since I’d let her out that I was afraid my wolf wouldn’t go back to sleep willingly.

It was worth the risk, though, because it looked like Keith was going to change all the way if he didn’t get a little help. I couldn’t imagine how terrifying it would be to perform your first shift without understanding what you were, and the kid’s father might get torn apart in the process. I wasn’t sure if I owed Brooke anything after the way she had abandoned me to our father’s tender mercies, but Dale and Keith didn’t deserve to pay for her desertion.

My nephew’s breathing had slowed, but I could feel his wolf just out of sight, waiting to return to the surface. Meanwhile, I calmed my own mind enough to let my wolf up out of her cell, and she rose gently, not in the snarling rush I’d expected. I felt the tickling of hairs pushing out of my body, but there was little pain as my senses became more acute. I could smell Dale in the kitchen, pouring a cup of afternoon coffee, could almost catch a confusing hint of wolf scent outside the house. But I’d have to think about that later. Right now, I needed to turn off this shift.

Down! I ordered my wolf, and as I’d expected, she growled at me, pain running up my arms as my fingers curled into claws. But, surprisingly, my wolf didn’t put up a fight. Instead, in rare human words, my wolf gave me an ultimatum—I’ll go to sleep now, but in five minutes, we’re all wolf.

Shit. This wasn’t good at all, but I had no choice except to agree. I could feel my wolf and Keith’s both descending deep into our subconscious, and my nephew looked up at me with suddenly clear eyes. “Wow, I feel a lot better!” he exclaimed. “That really helped. Thanks, Aunt Terra!”

I didn’t have time to answer, though. My wolf was inching her way back up that dark staircase in my mind, and I needed to be far away from father and son’s sight before my change hit. I tore through the living room and kitchen like my pants were on fire, and was out the door before Dale could even ask what was wrong. I was shifting by the time I hit the tree line, my clothes ripping off my back as my wolf form howled in triumph. Then she ran.

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CHAPTER 6

 

It had been so long since I’d turned wolf that I’d forgotten how it felt to subsume myself into her moods and desires. The wolf was still me, but the animal side of our nature was in charge of our actions, and everything we saw was filtered through her world view. Both of us were exuberant at the chance to run through the woods—it felt like taking off my bra at the end of a long work day, like reaching the high point of a perfect novel. Unchained hunt, my wolf added. No matter how we parsed the feelings, they were relief and excitement rolled into one.

My wolf was more restrained than I remembered, though. She still took in every squirrel and bird moving through the forest, but age allowed her to choose whether to give chase. We stalked a rabbit for half an hour, then let it go at the last minute. Cheeseburger, she told me, and I was almost sure the wolf was bartering with our human side. She seemed to recognize that spilling blood during her first run in six years would make another shift highly unlikely in the near future, but the wolf wanted to make it plain that she craved red meat. It felt strange to be making a deal with my animal side since I was used to her just taking what she wanted, but maybe the last decade had matured us both to the point where we could act as a team again.

We paused beside a small stream to lap up the cool water, but stopped when our nose picked up the scent of another wolf where one didn’t belong. Keith had never shifted all the way, so we shouldn’t be smelling my nephew’s wolf, but this was obviously a werewolf, and a male. Alpha male, my wolf corrected. We snarled in unison, our mothering instincts aroused by an unrelated male werewolf near Keith during his first shift.

The trouble was that alpha male werewolves had a nearly insurmountable urge to kill unrelated males as the youngsters reached the age of their first change. The behavior was a relic of our more primal days, when a young male in an alpha’s territory might be angling for his position, spurring the pack leader to squelch the challenge before it could be issued. The problem didn’t often come up, though, because everyone was related either by blood or by marriage in most packs, and some modern males had also learned to ignore the urge even around strangers. But not everyone could overpower his wolf…or wanted to. Keith wouldn’t be safe with an unknown alpha male lurking around.

The wolf and I turned to follow the male’s scent, and I wasn’t sure which of us was in charge as we put our nose to the ground and traced his path upstream through the trees. It smelled like the alpha had been there only hours previously, and the sinuous path suggested he’d lollygagged about, wandering through the woods as if they were his own. Another rumble came deep in our throats as we smelled where the male had marked his territory on the side of a lightning-scarred oak tree at the crest of the ridge.

Another few feet, and the wolf himself came into view. He was lounging on the leaf litter, where a gap in the canopy caused a ray of sun to warm his hide. The huge wolf was clearly well aware of our approach, but he simply yawned and laid his chin back down on his paws as we came closer, closing his eyes as if he was planning on finishing out his nap. And I wasn’t surprised by his behavior, either, because I recognized the canine’s coloration. The alpha male was Wolfie.

 

***

 

My wolf urged us forward to sniff under the alpha’s tail, but I pushed her down and fought to initiate the shift back into human form. As a canine, Wolfie was nearly double my size, and I suspected his human form was equally imposing, but I trusted my tongue more than I did my feet to get me out of this mess. I’d simply explain to the mutt that he was trespassing on private property, would threaten him with a restraining order if necessary, and would then head back down the hill to check on Keith. I had no idea why Wolfie was nosing around my nephew, but I wouldn’t feel safe until the kid was once again under my watchful eye.

Unfortunately, my wolf didn’t want to be locked away. It wasn’t just the lost joy of the hunt that made her irritable, it was Wolfie’s presence—my annoying wolf wanted to protect me. She also wanted to play with the alpha male for some crazy reason. Bending her forelegs down onto the ground, she lowered her head, raised her tail, and yipped.

Wolfie opened his eyes and tilted his head at us quizzically, then rose to his feet. He didn’t seem to know what to make of my wolf any more than I did, but I couldn’t spend much time paying attention to the alpha. I was focusing all of my energy on trying to still my human mind enough to initiate the shift back to two feet.

My reverse shifts always felt entirely different than the change from human to wolf. Instead of pain, as fur melted away and paws became hands, I usually experienced supreme relief, a bit like stepping into a warm shower after a long day on the trail. Today, though, I didn’t feel any relief…because there was no shift. My wolf was thoroughly in charge. In fact, I could feel her gently guiding my human brain down toward that cage I’d built deep in the dark recesses of our mind to house her. Seeing the trap closing around me, wolf-like, I clawed to escape.

Despite our internal battle, our external form was still dancing around Wolfie, and it soon became clear that the larger wolf was less than pleased by our presence. He turned as if to go, then sighed and walked back toward us. Gently but firmly, the male wolf took our nose in his jaws, just like my father had done years ago, but without the part where his teeth pierced my skin. Even though the younger alpha was gentle, his act of dominance chastened my wolf long enough for me to escape her clutches, and at the same instant when my human brain became dominant, Wolfie shifted, pulling me with him back into human form.

The relief of the change elicited a breathless gasp from me, more euphoric than usual because I’d thought my wolf had won our battle and terror had begun to kick in. My legs were wobbly from the shift and I would have fallen to the ground in surprise if Wolfie’s huge arms weren’t wrapped around me, his mouth still on top of my nose. “Whoa,” he breathed as he steadied me, and I became aware of the fact that we were both naked, the alpha’s bare skin pressing against my own.

Kiss him, demanded my wolf just as I clanged the iron-barred doors behind her and locked the canine away in her prison. Ignoring the unsolicited advice, I took a step back and struggled to pull my eyes away from Wolfie’s very masculine form.

 

***

 

“It seemed like you were having a little trouble with your wolf,” the man said gruffly, as if prepared for me to lash out at him for his act of dominance. It took me a minute to focus on his words, though, because my brain was still processing the scenery.

It shouldn’t have bothered me that the man in front of me was naked since frequent shifts made werewolf packs a bit of a clothing-optional society. But it had been years since I’d spent much time around werewolves, and the human mores around me had sunken in. I averted my gaze in embarrassment, only afterwards realizing that my body language would be read by a werewolf as a display of submission. That thought prompted me to ignore his conversation starter and to go off on a tangent of my own. I turned flashing eyes back onto Wolfie and verbally ripped into him.

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing here,” I growled, “But this is out-territory, and there’s a young male down there who’s nearing his first shift. I want you gone, and don’t come back.” Righteous anger carried me through the demand, but one glance at Wolfie’s reaction made me want to flee.

“The kid is ours,” Wolfie growled back, the apology now absent from his stance as his alpha nature rose to the surface. The man’s glare matched mine, and I could feel his wolf rising back up through his skin, struggling to take control. Luckily, my darker half was too firmly locked away to follow.

Just like during our last meeting, my body told me it was either fight or flight, and this time I chose to fight. “Stop that!” I demanded and was proud of myself for not letting a waver enter my voice. Wolfie was terrifying in his anger, but I didn’t want him to know that. “I don’t want to talk to your wolf right now,” I said, stabbing a finger toward the alpha’s bare chest. “And that kid is my nephew. I’ve already told you once, and I’ll tell you one more time—stay…away…from…him.” I drew out the last words, speaking as I would to a belligerent hiker who needed a show of force to prevent him from pitching his tent in a restricted area. Of course, belligerent hikers usually wore clothes…and they didn’t have the tendency to tear you apart with tooth and claw when annoyed.

Keith is part of my pack,” Wolfie said slowly and clearly, his wolf still very much in evidence behind his eyes. “If he’s your nephew, where have you been for the last decade since his mother died?”

“If he’s part of your pack,” I retorted, “why doesn’t my nephew know that he’s a werewolf?”

For the first time, I seemed to be gaining ground. Wolfie looked away, for all the world as if he were ashamed of his actions. “I’m working on it,” he muttered, and when he gazed back down at me, the alpha seemed a little more human. “We really should wait until Chase is here to have this discussion,” he continued quietly.

“Why?” I hurled back. “So you can act like a stuck-up alpha and have your friend translate for you? Are you too good to talk to a woman?”

This type of behavior was par for the course in most werewolf packs, where alphas required a husband or father to bring a complaint on behalf of a woman. Just thinking about that made me raging mad, so it took a moment for me to understand Wolfie’s response. Instead of answering immediately, the alpha had sunken down onto the ground to sit cross-legged, ignoring the sticks that I was sure were poking into his bare bum. And he added to the non-confrontational attitude by directing his words down into the ground. “No, I want Chase to talk to you because I’m a bloodling,” he said. “I always muck these things up.”

A bit of a growl had come back into Wolfie’s voice with the last word, but I finally realized that he was frustrated with himself, not with me. So I stayed silent as I mentally rearranged the past into different boxes in my head. If Wolfie were a bloodling, that would explain why he’d stayed in wolf form in the city. Most bloodlings were put down at birth, just like my little brother had been, and even the ones lucky enough to survive had trouble with their human forms. Bloodlings didn’t shift to become human for the first time until they were Keith’s age, and some of them took years after that to learn to speak. Wolfie probably did feel more comfortable with his milk brother acting as his spokesman.

On the one hand, Wolfie’s past made me more sympathetic to his prior actions. But on the other hand, the fact that the alpha was a bloodling made me want to keep Wolfie even further away from Keith. Bloodlings were very much in touch with their wolf nature, and knowing Wolfie was a bloodling made me yet more worried that he’d tear into a pre-shift male. The knowledge didn’t make me feel any more comfortable being alone in the woods with the alpha either.

While I was silently trying to figure out how to deal with this disaster, Wolfie had kept talking. “What I would have asked Chase to explain to you is that our pack lives on the far side of this mountain.” Just speaking about his blood brother seemed to bring out the humanity in Wolfie’s face and voice, so I let him continue unimpeded. “This whole county has been officially our territory for the last five years. I could tell you that you’re the one trespassing. Not that anyone minds when a beautiful wolf like you comes across the mountain.” As he finished, I realized that Wolfie was looking straight up between my bare breasts to get a glimpse of my face, which was turning beet red.

“I’m not a wolf,” I stuttered, picking the least useful part of Wolfie’s speech to fixate on, and I could see his more primal nature gleaming back through his eyes.

“Sure you are,” Wolfie answered. “Even when we’re in human form, we’re all still wolves.” Then he looked back down at the ground and moved on to a safer topic. “I would have asked Chase to tell you that we’ve been keeping an eye on your nephew, and that we’d be more than willing to help with his first shift.”

Just imagining what kind of “help” Wolfie would give Keith made me gasp involuntarily. Then I immediately regretted my lapse because I could have sworn the huge alpha in front of me knew exactly what was going through my head. His shoulders slumped as if I’d slapped him, and the alpha lowered his voice another notch so I had to strain to make out his words. “Chase would have said that better,” he muttered. Then, looking at my bare feet, he raised his voice a tiny bit and added, “Chase would be glad to come help with Keith’s change. He’s friends with Dr. Baker.”

I sighed, thinking of the mess I’d left behind me at the mansion on the hill. I’d have to find a way to explain my weird behavior and wiggle my way back into Dale’s good graces…plus sneak into my car to find some clothes before someone caught me running around the yard naked. Since Wolfie was currently acting oddly submissive, it seemed like a good time to take my leave and deal with this more pressing issue rather than to keep puzzling over the pack across the mountain. “I appreciate your offer,” I told the top of the alpha’s head as I turned to go. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

I was picking my way across the ground on bare feet, trying to dodge rough spots, when Wolfie’s parting shot hit me like a rock to the back of the head. “One more thing,” he added, the wolf winning out in his voice. “I would have had Chase ask you to go out on a date with me.”

Ignoring the damage to my feet, I took to my heels and fled.

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CHAPTER 7

 

When I returned to the house, it became clear how Dale had slept in the same bed as a werewolf for five years without figuring out his wife’s secret. My brother-in-law was clueless.

“Just in time for dinner!” he greeted me as I walked in the door wearing a different set of clothes than the ones I’d left in. The house smelled of browned beef and grated cheese, and I could tell my wolf was a little more awake than usual from the intensity of the odors and from the unwelcome ache in my bones, stronger than I’d felt in years. Ignoring the pain, I smiled warily at Dale, expecting the third degree, but all he wanted to know was how long I’d be staying.

“Well, I’m kinda between jobs at the moment,” I began, trying to figure out how to invite myself for an extended visit. I needn’t have worried.

“Brooke always assumed we’d have people living from the basement to the attic,” Dale confided as he pulled warm tortillas out of the oven. “That’s why we built such a big house. You’d be doing me a favor if you stayed for a few weeks and helped me get Keith sorted out. He looked a bit better after you left, but I know one session isn’t enough to fix everything.”

The man was almost pleading with me to come into his home and convert his son, and I felt a twinge of guilt that my purpose here wasn’t more charitable. It was either Keith or me, though, and the kid made me feel better about my traitorous plan as soon as he showed up for dinner. Dale had to beard his son in his lair and argue the teenager into sitting down with us, and even then, the youngster refused to eat the soft tacos his father had assembled. Instead, my nephew brought a box of cheerios and a jug of milk to the table and downed bowl after bowl of the floating cereal, ignoring his father’s attempts to draw him into conversation. Even as a bystander, the one-sided exchange was painful, and I was relieved when Dale gave up and turned to me instead.

“I understand we have a mutual friend,” my brother-in-law said to open the adult conversation. I struggled to figure out who he might be referring to, but Dale was quick to illuminate the mystery. “Chase called about an hour ago, hoping to catch up with you,” he continued. “I told him you’d gone out for a run, and invited him to the clinic-cleanup day tomorrow.”

I was saved from answering because Dale’s words drew a reaction from his son at last, although not the one Dale had been looking for. “Dad,” Keith whined. “I don’t have to go, do I?” I raised my eyebrows, thinking Dale must be roping people into hard labor, but instead it turned out the doctor was helping get a drug-rehab clinic up and running and was looking for volunteers for the last day of mopping and window cleaning before patients moved in. Like the good guy he obviously was, Chase had volunteered to help out.

And while I had a feeling our get-together was more Wolfie’s idea than Chase’s, the gathering did seem like safe, neutral ground to hash out our differences, so I acted enthusiastic about the opportunity to meet up with my “old friend.” Keith didn’t even try to feign excitement, but unlike his dining choices, the volunteer work wasn’t optional. “You’re going,” Dale said simply, and Keith rolled his eyes before returning to his study of the last cheerios melting in the bottom of his bowl.

“I hate to miss the cleanup,” Dale continued, returning his attention to me, “but I have to do my rounds at the hospital tomorrow morning….”

“I can take Keith,” I offered quickly, my guilt making me want to simplify my brother-in-law’s life, at least a little bit. I was eating the guy’s food and planning on stealing his son—the least I could do was a bit of ferry duty. But Dale had other plans.

“No, that’s all taken care of,” he replied. “I didn’t want to try to give you directions since it’s a bit tricky finding the place, so Chase will pick you both up tomorrow at ten.” The gangly doctor smiled at me as if he was doing me a big favor, and he probably thought he was—giving me an opportunity to spend more time with my old friend Chase.

Unfortunately, the last thing I wanted was to be stuck in a car with Wolfie, depending on the alpha’s good will to get me home. But there didn’t seem to be any way to wiggle my way out of the appointment, so I pasted a smile onto my face, thanked Dale for dinner, and did up the dishes like a good house guest. I might have been trying to turn his son into the heir of a bloodthirsty werewolf alpha, but I didn’t want Dale to think I was a layabout.

 

***

 

My basement room felt like a retreat after running the gauntlet of Keith’s indifference and Dale’s kindness during dinner, all while my wolf gnawed soundlessly but very noticeably at my bones. I sank onto the pull-out sofa with a sigh, ignoring the way the bar in the center dug into my back. As a ranger, I’d learned to sleep on anything, and since I was 100% sure the roof didn’t leak, this room met with my instant approval.

It was nearly dark outside and I could easily have fallen asleep, wiping the trials of the day away, but I had one more problem to overcome before I’d earned my rest. My father had given me a month to do his bidding, but he wasn’t a patient man, and I wanted to deliver Keith well under deadline. That meant teaching the kid to shift ASAP, and I was unlikely to do a good job as a mentor unless my wolf and I were on speaking terms. Our run today had given me hope that I might be able to push myself into a shift at will, and there was no time like the present to test that hypothesis.

After making sure the door was locked and the shades were drawn, I lay back on the couch and slowed my breathing. My most recent change had been the wolf’s idea, and my failure while searching for Melony could easily be dismissed as caused by stress during a difficult day. The truth was that I hadn’t tried to pull up my wolf in years except for those recent endeavors, preferring instead to act as human as possible while forced to live in a non-werewolf world. So I had no clue how hard or easy the shift would be.

Two hours later, I was forced to admit that the shift was neither hard nor easy—it was simply absent. My wolf refused to nibble at the bait, and I felt entirely as human when I finally gave up and flipped on the lamp as when I’d first laid down to meditate. The only change was that now I was 100% frustrated.

A soft tap on the door drew me away from my brown study. The room was small enough that I could turn the knob without leaving the bed, and I pulled the door open to reveal my nephew’s tall form. Keith was built like his father, but was even more awkward-looking since his muscle development was lagging behind his bone growth. There was another difference too—Keith was obviously more clueful than his father, as was evidenced by the first words out of his mouth.

“There’s a lot more going on than you’re telling Dad, isn’t there?” he asked.

I closed my eyes and took a deep breath. No way did I have the mental energy to have the Talk with an uninitiated werewolf right now. I was exhausted from my run and from the mental gyrations of the last few days, but I also didn’t want to blow Keith off when he was giving me an opening into his teenage psyche. Dale’s disjointed dinner conversation had proven one thing, at least—teenagers talked so rarely that you should listen when they did.

“Have you been sitting out in the hall all evening hoping my light would turn on?” I asked, stalling for time as I tried to decide on a plan of action.

Brooke’s son jerked one shoulder up into a shrug, then his mouth quirked upwards as well. “I had a feeling you weren’t sleeping,” he answered, and I couldn’t help smiling back at him. In that minute, his eyes looked just like my sister’s had when she’d stolen the last piece of pie that was supposed to be our father’s, then had shared it with me instead. The hint of innocent mischief was enough to raise a lump in my throat. Was I really going to turn this kid over to my father to be turned into a monster?

And, if not, was there any other way to get out of this situation with my skin intact?

Just like figuring out how to help Keith tune into his werewolf identity, that question was far too difficult to answer at the end of the world’s longest day. “Look,” I said, making up my mind, “I promise I’ll tell you far more than you ever want to know very soon, but tonight I’m so exhausted I can’t think straight. What do you do for fun around here?”

And that’s how I ended up playing Dance, Dance, Revolution with a fourteen-year-old boy at midnight in a mansion on top of a hill. It was the most fun I’d had in years.

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CHAPTER 8

 

The ceramic crack of pool balls drew me into a part of the basement I hadn’t yet explored. I’d thought Keith was still sound asleep, recovering from his near-shift the day before, but instead my nephew was carrying on the family tradition—practicing to be a world-class pool hustler. He had his feet apart, one hand resting on the table as he lined up a shot with the cue stick.

“I’ve been thinking,” the kid said without looking up, knowing with a wolf’s sensitivity to the surrounding world that I was standing in the open doorway behind him.

“Your grandfather likes to think at a pool table too,” I answered, my mind inexorably drawn backwards to childhood memories of my father honing his skills. Business meetings always happened in the pool house, which for us had nothing to do with swimming and had everything to do with pocket billiards. I’d never bothered to learn the game, but Brooke had been nearly as good as our father. No wonder her house had a pool table in the basement.

“That’s just what I was wondering,” my nephew continued, oblivious to my trip down memory lane. He hit the two ball into the far pocket and walked around the room so he could face me across the table while planning out his next move. “Dad obviously knew you existed, but I had no clue there was anyone alive on Mom’s side of the family. Then you show up without calling. Are you in trouble?”

I was glad that Keith didn’t look up to gauge my response to his question, and instead just sank another ball into the near pocket. The youngster’s lack of attention was helpful because my mind was racing. This wasn’t good. Why couldn’t Keith have inherited any of his father’s cluelessness?

Insightful questions like Keith’s weren’t going to make my mission any easier, but the ensuing interruption was even less welcome. “Yes, Ms. Wilder, are you in trouble?” Wolfie asked from the open glass doors leading to the outside. I’d scouted the area briefly when I carried in my belongings the previous afternoon, and I’d noted the security issues resulting from the way the house was built on a hill and opened into the woods on the basement side. But I had figured my wolf would keep an eye out for danger. Too bad she’d been caught napping at just the wrong moment.

Now, my wolf woke with a vengeance, causing Wolfie’s musky scent to swallow me in a sudden cloud even as pain ran down my arms and legs. Despite the danger, the smell was enticing, and I had to shove my wolf out of the way to focus on the alpha. I could sense Keith behind me feeling the first symptoms of a shift, brought on by my wolf’s alertness, so I walked away from my nephew and toward the alpha wolf who had invaded our home.

Not just invaded our home; he’d invaded my past. Wolfie’s words made it clear that he’d done enough research to track me back to my father, and his next question elucidated what he thought of said alpha. “How is Crazy Wilder doing?”

“What are you doing in my house?” I growled back, my words low enough that Keith might not even hear if his wolf had drifted back to sleep after I moved away. I knew I wouldn’t be lucky enough to get out of this situation without doing some major explaining for the kid, but right now I was more concerned about keeping a bloodling alpha away from my young nephew.

Before either Wolfie or I could throw down the gauntlet, though, a new voice drifted in from outside. “Hey, guys!” Chase was out of breath in his rush to perform crowd control, but I was still able to recognize the more stable wolf without taking my eyes away from the threat in front of me. Although Chase was clearly Wolfie’s second in command and probably would obey the alpha’s orders regardless of their sadism, I instantly relaxed when I realized the beta was present. Chase seemed to have a similar effect on Wolfie since I could see the wolf retreating out of the alpha’s eyes at the same time Keith stepped up beside me, a smile on his young face.

“Hey, Chase,” the kid said. “We’re ready to go.”

 

***

 

If I hadn’t been so tense, the battle of wills as we piled into Chase’s car would have been hilarious.

“Aunt Terra calls shotgun!” my useless nephew noted as Chase got into the driver’s side of the car. The teenager shot me a knowing glance, and it dawned on me that Keith probably thought the tension earlier was purely sexual. He’d apparently parsed Dale’s description of Chase as my “old friend” to mean that we’d dated, and was bound and determined to throw us back together. But despite the kid’s cuteness, there was no way I was letting my pre-change nephew ride in the backseat with a bloodling. Yes, it seemed unlikely that the alpha would attack Keith in plain view, but bloodlings cared a lot less about human social standards than the rest of us did. I wasn’t going to risk it.

“No, really, I’d rather ride in the backseat,” I demurred, stepping toward the back of the car. Unfortunately, Keith wasn’t easy to override.

“You get carsick in the back. Remember, Aunt Terra?” he said pointedly, jerking his head toward Chase. If I actually had harbored a crush on the beta, my nephew’s gestures would have been mortifying. As it was, they were just annoying, especially since Wolfie seemed to have picked up on my real purpose in dragging my feet. The alpha smirked at me and began to open the back passenger-side door, and I knew I had to squash this farce right here. Even if Keith was safely ensconced in the front seat, I still wanted Wolfie as far away from my nephew as possible, which meant the alpha needed to get into the other side of the car.

“Thank you,” I said to Wolfie, pretending he’d been holding the door open for me, and I quickly slid past him into the car. “I’ll really be fine in the back,” I tossed out to Keith. “Your long legs would be cramped back here.”

Keith shrugged, and I could have sworn Wolfie’s smirk grew even wider as the alpha strutted around the back of the car to get in beside me. I should have felt victorious, but somehow ended up thinking I’d been played.

 

***

 

“How are you feeling?” Chase asked Keith a few minutes later as we turned onto another winding country road. It was clear that Chase and my nephew knew each other well and were on good terms, presumably because of the volunteer work the beta performed with my brother-in-law. I gathered that this clinic project had been in the works for years and was just now coming to fruition, so I shouldn’t have been surprised to discover that Chase treated my nephew as an honorary little brother.

As Keith chattered away about how his father was pretending he had mono and keeping him home all week, I turned my attention to Wolfie. Despite the fact that the alpha was in human form, I could tell the wolf predominated since he’d rolled down the window so air could rush over his face, a very dog-like thing to do. My wolf nudged me, asking for the opportunity to partake of the same heady array of odors from the surrounding farmland, but I denied her the simple pleasure. We don’t have time for games, I warned, returning my wolf’s focus to Keith. Remember the young wolf? She muttered sullenly, but shifted her attention back to my nephew and away from the scent-laden air.

“Still having trouble with your darker half?” Wolfie breathed, his voice so low that I was sure Keith couldn’t hear. The guy was three for three today—he’d only asked three questions, but each one hit on an issue I truly didn’t want to address. I was silent, and Wolfie turned to look at me, leaning in a bit so he could speak even more quietly. “Chase reminded me how strange it is for a female werewolf to be packless.” He tilted his head to the side, inviting me to fill in the blanks, but I just shook my head and looked away.

My wolf was now toeing the line, staying below the level of my conscious thoughts, but I could feel her attraction to the striking alpha beside me. As much as I hated to admit it, I agreed—the man was every bit as eye-catching with clothes on as with clothes off, but he was also dangerous, both to me and to Keith. I couldn’t figure out how my father’s scouts could have neglected to report on such an obvious threat to my nephew, which made me concerned that there was even more going on than met the eye. Was Wolfie part of some plan to manipulate me, and if so, toward what end?

“We’re here!” my nephew exclaimed, bouncing out of the front seat before Chase had even turned off the engine. I had never been so glad to see a drug-rehab clinic. I unfastened my seat belt, which had started to feel like a torture restraint, and rushed after the teen werewolf.

 

***

 

Cleaning windows brought out my anal-retentive side, so I couldn’t really blame Keith for wandering off to work with the guys. Unfortunately, it didn’t make my task any easier to have to keep my nephew in sight while scrubbing down grimy glass.

“Oops, was that your face?” the kid said. “I thought it was the window.” Wolfie wiped a dribble of window-cleaning fluid off his forehead and I tensed, waiting for the explosion that was bound to follow. But Wolfie merely reached calmly behind them for the mop bucket and upended it over my nephew’s head, foamy water spilling down over the teenager’s ears. Before long, the two were wrestling on the industrial-tile floor, which, given their soapy exteriors, could loosely be considered mopping.

“They’re like wolf cubs,” Chase said, coming up behind me and handing over a paper mug of hot chocolate. I turned to smile at the beta, enjoying his presence despite myself. The packless ache in my stomach returned in a rush, and the warm liquid I was sipping didn’t do much to dull what was obviously a psychosomatic pain. “Wolfie told you he’s a bloodling,” his friend continued, watching the rough-housing in front of us with fond eyes.

“My little brother was a bloodling,” I answered, the non sequitur drawing Chase’s gentle attention back to me. “Father drowned him,” I added. “I always figured there was no way for bloodlings to fit in around humans, or even around other werewolves, but Wolfie seems to manage.” I hated to admit it, but the evidence in front of me also suggested I had been overreacting about the alpha’s potential for harming Keith, and I wondered how else I’d misconstrued Wolfie’s actions.

“He takes some getting used to,” Chase said thoughtfully, parsing my mood correctly. He scuffed his boot against the floor before continuing tentatively. “Maybe you’d like to come and meet the pack sometime. I think you’d understand Wolfie better if you saw the outcasts he’s pulled together into a solid family.”

“Outcasts?” I was intrigued in spite of myself. Not that I didn’t have plenty of issues of my own without getting sucked into Wolfie’s drama, but it felt good to spend a minute not worrying over my wolf, Keith, and my father.

“Halfies and full humans, and a few crazy purebloods like me,” Chase said with a self-deprecating laugh. “Although Wolfie says you’re a werewolf princess, too good for the likes of us.”

I turned away from Keith, giving Chase my full attention at last. “I hope you know that’s crazy,” I chided him. “That’s not what’s going through my head at all.” There was a little zing of heat between me and Chase suddenly, although nothing like what Wolfie had yanked out of my baser nature in the car. Chase was a good-looking guy, and I wished I wasn’t irresistibly drawn to the bad boys—troubled alphas like my father. Not that attraction made any difference since I was celibate by choice given the options: human men, who I might accidentally change in front of, or asshole werewolves. Focus, reminded my wolf, for once proving herself the smarter half of our alliance.

“I know,” Chase said, checking in with his alpha with a quick flick of his eyes before looking back at me. “I just meant that if you’re in trouble, Wolfie will want to help. Heck, we’ll all want to help.”

He paused, giving me the opportunity to spill my guts. And I wanted to. I really, really wanted to. But no matter how nice Chase seemed to be, he was a male werewolf, and I knew I couldn’t trust him.

I wasn’t quite sure what I was going to say next, but footsteps echoing off the tile floor put an abrupt end to our conversation. We turned to see who was walking through the front entrance, and I squinted against the strong light beaming in from the outdoors. Werewolf, my wolf reported before my eyes had adjusted to take in the stranger’s features.

Only he wasn’t a stranger. “Milo?” I asked, recognizing a cousin who had been Keith’s age when I left home.

“Terra the Terror,” Milo answered, the smile on his lips not reaching his eyes. “The Chief sent me to check on you.”

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CHAPTER 9

 

I had forgotten how quickly werewolves could move. Before I had opened my mouth to reply, Chase was hustling Keith down the corridor out of danger and Wolfie had taken the beta’s place by my side. And despite my mixed feelings about Wolfie, I was glad to have the backup because Milo, not I, had been the terror when we were kids. My cousin had been one of those boys who enjoyed tearing wings off butterflies, and now he looked like the adult version of that aggressive child—dark suit, glistening leather shoes, and the bulge of a gun under his dress jacket all adding to the image of a mob enforcer. Or, more likely, the Chief’s enforcer.

I could feel the hackles of both male wolves rise as they eyed each other, even though they were still clothed in their human skin. “Wolf Young, pack alpha,” Wolfie growled, forcing my cousin into a bone-crushing handshake, and Milo’s eyes narrowed in response. This was only the third time I’d seen Wolfie use his alpha dominance, and the effort turned him into a completely different person. Gone was the jovial wolf who would let a kindergartner maul him, replaced by a ruthless alpha like my father. Only, instead of being terrified of Wolfie, this time I was glad to have him at my back. “You’re on pack land,” Wolfie continued ominously.

“I’m here to speak to my alpha’s daughter and grandson,” Milo replied, his tone nearly as gruff as Wolfie’s. But my cousin couldn’t quite pull off the alpha persona, and after a moment his eyes shifted to the side, which made Wolfie huff out a canine laugh. Milo ignored the taunt, and although his jaw tensed, he held his physical ground.

“Proper protocol would have been to seek out the alpha of their new pack first,” Wolfie said, and I could have sworn the wolf behind his eyes was having fun. I’d heard my father pull rank so many times, the move should have been familiar, but it felt different coming from Wolfie, as if the younger alpha was playing the system rather than being swept up by werewolf machismo. Father had always been on a power trip, requiring interlopers to go through him first to prove the alpha’s dominance, but I had a feeling Wolfie didn’t usually greet intruders in this manner. He was only being surly because of the potential for danger to me and Keith.

“A pack leader doesn’t have to ask permission to speak to his heir,” Milo shot back, his eyes locking onto Wolfie’s. As much as I hated to admit it, Milo had a good point. Werewolf society was dressed up with all kinds of complicated social rules, the point of which was to keep bloodshed to a minimum. The relevant guideline in this situation was clear: no matter where a pack leader’s heir wandered, the heir remained under the alpha’s protection and control.

I shivered, imagining my nephew being dragged back to Haven by my blood-thirsty cousin, and I could feel Milo’s wolf rising in the extended silence. My own wolf responded by pushing against her bars, but Wolfie didn’t seem affected—his wolf had already been rampant, so there wasn’t much further for it to go without fur sprouting out of the alpha’s ears.

Instead, the young alpha seemed perfectly calm as he responded for both of us. “Keith isn’t Wilder’s heir,” Wolfie replied. “He’s mine.”

 

***

 

Milo and I both stared at Wolfie as if he were crazy, and the alpha’s lips curled up into a grin. Yes, the bloodling really was enjoying this.

“Brooke and I had an understanding when she brought the boy onto pack land,” Wolfie explained, and I realized with a jolt that the man beside me was lying through his teeth. Wolfie’s pack hadn’t lived on the mountain when Brooke first moved here—Wolfie had been the one moving into another wolf’s territory, in part, I was now guessing, to protect my nephew.

But my analysis of the situation simply didn’t make sense. Although our animal side was cunning, werewolves couldn’t tell outright untruths when our wolf was in charge, and I couldn’t quite figure out how Wolfie could be both the most wolf-like person I’d ever met, and still hold onto the human trait of deception. No matter how Wolfie pulled it off, I hoped Milo wouldn’t have enough facts to realize the alpha was lying. If my cousin twigged to any inconsistencies, hopefully he’d get caught up in the same mental tangle I was currently pushing my way through.

Wolfie ignored both of our shock as he kept spinning his enticing lie. “The grandson of an alpha would present a threat to my status if the boy wasn’t clearly kin, so Brooke and I took a blood oath and I accepted Keith as my heir.” He raised a challenging eyebrow at my father’s enforcer. “As you probably know, that supersedes any claim your pack leader may have on the boy. So you can go home.”

Milo moved as if to obey the outright command, his face turning red at the involuntary reaction to another pack leader’s order. Then, with an effort, my cousin turned his attention away from Wolfie to speak directly to me. “I don’t know what the deal is with Keith, Terra, but Chief Wilder said to tell you these precise words: ‘You or him.’”

“It’s only been two days!” I exclaimed, the sentence popping out of my mouth before I could think it through. I could already feel my father yanking me back to Haven, and the tug of his command terrified me. In fact, my father scared me far more than the alpha beside me did, I realized as Wolfie laid a possessive arm loosely around my waist. I would have thought the contact would feel confining, but instead I relaxed slightly, my wolf retreating out of my eyes at the alpha’s touch.

I knew that my accidental words would have repercussions, but, wolf-like, the man beside me seemed willing to deal with the present danger first. Wolfie kept his gaze trained on my cousin as he coldly bared his teeth in what would look like a smile to humans…but wasn’t. “You’ve delivered your message,” the alpha said coldly. “Now go.” Milo jerked his head in a farewell, as if he’d meant to leave anyway, but it was clear that the alpha’s command spurred his quick exit.

The two of us stood in silence until my cousin was out of sight, then Wolfie turned toward me and raised that eyebrow that was getting such a workout today. “We need to talk,” he began.

“We do,” I agreed. “After I check on Keith.”

 

***

 

I didn’t slow down until I’d rushed around to the back of the building and could see the beta and my nephew through the dirt-encrusted windows. There was more work getting done now that Chase was Keith’s partner, but the kid still seemed to be having fun, if the huge smile on his face was any indication. I could feel the tension in my back easing at the sight.

“They’re fine,” Wolfie said, grabbing my shoulder to spin me around to face him. Despite my previous conclusions about his good intentions, I instantly shrank back from the alpha’s firm grasp, and he let me go as if I were on fire. A wolf-like growl burst up from his chest, and I took another step backwards even though I was at least partially sure the bloodling’s reaction was pure frustration.

Unlike every other alpha-leaning male I’d ever met, though, Wolfie seemed to instinctively know how to defuse his dominance. He dropped into a sitting position so I was towering over him rather than vice versa, and I slowly joined him on the ground. The lawn was chilly, but the sun felt good on my face, so I sat silently for a minute, collecting myself, and Wolfie let me take the time I needed.

“That was a lie about Keith being your heir,” I started tentatively, once the sun had driven away most of my earlier chill.

“I do consider him part of my pack,” Wolfie answered, his correction sufficing as confirmation of my earlier statement. Now it was the alpha’s turn to pause as he worked his mind around an undemanding way to ask me what my intentions were toward my nephew. Because my accidental word choice with Milo made it clear that I hadn’t showed up simply to help Keith through his first shift.

When I didn’t offer any explanation, Wolfie suggested, “Chief Wilder sent you to bring Keith back into the fold.” Ashamed of my own willingness to consider the plan, but figuring lying was no longer an option, I nodded agreement. “But you aren’t going to bring Keith to Haven,” Wolfie continued as if this second statement was as obvious as the first.

“What am I supposed to do instead?” I burst out. “Father said it was Keith or me….” I let my voice trail off, though, as I realized that Wolfie was right. I’d only known my nephew for twenty-four hours, but already I realized that my father would chew the boy up and spit him out. I couldn’t set up such a good-natured kid for that kind of soul-crushing. Better that I suck it up and go back to Haven myself—after all, I’d already enjoyed a decade of freedom. I probably had been tougher than Keith even when I was his age, and unlike my nephew, I would survive my father’s attention. I sighed, accepting the inevitable.

Wolfie had no such fatalism. “We’ll think of a way to fix it.” He reached out and took my hand in his massive paw, which woke my wolf up with a jolt. Instead of the pain I’d felt recently whenever my wolf was present, though, a tremor of pleasure rushed through my body. The innocent skin-on-skin contact suddenly felt thoroughly erotic, and my breath caught in my throat. Breathe, demanded my wolf. I want to smell him.

Wolfie’s mouth turned up into a smile, almost as if he’d heard my wolf’s reaction, and I blushed furiously. “There’s just one more thing we need to talk about right now,” the alpha rumbled gently.

“What?” I asked, trying to figure out which other disaster had attracted Wolfie’s attention.

“Whether you’ll go out on a date with me tomorrow,” the alpha replied.

 

***

 

It was a day of interruptions, but this was one I was grateful for. “There you are,” Dale called toward us as he strolled around the corner of the building. “The clinic’s looking great, isn’t it?”

My brother-in-law was so homely and human that he made the werewolf beside me seem even more dangerously beautiful. Emphasis on dangerous. Despite my wolf’s complaints, I yanked my hand free of Wolfie’s and got to my feet, dusting off the back of my jeans and turning away from the alpha without a backward glance.

“Rounds go okay?” I asked, and Dale was quick to gratify my curiosity. When I turned to wave goodbye to Wolfie a minute later, the alpha merely looked amused by my escape, rather than angry, so I let my brother-in-law draw me toward his minivan, where a sodden Keith was already waiting in the back seat. My nephew had sunken into avid contemplation of a hand-held gaming device, and in that instant he looked as entirely normal as his father did. I could almost imagine that Keith wasn’t a young werewolf, and that I wouldn’t have to figure out how to help him change into wolf form and then how to protect him from my father. But as I got into the car, the kid’s eyes turned up to meet mine in the rear-view mirror, and I could see the hint of worry in his face. “We’ll talk soon,” I mouthed, and my nephew smirked briefly before turning back to his game.

I’d never been part of a normal family before, and despite Brooke’s absence, I could almost touch the solidity of the unit she’d left behind. I offered to help Dale cook dinner, and it felt comfortable to be chatting about our day as I chopped carrots and he sautéed up a stir fry. Keith was his usual, uncommunicative self over dinner, but when Dale was called back to the hospital in the middle of the meal, my nephew volunteered to help me wash up the skillet and rinse the dishes before they went into the dishwasher. Despite Milo’s visit, I was surprised to realize that the packless ache in my stomach had nearly entirely fled.

“So, which one of those guys are you dating?” Keith asked out of the blue as he ferried a load of plates from table to sink.

That pulled me out of my happy, pack-filled glow and my eyebrows shot up. “I’m not dating either one!” I exclaimed. While literally true, the words felt a bit off as they bounced around the kitchen.

“Hmm,” my nephew hummed noncommittally. “You definitely like one of them.”

“We’re not all in high school, Keith,” I retorted, but couldn’t help smiling at the kid who suddenly reminded me of his mother. Brooke had always known exactly what everyone was feeling in our household, and Keith had evidently inherited the knack. Even though I’d lost my sister far too soon, it felt more sweet than bitter to notice those traits in her son. “Wouldn’t you rather talk about your problem?” I deflected, figuring we might as well get the Talk over with while Keith was feeling happy and I wasn’t drooping with exhaustion.

“Naw,” Keith answered. “We’ve got all day tomorrow while Dad’s at work and I’m home sick. Right now, I’m more interested in your loooove life.” He drew out the word in the way only a teenager could, and I laughed despite myself. But I still shook my head, refusing to dish up any more information.

“Girls always like the bad boys,” Keith concluded. “That’s a shame. Chase is a pretty cool guy.”

A day ago, I would have agreed with Keith that it was too bad. But I was starting to realize that Wolfie possessed a depth that the bad-guy image didn’t begin to cover. Not that I was interested in either one of them, of course.

Right, my wolf responded, pulling me out of my thoughts. I would have liked to think she was agreeing about my lack of interest in the young alpha, but I knew sarcasm when I heard it.

Focus, I reminded my wolf. And myself.

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CHAPTER 10

 

I had thought it was a good idea to hike up the mountain with Keith before explaining werewolf culture and helping him through his first shift. The uphill climb would smooth out the boy’s jitters, and if my nephew freaked out about his wolf form, he’d have a long way to run before he could do any damage.

The flaw in my plan only became apparent as we crested the ridge. There lay Wolfie in canine form, lounging in the same ray of sunlight he’d been enjoying two days before. The wolf barked a welcome as we came closer, and I rolled my eyes, trying to decide whether to turn around and go home.

“That’s Chase’s dog,” Keith explained, sitting down beside the alpha werewolf to give him a belly rub. “He’s harmless,” my nephew continued, as if my reaction was due to fear of being bitten by a strange dog. I wished a dog bite was the only thing I had to worry about.

The day was already off to a bad start, but I figured I’d better ignore the alpha and barrel on through. “So…” I stretched out the word, trying to figure out how to begin. “If your mother was still alive, she’d be the one telling you this,” I started. “Well, it really should be your father, but…”

“…He’s clueless,” Keith finished for me. “I really hope this isn’t all a lead up to telling me about the birds and the bees, Aunt Terra, because I promise, I’ve heard that before.”

The kid’s charisma was already shining through despite his teenage gawkiness, and I figured Keith would be putting his sex-ed knowledge to use much earlier than the average teenager. I barely resisted the urge to pat his tousled hair, and I smiled despite myself, imagining Keith’s reserved father trying to give his son the other kind of talk. Dale would get so embarrassed about the subject that he wouldn’t even be able to start the conversation. “I’ll bet you didn’t learn about the birds and the bees from Dale,” I retorted, laughing at the image.

“He bought me a book,” Keith confirmed. My nephew moved his attention up to Wolfie’s ears, which apparently were in dire need of scratching from the expression on the wolf’s face. Or maybe the alpha was just amused at my fumbling attempt to educate my nephew.

“So, right, not about the birds and the bees,” I continued. “I guess I should start out by telling you that your grandfather isn’t a very nice guy, which is why your mother ran away from home so young. I did too.” That had finally gotten Keith’s attention and he watched me as I paced nervously in front of him. After another bout of extended silence (and pacing), I figured I might as well just spit it all out. “I guess I said that wrong,” I corrected myself. “Your grandfather isn’t a very nice werewolf.”

It was only after Keith started laughing that I realized the kid didn’t believe a word I was saying. Okay, sure, he probably believed his grandfather was an asshole, but tossing out the term “werewolf” with no lead-in had made my nephew think I was making a joke. And as much as I tried to bring him back down to reality, Keith had determined we were kidding around.

“That’s a good one, Aunt Terra,” he gasped finally, when his belly laughs were all played out. “But what did you really drag me up here to say?”

“I…”I began, but Wolfie had decided to take matters into his own hands. Or, paws, rather. The werewolf stood and walked a couple of feet away from Keith, then shifted into human form.

 

***

 

“Whoa!” Keith exclaimed. “You weren’t kidding!”

“And you’re not helping!” I shot at Wolfie. Sure, the alpha had made my point abundantly clear, but I didn’t think my nephew was ready to see shifters in action when he probably thought they existed only in comic books. Figuring that I’d better get ready to deal with symptoms of shock, I squelched my anger at the alpha and reached out a hand toward my nephew.

Keith didn’t seem as traumatized as I’d expected him to be, though. “You need some clothes, dude,” was his first statement to the wolf who had suddenly turned into a man. Clearly, Keith’s teenage world view expected to see ten impossible things before breakfast, and Wolfie smirked at me as if to say, I told you so. Okay, maybe the alpha had a better feel for the situation than I did after all.

“You’ll get used to the nudity,” I told Keith, even though I clearly wasn’t. My wolf was fully alert now and begging to come out to play, but I didn’t want to make Keith shift immediately after taking in the notion of werewolves being real. It was tough tearing my eyes away from Wolfie, though, especially since he seemed to be giving off an even more enticing aroma than previously. Okay, yes, the alpha’s nakedness was a factor in my intense gaze too.

“My clothes are down there,” Wolfie answered Keith, pointing over the other side of the mountain, where we could just make out a colony of mobile homes through the trees. “I thought we might go down and meet the pack.” The alpha looked at me challengingly, and I shrugged, turning the question over to my nephew with a tilt of my head.

“Are there girls in your pack?” Keith asked, and I rolled my eyes again. Just what I needed—a teenage werewolf more interested in the concept of seeing naked female bodies than in his own shift.

 

***

 

“Humans in the house!” came the call from the kitchen as we entered the first trailer. “Put on some clothes.”

The werewolf compound consisted of six mobile homes lined up in a rectangle with a huge greenhouse atrium filling the center. As we’d walked up from the outside, I saw doors scattered along each wall’s length, giving the inhabitants easy access to the outdoors. Inside, walls had been ripped out to join the trailers into one structure, and large windows had been inserted into the atrium-side walls, turning the compound into an intriguing example of modern redneck architecture.

The contents of the first trailer were even more interesting than the architecture, though. Four young werewolves were scattered around what seemed to be a communal living room, and I was surprised that no one stopped what they were doing when Wolfie entered the room. I was used to an alpha’s presence having an instant dampening effect on his male underlings, who would have immediately stood to attention in my old pack. Women in Haven were expected to avert their eyes and to make themselves scarce. But no one here seemed particularly interested in Wolfie. Until, that is, the alpha called out an answer to the still-unseen speaker, “There are no humans here, Tia.”

That silenced the crowd and trained every eye on me and Keith. Before anyone else could speak, a middle-aged woman walked out of the kitchen, wiping her hands on a dishtowel and looking us over. “You’re right,” she said, and a wide smile of welcome sprang out onto her face. “You must be Keith and Terra. Chase has told me a lot about you.”

The woman appeared to be the pack mother of the clan, and I guessed from her words that she was Chase’s parent. I liked Tia right away, but hated the way my heart sank at her words. Despite myself, I wished that Wolfie had been the one telling this mother figure a lot about me, clear proof that I’d spent too much time lately talking to my wolf.

So I was glad when Keith drew my attention back to the task at hand. “Everyone here is a werewolf?” the teenager asked. In his shoes, I would have been daunted by the prospect, but my nephew just appeared intrigued.

“Well, we’re all werewolf kin,” a young woman a few years older than Keith answered him. “Some of us are halfies like me, or are technically humans. But, yeah, most of us can shift.”

As the girl continued talking, their alpha slipped away down the hall, and I gave my wolf a little slap to remind her to pay less attention to the naked man and more attention to the nephew we were supposed to be protecting. Not that Keith seemed to need any help. I was overwhelmed to be in the middle of a pack again after so long, but the kid was eagerly lapping up the attention as each werewolf introduced himself. Keith was clearly in his element, glad-handing the lot of them like he was a politician on the campaign trail—my nephew’s alpha blood coming out at last. But even though I was glad he was happy, I was feeling more overwhelmed by the minute. Loud voices and strong wolf odors were making the walls appear to close in around me, and as I strained to make out Keith’s words to ensure he was okay, I realized that even sound seemed to be receding into the distance.

My panic attack was so engrossing that I didn’t notice at first when Wolfie ended up back by my side, this time clad in jeans and a button-down flannel shirt. I could feel his wolf, though, and my own darker side rose up to meet it, which had the fortunate side effect of squashing my panic. My inner wolf saw no reason to be concerned about these obviously friendly pack mates, and she saw every reason to be interested in the scents wafting off the alpha beside us. So I let her have her head…or rather our head…for a few seconds as I caught my breath.

“Do you want us to help him shift?” that alpha asked by way of greeting, cutting right to the chase. His brown eyes were piercing as he trained them on my face and ignored everyone else in the room. I, on the other hand, couldn’t resist casting one more glance around the common area, noticing that no one had batted an eyelash when Wolfie walked back in. This really did appear to be a very different kind of pack than the one I’d grown up in.

Wolfie’s words were also unusual for an alpha, since most pack leaders would have just taken over and decided when a young male was ready to shift. It was traditional for a group of older males to help a younger male through his initial change, and given how hard it had been to pin down my own wolf lately, I figured Wolfie’s suggestion was probably a safer move than having me walk Keith through his first change of form alone. On the other hand, I was the one who would have to deal with the aftermath over the next few days and weeks, so I was leery of initiating Keith’s shift until I had my own wolf under better control. I muddled my way through the explanation, expecting Wolfie to laugh at my inability to shift, but instead, he just seemed puzzled.

“I saw you as a wolf,” the alpha said, confused. Of course he wouldn’t understand how much I struggled with keeping my wolf down and letting her rise at will since he’d met me once in human form in the city and once in wolf form in the woods—perfectly appropriate werewolf behavior.

“And she was beautiful. I remember,” I answered wryly, recalling Wolfie’s words to me on the mountaintop.

You are beautiful,” Wolfie corrected me again, just as he had when we first spoke in human form. “There is no you and she,” he elaborated. “There’s just us, the wolf.”

“Maybe for a bloodling,” I countered. “But it’s not that easy. Female werewolves change uncontrollably, you know that. When I left Haven, I had to take control of my shifts to protect all of the humans around me. Unfortunately, I seem to have done too good of a job of taking control.”

He tilted his head to the side, considering, and then understanding slowly dawned in the alpha’s eyes. “You’re the opposite of a bloodling,” Wolfie suggested. “You’ve let the human take over. You don’t even realize the wolf is no more animal than the rest of you is.” He paused, then added playfully, “It’s not like you’re going to eat small children.”

I flushed, thinking of Wolfie walking through the city on a tiny leash that wouldn’t have held him back if he’d taken a notion to bite the hand off that kindergartner…and of my own wolf’s reaction to an earlier child. “But your wolf is different,” I countered. Never mind that bloodling wolves were supposed to be less able to handle life around humans, not more able.

“How so?” the alpha asked, cocking his head to the side again in honest question.

Which is precisely when I realized that I’d been having this entire conversation with the wolf, not the man. To my chagrin, I couldn’t quite figure out whether that underlined my point, or belied it.

 

***

 

Before I could answer, my attention was drawn back to Keith, and to the trio of males who were stripping in the middle of the living room. There was only one reason Keith’s newfound friends would be getting naked in tandem, and despite my confusion about other issues, I was 100% sure I didn’t want my nephew to change for the first time right now.

“They’re not going to shift?” I asked frantically. “I don’t think Keith’s ready to experience his wolf yet….” Whether or not Keith was ready, I sure wasn’t, but it appeared that my nephew’s first shift was only seconds away.

Taking deep calming breaths, I struggled to pull up my own wolf in preparation. Ever since Wolfie had met us on the mountaintop, my wolf had been hovering in the background, but now she appeared to be sound asleep and refused to answer my call. This was precisely why we needed to wait on Keith’s first shift, but I obviously didn’t have any say in the matter. I could see the gleam in my nephew’s eye as he reached up to unbutton his shirt, putting a hand on one werewolf’s shoulder as he kicked off a shoe. We were fast approaching liftoff, no matter how not ready I was.

Stop,” Wolfie said, barely raising his voice. But despite its quietness, the single word cut through the crowd and froze everyone in their tracks. I realized I’d been holding my breath, and let it out in a sudden gust of air. “Ten steps away,” the alpha continued in a more normal tone of voice, and the young werewolf males rolled their eyes, but backed up.

“He’s ready, Wolfie,” one complained, but Wolfie just watched silently before turning back to me.

“They’ll give him an example today,” the alpha told me, his words loud enough to carry across the room. “Then we’ll work on you and let Keith shift another day.”

I felt like an over-protective mother when the guys shifted in tandem and my nephew’s only response was a crowing “Wicked cool!” But I didn’t have much time to obsess over the issue, because Wolfie was already changing gears.

“So, about that date…” he began. Then, before I could argue, Wolfie continued. “Keith will be just fine here for a few hours.” And despite my mother-hen instincts, I knew the alpha was right.

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CHAPTER 11

 

I had assumed a date would mean dinner and perhaps a movie, but I should have realized that nothing was conventional around Wolfie. Instead, he herded me out into the atrium, where bushy fig trees and ceiling-high tomato vines were thriving despite the autumnal chill.

“Hey, boss,” called a tanned beauty about my age from the other side of a garden bed, and I was embarrassed to feel my wolf wake up and growl nearly audibly. I thought I had smothered the sound, but Wolfie’s cheek quirked up into a lop-sided smile.

“Galena,” he called back. “This is Terra from across the mountain.” The woman waved a welcome, and then another female werewolf popped up in front of us, surprising a gasp out of me. Just as beautiful as Galena, but with a buzz haircut that showed off her slender neck, this second werewolf swooped in to give Wolfie a deep kiss on the mouth, and this time I wasn’t able to stifle my wolf’s complaint.

“I’d be jealous if I had the slightest notion you swung that way, Quetzalli” Galena called across the garden beds, and it took me a minute to realize she was talking to the swooping kisser.

“I’m Galena’s partner,” the second woman explained to me with a smirk, breaking the kiss but continuing to tease me by trailing a finger over Wolfie’s chest. The alpha leaned into the woman’s touch, and to my chagrin my wolf growled more loudly, prompting Wolfie and Quetzalli both to laugh at my reaction.

Again, it was Galena who pointed out that I was being played. Walking around the garden bed to join us at last, she slapped the alpha lightly on the chest, right where her partner’s fingers had been just moments before. “Play nice, Wolfie,” she admonished, her voice light and with no hint of the jealousy my wolf was feeling. She didn’t bother to chastise her partner, merely taking the other woman’s hand and dimpling as she offered up her own mouth to be kissed.

“Just seeing if Terra likes me,” the alpha rumbled in reply, but he lowered his head in submission to the tiny werewolf. Despite my wolf’s reaction to Quetzalli’s game, I couldn’t help smiling to see such a massive alpha letting the minuscule woman boss him around, and my mood mellowed further at the real show of affection between Quetzalli and Galena.

“You can walk her through our suite if she wants to see what it’s like,” Galena continued, letting her partner go with a smile and heading back around the raised bed so she could heft a bundle of weeds into a wheelbarrow. Just glancing around, I could tell the greenhouse was a serious effort of space-saving food production, and this duo seemed to be the wolves in charge. So far, I liked what I saw…especially once it became clear that these bronzed beauties weren’t really interested in the alpha.

“Do you?” Wolfie asked, raising that sexy eyebrow at me, and it took a second for me to realize he was asking if I wanted to see their suite.

“If you’re sure they won’t mind?” I answered, and Wolfie led the way across cobblestones and through sliding glass doors into the couple’s quarters.

It was hard to tell that the suite was half of a single-wide trailer since the space had been completely gutted and rebuilt, one room turned into a bedroom and the other into a private studio, sitting room, and seed-starting zone. Wolfie waved a hand at a row of sticks poking out of pots by the windows. “If the green thumbs were here, they would tell you those are grape cuttings.” He went on to explain that the seedlings were kale, tatsoi, and tokyo bekana, ready to go into outside beds, and I was surprised that an alpha cared enough to learn the specifics of his wolves’ trades. We walked back through the atrium and into the suite opposite, which was full of another surprise—banks of computer equipment.

“What’s all this?” I asked, startled. Werewolves tended to stick to the past—I knew a lot of adult werewolves who never learned to drive, preferring horses and buggies. Similarly, cell phones, computers, and other modern gadgets were generally ignored, but Wolfie’s pack seemed to be high-tech, even by non-werewolf standards.

“This,” Wolfie said, gesturing at the rows of monitors, “is how we pay the bills. We provide computer security for big companies. Chase and I do a lot of the heavy lifting, but even the yahoos you saw changing in front of Keith put in a few hours a week on the simple stuff.”

I was starting to relax, since this date looked like more of a pack tour than a social outing, but Wolfie liked to keep me on my toes. “And this,” he added, “is where I give you the kiss your wolf keeps asking for.” He tilted my head up to meet his lips, and if I’d been a werecat instead of a werewolf, I would have purred.

 

***

 

“Are you ready for your next lesson?” the alpha whispered in my ear as he pulled back out of our kiss. I had no clue what kind of lesson Wolfie was talking about, but I was wobbly enough from the lip lock that I just nodded and allowed him to pull me out the door on the opposite side of the computer lab and into the outdoors.

“It’s your choice whether you’d feel more comfortable working on your shift outside or inside,” the alpha said, bursting my blissful bubble. “My room is over here,” he added, pointing away from the common area to a door on the far corner of the compound. “Or we can head back up onto the mountain if you want even more privacy.”

I tensed up immediately. This wasn’t the kind of lesson I was interested in at the moment, and my wolf agreed. The two of us had finally come to the conclusion that Wolfie was a good guy, and we were interested in seeing more of his bare skin, not in working on changing forms. I hadn’t allowed myself to have sex with anything that didn’t plug into the wall since leaving Haven, and now that Wolfie had woken up my sexual side with a kiss, I was having trouble putting it back to sleep.

To my annoyance, Wolfie laughed at me. “You should see the look on your face,” he explained. “At least you’re talking to your wolf now. What does she want?” My face turned bright red and Wolfie laughed even harder.

“Isn’t this supposed to be a date?” I countered to cover my embarrassment. “Yes, I agree, I need to figure out how to get my shift back under control so I can help Keith, but that’s work, and dates are supposed to be fun.”

Wolfie shook his head at me sadly. “That’s where you’re wrong, Terra. Shifting is fun. It’s a roller coaster and sexy as hell. How could you forget that?”

“Maybe shifts are like that for a bloodling,” I said, then regretted the words immediately when Wolfie’s head bowed down, his boyish enthusiasm gone.

“Is that how you think of me?” he asked. “Am I just a wolf to you?”

This was a tough question, and one I didn’t particularly care to answer. Having met Wolfie in wolf form, it felt natural to think of his wolf first and the man second. And the wolf did seem to be looking out of the man’s eyes a lot of the time, even when Wolfie was in human form. In fact, it was Wolfie’s strong canine presence that made me feel a little better about reclaiming my own wolf. On the other hand, I definitely didn’t have a fur fetish, and I thought Wolfie was unbelievably hot, so, no, I didn’t just see his wolf.

Oops, had I said that last bit out loud? This seemed to be the day for me to practice my blushing and for the sexy alpha to laugh at me, but it was better than seeing his head bowed down in pain.

“We’ll get to that,” Wolfie promised, tweaking my nose, which just annoyed me even more. “But it sounds like I now owe you a real, human date.”

 

***

 

“First dates are supposed to be awkward, right?” Wolfie asked after we were seated in a booth at the only restaurant in town—a Mexican joint with flashy sombreros lining the walls.

“Why? Do you feel awkward?” I asked. Wolfie never looked like he felt awkward, although he certainly seemed to prompt that emotion in the people around him. Just a few minutes earlier, the alpha had stared into the eyes of the man who held the door open for me until the guy let go of the handle and nearly crushed me with the closing door. I gathered the glare was due to Wolfie feeling possessive, because after the guy fled, my date had just smiled contentedly. The werewolf across from me hadn’t felt awkward about that faux pas though, and he certainly didn’t seem to be feeling awkward now either, so I was stumped by his question.

“Nope,” Wolfie replied, carefully easing the wrapper back onto his straw so he could shoot it across the room…again. “I just wanted to make sure you were getting the human-date experience.”

I had to laugh…and to put my hand over the straw to prevent him from firing round two. “I think this part of the date is where we’re supposed to get to know one another,” I explained, feeling like I was twenty years older than the guy across from me.

“Oh, right,” Wolfie said agreeably, pulling a printout from his pocket. He read over the page, mumbling to himself. “Who’s my best friend? You know that already. Do you have a nickname? Terra the Terror—pretty good. How about this—what was your family like growing up?” The alpha turned his gaze back on me and it was all I could do to restrain myself from reaching across the table and kissing him again. He was boyfully mischievous…and irresistible.

“Okay, you’re right, this is stupid,” I agreed. “What do you want to do on our date?”

 

***

 

We parked at an overlook, the valley spreading out below us and the first stars starting to blink to life in the indigo sky. Wolfie had selected a battered pickup truck from the three vehicles parked in front of the pack’s compound when we first left, and I’d initially thought that was a bit of a strange date ride. But now I realized that Wolfie had planned from the beginning to take me here, and hadn’t wanted a center console to stand in his way.

The alpha unbuckled his own seatbelt, then reached around to unsnap mine as well. As he pulled the straps away from my body, they grazed my belly, and I shivered in anticipation. “Are you still scared of me?” Wolfie asked, pausing as he misdiagnosed my tremor.

I shook my head. “No, that was a different kind of shiver,” I answered, my voice husky with emotion.

The wolf in my date’s eyes seemed even brighter as Wolfie smiled down at me. “Okay, so this is the lesson I had planned earlier,” he rumbled, his voice deepening as he scooted closer along the seat. “Your wolf and you share the same body,” he breathed in my ear, running one finger very gently down the side of my neck. “I want you to feel what she feels when I touch you here…and here….”

For a second, I tensed up again, but then I remembered how easily Wolfie had subdued my darker half up on the mountaintop. Even if I accidentally let her all the way out, the alpha would have no trouble taking control of the situation. And there was no one present at the moment but us, so even in the very unlikely scenario where I shifted to wolf form and escaped the alpha, I wouldn’t do any damage.

When I was first learning to control my wolf, it helped to visualize locking her away in her cage when things got difficult, so now I used the same visualization in reverse. My human self walked down the imaginary stairs in my mind, turned a key in her iron-barred door, and stood back to let her walk out.

As the canine stepped out of her dark cell, I mused that I hadn’t remembered my wolf being so beautiful. Could Wolfie somehow be making me see her through his eyes? Her fur gleamed and her eyes were bright with anticipation. She didn’t try to push past me the way I thought she would, either, but instead nudged her head up under my hand, and we walked together back up toward the surface.

“I can see her in your eyes,” Wolfie hummed happily, running one finger over my lips. If I’d thought his caresses felt good before, they were sublime now with my wolf’s emotions strengthening my own. It felt like the difference between hot chocolate from a cut-rate powder and the homemade version concocted from whole milk, cocoa, and dark honey. When Wolfie kissed me the second time, my wolf and I seemed to merge into one breathless, happy whole.

After what seemed like an eternity, but was also far too soon, Wolfie leaned back. “And that was lesson two,” he concluded, once again tweaking my nose.

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CHAPTER 12

 

“I still don’t get why I can’t just hurry up and shift,” Keith complained a week later when we were once again hanging out at the werewolf compound. Despite his words, my nephew was ecstatic, surrounded by the pack’s nurturing acceptance. He and the yahoos (as Wolfie liked to call them) were playing poker in the living area while the alpha and I cooked lunch in the kitchen annex off to one side. From the amount of hooting and hollering going on out there, I had a feeling the card game used clothing removal for scoring.

Fen—the young woman who had first spoken to Keith a week ago and who was a bit of an honorary yahoo—was right in the middle of the action, and I know a human parental figure would have been shocked. Even as a werewolf, and despite knowing that Fen could take care of herself, I couldn’t resist drifting into the open archway between our two rooms as I heard her voice chime in to respond to Keith’s complaint.

“Because, kid, you’re still learning control,” the young woman said snottily, poking my nephew in his bare chest.

I had a feeling Keith had lost more games than he really needed to in order to display his physique in front of Fen…even though the gawky youngster didn’t have much to show off. The only clothing the teenager had left was his pants, presumably his underwear, and a lone sock, but Fen seemed entirely uninterested in the view. When you live among werewolves, strip poker just doesn’t have the same explosive impact.

“Once you can pull up your wolf partway and send him back down every time,” she continued, “Then you can go full-on wolf.”

And once your Aunt Terra is ready, then you can shift,” Wolfie called over my head. The alpha didn’t even need to put any command into his voice to make the statement stick—despite their rowdiness, the yahoos were some of the most obedient young werewolves I’d ever met. I smiled up at the man who had made the last seven days a whirlwind of excitement. In human parlance, we still hadn’t made it past second base—Wolfie refused to go further until I felt 100% comfortable about the partnership with my wolf. But boy did second base feel good....

“I think I need the kind of personal lessons Aunt Terra is getting,” Keith said, leering at Fen, who rolled her eyes and responded: “In your dreams, kid.”

 

***

 

“Why the big smile?” Wolfie asked as we left the younger set to their cards and retreated back to the stove to finish prepping a pot of chili.

I couldn’t resist smiling even wider as the alpha lightly traced one finger down my bare arm. I hadn’t noticed until this morning that the slowly fading packless ache was completely gone, along with the bone-deep gnawing of my wolf, and the realization had left me feeling even lighter on my feet. And why should any pain linger when I was surrounded by two nurturing packs every day? Each evening, Keith and I headed home to eat dinner with Dale, who was his usual caring self, if completely oblivious to the werewolfery going on around him. Then we’d get up the next morning and spend the day with Wolfie’s pack, helping around the kitchen and garden, or just hanging out with wolves who were starting to feel like old friends. With the easy familiarity of youth, Keith had already become bosom buddies with Blaze, the youngest of the yahoos, and Galena and I were taking the slightly slower, adult path to the same place. Even Quetzalli and I had reached a sort of truce—I ignored her and she didn’t yank my chain…too often.

No reason to tell Wolfie all that, though, because his wolf could sense exactly how I felt. “You alphas always think it’s all about you,” I teased him, but couldn’t help adding, “I’m just happy because of your pack. It feels so good to be around werewolves again without having to put up with my father’s old-fashioned bullshit.”

“It can be your pack too,” Wolfie offered, his rampant wolf making the alpha up-front about his intentions, as usual. “There’s an empty suite next door to my room….”

Despite my good mood, Wolfie’s overt suggestion took a bit of the bounce out of my steps. I wasn’t ready to go there yet. Yes, Wolfie’s pack seemed perfect on the outside, but I’d seen too much pack awfulness to jump right back onto that horse. Plus: “We have to figure out what we’re going to do about Keith and my father first,” I responded, the smile suddenly absent from my face. I’d been putting off thinking about that thorny issue, content to live in the moment for the last week, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my father had scouts with telephoto lenses keeping an eye on me from the surrounding hills. If I didn’t make progress soon, I might be in for another visit from cousin Milo.

“That seems simple,” Wolfie said comfortably. And to a wolf-dominated alpha, the issue of another wolf trying to take what he considered his property probably did appear simple. I could even guess at Wolfie’s solution before the words came out of his mouth. “I’ll confront the old man and he’ll leave you alone.”

“Wolfie, you don’t understand how a pack like Haven works,” I countered. “You can’t just walk in the door and challenge my father to some kind of wolf fight to the death. The Chief would send out a half dozen goons like Milo and you’d never make it off the main road.” Plus, as much as I wasn’t willing to say it out loud, the Chief was my father, and I no more wanted him to get hurt than I ever wanted to see him again. This was one of the reasons I had refrained from thinking about the metaphorical sword hanging over my head—Wolfie and I didn’t see eye to eye on the issue at all.

“Okay,” Wolfie agreed easily. “How about I mate with you and offer to merge packs? Keith can be the heir for both of us.”

That idea startled a humorless laugh out of me. My father wouldn’t dream of allying his century-old pack with Wolfie’s upstart band of misfits, never mind the fact that mating with Wolfie was twice as big of a commitment as moving in with his pack would have been. “Seriously, Wolfie? Do you know anything about my father?” I asked him, just as Keith draped himself across the archway and interrupted our conversation.

“The guys and I were thinking of heading home to check out my gaming system,” my nephew said, a wheedle in his voice. “Is that okay?”

I was glad to have the troublesome topic tabled, and I couldn’t resist wondering whether an afternoon alone with Wolfie might tempt the alpha to relax his standards and allow hands below the waist. And, personal feelings aside, Keith’s charm made the request hard to turn down, especially since I knew the yahoos would keep an eye on the kid. “Sure,” I agreed, tossing the youngster my car keys without further thought. “Just call if you need anything. And Wade drives.”

“And you practice partial shifts every time a game ends,” Wolfie added, a slight growl entering his voice to ensure that his orders, at least, would be obeyed.

“Sure thing, Uncle Wolfie,” Keith said jokingly and shot out the door before the alpha could belt him with a dish towel.

 

***

 

Chase had joined us in the kitchen to hunt down a midmorning snack when intruders came pounding on the compound door. Wolfie smelled trouble a moment before the racket began and I noticed his shoulders tensing, so I was prepared for the way his wolf took command behind the alpha’s eyes.

“Go out the back way and over the mountain to Keith,” he ordered Chase, then the alpha hit a red button on the wall that set off barely audible alarms ringing throughout the compound. In response, adult werewolves converged on the common area nearly as quickly as Wolfie and I made it out of the kitchen.

Quetzalli and Galena were the first to arrive, dirt still on their fingers from the garden but all softness gone from their eyes. The human Acacia had her daughter Lantana latched onto one breast, her werewolf husband Berndt hovering protectively over them. Tia was bleary-eyed, as if she’d just woken up from a nap, leaving only Wolfie’s uncle Oscar unaccounted for. Except for the yahoos, Keith, and Chase, of course, who I hoped would all be together soon, safely on the other side of the mountain.

“Berndt, take Acacia and Lantana to the safe room,” Wolfie ordered, jerking his head toward the left side of the compound, and the father seemed glad to obey. I expected Wolfie to send the rest of the women packing too, even though that would have left him with only the missing Oscar for backup, but Wolfie continued to overturn my preconceived notions of alpha behavior. He motioned for Tia, Quetzalli, and Galena to form a protective arc behind us as he and I walked together toward the door.

It’s only been ten days, I told myself. Father wouldn’t show up before the month is over. But I didn’t believe my own lie. I’d been expecting Chief Wilder to arrive on our doorstep ever since Wolfie sent my cousin packing a week before, and it almost felt like a relief to be able to stop looking over my shoulder. Almost.

The pounding stopped abruptly when Wolfie wrenched open the door, leaving one of my cousins to catch his balance as he lowered his fist mid-pound. The cousin sidled away down the steps, giving us a clear view of Chief Wilder leaning against a huge black SUV and flanked by four more male cousins. A fifth cousin restrained Oscar, the older werewolf’s hands tied together behind his back with a zip tie while a bruise rose on one cheek. For the first time ever, I heard a low growl rise out of usually gentle Tia’s throat as she took in the view.

After spending time around Wolfie’s bulk, my father appeared smaller and older, but no less dangerous. In fact, if we’d been in wolf form, I would have expected the Chief to circle around behind our pack and jump on Wolfie from the rear, taking down the stronger alpha through pure cunning. Not that my father needed to use trickery since he currently made up for anything he lacked in personal strength due to the presence of hefty enforcers strewn across our front yard. We were clearly outclassed.

But Wolfie would never let another alpha show him up. “Crazy Wilder,” Wolfie greeted the Chief with the nickname I’d never heard anyone say to the old man’s face. “Welcome to my humble abode.”

I waited for the scene to descend into bedlam, but after a moment, my father merely began to laugh. “Bloodling Wolf,” he responded in kind. “Aren’t alphas supposed to protect their women and children instead of vice versa?” The older alpha nodded at one of my cousins, who sent Oscar stumbling toward the front door. “Here, have your mother’s bleeding-heart brother back. It looks like your pack is a little short on testosterone.” As if to highlight his words, my father leered at the women behind me, and I could feel Quetzalli clenching her hands into fists in response.

We parted to let Oscar inside and Tia drew him out of my father’s line of sight to worry at the zip ties around his wrists. But my attention remained riveted on the two alphas. Although I found it hard to believe, Wolfie seemed bored by the exchange, smothering a yawn as he stared down my father, whose face darkened at the affront. Turning his eyes to easier prey, Chief Wilder addressed me.

“Little Terra,” he continued. “I had expected to see more progress after all this time. Why hasn’t my grandson been introduced to his wolf?” When the words of a reply stuck in my throat, a wide smile strained my father’s cheeks, although his eyes remained cold. “So the reports are true—my daughter is a shiftless wolf. As useless as her brother.”

I stumbled backwards as if I’d been struck. Like the term “meat,” “shiftless” was an awful slur to apply to a werewolf. But my father was right. Despite all of Wolfie’s hard work to bring my wolf and me together, the last time I’d locked myself into my basement room and attempted to shift, I hadn’t felt a single hint of the change. I’d have to learn to embrace the term. Shiftless. My head bowed, and I was no longer able to look into my father’s eyes.

Wolfie had been quiet, giving me the chance to respond on my own, but when I seemed struck dumb, the younger alpha angled his body to hide me from view. “What do you want, old man?” Wolfie demanded, his tone as cold as my father’s had been.

“Well, I certainly don’t want her anymore,” my father replied cheerfully, as if he and Wolfie were two farmers leaning over a fence to talk horse flesh. “I looked into your claim, by the way,” he added, “and Keith is no more your heir than Brooke was your mate. I’ve taken what I wanted.”

With those parting words, my father and cousins slid back into their gleaming SUV. Doors banged, and the huge vehicle rolled down the driveway and out of our sight.

 

***

 

Wolfie understood what had happened before I did. I’d never heard such a stream of invective flow out of the alpha’s mouth as I did when he grabbed his keys and leaped into his truck, the rest of us still gaping in the doorway. But before Wolfie could start the engine, Chase bounded up in wolf form. Alone.

Understanding dawned on all of us at once, and I sank down to sit on the steps as Wolfie’s head dropped onto the steering wheel. His beta shifted back to two-footed humanity quickly and moved closer to the truck before he reported.

“The yahoos are okay,” Chase told his pack leader quietly. “But Keith is gone.”

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CHAPTER 13

 

“A bribe,” Chase suggested.

Wolfie’s pack was sitting around the compound’s dining table, and had been for the last three hours. After stopping the hot-headed yahoos from immediately running after my father and nephew, we’d been tossing around ideas for how to bring Keith home, but we didn’t seem to be making any progress. In fact, the pack appeared to be falling apart rather than coming together. The young males were a mass of testosterone despite Tia’s best efforts at maintaining order, and even Quetzalli and Galena were bickering.

Part of the issue was the absence of our alpha. The firm hold Wolfie had maintained on his temper during my father’s little visit slipped its bounds at last when the alpha realized Keith had been snatched out from under our noses—I’d never seen such a fast involuntary shift. Chase had been forced to open the truck door to let his alpha run up the mountainside and vent his temper somewhere safe, and Oscar had quickly shifted to follow after him.

In Wolfie’s absence, Chase should have been in charge, but I could tell the beta was as worried about Wolfie as he was about my nephew. Still, his most recent suggestion was the best we’d heard so far.

“Bribe him with what?” I asked. My father’s favorite possession was power, closely followed by money to prop up that power. Unfortunately, a young pack like Wolfie’s hadn’t had time to earn either of my father’s preferred playthings. Not that I didn’t think Wolfie’s compound was whimsically appealing, but living in mobile homes made it unlikely that the pack would be able to rustle up anything that would capture my father’s attention.

“The usual,” responded an unlikely voice from the front door. “Money.”

We all turned in unison to watch Keith’s father enter, followed closely by Wolfie and Oscar. The two werewolves were dressed in jogging pants that I recognized from Dale’s running collection, and my eyebrows weren’t the only ones to rise at seeing an uninitiated human brought into our pow-wow. Tia was merely the first to voice her concern.

“Wolfie?” she asked. “You didn’t…?” She tilted her head toward Dale in inquiry and the easy-going doctor thinned his lips.

“He did,” Dale confirmed. “It was pretty easy to convince me after two wolves shifted into neighbors on the front porch.”

One of the yahoos started swearing, and I couldn’t help but agree. Wolfie had broken a cardinal werewolf rule—outsiders weren’t to know what we were unless they moved in with the pack. In a pinch, I figured we could argue that Dale had joined the pack when he married Brooke, even though my sister hadn’t seen fit to inform her husband of her wolf nature. Still….

“My call,” Wolfie said simply, and I could feel the pack fitting itself back together at his calm words. As pack leader, the choice had indeed been Wolfie’s call. Now, Wolfie turned his eyes toward Keith’s father, and the attention of everyone in the room shifted with him.

“I understand that bringing in the police is out of the question,” Dale said calmly, and for the first time I could imagine my brother-in-law in the emergency room sewing up a patient as quickly and efficiently as possible so the injured person wouldn’t bleed out. This was a side of Brooke’s husband that I hadn’t been aware of. “Wolfie says Keith isn’t currently in any danger because his grandfather wants him as a sort of leader in training,” Dale continued, “but I’d like to get my son back as quickly as possible. Between my retirement account and mortgaging the house, I should be able to come up with a quarter of a million dollars by tomorrow.”

My eyes bulged. Yes, that kind of money would speak even to Crazy Wilder. Especially if we added in the bargaining chip I’d been afraid to bring up but knew would sweeten the pot.

Unfortunately, now that Wolfie was back, I’d have to wait even longer to mention my contribution. This was one bargaining chip I knew the alpha would disapprove of.

 

***

 

As the pack changed gears and began ironing out the logistics of meeting with my father, I drew Dale aside to take care of one of the loose threads in my plan. I expected my brother-in-law to refuse to talk to me—after all, I’d lied by omission and was ultimately responsible for his son’s kidnapping. But instead, he simply enfolded me into another one of his world-class hugs. I could feel tears prickling behind my eyes, and was surprised to notice my wolf adding her sensations to my own. I might be shiftless, but it felt good for a wolf to join me under my human skin.

“I’m so sorry, Dale,” I told him as soon as my brother-in-law released me, seeing tears in his eyes to match my own. “I should have told you, but I didn’t think I could….” My voice trailed off, the words seeming lame even to my ears.

But Dale was kind even in his grief. “It’s not your fault,” he answered, giving me another pat on the back. “I guessed something was going on with Brooke, but I’d forgotten all about it until you went out for such a sudden run your first day here. If I’d been more present, I would have figured out that Keith’s issues were more than a puberty-onset mental illness.” Dale’s lips drew down as he counted up all of the hours he’d been on call and not present in his son’s life. I’m sure Keith’s age made his father’s guilt much worse since the kid had reached that teenage stage when parents are decidedly uncool, so the boy had kept his head in his video games when Dale was home. Nothing like a teenager to make a parent feel guilty.

“You’ll have him back soon,” I promised, even though I knew that no plan, no matter how sound, was guaranteed while my father was the opposing force. But we had to think positively or we’d all turn wolf and end up chewing apart trees on the mountainside the way Wolfie had.

“I know,” Dale agreed, propping us both up with his certainty. “And I want to thank you for all the help you’ve given Keith already. He’s been so much happier since you moved in, and I know it’s more than just understanding the changes he’s going through. It’s good for him to have his aunt around.”

I glanced over Dale’s shoulder at the yahoos and older werewolves who were deep in conversation around the table, and felt the first wrench of the packless ache I’d thought had been quenched in my stomach. Of course, if my plan worked, I’d feel that ache 24/7 in the near future, so it might as well get warmed up. “You shouldn’t be thanking me,” I answered my brother-in-law. “That happiness is all due to hanging out with Wolfie’s pack. Werewolves aren’t meant to be alone.”

 

***

 

“No,” Chase said adamantly, and I looked over my shoulder to make sure the door to his room was firmly closed behind us. At any other time, I would have been checking out the beta’s apartment, wondering if Wolfie’s next-door accommodations looked similar. But now my attention was riveted on the werewolf in front of me. If I couldn’t get Chase to play along, this whole plan was doomed to failure.

“Yes,” I hissed back, keeping my voice low in case another member of the pack left the dining room and walked past Chase’s door. “You don’t know my father like I do,” I continued. “The Chief will want something more than money, something to make us all bleed. And this is the only thing I can think of.”

Chase started pacing furiously between his bed and desk, and I took a step back to give him room to think. While I was flattered that the beta didn’t like my idea, I needed Chase to think beyond the personal and to realize that what I was suggesting was for the good of the entire pack. In the end, I had confidence that this more level-headed member of the pack’s management team would see my point of view…eventually.

“I know my father made it sound like he wasn’t interested in me,” I started, but Chase cut me off.

“He was bluffing, obviously,” the beta finished my thought. “Or rather, he was trying to break you. Chief Wilder would be quite content to have a daughter at his beck and call, as long as she was cowed and led by an easily managed husband.” He smiled grimly. “In fact, you’d probably be a lot less trouble than Keith. If I don’t miss my guess, the kid is kicking and screaming.”

“So we’re agreed?” I queried, surprised that Chase had come around so easily. I’d considered a whole slew of arguments, but didn’t want to spend any more time than necessary closeted with Wolfie’s second-in-command for fear someone would come pounding on the door and catch us in the act of betrayal. I breathed a sigh of relief at the thought that the deal was struck, although the packless ache in my stomach grew even stronger.

But apparently I wasn’t out of the woods yet. “Wolfie will never go for it,” Chase rebutted, and I could feel frustration pushing my wolf up to the surface. I’d thought Chase understood the whole point of this clandestine conversation, but apparently I’d have to spell it out for him.

“That’s why I’m talking to you,” I said slowly, then watched as understanding dawned in the beta’s eyes. He opened his mouth angrily, then closed it and resumed his pacing. A full minute passed before Chase spoke to me, and then his words were cold as ice.

“You’ll break him,” Chase told me, pausing in his path to stare directly into my eyes. I’d thought that Chase and I were becoming friends, but his expression made it clear I was now burning any bridge I’d thought had been built between us. Chase’s loyalty to his alpha was far greater than any friendship he and I could have forged in the last week. As much as the realization hurt, though, it was a moot point—I wouldn’t be part of this pack much longer.

“He’s a bloodling wolf,” I countered, as if that explained everything. And to me, it did. Yes, Wolfie would feel betrayed, but he’d get over it. No loss of attachment could break a wolf’s spirit.

“You still don’t know him at all,” Chase muttered, almost to himself, and resumed pacing. But he hadn’t refused outright, so I pulled out my next verbal sally.

“Think for a minute about what Wolfie will do when my father refuses to take the money,” I said to the beta, and I could tell I had his attention by the way his steps slowed. “You’re thinking that the worst-case scenario is that Keith will have to stay with my father, and I agree that’s not the end of the world. It would be a real shame for a sweet kid like my nephew to be turned into an alpha asshole by my father, but Keith is old enough that he’d find a way to hold his own, at least somewhat.” I paused and then painted the picture I could see so vividly in my own mind. “But you and I both know that Wolfie wouldn’t let that happen,” I continued, my voice even lower. “If my father refuses to strike the deal, Wolfie will challenge him. And my father plays dirty. Wolfie wouldn’t leave Haven alive.”

“And this pack would fall apart,” Chase fleshed out the end of the scenario softly. At least I wasn’t the only one that understood how this pack of outcasts depended on Wolfie for survival. Chase was a nice guy and an efficient administrator, but the pack would disintegrate without Wolfie’s strong leadership, and that would leave a lot of werewolves out in the cold. The yahoos might be able to wiggle their way into another pack, but a wolf like Berndt with a human wife and a halfie daughter would have nowhere to go. No hide-bound pack would take in a pair of lesbian wolves, and Fen wouldn’t fare much better as a young-adult halfie. Of course, that didn’t even begin to address the way Tia and Chase would implode without their son and brother.

Now do you understand why this is so important?” I pleaded with Chase. When he didn’t respond immediately, I played my trump card. “It’s only a last resort,” I lied. True, I’d gladly let go of my plan if Dale’s monetary bribe proved sufficient, but I knew it wouldn’t be. My father would want to watch us squirm, and if someone had to fall on her sword, it should be me.

“Okay,” Chase said at last, his shoulders hunching and his voice beaten. “It’s a plan.”

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CHAPTER 14

 

We cooled our heels for four whole days, which felt like an eternity. Dale needed a chance to liquefy his assets and Chase didn’t want us to appear too eager, figuring that every day Chief Wilder had to work around my nephew’s teenage orneriness, the more likely the alpha would be to agree to our trade-off. Despite the fact that the delay made perfect sense, though, time seemed to flow like molasses in January.

We all coped in our own individualized ways. Oscar decided the pack needed a span of new fences, so he dragged the yahoos and Fen out into the pasture with dozens of posts and a wire stretcher. By the end of each day, all five were so exhausted, they gobbled down huge amounts of food, then fell into their beds in silence.

Tia took advantage of the pasture crew’s hunger, filling her time with bread-baking and stew-cooking. After walking in on the pack mother kneading bread that first morning, dough slamming violently into the wooden countertop and tears streaming down her face, I decided she’d be better off without my help.

Meanwhile, Berndt’s little family retreated into their suite to sooth their fears in private, and Quetzalli, Galena, and Wolfie turned wolf. Only Chase seemed calm and in control, but his usually warm eyes were so cold when they looked at me, I felt like I’d already betrayed Wolfie’s trust. After the first day of waiting, I decided to take a cue from Berndt and spend the rest of my time hidden away in Dale’s basement.

 

***

 

We’d arranged to meet at the pack compound the next morning, so I wasn’t expecting anyone to interrupt my pity party that final night. After giving up on reading, I ended up simply lying on top of the covers in my room, watching darkness settle over the trees outside as I tried not to think about tomorrow. This is how I’d spent far too much of my time as a teenager, mostly because my father had strict standards for what a young woman could and could not do—few fun things made the cut. I’d thought it was painful then just waiting for time to pass, but the inactivity felt even worse now that I had so much more to lose.

A tap on the windowpane drew me back into the present, and I was surprised to see Wolfie’s human face peering in from the outdoors. Although I missed our time together, I had considered it a blessing over the last few days that Wolfie stuck to his canine form. His wolf helped me firm up my resolve, and I’d slowly worked myself around to believing that Wolfie really was more wolf than man, and that I wouldn’t hurt him unduly with my betrayal. Now, his change back to human form came as a shock, even though my heart jolted with welcome.

The alpha pointed toward the door, and after wrestling with my inner guilt, I padded across the cold floor on bare feet to let him in. Wolfie immediately moved to take me into his arms, but I stepped back skittishly, only sinking into a chair once the alpha had chosen a spot on the couch five feet away.

“The pack thought you might want to run with us tonight,” Wolfie said after a minute, his voice scratchy from disuse, and I shivered, imagining what it would be like to run in wolf form with other werewolves around me. I could almost see the rough-housing yahoos, the sleek beauty of Wolfie and Chase trying to out-pace each other, and my own exuberance as the pack activity swirled around me. I hadn’t run with a pack in a decade and now the ache in my stomach hit me so hard I almost doubled over. This was what I’d be losing by going back to Haven.

I had to shut down the vision before I begged Wolfie to keep me from going to Haven tomorrow. “I’m shiftless, remember,” I bit out, the words harsher than I’d meant for them to be. But I could breathe again, at least, so the astringency was worth it.

Rather than taking offense, Wolfie tilted his head to one side and considered me for a moment. “You’d change in a group shift,” he said confidently. The alpha was suggesting that I be treated like an uninitiated teenager, pulling out my wolf form using proximity to other werewolves changing their skins, and the idea was just as enticing as it was embarrassing. I would have swallowed my pride and gone for the group shift in a heartbeat if I’d planned to stick around, but Wolfie’s pack wasn’t mine, and it would be better for me to get used to that fact now rather than later. The last thing I needed to do was to bond more with Wolfie’s pack and then not to have the guts to go through with my plan tomorrow.

I simply shook my head, and Wolfie scooted closer toward me along the couch, ending up with his knees almost touching mine. “Or we could practice your shift right now,” he suggested. The wolfishness in his voice had disappeared and the words were suddenly silky smooth. I shivered again, but this time because I could almost feel the alpha’s hands running over my body, my wolf reveling in the caress. I noticed her waking up inside me, and even felt the first hint of hairs pushing their way through the skin of my arms. Tonight we can run, the wolf panted, and maybe more…. My breathing came faster and I was a hair’s breadth away from welcoming my furred sister to join me right then and there.

No, I barked back, and before my weaker half could betray us, I jumped to my feet. “No,” I repeated, this time aloud. Despite my abruptness, Wolfie rose to stand toe to toe with my human body. He didn’t reach out to touch me, but I could feel the heat of his body warming the air between us and his breath seemed to whisper across my skin.

“I know I’ve made you wait,” the alpha started, feeling his way around the human words a bit awkwardly. “I hope you know it’s not because I don’t find you entrancing.” He pulled in a long draft of air through his nose and I trembled, knowing he was smelling both me and my wolf. “I didn’t want to rush you,” he rumbled softly. “My wolf and I are patient and we want our first time to feel as good for you as it will for us. We will soar,” he promised. Then, counterintuitively, the man took a solid step backwards, leaving only cold air between us. My body swayed to follow Wolfie’s, but the alpha just kept his gaze fixed on mine and his hands in his pockets. “Your wolf is ready, and so are we, but we can wait if you need time,” he finished.

The words felt like a challenge, and I ached to give in to Wolfie, to drag him down the hall, lock the door, and see what a joining of four souls would feel like. Yes, now, my wolf agreed. But that was the worst idea I’d heard all night, assuming I planned to betray the alpha tomorrow.

“I’m not ready,” I coughed out, the words hanging up in my throat so I could barely force them through my lips. I turned away, and my wolf-enhanced senses told me that Wolfie had walked forward, that he had his hand an inch from my shoulder. If he touched me, I knew I’d give in, forget Keith tomorrow and save my own happiness instead.

We stood, suspended, forever. Then Wolfie breathed out through his nose and retreated to the door.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” he promised. By the time I turned around, there was only a pile of clothes in the doorway, and Wolfie was gone.

 

***

 

I knew that running with the pack was a bad idea, but I was itching to change forms. The days I’d spent in Wolfie’s presence had reminded me that being a wolf didn’t have to mean any danger to those around me. In fact, being a canine could offer a freedom and simplicity that was difficult to achieve in my current two-footed form, with the potential to silence the racing thoughts that flowed frantically through my mind. I felt constipated by humanity.

I wouldn’t run up the mountain, I told myself, just around the yard. Simply rolling on my back in the grass would feel good in fur form, the itch that seemed to perpetually coat my human skin disappearing for a few minutes at least. My wolf had been so ready to take over when Wolfie was present, I knew I’d be able to make the shift, and afterwards I could go into the challenge of tomorrow confident in myself, no longer a shiftless wolf.

So after the alpha left, I padded outside onto the concrete patio beyond the back door and watched the full moon bathe the lawn in its glow. Looking up at the house, I noticed that Dale’s light was off—my brother-in-law had gone to bed, if not to sleep, on the night before his son’s fate would be decided. I was safely alone, the nearest neighbor half a mile distant down a long winding driveway and across the highway.

I climbed to the top of the picnic table, the rough wood feeling good beneath my hands and feet, then I slipped off my pajamas and stood naked under the moon. Despite stories to the contrary, the full moon has nothing to do with a werewolf’s shift, but the light did seem to caress my bare skin. I could imagine how much better it would feel to leap four-footed off the picnic table, the height giving my jump added momentum. We will soar, Wolfie had said, and I could imagine a more simple, but equally fulfilling, soaring as my wolf took flight from this aerie.

Over the last week, Wolfie and I had been playing as much as learning during my “lessons,” but the alpha had still managed to transform the way I perceived the werewolf’s shift. Unlike the shifts I was familiar with from my youth, neither the man nor the wolf dominated when Wolfie changed form. Instead, both aspects of his personality were present together, the alpha merging the two to take on the shape that best suited the situation. In fact, much of the time I wasn’t entirely sure Wolfie could have told you which form he was wearing that day, just like I might have failed the test if asked to report on my sock color without looking down. To the bloodling, his physical form had as little significance as my clothing choice.

Although I understood the notion intellectually, I knew I needed to feel it in my bones if I hoped to replicate Wolfie’s simple shifts. So I crouched on my hands and knees on the picnic table, moving my body through simple yoga poses to fully anchor myself in place. Cat then cow, my back arched up and then my belly sank down. I breathed in deeply, smelling the night air, and then I opened my eyes wide to simulate the wolf’s keener vision.

The time had come to move on to the mental side of my shift, and I closed my eyes to turn my focus inwards. The stairs that led down to my wolf’s cell had changed over the past week as my wolf and I together re-envisioned our internal landscape. Now, I was walking downhill through an ancient forest, deep moss indenting beneath my bare feet and regal fir trees soaring up on either side. Traveling toward my wolf’s lair had turned into a refreshing stroll instead of a terrifying journey through the dark.

At the bottom of the hill, the iron bars had disappeared from the wolf’s door and the cage had morphed into an open cave, warmed by a roaring fire. I’d given my wolf a deep-pile carpet to rest upon in front of the fireplace, and this is where she had usually been waiting for me in the past. If the wolf wasn’t napping by the fire, ready for me to nudge her awake, she would be pacing at the bottom of the slope, her tail wagging eagerly as I approached.

But not tonight. Instead, I entered the clearing to find that my wolf’s den was empty, the fire burned out. With increasing worry, I rushed into the trees, calling her name—my name—but no one answered. Soon, I was running frantically, branches slapping into my face and tearing against my skin. The forest seemed to extend in front of me infinitely without a sign of my other half. By the time I circled back around, even the wolf’s cave had disappeared, although the path up to the light of the outside world remained.

A month ago, I would have been thrilled to lose my lupine half, but now I was heart-broken. With a jolt, I returned to the real world, and the splintery wood of the picnic table cut into my knees, painful rather than enticing. Up on the mountaintop, I could hear the howls of Wolfie’s pack, but I was just a shiftless human, my own wolf gone. I dropped my head into my hands and cried.

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CHAPTER 15

 

Wolves love to pile together, but I could barely stand being crammed between two youngsters in the backseat of the pack’s car. Now I regretted the pure cowardice that had made me choose to ride with the yahoos instead of with the adults. Not that I would have been any better off struggling to avoid Chase’s eyes and trying to keep my distance from our alpha, but at least the young werewolves’ high spirits wouldn’t be clawing down my spine and assaulting my eyes and nose.

“I call shotgun on the way back,” Blaze hooted as we approached the end of our trip. The yahoos were so confident of our success that they were bickering over who would have to ride on someone’s lap once Keith joined their ranks. I didn’t bother telling the young werewolves that there would be one fewer person in the car on the return trip—if we were lucky, Keith could have my seat. Instead, I just tuned the young wolves out, a relatively easy task since they’d given up on dragging me into their conversation hours ago.

I hadn’t been back to Haven in ten years, but the turnoff from the highway looked just the same. No sign, just “Private Drive” discretely labeled on a county road marker. I could remember walking out to the highway with Brooke, cranking our arms at passing truck drivers and laughing uproariously as their air horns belted out a deep bellow that became lower-pitched as it receded into the distance. The memory gave me a bit more sympathy for the innocent banter of the yahoos, although it didn’t make their antics any easier to bear.

As we turned down the private drive and slowed to a crawl, more memories rushed in, almost overwhelming me. I’d forgotten how much I loved following the creek below the main village, splashing through the water with bare feet and baiting crawdads with bits of their siblings’ flesh. It was too cold now for creek-walking, but I expected to see more people out and about, until I realized that my old neighbors would all be under lockdown, anticipating our arrival. Sure enough, we didn’t see a single person as we passed rustic farmhouses. Until we reached the village green, that is, where every male over the age of fifteen waited to greet us.

The car in front of us ground to a halt and Chase, Wolfie, Oscar, Quetzalli, and Galena emerged, their doors banging loudly behind them. We’d left Berndt and his family, plus Tia, back at the compound to hold down the fort, and I was glad that they, at least, would be spared the sordid show about to be put on for my father’s benefit. Even though I knew I’d never be able to return to Wolfie’s pack after today, I cringed at the idea of the nine pack mates now present watching my betrayal.

Wade was the oldest and quietest of the yahoos, and he waited beside my door after the others bounded up to encircle their alpha. “Are you okay?” he asked me, offering a hand to help me out of the car. I wanted to tell him that I wasn’t ancient enough to need assistance just yet, but I felt as old as the hills, and I ended up stumbling over my own feet, grabbing the young man’s arm after all.

Wolfie should have had all of his attention riveted on my father’s pack, but he glanced back the instant my skin touched Wade’s, then he cocked his head to one side. The packless ache in my stomach nearly tore me in half as I realized that Wolfie wouldn’t be enfolding me in his alpha protection after today. I shot him a shaky smile, meant to reassure him, but probably just making the alpha think I was carsick.

My father never made anything easy, so I wasn’t surprised to look out over the Haven males lounging around the green and to notice that both the Chief and my nephew were absent. Rather than becoming impatient, as I’m sure my father had planned, Wolfie simply pulled a trio of juggling balls out of his pocket and began showing off a skill I hadn’t even realized he possessed. The colored orbs whirred through the air, bouncing off Wolfie’s knee and dipping behind his back, and I soon noticed a couple of werewolf children peering out the windows of a nearby house, attracted by the spectacle.

The yahoos followed their alpha’s lead and started turning cartwheels on the lawn…very badly. Blaze and Fen knew what they were doing, but Glen and Wade seemed to simply be tossing themselves from their hands onto their backsides, then laughing uproariously. Despite Haven’s iron discipline, it didn’t take long for a few of my father’s younger enforcers to try to show our yahoos up, and I had a feeling we would have all been sitting down to a cordial dinner within the hour if my father hadn’t interrupted.

“Has the circus come to town?” Chief Wilder asked coldly from the steps of his house at the edge of the green, and every Haven youth immediately drooped his head in embarrassed submission. Our yahoos took a little longer to turn off their playfulness—in fact, I was sure I noticed Wolfie hold his hand to one side to encourage them to keep turning cartwheels for several seconds after my father appeared. It occurred to me that Wolfie had planned this whole charade, and the packless ache inside me grew stronger when I realized I’d been left out of the strategizing. Not that I had been around the compound much in recent days to give the pack a chance to include me.

“I could say something about the clown now being here,” Wolfie drawled, “but that would just be rude.” The younger alpha smiled slightly, my father’s brow lowered, and we all knew who had won round one.

With the ease of a well-oiled team, Chase stepped in to smooth over Wolfie’s insult. “We’ve brought the cash, as requested, and would like to see Keith to make sure he’s okay,” the beta interjected quietly, his eyes not quite meeting Chief Wilder’s. I couldn’t tell whether Chase really was cowed by my father’s dominance, or whether he and Wolfie were simply playing good cop, bad cop, with Chase’s submission part of his role. Either way, the beta’s lack of eye contact brought a bit of humor back into my father’s face, although his words were no more welcoming.

“Well now,” Chief Wilder began, matching Wolfie’s drawl—a speech pattern neither partook of in their normal lives, but which they seemed to think added a bit of dramatic tension to this exchange. “I’ve been thinking about that and I’m not so sure I want to part with young Keith. After all, blood can’t be bought. But if you just want to see him….”

My father waved a hand back at the house and we watched in silence as Keith was frog-marched out the door and down the steps toward us. My nephew tried to smile when he saw our pack arrayed behind Wolfie and Chase, but I could tell he’d been crying, and his feigned bravery just made the boy seem younger. The tension on our side of the standoff ratcheted up a couple of notches, and Fen laid a calming hand on Blaze’s shoulder as the yahoo took an involuntary step toward his friend.

“Thank you,” Chase said carefully, turning away from Keith to keep his attention trained on Chief Wilder. “We’re glad to see he’s in good health….”

“But not very well trained,” Chief Wilder spoke over our beta. “Spare the rod and spoil the child, I always say,” he continued. “But we’ll take care of that for you. Don’t worry yourselves over the matter.”

Before I realized what was happening, Milo struck Keith with an open-handed slap across the boy’s cheek and, in nearly the same instant, Wolfie exploded into canine form, pieces of fabric fluttering off in all directions. It took the combined efforts of Chase and Oscar to restrain their alpha from leaping for the other pack leader’s throat.

That was my cue.

 

***

 

“Is that really what you want, to start over and train a cowardly adolescent?” I asked, walking from the back of Wolfie’s pack up past our restrained alpha and across the invisible line that separated us from the Haven werewolves. I stopped mere inches away from my father, and looked him directly in the eye. “I don’t doubt you can break Keith, but what use is an heir with no balls?” I continued, ignoring the wounded look that flashed across my nephew’s face.

My father gazed down at me and smiled, the mirth flowing from his face to energize his entire body. I knew I was walking directly into his hands—this is what the wily old alpha had been angling for from the very first day he startled me on the trail—but the way I saw it, there was no solution other than to give Chief Wilder what he wanted. My father craved an heir that he could train up from the cradle the way he’d raised Ethan, and unless he was willing to look beyond his own progeny, my potential sons were the only choice he had. My nephew was far too old to be turned into the cut-throat alpha my father wanted—Keith had been a red herring all along.

“What are you suggesting?” the Chief drew me out, his words as sweet as honey, tantalizing me with that parental acceptance I’d always yearned for. I shivered, glad I’d already made this decision for the right reasons, not for the sake of a blessing that would never come.

“I’m suggesting that you turn Keith back over to this pack of misfits where he belongs and let me come home to live in your house and give you a real grandson,” I answered. Behind me, I could hear Wolfie shifting back to human form so he could speak to me, and I took a deep breath before firing the final arrow home. “I’m sick of living among halfies and humans,” I said, my words pointed toward my father, but aimed at Wolfie. “I want a real werewolf mate, not a bloodling.”

I didn’t look back, just trusted Chase to do as we’d agreed and to keep Wolfie from challenging the older alpha. I could hear a strangled moan, muffled by werewolf hands, as Wolfie fought to speak, but I stood firm, filling my head with images of the yahoos and Keith joking around in the compound’s living area. This is the only way, I thought toward Wolfie, and my focus was so firmly behind me that it took me a moment to realize that my father was laughing.

“Bravo!” he proclaimed loudly, clapping one huge hand onto my shoulder so heavily that I staggered back a step. “Very commendable, very nice. But,” he added, lowering his voice and letting the alpha dominance creep into his tone, “what’s to keep me from hanging onto young Keith just in case you don’t make a good mother?”

Silence hung across the green as werewolves on both sides held their breath, waiting for the other shoe to drop. “I guess that’s just a gamble you’ll have to take,” I said quietly, “if you want my willing cooperation.” There it was, my counter-bluff. I was sure…well, almost sure…that my father had set up this whole painful charade to win me back over to the Haven way of life. I had realized one dark night while waiting for this endless week to be over that my father had to know that I was the only one of his children who had inherited his cold-blooded control. I was the one who had left home, severing all ties, not even writing back to the family the way Brooke had. I was the one who had found a way to squash my wolf, consequences be damned. Of all of his children, I was the one most like my father, and Chief Wilder would want that wolfishness passed on to his heir.

Or so I hoped. Because if my father didn’t care about my willing cooperation and chose to keep Keith as a backup, I had no plan C. This was it—my entire hand played in one fell swoop.

There was a scuffle behind me as Wolfie broke free of his pack mates and called toward my back. “Terra, you don’t have to do this!” he promised, true warmth in his voice despite the disdain with which I’d spoken of his pack. My father raised his brows, and I knew this was my final test, the Chief’s way of determining whether I truly was as cold-hearted as I was pretending to be. So, even though I couldn’t bear to see his face, I turned to face the wolf I loved as I threw the bitterest words I could muster back at him.

“You’re just a bloodling, Wolfie. I deserve a man as well as a wolf.”

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CHAPTER 16

 

It all happened so fast, I could barely take in the scene. With an anguished howl, Wolfie retreated back into his preferred canine form, the yahoos piled on top of their alpha to hold him in place, and Chase yanked a slip-knot-looped rope around his friend’s neck. Unlike the piddly collar Wolfie had been wearing when I first met him, this was a real restraint, but the alpha still lunged against the rope repeatedly, snarling as he tried to break free. My heart felt like it was bound to break in half when Wolfie finally collapsed into a panting heap on the ground, his eyes still trained on me and my father. It was unclear whether the young alpha had been trying to tear out my father’s throat…or my own.

In the ensuing silence, Chief Wilder’s booming laughter rolled out across the green, and I struggled not to let tears come into my eyes. Wolfie’s reaction had been even worse than I’d imagined, and I ached to think of the sores he must have rubbed around his neck. Even worse would be the intra-pack strife when Chase finally let his friend free back in their compound, and I regretted that there hadn’t been some way to achieve the same goal without enlisting the beta’s aid.

True to form, my father proceeded to make matters worse. “Such a bloodling,” he mused, taking in Wolfie’s battered pack as the yahoos hefted their leader back to his feet and began tugging him toward one of their cars. The only thing that lightened my heart was realizing that Keith had been set loose during the scuffle and had joined Wolfie’s entourage, hovering behind Galena’s shoulder. No matter what my friend thought of me now, I knew she’d look after my young nephew.

“I was a bloodling too, you know,” Chief Wilder continued, and Wolfie’s pack paused in their retreat, their attention drawn back to the older pack leader. For the first time since collapsing at the end of a leash, the younger alpha seemed to take note of his surroundings as well, and his ears and nose swiveled toward my father. I could see the human wheels beginning to turn in his head as Wolfie and I both wondered whether my father’s words had any purpose other than spite.

“If you live long enough,” my father continued, looking straight at Wolfie, “you’ll get over it.”

Whether the Chief meant Wolfie’s attachment to me or his bloodling nature was unclear, but my father had clearly tired of the show. At a signal from their pack leader, my cousins closed in behind me as Chief Wilder turned away from Wolfie and led us all back to his home.

I was being nudged away from the only pack I had ever truly felt a part of, and I wanted to sink into the same silent grief that had so clearly enveloped Wolfie. But instead, I glanced back over my shoulder at the last moment, catching Chase’s eye as the beta finished herding the pack back into their two cars. The beta’s face was no less cold now than it had been over the preceding days, but Wolfie’s friend did nod once in acknowledgement. Yes, Chase was saying, he would keep his pack leader confined until he was able to talk sense into the wolf. My betrayal wouldn’t be in vain.

 

***

 

“I hope you’re comfortable up here,” my stepmother Cricket said as she bustled around the attic room that Brooke and I had slept in as children. The slanting roof that had felt playfully intriguing when I was younger now seemed to confine me in a cage very much like the imaginary one I’d pushed my wolf into weeks ago, back when my darker half and I were still on speaking terms. That thought, along with the bleakness of my future made me bark out a laugh in response to Cricket’s words—comfort was the furthest thing from my mind right now.

Rather than taking offense, Cricket paused in her puttering and sank down onto the edge of the bed beside me. “You know we’re all so glad you’re home,” she said softly, gazing into my eyes as if begging me to understand, although she didn’t reach out to touch me. My stepmother was stick-thin and had always seemed to lack the maternal nature of my own mother, but Cricket wasn’t cold-hearted like the Chief, so I tried to at least be polite to her. Unfortunately, I couldn’t seem to muster any social graces now.

“Don’t take this personally, Cricket,” I replied, “but moving back to Haven has always been my worst nightmare.” Taking a deep breath and moving beyond my own woes, I looked at my stepmother consideringly. “I’m actually surprised you’re still here given the…um…problems with Ethan.”

Now Cricket did pat my hand, but it was an uncomfortable movement, similar to the way a dog owner would try to stroke a cat and muddle it all up. It occurred to me to wonder how such a fragile woman had kept her half-human background a secret all these years, and whether she could possibly handle my father’s anger now. If I didn’t miss my guess, Chief Wilder would have been beside himself when he realized his prized son couldn’t shift, and I wouldn’t have been surprised to find Cricket still recovering from broken bones. But, no, my stepmother seemed as whole and healthy as she’d ever been.

“He knew about me all along, dear,” Cricket told me quietly, and it took a minute for me to parse her words and to realize she was talking about my father, not about Ethan. “We considered it a fair gamble….” Her eyes became distant for a moment, and I actually could imagine my father marrying a halfie, even understanding that there was a 50% chance any son he sired would be human. Maybe it was my father’s bloodling nature—another surprise to me today—that made him equally willing to entrust his future to luck as to skill. Yet another puzzle for me to work through when my mind was less clogged with grief.

“I’m just glad you’re okay,” I told my stepmother quietly after a minute, because that much, at least, was true. Now didn’t seem like the appropriate time to ask where Ethan had been sent off to in disgrace and how my father could have kept his bloodling past so well hidden, although these puzzles were threatening to pull me out of the wallowing I so badly craved. Nothing like concern about others to ruin a bout of self pity.

“Well,” Cricket answered, jumping back to her feet and plumping up pillows that didn’t need plumping. “I should get back to work on dinner. Call me if you need anything.” Even as she spoke the words, my stepmother was moving toward the door, and I knew I should have offered to join her downstairs to help out with the task. But I couldn’t quite make my legs move. I would have to take my place within the stifling women’s realm of Haven eventually, but Cricket seemed to understand that I needed this one day to mourn the outside world, and I appreciated her quiet support.

I had already started to drift back into my grief when my stepmother turned back from the open doorway to face me. “Oh!” she exclaimed, “I forgot to ask if you read the letter from your sister that I put in your file?”

That woke me up, and my hand closed involuntarily around the unopened envelope I’d been carrying around in my pocket all day. When I first saw Brooke’s letter, I’d been afraid to read it, knowing the presence of my sister’s missive was part of my father’s intricate plan to wind me up in his web of intrigue. Later, I’d gotten sidetracked by the joy of mingling with Wolfie’s pack and had forgotten all about the note. But when I left Dale’s house this morning, I’d reached out and put the envelope in my pocket, meaning to throw it back in Chief Wilder’s face unopened. Now, discovering that the letter had been placed in the file by my stepmother was just…confusing.

But before I could answer Cricket, another familiar voice drifted toward us from the stairway. “Don’t worry, I’ll show myself up,” the female werewolf called as her head crested the opening into the attic. Quetzalli hefted a duffel bag up behind her, nodded at my stepmother, then said to me, “Looks like we’re roomies.”

 

***

 

To be honest, I hadn’t really expected to see any member of Wolfie’s pack again. But if anyone was going to show up, Quetzalli wouldn’t have been the werewolf I’d thought most likely, nor would she have been the one I’d prefer. I could imagine Oscar being left behind as a sort of honor guard if Chase had felt some misplaced duty toward a woman who was once nearly a pack member, and I would have liked to imagine that Galena was enough of my friend that she might have chosen to help me through the weeks to come. Even one of the yahoos would have been preferred over Quetzalli, who was the rougher and more masculine side of her and Galena’s partnership. While some of the other pack members might have glossed over my harsh words that afternoon, Quetzalli was bound to have taken offense, and she wouldn’t hesitate to let me know it.

From the look in her eyes after my stepmother pattered away down the stairs, Quetzalli wasn’t any more pleased to be here than I was to see her. “Not my idea,” she muttered as she carried her duffel over to the spare bed under the window. Her tone said Case closed, but I couldn’t let it go at that.

“Okaaay,” I answered, drawing out the word, then settled on simply asking her flat-out. “Whose idea was it then?”

Quetzalli rolled her eyes at me before turning away to begin unpacking her possessions. She’d clearly known she was staying before leaving the pack’s compound because the werewolf had filled her bag with underwear, a change of clothes, and toiletries. Which meant Chase must have talked to her since he was the only one who had known about my plan before the fact.

Or so I’d thought. “Wolfie, who else?” Quetzalli answered, her back still to me. “Although why he would bother worrying about you is beyond me.”

Quetzalli’s revelation silenced me for at least fifteen minutes, which might have been her intention. During that time, my mind raced over the events of the last twenty-four hours, honing in on Wolfie’s visit the night before and on his subtle attempts to drag me back into pack life. Yes, it was no stretch to imagine that Chase might have told his friend about my planned betrayal—I’d always known that was a possibility, even though I’d hoped I was convincing enough to prompt Chase to keep my secret. And, although it was harder to believe, I could also see Wolfie deciding that the decision was mine to make, then squelching his own feelings in order to let me follow my chosen path. Despite being a bloodling, Wolfie was nothing like the domineering males I’d known in the past, and he probably guessed that if he had forbidden me to trade myself for Keith, I would have just sneaked away in the night and carried out my plan without the pack for backup.

But if the bloodling had the willpower to restrain himself from forcing me to stay home the way any other alpha would have, why didn’t he also have the willpower not to attempt attacking Chief Wilder? It didn’t seem possible that Wolfie’s uncontrollable shifts and his lunges against the rope leash had been an act this afternoon, although that was the obvious conclusion. Perhaps the young alpha really was that skilled of an actor?

But if Wolfie’s behavior had all been a farce, played out for my father’s benefit, what was the purpose of the subterfuge? While I would have loved to think that Wolfie was simply buying time so he could come up with a longer-term solution to our problem, I wasn’t so sure that Wolfie could still want me back after my inflammatory words. But, Quetzalli’s presence suggested that the young alpha wasn’t done with me just yet, which sent a tiny surge of hope flickering through my deadened soul.

The only clue I had to begin deciphering the puzzle was Quetzalli herself, so despite her angry silence, I attempted to draw the werewolf back into conversation. “How long are you staying?” I asked, breaking the extended silence at last.

Ever since joining me in the attic room, Quetzalli had seemed completely in control of her wolf, so I was surprised when I felt the first hint of a change in the air. The woman spun back around to face me, fur already beginning to elongate across her body. “I don’t know that yet,” she ground out between her teeth, face flushed with anger. “Look, I really don’t want to talk to you right now,” she continued, the words mangled as the shift overtook her. “But do bring me up some meat from dinner.” Then a large, surly wolf was lying on the spare bed.

Great. Life in Haven had turned out to be even worse than I’d originally imagined.

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CHAPTER 17

 

I kept expecting Wolfie to batter down the door and come to get me, so as the hours and then days passed, I became more and more agitated. Even though Quetzalli hadn’t coughed up any more information, her presence—no matter how unpleasant—initially gave me hope that I hadn’t been entirely written off by Wolfie’s pack. I figured their alpha would just need a day or two to calm down and get over the events of Keith’s retrieval, which surely meant he’d be here at any minute.

Not that I wanted to draw Wolfie back into this mess, I reminded myself. In fact, the theory behind my betrayal was still sound. I couldn’t see any way short of a physical challenge for Wolfie to extract me from my childhood home, and that brought me back around to the whole reason I’d rejected the young alpha so publicly in the first place—I needed Wolfie to think I despised him so he would leave me alone and not get himself killed. In fact, I was so conflicted, between wishing to hear Wolfie’s voice and yet dreading what would happen if he did show up, that I was a bundle of nerves by lunchtime.

My second day in Haven, Quetzalli had deigned to shift back into human form, so I followed Cricket’s advice and took my roommate on a tour of the pack’s land. Yesterday, I’d been so intent on retrieving Keith and on my own role in the drama that I hadn’t taken the time to really look at the houses and people we’d passed, but now that I peered more closely, I saw that the village had turned into a strangely skewed version of the community I remembered. During my childhood, lawns were always mowed and houses shone with fresh paint, but now porches were leaning away from dwellings and a pall seemed to hang over Haven.

“This place gives me the creeps,” Quetzalli muttered, her words mirroring my thoughts. Yes, Haven had been restrictive when I’d lived here, especially if you were born female, but many people had seemed happy then. I remembered my neighbors singing as they worked when I was a child. There had been barn dances and community dinners. Now, I couldn’t quite imagine any of these werewolves laughing or dancing—the Haven werewolves today seemed to be barely managing to carry on their daily lives.

As Quetzalli and I walked through the middle of the green and took in the depressing sights around us, I was startled to hear my wolf chime in her two cents’ worth: Look to the alpha. It had been so long since I’d heard so much as a whisper from my wolf that I stopped in my tracks to take in her words. I reached inward, but the lupine consciousness slipped away through my fingers and I almost believed I’d merely imagined her voice in my head. Almost, but not quite.

“What’s wrong?” Quetzalli asked, and for the first time since our pack had left, there was a hint of concerned warmth in her voice. The thought flickered through my mind that Quetzalli was really a better companion to have in Haven than either Galena or Oscar since Quetzalli was tough but kind, and her words made me realize that she might actually forgive me one of these days. Echoing my thoughts, the ache in my stomach seemed to dull by a minuscule amount, reducing the pain from a mind-wrenching presence to something I could think past if I focused hard enough. The easing pain even made me smile at my unchosen companion.

“I thought I heard my wolf,” I answered her question, then continued. “But you’re right, Haven shouldn’t be like this. It feels like a ghost town, but with the people still in it.” In fact, Haven felt much the way I had when I sought my wolf out in her lair and found her missing, but there was no way the entire community’s wolves could be absent.

“Your father,” Quetzalli said simply, her words confirming the insight from my wolf. There was more here than met the eye, and I needed to strike to the heart of the matter if I wanted to figure out what was going on.

 

***

 

That was easier said than done, though, since Chief Wilder was far too busy to even take meals with his wife and daughter that day and the next. In fact, instead of hunting down the cause of Haven’s collective depression, I ended up suffering through an afternoon surrounded by giggling cousins as they fitted me for my wedding dress (groom to be announced). The trauma was lessened only slightly when I realized that Quetzalli was even more shell-shocked by the episode than I was.

Since Cricket was darning socks in the corner as a sort of mood stabilizer, I did my best to smile and nod, otherwise ignoring what was going on around me. But even my hard-boiled mood couldn’t overlook the excitement of my youngest cousin, Iris. “You’re so lucky,” the teenager trilled as she hemmed the edges of a petticoat several hours after the bridal shower had begun. I couldn’t quite tell if the young werewolf was referring to the quality of the dress we were constructing or to my mate choices. Either way, I felt far from lucky.

In fact, I couldn’t help counting how many hours it had been since I had last gazed upon Wolfie’s face, which made for a more pleasant daydream than the one Iris would have chosen for me. Surely Wolfie must have calmed down enough by now to make an appearance here at Haven, I pondered. Unfortunately, it was beginning to seem more and more likely that Wolfie had ordered Quetzalli to join me, then had changed his mind about hoping to see me again. But if that was the case, why hadn’t the young alpha sent someone to fetch Galena’s spouse home?

“Mmmm,” Fernanda hummed, bringing me back to the present and responding to Iris’s enthusiasm. “Hunter is a nice specimen, and Reed isn’t so bad either, if you like them young.” She winked at me saucily, and I remembered that Fernanda had gotten married even before I left Haven. I guess she’d had a thing for young men even then.

I’d been trying not to think about the four potential mates, hand-picked by my father, who I was to meet at dinner the next night, but my cousins’ banter finally made the future impossible to ignore. Just remembering what tomorrow held in store for me made my stomach decidedly queasy, but I couldn’t expect a reprieve on that account. When it came to a bargain, my father would expect the other party to live up to their word even if they had to do so between bouts of vomiting, and as much as I hated the fact, the Chief and I had made a deal. I shivered, even though the room was hot from the coal furnace in the basement of my family home, and wished with all of my heart that I was back in Dale’s basement with Keith pounding on the floor above me, playing Dance, Dance, Revolution at two in the morning.

My thoughts were once again interrupted, this time by Cricket, who was kind enough to put me out of my misery. She’d clearly joined us for a different purpose than to merely keep me in line, and I reminded myself that I needed to give my stepmother credit for making my confinement less painful than it could have been. “I think we should be able to finish up the rest later,” Cricket said, rising to usher the young werewolves out the door, and I sent her a thankful smile.

Which reminded me of the very worst part of my voluntary incarceration. I was beginning to understand how I could learn to be content here, to turn into a plumper version of Cricket and to settle into Haven life, forgetting what I was missing in the outside world. I’d spent the morning helping my stepmother prepare the day’s bread, and had ended up enjoying the yeasty odor and the feel of resilient dough between my fingers. Later, we hung sheets out on the line to dry, mopped the front hallway, and even washed windows, each task provided immediate gratification that had been lacking in my previous life. Now, a traitorous part of my mind told me that perhaps my father had my best interests at heart all along—maybe this simple women’s work was what I had been born for.

“Well, that didn’t end a moment too soon,” groused Quetzalli, and I smiled in relief. At least I had Quetzalli present to take the edge off my internal craziness.

 

***

 

Quetzalli had gone on a walk to blow off steam and Cricket was down in the cellar gathering vegetables for dinner when Iris showed back up. The young werewolf knocked so timidly on the back door that I almost missed the sound, and when I let her in, she immediately began apologizing. She was sorry to bother me, sorry to interrupt, sorry to intrude. Despite myself, my heart warmed at the youngster’s elaborate apologies, and I took pity on her at once.

“What’s wrong, Iris?” I asked, channeling my stepmother as I put on a pot of water for tea. I even pulled out a tin of cookies to sweeten the poor child’s mood, not that she herself could get much sweeter. If nothing else, the food would give me something to do while the young werewolf apologized.

Despite the cookies and tea, Iris was evasive, and it took me a full ten minutes to put my finger on her problem. My young cousin was unhappy with life in Haven, but was afraid to strike out on her own since female werewolves had such a hard time controlling their shifts. She’d heard that I was able to keep my wolf under control despite monthly hormonal surges. Was it true?

When I asked myself the same question, I realized that I probably could teach this young werewolf to squash her wolf just like I’d chained mine. But I didn’t want to. Learning to partner with my wolf over the last few weeks had been one of the most profound experiences of my life, and my current shiflessness was responsible for a solid half of the ache in my stomach. The truth was, I missed my wolf, and would do almost anything to get her back.

I opened my mouth to tell Iris that the solution wasn’t worth the price, that losing your wolf was too painful to even imagine, but before I could speak, my body surged with my almost-forgotten wolf sense. Smells were stronger, the light brighter, and I could even make out Iris’s wolf hovering just beneath the surface of my cousin’s human form. The other wolf was young and scared, the most submissive canine I’d ever met, and with my own wolf rampant, I could almost see Iris’s tail drooping between her legs even though she was currently two-footed.

“You’re worried about what your wolf will do,” I exclaimed, “but she’s so tame and calm!” It was strange to be able to see someone else’s wolf when they were in human form, but I was certain of my diagnosis. “You don’t need to be concerned about your wolf hurting anyone,” I soothed Iris. And then, before my own wolf could retreat back to whatever secret den she’d come out of, I finished silently, Thank you for coming back. My lupine half didn’t answer me in words, but I could tell she was amused at my slowness to realize that I needed her canine presence, and I accepted her humorous rebuke gracefully.

I was still cheering up my cousin when Quetzalli walked in the door, which gave me an idea for solving Iris’s problem. “Do you think your parents will give you permission to leave Haven?” I asked my cousin carefully, and she responded with an eager nod.

“Mom doesn’t want me to stay in Haven,” the young werewolf confirmed, “and she can talk Dad around. I was just afraid to leave….”

“Well,” I interrupted, “in that case, I know just the place for you, and just the person to take you there. The pack I used to live with would be just right for you, and Quetzalli should be getting home soon anyway.”

“Just what I need,” Quetzalli groused. “Someone even younger to babysit.” But I could tell from the glow of her lupine half that she was eager to get home to her partner. Even though I would be left alone in Haven, I was happy too. My wolf had returned.

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CHAPTER 18

 

“I’ll miss you,” I emoted, pulling Quetzalli in for a lingering hug as she finished zipping up her duffel bag. The idea of sending Iris and Quetzalli away had seemed like a good one a few hours earlier, but now I was realizing how alone I’d be in Haven without Quetzalli’s solid presence by my side. In a way, it felt like I was cutting off my last tie to Wolfie, admitting that I’d chosen to salvage whatever was left of Haven in exchange for losing the possibility of happiness with the man I loved.

Sappy, my wolf interjected, which prompted me to smile instead of cry. Nothing like a canine to bring me back down to planet earth, and to remind me that I wouldn’t be entirely friendless here.

“Are you sure you don’t want to come home with us?” Quetzalli asked, once I released her from the farewell embrace. It was a bad idea, but for a second, I allowed myself to imagine climbing out the attic window that night and slipping through the dark to meet up with Quetzalli on the road. Unfortunately, my mind continued on to the inevitable conclusion of that scenario—the Chief showing up on Wolfie’s doorstep the next morning to take me back by force, the younger alpha challenging my father, and the cousins slaughtering every one of my friends. I might want to go home with Quetzalli, but I wouldn’t do it.

“No, I have to stay here and figure out what’s wrong with Haven,” I told her. “Tell Wolfie….” My voice trailed off as I realized I couldn’t think of anything to say to the young alpha. Tell him I loved him? Bad idea—that would just make the bloodling bring the fight to Haven. Tell him I was sorry? Same result, most likely, since it might make Wolfie forgive me for my harsh words. “Just tell him goodbye for me,” I said finally, and I was glad Quetzalli didn’t linger over her own farewell since I knew I wouldn’t be able to speak again through the sobs trying to force themselves up out of my chest.

 

***

 

When I woke, my throat was still sore from the crying jag I’d succumbed to as soon as Quetzalli walked out the door. It was dark outside, but the waning moon was pushing through the curtainless window, filling my attic domicile with a soft glow and proving that I’d slept through the evening and half the night.

I stretched, suddenly wide awake despite the late hour, then glanced across the room at Quetzalli’s empty bed. But the bed was no longer empty. Instead, a large wolf was sprawled across the mattress, and my heart leaped, imagining that Quetzalli had dropped off Iris and then crept back into the attic to rejoin me. Perhaps I wasn’t so alone after all.

But as I tilted my head to the side to get a better look, the wolf tilted her head as well, and I realized the canine was simply my own reflection in the darkened window. My reflection, I tried out the words, and suddenly felt like I was flying. Shiftless no longer, my wolf had come to comfort me with fur.

If I’d been in my human form, I would have laughed at the notion that a fit of self pity was all that was required to break through my inability to change forms. But with the wolf brain and my human side merged into one mind and body, we were instead enveloped by a calm that I hadn’t felt in years. We were able to think clearly for the first time in weeks, without any confusing human emotions to weigh us down.

To celebrate, my wolf and I decided to run together, releasing the last of the angstful emotions that had been churning through our belly. But as we rose into a crouch, we felt paper rather than sheets crinkling beneath our paws, and my human brain jolted back to the forefront.

Looking down, my nose knew what had happened before my eyes could focus on the torn envelope. My dead sister’s scent wafted up from the disinterred sheet of paper, and the wolf and I breathed deeply, knowing that this decade-old aroma would dissipate before long. Despite ourselves, we whined, missing Brooke’s soft lap and gentle hands. She’d sat right here beside us so many times, brushing the tangles out of our wayward hair and braiding it back into a simple plait, or comforting us when we’d clashed with our father over some rule we considered stupid and he considered gospel. Her scent on the paper seemed to bring long-forgotten pieces of my sister back to life in my mind.

“I’m sorry he’s so hard on you,” Brooke had told my human form once, not long before she left home. It had always seemed unfair that my sister could float through her days beneath my father’s radar while I was the harridan who seemed in constant need of reprimands, but I didn’t resent my older sister so much as I hated my father for the unwanted attention. “You know it’s only because the two of you are so much alike, right?” Brooke continued gently, rubbing my back in slow, soothing circles.

“I’m nothing like him!” I retorted, stiffening in horror at the notion that the Chief and I shared anything other than 50% of our DNA. Even before our mother died, I hadn’t wanted to grow up to be like my father, who never had a kind word for any of his children and who believed in an eye for an eye justice.

“You’re just like him,” Brooke disagreed quietly, which got my dander up further. But my sister was always the fence-mender in our family, so I knew she wasn’t being nasty for the sake of getting my goat. “You’re strong and smart and caring….”

“Caring?!” the younger me interjected. “Father doesn’t care about us at all. Don’t you think that if he did, he’d let you apply to colleges like you want?”

Brooke smiled sadly at me, pulling my stiff shoulders into her body until I softened against her curves. “He does care about us, Terra,” she replied. “But he cares about the good of the pack even more.”

 

***

 

The final hint of sandalwood and tomato leaves drifted away even as the memory dissipated, and I knew that Brooke had finally faded from the earth. Actually, that wasn’t true. Her letter was still here, along with the words she’d wanted me to have when I was sixteen and she was dying. Whether or not my father was using Brooke’s letter as a means of manipulating me seemed academic now—my sister had been the one who wrote the words, and Brooke always had my best interests at heart. So I tilted my wolf face so I could squint down at the paper and I began to read.

Unfortunately, I could barely make out my older sister’s greeting, and could parse that much only because I knew Brooke would begin her letter “Dearest Terra.” Something about my wolf eyes or my wolf brain made the rest of the missive dissolve into squiggles, and despite waiting for weeks to open the envelope, now that my wolf had done that deed for me, I was desperate to know what Brooke had to say, the sooner the better. But since my shift to wolf form had been involuntary, I wasn’t so sure I could regain my human skin so easily.

I sent the question toward my canine half, and her reply came back quickly. We’ll run later, she conceded, and I almost felt like the sentence was a promised future treat for both of us rather than a deal that I was making with an unwanted darker half. The wolf and I would run later, and I trusted my wolf not to tear into any more toddlers in the process, and to let go of our body when I needed to return.

Now in harmony, we shifted forms in a millisecond, too quickly for me to even feel my snout retracting into my face and the fur sinking into my skin. With human eyes, the night made it too dark to read, so I fumbled for a minute until my hand found the bedside lamp and I could illuminate Brooke’s letter. Then, clutching the paper in my lap, I read my sister’s final words to me.

 

Dearest Terra,

[_ _]

I’m sorry I won’t get to see you grow into the strong young woman I already know you’ll be. And I’m sorry I never got to see your shining face after I left Haven. I don’t regret the life I’ve built for myself here, but I do regret leaving you alone, the way Father made me promise to do.

[_ _]

I had to break Father’s rules this final time, though, just in case what happened to me happens to you. I told Dale that the doctors diagnosed me with cancer so advanced there was no point in trying chemo, but I was lying, just like I lied to my kind husband about all of my runs in the woods. I hope you’ll find a way to help Keith when the time comes since neither he nor his father will understand my son’s first change. I’ve kept the wolf away from my human family.

[_ _]

But I digress. I’m dying, sweet Terra, because my wolf is eating me up from the inside out. I used to see signs of this in Father sometimes, when he’d gone too long without shifting, but I thought that was just his bloodling nature shining through. I was wrong. Father and I have something in our blood that makes our wolves fight against our human bodies. You probably have it too, but I hope you’re smart and strong enough to find a way to make it work, like Father does. Cricket told me that you’re learning to partner with your wolf in a manner I never would have dreamed possible, so maybe you’ll be able to avoid the curse even if you hold your wolf in. I can’t seem to do the same—I’ve never been as strong as you.

[_ _]

I could let my wolf out to run, but I’m too afraid. I know you’ll think that giving up like this is no better than suicide, but I can’t go back to Haven and my wolf can’t be set loose here. So I’m holding her in, even though she’s gnawing on my bones. It hurts so much. I don’t think I’ll last long.

[_ _]

Once I’m gone, I hope you’ll remember me fondly. I thought of you every day, sweet Terra, even though I have a little boy to keep me busy now, and a husband I don’t begin to deserve. I sent you my love every night before I fell asleep, and I like to believe I’ll be able to love you even after I close my eyes for the last time.

[_ _]

Stay strong, smart, and caring like our father, Terra. But follow your own dreams.

[_ _]

Love from your sister,

Brooke

[_ _]

I could barely make out Brooke’s signature through the tears that were once again streaming down my cheeks, but I was surprised enough at what followed to halt the waterworks. Beneath Brooke’s final line, someone else had scrawled an addendum, and I had to lift the paper to my nose and ask for my wolf’s help before I realized who had authored the postscript. Cricket’s mousy scent of bleach and applesauce rose up from the page, stronger than my sister’s decade-old aroma, but carrying fewer memories. My stepmother’s words were definitely enough to pull me back into the present, though, despite lacking as much emotional impact.

 

Terra,

[_ _]

Your sister was wise. Your father has been fighting his wolf for years, but lately, I think he’s losing the battle. I see the wolf through his eyes even when we’re alone.

[_ _]

The pack is afraid, and so am I. Please come home. We need you.

[_ _]

There was no fond closing, just a hurried dash and then “Cricket” in the same spiky scrawl as the rest of the postscript. I could imagine my stepmother finishing her note and hurrying to reseal the envelope before my father returned to his office, the usually obedient woman slipping the letter into the back of Brooke’s file to be carried to me. I shivered, imagining what might have happened if the Chief had caught his wife in the act, especially if Father’s wolf was as out of control as Cricket made it seem.

But he hadn’t caught her, and I had come home. And now, at least, I knew what was wrong with Haven.

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CHAPTER 19

 

“Are you serious?” I asked the next evening when I came down for dinner.

The Chief had remained absent for most of the day, and I considered taking the opportunity to debrief Cricket. But, really, my stepmother’s note and Brooke’s letter said it all. Plus, the people of Haven who I saw scurrying around whenever I went outdoors backed up my hypothesis—my father was disintegrating and his pack was falling into shambles around him. There wasn’t much I could do until the Chief showed back up, so I waited as patiently as I could until he was ready to put in an appearance.

I hadn’t decided what I was going to do about Haven and my father yet, but that larger issue flew out of my mind when I walked into the dining room and saw my father and Cricket waiting for me at the table…along with the saddest set of suitors I’d ever seen. Okay, yes, my girl cousins were right—the potential mates my father had picked out for me were handsome enough. And the men sitting at our table were mostly the right age, although one was old enough to be my father and another looked like he might still be coming to terms with adulthood. But ever since my wolf and I had made up, we’d been sharing the same mind-space, and her senses told me that none of the four were even as alpha as Brooke had been. My older sister had enjoyed many good attributes, but she was not an alpha werewolf, and strong leadership is what Haven needed if it was going to pull itself back together. What was my father thinking?

As if to confirm my analysis, all four suitors bowed their heads at my tone of voice, and despite my concern over the situation, their reaction almost made me laugh. That was certainly a first in Haven—male werewolves submitting to a woman. Or maybe they just wanted to say grace?

The humor fled, though, when my wolf and I took in my father’s canine counterpart. This was the first time in a decade that I’d seen Father while my wolf was wide awake, and she growled deep in her throat at the sight. The Chief’s wolf looked rabid under his skin, twitching and baring its teeth, clearly begging to be let loose. For the first time in years, I felt real respect for my father, who was able to keep such a dominant wolf under control, even though the two sides of his personality seemed to be butting heads rather than working together.

And now that I knew where to look, I could see the strain produced by that internal battle. My father’s face was lined, his jaw clenched, and the piercing eyes that I’d once thought could force me to do anything now seemed almost weak. Crazy Wilder was fighting the wolf…and losing. I spent a second wondering if this was how Brooke had looked during her final days, then I forced myself to focus on the more pressing problem right in front of me.

My father allowed the silence that followed my words to extend out until it was becoming painful, then he finally broke eye contact with me. If it hadn’t been such a crazy concept, I would have almost thought the alpha was deflecting his gaze the way a submissive wolf might after trying to stare down the pack leader, but that idea was too ludicrous to hold onto. Instead, my father merely turned to scrutinize my four suitors, then quietly dismissed them from our presence. “You can go now, boys,” he said abruptly, and as one, the male werewolves got to their feet, put their napkins on the table, and filed out the door.

Well, that was…unexpected. “I wasn’t reneging on our deal…”I started, but the Chief talked right over me, any hint of submission long forgotten.

“I see you’re finally ready to take on the job I’ve been grooming you for,” my father intoned. But I didn’t get to learn what job Father was referring to because a formidable knock on the front door stopped our conversation in its tracks.

“Right on time,” the Chief said, taking a sip of water before leisurely rising from the table and leading our little family down the hall. His wolf looked quieter than it had a few minutes before, and the canine now seemed amused, as if we were all on stage, acting out a drama that the Chief had written. I wanted to hold onto that clue, but my breath caught in my throat and all other thoughts fled as the door was flung open and a non-Haven werewolf walked in. My knight in shining armor had arrived.

 

***

 

“Rude” didn’t even begin to describe the act of one pack leader barging into another’s home uninvited. In fact, Wolfie’s behavior was tantamount to an act of war, but I couldn’t avoid the silly grin that spread itself across my face when my favorite wolf stepped over the threshold. My canine half and I could smell his scent—like leaf mold and pine needles—and I realized we were leaning forward as if the young alpha was a huge magnet and our combined wolf and human brains were a pile of iron filings. If the stakes hadn’t been so high and my father hadn’t been present, I don’t think anything could have stopped me from falling into Wolfie’s arms.

And I was now sure that his wolf side, at least, would have caught me as I fell, quite gladly. The younger alpha’s face was grim, but with my new wolf sense, I could see his canine half dancing in circles behind his eyes, as excited as I was to be back together. All at once, the last ache in my stomach faded away as I realized that Wolfie really had known I was acting, as Quetzalli’s presence had suggested, even though I’d been loathe to believe a bloodling could be so poker-faced. Wolfie hadn’t taken my words to heart or held them against me, and he was here now to back me up and to help solve the problem with my father.

As we stood in silence, I could almost feel our canine halves communing without words. What took you so long?, my wolf was saying, and his wolf was laughing at our impatience. As impetuous as a human, he was probably teasing.

The man was a little less sure of himself than the wolf, though. Ignoring Chief Wilder, Wolfie cocked his head and asked me, “Which one did you pick?” It took me a minute to realize the younger alpha was asking about the suitors, then my wolf and I huffed our amusement out through our nose. I couldn’t believe it—Wolfie was jealous.

“Is that why you’re here?” I answered, trying to get Wolfie back on track. Surely, hopefully, he had some kind of plan, not just a possessive urge to come and take me home before I could marry another man. Not that I minded a bit of alpha behavior in this context, but there were larger issues at play.

The young pack leader shook his head, not in negation, but as if trying to force water out of his ears, and I saw the wolf rise up behind his eyes to take command of the conversation. Wolfie’s voice sounded the same, but his energy was more focused when he spoke again. “No, I’m here because your nephew, and your grandson,” he said, turning to face my father at last, “has gone missing. Keith wasn’t pleased when Quetzalli came home without you yesterday, and we now know he hitchhiked all the way to Haven after he found out Terra wasn’t coming back.”

To Haven? Soppy romantic notions were pushed to the back burner as I parsed Wolfie’s words. I was positive I would have known if Keith was kicking around the village, which meant the boy hadn’t arrived. But where could he get sidetracked between the highway and our cluster of houses? Nowhere—unless Keith’s first shift came upon him unaware, in which case the teen werewolf could be running around the woods four-footed and confused.

“And you want permission to go hunt for the boy in my woods,” the Chief said, his words coldly amused as the pack leader’s wolf peered through my father’s eyes to focus on the younger alpha. If Wolfie had the bad sense to request permission, it was obvious the answer would be no, so I figured I’d better derail this standoff before it could go any further.

“Can I speak with you for a moment, Wolfie?” I asked. Ignoring my father, I continued: “Alone.”

 

***

 

Even though I had left my childhood behind years ago, I couldn’t help feeling a frisson of forbidden pleasure when Wolfie followed me up the stairs and into my loft. The male werewolf was almost too big for the space, his head bowing down so it didn’t graze the ceiling as he moved to the center of the room—the one spot where he could stand erect. Despite the awkwardness of the low ceiling, though, I could see the tension ease from Wolfie’s shoulders at this brief reprieve from the Chief’s presence, and my wolf and I felt the same way. As we came into the room behind him, we immediately rushed to Wolfie’s side and let the young alpha enfold us in his arms, then we pulled his head down to join us in a hungry kiss.

I would have liked to submerge myself in our shared passion forever, but I knew my father’s patience was very limited, so I pulled back far enough that we could speak, although I didn’t try to wriggle out of Wolfie’s arms. “You forgave me,” I said, smiling up into my mate’s sparkling eyes.

“So I am man enough for you,” he rumbled in reply, the words ironic because the wolf had the upper hand as the alpha spoke.

“Definitely,” I answered, then I had to rein in my own wolf who thought now might be a good time to run our hand down Wolfie’s firm jaw. Focus, I reminded her, and I felt my canine half settle. “I’m sorry it’s taken so long,” I continued. “At first I just wanted to protect you, but the longer I stayed here, the more I realized Haven was falling apart. I didn’t want to leave them in the lurch.”

“The pack needs a new alpha,” Wolfie said, having understood a situation in two heartbeats that had taken me several days to untangle. “Your father’s wolf is eating him alive.”

“And we need to find Keith,” I added. “That part’s true, right? My nephew is missing? Has he changed forms?”

“We were waiting for you,” the young alpha responded, and his words warmed me from head to toe. Not only had Wolfie believed I really would be coming back, he’d continued to abide by my wishes that I be the one to help Keith learn to shift. Unfortunately, that seemed to have been a poor decision on my part given my nephew’s rash behavior.

“My father’s too territorial to let you wander around in Haven’s woods,” I thought aloud. “And I don’t know how we can challenge him here without having the pack tear the challenger apart. Did you bring anyone with you?”

“Out at the highway,” Wolfie answered, then cut right to the chase in typical wolf fashion. “Do you want to challenge Chief Wilder or should I?”

Neither, I wanted to say, but I knew that answer wasn’t going to hold water. It almost felt like my father had set me up to take over his leadership, but I couldn’t quite believe it—I’d never heard of a female pack leader, and Haven was far too hidebound to allow one. Plus, was I really alpha material?

“You know you’re an alpha,” Wolfie said quietly, rubbing my back in the same gentle circles my sister had once used, but with far more interesting effects on my nerve endings. “Remember how you ignored me the second time I commanded you to stop running away in the city?”

It was true that I’d been able to pull away from Wolfie’s bark, but I’d thought my reaction was only possible because Wolfie hadn’t been my pack leader. That issue was academic at the moment, though, because who would challenge the Chief didn’t seem as important an issue at the moment as how that challenger would win. “I don’t want to kill my father,” I whispered into Wolfie’s shoulder, hoping the fabric would muffle my words. How’s that for proof I wasn’t pack leader material? The Chief wouldn’t have spared a thought for the casualties that stood in the way of achieving his goal.

“No one is going to die,” Wolfie said as if stating fact, putting one finger under my chin to tilt my face back up toward his and brushing a gentle kiss across my lips. “What do you think I spent the last few days doing while you were living here in the lap of luxury? I was working on my pool.”

[* *]

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CHAPTER 20

 

Tearing myself away from Wolfie—again—was one of the hardest things I’d ever done. But I could just imagine my nephew’s terror since the boy hadn’t grown up among werewolves and was now facing his first shift alone and in a strange place. My urge to protect Keith was nearly as strong as my yearning to take Wolfie and run away from Haven as fast as I could, especially when I considered the fact that my nephew might even now be caught midshift. Or perhaps Keith’s wolf brain had completely taken control of their shared body and was heading past Haven’s boundaries and toward the normal human population. I’d do just about anything to prevent Keith from having to live with the same guilt I bore due to my wolf’s actions during our shared teen years.

But hunting down a confused teenage werewolf seemed easy in comparison to the task Wolfie faced. The young alpha seemed confident in his ability to beat my father at pool, and my father had agreed to the proposed challenge, albeit with a mocking laugh, so the winner would be Haven’s leader. But Crazy Wilder had filled the pool room with my most scary-looking male cousins, and Wolfie had no one to back him up. Plus, my father had won 95% of the games I’d seen him play during my childhood, and I couldn’t quite imagine how Wolfie could have honed his skills enough during the last week to provide any kind of competition for the billiards master. It was traditional to put the losing werewolf in a pack-leader challenge to death, and the notion of returning from my own hunt to a world lacking Wolfie’s calm presence made me shiver. Still, this was the best plan we’d been able to come up with, and the only one that could possibly result in everyone leaving the room alive...assuming Wolfie’s skills were up to par.

“Trust me,” the younger alpha said quietly as he walked past my dithering form and into the pool room. Wolfie had gone outside a minute earlier to pick up the cue stick he’d left on the doorstep, proof that his challenge hadn’t been a spur-of-the-moment decision, and now he was screwing together the two halves of his stick even as he strode toward my father. Looking over Wolfie’s shoulder, I could see the Chief frown slightly, aware that he’d lost one of his home-court advantages—knowledge of which cue sticks were perfect and which had just enough of a warp to send a ball swirling off in the wrong direction.

“Best two games out of three?” Wolfie asked, the phrase nearly a command instead of a question, and I saw the wolf behind my father’s eyes snarl as the Chief nodded without thinking. As hard as it was to believe since I’d seen my father dominate everyone in his path for my entire lifetime, Wolfie was the more alpha of the two. But my father was far from whipped.

“As the challenged party, I assume I go first?” he asked, and I could tell that the Chief’s words were meant to make Wolfie echo my father’s earlier unconscious agreement. But, instead, my favorite alpha pursed his lips and shook his head slowly.

“I thought we’d go traditional and lag,” rumbled his wolf.

I wanted to stay and watch, but I knew Keith was waiting, and there was nothing I could do now that the challenge was underway. So I turned away, the sound of pool balls on the sidewall echoing in my mind as I walked past my cousins and out the door.

 

***

 

I assumed it would be a struggle to shift, but as soon as I stepped out of my clothes on the back stoop, my wolf surged to the forefront and we became canine so easily I didn’t even notice the change occurring. After fighting against the shift and then fighting to force the shift for so long, it felt strange to realize that I was now able to change forms as seamlessly as Wolfie did. But I didn’t want to look a gift horse in the mouth, so I just relaxed into the transformation.

That thought reminded me of the competition going on inside, though, and my wolf and I scented the air, feeling my father’s annoyance and Wolfie’s elation as the younger alpha won the right to go first. A good sign. Let’s hope Wolfie could keep up his lead while I was gone.

Before the two of us had descended from the loft a few minutes earlier, Wolfie told me that the rest of his pack was waiting along the highway at the location where Keith had left the road and cut into the woods. The younger alpha had given his pack instructions not to leave the vehicles, knowing that my father had wolves patrolling Haven’s perimeter, and that those wolves would attack first and ask questions later. I, on the other hand, could come and go as I pleased, so the plan was for me to meet up with Wolfie’s pack and then to follow my nephew’s trail wherever it led.

I could smell the anxiety, but also the cohesiveness, of Wolfie’s crew before I rounded the bend and padded to a stop beside their cars. The yahoos were in wolf form while the older adults sported their human bodies, ensuring cool heads all around due to Wolfie’s calming effect on the wolves in his pack. As soon as I came into sight, Wade and Fen trotted up to greet me, licking under my chin, and I was so gratified by their acceptance that I shifted back to human form so I could take them into my arms like a pair of lap dogs.

“Not quite what a passing motorist should see,” Chase said gruffly, interrupting our greeting and tossing an oversized t-shirt into my arms so I could shield my nudity from non-werewolf observers. Despite his tone, though, I could tell that even the pack’s beta had forgiven my betrayal of his milk brother. Then Chase went a step further, dipping his head to me as if I were his alpha’s permanent mate, and I couldn’t prevent the blush that snuck up my neck at the gesture. Imagining what it would be like to act as Wolfie’s mate was tantalizing, but I needed to keep my focus on Keith, so I was glad when Galena pulled me into a simple hug and cut off that train of thought.

“So, what’s the plan?” Quetzalli asked, her words abrupt but her body language telling me that Galena’s partner was as glad to see me as everyone else was. She dipped her head slightly as she met my eyes, and I couldn’t really believe the pack had forgiven me so easily. I was sure there would be some lingering issues, but now was not the time to deal with hurt feelings.

“Wolfie challenged my father to a game of pool,” I said, and nods all around suggested the pack had known that was their alpha’s goal from the beginning. The werewolves kept their eyes trained on me for orders, though, so I continued talking. “Until that ends, it’s not safe for any of you to go looking for Keith, so I’m going to try to track him from here.”

A whine from Blaze brought my eyes around to the young werewolf, and my wolf had no difficulty parsing his complaint. “I know you want to come,” I answered, “but we can’t risk it. If Wolfie loses the challenge, I’m going to have a hard enough time getting Keith past the border patrol and back to you—it would just be that much harder if any non-Haven wolves came with me.”

The pack was silent for a minute as we each imagined what would happen if Wolfie did lose the game of pool. But the werewolves’ calm energy didn’t falter, quite a tribute to their absent pack leader. “He won’t lose,” Chase said at last, and I nodded, looking both ways to make sure no cars were coming, then slipping off my t-shirt and regaining my fur. The hunt was on.

 

***

 

The last time I’d tracked a child through the woods, I’d been too scared to let my wolf loose, and even though I now realized my canine half had done her best to help me at the time, she had been virtually blindfolded by my distrust during that earlier hunt. Now, the wolf and I acted in harmony, my human mind suggesting what Keith might have been thinking at the same time as the wolf used her superior senses to pick up the teenager’s fading trail. The scents proved that Keith had come this way several hours earlier, probably arriving in the wee hours of the morning and cutting into the woods as soon as the day was bright enough to let him see where he placed his feet. Since my nephew had such a long head start, my wolf and I both knew that the sooner we found him, the better.

Despite the solemnity of the occasion, though, I couldn’t help enjoying the way my wolf’s muscles were able to stretch and push us through the forest at a trot. Dew was already coating the ground as a sunny autumn day turned into a chilly evening, and the water moistened our pads, helping us feel each imperfection of the ground beneath our feet. With the toughness of canine foot leather, acorns and twigs gently massaged our skin rather than causing pain, and we sidestepped a leafy area in favor of a patch of rounded pebbles to enhance the sensation.

Then all enjoyment receded into the background as Keith’s scent abruptly mutated just as we ran upon a pile of rags that had once been a t-shirt and pair of boxer shorts. The teenager had clearly felt the shift coming early enough to pull off his shoes and jeans, which was a plus since denim can make a change of form extraordinarily difficult, but Keith hadn’t had time to remove the rest of his apparel. I felt guilty, knowing I’d made my nephew wait too long for his first shift, and now he’d been forced to change into wolf form alone in the woods, with no pack around him.

Focus, my wolf reminded me, throwing back the same words I’d sent her no more than an hour previously. The wolf was right to stay calm, not just because there was no point in panicking, but also because we were still in the heart of Haven’s forest, so Keith’s wolf would have had nothing nearby to harm…as long as he didn’t run too far in any direction.

Sucking in a deep breath through our nose, the wolf and I noted that Keith had turned up the mountain rather than down toward civilization, a perk given the unpredictable nature of a wolf on its first shift. We put our nose to the ground and began to run faster.

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CHAPTER 21

 

Unlike Melony, Keith wasn’t hard to find, although it felt like I ran in wolf form for hours through the dark before I finally tracked him down. The young wolf had passed beyond the safety of Haven’s boundaries during his wolf’s first exuberant dash, and when I smelled blood along with my nephew’s scent, my heart sank into my metaphorical shoes.

I knew where we’d ended up due to my own meanderings as a young werewolf, when I’d pushed the boundaries quite literally and had run onto our neighbors’ properties. The Clarks’ farm wasn’t the best spot for Keith to land, but neither was it the worst. I distinctly remembered Mr. Clark spraying my furred rump with BBs, chasing me back into the woods when I’d come out onto his land in my own teen years. What I didn’t know was who owned the land now, or whether the current owners had young children who might have been allowed to go outside alone after dark. I shivered, realizing that the smell of blood was making my wolf’s mouth water, even though she was letting me take the lead as we came close enough to hear Keith breathing.

“Relax, Aunt Terra,” the kid’s voice came toward me through the dark. “It was only a chicken.” My nephew’s tone didn’t quite match the nonchalance of his words, but as we advanced, my wolf and I could see that there were indeed enough feathers lining the ground to prove that the young wolf’s first kill had been of the avian variety. Heaving a sigh of relief, I quickly shifted to human form to join him.

“Whoa,” the teenager said immediately, throwing a hand up over his eyes. “I don’t think I’m ready to see you naked quite yet, Aunt Terra.” For the first time since smelling blood, I was able to take a deep breath—if my nephew could joke around, he was going to be okay.

“Oh, yeah, because familial nudity is much worse than tearing out a chicken’s throat with your teeth,” I muttered, but sank to the ground and pulled up my knees to shield my bare breasts from view. “Okay, I’m moderately decent,” I continued, my voice calm as I tried to soothe the shakes out of Keith’s body. I could tell that my nephew’s wolf was pushing against the boy’s human form, begging to be let back out, but that Keith was afraid to set the canine loose after its round of chicken killing. And while I didn’t blame his human brain for worrying, I needed the teenager to be able to shift back to wolf form as quickly as possible so we could return to Wolfie’s pack. Plus, the sooner my nephew got back on the horse, the less likely he was to end up shiftless like me. “You know you’re going to have to pay for that chicken out of your allowance,” I added in mock rebuke, and was gratified to hear a faint chuckle coming from the teenager in front of me.

“I couldn’t change back,” Keith said just barely loud enough for me to hear after we’d sat for a few minutes in companionable silence. I hummed a gentle assent, but let the kid talk since he clearly needed to get the trauma out of his system. “The wolf wanted out, and then we ran and it was brilliant, Aunt Terra,” my nephew said, excitement coloring his words, then dropping away just as quickly. “But after the chicken, we shifted back to human form and I realized I didn’t know how to find the highway without my wolf’s nose. And the wolf wouldn’t come back.”

“That’s really normal, Keith,” I told him, taking my nephew’s hand in mine, an action that would have felt thoroughly inappropriate for a human aunt and nephew pair if they were naked in the woods, but which gave us both comfort since we were touchy-feely werewolves at heart. “The first few times you change, it’s hard to control, but you’ll get better at it.”

“They say that if you’re lost in the woods, you should just sit down and wait,” Keith continued. “So that’s what I did. I knew that you and Wolfie would come for me eventually, hopefully before I froze to death.” He feigned shivers, which made my heart lift yet further. Keith’s teen cockiness was apparently uncrushable, and I was glad. “So how’s Wolfie doing against Grandpa?” he finished, and I sighed—even my teenage nephew had known more about Wolfie’s plans than I had.

 

***

 

It turned out that Wolfie had started practicing pool with my sneaky nephew nearly immediately after the two of us began hanging out with his pack. I did recall several times when Wolfie had taken Keith aside, presumably to give the teenager one-on-one lessons on shifting, and now I realized that the lessons had actually gone in the other direction, with Keith sharing the Wilder knack for pool with a worthy student. Unlike every other man I’d ever known, Wolfie had apparently listened to every word I’d said and had filed the data way for future reference. So when he learned the Chief was a pool aficionado, Wolfie figured the game was a skill he’d better perfect.

The news made my heart a little less heavy at the notion of having left Wolfie alone in Haven…but not much. Even if Wolfie managed to pull off a win against the king of pool, I couldn’t quite imagine my father and cousins submitting to the outsider. “We need to get back there as quickly as possible,” I said, once it had become clear that Keith was feeling more himself in spite of the chicken blood drying on his face and hands.

“Obviously,” my nephew answered impertinently, and I rolled my eyes and paid him back by shifting without warning. The young werewolf was pulled into fur alongside me, but he clearly hadn’t been shaken up by the abrupt transformation. Instead, the youngster pranced around me, making my own wolf seem old and slow in comparison, but cheering us both up with his antics. And once I began racing back along our trail, Keith fell in behind me obediently, almost like a dog trained to heel.

It was pitch black by the time we reached Wolfie’s pack along the side of the highway, but the werewolves were still on full alert. While I was gone, they’d traded off wolf duty, with three of the yahoos sprawling out asleep in human form in the bed of the pickup truck so that Quetzalli and Oscar were the ones to greet us four-footed this time. Despite the collapse of the rest of the yahoos, Blaze came bounding along close behind the older adults, still in wolf form, and he immediately wrestled Keith to the ground in a show of male affection that transcended species boundaries.

“No sign of Wolfie?” I asked, having shifted back to human form the instant my toes hit pavement. Now that I was so close to Haven, every hair on my body seemed to be standing on end, itching to hotfoot it back to the village and check on my mate. Keith and I had been gone long enough that the pool-game challenge should have been long over, and I knew that no news wasn’t good news. If Wolfie had won and the change of leadership had gone smoothly, Haven’s new alpha should have come out by now to collect his original pack. The fact that they were all still present and waiting made me shiver.

“Nothing,” Chase said quietly without getting up from the driver’s seat of one of the cars. A plume of smoke rose into the night air, and I was shocked to realize that the beta was smoking. I’d never known a member of Wolfie’s pack to partake of the habit previously, and to see the beta smoking now was a clear sign that I wasn’t the only one with nerves. The realization only made me more worried.

“Okay,” I said, taking command of the situation. I hadn’t meant to, but I realized I was using the pack leader voice, which immediately pulled every eye to me. “I’ll see what’s going on,” I told Wolfie’s pack. “The rest of you wait here for half an hour, then go home if you don’t hear from us.”

“Go home?!” Glen asked from the bed of the pickup truck, our voices having pulled him out of his light slumber. “No way are we going home without you and Wolfie.” A murmur of assent proved that the other yahoos had woken and were in accord.

Chase and I exchanged glances, and in that moment I knew the two of us were on the same page, just as we had been about my betrayal the last time Wolfie’s pack had come to Haven. Whatever was holding Wolfie up couldn’t be good, and we both knew there was no reason to risk the rest of the pack by sending them in after their leader. If my father had won the challenge, it was better for Wolfie’s pack to go home and regroup without me, and I knew the pack’s beta would make that happen. I nodded my thanks to my mate’s milk brother, and he bowed his head in acquiescence.

“At least put on some clothes,” said Galena quietly, handing over a t-shirt and jogging pants. As much as I hated to waste time by walking back to the village in human form, I had to admit that she was right—running around naked was a bit of a juvenile thing to do even in a werewolf village, and I needed all the gravitas I could muster if I wanted to get Wolfie out of whatever hot water he was in. I just hoped my mate was alive and waiting for me.

“Thanks,” I said quietly, pulling on the clothes Galena had given me.

Keith got to his feet and began to follow as I turned away from the pack, so I figured I might as well start using my new-found alpha status now rather than later. “Stay,” I told the young wolf, putting the full force of command beneath my voice, and my nephew plopped down onto his tail so fast I was a bit concerned he might never move again. Well, that worked better than I’d thought it would. Deciding to take my nephew’s unusual obedience as a good sign, I broke into a run up the dark gravel road leading to my family home.

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CHAPTER 22

 

As soon as I reached the village green, I could hear the raised voices pouring out the windows of my father’s house. I couldn’t make out the words, but the tone was angry, and my wolf extended our senses out to their limits, seeking clues about the situation we were walking into. Leaf mold and pine needles entered our nose, with no hint of the blood I’d been secretly expecting—Wolfie was alive. Although my new alpha leanings tried to make me care about the health of the Haven pack as well, if I was honest, Wolfie was all I’d really thought about for the last half hour, so the knowledge that he was unharmed gave me strength to enter what seemed poised to turn into a riot.

“Haven’s been led by a Wilder for three generations,” one of my uncles roared as I pushed open the back door and slipped into the heart of the pack. It seemed as if every man and half the women who lived in Haven had crammed themselves into my family home, and although the house wasn’t small, it definitely wasn’t big enough to host a town meeting. I began to push my way through the crowd, but the werewolves parted to let me through before I could shove anyone aside, creating a clear path leading toward the heart of the conflict. Sooner than I really wanted, I was standing in the open doorway of the pool room.

The scene inside wasn’t at all what I had expected. Yes, my bulkier male cousins were clad in fur, menacing Wolfie, who remained in human form. My mate stood with his back against the wall, his cue stick held lightly, the tip slowly moving to face each verbal attacker. None of that was a big surprise. What was unusual was the fact that my father stood in front of Wolfie in canine form, the Chief’s teeth bared as he growled at his own pack.

Or, rather, at Wolfie’s pack, as the young alpha’s next words made abundantly clear. “Is that a challenge?” Wolfie ground out, and my overbearing uncle ducked his head despite himself, one step away from prostrating his whole body on the ground. A wave of submissive gestures wound around the room, spurred on by the tone of Wolfie’s voice, and I could see now why Wolfie hadn’t been torn apart by Haven’s angry wolves—no member of my family was able to disobey their new pack leader’s commands.

Only when every Haven werewolf’s eyes were safely on the ground did Wolfie look across the room at me and allow his face to melt into the sweetest smile imaginable. I grinned back despite myself, feeling more lucky than ever that Wolfie was mine. Ours, my wolf corrected indulgently, before drifting back to sleep. I would have thought she would be pushing against my skin, itching to protect me from the dangers of the current situation, but with Wolfie present, my own wolf clearly thought everything was under control.

I wished I could be that complacent. But I figured if Wolfie had been holding off my uncles and cousins for what must have been hours, he probably had another ace up his sleeve and was waiting for me to put in an appearance to set his plan in motion. Instinctively, I walked toward my mate, letting my hands trail across the heads of my wolf cousins as I passed. “Down,” I said to them quietly, volume not necessary to push through commands that had to be obeyed. I didn’t look behind me, but could hear cousins who I’d been afraid of all my life dropping like flies at my feet.

“Keith all right?” Wolfie asked me when I reached his side, the younger alpha’s poker face back in place but a sparkle behind his eyes letting me know that all was well.

I nodded silently, then added, “Chase expects a status report within twenty minutes.” I’d taken the private drive off the highway at a run despite my human form, so we had a bit of time to spare before Wolfie’s pack would leave us in the lurch. Still, I wanted Wolfie to be aware of the deadline, even though no real harm would come from his pack going home…except for a lack of an exit strategy for the two of us. And it was clear that Wolfie did still need an exit strategy.

“I see you defeated the Chief,” I said, making conversation in order to give myself time to figure out Wolfie’s plan, but also wanting my words to carry throughout the house, making the conclusion of the challenge clear to every Haven werewolf. I looked down, expecting my father to bristle at my words, since I’d always assumed he’d be the last one to willingly give up his power over our little community. But my father’s wolf instead seemed as content as my own wolf was to let me and Wolfie hash out the situation. With a huffing sigh, the older canine dropped to the ground and closed his eyes, either falling instantly asleep or doing a pretty good imitation of slumber. “I guess we should let sleeping dogs lie,” I added, and was relieved to feel the mood of the gathering shift from edgy and dangerous over into something that approached contented and amused.

Wolfie smiled down at me, wolf and man united in their appreciation of my mild witticism, and I couldn’t resist reaching up to kiss Haven’s new pack leader, despite the family members pressing in on us from all sides.

“Go home,” Wolfie said to the gathering once I gave him back possession of his lips, and my extended family instantly moved to obey. “My pack will spend the night here, and we’ll all talk like human beings in the morning.” Then, content that everyone would do exactly as he said, Wolfie pulled off his shirt, slipped out of his pants, and was running for the highway in wolf form before we even had time to parse the shift.

 

***

 

“Haven isn’t going to be ready for big changes right away,” I told Wolfie a couple of hours later, once Cricket had pulled out sofas and unrolled mats to give each member of Wolfie’s pack a place to sleep inside our family home. My stepmother had offered the two of us her room since my father had taken to the woods in canine form and seemed bound to stay gone for a good long time. But I’d felt weird about sleeping in my parents’ bed and had instead pushed the two twin beds in my attic room together to give me and Wolfie a spot to sleep. It wasn’t entirely comfortable to span the crack, but lying in Wolfie’s arms felt good no matter what surface we were supported by.

“I think I should go home for a while,” Wolfie rumbled softly, and my body tensed up. Yes, I knew that Haven’s pack was going to have a hard time accepting Wolfie, but surely they’d have just as hard of a time taking orders from a woman. Plus, it felt like eons since Wolfie and I had been able to just laugh together, and I didn’t relish the idea of spending more time apart.

As usual, Wolfie read between the lines and understood everything I didn’t say, as well as what I did. “Crazy Wilder’s daughter will be easier to stomach as the new pack leader than an out-of-pack bloodling would be,” he murmured. “The separation won’t last forever, but I think you’ll be a better alpha for Haven than I would during the transitional period. Don’t worry, though. I’ll take the troublemakers home with me and leave you some of our pack in exchange.”

“The troublemakers?” I said, Wolfie’s words making me laugh despite myself. It was hard to imagine blood-thirsty werewolves like Milo being described by such a childish term. “Hit man” would be more appropriate, or maybe “murderer in training.” On the other hand, I did see Wolfie’s point, which had been aptly illustrated by the dissipation of tension within the pool room once I made my way home.

“How about this?” Wolfie bargained. “I take everyone from Haven between the ages of fifteen and twenty-five, and you get the yahoos in exchange.”

“Kids? Seriously? You want me to run this pack of wolves with the help of kids?” I retorted, only half kidding.

“You don’t need any help at all, sweetheart,” Wolfie answered, his mind clearly beginning to turn to other topics as his hands made their way over my body. “I’m leaving you with the yahoos because I’m sick of them.”

“Some alpha you are,” I growled, but the heat in my words had less to do with Wolfie’s bargain and more to do with his hands, which made me shiver as they slipped over my skin and, yup, slid down below the waist. My wolf and I arched into his touch, and this time I really do think we purred.

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EPILOGUE

 

I half expected the Haven werewolves to rise up in revolt after Wolfie and the majority of his pack hit the road with Haven’s young adults in tow, but the remainder of the community instead came to me with heads bowed starting that first morning. They needed advice on this problem, help with that problem, and I found my hands full just getting the village back into shape.

In an effort to keep the yahoos out of trouble (and to lighten my own load), I kept Wolfie’s loaned helpers running so ragged with errands from the first day that they didn’t have time to get into mischief. Cricket fed their voluminous appetites, which seemed to give my stepmother something to worry about other than the fact that her husband’s wolf appeared to have completely taken over his human side. My father spent most of his time hunting rabbits in the woods now, and when he came to the back door to check on his mate, I couldn’t see any hint of the man I’d known in the canine’s eyes. But that absence was almost a blessing—it seemed that the ruthlessness of Crazy Wilder had been within the man, not in the wolf.

Like the yahoos, I stayed too busy to worry over anything that wasn’t directly in front of me over the next few weeks. Despite my full hours, I expected the ache in my stomach to reappear when Wolfie slammed his pickup truck door and sped off, but I seemed to have finally accepted that the young alpha wasn’t walking out of my life permanently—he was just living somewhere else for a while. It also helped that my wolf and I were able to trade off responsibilities, and I often let her simple canine brain take over when exhaustion was threatening to turn me melancholy.

On one crisp winter day, the wolf had treated us to a run on four paws, and I was smiling when I stepped back into my clothes in the foyer of my family home, smelling stew bubbling in the kitchen and hearing the yahoos chattering away at the kitchen table. But I smelled something else too—leaf mold and pine needles and a hint of peppermint….

I whirled, hoping that the scent meant Wolfie had come to visit, even though I knew that wasn’t true. Instead of my mate, a young woman in her late teens stood uncomfortably in the formal sitting room that no one ever used. I couldn’t quite imagine Cricket parking a visitor there, but my wolf could see that the stranger’s canine half was skittish and ready to bolt, so I immediately understood how this girl might feel more comfortable alone than in the midst of the revelry clamoring forth from the kitchen.

The girl looked me up and down, sniffing the air with a human nose much like I would in wolf form, then she silently extended the hands that had been hugging a book to her chest. Her offering was the new Patricia Briggs novel that I’d left in that bookstore so long ago, and even without bringing the paper to my nose, I knew the pages smelled of Wolfie. Although I should have been welcoming my visitor, I couldn’t resist opening the cover of the book instead to see if my mate had written anything inside.

He had. “The whole pack misses you, but I miss you more,” Wolfie had penned with a firm hand, then he’d signed his name with a muddy paw print. “P.S.,” the inscription continued. “I’m sending you trouble. But you can handle it.”

The leaf mold and pine needle aroma was strong on the pages of the book, but that wasn’t the primary source of the odor I’d picked up on as soon as I came in the door. My wolf pushed to the fore and reported that the young woman smelled nearly identical to our mate, with the addition of a minty overtone. Did that mean she was Wolfie’s relative? Heaven forbid—his daughter?

I looked back up at the young woman, who seemed to be restraining herself from bolting with an effort. “I’m the trouble,” she admitted, her eyes on her feet, which were already turned toward the door. Despite her submissive gesture, I had a feeling she was right about her self assessment, and I already had plenty of problems to contend with. But Wolfie had sent her, and my heart went out to the skittish young werewolf, so I put out my hands to capture hers before she could flee.

“Welcome, Trouble,” I greeted her. “I’m Terra.”

 

 

***

 

 

I hope you enjoyed Shiftless! If so, don’t stop there—Terra’s adventure continues with Pack Princess and Alpha Ascendant.

 

Meanwhile, you can also learn more about Wolfie’s side of the story in The Complete Bloodling Serial, which you can download for free when you .

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Thank you so much for reading and for spreading the word! You are why I write.

 

 

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MOONBOUND

by Sylvia Frost

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MOONBOUND

by Sylvia Frost

MOONBOUND © Sylvia Frost 2016

I used to love fairy tales. Then werebeasts murdered my parents and marked me as the mate of a monster. It’s been seven years since then, and I thought could stop I running. I thought my mate had stopped hunting me. I thought I’d never have to worry about the need his touch could wake in me. I thought I was safe.

I was wrong.

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CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

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CHAPTER ONE

 

Can a monster love?

This question haunts every account, every myth, every dream humanity has ever had about the creatures known as werebeasts. Even our very first story—the tale of Adam, Eve and the shifter named Lucifer—is plagued by this mystery.

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Was Lucifer a demon determined to ruin Eve and spawn a species of monsters? Or was he a fallen angel so in love with a human woman he destroyed paradise for a kiss?

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We will never know. And perhaps we shouldn’t ask why Lucifer tempted Eve at all, but another question:

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Why did she give in?

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Beasts, Blood & Bonds: A History of Werebeasts and Their Mates

By Dr. Nina M. Strike

When I was fifteen, I swore I’d never buy a gun. Mom and Dad believed weapons only made problems worse, and after the attack I wanted to honor their memory. But it’s been seven years of running since then, and I think if I ever want to stop, I’m going to have to admit that my parents’ view of the world may have died with them.

So here I am waiting at the counter of Edward’s Arms and Ammo, mustering the courage to ring their customer service bell. Its curved surface warps my reflection so my face flickers between Marilyn Monroe lookalike and chubby twenty-something as I shift rock from foot to foot. Looking at it makes me wish I could be one of those girls whose biggest demon is her dress size.

Ding.

I ring the bell, but two minutes lurch by, then three, and my only company remains the stuffed wolf’s head snarling at me from above the cash register. I don’t feel alone, though. I never do. Not when I know that somewhere out there is a beast searching for his one true mate. Searching for me.

I worry the bandage on my wrist and try again.

Ding. Ding. Ding.

“Heard ya. Just cleaning out the back.”

I jump.

A middle-aged man wearing red fatigues and holding a box of magnets emerges from the shadows. “Scared ya, didn’t I?” He smirks to himself.

“No, it’s fine,” I say, even as my skittering heartbeat disagrees.

The shopkeeper steps behind the counter and drops the box onto it. A button-shaped magnet jumps out and spins across the counter toward me. Instinctively, I pick it up and start to hand it to him. Then I see what’s on it.

A shard of longing pierces my gut, and the edges of the world fade and twist until the image on the magnet fills my whole sight. It’s something I haven’t seen in seven years. My parents’ faces.

The picture is from Christmas. Dad’s wearing a goofy smile, Mom’s trying to pose glamorously in front of the tree, and thirteen-year-old me is grinning, oblivious to how frizzy her blonde hair is and the fact that her T-shirt is inside out.

I stroke the magnet’s cool, smooth surface with my thumb. I never thought I’d see this picture again. The Federal Bureau of Supernatural Investigations confiscated everything after the attack. As I caress it, my thumb moves from the top of the magnet to the bottom, and I notice the sentence written above our heads.

May the Williams family be always in our prayers and may justice rain down upon their killers.

Holy shit. This shopkeeper has turned my parents’ murder into some kind of anti–were movement centerpiece, and is using our old Christmas card picture as propaganda for the cause.

“Where did you get these?” I thrust the magnet into the shopkeeper’s face.

“Made ’em myself.” He grins, exposing his tobacco-stained teeth. “Found the picture online from a news story. Then I added the words. Let me tell you, those magnets were a big seller for a while, but they’re just taking up space now.”

I clench the magnet in my fist until it hurts.

“Pisses ya off, too, doesn’t it? What those monsters did to that poor family?” His nametag glints. Edward.

“Edward—”

He holds up a hand. “I think we shoulda rounded ’em up, and their dirty mates, too. Put ’em in camps. Not just tagged ’em. But that’s why I sell these.” He pats an antique show rifle hanging behind him. “And these.” He motions to the junk around us: silver crosses dangling from chains, shelves overstocked with liter after liter of scent-suppressant spray, reprints of werehunting manuals centuries out of date, earplugs for avoiding the power of a werewolf’s call. And magnets. Of my parents.

“You can’t do this,” I whisper.

“Why not?”

“That’s somebody’s life. Somebody’s family.”

Was somebody’s life.” He shrugs. “Newspaper that ran the story is out of business, the parents are dead, and everybody knows the girl’s been missing for years. I read even the aunt’s gone now. Who’s gonna complain?”

“No one,” I mutter bitterly as my anger fizzles. I certainly have no right. I stayed in a tent while werebeasts murdered my parents, too scared to do anything but hide. I’ve been hiding ever since.

Edward crosses his arms and sucks his teeth. “Can I help you with somethin’?”

“I need to buy a gun.” I push the magnet back against the cash register with my left hand, my right still behind my back.

“Worried ’bout the full moon and all them new weres around, huh?”

“Something like that.”

He pulls out a stack of paperwork from underneath the desk. “I don’t know anybody who believes them government lies. So what if they haven’t done anything since that first attack? So what if they’re all tagged? They’re monsters. Monsters kill.” He licks his dirty thumb and leafs through a couple of forms before sliding them over the counter to me.

“Just fill these out and give me your ID. No license to carry required anymore.”

I dig into my purse and practically fling the plastic card toward him. It’s a fake, but with a working social security number and everything. My boss at the bar, Lola, gave it to me.

He holds up the ID, scanning for a moment before his face goes slack with surprise. “I know you.”

I flinch. “What?”

“Yeah.” His eyes catch on the magnet, and I watch as realization dawns over him. “You’re her. You’re Artemis Williams.”

Shit. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I say, and force myself not to wince at how much I sound like I’m lying.

“Same blonde hair, same little angel face. Nope that’s you.” His gaze jumps between me, my state ID and the magnet in rapid fire. Then he looks up and gives me an uneven smile, his eyes twinkling in a way that makes my stomach turn. “Don’t worry. I’m on your side.”

I steel myself for all the questions I’d imagined the news reporters would ask if I ever slipped up and got found. Why did you run away? What are you doing now? And, most of all, why do you think they did it? Why did werebeasts emerge from two hundred years of supposed extinction just to kill your parents? What did you do, Artemis?

But when he hands me back my ID, all Edward asks is, “Why ya back here, then, if you don’t want to get found.”

It’s not the worst of questions, so I answer as I pocket the card. “Aunt died, I came to the funeral and ended up with a job?”

Edward’s brows furrow in what would be sympathy on a less grizzled face. “Sorry t’hear about your aunt.”

“We weren’t close.” I wrap my fingers around the bandage. Edward wouldn’t be sorry if he knew the whole truth. My aunt hadn’t been.

One month after the attack, I woke up from a terrible nightmare where I relived my parents’ death. As I walked to the bathroom to take a shower to wash it away, I found on my arm a crescent of white fur. I tried to cover it up with stage makeup. Mom had taught me how to cake on foundation so it wouldn’t melt under hot lights, but even her tricks weren’t good enough to conceal fur.

When I went to breakfast, Aunt Emma saw the mark. She gave it one puckering look of horror and didn’t ask questions. Just told me to put on a longer shirt. Back then she was still in denial.

But I was not. I knew the stories. Before the industrial revolution and the territory wars drove werebeasts to extinction, sometimes girls who lingered too long in the woods would grow fur. A matemark. If that happened, it didn’t matter if the girl had a sweetheart in town or dreams of one day becoming a star on the stage—one night, sooner or later, her mate would find her, kidnap her and force her to carry his spawn.

Except she wouldn’t be forced. She would go willingly to her mate no matter how afraid she had been before or whatever dreams she had once had. Because all a werebeast had to do was touch their mate to set their bodies on fire. A gun seems like a paltry weapon in comparison, but the threat of a silver bullet is the only thing that can scare a werebeast.

“Well, seems like you’re all grown up.” Edward looks me up and down, his eyes lingering on my ample chest before he says, “Let’s get you a gun.” He squats and reaches for a shiny pistol at the front of the case. It looks out of my price range.

“I was thinking something more used.”

“No way I’m giving our Artemis Williams anything but the best.” He lays the pistol on the counter gingerly. “You ever shot a gun before?”

“Yes,” I lie. My heart beats harder as I stare at the trigger.

“’Course you have. Bet you got yourself a collection already.” He pulls the gun apart, taking me on a whirlwind tour of all of its special chambers, features and specs. I tell myself I don’t need to know how it works, that it’s just a prop. If my mate finds me, I won’t kill him, just force him to leave.

Eventually, Edward notices my numb lack of excitement and settles on a more reasonable used model in the back. “How ’bout this one then. She’s only two hundred. Silver bullets included.”

“I—” I twist a hand into my blonde curls, trying to soothe the anxiety burning in my chest. Two hundred dollars will mean I eat ramen for the rest of the month. “Sounds good.”

He threads his fingers through the loops of his tattered khakis. “You gotta fill out the paperwork first.”

I take a deep breath. “Do you have a pen?”

He nods to a jar on the other side of the magnets. I stretch toward it, and a second too late I realize I’m using my right hand. He can see my bandage.

Shit. I scramble back to the paperwork. He stays silent. It’s only at the end, after I’ve paid with my almost-overdrawn debit card and he’s finished packing up the gun, that he opens his mouth.

“Whatcha gonna use the gun for?” He closes the gun case with a snap.

“What do you think?” I blink at him innocently. Having big boobs, a mini-muffin top and a bigger butt is usually catnip to creeps like Edward.

“I don’t know what I think.” His lips tighten. “All I know is that you got a bandage ’round your wrist. I had a cousin once whose daddy beat her. She had a bandage ’round her wrist, too.”

I stiffen. If he finds out I’m matemarked, there’s no way he’ll sell me the gun.

“I’m sorry,” I say.

His eyes narrow. “She had lots of bandages. Lots of tiny cuts, until one day she got a big one.” He holds up his wrist and draws his knobby finger vertically down the vein of his arm in a sharp line. “Like this.”

“You think I’m going to hurt myself?” I ask slowly.

He raises his wiry eyebrows.

I give a long sigh, unable to hide my relief that he hasn’t guessed what’s really underneath the bandage. Although he’s not entirely wrong, either. When I was sixteen, right before I met my best friend Lawrence and we ran away, I thought about killing myself.

Pills, though. Not a gun.

“Well?” he asks.

“No,” I say firmly. I’m not going to hurt myself, but I’m probably not going to hurt anybody else, either. Here I am, wiping out the last of my savings when I’m not even planning on pulling the trigger.

Edward lowers his chin. “Okay. Well, here ya go, then. We have classes on Thursdays and Saturdays if you’re interested.” He slips a yellow sheet of paper into the plastic bag before reluctantly handing it to me. I take it and head to the exit.

A dingy kind of twilight filters in from outside, making the strip mall look even sadder, if possible. I’ve got a long ride home.

“Are you gonna kill him?” Edward calls.

I stop. “Who?”

“The one that got away. The werebeast that didn’t turn himself in.”

I swallow, trying not to picture my parents’ bodies. It’s hard because I relive their deaths almost every night in my nightmares. The crooked limbs, the glassy eyes. The screaming howls of the werewolf and the werebear. Every night the outcome is the same. They die. I can’t change it, and I can’t change real life, either.

“I’ve got enough problems already without going hunting for more. And even if I didn’t, I’m not that brave.” I open the door, and it gives one last whingy ding as I do.

“But that’s what’s great about ’em. Guns,” he shouts after me. “They make it so you don’t have to be.”

***

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CHAPTER TWO

 

They buried my aunt in the same graveyard where they buried my parents. I pass it on my way home from the gun shop. Through the falling darkness and the thick cover of oaks, it’s hard to see the gray stones beyond. I don’t stop to pay my respects. I didn’t stop six months ago either, when I came here, planning to crash my aunt’s funeral.

It’d been strange seeing those masses of my aunt’s black-suited work colleagues. A few of the attendees were family friends who had once knit me blankets or come to my piano recitals, but none were people who knew me now. Who cared about me now. I’d hovered by the fence on my bike, expecting someone to recognize me, but no one had. Even Lawrence, my best friend and roommate, had been busy photographing a wedding.

Now my bike spokes click underneath me as I turn down the sidewalk and reach my destination.

My childhood home looms on the corner. It is bright pink. A big, old “FORECLOSURE” sign pokes up from of the badly manicured lawn, just like it did six months ago. It was the sign that inspired me to squat in my old house until the bank sold it. Free rent was something I couldn’t pass up.

I lock up my bike, trudge up the porch and open the front door using the same key I had when I was little. Aunt Emma never changed the locks.

Inside, the only things left adorning the walls are the electrical sockets. I live on the second floor in my old room. All that’s there is an air mattress backed up against the left wall and a black duffle bag passing for a night-stand. I stow the gun in a side-pocket of the duffle and sit on the air mattress.

It wheezes with my weight. My back still aches from sleeping on it last night. When I was little, I had a twin bed here and a thick down comforter covered in moons. My ceiling was plastered with glow-in-the-dark stickers of stars, too. I remember when I was in third grade, my first crush broke up with me because I was “a fattie” and I got so pissed off, I lay in my bed for a full school day belting out angry pop songs to the galaxies on my ceiling. My voice had felt so powerful that I swore a few stars fell down.

Then Mom had screamed at me that I was “hurting my laryngeal folds” by belting so badly. I just yelled back at her that “I CAN SING AS LOUD AS I WANT, JEEZE.”

Now the ceiling is painted white, but a grim optimism still tightens my jaw. The FBSI may have taken all of my family’s old stuff as evidence, and I may not be able to squat here much longer, but I’m still that same girl who yelled at the ceiling. I’m still my parents’ daughter. I’ll do anything to stay that way.

My mark aches as I sink farther into the mattress and peel off my clothes. My skin is feverish under the white fur. Absently, I scratch at it as gravity drags my eyelids down and I fall asleep. I learned a long time ago that there’s no point fighting the dream; the only way for it to ever stop is if my mate finds me.

The dream always begins the same way. I am inside a tent I can’t leave. Not until it’s too late. Miniature fortresses of library books surround my sleeping bag. Usually I can read every spine, but now all I can see is Nina Strike’s over-romanticized history of werebeasts, Beasts, Blood & Bonds.

I rise to my knees. Across the nylon of the tent my parents’ silhouettes play like shadow puppets. They’re fainter than usual, and the light around me is a dirty yellow.

Outside, my father is twanging on his acoustic guitar, and my mother is singing. It’s almost midnight and they’ve already run through all the happy campfire rounds and settled into the slower ones. Their voices drift through the air toward me like leaves floating on some dark, endless stream.

“By the waters, the waters of Babylon,” Mom sings. Her voice is beautiful and strong; it has to be—she was a voice teacher for a living and almost a professional opera singer until she had me. She used to say that she lost her voice when I was born because she transferred all her talent to me. But I always though she was a better singer. She would hate that I don’t sing much anymore.

Dad joins in on the second phrase, his voice blending into the harmony in a folksy counterpoint to her smooth tone. “We lay down and wept for thee, Zion.”

Their voices weave together, but like the house, the song feels empty. It’s missing something. A third voice. In real life, I was engrossed in a stupid book. In every nightmare since, I can never bear to sing along, knowing what will come once the song ends.

My hands press against the tent, warping my parents’ shadows as if I can gather them up and keep them safe. I whisper instead of singing. “We remember…”

A bear roars, followed by the yipping of a wolf.

Oh, please, no.

I clench my fists, waiting for their screams and the crunching of bone, but it never comes. Instead, their shadows begin to fade. That’s not right. No. It doesn’t happen this way.

“Mom!” I yell. I lean all my weight into the tent, but it doesn’t move.

The firelight flickers out and all at once darkness consumes my parents’ shadows. And they’re gone. This is new, different. Usually, I get a few more minutes with them.

“Please don’t leave me!” I tug at the zipper of the tent, my muscles practically tearing from the effort. It doesn’t give.

The temperature plummets, and my whole body burns with the abrupt transition; I don’t care. “Dad!”

Silence. And then a response, but not my parents’. A low, melodic howl arches through the air, one that seems to resonate in my bones. I freeze. I know the sounds of my parents’ killers’ cries, and that’s not one of them. Paralyzing warmth spreads through me.

With one last yank so hard I practically dislocate my shoulder, I finally open the tent flap and tumble into a clearing that is not my parents’ campsite. Snow floats through the air, coating the primeval pines around me in white. Beyond their branches, the grey clouds part to reveal a moon so full it devours half the sky. I’ve never been here before. This is not my dream. Something is wrong.

“Mom! Dad!” I take one cautious step forward. “Where are—”

I stop.

There, standing on a crop of jagged boulders, is a wolf.

Oh, God.

I fall back, but only get two steps before a frozen stick cracks beneath my feet.

The wolf’s gaze whips toward me.

And I know. Oh, how I know. It’s him. It’s my mate.

I can’t move. His gaze pins me in place with a lazy, predatory intensity that instantly burns my blood. Maybe it’s his eyes; the longer I look at them, the stranger they seem. They flicker with the colors of the aurora, one instant green, the next blue. Around him the dream distorts as well. He’s why the dream has changed. No, not changed. Ended. He’s ended my nightmares and bought me somewhere else.

With a long, satisfied growl the wolf leaps to the ground. Snow plumes around his white paws and he pants, low and rhythmic.

The heat in my belly pulses in time with his breath and radiates out to my fingertips. I can’t think, can’t move, can’t even dream of being anything else but his perfect prey. It doesn’t matter that this wolf isn’t the same one who killed my parents. He is just as dangerous to me, because for one second I feel like I would watch my parents die all over again just for the chance to see what this monster would look like as a man.

How did I ever think a gun would help against that?

He lifts onto his hind legs, and it starts.

The dream twists and distorts around him, like a reflection in a draining pool. It gathers at his paws, mixing with the snow, snaking around his body as his form lengthens and stretches. Fur contracts to reveal thick ropes of pure muscle. He’s naked. Soon I’m sure the only hairs he’ll left are the messy platinum strands on his head.

His body is smooth and defined, but as he straightens, I can’t help but notice the perfect pelvic V below his six-pack. It points down to a tuft of pale pubic hair.

He isn’t hairless everywhere after all.

I blush and look up.

His snout has shrunk, revealing a jaw so strong it shouldn’t be as beautiful as it is and full lips carved into the suggestion of a smirk. Only his eyes remain the same, wide and full of some emotion I can’t name. I’d almost call it relief. But then it’s gone as his pupils expand with desire. Another shock of need throbs through my lips.

He opens his mouth and his deep, gravelly baritone scrapes the air. “Hello there, Little Mate.”

“I—I’m not your mate.”

He prowls forward, sizing me up like I am the wild animal. One he has no doubt he can tame. “What would you like me to call you, then?”

“My name is Artemis.” It doesn’t even occur to me to lie.

“Artemis.” He claims every syllable with his tongue. There is a dark color hidden in his commanding voice. The promise of a werecall, the ability he could use to control me.

“You’re not real,” I rasp. “This is all just a dream.”

“It may be a dream.” He gives an exaggerated wave with his right hand, and I notice a crescent of white fur on his wrist. Just like mine. “But that doesn’t mean it’s not important. We are such stuff as dreams are made on.”

“See you soon.” His tongue darts out to wet his velvety lips. “Artemis.”

And I remember.

In order for my mate to affect my dream, he has to be close to me in real life. The same city block if not the same room. What’s worse, just like the light, I’m fading, too. I’m waking up.

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CHAPTER THREE

 

Everything is white. I blink. For one crazy moment I’m convinced I’m still in the snowy forest, but then, as my gutted childhood bedroom comes into focus, I realize I’m staring at a ceiling without any stars plastic or otherwise. I’m awake.

Something’s different, though. As I roll onto my side, my pulse slows enough that it’s no longer deafening.

That’s when I see a gaunt silhouette lurking in the doorway, illuminated by an afternoon sun. My mate. The shadow must be my mate. I need to get my gun.

I careen over the side of my bed and grab the duffle next to it. I unzip it and pull out the gun from its nest of clothes.

“Artemis?”

I cock back the hammer the way I learned from YouTube videos.

“Artemis!”

The voice is familiar, and it’s not my mate’s. Bullets tumble from my trembling fingertips and into the clothes. The gun soon follows.

I look up. Lawrence, my roommate, is standing at the foot of my air mattress. I pull my tank top and a pair of harem pants over the gun and bullets to cover them up, breathing hard.

“Artemis. Calm down,” Lawrence soothes.

I can’t believe I ever mistook Lawrence for a werebeast. My roommate is everything a werebeast is not—willowy where they’re square, delicate where they’re thick. Not to mention the were in my dream was a white wolf and Lawrence is the color of burnt coffee. He looks especially thin today, bony arms akimbo, hands on his tiny, skinny-jean-clad hips.

The dream has messed me up, but panic overwhelms my guilt. My weremate might not be in my room, but he has to be close. There’s no other way he could’ve been in my dream. “The doors?”

“Locked.” Lawrence breezes over to me and offers me a hand.

I look at it skeptically. “The windows?”

He tilts his head in the direction of my bedroom window, which is shut. “What do you think?”

I take his hand and pull myself upward onto the air mattress. “What about on Trackr?”

He joins me, crossing his legs daintily at his ankles. “Trackr’s had no alerts of nearby werebeasts in the last minute.” He pulls out a black smartphone almost as large as a paperback and about six years out of date. Holding it out to me, he hits the blue Trackr app icon and a map of our street pops up. “No red dots.”

I sigh and squeeze his hand in thanks. His presence takes the edge off my anxiety, but doesn’t eliminate it entirely. Nothing does. “When was the last time you refreshed?”

To Lawrence’s credit he doesn’t roll his eyes, just calmly touches the edge of the screen. No new red dots appear.

“Okay, okay, okay,” I mumble, half trying to placate him, half trying to gather my thoughts. Out of the corner of my eye I notice his phone has an alert for fifty-three unread text messages. Jesus, and I thought I had relationship phobia. Lawrence has got to start replying to his one-night stands or at least block them.

Lawrence, however, has something else on his mind. He kicks at the duffle bag. “What’s this?”

“What?” I run my hand through my bedhead of blonde curls. If my mate isn’t close, how did he come into my dream?

Lawrence reaches into the bag. “This.”

At first I think he’s pointing at the nest of yellow Post-it notes lining the bag with bold Sharpie messages like, “Remember who killed them.” But then he moves aside a tank top to reveal the gun underneath.

Shit.

Lawrence frowns, picks up the gun, and turns it over in his hand with expert care. “At least you still have the safety on.” He does a good job of keeping the hurt out of his voice, but I can see it in the way his eyes turn down at the edges. With a guy as composed as Lawrence, even the whispers of gestures feel like screams.

He must be thinking about John. His first boyfriend died in a gun accident right before we met. I’m not the only one who’s lost someone, and me almost pointing a gun at him is the equivalent of him bringing a werewolf to dinner.

God, I’m an asshole.

“Jesus, Lawrence, I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

His long eyelashes flutter as he inhales. Then he closes his eyes and gently lays the gun back down in the duffle bag. “Why did you buy it?”

“There have been more of them around lately,” I say.

“Mm.”

Watching the tight edges of his mouth, I decide I’m not going to keep anything from him. “My dream was different last night.”

His eyes open and he tilts his head, evaluating me. “How?”

“I saw…” I swallow, not wanting to say the words out loud, not wanting to make them real. “I think I saw my mate.”

His eyebrows rise only a fraction of an inch, but with Lawrence that passes for astonishment. “And you woke up from the dream, saw me in the doorway, and…”

“Yeah.”

A wistful smile flashes across his face. “I’m flattered. All my work at the gym must be paying off. Let no one say a V-positive can’t look hot.”

I can’t even summon a weak laugh. “I’m so, so sorry, Law.”

“It’s done.” His words aren’t a forgiveness, but the way he places his hand over mine and rubs it with his thumb is.

“Thanks,” I say, meaning it in a way most people don’t. We may not tell each other everything, but the things we do share, we share completely. Our friendship is made of these brief moments, perfect islands of intimacy in vast oceans of secrets.

His thumb pauses. “Just promise me you’ll be careful with it.”

“I will,” I say throatily. But I know that a gun is useless. Not when the real enemy isn’t my mate, but the feelings he wakes inside of me.

“Good.” Lawrence pats my hand one last time before standing up. “I’ve got an appointment at the doctor’s in an hour, and then I’m getting ready to shoot a wedding tomorrow.” He stretches, and I can count every bone in his ribcage through his semi-transparent orange tank top.

“How are you feeling?” I ask. Lawrence shouldn’t be taking the bus, but I can’t call him a cab. I spent everything on the damn gun.

“Perfectly fine.” He gives a too-open smile, his sharp white teeth contrasting with his dark skin and darker eyes. “Just a routine checkup.”

“Any, you know…issues?” I look down at my pudgy bare feet. We don’t call his disease by its real name…vampirism. Being V-positive is perhaps the only label worse than werebeast or weremate. Lawrence needs constant transfusions, and if he forgets to take his pills, even once, he can go crazy. Bloodlust, they call it. At least, unlike werebeasts and weremates, most people still consider V-positives humans.

“No issues today, Artemis.” His grin is gone, replaced by the same impassive expression.

Lawrence is either the most honest person I’ve ever met or the best liar. Then again, I try not to pry, even though we’ve been roommates and semi-vagabonds together since we met at a cemetery and ran away together.

“What are you doing today?” he asks.

“Probably getting dressed, then the dishes, then work.”

“You mean you’re going to check Trackr twenty million times and probably chew off the rest of your manicure before you finally throw on one of those black outfits you call clothing?”

“That’s what I said.” I offer my signature facial expression: something between a smile and a pout. I call it a smout.

“Just don’t pick the harem pants this time. You’re too hot to look like a genie going to a funeral, Artemis.”

“At least I don’t look like a hipster road sign.”

“Better a road sign than a burglar. It’s bad enough we’re squatting. If I dressed like you, I’d be arrested,” says Lawrence.

“You would drown in my clothes before you could even get out the door.”

He smiles at me with Zen condescension. “You’d save me.”

“I’ll always save you, Law,” I promise, going for melodramatic, but somehow ending up sounding sincere.

“I know.” He slips out the door.

I roll over to my nightstand and grab my charging laptop. It may be bright pink and scuffed around the edges, but it’s the best and oldest protection I have against weres. Far better than any gun.

The instant I touch my computer I feel more relaxed. The mystery of how my mate entered my dream without being nearby is a big one, but if growing up a geek has taught me anything, it’s that mysteries don’t last long when they’re confronted with the internet.

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CHAPTER FOUR

 

The air mattress squeaks underneath me as I lean back against the wall and click the icon of a howling wolf encircled by a red scope at the top of the screen. Then the computer turns bright white, filling with a map of the city of Rochester, New York, where I live. It looks normal, not a dot anywhere.

I zoom out a hundred miles until the blue of Lake Ontario consumes most of the top of the screen and the Finger Lakes mar the green of upstate New York. They look more like claw scratches to me than fingers, but they’re not what scares me. Everything outside of the city is swarming with red dots.

Holy crap. I knew there were a lot around yesterday, but now it looks like there’s a hundred—at least. Any one of them could be my mate.

If I believe Trackr, then the only place that’s safe is where I am, but if I go by my dreams, then my mate has to be close by. It doesn’t make sense; Trackr’s never failed me before.

After three campers found me in the woods with my parents’ bodies and called the police, no one listened to my side of the story. No matter how many times I told them the animals were too big to be normal, the cops were adamant in classifying it as a regular bear attack. No one wanted to believe werebeasts were back. Not after the territory wars.

Then a werebear named Timothy Higgins claimed responsibility for my parents’ murders, transformed into a bear on national television and turned himself in to the FBSI. No one knows why. We probably never will. The Federal Bureau of Supernatural Investigations will never let Timothy speak to the public.

After he confessed, the government started experimenting with his DNA and within a few years they had a foolproof genetic test for werebeasts. It was only a matter of time until they started implementing it—and tagging anyone who didn’t pass as human. The ACLU complained for a while and others said that we should kill them all, but at the end of the day, the government didn’t do anything to werebeasts except track their locations and reinstate an old law that made shifting inside of high-population areas a capital crime.

The media has fractured into those intrigued by the werebeasts (it doesn’t hurt that they’re all very buff men) and those openly distrustful of them, but there’s one thing they all agree on: their disdain for weremates.

The conservatives consider us sinful traitors to our species, and the liberals call us doormats with a furry fetish. Despite the fact that nothing biologically is supposed to change in us besides our hormones most people don’t consider us human. I can’t imagine what would happen if the world found out that Artemis Williams, darling orphan, bears the mark. They’d blame me for my parents’ death. Like my aunt did.

I shake my head, not wanting to think about it, and scroll out farther, until the entirety of New York state fills the screen. I click on a dot randomly.

After a second, the site transitions over to Trackr’s other function, a sort of social network called Trackr LITE whose ad costs support the real Trackr. It also gives the government more data to mine.

A profile pops up.

Name: Cal Singh

Age: 27

Species: Tiger

Mate Status: Mated

A tiger and mated. I’m safe. My fingers unclench. They’d been almost peeling the keys off the keyboard as I read.

I scroll through a couple more. Some of the names are familiar; there’s a werecoyote named John in Pittsford, and a wereraven named Everett near Menden Ponds, but the closest one, right on the edge of downtown Rochester, is what looks like a werepufferfish named Cooper.

Wait, what?

A werepufferfish?

I double-click on the last one.

I know that weres can choose where and when they shift, but I still have a hard time imagining exactly how transforming into a fish would work. Does he do it in the swimming pool, or does he have his own personal tank?

I grin, picturing it.

My grin falters when his profile finishes loading and I see that he has a picture on it. He’s handsome. While his tanned face is round and his dark hair is spiky, any resemblance to his inner animal ends there. He’s got that kind of sweet, slightly feminine look that parents trust and a smart yellow polo shirt to complete the facade. His profile, though, is pure assholery. A groan builds in my chest as I read it.

Dear humanity. My name is Cooper Dunham, and I’m a powerful sea creature. Google “pufferfish” for more info on that. While I’m sure you’re all lining up to get a piece of this tail, I’d ask that you keep the queue orderly and limit yourself to messaging me only if you have a scaled matemark and an interest in becoming my little mermaid. Cooper “Spiky Fish” Dunham, out.

God, even the werepufferfish is a dominating bastard. I’m just about to log off in disgust when I see that one of the red dots on the fringes of the map is moving closer. And closer. And closer. A line traces its last location.

When I see the figure on the icon, my breath catches.

A wolf. And the only wolf I’ve seen so far.

My hand hovers over the track pad, debating whether to click. This wolf is over seventy miles away. He can’t be my mate. There’s no way he could’ve entered my dreams from that great a distance. That’s what the PSAs the FBSI puts out say.

I click and am brought to a bare-bones profile.

Name: Orion North

Species: Wolf

Mate Status: Unspecified

Unlike Cooper, the asshole pufferfish, Orion’s profile has nothing more than the basics. Nothing about his mark. Not even a picture of his human form. But he does have something that Cooper didn’t—a small green circle next to his name.

He’s online.

Fuck.

The thought of it makes Orion feel closer. As if I can reach out and touch him. As if he can touch me. I should shut the window, but his mate status tempts me.

Unspecified.

Is he my mate? If he is, I can run from him. I won’t let myself forget what his kind did to my parents. I won’t let myself become some stupid girl who loses herself to a pretty boy. A pretty monster.

But I need to know for sure if Orion is the same wolf from my dream.

I keep telling myself this lie as I navigate to the chat box and start to type, but I can feel curiosity, fear and desire already beginning to bubble up.

Because that’s the thing about running. At some point, you always want to turn around and see what you’re running from. Biting my lip, I stare at the small paragraph I just wrote.

Anonymous: Hello. Can I ask you a question? What does your matemark look like?

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CHAPTER FIVE

 

I hit send.

The chat window stays blank. I hold my breath. One second, two seconds, three—

A reply pops up and the air goes whooshing out of me.

Orion North: Hello there.

I shiver. That’s the exact same greeting the wolf used in my dream. My fingers fly to the laptop screen, ready to close it, but I stop myself. No. Those two words aren’t that uncommon. My heavy breathing moves the laptop resting on my stomach up and down, and I tell myself that I’m feeling so flushed because of the heat from my computer. Another message appears.

Orion North: What’s your mark, Anonymous?

Anonymous: A spiral of scales on my left shoulder.

I type out the lie carefully. I know that werefishes are a rare kind of werebeast, so it’s unlikely that he’ll know anyone who might be my fake self’s mate.

Orion North: Goldfish or dolphin?

I frown at his condescension.

Anonymous: More like a shark.

Shit—that sounds kind of aggressively flirty. I have to be more careful. I bring my thumb to my lips, teasing the moist flesh there. The warmth in my belly spreads downward.

Anonymous: How about yours?

Orion North: How poor are they that have not patience.

I bite down on my thumb. Strike two. The werewolf in my dream quoted Shakespeare, too. Crap, crap, crap. If this is my mate, I definitely shouldn’t be talking to him. But I can’t stop.

Anonymous: Nice Othello quote.

Orion North: I know.

I can almost smell the cool scent of his confidence. It clears away the haze of anxiety choking me and makes me want to take him down a notch.

Anonymous: To be fair though, Othello ended up strangling his wife in the end. Patience wasn’t exactly his forte.

Orion North: Humans are always poor masters of their inner beasts.

Anonymous: And you aren’t?

Orion North: When I’m in bed with my mate, I won’t be strangling her.

Even as I type out my reply my eyes are stuck to one word in his: bed. My mind whirls with all the things he could do to me on it, pinning me down, fu—No! Jesus! Damn matemark hormones. These are the same creatures that killed my parents. It’s too sick to think of finding true love at the expense of my families lives. Anyway, he’s talking like he already has a mate.

Anonymous: So you /are/ mated.

Orion North: I didn’t say that.

I roll my eyes. Well, Orion is certainly as cryptic as the wolf in my dream.

Anonymous: Well, I told you my mark. Will you tell me yours?

Orion North: Why should I tell you, Little Fish?

I close my eyes, trying to seek out the right words, but finding something much less useful. The man from the dream appears. He’s leaning against a tree somewhere, gazing downward, holding something metallic in his hands. Light slipping through heavy green summer leaves dapples his face and naked torso in a pattern of shadow and light that makes him look like Lucifer stealing into the garden.

He glances up. Smirking, as if I’m someone running seven years late for an appointment, and finally showing up. “Artemis.”

My eyes open and my pulse gallops in my throat.

Oh, shit. Is my weremate invading my daydreams now too? Is that Orion? But no, that’s not possible. He shouldn’t be able to enter my nightmares from seventy miles away, let alone my daydreams. Something else must be going on.

I eye the screen like it might bite. I should just stop now, I know, but I have to figure out what’s happening. But I can’t tell him the truth, either, not without risking my independence. If my mate finds me, he’ll make me his.

Anonymous: My best friend’s wolfmarked, but she doesn’t have an account on here, so she wanted me to investigate.

Orion North: Well, you can tell her that she knows where to find me.

Anonymous: She’s just curious what your mark looks like.

Orion North: I’m more curious about you, Little Fish.

Anonymous: I’m nothing worth being curious about. As you said, I’m just a fish.

Orion North: You’re a fish trying to play games with a wolf. That’s the definition of dangerous curiosity.

Anonymous: I’m not trying to play with anything. I’m just trying to help my friend.

I’m punching the keys hard, forcing myself to ignore the dryness in my eyes. I might see him again if I close them. So I don’t.

Orion North: Oh, you’re playing, but I don’t think you fully understand the rules.

Anonymous: That doesn’t mean I can’t win. Watch me.

Orion North: Well, aren’t you brave for a fish.

A surge of pride courses through me. I’ve impressed him, and, more importantly, taken some ground. No more visions flit in front of me, either. I just needed to calm down.

Anonymous: So what’s your mark?

Orion North: What’s your name?

Smirking, I remember Cooper’s ridiculous profile.

Anonymous: Just call me Little Mermaid.

Orion North: No. But I will tell you something that might interest your friend.

My heart ricochets in my chest, sending shockwaves of adrenaline through my system with every beat. This must be how those people with wingsuits feel when they jump off mountains. Somewhere between falling and flying.

Anonymous: All she needs to know is your mark.

Orion North: My mark doesn’t matter. You can tell her I’m sure she isn’t my mate.

I blink. His face appears again. Still under a tree, but this time he’s staring straight at me, head cocked, daring me to keep playing.

I know I shouldn’t, I know that this way lies only danger, but the sinful twist of his mouth is impossible to resist. I open my eyes.

Just a weird daydream. I’ve always had a vivid imagination. I’m not really communicating with him. I can’t be. But if I’m not, then why does the normally dusty air of my empty house suddenly taste like something off an alpine ski slope?

Anonymous: Why doesn’t the mark matter?

Orion North: Because if she were my true weremate, she would be brave enough to message me herself.

Anonymous: You don’t know anything about her. You don’t know that she’s not brave. For all you know, she’s just not that into you.

Unless he can see me, too, unless he knows that I’m lying. I crack my knuckles and lean away from my computer, trying to get some distance. His every word feels like a hook in my heart, tugging me closer and closer.

Orion North: Then tell me about her.

Anonymous: She’s pretty. Brown eyes too big for her face. Size zero. Comes from a big family. Has great teeth, although she’s never had braces. Smells like cookies, because she brings them to work every day. She’s that kind of girl, you know. She never hurts her friends. Ever. Everyone likes her.

Once I start to spin the lie I can’t stop. I give her some traits I wish I had. I wish I was more considerate of Lawrence. I wish I could cook. I wish I had a big family. Any family at all.

Others are characteristics I’ve never really yearned for, but that I know people think a girl should have, like the ability to fake humility, or make small talk, or be skinny—hell, even the ability to care about being skinny. None of that matters to me now.

Orion North: Your friend isn’t my type. If she’s even real.

I hold my breath, as if that could stop time, stop this. But it’s too late. Beyond my own will my fingers stumble over the keys.

Anonymous: What?

Orion North: I’ve never heard of anyone who had real friends but no real enemies. And even if your friend is real, she’d be no fun to claim.

Anonymous: Claim?

I press my thighs together, trying to keep my rising temperature contained between them. I fail.

Orion North: Does the thought of being claimed scare you?

Anonymous: It disgusts me.

I let out a long needle of air, searching for control and finding only desperation and another wild heat I refuse to name.

Orion North: Liar.

My lip catches between my teeth and I bite down. Hard. It doesn’t help. He’s stripping me bare.

Anonymous: I’m here for my friend and to find out if you’re her mate. I deserve that much.

Orion North: No one deserves anything. If that were the case I wouldn’t be talking to you right now, Little Fish. I’d be buried deep in my mate as I used my werecall to compel her to scream my name. Then, maybe, after I had taken her from behind, I would grab her soft body and turn her around and climb on top of her to have her again. That’s what I deserve.

My nipples are completely hard now against the scratchy cotton of my sleep shirt, and my underwear is damp, but my mouth is dry.

Orion North: Thankfully for you, I’m not a slave to my instincts. So when I meet my mate, which I will—no matter how far she runs— I’ll wait until she’s ready. I won’t break her. And I won’t have to wait long. Because the moment she sees me she’ll know she belongs to me. She’ll feel it.

My mind short-circuits, fear and desire blending until I can’t take it anymore. Even his words on the screen feel real. I can almost hear them whispered in his gravelly baritone, closer now, right in my ear, tickling it. I arch my back, leaning into the phantom sensation.

I thought I knew how hard it would be to fight him. I had no idea.

Orion North: And once she gives in, I’ll take her. All of her. Her fire. Her passion. Her bravery. Her mind. Her body. Her soul. Forever.

I sit up out of the slouch I’ve sunken into, tangled in my scratchy Target sheets and shame.

He says he wants brave, well, I’m practically the dictionary definition of coward. And even though he says he doesn’t want to break me, it doesn’t matter. I’m already broken because of his kind.

God, how could I have ever thought of giving in?

Unfortunately, this thought doesn’t soothe. If anything, it feeds the part of me that wants me to just close my eyes, to forget, and be swallowed up in the delirium.

But I won’t. I fight the shame. The fear. I raise my hands to type out some retort about how he’s a sick mutant, but he types faster.

Orion North: Although first, I’ll have the truth from you now. You’re no fish’s mate. You’re a wolf’s. You’re mine. Aren’t you, Artemis?

***

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CHAPTER SIX

 

I stare at the message for only a moment before I slam my laptop shut. One thought multiplies in my mind like a virus.

Orion North is my mate, and he and I both know it.

My first instinct is to close my eyes and plan how to fix this, how to escape, but I stop myself. The visions must be a part of our connection. How else could he have found out my identity? I told him my name in the dream. Closing my eyes is a bad idea.

My skin sticks to a bare patch of my air mattress, and it squeaks as I peel myself off it so I can begin pacing the room.

Orion’s coming for me. He always was. I guess I’ll have to run away. What other choice do I have? Give in to my desire for him and become some kind of werewolf’s mate? I could barely control myself around him in the dream, what would it be like in real life? I’d do anything he’d ask of me. And I’m sure once he finds out who I am and why I’m scared of him, he’ll use his werecall to make me not care about what his kind did to my parents. To not care about anything at all except being his.

In making the circuit, I’ve ended up right in front of my duffle bag. It gapes open, the butt of the pistol peeking out from the nest of Post-it notes and rumpled clothes.

No, the gun isn’t an option, either. I can’t kill him if he finds me. And there’s no way he’ll ever believe that I would. Not when his eyes can see right through me.

But I don’t want to leave forever. With every second I spend in my old home, it seems less like a husk and more like an outline, a coloring book. Maybe I can leave for just a little while. Take a vacation. The house hasn’t sold for the last six months. With the bank still caught in legal battles and the Rochester market being so depressed, I bet I have time. And now that I know who my mate is I can avoid him using Trackr.

There’s only one problem. Bus tickets, hotel rooms, food, all of that costs money. Money I don’t have. At least today is payday. It won’t be enough, but it’ll be a start.

And work, if the blinking of my alarm clock is anything to go by, starts in an hour and a half.

I crack my knuckles, take a deep breath, and jog toward the shower. I’ll have to use every trick I know, anti-scent shampoos and perfumes. Who knows if it’ll be enough.

But I have to try.

The thought fills me with fear, but as I untangle the knots in my hair at record speed and pick out my battle armor of black jeans and an even blacker leather-trimmed, long-sleeve shirt that clings to my every curve, I feel a twinge of something else. I’d almost call it exhilaration.

***

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CHAPTER SEVEN

 

A storm is brewing in the magenta sky as I furiously bike down East Avenue on my way to the city center. The deserted skyscrapers left after Xerox and Kodak went bankrupt loom over the horizon. They almost block out the distant black clouds.

But I don’t stop; I pedal harder, heading right into the coming storm. I wonder if I’m riding toward Orion, too. The smell of dust and electricity prickles my nose, and the rubber of the handlebars abrades my palms as I tighten my death grip and swerve onto the sidewalk. When I reach the end of the deserted street, I dismount and pull my rusty combination lock from my purse and thread it through the spokes. A flash of lightning illuminates the whole sky.

“Artemis!”

Standing at the entrance to the bar is my boss, Lola. Her delicate silver bracelets jangle on her thin wrists as she waves. Above her, a neon green sign reading “Bar Lola” is flickering on. Except the “a” is broken, so now it just reads “Bar Lol.” It was that detail that prompted me to come in the first time and get a drink after not crashing my aunt’s funeral.

“Honey, you’re going to get drenched if you stay out there much longer!” Lola calls, managing to sound both very sweet and very loud. It’s a talent.

“Coming,” I shout. I finish locking up and hurry across the street just as the first raindrop hits my skin.

Thunder cracks so loudly my bones vibrate and I reach the doorway. Taking one last look behind me, I search the shadows of the street for a gleam of teeth or a pair of strange eyes, but I find nothing. I head inside.

Bar Lola is cozy, with dark walls and darker floors. It’s sports pennants and flat-screen-TV decor isn’t especially unique, but as the broken sign proves, Lola isn’t exactly a decorating genius. Sometimes I wonder what inspired her to start a bar in the first place.

Lola stands in the back, on a tiny raised platform that passes for a stage next to the bar. She’s fidgeting with the plug of a dinky electric keyboard.

Her heavy makeup and teased hair can’t cover up the discomfort on her face. “Folks, I’m so sorry, but the band we scheduled for today canceled at the last minute. So we’ll have to see Jellyfish Riot another time, okay?”

The mostly empty bar is not impressed. A man in a yellow polo rolls his eyes, and a sorority girl in pink stands from her circular table and gives a sour attempt at a smile to Lola.

“I’m, like, really not trying to be offensive or anything, and you have a really cool bar, but I feel like, since you put flyers all over campus advertising Jellyfish Riot, they should be here. And, like, I know their drummer and he’d never do this, you know? So.” She shrugs her shoulders. “Can you at least give us a refund or something? IDK.”

Her friends nod in unison. I’m in snarky shock that she just used “IDK” in a real-life conversation. She and the werepufferfish should date.

“I’d be happy to offer you guys a free drink,” Lola says.

One of the other girls shakes her head. “No, like, for music. I paid fucking cover for fucking music.”

Lola’s eyes narrow underneath her caked on makeup and her merlot-colored lips purse. There’s suddenly something lean and sharp in her gaze that I’ve never seen before. Then she notes me, standing by the door, and her expression softens. It reminds me of when I first met her.

I’d come into the bar after stopping by my aunt’s funeral, looking for a drink. Lola was the only one there. She was bent over the counter, trying to slice a lime for a mojito. She was good with a knife, but got the ratio of juice to gin all wrong and squinted at the glass like it was a chemistry experiment.

Then, through the half-full cup, she noticed me.

It was funny—hovering outside my aunt’s funeral with all those old family friends, not one of them recognized me. But the first time I saw Lola, her eyes widened for a beat, her lips parted and then she smiled at me like we were old friends. Like we had a secret.

But if she knew who I was, she didn’t say. Just invited me for a free drink, and guessed correctly that I might know how to mix a cocktail. She was hiring, she revealed after pouring herself a glass of Chardonnay. She didn’t care that my fake ID didn’t check out. In fact, my version of a mojito was so good she offered to get me a better ID so I could start work the next day.

She badly needed good help. Her daughter, who was the same age as I was, was away at college, and her husband died a long time ago. As she told me that, she kept smiling, but her brows furrowed, bowed under the weight of her life.

Lola is making the same face at me now as she stares down the pack of college girls demanding a refund. Her bar can’t afford to give them one, but that’s what she’s going to have to do.

“I can perform,” I say.

Lola and the girls both look at me in pure shock.

Lola recovers first. “Artemis, you don’t have to do that.”

“I do,” I say.

The sorority chick tosses her blonde hair. “I don’t think I know your band.”

“That’s because I don’t have one.” Her snootiness sends a stiff bolt of courage up my spine. “I’m a solo act.”

Sorority chick looks at me like I’m a calculus problem she’s trying to solve with a hangover. “What?”

“I can sing and play some piano. And if you really don’t like it after I’m done, I’ll refund your money personally, okay?”

This is such a bad idea. Yes, my mom spent ten years teaching me how to sing and play piano. And yes, I had my own little singer-songwriter act when I was in middle school. But I haven’t played in years and with Orion around the last thing I need is to draw attention to myself.

Lola knows my paranoia, too, which is why she’s raising her eyebrows at me, as if to say, “Really, honey?”

I give her a smile that’s much braver than I feel. Mom always used to say, commit to whatever you do on stage. If you do, no matter how bad your performance is, at least the audience will care.

Lola places her hands together in a gesture of prayer toward me before announcing, “I’m sure Artemis is a real talent, folks. You’re in for a treat.”

Grumbling, the pink posse heads back to their seats. I slowly walk up to the makeshift stage. I can feel the customers’ preemptive embarrassment, or maybe that’s just my own nerves. Settling onto the piano bench, I start to warm up, my fingers stretching from black key to white key and back again.

I plan to start with something easy. A collection of power chords, maybe. But then my right hand trips and lands in a tangle of sharps and flats that actually kind of sounds good. It gives me an idea.

I take a deep breath, then I start to sing.

“By the waters, the waters, of Babylon.”

My voice sounds weird. After years of not practicing, I expected it to be scratchy and wobbly like one of my Mom’s old records. But now it pings through the bar, making the glasses on the back wall vibrate in sympathy. I keep singing.

“We lay down and wept, and wept for thee, Zion.”

This time I hear the velvet underneath the steel of my tone. There are colors I don’t recognize lurking in the undertones of my song. Dark ones.

The sorority chicks rise slowly from their chairs. Their eyes are glassy. At the back of the bar, Lola stands stiff against the wall. Her jaw muscles flex and her face is as white as the keys. Static cracks in the tiny speakers beside the keyboard. But I don’t stop. I can’t.

“We remember, we remember…”

I crash through into the last chord change. The melody is different now, harsher, and almost all improvised. My words crescendo into half singing, half howling. The sorority girls and the rest of the crowd flow around the tables toward me.

With horror I remember Orion, standing in the snow, looking down at me like I was already his. I sound like the hints of command I heard in his voice, I realize. But it’s too late.

“We remember, we remember, we remember thee, Zion.”

Everyone’s here now, gathered at the lip of the stage like little kids ready for story time: Lola, the pink posse, and the man wearing the yellow polo. They all look the way I did when I saw Orion in the dream for the first time. Enraptured and afraid. Except for Lola. She’s staring at me the way she should’ve when I first stepped in her bar: like she has no idea who I am.

My fingers lift from the keys, and I lean back on my little plastic piano bench. The music stops abruptly. Whatever spell my song cast had ended. If I hadn’t read hundreds of PSAs from the government about how “weremates don’t have any special powers”, I’d almost think I had used a werecall.

The crowd doesn’t shake their heads or anything; they just stop looking at me and start making their way back to their seats. As if nothing strange happened at all. Maybe I imagined it.

Lola’s the only one who stays. She leans against the lip of the stage with her elbow, gazing up at me with an expression I can’t read. “That was some song, Artemis.”

I swallow, hoping that when I speak I’ll still sound normal. “It was really weird. I’m sorry if it drove away customers.”

“You did great,” she soothes. “There just must’ve been something wrong with my sound system.” She points to the sorority girls, most of whom are ducking their head into ponchos and heading out into the storm rather than stay here. “And they have no taste.”
My hands idle over the keys, softening the song I improvised into undulating major arpeggios. “If you don’t mind, I think I’d like to give it another try. The sound system seems to be working fine now.”

She gives me a long, searching look. I don’t stop playing, keeping the tempo even and steady. My fingers feel stiff. I trust Lola. She’s never done anything but help me. If she knows who I am, so be it.

“Of course,” she says, softly, finally. Then she shoots me a sweet, open smile. “But maybe stick to the standards. I like Elvis.”

“How about this?” I flip into the opening chords for “Love Me Tender”.

Her smile expands. “That’s my favorite song.”

 

  • * *

I play a couple more songs after my opening, but I don’t sing to accompany the piano. No other customers leave. In fact, over the course of the night, a crowd begins to assemble, bopping their heads and downing their beers in time with my covers. I end my set with a pseudo-cover of Jellyfish Riot’s hit “Transformation Electric.”

After that I announce, “Thanks, guys.”

A few people clap. One burly guy in the back even gives a wolf-whistle. But after I offer a curt bow, most of them file out. Now it’s time for the real work of the night.

I leave the keyboard on the stage and make my way to the bar. When I reach my destination, Peter, the other bartender, sends a rag sliding over the counter toward me with a jowly nod. Not even a thanks for relieving him of his shift. His mojitos suck, too. I grab the rag and hang it up behind me, not watching him go. Asshole.

“You’re Artemis, right?” asks a high but definitely male voice.

I turn. At the other end of the bar, the guy with the yellow shirt is fidgeting with the coaster underneath his empty glass.

Where do I know him from? “Yes. Can I get you another drink?”

His nose wrinkles, a prim gesture that fits his slightly feminine face. “He didn’t say you were a weremate.”

“What?” I hiss. My eyes dart around the bar, checking to see if anyone heard. Thankfully, no one is paying much attention to me. Lola seems to have stepped out briefly to converse with a tall, hatted man wearing a hat.

“Lawrence. He mentioned he had a roommate who worked at Bar Lola, but that’s about all he said.” His eyes lower. “Then again, he is one cagey guy, the beautiful bastard.”

I take a deep breath and give him my best customer-service smile. “I’m sorry, sir. I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“Come on, girl.” He rolls his eyes impatiently. “You’re showing your matemark off like it’s a new tattoo, and your werecall practically turned us all into zombies. You have a nice enough voice already, no need to resort to dirty tricks.”

I look down at the counter and my wrist. Sure enough, like an idiot, in my rush to get out of the house I forgot to bandage up my mark. My crescent of white fur is on display for everyone to see. I fumble with my sleeve and bring my arms behind my back. I ignore his bit about the werecall.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

“I’m not a weremate,” I say. “I just have a condition.”

He slams the glass down on the counter and gives a high-pitched “Ha!” that manages to echo through the room. “And I thought I was living in denial. I should let my therapist have a crack at you. He’d implode with excitement.”

The remaining sorority girls look up from their table. The man glowers in their direction before swiveling toward them on his bar stool and rolling up the sleeve of his polo shirt.

They settle down into a storm of whispers like this is middle-school gym class.

When he turns back around, I see what he showed them. Over his biceps glimmers a slash of scales like a tattoo, iridescent and studded with spikes.

Oh my God, I know why I thought I recognized his face before. It was because I had seen his picture. On Trackr.

He’s Cooper Dunham. He’s the werepufferfish.

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CHAPTER EIGHT

I will not make the argument that every weremate has been in love with their werebeast. But I will say this. Eve chose to lie with Lucifer, and Juliet chose to forsake her hunter heritage for Romeo.

Neither of them was forced.

[_ _]

Beasts, Blood & Bonds: A History of Werebeasts and Their Mates

By Dr. Nina M. Strike

My flight-or-fight response breaks. I freeze and stare in horror at the mark on his biceps. There is too much oxygen in this cramped bar. My pulse flutters.

“What do you want?” I ask.

“Nothing to do with you. So you can stop having a panic attack.” Cooper purses his lips and raises his eyebrows—an expression that looks very fish-like. “Lawrence hasn’t been answering my calls, so I thought I’d try a different avenue of communication.”

Slowly, the facts begin to assemble into a story that might make sense in an alternate universe. Lawrence had a one-night stand with the werepufferfish and hasn’t called him back. Because he never calls them back. And then his rejected lover found me. What, to ask me to put in a good word?

“You won’t tell any other weres I’m here?”

“Definitely not. I’m not even supposed to be here myself…” He breathes out in one long blowfish sigh. “Maybe another Fireball whiskey first?”

“Answers, then alcohol.”

“Reversing that order makes life easier for everyone.”

I cross my arms.

He sucks in his cheeks, raises his eyebrows, and holds out his hand. “My name’s Cooper. Nice to meet you, Lawrence’s crazy weremate friend.”

I look at his hand, half-expecting some kind of trap, but shifting inside the city limits is illegal. It has been since the 1800s, before everyone thought weres were extinct. Then again, murdering people is against the law, too, and that didn’t stop the werewolf and werebear from killing my parents.

But he’s a pufferfish. What’s he going to do, wrap himself up into a sushi roll and try to poison me? A smile mutinies on my lips.

“I already know who you are,” I say.

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. I saw your profile on Trackr. How can you—”

“Be gay?” He smirks like the smartass he no doubt is.

“I was going to say, ‘Sound like a bro-y asshole on your profile and actually be a gay werebeast,’ but sure.”

He shrugs daintily and retracts his hand. “I keep the profile up because there are certain elements that can’t know about my preferences, but being a werebeast doesn’t actually require being heterosexual.”

“Then what about me? What about all the other weremates? Can we ignore our matemarks too?” Even as I ask the question, I know I’m doomed.

He only gives me a small, sad shake of his head and says, “Have you ever seen an underwater crop circle?”

“What?”

Without any kind of explanation, he plucks a salt shaker from the counter and unscrews the cap.

“What are you doing?” I ask.

He stops, looks at me for a moment and then dumps the salt onto the counter. Every single grain.

“What the hell?” I hiss.

Lola frowns at me and then glares at Cooper like he’s an escaped convict. I mouth over Cooper’s shoulder, “I’ll handle it.”

She turns away, and I watch as Cooper takes his pinky finger and draws a series of patterns in the salt. When he’s done it looks like a crude Indian mandala. “Okay, let’s say that the salt is sand, and we’re all underwater.”

“Can’t you just come out and tell me what you’re doing?” I whisper.

“I am. Okay, so this”—he gestures to the salt—“is the pufferfish’s mating ground. Male pufferfish draw patterns in the sand, and their mates”—he puts two fingers together and mimes a fish— “get to survey their fabulous interior decorating skills. Then the female puffer decides if the male is worthy of getting to fertilize her eggs. If he is, she deposits her eggs and leaves while the male stays with her young. The male and female never touch. Not so much as a hello.”

“I don’t get it.”

He gives me a sardonic glance. “The point is, there’s no animal gayer than a pufferfish.”

“Is this some kind of weird stand-up routine?”

“My matebond is very different from yours. Unlike you, I’m not bonded to anyone, really. This”—he makes a fancy gesture at his mark— “may as well be a tattoo.” He cocks his head. “Well, a tattoo that allows me to transform into a fish and relax in my swimming pool when I’m in the mood. Which, despite the long winter, is actually a lot more often than you’d think.”

Holy crap, is he quirky.

And holy crap, how is there so much I didn’t know about werebeasts? I didn’t even know there were werepufferfish until this morning. The government PSAs never mentioned them. Not to mention the whole mate-invading-my-mind-and-dreams-from-seventy-miles-away thing.

What else am I missing?

Maybe he’s just screwing with me.

My eyes narrow. “How have I not heard about the different kinds of matemarks before?”

“We weres try to keep a lot of our biology on the down-low. And most werebeasts do have strong matemarks—especially predators. Not that your scientists would ever know the difference, when you humans are still fixated on casting us as bad guys determined to voodoo our way into your females’ pants and slaughter your children. It’s a lot more complicated than that.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Hence my calling it complicated.” He rolls his eyes, but it’s a good-natured sort of annoyance. “But I figured even the SparkNotes version might help you avoid your mate better.”

“How do you even know I’m avoiding him?” I take the napkin and push the salt pile into my hand, then dump it in the trash.

“Your smell. It’s classic anti-were spray, homemade, too. Vinegar, chili peppers? All you’re missing is a silver cross to help you ‘fight your urges.’” He puts air quotes around the last part.

I roll my eyes. “I’m not some idiot obsessed with old myths. And I don’t have any urges.”

“Jesus christ. What good is years of research no one believes me.” He pushes out a disbelieving puff of air from his pursed lips. “Please just trust me. Ignoring those urges you say you don’t have makes this all harder. Which I guess brings me to my point.”
He gives a bitter sigh and steeples his fingers in front of his blunt nose. “I think my employer may have found out about my preference for guys. And,” he drawls, “I think he’s got someone working for him in secret, definitely a mole at the FBSI. They might be following me as well, but I’m not sure. Anyway, he’s very much against any relationship outside of the werebeast-weremate bond. While he knows it’s not the same for fish as it is for wolves, it doesn’t really matter. The whole ‘maintaining tradition’ thing is kind of his quest. I have a feeling that if he discovers Lawrence and I had relations, he might try to set us right.”

“Set you right? What do you mean?” My familiar friend, anxiety, is waking up, slithering through my veins and turning them cold.

“Well…” He holds up a finger for a long moment. “He might, I don’t know, rough us up a bit.” He twirls his index finger vaguely. “Bloody nose. Broken arm. Lost limb. That sort of thing.”

“Lost limb?”

“Don’t you wish you gave me that drink first? And got one for yourself, too?”

Anger flares in my chest. All this time I thought the danger from werebeasts would come if my mate found me, or the werebeast who escaped did, or if the FBSI discovered the truth about my mark. I never thought werebeasts would come after Lawrence. For what, being gay? That’s so 1950s. Then again, werebeasts are practically Victorian legends.

God, I’ve been running my whole life. I’ve sacrificed any hope of a normal existence, and trouble still finds the people that I care about? Enough.

I lean forward on my elbows, so close to him that my nose almost grazes his blunt one. My lungs feel full, and some part of me knows that if I just took a deep breath I could access the same feeling I had when I sang. I could make my voice pierce through Cooper’s smug little smirk until he did exactly as I asked. But I won’t risk using what Cooper says is my werecall again. What if that attracts Orion?

Instead, I hiss, “I want you to leave.” I lean forward one more inch. “I want to never see you or your kind again. Not near Lawrence and not near me. In fact, you’re going to do everything in your fishy little power to keep your fucking werebeast boss from following us, too.” My gaze bores into his. “Got it?”

He’s not impressed with my intimidation attempt; instead, he looks at me with pity. “If you really want me to fuck off, you should’ve used your werecall.”

“Only werewolves have werecalls. And I’m not your girl.”

“No,” he says. “You’re definitely not. Not with a werecall that strong. I can’t imagine how powerful your bond must be.” His eyes darken. “And what the cost was for making it.”

“Shut up.” I look down and start to clean the few stray salt granules I didn’t catch the first time.

Cooper runs a finger through his hair, making it stand even straighter and sharper. “You know, I’m all for fighting destiny, obviously, but I’m telling you, it’s not an easy battle. And if you refuse to admit it’s even happening, you’re gonna have a hard time winning it.”

My mouth dries. My mom’s screams. My dad’s cries. I did nothing then. Fucking nothing. I let them die. Cooper talks about winning, but I lost everything a long time ago. I suck in a needle of sharp air, and snarl without meaning to. “Fuck off.”

My words sound dark as midnight, and I feel my skin tingle with power. I ignore it and keep scrubbing. Maybe if I just ignore him he’ll go away. Cooper’s wrong. I can’t have the werecall. The PSAs the FBSI sends out says that only the males of the species have supernatural abilities. I’m normal.

I scrub so hard the tips of my fingers start to ache.

I’m still the same girl I was before my parents died.

Once I’m convinced I’ve got every stray speck, I look up. My stomach drops.

If I’m so normal, then why did Cooper obey my last command. Why did he leave?

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CHAPTER NINE

The moment I open the bar’s door, I’m assaulted by warm rain. On my skin, in my hair, cascading in waterfalls down my arms and into my pants. I’m drenched in seconds.

To make matters worse, the street lamps’ anemic glow is losing the battle against the darkness and the oppressive rain. The visibility sucks. On my way to my bike, I almost trip into the gutter, already rushing with the downpour. At least the rain keeps the street from feeling too empty.

When I get to my bike, I unlock it quickly, even though my rusty lock protests. I stuff the lock in my purse and am just about to get going when I catch something out of the corner of my eye. A shadow.

I turn.

It’s just a bush near a closed convenience store, rustling in the storm. My paranoia is out of control. I mount up, switch into a high gear and speed down the slick road.

By the time I’m halfway home, the rain has stopped but I’m already soaked through. My black jeans and shirt are plastered onto my every curve. I’m the perfect prey. Weak, wet, alone.

Shit!

A shadow darts across my periphery, and it’s definitely not a bush this time. My finger twitches on the brake, but I pedal faster. I don’t see the shadow again for another block, so I turn around to check if I’m safe.

And there it is, low to the ground, four-legged, and sprinting right across the pavement. The darkness makes it seem even larger.

I swerve into a nearby alleyway. An automatic light over a garage door flickers on, triggered by my movement, blinding me. I almost crash into it.

I can hear the thing behind me now. Water sloshing, claws scrabbling on the potholed road.

It’s closer.

Oh, God, what if it’s Orion? Or worse, what if it’s Cooper’s boss? What if he’s going to kill me like the werebeasts killed my parents?

I hit a pothole and my teeth smash together with the force of it. I don’t fall off, but I do lose time. Enough so that now the creature is running next to me and then, suddenly, in front.

I brake. My tires skid to a stop so fast I lurch off my bike and into the alley’s swelling river of runoff. My knees hit water first, then the gravel. But that’s all. No teeth gnashing at my throat or velvety command warping my mind. Nothing.

I open my eyes.

A few feet away, nose buried in a trash bin, is a raccoon.

I start to laugh. I was running away from what is basically a cute rat. God, how ridiculous I must’ve looked. How melodramatic.

It turns. It’s not a wereracoon, either. Its beady eyes are dull and entirely inhuman, and wide with fear.

“You’re not so scary,” I say to it, standing next to my fallen bike.

It snarls, back arching to a hideously sharp angle, bares its teeth, and then—before I even have a chance to feel afraid—it dives into a dumpster in a nearby alleyway.

“That’s right, run, raccoon!” I shout, grinning, reveling in my somewhat deserved victory.

“You’re very cute when you think you’ve won,” says an amused, gravelly voice. Right behind me.

Slowly, so slowly, I turn. I don’t scream. I can’t. My lips are numb and my brain is caught in a monosyllabic loop of shock.

No. No. No. No.

But there’s no denying it. There, only a few feet away, cast in shadow, is a figure that feels achingly familiar, but that I know I’ve never seen before. Not in real life.

When he steps forward, another motion-sensor garage light turns on. Like a stage light, it illuminates him.

Orion North.

My mate.

***

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CHAPTER TEN

 

It’s two a.m. I’ve just finished counting down the drawer and am working up how to tell Lola that I might have to duck out for a few days when she a heaves a giant sigh and walks over to me.

“How’s the drawer doing?” she asks.

I stare down at the short stacks of ones, fives, tens and twenties. There’s only one fifty-dollar bill, and it’s been there for weeks. “People must’ve used a lot of credit cards tonight.”

She taps the old PC we use to ring up customers and shows today’s total. Five hundred dollars. Barely enough to cover rent. Lola closes the window quickly, probably hoping that I won’t see. Then she opens the drawer below the screen and pulls out an envelope, which she then sets on the counter.

I stare at it, hoping it’s what I think it is. I need that check.

She gives me a watery smile. “Thank you, Artemis, for singing tonight, and for dealing with that weirdo of a customer.” A hint of sharpness flashes through her gaze, just as fast as a knife. But then she grabs my hands with her weathered ones and squeezes.

My shoulders unclench.

“Thanks,” I croak.

Lola lets my hand go and picks up the envelope and waves it so it flops around. Its little plastic window crinkles. “I’m sorry about this being so late.”

“No problem.” I take it and bite my lip, resisting the urge to open it now. I’m not sure how much is in it or if it will be enough. I pick up my purse, put the check inside, and am just about to head out when Lola taps me on the shoulder.

I turn around and see in her hands the entire wad of cash from the drawer. “Lola!”

“Take it—consider it payment for your singing.”

“I can’t,” I say, even as my fingers itch toward the cash. I could run a whole extra week on that much. “You need it.”

She pushes it into my hands. “I can tell when someone’s in a rough way, Artemis.”

Reluctantly, I accept the money and slip it into the envelope alongside the check. “Thank you so much, Lola. I don’t know what to say.” My cheeks burn as I realize I still haven’t asked her for time off to run. How can I do that now that she’s just given me a bonus? But it’s either that or leave her without saying anything at all.

“Just promise me you’ll take a vacation. Get out of town for a while.” Her grip tightens around my hands. Hers are cold and I can feel the wrinkles on them against my soft, damp palms. “I worry about you, Artemis. I see the way you’re always looking over your shoulder. And I may not be able to protect you from whatever you’re running from, but…”

“Lola!” My eyes widen.

She lets go of my hands, and then smiles blandly as she pats me on the shoulder. “Peter owes me some extra hours, and you’ve never missed a day. “

“I can’t repay you for this—”

“Oh, come on. We both know without you this bar would’ve dried up a long time ago.” Lola leans in and offers me a conspiratorial smile. “Your bartending and now that singing…” Her smile shrivels to that same old pensive expression she had when my song ended, and I wonder what she looks over her shoulder for.

“Be careful out there.” She squeezes my shoulder and releases. “I’ll see you next Thursday.”

I laugh. “Okay.” I frown when I realize I’m saying “okay” like I know that I’ll be here next Thursday.

“Do you need a ride?” asks Lola.

Outside, the rain strengthens from a drizzle into a downpour.

I bite the inside of my mouth, puzzling. I certainly don’t want to ride in this rain, especially because it’s late and who knows what’s lurking out there waiting for me. Maybe just common criminals. Maybe Cooper’s crazy, homophobic boss. Maybe that werebeast that killed my parents and got away. Or, maybe, the most dangerous of all: Orion.

But that’s the exact reason why I can’t take Lola up on her offer. I’ve had enough people in my life hurt by werebeasts and other strange things. Lola doesn’t deserve to get hurt. Not after she tried to help me.

“No, I’m good.”

She shrugs. “Okay, honey, but you should be extra careful and make sure to take East Avenue all the way home. The side streets aren’t safe at night.”

***

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Perhaps the most famous and most hotly debated pair of mates are Queen Elizabeth I and her rumored ‘lion.’ Some say that there is nothing to support that she was protected by a powerful werelion who stopped numerous assassination attempts; others say that it is a dangerous historical precedent to set that the only way a woman might gain strength is to submit to a man—or a werebeast.

To the first point, I direct the reader to Her Majesty’s diaries. To the latter point I say this: not all strong women are weremates, but all women who are weremates are, in one way or another, strong.

[_ _]

Beasts, Blood & Bonds: A History of Werebeasts and Their Mates

By Dr. Nina M. Strike

Orion North is the only dream I’ve ever had that grew more beautiful by coming true. Reality doesn’t taint him with its grime or complexity; he looks heartbreakingly savage, even as he stands in a suburban alleyway. Water droplets shimmer as they drip from his starlight-colored hair, down his neck and finally around his shirtless deeply chiseled abs, but he doesn’t seem to care. If anything, he likes the way his soaking jeans cling to him.

His eyes find the white crescent of fur on my wrist immediately. The mark. The one his kind put there. The thing that claims me as his. I wrench my wrist inward, turning it to press against my chest and hide it from him, but it’s too late.

He smiles at me. The tips of his sharp canines peek out over his lips as his eyes skate over my form for a moment, but they don’t rest on my body long.

Instead, he stares deep into my eyes, searching. And I know he doesn’t want just my body. He wants something else, too. That lost piece of me, the thing I tapped while I was singing in the bar. My power.

My soul.

I run.

I don’t run gracefully. I tear through the drowned alley, not stopping for my bike, or the burning in my lungs, or to listen to the sound coming from just behind me. Steady, splashing footsteps.

He’s coming. Oh, God. And the most horrifying part? Some betraying part of me wants him to, relishes the hope that he’ll chase me and force me down onto my back and mark me as his.

I push my way through the rain and the heavy darkness. My foot catches on the same pothole I hit earlier, sending me falling. Behind me the splashing continues. I close my eyes, meaning only to take a second’s rest, but by the time I open them, it’s too late.

He stops before me. All I can see of him are his powerful legs, twin lines leading upwards toward his crotch. I drop my gaze instantly, realizing that I’m almost eye level with his zipper.

“Hello there, Artemis.” To my surprise, he crouches down in front of me, although even then I have to look up to see into his eyes. He’s so close that I can see a hint of stubble on his face. What would it feel like against my cheek? No. I should run. I should—

“Look at me.” His large hand reaches out and gently brushes against the underside of my jaw. “You’re mine now.”

Like they did in the dream, his eyes sear into me, flickering with far more colors than they should, like windows into some other world. Looking into them feels like leaving and coming home all at once.

“Don’t be afraid. I don’t hurt what’s mine,” he says.

“I’m not…”

“Yes?” His pupils dilate.

“I’m not afraid of you.”

He raises an eyebrow. “Really?” In a movement that is surprisingly graceful for how large and well-muscled he is, he bends over to whisper in my ear, “Then why did you run?”

His breath overwhelms me, sharp, cold, laced with mint and pine, and something darker, something almost alcoholic. If I had an answer to his question, it disappears with his nearness.

“Answer me,” he commands softly, his voice ragged with primal hunger.

My body shakes with an answering need, but I won’t give in. I won’t tell him about my parents. He has enough power over me already without knowing that. Instead, I retort, “Why did you chase me?”

He pulls away from my neck and, grasping my padded arms with both his hands, he brings me to arm’s length so he can look at me. As he does, a strange sadness fills his eyes, as if we are the only two people left at the end of the world. “Why do I choose to turn into a wolf at the full moon?” He lowers his chin, thinking, as if the question isn’t just a rhetorical one, then he says, with absolute firmness, “Because I am a hunter.”

“I’m not your mate.”

With a single fast but surprisingly gentle movement he folds me back into his embrace. He doesn’t have to push or force. Not when it’s taking every ounce of my willpower not to lick every inch of his muscle-wrought body.

“If you’re not my mate, then why haven’t you screamed?” His hands cup my waist, standing us both up while not offering me a chance to break free. It’s like he’s molding my body to his, my flesh as malleable as clay. I still.

Finally, he loosens his grip, confident that I’m captured, but he still doesn’t let me go. “Why haven’t you taken out your cell phone and called the police?” With one leg he parts my thighs. “Why does your body respond to me?” He presses his leg up against my vagina, and I know he can feel how frictionless my jeans and underwear are against my crotch. The wetness there isn’t just from the rain.

He pauses. “I think it’s because you want me.”

I have no words that will deny him, so all I can do is push against his chest with my hand. I don’t care if it makes him grip me harder or if he likes the fight. I just have to do something.

He lets me go.

I stagger for a moment, the loss of sensation hitting me hard.

He leaves his hands up, beckoning me back to his embrace.

But I don’t go. Instead I hug my arms to my chest and search the surrounding alleyway for an escape route. I wonder if he will let me go if I run. I wonder if I could use the thing Cooper referred to as my werecall. Now would be the time. Except what if I try and use it and it doesn’t work?

He ignores me. He’s probably confident that he could catch me no matter which way I choose to run. “It’s been hard to track you, you know,” he says casually. “It’s almost like you didn’t want to be found.” He gives me a meaningful look, as though I’m a misbehaving child. “Imagine that.”

“I didn’t. I mean, I don’t.” Maybe if I dive behind the trash cans.

“You sound a little confused.” So confident is Orion that he strolls over to a nearby telephone pole and lounges against it. It’s amazing that he could make something as simple as walking beautiful. It’s like watching a Ferrari doing twenty on a city street. Every movement he makes holds the promise of speed and deadly force.

“I’m really not.” I take a step back off the graveled road and onto the dirt siding near someone’s alley garden.

He doesn’t pursue me, but actually relaxes his posture, softening only slightly. “All right, I’ll play along with you for a moment. Let’s say that you’re not confused. That you’re wearing your chili perfume not to arouse my curiosity, but to try to hide from me.” The arrogance is coming off of him in waves now, a force almost as thick and palpable as the mist left over from the rain. “That you’ve been running all this time, pretending to be a little fish, not because you’ve been trying to entertain me, but because you actually don’t want to be my mate. I’ll bite.” He flashes a glimpse of his canines. “If you tell me why.”

“You’re not my type.” My hands tremble at my sides. I should run, but I’m afraid if he catches me a second time, he’ll never let go. I’m afraid I won’t want him to.

“See, there’s the rub.” He pushes off from the telephone pole, stepping toward me. He walks lightly for being so strong. “I know for a fact that I am.”

“Well, you’re wrong.”

“Oh, I’m right.” He waves away my disagreement with a single gesture of his hand, like he’s removing a pawn from a chessboard.

It doesn’t matter that I cradle my wrist to my chest. My matemark throbs out a traitorous counterpoint to my pulse.

“That’s not up for debate.” With the way he looks at me I swear he can feel it, too.

“Is anything up for debate with you?” I hate how weak my protests sound in my ears.

He grins. “Not much.”

I remember my parents. Remember how they screamed. Remember how I never got to finish high school, because I ran. How I’ll never get to have my father walk me down the aisle, or my mother hear me sing. I remember how every night I wake up from the same nightmare. And it’s all because of werebeasts. No matter how much I want him, it’s not worth the price I had to pay to get this bond. It’s not worth my freedom.

“Let me phrase it in a way that you might be able to understand.” I stop backpedaling and look him straight in the eye, perfectly cold and still. “I hate you.”

“Liar,” he growls. In a flash he’s right in front of me.

Jesus, he’s fast. I stumble backward, but he doesn’t let me fall. His hands catch me at the small of my back and pull me against him, claiming me. Through the fabric of his jeans I can feel every inch of him, from his taut stomach to his hard thighs and his harder crotch.

My core floods with a sticky heat. He dips his head to my neck and nips it lightly. My bones melt and I relax completely into his hold, a wave of submissive pleasure flickering through me.

He could do anything to me now and I wouldn’t be able to stop it. My heart thuds in my chest, trying to pump blood that feels thick with lust.

“I can smell your need.” His right hand begins to toy with the buttons of my shirt, almost undoing them, trailing around the hem, teasing my gently curved stomach.

“Oh, God,” I whisper. It should tickle me, but it doesn’t.

I squirm and he cups me closer, his low voice ringing through me as if I’m a bell and he is the mallet. “You want me to take you right here, don’t you?” His fingers dance upward, rolling around my nipples through my shirt. “You crave my touch. The way you know I will make you tremble with pleasure until you can’t even remember to call out to God anymore.” He bites my neck three more times, until my knees give. “Just. To. Me.”

“Shut up,” I say.

He opens his mouth again and I know there’s only one way I’m going to stop him from talking me into submission. It goes against every rule I’ve ever learned about werebeasts, but then, where has following the rules gotten me so far? It’s time to break them.

I kiss him.

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CHAPTER TWELVE

 

The kiss is surprisingly soft. No matter how hard I dig my nails into his shoulders, he keeps it tender as if it’s my first. It’s strange, and so unlike every other part of him. Yet when we part for breath, his eyes are hungry, and I know that underneath that sweet kiss there’s rolling thunder.

“You’re very beautiful,” he says, all the teasing gone. A deep, pure blue fills his eyes, and despite the words sounding like a pickup line they feel painfully sincere. He looks at me the way a prisoner would look at the sky. “I think you might be the strangest, most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.”

My chest aches from looking at him. Never has any man looked at me like this. And then, of course, I remember.

This is all a lie.

Deceptive chemicals coursing through our systems from the matemark are manufacturing all of this. Maybe that should be a comfort, give me the strength to resist, to maintain my sense of self, but it just fills me with a deep sadness.

“Now who’s the liar?” I ask.

“Still you.” His mask of amusement slides back into place and he moves his hand from my shirt to tangle itself in my curls, lazily wrapping one around his fingertip. “Although you’re a very good kisser for a liar, but maybe that’s part of the appeal.” He frees the curl, watching it bounce as if it’s the most fascinating thing in the universe. “You’re strange and wicked.”

“I’m the strange and wicked one?” I pull the rest of my hair behind me, keeping it from his wandering hands.

Oh, most definitely.” He looks surprised that I haven’t grasped the obviousness of this fact.

“You’re a werewolf who says things like ‘There’s the rub,’ like you’re some kind of Shakespearean actor.” I hold up my forefinger, beginning to count his offenses against me.

“‘Better a witty fool than a foolish wit.’” He grins roguishly.

“You’re convinced that some girl you don’t even know is going to fall in love with you just because you stalk her in the dark at fucking midnight!” I tick off another finger.

“Love has never been a part of the equation. That,” he spits, “is a human foible.” His grin falls until his face is as cold, hard and dark as a moonless night.

I feel my heart mirror his face. I was right. All of this is a lie. A trick to get me to submit. I knew that all along. So why does hearing it make me want to cry?

I clench my jaw and say, “Well, good. I could never fall in love with your kind. You’re all dominating bastards.”

“I see.” His hands fall away from my body and he takes a step back.

I count it as a mark of pride that when he does, I don’t fall.

Silence suffocates the space between us.

He just stands there, regarding me with an infinite, inscrutable patience. In the distance, even though the rain has stopped, I hear a crack of thunder. His arctic-pale skin glows.

I open my mouth and close it again. Then, carefully, I walk past him, forcing myself not to turn around. I can’t believe that he does nothing to stop me.

Once I get to my bike, I hurry in picking it up off the ground and dusting the grit off my jeans from where I fell. Not that it matters. I’m soaked in mud, water and sweat. Just as I’m about to swing my leg over the seat, he finally speaks.

“Stop.” His voice is deep and rings with all the force of his command. It has the same kind of power mine had when I sang.

Shit.

So this is a werecall.

I have no choice. My whole body freezes, patiently awaiting his next order, and my core clenches both at the wash of pleasure and at the knowledge that he is making me do this. That I am his.

He growls, “Kneel.”

I drop. My knees sting from hitting the pavement, but the rest of my body turns hypersensitive to tiny pleasures. The play of hot and cold at the juncture of my thighs, the pulsing warmth there, mingling with the cool water.

He prowls toward me, his eyes burning with something that might be hunger or anger. All of his playfulness is gone; he is transformed as thoroughly as if he had changed into a wolf.

“Eyes down.”

My gaze falls. I want to scream, but another part of me savors the chance to forget. I can only stare at his feet as they stride toward me. My neck is locked in place, totally vulnerable and exposed to him.

“Good girl.”

My thighs part a millimeter at his praise.

He’s so close now that my lowered gaze catches his jean-clad thighs and the huge bulge just a little higher. His cock. My heart thumps in my chest. Oh, God, is he going to tell me to give him a blowjob?

A sick part of me thrills at the idea of him unzipping, pushing the back of my head into his crotch, the tip of his velvety dick playing against my lips as he looks down at me, completely satisfied with his control.

But no, he keeps going until he’s behind me. His hand rests on my neck as he brings my chest against his thigh forcefully, as if to imprint this position on me. Teach me.

And some sick part of me is learning. Being on my knees in front of him feels unbelievably natural.

He grabs a handful of my curls and pushes my head forward and down, until my chin digs into my chest. Then he brushes my hair away from my neck so that it falls into my face. It tickles my lip and my nose, but I don’t move. I can’t.

“This is what I would do if I were the horrible, dominating bastard you think I am, isn’t it?” His fingernails trail up and down the column of my neck ever so lightly. “Is this what you want? For me to take away your choice? Your responsibility? To be the villain so that you can be the poor, ravished heroine?”

“No.”

Yes. Make me forget myself. My parents. My pain.

“Say my name.”

“No, Orion,” I murmur.

“I’m not sure I believe you. You ran away from me before you even knew me. Even if I had rung your doorbell at noon and asked if you might consider going out to coffee or some other inane human tradition, you would still have seen me as a ‘dominating’”—he hooks his foot around my calf and plies my legs farther apart—“bastard.” He shoves me forward, putting me onto my hands and knees.

I fall willingly, complacent. I can’t think of anything but him. I’m drowning in his power, but instead of trying to fight toward the surface, I’m breathing in all the water I can.

“Take off your pants.”

I hesitate.

“Now.”

My fingers fly to my jeans and I wiggle out of them. All that’s left are my boy shorts. A cool summer breeze washes over my body, flirting with the hem of my panties. It makes me ache for his firm touch.

“Lift your ass.”

I arch my back on all fours, lifting my fleshy, round ass invitingly. I’m not even sure he’s using his werecall anymore. I don’t care. I’m lost. All my fear, my pain, my worry is just gone. Here nothing can be my fault, because everything that I am is his.

“Underwear.”

I contort to slip them off. I’ve never been really flexible, but I still manage with surprising quickness. Maybe I’ve just never been motivated enough. I don’t care that I’m kneeling in a suburban alley where anyone might see me.

He exhales raggedly. I feel him shift behind me, and then hear the unzipping of his pants. I want so badly to have him inside me, but I know I must wait. I must be good. The force of his werecall has imprinted this fact upon me.

“I’ll tell you a secret.” The tip of his cock presses at my opening, not going anywhere, just branding me, holding me in place and obedient as surely as handcuffs. “You’re right.”

I clench, waiting for him to thrust inside me. But he doesn’t. Instead, he grabs my ass, kneading the abundant, supple flesh there.

“I am a selfish, dominating bastard. There is a part of me that wants nothing more than for you to be like on your knees, ready to be claimed as mine.”

He presses in a half-inch farther, and I gasp. He’s so large that even the tip of his cock feels too big.

“Forever.”

I whimper.

He stops.

“But I’m not just a bastard. And you’re not just an obedient girl waiting to be claimed by her mate.” His dick pulls away from me, the warmth going with it. His voice is higher, normal again, and a shock to my senses. He’s stopped controlling me. He could’ve had me. And he didn’t. I would’ve let him do anything.

Oh my God! What am I doing? I was about to have sex with a man I’ve just met, on a public street. Mate or not… mark or not!

Oh, God. Oh, God.

I scramble for my underwear and hastily put them back on. Anger and embarrassment turn my cheeks into an inferno. I am not that girl. I am not the girl who fawns and falls. I can’t believe I was about to become her.

How could I have been so stupid? I yank my pants back on, trying to take deep breaths as I fumble with the buttons. I can feel his eyes cataloguing my every emotion, every movement.

When I finally have my armor on again, I stand and turn around. Then I swallow and, as politely as I can, say, “You were right.”

“Excuse me?” His eyes widen, and I decide that it’s okay that I recognize that he’s a little cute when he’s surprised. Better to recognize my feelings than be ambushed by them. If I want to win this fight, I have to acknowledge the levels of the playing field.

“You were right. I was lying. I am physically attracted to you.”

“I know,” he says, but his eyes narrow with suspicion.

“But I don’t want this.” Gritting my teeth, I turn my wrist toward him, exposing the mark. The mist from the rain is cool against the white hairs. It’s still throbbing, but not as hard. “I’m sorry that you’ve come all this way for me. But I can’t be with you.”

The motion catches him off guard, and he actually flinches. But his lips purse and he doesn’t use his werecall again. For a second I wonder if he ever will. He said he wouldn’t take me without my consent. But I can’t afford to trust his promise.

I feel my sides and belly expand as I take in a deep breath, like I’m about to sing. The hairs on my matemark stiffen, and my whole body tingles just like it did before I sang.

“I’m going to leave now. And you won’t stop me.” My words don’t carry the same intensity as they did when I sang or told Cooper to fuck off. My werecall didn’t work.

Orion doesn’t move. “You have to mean it.” His face stays strangely impassive. “If you want me to leave.”

I glare down at the mark on my wrist, which is now quietly thrumming. “The mark is making me weak.”

“The matemark is a part of you. It takes your own needs and desires and amplifies them. It can’t force you to do anything. Neither can I. I can only claim you if you want it. And you do want it. Because wanting me is who you are. Because it is your nature.”

“Like you said.” I shake my head, bringing my arms to my chest. Hoping to keep some kind of barrier between us. “I’m not a slave to my instincts.” I stare down at the pavement, at the water there.

“Little Mate, look at me.” His voice is low with command, but this time it doesn’t compel me. He’s not using his werecall. And for that reason alone I look up.

“Thousands of girls walk through wereterritory, but only the strongest become weremates.” He gestures to the alleyways and quaint suburban houses. “The ones who yearn for more than humanity has to offer. The ones who no human man could handle. The ones who can feel that there is more to power in this world than silver and machines. You want this, or you would not have it. Why deny what you want?”

His gaze is unflinching, taking in all of me. My wild, wet blonde curls storming around my face. The way my soft thighs part. My breasts, swollen and tender on my chest, stiff nipples jutting forward, daring him to touch them. And my face. The fear on my face. The need.

“I want you too, Artemis. Know that,” he says. He takes a step closer to me, his normally stern brow furrowed, his eyes soft. “More than that. I need you.”

It makes a part of me ache with longing and wonder entirely beyond the yearning for his body. It’s terrifying. For the first time, he looks almost human.

“You are so strong and brave. To try to fight this at all. Most human girls don’t bother. And none win.” His brows kiss his hairline as he holds out his hand, entreating me, asking me to take it, to touch him. “Think of how much stronger we would be together.” I notice his mark there, just like mine.

But it’s still not enough.

“I can’t,” I say.

“Why?”

My hands tremble, afraid that if I lie he’ll call me on it, afraid that if I tell the truth he’ll try to fix it, unravel all the knots life has tied me into, and turn me into someone else. Someone my parents wouldn’t even recognize, who would disgust them. “Because that’s just who I am.”

To my surprise, he gives me a fierce smile in return. “I’m not sure you have any idea who you are, Artemis.”

“You can’t know what I want and don’t want,” I whisper to the ground, glad I don’t have to face him as I make my confession.

“Then show me,” he says. “Show me what you want. Who you are.”

All I have to do is move forward another inch and I could be tasting him. My core pleads with me to do just that. I want to show him. I want him to know me.

But I can’t. I know that if I were to kiss him it wouldn’t stop there. And despite his nice speech, I know the truth. Even if he did know me, it couldn’t fix me. And if he could, would I still be me or would I be someone else?

“Please, just leave me alone,” I say. I don’t know why I said it instead of just going. There is nothing holding me here now but myself. I know that now. “Let me go.”

He says nothing.

I walk to my bike, conscious of every step that takes me farther away from him. Any second, I’m sure he’ll call out my name or pounce on me again, but he remains silent as I straddle my bike. The seat is wet and warm between my thighs, reminding me of other things I could have between them if I turned around. But I don’t.

Just as I’m about to push off and start pedaling, he speaks. “I won’t follow you, Artemis. Not like this.”

I jump a little at his voice, rubber bruising my palms as my grip tightens around the handlebars.

“I don’t have to.” His voice echoes through the alleyway. Around me, behind me, in front of me. Inescapable. “Whether it’s in a moment or a day or a decade, eventually you’ll come to me.”

***

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

My head doesn’t stop spinning, even after I’m three blocks away from him. I can’t believe it. He really let me go. I zip through a puddle and send a sheet of water showering out on either side of me. I’m free. So why does it feel like there’s a hole inside my chest?

Well, at least Lawrence will be proud.

I pull up to the house. Even though my aunt gutted the inside, the outside still looks pretty much the same. A nondescript yard where I can still remember catching fireflies borders a two-story wooden house painted pink—Mom’s least favorite color. She always meant to repaint it.

The click-click-click of my bicycle spokes slow as I dismount while the bike is still moving and get out my lock. I hook the lock around the white wrought-iron fence and leave it there.

I wonder if Lawrence is home or out partying. He usually likes to spend his weekends at the club, finding some poor new boy-toy to pump and dump.

A boy-toy like Cooper.

Fuck. Cooper. Cooper’s boss. He’s still out there.

I stop fiddling with my lock and look up at the second floor of my house and Lawrence’s bedroom. The windows are all dark.

After putting down the kickstand, I finish locking up and give one more glance over my shoulder, half-expecting to see Orion striding down the street. But he’s not there.

Then I fish the door key out of my purse and thrust it into the lock. I turn it, once, twice, but I don’t have to. The door’s already unlocked. Panic flares in my throat. Lawrence knows how I feel about locked doors.

My hand rests on the knob, debating whether to turn it. “Lawrence,” I hiss.

Should I call the police? But what would I tell them? That my door was unlocked? Hardly grounds for 911. Not to mention that if anything serious is actually going down, the cops will take one look at the mark on my wrist and call the Federal Bureau of Supernatural Investigations. Weremates and werebeasts involved in a crime don’t go to trial when the FBSI shows up. They just disappear.

I push open the door.

At first everything looks normal. We don’t have a foyer, so the first room you see when you enter is the living room. There are the same white walls, and new hardwood floors installed courtesy of Aunt Emma. Even the smell is the same, the overpowering vanilla air fresheners that Lawrence buys by the bucketload at Target.

But there is one difference.

A man is lying in the living room. Face down and in a pool of blood.

***

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

I drop my purse. My keys clatter as they hit the floor and a tube of lipstick rolls out, but I don’t scream. I’ve done enough of that to last a lifetime. I’m not proud of the thought that blares through my mind instead.

It’s okay—it’s not Lawrence.

While it’s immediately clear to me that it’s not Lawrence, it takes me a couple more seconds to identify the man on the floor. The bloodstained yellow polo shirt is a tipoff, but it’s not until I see the spiky hair that I realize.

It’s the pufferfish. It’s Cooper.

Holy fuck. He said his boss would do something drastic.

I think he’s dead. I can’t look at him any longer. But I can’t stop, either. Just to prove that this is really happening, I sneak one quick glance at him. His neck is twisted way too far to the right, but the blood is coming from long cuts down the back of his head.

I close my eyes, yesterday’s lunch heaving up from my stomach to my throat. Oh, God. I know those claw marks. I know those odd angles. I’ve seen them before. There’s no doubt in my mind. This is a werebeast attack.

My whole body feels numb.

How did he get here? Did he come to try to warn Lawrence? Oh, God, Lawrence. What if whoever did this to Cooper hurt Lawrence, too?

“Law—” I start to call out for Lawrence, but then snap my jaw shut so hard my teeth crash against each other.

What if whoever did this is still here?

On the landing above the staircase my bedroom door is open. I know the gun is in there. If I could just get it, I could… What? I don’t know. Kill the intruder? I’ve never even fired it before. I still have to load it, and I only know how from some YouTube videos. But if I leave now and call the police, I may never see Lawrence again. There are special courts for the crimes involving werebeasts and their mates, and sentencing is not gentle. If the FBSI even for a second suspects that I was the one who killed Cooper, I could spend the rest of my stupid life in a cell. I take another few steps, my head doing 360-degree checks. The likelihood that there’s a werebeast hiding in the kitchen cabinets is slim, but the windows above the counter aren’t closed. The same cool summer breeze that tickled my bare flesh in that alley is blowing through the curtains.

I always shut the windows.

Bang.

I whip toward the sound. It came from Lawrence’s room upstairs. A gunshot, a hammer banging. I can’t tell. I don’t know anything anymore.

Bang. Bang.

I sprint up the stairs, taking them two at a time, before finally reaching my room and diving through the open door. Once inside I scramble to the duffle bag, searching for the gun. The bag is still there, half-unzipped, just where I left it.

I pick up the gun and flip off the safety. But…shit. It’s not loaded. Fingers fumbling, I pick up the box of bullets. At first I try to find a chamber on the side, but it’s not there. Shit, how does this work? I can’t do this. From the other room I can hear a creaking sound. It might just be the wind. Or it might be someone coming. I freeze, paralyzed, then my eyes catch on one of my Post-it notes. On it is scrawled “Don’t let it happen again.”

I try once more, this time the bottom of the gun, and the magazine slides out. I press the bullet in, then push the magazine back up.

Then I stand, shaking, holding the gun in both hands, pointing it into the hall. It’s surprisingly heavy. I hope I’ll be able to aim straight.

I creak my bedroom door open farther with my foot.

It’s not until I’m standing in front of Lawrence’s door that I realize I don’t know how to open it without taking a hand off the gun and losing accuracy. I kick the door hard. Unlike in the movies, it doesn’t bust down.

No sound comes from the other side. I take my left hand off the gun; the pointer finger of my right hand is hot and slick with sweat against the trigger. Then I turn the knob.

Nothing moves in Lawrence’s room. It’s incredibly clean, decorated with repainted furniture he bought off of Craigslist. Undisturbed. Lawrence lives in hope that one day I’ll stop being such a coward, tell the police who I am and claim this house as mine. My left hand flies back to the gun steadying it.

Bang. Bang.

My gaze flies to the left, and I see it. A gust blows, sending the old transom window, the kind that latches at the center, slapping against its frame.

That was the noise. Not a gunshot.

For the first time since I entered the house, my heart slows, but I don’t put down the gun until after I’ve checked the closet and under the bed. Lawrence has a real bed frame and everything.

Nothing. Just me and the dead body in the living room.

Cooper.

He didn’t deserve to die. And Lawrence—

No, I won’t think about that.

The numbness reaches my fingertips. All I want to do is pass out. I’m so tired. But even if whoever did this isn’t here now, he could be coming back. I have to get out of here.

I flip the safety of the gun back on and shove it in my waistband, but then notice a glimmer of silver on Lawrence’s dresser. His phone.

A weight bears down on me. Lawrence never goes anywhere without his phone. Never. There have been days when I’ve seen him forget his keys, his wallet, and put on mismatched hipster polka-dot socks. But he always has his phone.

I set the gun on the dresser and pick up the phone. Then I press the home button and it lights up. A notification of one text message blinks, but it was sent by Lawrence himself.

[Help, Artemis. Kidnapped. The werebeasts want my blood.
__]

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

I glance around the room, searching for signs of a struggle, but I find none. Then I look back at the message. In real life you don’t get a noble death or a ransom note; you get a text that says “They want my blood.”

I’m crying, I realize. I lean my hand on the windowsill, refusing to fall to my knees again. The tears come harsh and hot down my cheeks, burning my skin, and soon they turn to sobs so strong that I feel like I’m turning my throat inside out.

I couldn’t stop it. I never could. I couldn’t stop my parents from being murdered or Lawrence from being kidnapped. I glare at the useless gun.

The worst part is that all of this has absolutely nothing to do with me. Cooper’s boss just came after him and Lawrence because they were gay. I thought that if I kept myself safe and away from werebeasts, they could never hurt me or anyone else I loved again. But I was wrong. There is so much in this world I can’t control.

I let out a shuddering sigh.

Suddenly, Orion’s offer doesn’t seem so unappealing. To give up control to someone else, to have them keep me safe. Even if that someone is a werewolf.

That thought gives me an idea. I reach over to Lawrence’s phone, still sniffling, and hit the Trackr button. Again, the map unfolds in front of me. I see two dots, one for Cooper, lying here in my house, and another only a couple of miles south of where I left Orion. My heart flip-flops in my chest.

He’s still out there. Is he waiting for me?

Instead of scrolling out this time, I click on an hourglass in the corner of the screen. A simple blue line, dotted with timestamps, replaces the map. I swipe backwards half an hour. That must have been when Cooper was attacked and killed. Any earlier, with the open windows, the whole house would’ve been soaked from the rain.

A map shows up from approximately an hour ago. Nothing. No werebeasts. Except for the dot in the house—Cooper’s body—and the red dot—Orion. I press my lips together, trying not to remember the feel of his soft kiss.

Shaking my head, I click through the other timestamps, reviewing hour after hour of records. Still nothing. According to Trackr, no werebeast except Cooper has been near this house tonight.

But that can’t be right. I know a were must have done it. Those wounds were claw marks. There’s only one other option. The weres who attacked Lawrence haven’t been cataloged by Trackr. Which means the only way to find him is by hunting the old-fashioned way.

Who can do that except the FBSI?

I tap the nearby red dot and am once again brought to Orion’s profile. It’s so strange seeing his name now that I have a face to put to it. It’s as if after meeting him I realize how little I actually know about him.

I scroll down a little farther. His profile is as empty as always, except for an addition that makes me pause.

A phone number.

I stare at it, the hazy beginnings of a plan forming in my mind. Before I know completely what it is, I know that it’s a bad idea. But the facts all point to it. I know the police won’t be of any help, and the FBSI even less so. There’s no way I’m going to be able to find Lawrence by myself. Lola might’ve been able to help, except she can’t leave the bar, and I couldn’t ask her for anything more after she’s already given me so much.

There’s really only one person who would be willing to help me.

You just need to see him again, touch him again, I accuse myself.

Yes, and that need will save Lawrence.

But dammit, am I really ready to face Orion again? Will I be able to say no to him a second time? Or will I let him claim me, consummate the bond and become something my parents would never have been able to understand, let alone love.

I remember the way Aunt Emma acted the day after Timothy Higgins had transformed on TV. She’d pressed the off button on the remote so hard her veiny old thumb turned red, and didn’t say a word to me. She’d seen the mark, and probably thought I’d been in on it with the werebeasts who attacked my parents.

After the news crews came and camped out on her front lawn, she stopped looking at me. I didn’t bother going to school, and she didn’t bother making me go. I just wandered around the house like a ghost.

One day I couldn’t take it anymore. I stole a bottle of her pills and slipped out the back. I’d been planning on running for a while, but after Timothy Higgins revealed himself, I figured eventually my secret would come out, too. I was so sure there was nowhere left to go.

It was stupid and morbid and such a teenager thing to do, but I snuck out the back and went to a cemetery. Not the one where my parents were buried, the news crew spent too much time there getting B-roll footage, but to the one on the poorer side of town. I figured in the middle of the day that was as good a place to be alone as any.

But between the weeds and the wire fence I met someone else. A tall black boy who went to the same high school as I did. He was sitting underneath a tree. Crying.

I’d spent so much time feeling sorry for myself, it was jarring to see someone else in real pain. I don’t know why but I sat down next to him and asked if he was okay.

He looked at me like I was an idiot, and I was so sure he was going to tell me to fuck off. But he didn’t. Instead he motioned to the grave in front of him and told me that was his boyfriend. John was a V-positive, but the worst part was that John didn’t even die from the disease but from some stupid accident with a gun.

He explained all of this to me in a calm, even monotone broken only by the occasional long pause to hold back tears. The only time he ever actually cried was when he told me in a low snarl that not only had John been killed, but he had passed his disease on to Lawrence, as well. This was, of course, before Henderson’s cure rendered the disease non-transferable.

I remember grabbing this stranger’s— Lawrence’s—hand. I told him about everything then: my parents’ deaths, my shitty aunt, the matemark, and how now that werebeasts had revealed themselves I was convinced that everyone would find out the truth about what I was and blame me for my parents’ death the way my aunt did. As I told my story something changed in Lawrence. His back straightened, his eyes cleared from tears, his breathing calmed. He didn’t look at me like I was a monster. Or if he did, he looked at me like he felt he was a monster too.

After we talked we decided to run away together and find work in another town. I threw the pills out.

He saved my life.

Now it’s my turn to save his.

I dial Orion’s number.

It seems like it takes forever before the phone starts to ring.

My stomach scrunches up with nerves as I imagine his voice. He let me go. I let him go. We know nothing about each other save for our connection. Why would he help me? I wonder if he’ll even answer. He doesn’t know my number.

It rings again. A third time and then a fourth.

I move my thumb to hang up. I don’t want to hear his voicemail message, if he has one. I should just go to the FBSI. So what if Lawrence, whoever killed Cooper, and I all end up lost in their labyrinths of red tape forever? Better that than dead.

“Orion North,” he answers.

His words paralyze me, for the first time not conjuring images of him pinning me down, but just holding me, kissing me. Gently, so gently. And for a price.

My own embarrassingly loud breathing statics into the phone’s mic. He must be able to hear it, too.

For one long moment neither of us speaks.

“Orion?”

I hear a sharp intake of breath at the other end of the line. “Artemis?”

My heart double-times. “I…uh.” This is hard to say after my whole speech back in the alley.

“Having second thoughts?” I can tell he’s trying to keep his voice light, but a deep undercurrent threatens to sweep me away.

“No. I—” A sob catapults up my throat and out past my lips. “Something’s happened.”

“Artemis,” he soothes. “Slow down.”

His command shouldn’t work—it doesn’t sound like his growly werecall from earlier—but it does. My heartbeat slows from hyper-speed to just fast. “I don’t even know what to say. This is all just insane.”

I press my hand to my chest to steady myself, expecting him to interrupt the silence, but he doesn’t.

Finally, I spit it out. “Cooper’s dead.”

“Who is Cooper?” he asks with utter patience, like a parent talking to kid who has lost their stuffed animal.

He doesn’t get it.

“He’s this werebeast I met tonight at the bar, and he said that I couldn’t fight destiny, and that he had had sex with Lawrence and that gay werebeasts aren’t allowed by his psycho boss, and now he’s in my house and he’s dead, and I don’t have any clue what to do so now I’m talking to you, even though I know that I said I never would again, but he’s d-dead.” The words heave out of me, but even after I’m done I still want to throw up.

The silence on the line is even longer than the space between the rings was. Finally, he asks, “Are you in danger?”

I consider his words carefully. “I don’t think so.”

“Artemis.” His growl brooks no disagreement. “Don’t lie to me. Are you in danger?”

“Maybe.”

“It was a mistake letting you go.”

“No—wait.” How quickly my tenuous freedom is being revoked. “I’m not staying with you.”

He growls again and my core heats in response.

“I like your bravery and your fire, but I will not have you hurt,” he promises.

“You don’t understand. It’s not me I’m worried about, it’s my roommate, Lawrence.”

“You live with another male?”

“No, no,” I backtrack. “I mean yes, but he’s gay.”

“And he’s in trouble.” His voice softens again.

I swallow. “Kidnapped. I think.” But the terror still finds its way up. “I hope. Oh, God, what if he’s dead?” My fear has broken all the barriers between us, and I can’t stop all my thoughts from pouring out.

“He might be. There are some nasty members of our species, Artemis.”

“H-he might be?” I sniffle. “Aren’t you supposed to make me feel better?”

“I will never lie to you.”

“I think I’ve had enough of the truth for one night.” I wipe away the stinging tears on my cheeks. My whole body feels drunk, unsteady. “I don’t even get why you’d help me, besides some stupid matemark. I’m not brave or passionate or whatever.”

“Artemis.” His low voice shocks me out of my stupor, clearing away everything. “Close your eyes.”

I almost do. I imagine his strong arms holding me, keeping me up, sheltering me from the storm and the evils of the world. But I also think of all that I can’t control, and know that I can’t give up the one thing I can. Myself.

I keep my eyes open.

“There.” I can almost hear him smirk over the phone.

“What?”

“You didn’t close your eyes.”

How did he know? Was he waiting there for me at the other end of our shared connection? I shiver. “So?”

“If you’re strong enough to resist the power of our bond, silly girl, you’re strong enough to triumph over anything.” His voice vibrates the speaker of the phone against my cheek. “I just have to teach you that there are worthier causes than fighting me. Perhaps fighting for your friend can be one of them.”

I put the phone on speaker and set it down, needing some distance. “You’ll help me? You won’t try to kidnap me and bring me back to your cave to protect me?”

“I don’t live in a cave,” he says lightly. “And of course I’ll help you.”

“You will?” I fidget with one of my curls, wrapping it so tightly around my finger that I cut off circulation.

“But I’ll need answers.”

“What?” My mind runs through all the possible things he might ask for: my body, my heart, my submission. Answers are not on that list.

“I won’t be kept in the dark,” he says. “I won’t force you to do anything you don’t want to, but you say that I don’t know you. That you don’t know me. If I help you, that will change.” His voice drops a half-octave. “In every way.”

He still wants to consume me. And there’s still some part of me that wants to let him. But I can see it. I can handle it. I can tiptoe across this high-wire between desire and destruction. No—more than that. I can use the pull I have over Orion to save Lawrence. And then I can walk away.

“I swear I’m not going to give in to you,” I say, more for myself than for him.

“I won’t hold you to that promise,” he says in that way he has of making it seem like his voice is right next to me. As if he’s touching me. “But I will hold you to this one. Let me know you, see you as you truly are. And I will help you. Do we have a deal?”

I pause, listening to the rush of blood through my ears, feeling the embers of need awakening in my stomach. It’s a familiar sensation now. Like looking over the edge of a cliff I’ve already jumped off—scary and exciting in a whole new way, because I know exactly what jumping really means.

And it’s not like I really have a choice anyway. This is the best way to find Lawrence.

I take a deep breath, trying to ignore the feeling that I’m signing away my soul. “Yes, I accept.”

“Then I will see you soon, Little Mate.” I can hear his grin.

The line goes dead. Unlike a traditional phone, there is no dial tone, just silence. I stare at it a moment, letting the reality of everything sink into me. Memories drift through me.

My mother whispering that she’d love me forever. Lawrence and I dodging reporters and investigators to make our way in the world. My dad telling me how proud of me he was when I got the lead in the school play. And most of all I remember that night, being stuck in the tent, unable to leave. Hearing them die.

I think I’ve lived my whole life stuck in that tent. It’s time to come out.

I stand up and shove the phone in my pocket. The metal of the gun glints at me from the dresser, tempting me. I hate it and I need it at the same time. Power’s like that, I guess. Dangerous, enticing and sometimes, whether I like it or not, necessary. My hand trembles as I flick the safety of the gun back on and grab it. The shaking only gets worse as I turn toward the door and rest my hand on the knob.

Yes, I’m afraid.

Terrified, actually.

But feeling that and going out to face my fears anyway?

That’s what makes me brave.

  • * *

Read the rest here!

 

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BLACK MOON SING

by L. M. Hawke

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BLACK MOON SING

by L. M. Hawke

BLACK MOON SING © L. M. Hawke 2016

[_A dark force is targeting a secret enclave of shapeshifters in the desert southwest, delivering them to grisly fates. Suspected of witchery and cast out of her human society, it’s up to Ellery Chee, a lone coyote shifter, to stop this dangerous magician before her world is destroyed. _
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_But Ellery will have to team up with other outcast magic-users to get the job done. It’s a tall order to find witches and fae who are willing to come out of hiding to save the shifters. It’s even tougher to convince Hosteen Sikaadii, an all-too-human detective, that Ellery is working for good, not evil. _
__
_Without Hosteen’s help, she won’t have a chance at stopping the slaughter. And she just might be the next shifter who’s slated for a bloody end. _
__
_This is the first volume in a new urban fantasy series, and contains a cliffhanger ending. Don’t miss Book 2, Red Fire Glow, available now from your favorite eBook retailer. _]

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CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

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CHAPTER ONE

 

Ellery pulled her shades from her face quickly as she stepped through the Blue Room’s door. She kept her face turned down toward the floor, meeting no one’s gaze until she was certain the door had closed behind her and she was surrounded only by the artificial light of the bar. Or what passed for light in the Blue Room, at any rate. Like most clubs that appealed to the under-thirty set, the Blue Room was dim and briskly air-conditioned, a pleasant change from Arizona’s blistering heat and intensely sunny days.

The club’s dance floor was more crowded tonight than usual. Bass from the DJ’s station bumped through Ellery’s body, and the lights overhead were weak enough to flatter even the drunkest club-goer, with hair mussed and booze spilled down the fronts of their tight, trend-perfect outfits. But that dim light was from bulbs and neon tubes—electricity—and so it was safe for Ellery leave her shades off. She hung them from the neckline of her tank top and sidled through the crowd, murmuring “Excuse me” and “Sorry” whenever she brushed too close to one of the Blue Room’s patrons.

She didn’t head toward the bar. She had no interest in enjoying a drink tonight, or any night, really. Nightlife wasn’t her thing. It never had been.

Here in Flagstaff it was generally safe enough for a Para to go around after dark. Sure, she might be subjected to a few slurs shouted from the windows of passing cars, or groups of girls walking between bars might cross to the other side of the street when they saw her coming… if they recognized her for what she was. But those reactions were nothing new. Hostile behavior was typical of most Typicals. Few Typs trusted the magic-users who walked among them, the Paras who only wanted to live quiet, normal lives in peace. And most Typs, in Ellery’s experience, were pretty good at minimizing their visible discomfort when they found themselves in the company of a Para.

But of course, a few always had to act like asses, even in a city like Flagstaff, with a relatively large and “out” Para population. Ellery supposed it was the only way some Typs could feel secure: by yelling their slurs, by doling out dirty looks or posting garbage on social media.

It bothered Ellery’s Para friends much more than it bugged her. The Typs in Flagstaff, and most other places she’d visited in her twenty-four years, were low-key compared to the worst Ellery had seen. She knew first-hand what kind of destruction could be unleashed when Typs’ fear of magic-users got out of hand. She’d take shouts and stares any day over outright violence.

But even if Flagstaff was relatively chill, Ellery still didn’t like going out after dark. And noisy, crowded bars were never her favorite scene, even in daylight. If not for Vivi’s strange texts, she wouldn’t have come out tonight at all—and she certainly wouldn’t be within a hundred yards of a noisy, crowded place like the Blue Room.

But the Blue Room was Vivi’s favorite hang. Vivi was just as likely to be at the Blue Room as anywhere else—more likely, in fact. And if she was there, grinding against some carefully disguised Para guy on the dance floor or telling raunchy jokes over her third martini of the night, Ellery was determined to find her. Something about Vivi’s messages had Ellery on high alert. She could practically feel her hackles rising.

She slid her phone out of the pocket of her jeans and pulled up Vivi’s most recent texts, reading them again as she made her way through the crowd.

Feel so weird 2nite, the first one said. Then, fifteen minutes later, Cat sick to stomach, restless. The next one came less than two minutes after: Ell do u feel this 2?

Then, each sent within seconds of the last:

Gotta get out of here

Gotta get rid of cat

But don’t want to, scared

Call me Ell, really scared somethings going on

Gotta get out

Get cat out

Going away

The last text had arrived more than an hour ago, and Ellery had read the messages countless times since then. But still they made her shiver. It was so unlike Vivi—all of it, from the open discussion of the cat spirit she traded with, right down to the crappy punctuation and use of digits and single letters in place of properly spelled-out words. Vivi just didn’t do these things, and the sudden change in her behavior had Ellery sick with worry. And frightened enough that she didn’t hesitate to venture out after dark. Whatever was going on inside her friend’s head, Ellery was determined to find her and help her, even if roaming the night-time streets made her spine tingle with anxiety.

Distracted by her phone, Ellery collided with the back of a tall, broad-shouldered man just as he turned from this table and headed toward the bar.

“Sorry,” Ellery said, looking up quickly from her phone.

The man—an Anglo, with blond hair, peevish blue eyes, and sun-chapped skin—gave her a withering look of disgust.

“Out of my way, you fucking jick,” he spat.

Jick: the slur of choice among the more hostile Typicals, short for “magical.” It might have upset some of Ellery’s Paranormal friends, but far worse had been said and done to Ellery and her family in the name of ignorance and fear.

The only thing that made her give the man and his nasty attitude a second thought was the question of how he’d figured out she was a so-called jick in the first place. Indoors, her eyes were no give-away. Then he stuffed his hand in his pocket, tucking a slender smartphone out of sight. Ellery’s sensitive ears picked up the buzzing of his phone, even over the thumping bass of the music.

An app? There’s a fucking app for that?

She swallowed a sigh. Of course. It wasn’t just a tongue-in-cheek saying anymore; now there really was an app for everything. Apparently some chicken-shit Typical nerd-o had figured out how to make his smartphone detect the special energy frequencies Paras gave off. That very same fear-ridden geek was undoubtedly making billions by selling his app to every Typ who’d ever had a nightmare about a bunny rabbit shifter coming to suck their blood.

Just what the world needs, Ellery thought bitterly, for all the Typs to receive an alert whenever they’re in the presence of super-spooky, possibly-definitely-deadly witches or shapeshifter or—God preserve us all!—one of those terrifying fae.

As the guy pushed his way toward the bar, Ellery called after him, “Jick this, dickhead!” She raised her middle finger in salute, but the man only cast another sullen glare over his shoulder.

Typical Typ. They’d insult a Para right to her face, but they were always too afraid of magic to actually tangle with one.

Then she amended that thought with a queasy concession. Typical Typ out here in Flagstaff, anyway. It was a different story altogether on the Rez, where Ellery had grown up.

Ellery turned her back on the Anglo man and worked her way to the edge of the dance floor. The smells of sweat, cologne, hair product, and every imaginable type of alcohol were thick in the air. Combined with the booming music and the press of so many bodies, the combined odor of so many people in one place felt like an assault on Ellery’s keen senses. At least there weren’t any strobe lights or whirling glow sticks—those always made her feel like she was losing her mind.

A tall guy with a pale complexion and perfectly styled, red-brown hair danced up to her. It was obvious from one glance that the man was a Para—one of the Chanter types, based on the ethereal beauty of his flawless skin, his elegant, well-carved features, and his casual grace. But was he a fae—harmless, even friendly—or a vampire?

“Want to dance?” he asked. His voice was as smooth and sweet as honey; she felt herself pulled toward him, as susceptible to the natural charms of a Chanter as anyone else would be. Typ or Para, not many people could evade the enchantment of a Chanter.

But Ellery’s drive to find Vivi was stronger than his magic. She took a step back and shook her head. “No, thanks. I’m just looking for my friend.”

“I could be your friend.” The man moved a little closer; Ellery gazed up into his face, prepared—for a few moments at least—to lose herself in the pure beauty of his eyes.

His eyes. That was where she spotted the give-away. There was a distance to his look, a cool detachment that no emotional, soft-hearted fae was capable of displaying.

So he’s a vampire. Better to steer clear of this one.

Some vampires were perfectly good people, but their incredibly long lives—and the isolation from society that longevity imposed—tended to leech more compassion out of them with each passing year. If any Paras could be called dangerous, it was definitely the vampires, some of whom were every bit as inhuman and inhumane as the Typs seemed to think all magic-users were. The older a vampire was, the less likely it was to feel sympathy or empathy—to feel anything at all, except its dark, compelling hungers. And as with most vampires, there was no guessing this one’s age.

Ellery backed further away from the vampire, distancing herself from his enchantment as much as the crowd would allow. Typs aren’t the only ones who have certain prejudices, she thought.

The vampire smiled serenely, allowing her to edge away, not interested in pressing the issue in a crowded place. Maybe not hungry enough to press the issue at all. His easy complacency gave Ellery a little courage. If he was out hitting on Para girls at the Blue Room, maybe he’d seen Vivi tonight.

“Hey,” she called out to him, “maybe you can help me find my friend.”

The vampire raised his perfectly arched brows as he moved easily to the thumping music, waiting for Ellery to say more.

“She’s tall—a lot taller than me—and kind of curvy. Black, with dark skin. She wears her hair in an afro. And she’d be wearing her token: a gold chain necklace. Have you seen her?”

The vampire gave a low, teasing laugh that made Ellery’s skin crawl even as it made her heart pound. “Her token, huh?” His cool eyes slid down to her cleavage—to the coyote tooth that hung from a leather cord between her breasts. “A Changer like you—another trader? It’s a bad night to be a trader.”

A chill shot through Ellery’s veins. She squelched her caution and stepped toward the vampire. “What do you mean?”

“Relax, baby,” he purred. And for just a second, Ellery did as he told her, lapsing into a complacent calm. “I’ve heard things tonight, that’s all. You aren’t the first person in the Blue Room who’s wondered where their trader friends are. Traders haven’t shown up for dates tonight; traders skipped out on work and skipped out on partying. Unusual behavior. Traders not returning calls. Traders sending—”

“Odd texts?”

His smile broadened, and she caught sight of his sharp canine teeth. “Exactly.”

“So you haven’t seen my friend here tonight?”

“Doesn’t ring a bell.” He began to dance off in another direction, his movements fluid and intoxicating. “Good luck. If you get tired of looking for her, you know where to find me.”

“Shit.” Ellery turned in a slow circle on the edge of the dance floor, gazing all around the dimness of the Blue Room. But there was no sign of Vivi’s cloud of dark hair peeking above other people’s heads, no hint of her big, bold laugh cutting through the sound of the crowd. Ellery would have heard her friend’s voice for sure, even with the music thumping all around her.

She made her way to the bathroom and gave it a quick search, then came back out again and glared at the crowd as if she might be able to cut a path through it with her eyes.

It was useless. Vivi wasn’t there—not that night. And the vampire’s spiel about traders acting strangely made Ellery feel hemmed in, nearly suffocated by her anxiety and by the Blue Room itself.

It took her a couple of minutes to navigate back through all those dancing, laughing, shouting bodies to the bar’s exit. She put her shades back on as she stepped through the door, out into the Arizona evening.

The chill of a desert night was just beginning to emerge, cutting through the day’s residual heat, the heavy presence that still hung over the streets and alleys of downtown Flagstaff. The historic brick buildings towered over Ellery as she walked, rising like the dry, red walls of the canyons of her childhood home. The brick gave up the vestiges of the sunlight, its warmth and the flat, bare scent stirring poignant memories from long ago.

Normally the feel of the day’s last heat and the smell of dry brick or dry stone was a comfort to Ellery. But tonight, she couldn’t seem to shake the squeezing anxiety she had felt at the Blue Room.

Vivi’s fine, she told herself. She was probably half-asleep when she sent those texts. She was probably dreaming. Any minute now, she’ll call you and ask you to meet her for a drink, and you’ll tell her to fuck off, that you’ve already been to the Blue Room once tonight and you’re not going back.

But as she trudged on, putting more city blocks between herself and the bar, Ellery’s concern for Vivi gave way to a much more general—and much bigger—fear. Something was… pulling at her. Calling to her. The effect felt similar to the vampire’s enchantment, but far more commanding, and yet very distant.

As she walked, she kept darting her head toward the northeast, straining as if she thought she might pick up on some auditory clue over the hum of city traffic. But even as she turned her attention toward the northeast, again and again, she knew it was useless. There was nothing unusual to see there, nothing to hear or smell. And the only thing she could feel was that jittery fear that grew stronger with each passing minute.

Out of habit, she reached through her tokens—the coyote tooth on its leather cord and the bracelet on her left wrist, which dangled a tiny glass pendant that housed a few white filaments from a barn owl’s feather. She did it so many times, poking at the spirits of the animals with which she traded, that she felt the coyote yawn in boredom and Ghost Owl ruffle his feathers with pure irritation. (Not that it was hard to annoy Ghost Owl, even under the best of circumstances.)

Something’s strange about tonight, she told her animals spirits.

Ghost Owl made no reply, but Red Dust on Paws, the loyal coyote, gave Ellery an impression of a comforting lick to the back of her hand.

That made Ellery smile, despite her creeped-out mood. She could always count on Dusty when she needed a little perspective.

Suddenly Ellery felt Dusty’s spirit snap to attention inside her. The coyote’s tooth warmed a little where it lay against her skin. Ellery felt a strong prickle on the back of her neck—the coyote’s hackles rising—and although she was not in either of her animal forms, still she could feel the twist and tightening of a coyote’s ears swiveling atop her head. Dusty was alert to something behind them—something the trusty coyote was sure meant danger.

Ellery swallowed hard. She turned her head to glance over her shoulder with what she hoped was a casual gesture.

What she saw nearly stopped her heart.

A man was following her down the sidewalk—and with his direct, purposeful stride, Ellery was damn sure he was following her, not just strolling along the Flagstaff streets, minding his own business.

A man pursuing her was alarming enough on its own, but this man was all of Ellery’s nightmares come to life in one body. At least six feet tall and strong-looking, he wore a long black duster coat, the hem of which floated behind him with the speed of his stride. Even if he hadn’t chanced to pass through the yellow pool of a streetlight just as Ellery looked back—the light cast a sharp illumination on his unmistakably Indian features—his broad-brimmed black hat, banded in turquoise, would have been all the identification Ellery needed.

The man was Diné—Navajo—just like Ellery. And that meant he had most likely come from the very community she had fled ten years before, fearing for her life.

Ellery’s casual glance wasn’t lost on the Diné man. Her sharp ears picked up his speeding footsteps, and in another moment she could all but feel his hands reaching for her, grasping her, dragging her off to judgment.

You won’t take me, too, she hissed at him silently.

She turned at the corner and sprinted down the next street, nearly as fast as her legs could carry her.

[* *]

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CHAPTER TWO

 

“Wait!” The man’s voice called out harshly behind Ellery as she ran.

That settled it; he was after her. Ellery gritted her teeth and put on as much more speed as she dared. She cursed the presence of so many Typs on the city streets. If it wouldn’t incite a panic, she would have run even faster; she was certainly capable of it. But displays of paranormal abilities tended to unsettle the Typs, and often ended in far more trouble and hassle for the Para than they were worth.

“Please, wait!” the man shouted again.

Ellery wasn’t gaining much ground on him; he was fast for a Typical. Maybe it would be worth scooting along faster, after all.

The dark mouth of an unlit street opened to her left; she darted down it, thinking to put on a burst of speed under cover of relative darkness and lose her pursuer that way. But her eyes adjusted quickly to the dark lane, even through her shades, and Ellery stumbled to a halt, cursing bitterly.

In her panic she had turned down an alley, not a street—and its other end was sealed by a brick wall that looked much newer than the walls on either side of her. If the streets of downtown Flagstaff were like the landscapes of her home, then this alley was a box canyon: steep and impassable on three sides. The only way out was the way she had come in, and there was a Navajo man out there, chasing her down.

She couldn’t go back. No way.

Ellery looked up at the sky. A few stars asserted themselves and shone through the light pollution of the city. The sky—that was another way out. Her only option now.

She reached through the bracelet token, and for once Ghost Owl dispensed with his usual grouching. She felt him give an eager screech; he wanted her to get out of this mess just as badly as she did, and as Dusty the coyote did.

Ellery concentrated, opened herself to the intense flash of blue light and the shock of rapid travel through time and space that always accompanied her shifts.

But nothing happened.

Ghost Owl screamed again, more desperately this time, and she could all but see the barn owl’s face before her, his sharp beak clacking in his pale, heart-shaped face, his black, slanted eyes scornful.

“I’m trying,” Ellery said, trying to keep her voice down, trying to keep panic from overwhelming her every thought and every move.

She attempted the shift again. Ghost Owl tried, too, pushing back at her from the barrier between their two worlds, flapping his speckled wings, tearing with this talons—trying to help her break through. But still Ellery remained in her human form.

“What the hell is going on?” she panted, though there was no one there to answer her. She had never been unable to shift when she wanted to do it—ever since she’d been taught how, as a little girl.

Again and again she strained to change herself into Ghost Owl, and then into Dusty, who might at least be able to hide somewhere in the alley better than a human woman could. But there was no getting through the barrier between her world and the spirit world, where her animals existed. There was no way to bring them through the mysterious channels of blue light that connected their two worlds like the fragile strands of a spider’s web.

Wide-eyed with fear, facing the alley’s mouth, Ellery backed up until she bumped into the alley’s rear wall. “Shit,” she muttered. “Shit, shit, shit.”

If she held really still, maybe the man in the black duster would pass her by. Maybe he hadn’t seen her turn into the alley. Maybe he’d go right on past without looking down its length; or if he did look into the alley’s depths, maybe Ellery would be well-hidden by shadows and he would move on.

At the alley’s mouth, she could see the lights of passing traffic—the yellow flash of headlights, the intense red glare of tail lights like the eyes of predatory creatures in the night. Somebody rode past on a bike; the bike’s thin frame, flickering rapidly against the glow of street and cars, made Ellery think of a skeletal monster loping through the Arizona night.

Then the shape she feared to see appeared at the alley’s mouth. Tall, broad in the shoulder, the duster coat made him look like a monolith of strength in silhouette. The hat, the kind a proper and traditional Diné man always wore, loomed atop that black shape like a vulture with its wings spread.

Ellery held her breath, though she was reasonably sure the man was Typical and therefore not likely to pinpoint her location by sound. Not at this distance, with the noise of the city all around them.

“Ellery Chee,” the man called softly down the alley.

Despite her will to remain invisible and silent, Ellery let out an explosive breath. She couldn’t help herself. She felt as if she’d been slugged in the stomach.

The man knew her name—knew exactly who she was. That settled it: he didn’t mean her any good. And Ellery had no way out of this trap. She reached through the owl token again, but the barrier remained as impassable as before. It was hopeless; she was caught at last, and now there was no escape.

The man approached slowly. Against the glare of traffic, she could see that he held his hands out to his sides, fingers spread, holding nothing. No gun, no knife. It was meant to be a soothing gesture, Ellery felt sure. But she saw his fingers as claws, poised to rip and tear at her flesh.

“Go away,” she told him. She was proud that her voice was steady. But as she spoke, she felt that strange pull toward the northeast, stronger and more compelling than before. She bit her lip and resisted it; she couldn’t take her eyes off this man—not for a second.

“I can’t go away,” the man answered. Still walking slowly toward her, still holding his hands out in a display of peaceful intent—or in readiness to catch her if she tried to make a break and run past him. “I need you.”

His voice was deep, but without the gravel of age. It held the rhythms of the Rez—the sound of the Navajo Nation, the place she longed to return to and the place she knew she must never go back to, on pain of death. The sound of home in his voice—home, with all it implied for Ellery—was an enchantment stronger than any trick the vampire had pulled. But this man was no Chanter, Ellery felt sure. No Para of any sort. Just an ordinary man, as Typical as they came.

“Back off and let me leave,” Ellery said.

The man was much closer now—six paces away, five.

“Stop right there!”

Ellery didn’t really expect the guy to obey her command. But he did, halting a few feet away with his hands still held out placidly.

“I’m not here to hurt you, Ellery.”

“Then why are you here? Why are you following me?”

At closer range, she could make out his features, even with the glare of the road backlighting his shape. He had the broad, straight nose, dark eyes, and wide mouth that so clearly said “Diné,” and he looked little older than Ellery herself—perhaps six or seven years her senior, no more.

“My name is Hosteen Sikaadii,” he said. “I’m an officer with the Navajo Nation police force.”

Ellery flinched back violently; the brick of the wall bit into her flesh, cold and hard.

“Please don’t be afraid,” Hosteen continued. “I’m not here to do you any harm.”

Ellery’s heart thumped. She was seized by a sudden, desperate inspiration. “You can’t, anyway. We aren’t on the Rez. You have no jurisdiction here.”

The moment she said those words—the Rez—Ellery felt another insistent tug from whatever strange force was out there, pulling at her, enticing her, commanding her. And she realized, with a twist of dread in her gut, that northeast—the direction that called to her—was the direction of the Navajo Nation.

Hosteen smiled at her assertion, but it didn’t make Ellery feel any better. “Exactly. I came to find you because I need your help.”

“My help? That’s crazy. I can’t help you. I’m a barista, not a cop. Now move aside and let me go home.”

“You can help me,” Hosteen insisted. There was a hint of a plea in his voice, the barest note of desperation. It made Ellery feel a little less afraid, to know that this officer was feeling less than confident right now, too. “And you’re not a barista. Or at any rate, a barista is the least of what you are.”

Ellery lifted her chin in defiance. “You don’t know a thing about what I am. Not one damn thing. So go find somebody else to help you; I’m not interested.”

“You’ll be interested once you know more about the case. I feel sure of that.”

Hosteen lowered his hands slowly to his sides, and Ellery tensed, wondering if he’d draw some weapon. But he never did. He didn’t come any closer, either. He just stood in silence, watching her, stilled by awe or—could it be?—fear.

Finally he said, “And I do know what you are. I know all about it. But you don’t need to be afraid of me. I’m willing to trust you, if you’re willing to trust me.”

Ellery choked out a bitter laugh. How stupidly, predictably, mind-numbingly Typical of him, to assume he knew the first thing about Ellery Chee, her life, her past, or her paranormal abilities. If he’d been a little closer, she might have swung a fist at him, purely from exasperation.

Instead, she reached up and very deliberately removed her sunglasses.

She faced Hosteen squarely, staring straight into his eyes, and she noted the superstitious shudder that wracked his broad frame.

“You think you know me?” Ellery said quietly. “Then tell me: what am I?”

Hosteen’s fear seemed to flow through him like a cold current. But though he swayed slightly and his breath came faster, he didn’t allow any of his agitation to show on his face. Ellery admired that, a little. She admired, too, the fact that he didn’t avert his eyes, didn’t break her gaze—even though she knew that under the light of stars or moon, however faint that light, her own eyes glowed a chilling red, like the gaze of an animal caught in the beam of a flashlight.

“What am I?” she said again, braver now, sensing she was rapidly gaining the upper hand.

Hosteen’s voice was faint when he spoke, almost a whisper. But even though it was night and the alley was thick with darkness, he still said the word.

“Skinwalker.”

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CHAPTER THREE

 

“Skinwalker!” Ellery’s answer was half laugh, half shout. “Hah! Shows what you know: not a damn thing.”

“But your eyes,” Hosteen said. He still sounded shaky, awed.

“But nothing. I’m not a skinwalker. There’s a proper word for what I am: a Changer. Or to be more specific, a trader.”

“You’re a shapeshifter. Everyone knows—”

Ellery donned her shades again. Hosteen relaxed visibly when the eerie red glow of her eyes vanished behind the lenses.

“Yes, I am a shape-shifting Paranormal, but that doesn’t make me a skinwalker. It doesn’t make me evil.”

“I never said you were evil,” Hosteen insisted, holding up his hands again in that placating gesture.

“But what is a skinwalker, according to Diné belief, if not evil?”

Hosteen grimaced. Ellery had him pinned to the mat, and they both knew it.

The Diné were certainly not the first or the only people in the world to assume Paras were bad. It had happened everywhere, in every culture, as far as Ellery could tell. In Europe and Colonial America, people had been killed for witchcraft—whether they were really witches or not. The Arab tribes had their djinn, the Hindus feared shape-shifting rakshasas, and all across Africa people had fostered fears of paranormal beings from abayifo to zimwi. Every culture in the world had its particular assumptions about paranormal beings. But none of those assumptions, as far as Ellery knew, were true.

“Look,” she said, “I’m willing to grant that maybe there is something to the Diné beliefs. Maybe some Diné practice a form of magic I’m not aware of. Maybe there are evil shapeshifting witches out there who are everything our people believe skinwalkers to be: malevolent and dangerous and not to be trusted. But just because I’m a shapeshifter, and just because I’m Diné, that doesn’t mean I’m a skinwalker, okay? I’m like every other Para in the world, from any given culture. I’m just trying to keep to myself, live my life, and take care of my own. Same as you. And I really am just a barista. So now will you please step aside and let me get on with my life? Somewhere there’s an annoying white lady named McKayla who’s waiting for me to make her an iced skinny pumpkin spice latte with no whip.”

Hosteen shuffled to one side. Ellery brushed past him, walking quickly down the dark alley, trying not to give in to the impulse that was screaming down her nerves to run. That would only give him more reason to suspect her of wrongdoing—to find some way to haul her back to the Navajo Nation, where he did have jurisdiction, and where, she knew, tribal law would not treat her kindly.

“I really do need your help, Ellery,” he said as she walked away. “And I hope you’ll be kind enough to assist me.”

“Not interested,” she answered without turning around. She was almost at the mouth of the alley now, nearly out on the street where she could run again if necessary.

“William Roanhorse is dead.”

Ellery froze at the alley’s mouth. A cold wave crashed over her, scouring away all her bravado, even her panic over Hosteen’s presence and her concern for Vivi. It left behind nothing but emptiness, a vast, cavernous sense of loss that she hadn’t felt in ten years.

She turned around slowly. Hosteen was still standing where she’d left him, a blocky shadow against the deeper dark of the alley.

“William Roanhorse was like an uncle to me,” Ellery said softly.

In truth, he was the last family she had in all the world, although he was no blood relation. He was the kindly elder who, when she was just a girl and her shifting abilities first began to manifest, had taken Ellery under his wing and taught her what it meant to be a Changer, how to work with the animal spirits that chose her for Trading. Roanhorse had taught all the Changers Ellery knew on the reservation—a very small group, to be sure, and one that had had to guard its secrets more assiduously than Paras did in the Anglo world, lest they be mistaken for skinwalkers—for malevolent beings.

When she’d fled the reservation at the age of fourteen, Ellery had begged Roanhorse to come with her—to escape the danger and set up a new life elsewhere, someplace where Paras could expect a little more freedom, more understanding. But the old man had shaken his head and smiled. “This is my home,” he told her, “and I won’t leave it.”

Ellery had hugged him so tightly that day, she thought she might stop the world in its tracks and freeze time right there, just her alone with the last family that was left to her. But the world hadn’t stopped turning. Time went mercilessly on. She eventually pulled away from Roanhorse and left, with nothing but the remembered feeling of his strong, warm arms holding her tightly, bracing her up with confidence and love.

She had always intended to go back and visit Roanhorse—somehow. To find him and let him know that she was okay.

But now he was gone forever.

“He’s dead?”

Hosteen nodded. “It wasn’t a… a natural death.”

“He was killed?”

“Why don’t we go somewhere and talk?” Hosteen suggested. “An alley is no place to discuss something as important as a loved one’s death.”

Still Ellery hesitated. The traffic flowed past, smooth and swift. She longed to run, to let go of all her concerns and sprint down the street at her greatest speed, to keep on running out of Flagstaff and far out into the desert where her fears and her darkest memories could never find her.

But she sighed, and then nodded. “All right. I can agree to talk to you, at least, as long as we stay in a public place.”

***

At the all-night diner across the street from the alley, Ellery and Hosteen settled into a booth, secluded in the back of the restaurant. The waitress filled their coffee mugs; as soon as she had gone, Ellery leaned her elbows on the table, fixing Hosteen with a stare.

“Tell me what happened to William Roanhorse. Don’t hold anything back.”

Hosteen sipped his coffee slowly, as if reluctant to talk after all. But Ellery’s stare was relentless, and finally he set his cup back on the table.

“Roanhorse was killed inside his home.”

Ellery remembered the place. Unlike most Diné, the old man had lived in a traditional hogan, a domed, roughly octagon-shaped hut made of logs and the red mud of the Colorado Plateau. A memory of the place came back vividly to her: pale morning light coming in through its open door, illuminating its simple furniture, the woven rugs on the floor, the colorful cloths hung high up near the convex ceiling, covering the chains of turquoise beads that waited there for Roanhorse’s use.

She hated to think of him being killed there, in a place that was so beloved to him and to Ellery herself—a place that had been filled with joy and light.

“They killed him in his house? While he was defenseless and alone? Why?”

“Wait a minute,” Hosteen said. “‘They’? Who do you think did it?”

Ellery shrugged uncomfortably. “You’re the cop; you tell me. I haven’t been back to the Rez in ten years.”

“You seem to have some suspicion already of who might have killed Mr. Roanhorse.”

Now it was Ellery’s turn to sip her coffee slowly. It was a useful delaying tactic. “‘They’ is a vague word.”

“You have a suspicion—I can see it in your eyes.”

She glowered at Hosteen. “I’ll put my shades back on, if you think my eyes give away so much.”

You’re damn right, I have suspicions about who killed Roanhorse.

It wasn’t the first time a Changer had been killed on the Rez. But what did this Hosteen character actually know about Roanhorse? Did he know the man had been a shapeshifter, or did he assume Roanhorse was Typical?

Ellery’s long-ingrained instinct to avoid all talk of shapeshifting around Diné had kicked in. If Hosteen didn’t already know that Roanhorse had paranormal abilities—that he had, in fact, turned out to be the most knowledgeable and capable Changer Ellery had ever met—then she wasn’t about to supply him with that information.

But if any of the more superstitious Typicals who lived on the Rez had suspected Roanhorse of shapeshifting… of being a skinwalker… well, that could easily have spelled his doom.

“He was killed in his house,” Hosteen went on, “but here’s the thing: when we found him, the door was barred from the inside.”

Shocked, Ellery leaned back against the booth seat. Her breath whooshed out of her lungs, and for a long moment she couldn’t seem to draw another. But at last she managed to stammer, “Maybe… maybe he died of natural causes, then.”

Hosteen shook his head slowly, his eyes deep with sympathy below the brim of his black hat. “No, Ellery. The attack was… violent. There’s no way his death was natural. No way it could have been a suicide, either.”

Her eyes filled with tears; she blinked them away, turning her face to gaze out across the diner so Hosteen couldn’t see. “He wouldn’t have killed himself anyway. I’m sure of it.”

There was a pause. Then Hosteen said, “I’m sorry for your loss.”

Ellery stared despondently into her coffee. “Well, I don’t know what I can possibly do to help you. The killer—whoever it is—is on the reservation, not here. Unless—” She looked up at him with sudden astonishment, which flamed immediately into fury. “You don’t think I killed him!”

“No, no.” Hosteen held up his hands again, trying to soothe her anger. “But I do think a…” He pressed his lips together, obviously searching for a word that wouldn’t offend her. “I think a Paranormal person did it.”

Ellery snorted. “You think it was a skinwalker.”

“A Changer,” Hosteen said with delicate emphasis. “If that’s what you prefer to call yourselves.”

“It’s not what we prefer; it’s what we are. You Typs are the ones who make up creative names for us, and creepy legends that follow us around and ruin our lives. I don’t know if actual Navajo skinwalkers exist or not. Maybe they do. But I’m not—”

“Then maybe I’m not wrong,” he interjected. “Maybe that is exactly what killed William Roanhorse.”

“I can tell you with full certainty that a Changer definitely didn’t kill him.” A Changer wouldn’t take the life of another Changer unless it was absolutely necessary—in self-defense—and no Changer would attack another, so self-defense would never become necessary.

But Ellery was still banking on the hope that Hosteen had no idea about Roanhorse’s magical abilities. She said, “If something else did it—someone who chooses to call himself a skinwalker, who chooses to do evil deeds—then I have nothing to do with it, no knowledge about it, and nothing useful to tell you.”

She sipped her coffee again, studying the cop’s face for a moment. He looked kindly and honest, and the spark of drive in his eyes intrigued her. It was a hunger of sorts—to solve the mystery of Roanhorse’s death. She wasn’t entirely certain she knew what motivated Hosteen Sikaadii, but here, sitting across from her in a restaurant instead of blocking her egress from a darkened alley, she at least found him significantly less menacing.

“Why do you care so much, anyway?” Ellery asked him. “Why are you so gung-ho to get to the bottom of his death?”

Then she realized what she’d said. Her face flushed; she tried to hide her discomfiture behind the coffee mug, but it was no use.

“You mean,” Hosteen said, “why do I care so much about one murdered Paranormal?”

Ellery sighed. “So you do know he was a Changer.”

“I only suspected, but it was a strong suspicion. Mr. Roanhorse had known associations with—ah—” he cleared his throat uncomfortably. “With certain other members of the community who were also suspected of, shall we say, paranormal doings.”

“Suspected of witchcraft,” Ellery said bitterly. “Suspected of evil.”

Hosteen gave a single, slow nod—an acknowledgment of her anger, a concession to her feelings. “And Mr. Roanhorse was also known to be a mentor of sorts to a certain young girl who was left without any other family in the world. A girl who ran from the reservation when she was only fourteen years old.”

Ellery stared at him in silence, unwilling to say anything, forcing him to speak on.

“I know we don’t have a good reputation for treating Paranormals with justice,” Hosteen said gently. “In the Navajo Nation, or off the reservation, either. But it’s time we changed that. I want justice for William Roanhorse. Whatever his abilities or his motives were, he was victimized by someone. And I won’t let justice go unserved in my jurisdiction.”

Ellery narrowed her eyes. “That’s nice, but forgive me if I don’t leap to put all my trust in a Typical right off the bat. You Typs are dangerous for Paras. I’d be an idiot if I trusted you blindly.”

“You would,” Hosteen said, smiling with a wry air. “I won’t deny that. I can give you some other information, too—about myself. Consider it a truce flag, an offering of pure honesty so you know where I’m coming from. So you know I’m holding nothing back from you.”

Ellery raised her eyebrows, waiting.

“If I don’t solve this murder, I’m going to be taken off my beat and stuck on the gangs unit. Gang crimes are boring and predictable; I want to stick with the interesting stuff. So my motivations to solve this Changer’s murder—my willingness to risk my reputation on the Rez by working with a Changer in order to get it done—aren’t totally selfless.”

Ellery drained the last of her coffee from her cup. Hosteen was right: against all odds—absurdly, perhaps—his willingness to expose all of his motives, even the most self-centered one, did… humanize him. She still didn’t trust Hosteen farther than she could throw him. But she trusted him just a little bit more than she did any other Diné.

“Fine,” she said, setting her mug down on the table with a loud clank. “I’ll help you if I can. For Roanhorse’s sake, not for yours. But we’ll have to work quickly. I’ve got a mystery of my own that needs solving. And anyway, I have to be back to work at the coffee shop in three days. Iced pumpkin spice lattes wait for no one.”

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CHAPTER FOUR

 

Ellery pressed herself against the passenger-side door of Hosteen Sikaadii’s pickup truck, feeling the engine rumble through her body, rattling all the grief and exhaustion and fear inside her into a soup of nausea that boiled in her gut. The sun was already bright in a sky still paled by morning, and the air coming in through the truck’s vents smelled thick with heat despite the A.C.

Coffee the night before had been a terrible idea. Ellery hadn’t slept a wink after returning to her apartment on the north end of Flagstaff, but she doubted she would have slept anyway, even if she hadn’t tried to coffee-chug Hosteen under the table. Texts had trickled in from her friends: no one had seen or heard from Vivi. She was still M.I.A., her bizarre string of messages a mystery that remained unsolved.

Worry had gnawed at Ellery all night long—not only about Vivi, but about this unexpected return to the Navajo Nation. She’d never had any intention of going back to the place that haunted her—the source of so many dark and painful memories. And she sure as hell didn’t know whether she could really trust Hosteen. The further they went into the vast, red expanse of the reservation, blowing through the small towns along the highway and passing distant homes of sheep ranchers that dotted the scrubland, the warier she felt.

Hosteen didn’t say much as he drove. In fact, he didn’t say anything at all unless Ellery spoke first. She pried at him with a few questions, learning some of the grim details of Roanhorse’s death, but more often than not she kept her silence and peered at him from the corner of her eye, shielded behind her sunglasses.

He still wore his black hat, of course—Diné men almost always did. But in daylight his features seemed much softer, the look on his face more dogged and determined than stern or unforgiving, as he had seemed in the alley the night before. His eyes were red-rimmed; evidently he had slept very little, too. At least they had that in common, though it was precious little to make Ellery feel comfortable as his companion.

Hosteen glanced down at the gauges behind the truck’s wheel, then gave a brief grimace. “I need to get gas. I’ll be quick.”

He pulled off the highway at a truck stop of sorts, one of those middle-of-nowhere joints that nevertheless managed to attract a startling number of loiterers beneath their towering, dust-streaked signs. This one had a huge white sign, its once-red logo faded to a sickly orange-pink from the merciless onslaught of the sun, and below the logo, the words BURGERS * TACOS * COLD DRINKS were barely legible

It was a stark reminder that Ellery hadn’t eaten for far too long. As Hosteen began pumping the gas, she eyed the store, wondering if she ought to slip inside and grab a bite. But a few older men and one rough-looking, hard-eyed woman were gathered in the shade of the store’s eaves, talking and sipping on bottles of soda. One of the men caught sight of Ellery in the truck. He turned and murmured something to the others; they all stared at her, and a tension fell over them that Ellery could feel even at a distance. She hunched back in her seat, grateful for her shades, and refused to look at any of them, though she was on high alert for any sign of movement from that direction—anyone who might approach the truck and demand to know what she was doing back here, if she really was Ellery Chee.

No tacos for me, she decided firmly. And not for the first time that day, she mentally kicked herself for agreeing to return to the Rez. What the hell were you thinking? It had been ten years since she’d left, but ten years wasn’t a very long time in the grand scheme of things. There were still plenty of people in the Navajo Nation who would recognized her on sight.

But even without the mystery of Roanhorse’s murder, Ellery suspected she would have found herself returning to the Nation sooner or later, in Hosteen’s truck or in her own car. That strange sensation of calling—summoning—still pulled at her, drawing her attention toward the northeast with an insistence she wasn’t sure she could resist for much longer. In fact, the further Hosteen drove along Highway 160, moving steadily northeast, the stronger the pull felt.

Hosteen went inside the shop to pay for the gas, and Ellery swallowed hard at the sight of him walking away. She was alone in the truck, alone with the stares and whispers of the people leaning against the white-washed cinder block of the shop’s wall. The air in the trucks’ cab had long since grown stuffy, but she didn’t dare crack the window, afraid that if she made any move at all she would attract more attention from the group—or inspire one of them to approach, to start asking questions.

When she saw Hosteen emerge from the store carrying a paper bag, she sighed in relief. He was back in the truck moments later, handing the bag to her as he started the engine.

“Food,” he said. “I don’t know about you, but I didn’t eat much since last night. And late-night coffee is pretty hard on the stomach.”

“Thanks.”

Ellery dug into the sack and produced a burger wrapped in greasy paper. Truck-stop burgers weren’t exactly fine dining—in fact, they were the lowest form of burger known to mankind. But she was hungry enough that she ate the thing with as much relish as she would have a rib-eye steak.

At the taste of meat, however substandard, her two animal spirits expressed their approval—Dusty with a shake of her pelt that Ellery could feel rippling all down her skin, and Ghost Owl with a screech she could hear inside her head. She downed half her bottle of Coke in a single swig while Hosteen managed his burger carefully with one hand, never taking his eyes off the road.

Soon enough the landscape took on a poignantly familiar look, the flat lands over which they drove giving way in the distance to a steady rise of green-flushed pastureland, the fields speckled with the pale-gray forms of sheep. Beyond were the dark ridges and shadowed folds of Black Mesa, the isolated community where Ellery had grown up.

Hosteen turned off the main highway and found the narrow dirt road that led, Ellery knew, to William Roanhorse’s home. She watched the remembered fields and fences take shape around her, emerging out of the mists of memory and into the present. Finally, several miles from the highway, the domed, red-earth roof of the hogan came into view, almost blending into the land at the foot of the mesa.

The truck slowed and rolled to a stop in the silent, abandoned yard. Ellery bit her lip as she stared at the hogan. She half-expected to see Roanhorse emerge from the wooden door, but of course that was impossible now.

“Are you all right?” Hosteen asked quietly.

“Yeah. I’ll be fine. It’s just strange to be back here after so many years, that’s all.”

“I’m sorry it’s under such unfortunate circumstances.”

She turned to look at him. He gave her a half-smile of sympathy that was almost timid. She liked the softness of his eyes, the way they contrasted so startlingly with his hard-carved features and the strength of his face.

But he was a Typ, after all. And a Diné Typ at that. He was dangerous to Ellery. She knew that for a fact—knew it all too well.

“Let’s get to it,” she said. She swung the truck’s heavy door open and stepped out into the heat of the flat, barren yard.

A sluggish breeze blew across the desert, kicking up puffs of dust, whirling them into tiny dust-devils which died down again almost immediately. A few twigs of dead sagebrush tumbled between Ellery and the silent hogan. From somewhere above, in the Black Mesa foothills or in the sky itself, a distant crow called.

Hosteen stepped up beside her. Her sensitive ears picked up the sound of wind-blown grit striking the crisp fabric of his pressed white shirt, an incongruous choice when paired with his faded jeans. He crossed the yard to the hogan with a business-like stride and pushed its door open, but would go no further.

Ellery approached. She, too, hesitated on the threshold. Most Diné were reluctant to enter a home where a person had died. It was bad luck, and disrespectful—and even though Ellery had lived ten years away from Diné culture, she realized the old ways were still ingrained in her.

Roanhorse wouldn’t mind if I entered his home, she told herself. He always welcomed me when I was a kid—when he was alive. He’ll welcome me still.

With a deep breath to steady her nerves, Ellery went inside. Light from the open door illuminated the interior, exactly as in her memory. And much of Roanhorse’s belongings were still where they had been ten years past, so familiar and homey that fresh tears stung Ellery’s eyes. She blinked hard to clear them away, unwilling to wipe her eyes and betray her sadness to Hosteen.

She ran her hand over the small, round table with its two wooden chairs, brushed dust off the chests and cabinets that lined the hogan’s circular wall, and contemplated the bed, carefully aligned so that its head faced south, not north, in accordance with tradition. She smiled in spite of her sadness. William Roanhorse had always been deep in the old traditions.

As her sharp eyes adjusted fully to the dimness inside, she noted the dark stains on the woven rugs that covered the floor. Blood—a lot of blood. What Hosteen had said was true, then. Roanhorse had been killed, and brutally. She had hoped she would find some evidence that it wasn’t so, that Hosteen had been mistaken and the old man had died peacefully at home—or at least naturally, his last moments free from violence and terror.

“He didn’t deserve this,” Ellery said, staring at the blood-soaked rugs.

Hosteen shifted on his feet, lingering just outside the door. “I know.”

“Come in here.”

He said nothing, but he made no move to enter the hogan.

“You’ve already been inside once, haven’t you?” Ellery said, more snappishly than she’d intended. “What can it hurt to come in again?”

Hosteen shrugged. “You’ve got me there.” He ducked his head as he came through the rather low doorway, then turned slowly in a circle, taking in the silent hogan with caution, as if for the first time.

“The door was barred from the inside when you found him?” Ellery asked.

“That’s right. Somebody from Black Mesa called us to do a welfare check, as Mr. Roanhorse hadn’t been seen for several days. When we got here, we knew at once that he was deceased, from the… well, we knew.”

From the smell. Anger rose up in Ellery’s chest, nearly choking off her breath. It was a damn shame that someone as kind-hearted as Roanhorse had been left to rot. But she knew what Hosteen was getting at. Through Dusty’s spirit-nose, she could detect the sweetish, cloying odor of decay still clinging to the inside of the home.

Ellery closed the door; Hosteen gave a nervous twitch of his shoulders.

“It’s all right,” she said. “I just thought it would be useful to get some idea of what it looked like… for him, I mean.”

“I understand.”

She dropped the door’s cross-beam bolt into place. “No windows,” she said thoughtfully. “So with the door shut and barred, the only way for the killer to get inside was…”

As one, Ellery and Hosteen lifted their eyes to the domed roof of the hogan—to the smoke-hole at its apex. It was no wider than eighteen inches, far too narrow for even a small-framed man to climb through. And the drop from the roof to the floor was considerable. A human would be just as likely to break their legs jumping down from a smoke-hole as to perform the feat unscathed.

But it would have been simple for a bird to come through that opening, or for a cat to spring down to the floor unharmed.

Queasy fear rose in Ellery’s gut; her greasy truck-stop lunch churned dangerously. Dusty and Ghost Owl felt panicked, their animal senses on high alert, their spirits distinctly unsettled.

“Tell me more about how he died,” Ellery said quietly.

“We found him lying on his back, just here.” Hosteen pointed to one spot on the floor where the blood stains were the largest. “There were… severe injuries to his neck and deep score-marks in his body. It looked to me as if he had been attacked by a large animal. A mountain lion, if I had to guess. I’ve seen the things mountain lions sometimes do to sheep, and—”

“Okay,” Ellery said, cutting him off. “That’s enough information.”

She crossed the room to William’s chests and cabinets and began searching through them, looking for anything that might give her some hint about his death—or perhaps just looking for some way to reconnect to him. She found his clothing, faded, patched, and nearly worn out; she found his black hat with its beaded band the little ukulele he’d tried to teach her how to play when she had been no older than eight or nine. She found cans and boxes of food, some of the packaging nibbled by mice in the days since his death. But nothing that gave her any hint as to who might have killed him.

Finally, she turned back to Hosteen with a ragged sigh. “I’d hoped if he really was killed that it might prove to be a Typical who’d done it. Imagine wishing for such a thing. But before I saw his hogan again, it seemed more likely that a Typ would do this than another Para.”

“But you do think it was a Paranormal,” Hosteen said. It wasn’t a question.

“You think so, too.”

He glanced up at the smoke-hole again. “That’s too small an opening for any natural cougar to get through.”

Miserable, Ellery nodded. “I just can’t… I can’t fathom a Changer doing something like this!” She pounded her palm with her fist, but it only made her feel small and all the more helpless. “We always stick together. We look out for each other. We don’t kill each other, unless it’s in self-defense. The world is already too dangerous for us without turning on one another.”

“It is a small world you live in,” Hosteen said, “you Paras. I was hoping you might have some idea of who committed the crime. Which skinwalk—” he corrected himself with a shake of his head. “Which Changer might have hated Mr. Roanhorse enough to attack him so violently?”

“No one. I don’t know a single Changer who’s capable of this sort of evil.”

She gazed down at the stain again, visualizing Roanhorse lying there in his own blood. She shuddered at the image.

Then, with a slow chill of disbelief, she thought of one potential motive for such a killing. And one particular way Roanhorse might have died.

“William Roanhorse was a trader, just like me,” she mumbled.

“Pardon?”

Urgently, Ellery stepped closer to Hosteen. “He was a trader. Do you know what that means?”

Hosteen lifted his hands in a gesture of vague confusion. “Traders are… a subset of Changers, right?”

“Right. How much do you know about the way we Paras order our society?”

“Nothing at all, I guess,” Hosteen admitted. “After all, I thought you were a skinwalker, but you insist—”

Impatiently, Ellery cut him off. “You’ve heard about the Three Cs, haven’t you?” Most Typicals had

“Of course. Changers, Casters, and Chanters.”

“That’s right. There are three distinctly different types of magic: shape-shifting, which is what all the Changers do; spell-casting, which is what witches and warlocks do, and enchantment, which is what vampires and fae can do. But there are different ways to do each kind of magic. Weres can only change into one sort of animal, for example. But we traders—what we do is special. We partner up with individual animals—those who have already died and passed into the spirit world.”

“So you always change into the same animals—not just the same species, but the same unique individuals?”

“Yes, exactly. But we can’t access their spirits—we can’t use our magic—unless we have a piece of that animal’s original, mortal body with us. A token; a physical thing that still retains the memory of the animal who once lived.”

Hosteen’s eyes lowered to Ellery’s chest, and for a moment, absurdly, her face heated. But she realized at once that he wasn’t ogling her—he’d be an idiot to waste time checking out a girl during an investigation, anyway. He was looking at her coyote-tooth necklace.

She lifted it from where it lay against her skin and held it out toward him, as if to punctuate her point.

“I’m not sure where this is leading,” Hosteen said.

“What was found on Roanhorse’s body?”

Hosteen shrugged. “Nothing. His clothing, of course, though it was shredded in the attack. And the usual jewelry a traditionalist like Mr. Roanhorse would wear. Silver, turquoise…”

“But no amulets made from animal parts? Nothing made of teeth or claws or fur?”

“None whatsoever.”

Ellery hurried to the bed and pulled back the woven blankets, but she quickly exposed the bare mattress. “This isn’t right,” she said as she returned to the cupboards to rummage through them again. “Something is missing. Something very important.”

“What is it? Tell me.”

“Roanhorse’s main spirit-partner was a cougar. A mountain lion. But I can’t find anything here made from a cougar’s body.”

“Maybe he didn’t keep his… ah… his implements here.”

“Are you kidding?” Ellery laughed bitterly. “He never would have been without his tokens. But they’re all gone—the cougar tokens, and all the others he had, too. Whoever killed my friend took his tokens, Hosteen. They stole his animal spirits. And I have the feeling they…” The thought was so horrible that Ellery could hardly get the words out. “They used William’s own cougar spirit against him. To kill him.”

She groaned and buried her face in her hands, allowing the tears to flow where Hosteen couldn’t see.

It was a worse fate, a worse violation, than anything Ellery could imagine.

And the lure of the northeast still hung all about her, pulling at her spirit, at the animals she carried within her. That summoning force didn’t want Ellery, she realized with a chill. It wanted Dusty and Ghost Owl. It wanted her magic.

Whatever was calling to her—whoever—it was almost certainly the same entity who had killed her old friend.

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CHAPTER FIVE

 

Ellery and Hosteen stumbled outside the hogan together, blinking in the bright mid-day light and breathing deeply to clear their heads.

Hosteen tentatively patted Ellery’s shoulder. It was obvious that he was aware she was badly shaken, but he seemed unsure of the best way to comfort and encourage her. Ellery didn’t know whether anything could have comforted her in that moment.

Who except another trader would have any use for tokens? And who except another trader would be able to shift into Roanhorse’s cougar, and then turn the creature on its long-time partner?

Ellery gazed back through the open door, into the hogan one last time. Then she bit her lip hard as a sudden realization struck her. There was something else missing from Roanhorse’s home—something that had been there ever since Ellery could recall. Why hadn’t she noticed on her first look around the place?

“Did any of the officers take anything from this house?” she asked.

“Nothing except Mr. Roanhorse’s body.”

“His turquoise is gone. He always kept strands of turquoise beads up on the wall, hanging near the ceiling and covered by a cloth. But there’s nothing there now. Just empty pegs.”

“He was wearing a string of turquoise beads,” Hosteen said.

“Just one?”

“Yes; I read over the detailed report again this morning before I picked you up. I’m certain it was just one.”

“He had many more than just one strand of beads. He had dozens.”

Ellery and Hosteen shared a look of dark significance.

“Strange,” Hosteen said. “Of course turquoise is used often in ceremonies, but what value does it have beyond the spiritual?”

“It’s just not worth stealing,” Ellery agreed. “But then, neither are a trader’s tokens, unless you know what to do with them. Do you have any suspects at all? Any idea who might have done this?”

“None,” Hosteen said. “There was virtually no evidence of human involvement, and we can’t exactly go out and arrest all the cougars on the reservation.”

“There must be more evidence somewhere. I’m not a police officer, but I’ve watched enough crime dramas to know that no criminal ever gets away without leaving some trace.”

Hosteen smiled wanly. “You’re right about that, but sometimes we aren’t as good at finding those traces as the actors are on TV.”

“That’s because you’re only using human senses.”

Ellery stepped back and looked around for a moment, gazing down the long dirt road to be sure no one was approaching. She eyed the sage lands around the hogan to be certain no one but Hosteen would see her transition. Then she reached through the bracelet with its glass-encased filaments of owl feather.

Ghost Owl, I need you. It’s time.

The barn owl’s spirit resisted, as it often did. Ghost Owl preferred to shift on his own terms, and he seldom agreed with Ellery about convenient times for shifting, or about the necessity of a trade. He was every bit as belligerent after death as he had been in life, and besides, last night’s failure to shift had him just as on-edge as Ellery still was. She had no idea whether the shift would work now, or whether she would encounter the same terrifying blocks she’d felt last night.

But once Ghost Owl stopped his indignant screeching and flapping, Ellery felt the cool rush of pressure cascade over her body and saw the brilliant blue light flare around her. It blotted out her human vision; relief surged through her. The trade was working. In another heartbeat she was in the air, light as a dandelion seed on the wind, flapping the strong, silent, pale-feathered wings of her owl’s body.

Hosteen’s mouth fell open in shock; he staggered back a few steps, and Ellery clicked her beak in amusement. She circled the cop once, tilting and gliding, then climbed the air currents until the hogan and Hosteen’s truck were as small as toys below her.

She could feel Hosteen gazing after her as she gained altitude. The desert below melded into one great patchwork of red earth and pale, dry-green sagebrush. The hogan’s roof was a smooth circle far below, its smoke hole staring up at Ellery like an unblinking eye. With her owl’s eyes, she searched the ground around the house for any faint traces of evidence.

Most people assumed all owls were strictly nocturnal, but barn owls like Ghost Owl hunted just as easily by day as they did by night. His eyes were far keener than any human’s, and it only took Ellery two laps around the hogan before she spotted tracks in the sandy red soil. The large paw prints had almost been blown away by desert winds, but enough of their traces still remained—especially between clumps of sage, where they were sheltered from the elements—that she was confident they were the tracks of a mountain lion.

She swooped low, crossing the line of tracks that led from the northern edge of the hogan, then arcing back to cross the tracks again. Each time she passed overhead, Ellery grew more convinced she was correct.

With a tilt of her wings and a few energetic beats, she cruised along the path of the cougar’s tracks. The creature had run north for a while, climbing up the slope of the foothills toward the summit of Black Mesa. But as it had neared the top of the mesa, the beast had veered suddenly in a different direction.

Northeast.

Ellery’s owl form chirped in surprise. Then she examined the tracks more closely as she followed them northeast, counting wing-beats between each paw print. The cougar had taken gigantic strides, running faster than any earthly mountain lion could have done. Definitely the work of a trader; their unique magic granted them unnatural speed.

As the tracks gained the crest of the mesa, sunlight glinted off something bright and smooth embedded in one of the massive paw prints. Ellery’s flying speed carried her beyond the small but mysterious object; she flexed her broad tail, fanning its feathers, and beat against the wind currents with her silent wings to slow her progress. Then she circled back to search for the shiny object again.

There. She noted the sun’s flash once more, and swooped down for a closer look. Her talons hit the earth, kicking up puffs of red dust as she hopped to a stand-still. She tilted her head, staring at the paw print first with one sharp, black eye, then the other.

No mistake about it, she told her owl spirit. A single turquoise bead was pressed down in the middle of one of the cougar’s prints, as if it had been dropped unnoticed and then stepped on as the cougar ran. The bead was smooth from age and plenty of use. Well-worn… old. It may well have belonged to William Roanhorse.

Ellery grabbed the bead with her agile beak, tapping it with the owl’s fleshy tongue. A prickle of familiarity ran through her, causing her feathers to fluff of their own accord. She shook her feathers back into place and hopped across the ground until she had enough momentum to lift off. Then she flew back the way she had come, toward the hogan and Hosteen, who was as tiny as a black ant beside his distant pickup truck.

Ellery fluttered down into the yard outside Roanhorse’s hogan. She sent Ghost Owl on his way with her usual thanks for his cooperation, and Ghost Owl gave his usual disdainful screech in reply.

Cranky old bird. He never changes.

The rush of blue light enveloped Ellery again; a heartbeat later, she stood before Hosteen in her human form, clutching the turquoise bead in her fist.

Hosteen, Ellery saw, had pressed himself back against the hood of his truck, arms folded across his chest in a defensive posture. He stared at her in silence, but she could read the awe and mistrust plainly enough on his face.

She held out her fist, offering him the bead. But Hosteen didn’t move.

“For crap’s sake,” Ellery snapped. “I’m not going to bite you. Look: I found something. I think it’s important.”

Hosteen hesitated a moment longer, then he took a few dragging steps toward her. “Sorry,” he muttered. “It’s just that I’ve never seen anybody do that before. It’s a little… unsettling.”

“Well, it’s perfectly normal if you’re a Changer. But this is why we keep everything hidden from you Typicals. You never react well to magic when you actually see it being used.”

“Why do you…” Hosteen paused, then gave a self-deprecating laugh. “Never mind.”

“What?”

“Why do you still have your clothes on?”

Ellery blushed. “What, do you think I ought to be naked right now?” The thought made her feel a little hysterical. She fought back the urge to laugh or scream.

“No; it’s just that… you’re so much bigger than that owl was. How do your clothes stay on your human body while you’re not here?”

“I’ll explain it all later.” What little I know about it. “Right now I think you need to see this.”

Hosteen held out his hand; Ellery dropped the bead into his palm. He held it up between finger and thumb, examining it closely under the shadowed brim of his hat.

“Do you think this could have been one of Mr. Roanhorse’s stolen beads?” he asked.

“I don’t know for sure,” Ellery said. “It’s been so long since I saw him last, since I was last in his home. And even then, he kept his turquoise covered. But it does look old, doesn’t it?”

Hosteen nodded. “Old, but not dirty. It hasn’t been lying up there on the mesa for very long.”

“And I found it in the middle of a track—a cougar’s track.”

Hosteen hummed deep in his throat, a thoughtful sound. He handed the bead back to Ellery; she slipped it into her pocket.

“The cougar was running faster than any natural cougar can, I think. I’m not a big-game expert, but my owl knows a thing or two about wildlife, as you’d expect. The distance between tracks was just too great. Only a Changer can run like that.”

Hosteen nodded. “So it was a magic-user after all.”

“I didn’t want to believe it could be true. I didn’t want to think that one Changer could do this to another. And still, something seems… not right about this. I can’t put my finger on it, but there was something about those cougar tracks, something about this whole situation that doesn’t sit right with me. But I can’t tell what it is.”

“Neither can I—aside from the fact that a man has been brutally murdered. But I’m gratified to know that my instincts were correct: this was a magic-based crime. Now we just need to uncover more evidence, if we can. The cougar tracks are something, and I don’t know if the bead will help at all, but—”

Ellery cut him off abruptly. “Hold on. What do you mean, we?”

“You’ve been such a great help already, using your…” he gave an awkward shrug, clearly still uncomfortable with the fact of her shifting. “Your special abilities to locate the cougar tracks. I know you can be of much greater help going forward.”

She threw up her hands in exasperation. “I can’t, Hosteen! I loved Roanhorse—I can’t tell you how much it hurts to know that he’s gone, and that he died so horribly. But it’s dangerous for me to be here. Don’t you understand that?”

“I can protect you,” he insisted.

A sudden, unexpected warmth surged in Ellery’s chest. She smothered it ruthlessly. Hosteen may be good-looking, but she knew almost nothing about him. What little she did know of him spelled certain danger. As a Typ, and a fellow Diné at that, he would never be comfortable with Ellery’s magic. And one man alone could never stand against a whole community convinced that Ellery was evil—a whole community ready to take her life for the crime of being a Changer.

“You can’t protect me,” she shot back. “And anyway, I’ve got a big problem waiting for me back at home. My friend Vivi is missing. She’s a trader, too, and—”

“A trader?” Hosteen straightened, suddenly eager. “Any chance she could have been responsible for—”

“Are you kidding me?” Ellery gave him a withering look of pure disgust. “Vivi did not kill William Roanhorse. Aside from the fact that she’d have zero motivation, she has no ties to the Rez as far as I know, and no reason to be lurking around Black Mesa. Plus, she’s only been missing since last night.” She narrowed her eyes. “But thanks for the creepy suggestion.”

“I meant no offense.”

“Of course you didn’t.”

Typs almost never meant offense, but they still managed to say the most dipshitty things nearly every time they opened their mouths. They were always ready to assume the worst about a Para, simply because magic use was so poorly understood.

In truth, most Paras didn’t understand magic use all that well, either. It was just what they did—their nature; their very selves. But most Paranormals Ellery had ever met were far more sensitive than Typicals.

She tried very hard not to hold Hosteen’s silly comment against him. But as she thought more about Vivi, her patience wore thinner by the moment, and she could feel her temper growing shorter, too. Ellery had done all she could to help Hosteen and William Roanhorse. Now she had to turn her attention back to her missing friend.

“I really need to head back to Flagstaff,” Ellery said, turning toward the pickup truck. But as she reached for the door’s handle, a thin banner of dust in the distance caught her eye. Someone had pulled off the main highway, and was heading up the long dirt road toward Roanhorse’s hogan.

“Shit,” she muttered, freezing in place. Her heart pounded in her ears. “Hosteen, somebody’s coming!”

He looked casually down the road. “I know. It’s my partner from the force. I asked her to—”

“No one can see me, damn it!” Ellery whirled toward him. “Don’t you understand what could happen to me if I’m recognized? I’m not playing around here, Hosteen! Why do you think I ran from you last night?”

“Calm down,” he said, raising his hands in that now-familiar, soothing gesture.

But Ellery was beyond all hope of calm. The news about Roanhorse, the sting of being back in his home again, and the constant, tingling fear of being on the Rez once more had built to a crescendo inside her. And that was to say nothing of the dragging pull she still felt, the strange summons calling her from somewhere—something—not too far away.

She gritted her teeth, but she couldn’t keep her fury in check any longer. “God, Typs are unbelievable! I tried to help, but you knew I didn’t want to be seen; an idiot could have figured that out by the way I acted last night!”

Hosteen stared at her blankly, his arms hanging limp at his sides.

“I can’t work with you anymore, Hosteen—I won’t. No Para can trust a Typ. That’s just the way the world is. It’s the reality we’ve both got to face.”

“Can’t you try to trust me?” he asked, his voice just this side of plaintive. He stepped closer, and she seemed to hear the echo of his previous words. I can protect you. For a moment Ellery wanted to throw herself into his arms, to feel their strength wrap around her and shut out all the threats that seemed to assail her from every direction.

But his strength was just an illusion, and Ellery knew it. What could one man do to alleviate all the fear and mistrust Paranormals faced? How could Hosteen even understand her well enough to protect her?

There is no protection in this world, except whatever shield and armor you can make for yourself.

The thought was grim, but she knew it was true. She stepped back, resisting the urge to slide closer to him, to feel his height towering over her and his body solid as a bulwark beside her own.

“I already did try trusting you,” Ellery said. “More fool me.”

She glanced again at the car approaching, growing steadily larger in the desert landscape, the dust billowing up behind it as it came toward them far faster than Ellery would have liked. She reached through the bracelet again, ignoring Ghost Owl’s protests.

“Wait,” Hosteen said. “I really need you; please don’t go.”

Ellery ignored his protests, too. She shifted in a flash of blue light, and was winging across the open desert before Hosteen could say another word. Red earth sped by far below as she flew south, back toward Flagstaff, and the breeze in the higher altitudes was cool and crisp as it passed through her feathers.

But Ellery’s only thoughts were for Vivi, and for what an idiot she’d been to believe Hosteen could understand her in the first place.

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CHAPTER SIX

 

The owl was tired and sore by the time Ellery winged all the way back across the Navajo Nation and over the city limits of Flagstaff. She focused on the aches in her wings and chest, attempting to keep her mind diverted from her anger at Hosteen. But the pain wasn’t enough to drive those thoughts away entirely.

Damn him, she thought as she cruised the air currents, gliding toward the city’s north end. He knew I was reluctant to go back to the Rez—to be around any other Diné. And he called in his stupid partner anyway.

Relief rippled just below the simmering currents of her anger. Who the hell could say whether Hosteen’s little cop buddy would have recognized Ellery—how she would have reacted to the runaway Ellery Chee, suspected skinwalker, standing right there at the scene of a crime that could only have been committed by a shapeshifter.

I could have been killed. Is he really so dense that he didn’t know that?

Another possibility struck her then, with such a chill that the owl’s body shivered violently as it flew. Maybe Hosteen was setting her up. Maybe he’d lured her back to the Nation on purpose to take her into custody, to do away with the last of her line for good. And she had walked right into the trap, like a perfect moron. She had trusted Hosteen—more or less—just because he was good-looking and reminded her of home.

The Rez isn’t my home. Not anymore. My place is with the people who understand me; other Paras. Not with people who fear me.

And speaking of home…

She spotted her apartment building below. The tiny balcony of her third-floor apartment faced a greenbelt of cottonwood trees and piñons, which provided a little privacy for her comings and goings. She descended through the warm daytime air currents, turning on the wing and gliding toward her balcony. She fluttered down to perch on the balcony’s wooden rail, then looked carefully around the area to be certain no one had seen her.

When she was sure the coast was clear, Ellery hopped down to the balcony’s floor and shifted back to her human form. Ghost Owl hissed inside her head, miffed that he’d been made to fly for so long.

Relax, Ellery told him, half annoyed, half bubbling with affection for the bird. It’s not like you get to fly much at all anymore; you’re dead, remember? I’d think you’d be grateful to stretch your wings now and then.

But as she stooped to retrieve the key to her sliding door from the planter where she hid it, Ellery stifled a hiss of her own. Her muscles protested every movement—especially her arms, which felt limp as overcooked noodles and ready to drop right off her body.

Sorry, she told Ghost Owl. I wouldn’t have made you fly all that way if it hadn’t been absolutely necessary.

She felt him ruffle his feathers in an I told you so manner.

Once back in her apartment, Ellery sighed heavily with exhaustion and flopped down on her raggedy old couch, allowing the stillness of her small, humble home to be her refuge… for a few moments, at least. She had no idea whether Vivi was still missing, and that fear weighed heavy on her heart. But she was no longer in immediate danger of being put on trial as a skinwalker, and for the moment, that knowledge was a bliss that blotted out even the throbbing her arms and the ache in her chest and neck. Her stomach rumbled, but she couldn’t motivate herself to get up and scrounge in the kitchen for something to eat. It felt too good to lie still, to know that she had slipped out of danger’s grasp.

Her phone buzzed her pocket; Ellery groaned at the interruption of her much-needed quiet time, but she pulled it out and tapped to bring up her text messages. The message might be from Vivi, after all—she might be safe and sound and apologizing for her weird texts the night before.

But it wasn’t Vivi. Instead, Ellery read the message from her friend Sylvia, another Para who called Flagstaff home.

Have you heard from Vivi? Nobody can get hold of her.

“No rest for the weary,” Ellery muttered as she pushed herself up from the couch. She tapped out a response in the negative, and a few moments later another message from Sylvia appeared on her screen.

Come over to my place. Something’s going on.

“You’re damn right, something’s going on.” Ellery scowled at her phone as if this were all its fault.

But she sent her message back promptly as she headed for the door: Be there in five.

***

Ellery was still plenty sore and bone-weary when she arrived at Sylvia’s house. The small, pink-adobe duplex was only a few blocks away from Ellery’s own place, and the walk gave Ellery some time to put a little more distance between herself and her anger with Hosteen’s blunder. The news that Vivi was still missing had snapped her back into focus. She could be pissed off at Hosteen after her friend was found. For now, Vivi deserved all of her attention and energy.

She entered Sylvia’s place without knocking. That was the kind of friendship she and the earth-witch had enjoyed since they’d first met, years ago when Ellery was a frightened runaway trying to scrape by on the streets of Flagstaff.

Brandon, Sylvia’s warlock boyfriend, looked up from his laptop, narrowing his eyes with an air of faint distaste. Ellery didn’t take it personally. That was the way Bran always looked—a little bit pissed off, a trifle dissatisfied with life.

Ellery gave Bran a friendly nod, which he didn’t return. “Where’s Sylvia?”

He shrugged one wiry shoulder and jerked his head toward the kitchen in the rear of the duplex, sending a ripple through the dark, wavy hair that hung just to his shoulders.

“Thanks,” Ellery said, knowing Bran would make no response. She saved her eye-roll for when she was safely beyond his line of sight.

As she approached the kitchen, Ellery could hear Sylvia’s low, musical voice. The witch was speaking to somebody—who else had come? Ellery paused just outside the kitchen and felt a subtle, warm prickle wash over her skin, an indication that a Chanter was nearby. For a moment she frowned, remembering the vampire at the club the night before. But then she heard the other person answering Sylvia, and her heart surged with happiness.

There was no mistaking that smooth, pleasant voice, a little higher and more melodious than most men’s voices were.

“River!” Ellery said as she stepped into the kitchen.

River, a fae, jumped up from his seat at the kitchen table to wrap Ellery in a hug. Graceful and hauntingly gorgeous as all his kind were, his natural enchantment enfolded Ellery just like his long, strong arms did. She didn’t mind, though. Fae were Chanters just as vampires were, but unlike vampires, there was never any malign intent in the fae, no matter how long they lived.

Ellery had heard some Paras call fae useless, the most un-magical of all the magic-users. That, like most other discrimination that whizzed around the Para world (from without and from within) was due to simple misunderstanding. Fae magic wasn’t weak or simplistic. It was intensely personal, though, so it often made little obvious impression on others. Fae paranormalcy mostly extended to looking so pretty it was scary, and creating amazing works of art. The greatest effect most fae had on the world was to imbue it with beauty: creating stunning works in various arts, for example.

Sure, plenty of Paras looked down on the fae for their unique take on magic, but Ellery would rather hang around with a whole army of good-looking, art-making fae than spend twenty minutes with a sketchy vampire who may or may not lull her into psychological slavery—or worse, drain her of her blood. No thanks.

She hugged River back. “I haven’t seen you for months!”

“I’ve been busy with my sister.”

The lowering of River’s voice told Ellery things weren’t going so well with River’s twin sister, Thorn. She had always been troubled—extreme sensitivity and emotional struggles often plagued the fae—and Ellery knew how hard River worked to keep Thorn safe and happy.

River toyed absent-mindedly with a string of lustrous glass beads that half-hid inside his shirt as he spoke. He was a glassblower—that was his special art—and the beauty of the beads was mesmerizing. “Sylvia called me here to see if I could help figure out what’s going on with Vivi. I’m doing my best, but it’s a mystery to me.”

Ellery sat at the table opposite Sylvia. The witch’s pale face still held a trace of flush, and the end of her red-gold braid was frazzled from nonstop twirling between her fingers. She eyed Ellery over the rim of her glasses.

“No one has heard from Vivi since last night,” Sylvia said. “And her messages were—”

“Strange,” Ellery said. “I know. I’ve been worried about her. When she wouldn’t answer any of my texts or calls, I went out looking for her last night. But she wasn’t at any of her usual haunts.”

“River stopped by her house, but she’s not there.”

“I have a spare key,” River added. “I checked thoroughly.”

“Did it look like she packed up her things and left?” Ellery asked.

“No. Everything looked normal; it was like she simply vanished in the middle of her daily routine. There was even a mug of tea sitting on her kitchen counter, with the tea bag still in it. I can’t figure it out.”

Ellery shifted to lean her elbows on the table, but she winced at the tightness in her arms.

Sylvia noticed. “What’s the matter?”

Ellery couldn’t resist a self-deprecating smirk. “I just flew back from the Rez, and boy are my arms tired.”

“The Rez?” Sylvia goggled at her. “Ell, you said you’d never go back there!”

“I didn’t intend to. Believe me, I haven’t forgotten how dangerous that place is for me. But let’s just say that the Rez came looking for me.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” River sipped at a cup of coffee, squinting at Ellery over its rim.

She explained about Hosteen, the murder, and the stolen tokens as quickly as she could. She was surprised that she could talk about Roanhorse’s death and the sight of his empty hogan without choking up.

“God, that’s awful, Ell,” Sylvia said. “I’m so sorry.”

But the red-haired witch shared a cautious glance with River, and Ellery wasn’t sure she was meant to see it.

“What?” Ellery demanded. “What are you two eyeing each other for?”

“Y—ou didn’t happen to read the ParaNet feed today, did you?” River asked.

Ellery shook her head.

ParaNet was a social network of sorts for Paranormals, a place for them to share crucial news and information that would be of little interest to Typs. Ellery seldom kept up with it; she had never been the social-media type.

River slid his phone across the table. “You’d better check this out, Ell.”

She scanned the article quickly. A young man, a trader, had been found dead in his home on the eastern edge of Flagstaff. His mother had informed ParaNet that he’d suffered grisly injuries. The description of the wounds sounded a lot like those Hosteen had described on William Roanhorse’s body. And the victim’s poor mother had also confirmed that his tokens were nowhere to be found.

“Oh my God,” Ellery mumbled. “This is exactly what happened on the Rez.”

Sylvia’s cheeks darkened again; she blinked tears away from her big blue eyes. “I’m really worried about Vivi. If some creep is out there targeting traders, she may be in danger.”

“And you may be in danger, too, Ellery,” River added soberly. He wrapped an arm around Sylvia’s shoulders, trying to comfort her.

“Don’t worry about me,” Ellery said. It was a knee-jerk response, as automatic as could be. But a cold knot of fear was twisting in her stomach, and she had no idea what she ought to do about it.

River squinted at Ellery in an appraising way. “What?” he demanded.

My friends are far too observant for my own good. “Nothing,” Ellery said, folding her arms defensively.

“You’ve got some serious anxiety right now,” River said. “More than we’re feeling.”

Who says fae don’t have strong magic? she thought sourly. River’s ability to pick up on other people’s most deeply hidden emotions had always struck Ellery as thoroughly Paranormal. Creepy, even.

She sighed and gave in to River’s expectant stare. “Ever since last night, I’ve been feeling this… call. Like something’s telling me to come toward it. Like something’s forcing me to come toward it. It’s very hard to resist.”

“What is it?” Sylvia asked.

Ellery snorted. “Hell if I know. I’m not going to go toward it, though; I can tell you that much. And last night, I tried to shift but couldn’t. It was like there was some kind of barrier between me and my animals—some kind of interference with my magic. I couldn’t get to Ghost Owl or Dusty, no matter how hard I tried. I don’t know if that’s related to the call or not, but it was scary. Real scary.”

“Do you think whatever’s calling you is doing the same to Vivi?” Sylvia said. “She’s a trader, too, after all.”

“Obviously I can’t say for sure. But with two traders in the area murdered and one missing, I think we’d be crazy not to assume there’s some kind of link here. And I spoke to somebody last night at the Blue Room—a vampire.”

River grimaced.

“He told me that other people have reported that their trader friends missing,” Ellery said. “Something’s not right in Flagstaff… at least, something’s not right for traders.”

She reached into the pocket of her jeans and found the turquoise bead, small and hard between her fingers. She pulled it out, held it up where her friends could see it clearly.

“This is the only clue I have—if you can even call it a clue. Along with his shifting tokens, William Roanhorse’s ceremonial turquoise was taken from his home. I found this dropped in the killer’s tracks. I don’t know if it’s of any use to us, or what the theft of turquoise might mean, but—”

Sylvia leaned forward eagerly. As an elemental earth witch, she had a strong affinity for all kinds of rocks, minerals, and metals. Her eyes blazed with interest, as bright and shining as the turquoise itself.

“Can I touch it, please?”

“Sure.” Ellery dropped the bead into Sylvia’s palm.

The moment it touched her skin, Sylvia gasped. She closed her fist around the bead, and then closed her eyes, concentrating. Ellery felt the faintest throbbing in the air, a shift in the local energy so slight she almost wasn’t aware of it at all. She knew Sylvia was working her Caster’s magic, but she had no clue what the witch might be doing.

Finally, after a long silence, Sylvia opened her eyes. “This bead was once a part of a much larger rock,” she said. “I can still feel that old memory inside it. The rock was cut into many smaller pieces, and then turned into beads just like this one.”

“That makes sense,” Ellery said.

“Turquoise is a very special kind of mineral. It’s porous, you know: it can absorb all kinds of elements and substances, and many of those substances can retain and conduct energy. Oils, dust—even, I sometimes think, feeling and sound and thought.”

River’s smooth brow furrowed. “How is it possible for a rock to absorb feelings?”

“I don’t know,” Sylvia said. “I don’t know precisely how it works; I only know that it does work. I’ve never felt as strongly as I do when I touch turquoise. It’s one of the most magical of all stones. I don’t fully understand how it does what it does. But I can tell you with absolute confidence that it has real power.”

The earth witch turned her sober gaze to Ellery. “Your friend who was killed—he was an old trader, right? He’d been doing it for many years?”

“That’s right,” Ellery said. “He had to have been near eighty, and shifting almost his whole life.”

“Do you know how much turquoise he had?”

Ellery shrugged helplessly. “A lot. Any Diné traditionalist would have plenty of turquoise, in just about any form—beads, carvings, even just the stones themselves. And Roanhorse was as traditional as they come. But I didn’t find any turquoise at all in his home—not a speck of it. Whoever killed him took it all.”

Sylvia’s white face blanched even paler. “I think it’s entirely possible that the killer was after the turquoise, not your friend’s tokens. Maybe the tokens were stolen as an afterthought; I don’t know. But turquoise this well-used, from a trader as old and experienced as Roanhorse, would hold powerful memories inside the stone. And if anyone knew how to read those memories—how to access the magic the turquoise had absorbed—”

“Are you saying,” Ellery interrupted, “that a wise old trader’s turquoise might retain a… a kind of map of his magic?”

“That’s exactly what I mean,” Sylvia said. “There’s a path inside this bead—a path inside every bead cut from the original stone, and most likely a similar path in every bit of turquoise Roanhorse owned and used. He unwittingly made a road map of his magic, and wrote it in the heart of his turquoise.”

“But still,” River said, “who would kill him in order to get his beads? What use would a path to a trader’s magic be? We use only the magic we’re born with; we can’t just learn someone else’s abilities from scratch.”

Ellery suppressed a shiver. “That’s right. Paras are born, not made. Nobody can learn magic that isn’t inside them already. Magic is a gift we’re given. We can’t just pick it up, like buying a Slurpee at the corner store.”

Or, she thought wryly, depending on how your culture views magic, it’s a curse, not a gift.

“Why can’t we learn other people’s magic?” Bran’s languid, almost mopy voice caught Ellery off guard. She turned quickly in her seat to see Sylvia’s boyfriend leaning casually against the kitchen’s door frame. His arms were folded over his chest in an attitude of unconcern, but his green eyes sparked with an intensity Ellery neither understood nor liked.

“Everyone just thinks we can’t learn other kinds of magic,” Bran said. “But how often has anybody actually tried it?”

“Lots of people have tried,” River said. His tone was carefully neutral, but Ellery didn’t need to share his fae powers to feel the irritation and mistrust pouring off of him. She couldn’t blame him; she had never liked Bran much, either, though she had tried, for Sylvia’s sake.

Shyeah,” Bran laughed. “People have fucked around with a few sad little spells in their backyards. But who has tried to really master another form of magic? No one, that’s who. Everybody’s too chicken-shit to even attempt it.”

“That’s because most people don’t enjoy wasting their time,” Ellery said.

Bran rolled his eyes. “Go ahead and live a confined life forever, if you want to. See if I care.”

“Okay, King Shit.” Ellery pulled the leather string that held Dusty’s tooth over her head. She thrust the token toward Bran. “If you’re some kind of incredible, multi-purpose wizard, shift into my coyote.”

The warlock made no move to take the necklace from her hand.

“Go on,” Ellery needled. “Show us how badass you are. We’re dying to behold your versatility.”

“I didn’t say I’d studied other kinds of magic,” Bran muttered.

“How convenient.”

Ellery returned the coyote token to her neck, clenching her fists to suppress a visible shudder of relief. Dusty had been her longest and most loyal animal spirit; she hated to remove the coyote-tooth token, even for a moment. But occasionally, she just couldn’t resist poking at Bran. It was too easy and satisfying to put him in his place.

Sylvia gave a long-suffering sigh, then said, “I don’t know whether Bran is right or not, but I don’t see any reason why he has to be wrong, either. It has always been common knowledge that Paras can’t learn foreign magic. But maybe no one was ever going about it in the right way. And if anything might provide a clear path to shifting—a way for a non-trader to learn a trader’s magic—it’s turquoise. Especially very old turquoise that has witnessed countless shifts.”

“See?” Bran drew himself up, coming out of his habitual slouch.

This time Ellery saw no point in hiding her contempt for Bran’s perpetually shitty attitude. “Ugh,” she said.

Bran shot back, “Whatever.”

With that brilliant retort, he stalked out of the kitchen. A moment later the front door opened and shut.

River offered a tiny smile. “The little black storm cloud has blown away.”

“Not a moment too soon,” Ellery said. “Sylvia, why are you still with that jerk? You could do so much better.”

“I can handle his moodiness,” Sylvia replied with a shrug. “Besides, you know the Para dating pool isn’t exactly overflowing with bachelors. And there’s no way I’d try my luck with a Typ. It would never work out.”

I’d rather be single for a thousand years than put up with Bran, Ellery thought. But she kept it to herself. They were all tense today, on edge with worry over Vivi’s disappearance. The last thing they needed was to bicker among themselves.

“So,” Ellery said, “we might be dealing with somebody who has figured out how to tap into traders’ magic. Somebody who now has animal tokens for shifting and a turquoise road map that shows them exactly how to do it.”

“If they’re smart enough to read the map,” Sylvia added.

Ellery stared at each of her friends in turn. After a long silence, she said, “Well… shit.”

“I know,” River said. “I know.”

He looked just as pale as Sylvia, and Ellery wasn’t feeling too sunny at that moment, either. The very idea of meddling with somebody else’s magic made her sick, as if the world was spinning around her and wracking her with vertigo.

“I still don’t know how anybody might hope to read a map to shifting,” Ellery said. “But it’s clear that this person is willing to kill to get what he wants.”

Sylvia nodded briskly. “Until we figure out who’s behind these murders, I think it’s safe to assume that Vivi and every other trader in the area is in serious danger.”

Ellery sighed. “I think you’re right.”

[* *]

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CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Ellery parted ways with her friends outside Sylvia’s house. The afternoon was growing old; soon evening would arrive. But the most intense heat of the day still beat back at them, rebounding from the sidewalk, the street, even from the surfaces of cars parked along the road.

“We’ll meet back here in one hour,” Sylvia reminded them. “If you find Vivi before that time, or any hint about where she might be, send a text.”

“Got it,” River said.

Ellery walked south along Izabel Street, headed for the tiny, one-bedroom cottage Vivi rented. As she followed the route, her eyes scanned the sidewalk and the pink-brown rock gardens of every house she passed, searching for the smallest clue to her friend’s whereabouts. But the whole time, that eerie summoning sensation grew stronger and more insistent until Ellery felt sick and sweat beaded her brow.

Whatever is trying to get my attention, it doesn’t like me heading away from it. That realization only inspired Ellery to walk all the faster, even though her stomach churned and her heart felt fluttery and weak.

After several blocks, she arrived at Vivi’s cottage and made a careful search of the exterior. The small white house was absolutely still. No signs of distress marked the yard—no gouge-marks in the rock garden that would indicate anyone being dragged away, nothing broken or out of place.

All the blinds on the windows were open. Ellery made her way around the cottage, peering into every room, but Vivi was clearly not there. Nor did the inside of her home reveal any signs of a struggle.

Ellery breathed deeply at the doorstep. Even with her stronger-than-average senses, she couldn’t find any trace of Vivi’s scent—no recent evidence of her presence. In her coyote form, she would be able to sort through the smells more deftly. Dusty’s nose was even better than her own.

She slipped to the back of the cottage again, away from the street where end-of-day traffic was rolling steadily past. Several neighbors’ yards shared a fence line with Vivi’s home, and anyone might be looking out those windows at that moment. Ellery tried to avoid shifting in front of Typs whenever she could; Hosteen was a recent exception, and she had only shifted in front of him thanks to the urgency of their situation. She crouched down between Vivi’s garbage and recycling bins, reached through the coyote-tooth amulet, and found Red Dust on Paws, good old Dusty, waiting eagerly to make the trade.

The blue light flashed and the rushing sensation cascaded over her body, but Ellery felt her human body and her coyote gasp in surprise as the shift occurred. The usual flow of energy was much stronger than usual. In fact, she was tempted to call it forceful—even violent. But in the next moment she felt pavement beneath four paws, and her senses raised in a sudden crescendo like the volume cranked up on a music player. Despite the strangeness of the magical atmosphere, the shift had been successful.

Even in the midst of her turmoil and fear, Ellery reveled in the feel of her coyote form. There was something special about Dusty. The coyote had lived in this mortal world many generations ago, and had consistently chosen Diné traders to work with ever since her death. The tooth pendant was the last known remaining scrap of Dusty’s original body, the final link through which a trader could connect with the wise old spirit.

Roanhorse had given the tooth to Ellery when she was very young, when her paranormal abilities had first become evident—and Dusty had been her constant companion, her most patient and gentle teacher, ever since. The coyote was more than a trade animal to her; she was the last connection Ellery still had to her home. On a day fraught with danger and fear, spending some time in her coyote form felt like a warm, encouraging hug to Ellery.

She trotted out from between the trash cans, muzzle held low, sniffing the ground to find the freshest trace of Vivi’s scent. Circling the house twice left Ellery no wiser. She could certainly smell Vivi more clearly with her coyote’s nose, but the freshest track was at least twenty-four hours old: a direct line leading from Vivi’s front door toward the street, with no whiff of sweat or fear, no bitter note of anger.

Ellery followed the scent down the short driveway and up the sidewalk, but it was soon lost among the variety of smells that overlay it, lacing the world like an intricate web.

Maybe I’ll pick it up again if I keep moving…

She pressed on, searching the ground with her nose. But the scents remained a jumble, and her thoughts began to wander. She ignored the dogs who barked insults at her as she passed their yards, and ignored, too, the stares of people in the passing cars—a coyote in broad daylight was unusual enough to attract mild interest. In her animal form, the imperative to move northeast—back toward the Navajo Nation, toward whatever called to her—was even stronger, more difficult to resist. She shook her head and the ruff of gray-brown fur around her neck, and kept on moving.

What is Hosteen doing now? she wondered. Is he any closer to solving the murder and finding justice for Roanhorse?

And what on Earth did he think of Ellery for flying off the way she had?

Undoubtedly he thought it was unforgivably rude, but Ellery didn’t care. Served him right for trying to spring another cop on me.

Still, maybe she ought to go back and make amends… apologize to him. After all, he was working on behalf of Roanhorse, and Ellery cared about her friend….

Yes, maybe I should go back. Back that direction. Back toward—

The blaring of a car’s horn and the screech of tires on pavement jarred Ellery back to her senses. She leaped and twisted in the air, narrowly avoiding the car that had been speeding toward her. The heat of the road’s paving seared up through her paws as she touched down again; Ellery spun, disoriented, and saw nothing but lanes of traffic all around her, speeding cars, staring human faces, and smelled the stench of exhaust and oil.

She was in the middle of the street.

How the hell did I get here?

Snuffling with rising fear, staring helplessly around as cars zinged past, she spotted the edge of the sidewalk across a lane of traffic. She crouched, trembling, and a car slowed as it approached. Ellery seized the moment and bolted in front of it, running as fast as she could toward the sidewalk. The driver honked at her, but Ellery was fast enough to avoid its bumper.

She kept running past the sidewalk and darted into a prickly hedge at the edge of somebody’s yard. There she curled up in the cool shade, huddling tight around her own coyote form until her breathing grew steady again, and her heart slowed to a less frantic pace.

I almost got hit. I almost got hit! How could I have been so careless?

It was that damn calling—the force pulling her back toward the Rez. It had completely overwhelmed her senses, had shut out all conscious thought. Like a fool, she had let her guard down and had surrendered to its power.

That can’t happen again. Another brush with traffic could kill her, and then she’d find herself in the other world with her dead spirit-animals.

A chill struck her then, so sharp and deep it cut off her breath for a heartbeat or two.

Is this what happened to Vivi? Did she shift into her cat form and give in to that force? Was she lured out into the street, and… and…

No!

Ellery wouldn’t allow herself to believe it. The smells of hot pavement, noxious fumes, and thick rubber were still thick in her muzzle, and the terrible vibration of cars at close range still rattled through her bones and ruffled her fur. He couldn’t imagine Vivi’s cat, so much smaller than Dusty, dragged helplessly into traffic by a force she could neither understand nor resist.

And it’s clear that I can barely resist this force anymore, either. I need help if I’m going to be of any use to Vivi.

When her paws felt steady enough to continue, Ellery crawled out from beneath the hedge and set off along the sidewalk again, headed for Sylvia’s pink adobe duplex. Her hour of searching wasn’t up yet, but Ellery would be worse than useless if she got herself hit by a car. She had to have some defense against that strange, summoning force, or she’d be roadkill before the next sunrise.

She only hoped Sylvia could provide a solution to her problem.

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CHAPTER EIGHT

 

Ellery was huddled on Sylvia’s front step, hugging her knees to her chest, when her friends returned from their search.

“Did you find anything?” River asked.

But when Ellery made no reply—only hunched there, grim-faced and trembling—he sank down on the step beside her.

“What’s the matter, Ell?”

She drew a shaky breath. “Something happened. Something bad.”

“Vivi?” Sylvia’s voice was thick with fear.

Ellery shook her head. “I didn’t find any trace of her. But I shifted, and then I lost focus, and I…”

She swallowed hard and tried another way of explaining. “Remember that creepy feeling I told you about? That call?”

“Yeah,” Sylvia said cautiously.

“It seemed to take over while I was in my coyote form. It was like that force chased all conscious thought away. I just went toward it without thinking, and I ended up in traffic—”

“Oh my God!” River pulled her close in a protective hug.

Gently, Ellery untangled herself from his arms. “I’m okay now. I’m shaken up, but I’m all right. It’s just…” She drew a deep breath and let it out slowly, trying to dispel her nerves. “That was really, really scary.”

“I bet.” Sylvia unlocked the front door and held it open. “Come on inside. I’ll make you some tea.”

“Is there anything you can do, Sylvia? Do you know any spells that can break this thing’s hold over me?” Ellery sank onto Sylvia’s couch and pressed her palms against her eyes, trying to ward away the memory of screeching tires and howling horns. Sniffling, trying her best not to cry, Ellery added, “I’m really afraid that the call took Vivi, and now it’s after me, too. I don’t know how to fight it. Is there any spell you know? Anything to keep it away from me? Anything at all!”

She felt the couch cushion shift as Sylvia joined her. “I don’t know,” the witch said softly. “I don’t know the source of this power, so I’m not even sure a spell exists that can defeat it. And if a spell does exist, is it one I know how to use? Without knowing what this thing is, what it wants—”

“It wants traders specifically,” Ellery said. “Unless either of you know any local weres who can tell us whether they’ve been feeling it, too.”

Sylvia and River both shook their heads.

“We don’t know that this…thing, whatever it is…is responsible for Vivi’s disappearance,” River said.

I know it is,” Ellery insisted. “Somehow, whatever is behind this calling force is targeting traders. The trader who was killed nearby, and William Roanhorse—”

“Hold on,” River broke in. “I know you’re upset, but we can’t get carried away. We have to be clear-headed about this. We have no idea whether those murders are connected to each other, let alone to the calling force.”

Ellery bit back a growl of frustration. “You’re right; I know you’re right. But I have this gut feeling, this certainty that all these mysteries are connected. And that makes a kind of sense, doesn’t it? If local traders are being targeted in one way, why not in another way, too? And why not by the same person…or people…or whatever is responsible.”

Sylvia shrugged. “Honestly, that makes as much sense as anything else. Until we find any evidence to the contrary, we might as well assume the same force is behind anything that targets the trader community.”

She stood and paced the room for a few moments, lost in thought. Then turned back to Ellery. “Do you still have that turquoise bead?”

“Of course.” Ellery pulled it from her pocket and held it out to the witch.

Sylvia set the bead on the coffee table and crouched down beside it. She closed her eyes, raising both hands until they hovered just above the smooth, polished turquoise. Then she began to mutter, so softly Ellery could scarcely hear the whisper of her breath. Sylvia’s lips moved with the words of the spell, and Ellery shivered as a mild chill drew across her, followed by a wave of warmth.

Sylvia was manipulating the elements through her spell—or so Ellery assumed. As a Changer, had only the most cursory understanding of how spells worked, how witches and other Casters wielded their particular kinds of magic.

After the warmth passed over and around Ellery, she felt a strange tugging sensation ripple through her middle. She leaned with it, tipping toward the small bead that lay beneath Sylvia’s hands. It almost felt as if gravity itself was bending toward the bead—bending into it, and pulling Ellery along with it. She shuddered, reminded uncomfortably of the unknown force in the northeast. She leaned away, and was surprised that it was easy to resist that particular pull—unlike the thing that called to her from the Rez.

Finally, Sylvia sat back, opening her bright blue eyes behind the lenses of her thick-rimmed glasses. She picked up the bead and examined it. “There. That’s the best I can do.”

“What did you do?” River asked, sounding a little wary.

Paras were always more understanding with their fellow magic-users than Typs were, but even so, it was a strange feeling to watch someone use foreign magic, or to feel the effects of a magic that didn’t belong to you. That was why the mere thought of the path through the stolen turquoise—a roadmap that might teach a non-shifter how to shift—gave Ellery such a sick, sinking feeling.

“I broke this bead’s connection to its fellows,” Sylvia said. “I convinced it that it was never a part of the missing beads. So now, whoever has those beads—if they realize the beads contain a magical path—can’t gain any influence over this bead, at least. My hope is that, if our villain learns the secret of the turquoise, he won’t be able to find any path in this particular bead. Because this bead is, no doubt, already picking up Ellery’s magic. And mine. And yours, River.”

River frowned at the piece of turquoise. “How can something as simple as a bead seem so creepy?”

“It’s not creepy; it’s just the nature of the stone. But I hope my spell will neutralize the effect, or at least slow down whoever now has the rest of the beads from this strand—make it harder for them to figure Ellery out, harder for them to get to her.”

She held the bead out and dropped it in Ellery’s palm. “And also, I put a protection spell on it. It’s the strongest protection spell I know. I honestly don’t know whether it will give you any relief from that weird calling sensation, Ell, but it’s better than nothing. It was the most useful thing I could think of.”

Ellery smiled gratefully at her friend. “Thanks. I appreciate it.”

“Since I’m an earth elemental, the spell’s effect will be magnified by minerals and metals. Any stone or any kind of metal should give at least some boost, but something with silver or iron in it will be strongest. Pure forms of the metal are ideal, but anything metallic ought to make the spell significantly stronger. I usually cast this spell on silver or copper or steel medallions, but turquoise will have to do. Keep the bead on you, and the spell’s protection will surround you.”

“Metal,” Ellery said, “got it.”

She pulled her bone-handled utility knife from its sheath on her belt. She’d found the knife useful many times in the past, especially for deterring creeps on the street. She had developed the habit of wearing the blade without really thinking about it, unless she needed it to slice open some stubborn packaging or trim loose threads off her clothes. Now it seemed the knife had a better purpose.

Ellery loosened a bit of the leather sinew that wrapped the knife’s handle, strung the bead onto the leather, and knotted it again as tightly as she could.

On the instant, she felt the pulling sensation ease. She was still aware of the summoning force, pulsing and throbbing at the edge of her consciousness. But it was as if she’d stepped inside a sound-proofed room and shut the door; a deep peace enfolded her, a soothing barrier between herself and her looming fears.

She grinned at Sylvia. “Wow!”

“It’s working?” Sylvia seemed rather surprised.

“It seems to be. I can still sense the force out there, but it’d distant now. I feel like I can concentrate—like I can trust myself to shift if I need to.”

“Do you want to try shifting again?” Sylvia asked.

“I don’t know,” River said. “Considering what happened to her earlier…”

Ellery rose from the couch. She felt energetic, confident—ready to face whatever was out there, preying on her kind. “It’s all right, River. I’m ready to try it again. I’ve got the best senses of any of us, especially when I’m shifted. If I can help pick up any clues about Vivi, or about anything else that’s happening to Flagstaff’s traders, I’m willing to try.”

River nodded slowly. He watched Ellery for a moment, appraising her with those strange, deep-seeing, beautiful fae eyes. Then he said, “I trust you to make the right decision. But if at any time you feel the force grow stronger… if the protection spell seems to falter… let us know as quickly as you can. We’ll come and help you, wherever you are.”

“You got it,” Ellery promised. She headed through Sylvia’s house toward the kitchen, to its back door that led out onto the rear patio. The patio was a peaceful little refuge from the wider world, brick-floored and surrounded by pots full of Sylvia’s carefully tended herbs.

“I’m going out as the owl again,” Ellery called over her shoulder. “The coyote’s nose didn’t tell me much, but the owl’s eyes might.”

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CHAPTER NINE

 

Ellery paused for a moment in the little garden, gathering her energy and her thoughts. The garden was surrounded by a cinder-block wall, which was overgrown with scraggly, summer-dried vines. She breathed deeply, taking in the smell of herbs in the warm air, an earthy, soothing scent, enjoying a moment of peace before the struggle began again.

Her body still ached from the long flight earlier that day, and she was certain Ghost Owl would be sore and cranky, too—even crankier than usual. Bracing herself for another argument with the recalcitrant bird spirit, she reached through the bracelet and contacted him as gently as she could.

To her relief, Ghost Owl was much more willing to cooperate than he usually was. Ellery felt his spirit come toward her willingly, and though she could sense his caution she could clearly read his eagerness, too. It seemed the brush with traffic had scared Ghost Owl almost as badly as it had frightened Ellery and Dusty. He was prepared to fly with her again. She could feel him clack his beak in impatience, and she knew he wanted to get the whole business over and done with as quickly as possible—to solve the bothersome mysteries that surrounded them and return to their usual routines, their usual lives.

I can’t argue with that, Ellery told the owl. I hope this is the last long flight we’ll make for a while.

With the usual water-like rush of blue light and cool energy, Ellery traded places with Ghost Owl. Riding in his small, light-boned body, she flew up over the garden wall and struck out across the northern fringe of Flagstaff.

As night advanced, she could sense the changes in air currents and pressure, and climbed the ladder-like ridges of the thermals, feeling her way with the sensitive feathers along the front edge of her wings. Soreness and tiredness aside, Ghost Owl’s body flew very well. It was remarkable what Ellery could accomplish with the owl when he was willing to cooperate.

And she thanked her lucky stars that he was cooperative tonight. Bird vision was no other kind of vision that existed on Earth. In Ghost Owl’s body she could see entire spectra of light that were invisible to her own eyes, or to Dusty’s. Ultraviolet light was bright and attractive; it always seemed cheerful to her with its vivacious, purple glow. But magnetic light was especially fascinating, the way it danced and coruscated in arcs and ripples, bending with the subtle curve of the earth.

Most useful to her tonight, though, was the special, bright-blue light Ghost Owl could sometimes detect as it flowed through the ley lines.

No one had ever been able to give Ellery a satisfactory explanation of what ley lines were. Paras and Typs had their pet theories, of course; most Typs who espoused a New-Age worldview thought the leys were networks of life force… or some vaguely described “energy” that served as links or conduits among spiritually important locations around the world.

The majority of Paras whom Ellery had ever interviewed on the subject—which wasn’t many, to be sure—all seemed to agree that ley lines were closely tied to magic use. But that was the extent of anyone’s agreement. Nobody could explain precisely how leys influenced magic. There was no doubt, however, that more Paras lived in the vicinity of large, active ley lines than in places where the leys were weak or nonexistent.

Clearly, leys played some crucial part in Paranormal life. But Ellery was damned if she knew what role they served, or how they worked.

After years of working with Ghost Owl and seeing the leys for herself, Ellery had begun to suspected that they were not conduits of energy. Rather, she thought they might be cracks in the invisible walls of the world—this world, the one where mortal humans lived. The light that splashed over Ellery during a shift shared many qualities with the light that shone through the ley lines—the light she could only observe with a bird’s eyes. When she flew at night in Ghost Owl’s body, she could make out the nearest leys as a faintly visible network of bright blue, coruscating and shimmering in intricate angles across the sky, pulsing and glowing with the exact water-blue color that accompanied her shifts.

Ellery hadn’t met any other traders who worked with bird spirits—not yet, anyway—so she couldn’t compare notes, couldn’t ask them whether they saw the same unmistakable webs of blue light when they traded places with their bird partners. Someday she hoped to meet more bird traders, and then she would finally have the chance to confirm her suspicions. But for now, she had to trust that her observation was correct.

As twilight approached, the tracery of light grew stronger in the upper atmosphere. Ellery flew steadily along the northern edge of town, assessing the leys, searching for any difference in their appearance since the last time she’d used Ghost Owl by night. Perhaps a change in the leys could provide a clue that might lead Ellery and her friends to the source of their troubles.

The sun sank lower in the west. As full night gathered, the ground far below rippled with the magenta and greenish-golden coils of magnetic light. But the glow from the leys overhead was nearly as intense—far brighter than usual. Ellery turned the owl’s head as she flew, cocking one eye up toward the velvet of the sky. The leys glowed with an eerie strength, and high up in the air, she could almost feel the same rush of water-like energy that accompanied her shifts. That ripple of power was unending, though it ebbed and flowed in a pulsing tide.

Strange. That doesn’t feel right.

She turned northeast. The mysterious pull was still there—she could sense its grip around her, could feel the same dragging sensation. But the protection from the turquoise bead was still effective, even with her human body dwelling wherever it went during a shift. Buffered against the summoning force, Ellery felt free to observe it, to draw closer to its source without fear of being overwhelmed.

The leys burned with brilliant intensity as they snaked toward the northeast. Out across the desert, in Navajo land, the blue lines seemed to converge on a distant point, a cerulean glow that beat like a heart—waiting, but not patient.

Ellery aligned the owl’s body with the thickest ley line and flew below it, following it out into the depths of the desert. A constant rush of the ley’s power moved over and through her as she made steadily for the reservation and the mountains at its heart. The highway was an even line of darkness below, a trench of smooth blackness against night-dimmed red sand, showing clearly through the ripples of magnetic light. Road below, ley above, she glided on the night wind toward the convergence of the summoning power.

She would find out what was out there, waiting for her in the desert. Tonight, if she could. The light of the leys was vibrant on her pale wings as she pressed on into the night.

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CHAPTER TEN

 

Long after Ellery crossed the border of the Navajo Nation, the last rays of the sun faded from the western sky. Stars were clearly visible over the reservation, well beyond the city with its sickly yellowish glow of light pollution. Here, the desert was a great expanse of stone and sand and towering mesas, and the homes of people were small and few.

The farther she flew into the desert, the more brightly the ley line glowed. And though she could still feel the protection of Sylvia’s spell defending her, the call was stronger, too, gaining in power with each passing mile.

Yet still she remained in control. Curiosity compelled her to keep going, along with the need to locate the source of that call. But Ellery was no longer being forced to respond to its summons.

She followed the smooth contours of the highway below her for at least an hour. She passed the dirt-road turnoff that led to William Roanhorse’s hogan, and turned to stare down at the land that had been his. She could barely see his home nestled at the foot of Black Mesa, the round structure as small as a dropped bead from her great height.

Ellery flew on, making her way toward the town of Kayenta. The lights of its homes and late-night shops made a dim orange glow against the earth. She passed the town, too, but just as she breezed by it, she spotted a familiar pickup truck in the driveway of a small house on Kayenta’s outskirts.

Hosteen.

Now that her anger had simmered down and the more urgent business of finding Vivi had returned to the forefront of her thoughts, Ellery felt a surge of guilt. She really shouldn’t have left Hosteen the way she had. He’d been trying to help—to solve Roanhorse’s murder—nothing more. She had allowed her suspicion of other Diné to get the better of her. Now she felt it would be fair to apologize to him, if she could. He deserved a better explanation than she’d give him when she’d winged off from Roanhorse’s hogan.

Ellery circled back toward the town, gliding smoothly down through flows of cool night air. His house grew larger as she descended from the higher thermals, but still she could see that it was a modest home, simple and plain. Ellery alighted in its yard, hopping across the sandy ground on strong talons as she slowed from the rush of flight.

She gave the surrounding, night-dark desert an even more careful scan than normal before she shifted. Shifting was far more dangerous here than in Flagstaff. But after a minute or two of watching and listening with the owl’s keen senses, Ellery was convinced that the desert was still and held no immediate threats.

When Ellery returned to her human form, she felt the rush of the blue light again. But it was far more forceful than usual. The power and force of its presence left her tingling, trembling—yet somehow she remained steady on her legs. She walked to Hosteen’s front door, taking care to make no sound as she picked her way through the open yard. Then she knocked on his door.

She could hear his steps on the other side of that door, though she doubted whether anyone but a Changer would have been able to detect his soft footfalls. Hosteen was moving with great care. The peep-hole on his door was a pinprick of light, but it darkened for a second as he looked through it.

Was he always this cautious? As an officer, perhaps he had to be. But maybe he was being more fearful than usual. Ellery shuddered at the memory of the injuries Hosteen had described when he’d filled her in on Roanhorse’s slaying. Maybe Hosteen had good reason to be afraid.

The door swung open and he stood before her, backlit by the soft glow of his home. Gone was the professional, buttoned-up white shirt. Now he wore a simple cotton undershirt, untucked but fitting snugly to his well-toned body, clinging just enough that Ellery could make out the blocky muscles of his chest and the flat plane of his stomach. She swallowed hard and looked up, meeting his eye. He had set his black hat aside, and his thick, dark hair was tousled. It looked damp, as if he had recently showered.

“Ellery. What are you doing here?” He glanced past her, out into the desert that encircled his home, but of course there was only his own truck in the driveway. “And how did you get here?”

“I flew. I was in the area—passing by—and I recognized your truck. I wanted to stop and… and apologize to you.”

Hosteen hesitated. His gaze traveled up and down her body, but not in a suggestive way. It was a simple and frank sizing-up, as if he expected to see her owl form burst out of nowhere and take over the space her human body occupied. But still the way he looked at her made Ellery’s pulse race in a way that both excited and annoyed her.

Finally, Hosteen stood back and held the door open. “Come on in.”

His home was elegant in its simplicity—just a few pieces of the most essential and un-ostentatious furniture, and everything tidily kept, spotlessly clean. The main room of the house was dominated by a large oak desk set with several file drawers, its top holding two computer monitors that glowed brightly. A few folders were stacked on the desk. The topmost one was open, its contents spread out as if Hosteen had been going through the papers when Ellery had arrived.

“Working?” she asked.

Hosteen smiled. “I’m always working. I’m one of those ‘married to his job’ types. But I don’t mind taking a break. Can I get you anything to drink? I’ve got coffee or lemonade.”

Ellery could never resist anything sweet. “I’ll take a lemonade. Thanks.”

He disappeared into the kitchen, and Ellery waited for him on a blue sofa, the back of which was covered in wool blankets woven with traditional patterns. She couldn’t resist a few peeks at his desk, but from where she sat, she could see nothing in the open file or on the monitors. She wondered if he was still working on Roanhorse’s case.

Hosteen re-appeared and handed her a glass. She sipped, watching Hosteen with a steady gaze as he fidgeted with the files, putting a few papers back in order. Then returned them to one of the desk’s drawers.

He wandered over and sat in an arm chair opposite Ellery, a steaming mug of coffee in one hand.

“So,” he said.

“So.”

“You just happened to be passing by—flying by—at night, in the Rez, a place which you have avoided for ten years and which you left in a storm of anger earlier today.”

Ellery smiled, mischievous and wry. “Aren’t there laws that say you have to read me my rights before you interrogate me?”

“Sorry,” he said with a little laugh. “You’re not under interrogation. It’s a habit, I guess.”

There were a few coasters spread along the coffee table; Ellery set her lemonade on the nearest one and dabbed her damp fingertips surreptitiously on the sofa’s upholstery.

“No, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to leave in a huff. Suspicion of the Rez is my habit, I suppose. And I wanted to tell you I’m grateful that you’re working on this case. I wish there was more I could do to help, but—”

“There is,” Hosteen broke in, leaning eagerly toward her. “At least, I think there is. If you’re willing.”

She paused, biting her lip. “I really want to help you, Hosteen, but I’m trying to find my friend. She’s missing, and none of us—my Para friends, I mean—can find any trace of her.”

“A friend from Flagstaff, I assume.”

“Yes.”

Ellery wondered whether he knew anything about the other murder—the trader in Flagstaff who’d been found dead in his own home, tokens missing, mauled by some animal—just like William Roanhorse. But she decided to hold her cards close to her vest, just in case. Habit.

“Have you filed a report with the Flagstaff police?”

Ellery laughed bitterly. “The police? What do they care? They won’t do a thing about it. My missing friend a Para like me; we’re the scum of the Earth, as far as Typical cops are concerned.”

“Not as far as I’m concerned,” Hosteen said softly.

That was true, and Ellery felt a twinge of guilt for having spoken so rashly. Wasn’t Hosteen trying his best to find Roanhorse’s killer? Wasn’t he willing to do anything he could think of—including tracking down Ellery in Flagstaff, the only Changer he had any knowledge of—in order to solve the case?

As Ellery remained silent, Hosteen went on cautiously. “What I could really use is more knowledge about Changers. Traders, specifically. You seemed as convinced as I am that it was a Changer who killed Mr. Roanhorse. But I don’t know the first think about your kind.”

At least he was willing to admit that. On the rare occasions when Ellery had spoken to Typs about magic use, they thought they had it all figured out, even when their assumptions were laughably off-base.

“My kind doesn’t usually talk to your kind about magic,” Ellery said. “You Typs don’t get it. And it’s doubly dangerous for me—a Changer, right here in Navajo country, talking to a Navajo man. What if you don’t believe what I tell you? What if you decide you know it all, that I’ve got it all wrong, and you’ve got it all right? What if you decide after all that I’m a skinwalker—that I’m evil? I’d have to be a total idiot to trust a Diné with this kind of information. Believe me, Hosteen, I know all too well what our people are capable of when they think they’ve got Paras figured out.”

Ellery clamped her mouth shut, unwilling to say any more. She cursed herself inwardly; she had said enough. Too much. She didn’t want to get angry with Hosteen again, but she wasn’t dumb enough to put herself in harm’s way, either.

“Would it help,” Hosteen said slowly, “if I told you that I don’t believe in evil at all?”

She blinked at him suspiciously. “You don’t?”

He ran a hand through his damp hair. “No, not really. At least, not the way traditionalists believe in evil. Oh, I’m absolutely certain that human evil exists—that people can be monsters to one another, whether those people are Typical or Paranormal. You can’t spend ten years on the police force without witnessing humanity at its worst. But evil as a spiritual force?” He shook his head. “That doesn’t make sense to me. People choose how to treat one another, how to react to the world around them. I may be in awe of Paranormal abilities, but it’s not in my nature to deem them evil simply because they are beyond my understanding.”

Ellery’s eyes stung with the beginning of tears, quite against her will. She blinked hard to clear her vision. “You’re right; humans can be monsters to each other. Do you know why I left the Rez in the first place?”

“I don’t.” He paused. “Would you like to tell me?”

Ellery chewed her lip again. She had never told this story to anyone—not even her friends in Flagstaff. She had kept her painful memories close to her heart for so many years. But now, faced with Hosteen’s smooth logic and calm acceptance, she wanted to unburden herself… even as she feared Hosteen, as she feared all Diné.

He didn’t pressure her to speak. He only sipped his coffee, waiting for her to talk. Or to not talk, whichever suited her best.

And it was that patient understanding that finally made up Ellery’s mind.

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Ellery took a deep, shaking breath, held it for a moment, and then began.

“My parents died in a car crash when I was very young. I don’t remember much about them, but I do remember my sister, Taylor. She was eleven years older than me, and after we found ourselves orphans, she raised me so I wouldn’t end up in the foster system. She was so much more than a sister to me. She was the mother I didn’t get to have. She was my only family.

“She was also a Changer—a trader, like me. Together with William Roanhorse, she taught me all about our magic. How to use it, how to control it—and most importantly, how to keep it secret, because although it was our greatest gift, it was also our greatest danger.”

Ellery fell silent. She stared at the glass of lemonade; moisture beaded on the outside of the glass and ran down its slick sides, soaking into the cork coaster below. She could still taste the lemonade’s sweetness on her tongue, but a terrible bitterness was rising in the back of her throat.

Hosteen kept silent, but although Ellery couldn’t meet his eye, she could feel sympathy pouring from him in waves—could sense his emotions almost as easily as if she were a fae.

If Taylor and Roanhorse and I had known anyone on the Rez who sympathized with us back then… anybody who had tried to understand us instead of acting out of fear… then everything would have worked out differently.

At length, Ellery drew a shaky breath and continued.

“After a few years, Taylor ran into trouble. I don’t know exactly what happened—maybe she got careless with her shifting, and somebody saw her turn into one of her animals. However it came about, accusations began to roll in. People called her a skinwalker, a witch. They sent us hate mail and vandalized her car and made threatening phone calls. Soon we didn’t feel safe in our own home—not even all the way out in Black Mesa. We always lived as isolated as we could, you know, far away from other houses, other people. But once the rumors started circulating, there was no escape from the persecution, even in the middle of nowhere.”

“Did you ever report the harassment to the police?”

Now Ellery did look at Hosteen, meeting his eye with a hard, condescending glare.

He flinched back from the unveiled anger in her eyes. “Okay,” he amended. “Stupid question.”

“The police wouldn’t have done anything about it. Paras get no love out in the Anglo world, either—did you know there’s an app now that can read our energy and alert Typs to our dangerous presence?”

Hosteen rolled his eyes. “There’s an app for everything these days.”

“Right? But as bad as things are out there, we Paras have it twice as tough in communities like this one, where old traditions paint us as something we’re not. The Diné aren’t the only people in the world who make life extra-hard for shapeshifters and witches and fae. Even when I was just a kid, even when we lived way out in the desert, I heard plenty of stories about Paras being persecuted all around the world. And stories of Paras being blown off by local police, even when death threats were involved. Why do you think I haven’t reported my friend Vivi as missing yet? The police won’t care. They won’t do a thing about it. If you’re a Para in trouble, you’re on your own. It’s do or die; nobody will help you.”

Hosteen pressed his lips together. His face paled, and his eyes were shaded by sadness.

“Anyway,” Ellery said, “we couldn’t get away from the harassment. It grew worse and worse, building up over two, three months. Finally it reached the boiling point. A mob of people came for us—for my sister. They blocked the road from our house so there was no way to escape them, except to run out into the desert. Taylor took me out back and told me to shift and run to Roanhorse for help.

“I knew right then what she intended to do: distract the mob so I could get away. I don’t think any of the people in the mob knew that I was a Changer, too, you see. They were focused on Taylor, and she was willing to stand in their path so I could escape, even if it meant…”

Ellery trailed off, unwilling to say the words. Even if it meant her death.

After a few moments, she mustered the will to continue. “In my coyote form, I ran all the way down the mesa to Roanhorse’s place. I knew I’d never see my sister again—that she wouldn’t make it out of that situation alive. I decided as I ran that I’d convince Roanhorse to come with me, and we’d leave the Rez for good. It was just too dangerous for people like us to live among those who had no interest in learning about Changers—no interest in accepting us for who we truly are.

“And as I ran from my home, I hear the sound of a rifle shot. That was when I knew my sister was gone.”

Ellery picked up the glass and downed half the lemonade in one long draft. Her throat was dry and constricted. Now it tasted too sweet, so sweet she could have choked on it.

“Well,” she said lightly as she set the glass back down, “now you understand why I don’t talk to Typs much—not about this kind of thing. People like you don’t want to understand people like me. You Typs think you’ve got Paras all figured out, that you’re right and we’re wrong, and your righteousness is all that matters to you. It’s better for Paras to keep their mouths shut, to keep our heads down and avoid the danger. If we can.”

Hosteen nodded in bleak acceptance of Ellery’s stance. After a moment of thoughtful silence, he said, “I can see how that makes sense, from your perspective. But now… now there’s a killer on the loose. And we know that killer is a Changer—or at least we suspect it. The danger isn’t just from the Typicals. Not anymore.”

“I know.” Ellery sighed, suddenly flooded by an unspeakable weariness. The ache of two long flights surged up in her body. “There’s more to tell, too. But it’s stuff I really don’t think a Typ can understand. Something has changed about our magic, and I don’t know what or why, or even how to explain to you why it’s different, why it’s so frightening. Everything is changing so fast. I barely recognize my own world anymore.”

“Can you try to explain it to me?” Hosteen asked. “I want to help, if I can. And maybe that difference will lead to some clues about Mr. Roanhorse’s murder.”

Ellery fiddled with her owl bracelet, twisting it around her wrist. “Maybe. Though it’s hard to trust you, Hosteen.”

He held up his hands in a gesture of apology. “I know I should have told you in advance that I’d asked my partner to meet us at the crime scene.”

“It’s not only that. It’s… everything I’ve gone through in my life. No Typ can be trusted—not completely.”

“I wish you could see me as more than just a Typ, Ellery. I take my work seriously; I want to find this killer before he strikes again. Whatever some people might think of Changers like Mr. Roanhorse, I respected him as a member of our tribe and our community. And you might think this makes me a rarity among police, but I don’t take the loss of any life lightly, whether Typical or Paranormal. Roanhorse is just as important to me as any other murder victim. I want to do my job, and do it well. I want to catch his killer, no matter what it takes. And I think if I’m going to catch him, I need to understand Changers a whole lot better than I currently do.”

Ellery sagged back against the sofa, relenting. “All right. I’ll tell you what I can, if you promise to believe what I tell you. Forget everything you think you know about shapeshifters.”

“You’re the authority,” Hosteen said. “I promise.”

“Well,” she began, feeling more than a little uncertain, “I already explained the differences between Chanters, Casters, and Changers.”

He nodded. “Can you tell me exactly how Changing works? Maybe that will give me some direction in pinpointing a suspect.”

“I don’t think I can tell you, and not because you’re a Typical. The truth is, I don’t think anybody really knows how it works. I mean, one Changer can teach another how to use a token to communicate with their animal spirits, and how to shift. But we Changers might have just as many questions as you Typs do when it comes to the specifics.”

“Let’s start with the basics, then. Where does your human body go when you…?” He made a vague gesture, his hands fluttering off into the air.

Ellery shrugged. “That’s one of the great mysteries. Roanhorse certainly had his opinions on the subject. He taught me that different worlds touch—that the world we see right now, the one we live in day-to-day, is like a room in an Anglo-style house. There are other rooms beyond its walls, and our world—our room—shares walls with the worlds beside it. He told me that when I shift, it’s like stepping through a door into an adjoining room, and bringing my animal through the door at the same time, to take my place in this world.

“Roanhorse told me, ‘That’s why we’re called traders; because we trade places with our animal spirits.’ We go to where the dead animals now live, and they come to this world, where they used to exist. We just… swap places for a while. That’s the best way I know how to explain it.”

Hosteen said nothing. He rubbed his chin with one finger, his eyes distant and thoughtful as he processed what Ellery had said.

After a moment, she added, “I don’t know how accurate Roanhorse’s theory is. I’ve heard other explanations from other Changers, and they make just as much sense as anything else. I only know that when I work with my animal spirits, I’m focused on what they’re seeing and feeling, what they’re sensing in this world. I have no real awareness of wherever I am when we trade.”

Hosteen’s eyes came back into focus. He watched Ellery in silence, and his shoulders and chest seemed tense. Ellery could tell that such frank discussion of magic made him anxious, but to his credit, he remained open-minded, listening attentively, just as he had promised.

At length, Hosteen said, “I suppose that does explain why your clothes—and other things, like your phone, your knife—vanish along with your body when you shift.”

“Right,” Ellery said. “‘Shapeshifter’ isn’t really an accurate term—not for us, anyway, the traders. Weres might be a different story; werewolves and were-bears and were-bunnies might actually transform their physical shape, for all I know. You’d have to ask a were about that. But traders don’t change. If Roanhorse was right, then we simply step through the doors between worlds.”

Hosteen shook his head slowly. “Fascinating. Is the ability genetic, then? Inherited?”

“No one has ever been able to find a clear example of inherited magical abilities, but some families do seem to have an affinity for magic, with more Paras than average. My sister and I might be an example of that affinity. But Taylor and I weren’t aware of any other Paras in our extended family. Who can say where the ability comes from? As far as anyone can tell, it’s a roll of the dice.”

Again Ellery fidgeted with her bracelet. She opened her mouth, then shut it again, uncertain what else she ought to say—if anything. Maybe she had told this Typical man far too much already.

Hosteen was quick to pick up on her discomfiture. “Is there more you want to say?”

Damn it. Ellery was never very good at hiding her thoughts. I really need to work on that.

“Up until recently—very recently,” she said, “we all took it for granted that Paras stuck to their own thing.”

Hosteen’s brow furrowed in a deep frown. “What do you mean?”

“I mean… Changers can’t use spells the way Casters can. Casters don’t have the natural enchantments that fae and vampires have. Chanters can’t shape-shift, or trade places with animal spirits. That’s what I mean.”

Hosteen seemed to sense that a disturbing revelation was coming. He leaned back in his chair and said cautiously, “But…?”

“But after Roanhorse’s murder, we’re not so sure about that anymore. And there was another killing in Flagstaff, too; very similar to Roanhorse’s. Tokens stolen, injuries that could only have come from a large animal.”

“I’m missing something,” Hosteen said. “Why would that make you believe magic use has changed? Couldn’t it just be a Changer who’s committing these crimes?”

“I would assume it is a Changer, if not for the stolen turquoise.”

She explained the magical properties of the stone as best she could. Ellery wasn’t at all certain she had included every crucial detail—she would have felt much more confident if an earth witch like Sylvia had been present to correct any of her blunders. But she got out the gist of the information, recounting everything Sylvia had told her about turquoise, as best she could remember.

“It’s that path through the turquoise, like a road map to traders’ magic, that has my friends and me so worried. I’m still not entirely convinced that it’s possible for someone else to learn my magic—or William Roanhorse’s magic. But if the killer has figured out how to read what’s imprinted in Roanhorse’s turquoise, then everything we think we know about the Paranormal world is about to change. Dramatically.”

Hosteen let out a long breath. “That’s a place to start, for certain. Thank you for telling me all of this.”

“I’m not sure it’s really any use to you at all.”

Ellery felt queasy, realizing just how much of the Paranormal world she had revealed to this outsider. But Hosteen was patient and gentle, and most of all, he seemed interested in truly learning whatever she could teach him. That mitigated her fears. A little.

Hosteen tilted his head to one side. “I think everything you’ve shared with me is quite useful, actually. If it’s possible that we’re dealing with a… a rogue magic-user, for lack of a better term, then at least we know that we need to be prepared for anything. Magic that doesn’t work quite right; abilities we’ve never seen before from any other magic-user.”

Ellery narrowed her eyes. “Why do I get the feeling that when you say we, you really mean me?”

“What if your missing friend is tied in some way to this killer?” He leaned toward her with sudden intensity.

“The possibility has crossed my mind,” Ellery admitted.

“It seems like too much of a coincidence to ignore,” Hosteen said. “A Changer—or maybe not a Changer—killing two people within days of each other, stealing their tokens. And another Changer missing entirely. I feel like there has to be a link here. We just haven’t discovered it yet.”

“There you go, saying ‘we’ again.” Ellery folded her arms stubbornly. “I told you what happened to my sister. I can’t just lurk around the Navajo Nation, Hosteen! Who’s to say I won’t be killed, too, if anybody recognizes me? And if anyone on the Nation finds out I’m a Para, they’ll assume the worst of me.”

Despair gripped her suddenly in a tight, cold fist. She pressed her hands to her eyes, trying to shut out the whole damn world.

“You all right?” Hosteen asked gently.

“No, I’m not all right! I could be killed by Typs just for being misunderstood, and I could be killed by… whatever this thing is that’s messing with Changers, that made Vivi disappear and killed William Roanhorse!” A few tears leaked out despite her effort to control her emotions. She sniffled miserably. “I don’t know where to go, Hosteen. I don’t know what to do.”

To Ellery’s surprise, Hosteen left his arm chair and sat close beside her on the couch. She could feel the warmth from his body, and gritted her teeth to keep herself still, to resist the urge to lean her head against his shoulder and allow him to wrap his arms around her. She would have given anything in that moment for a feeling of security, even if it was temporary. But she knew security with a Typical was only an illusion. She couldn’t trust anybody who wasn’t Paranormal. That was the way of the world, and there was nothing Ellery could do to change it.

“You can stay here,” Hosteen said. “If you’re willing to help me, stay here while we investigate and I’ll keep you hidden. I’ll keep you safe.”

Ellery laughed bitterly and pushed herself up from the couch. She tottered a little on trembling, exhausted legs. “You can’t keep me safe! Here, of all places! It’s too damn dangerous for me, Hosteen. There’s too much at stake.”

She headed for the front door. Without her owl eyes, she couldn’t see the ley lines pulsing in the sky, but she could still feel the call tugging at her with an insistence that would have been irresistible if not for Sylvia’s protective spell.

“I’ve got to go,” Ellery said. “Thanks for letting me in. I’m glad I had the chance to talk to you. But I’ve got to go now; I need to figure out what’s going on at—”

Ellery snapped her teeth shut. She had been about to say, What’s going on at the end of that big, glowing ley line. But she had no desire to explain even more of her world to Hosteen.

He followed her closely and opened the door for her, then walked with her outside, into the deep shadows of the front yard. The smell of dry desert and cool wind overwhelmed Ellery; she breathed it in, remembering happier days—the times long-gone, when she and Taylor had lived in peace.

More than anything, she wanted to return to that world. But it would never be hers. It really never had been hers in the first place.

“Thank you again,” Hosteen said, sounding more than a little sad.

Ellery turned to look at him, and she saw him flinch at the sight of her eyes—red and luminous beneath the naked starlight. But to his credit, he straightened up again and stood firm, facing Ellery squarely, refusing to look away from her eerie Paranormal gaze.

“Let me know if there’s anything I can do to help you,” he added.

“I will,” Ellery said. Then she turned and walked away.

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CHAPTER TWELVE

 

The moment Ellery reached through her bracelet, stretching her spirit toward Ghost Owl, she knew something was terribly wrong. An eerie thickness seemed to surround her, a stifling force that impeded her magic, slowing her reactions, blunting her senses, making her mind sluggish and dull. She fought her way toward the owl and felt him respond as he had before, straining to reach her. But the same strange block appeared she had felt the night before—the barrier to her shift. Dimly, in a shadowed corner of her awareness, she felt Ghost Owl screech in anger.

The skin on the back of her neck prickled. She turned in a slow circle, staring around the yard and out into the desert beyond, certain that danger was creeping up on her but unable to determine where the threat came from or what had made her sense it.

She drew in a sharp breath—and nearly gagged. Instead of the desert’s clean air, she smelled a strong whiff of a musky, animal odor.

She had only one moment to think, Cat!

Dusty added her opinion with a yip of fearful surprise that echoed faintly through Ellery’s half-smothered consciousness: Big cat. Cougar.

Wrenching herself out of the dull trance with every speck of her strength, Ellery gasped and whirled, forcing her legs to move—to run, faster, faster! She sprinted back toward Hosteen’s house with the superhuman speed only Changers could attain. She was at the cop’s side in a flash, and noted the widening of his eyes, the tensing of his body as he registered her distress.

Hosteen moved quickly, stepping between Ellery and the night. He backed her toward the open door, to the relative safety of his home’s interior.

But the inside of a house isn’t safe at all, is it?

Ellery’s thoughts were bitter through the fog that blocked her from the shift. Home had been no protection for William Roanhorse, nor for the man who’d been killed inside his apartment on the outskirts of Flagstaff. She shuddered.

“What is it?” Hosteen asked. His right hand lowered to the waistband of his jeans and groped there for a moment, closing on nothing. Ellery realized he was reaching for a gun that wasn’t there.

“Cougar,” she said.

The muscle in his temple jumped as Hosteen clenched his jaw. Ellery knew she didn’t need to say any more.

As they stared out into the darkness, a pale shadow slunk across the yard. The long, lean, powerful body moved on all fours, but with no gait any true cougar had ever used. Its legs flashed in an uncoordinated stutter-step and its back moved gracelessly, humping up and lengthening again without regard for the rhythm of movement. The beast was large and imposing. It crossed the exact place in the yard where Ellery had stood moments before, and ducked its head as it went, sniffing the ground to capture her scent.

Then it turned and stared at the house, jaws gaping, head swaying slowly from side to side. Hosteen’s shoulders jumped as he struggled to control his shock. Unlike any natural animal that went about in darkness, the cougar’s eyes reflected none of the light that spilled from the house. They were two points of perfect blackness in that huge, snarling skull.

The cougar made a strange sound, a twisted, tortured call that was somewhere between an animal roar and the mirthless laughter of a man. Then it turned and walked on into the darkness. Its gait was grotesque, chilling. It had none of a cougar’s deadly grace. Each leg moved with a jerking hesitation. It seemed to Ellery that whatever was inside that cougar’s body was unused to working with a spirit animal. There was no doubt in her mind that this was the foul creature who had killed her old friend—and who might know where Vivi was now.

And it had come looking for Ellery—had tracked her down, found her in the night like a true predator. Or perhaps it was searching for Hosteen, aware that he was determined to solve the murder.

Either way, the cougar had found its prey.

Through the icy fog of her fear, Ellery felt her coyote spirit hackle. She bared her teeth in an unconscious imitation of Dusty’s snarl. The beast that stalked her, circling in the night, was her enemy—the enemy of Changers everywhere. Ellery would not be intimidated.

She tried again to shift, this time reaching for Dusty’s spirit. But the block remained firmly in place.

The cougar circled the yard again, then returned to the patch of light that spilled from Hosteen’s door. It stared at them both, amused confidence emanating from its posture, from the two black holes of its eyes. Then it opened its mouth in a coughing roar. Starlight glinted on its long, sharp teeth, and the sound that came from its throat sent a shiver of sick dread through Ellery’s stomach. A grating call, unlike any cougar Ellery had ever heard. It was like a human voice mocking of a mountain lion’s roar.

Then, while its eerie cry still hung in the air, the beast sprang forward, bounding toward the house.

Hosteen gave a wordless shout of alarm; he lurched backward, taking Ellery with him as he retreated into the house. With one quick movement he slammed the door and bolted its lock. The door shuddered as the cougar slammed against it barely a heartbeat later. The whole house seemed to reverberate with the impact, a boom like too-close thunder.

“Shit!” Ellery screeched.

Hosteen remained remarkably cool. He took her by the hand, drawing her down the hallway and into his darkened bedroom. Her eyes adjusted quickly to the darkness; she saw him retrieve a hand gun from his night stand and flick off the safety.

Outside, the cougar’s unearthly calls continued. Ellery sank down beside Hosteen’s neatly made bed, kneeling on the floor, unwilling to go near the window where the passing creature might spot her.

Hosteen edged over to the window and stood beside it, his body tense and alert, dark eyes unblinking as he scanned the night. He held his gun at the ready, watching the starlit desert with an expression of perfect calm.

The cougar continued its mocking roar as it circled. Ellery could hear the sound grow fainter as it reached the other end of the house, and her skin prickled when the roar became louder as the beast passed near the bedroom window.

Then, with a sudden thud that nearly made Ellery jump out of her skin, the cougar sprang up onto the roof. She could hear its graceless gait, the rhythmless stumbling of its uncoordinated paws as it paced back and forth overhead. And all the while, it never stopped its terrible noise. That strangled, choking voice went on coughing and shouting into the night.

“What do we do?” Ellery whispered. She cursed the tremble in her voice, trying to will herself again to be brave. She wanted to remain unintimidated by the creature, but was losing that battle with every ragged heartbeat.

“Just stay calm,” Hosteen said, gazing up at the ceiling, turning his face to track the cougar as it paced across the rooftop.

Stay calm. That was easy for Hosteen to say. Ellery still couldn’t shift. Somehow the cougar-thing was blocking her; somehow it was the source of the barrier that kept her from her own magic.

“How do you kill a Changer?” Hosteen asked.

Ellery shrugged, though Hosteen wasn’t looking at her. “Same way as anybody else. A gun will do the trick. There’s no secret formula, nothing special you need. We aren’t like vampires or fae.”

“Anything special I can do to protect against its powers?”

“No. Not that I’m aware of. Just… don’t get eaten.”

But his question did remind Ellery of Sylvia’s protective spell. Maybe her knife—the turquoise bead, with its subtle, witch-woven spell—could be of some use against the cougar.

Ellery grabbed the smooth bone handle of her knife, and the moment she touched it, the cougar loosed a ferocious roar. It was louder and more rage-filled than any sound it had made before. The beast seemed to sense she had gained the upper hand—albeit a very small upper hand. In the terrible fury of that sound, Ellery sensed that the cougar knew she had found the means to fend off its magic.

She glanced over to Hosteen, ready to tell him something had changed, that the knife had somehow altered the magic. But the words froze in her throat. A pale streak fell heavily past the bedroom window—the cougar had jumped down from the roof. The fact that it was so near, that she had seen it at such close range, made Ellery’s skin crawl.

“Look,” Hosteen said, watching it through the glass. “Something’s happening to it.”

Reluctantly, Ellery picked herself up from the floor and crept to Hosteen’s side. She peered past his shoulder, out the window and into the desert.

She could see the cougar clearly in the starlight; she watched, dry-mouthed and wide-eyed, as the beast hobbled and jerked across the yard. It seemed to be frustrated, or perhaps confused and lost, where moments before it had been a confident predator reveling in the thrill of the hunt.

Ellery drew the knife from its sheath, feeling with relief the solid smoothness of the bone handle against her palm. The cougar gave a tormented cry, almost painful to hear. Its form wobbled, passing from cougar to that of a crouched-over human and back again rapidly, with a flicker of the same bright-blue light that Ellery saw when she shifted.

“Did you see that light?” she whispered to Hosteen.

He shook his head. “No, but that thing looks… different somehow. It’s changing, but I can’t say how or why.”

Ellery squeezed the knife tighter in her fist. Sylvia, you saved my life. Somehow, the charmed turquoise bead seemed to wither the creature’s magic. That wouldn’t happen to a regular Changer, Ellery felt sure, no matter what kind of spell a witch cast. The cougar-thing’s odd reaction to Sylvia’s protective spell made up Ellery’s mind, erasing any shred of doubt that had lingered before. This creature was definitely no Changer. That explains why it moves so awkwardly inside the body of the cougar.

A determined calm fell over her, body and mind. “That’s the person who killed Roanhorse,” Ellery said.

“Are you sure?”

“As sure as I can be of anything.”

The cougar turned away, struggling and limping across the yard, fleeing the knife and its magic bead as quickly as its uncoordinated paws would carry it.

“Come on,” Hosteen said.

He ran down the hall toward the front door. Ellery followed close behind. In a distant part of her mind, she knew she was still afraid. But she was certain that Hosteen needed her help—and if they were to keep the cougar at bay, he must have the spell-cast knife close beside him.

Hosteen threw open the door and stepped out boldly into the yard. The cougar was a dim shadow fading rapidly into the darkness, but she could still make out the twisting, morphing shape of its body—and the human that rode inside it—along with the occasional splash of blue light as it lost control of its shift.

A tiny red dot appeared on the cougar’s fleeing haunch—the laser site of Hosteen’s gun.

An instant later the crack of his shot split the night, leaving Ellery’s ears ringing painfully. She clapped her hands over her ears, choking back a cry of shock.

Hosteen ran a few more steps into the yard and fired again. Then he stood still in the starlight, gazing after the cougar, his gun held rigidly at his side.

Ellery shook her head to try to dispel the high-pitched whine in her ears. She slunk closer to Hosteen, terrified that in spite of the knife’s protection, the beast would pounce out of the night behind her and sink its claws into her back.

“I hit it,” Hosteen said. “I’m sure of it. But there’s no way to track it now.”

Ellery swallowed hard. She reached through the coyote-tooth necklace and found the barrier between herself and her animal spirits gone.

“There is a way,” she said. “I may regret this, and it’s dangerous, but… there is a way.”

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

The flash of blue light was a relief to Ellery, as was the rush of power that enveloped her when she traded places with Dusty.

No matter that the rush was far more wild than ever before, nearly enough to scour her away. The mere fact that the block had vanished made the coyote’s paws tremble with relief as they touched down on the floor of night-cooled desert sand.

The darkness leaped to vivid life, filled with forceful odors and sounds that could only be detected by the coyote’s body. The drone of insects in the scrub rose to a clamor; the highway’s distant purr of occasional traffic now sounded as loud as the rumble of a busy city freeway. Ellery could even hear Hosteen’s harsh breathing and the rapid beat of his pulse. She could smell him, too—the scent of his warm skin and the soap from his recent shower, undercut by fresh sweat thanks to the cougar’s attack.

She could smell a strange, cat/human reek just as clearly—the odor of the creature that had attacked them. She sniffed carefully, pointing her gray-furred muzzle in the direction of the cougar’s escape.

The bright, metallic tang of blood was plain in the air.

Ellery leaped into action, trotting into the night much more boldly than she felt. She followed the track of the cougar by scent and occasionally by sight, when sagebrush shadows receded and the starlight shone down to reveal prints in the sand. She pushed on through the sage, running through thickets of scratchy, dry brush, loping across open ground where the beast had sped before her.

Now and then she could see the droplets of blood it had shed: small, dark spots like garnet beads dropped and forgotten in the sand. Hosteen had hit the cougar, all right. But it certainly wasn’t a mortal wound. The creature had run fast and far, hardly impeded by its injury.

Ellery chased the scent of her enemy for a good half-hour, long enough to be certain that the beast had gone toward Black Mesa, to the northeast, the direction of the call. She slowed to a trot, then finally stopped in the open desert, panting to cool her heated pelt, gazing at the horizon where the call still rang out—where it reached for her through the darkness of night.

There was little Ellery could do as she was then, one coyote all alone. The rogue Paranormal, whoever it was, might still remain in its stolen cougar form, and was therefore more powerful than Ellery’s coyote simply by virtue of its superior size. Or the Para had lost the shift and had returned to human form, but that human had puzzled out how to steal a Changer’s magic.

Ellery couldn’t risk her own magic, her own spirit animals. But Hosteen, and perhaps her other friends, just might be able to help her.

She turned and headed back toward Hosteen’s home, marveling as she went that she had come to trust him so quickly—that she had even come to think of him as a friend. Or if he wasn’t a true friend yet, then at least he was an ally.

Ellery wondered what had changed in him—in her—to instill that trust. Maybe it was Hosteen’s willingness to listen, instead of assuming he knew everything there was to know about Paras. Or maybe it was the way he’d unthinkingly put himself between Ellery and danger. She didn’t want to admit that she enjoyed feeling protected—goodness knew, she could take care of herself, and had done so for so many years. But it was nice to feel like someone else was on her side, instead of feeling locked as ever before into the role of the suspicious outcast.

Whatever changed, I don’t have any real choice but to work with Hosteen, anyway, she reflected. Not anymore.

On the Rez she was surrounded by potential enemies. She needed all the friends she could get.

As she approached Hosteen’s home, she could see him still out in the yard, a blocky, strong silhouette against the glow of his house’s lights. She could read the tension in his body, and even at a distance she could see that his hand never strayed from the handle of his gun, which was holstered once more on his hip. She approached slowly, one step at a time, until she was certain Hosteen had seen her, and could tell that she was not the cougar. He relaxed visibly.

Ellery came forward with more confidence, picking up the pace, covering the ground between them at a brisk trot. She made no effort to hide from him as she shifted back to her human form. She had a feeling there was no more need to coddle this Typ where anything Paranormal was involved.

“Did you find anything?” he asked when Ellery stood before him again in her human body.

“Tracks,” she said. “Just tracks. But I do know which direction the cougar was moving. And you’re right; you did hit it, but either it wasn’t a very good shot or the bullet didn’t do much damage.”

“Damn,” he muttered.

“We can search more in the morning. It’ll be easy for me to pick up the tracks again, as long as it doesn’t rain tonight—and I didn’t smell rain coming. The tracks might lead us to this jerk’s hiding place, but it’ll be much better if we both face him together. I don’t want to face him alone.” She hesitated, then added, “I don’t want you to face him alone, either.”

“You shouldn’t face him at all. You’re not trained in police work.”

“I’m not,” Ellery agreed. “But you are. And I have all the knowledge about Changers. You need that knowledge. It seems to me like we’ll be partners on this case.”

Hosteen smiled crookedly. “I thought you were just a barista. But here you are, already calling yourself my partner.”

Ellery tried to smile, but it didn’t work out too well. The night’s tension had caught up to her; she felt tired and sore and afraid. “I don’t have much choice but to take up police work, it seems—not if I want to live my life without fear of this creep. Sorry you’re stuck with an inadequate partner.”

“I wouldn’t exactly call you inadequate.” His eyes softened. Their teasing glint was replaced by the stillness of respect. After a moment, he jerked his head toward the house. “In the morning, then. Let’s get inside. It’s starting to get cold out here.”

“I should go,” Ellery said uncertainly. The mere thought of shifting into Ghost Owl and flying all the way back to Sylvia’s place nearly dropped her to her knees with exhaustion, but she knew it was the smartest move she could make.

Hosteen called over his shoulder as he went inside. “You can stay here tonight. That way, we can start as soon as the sun is up.”

Ellery bit her lip. She ruthlessly suppressed the thrill of excitement that rushed through her veins, not even certain why she felt so glad at the prospect of crashing at Hosteen’s place. She pulled her phone from her pocket and tapped out a message to Sylvia and River: I’m safe. With a friend tonight. Might have identified the culprit, more news in the a.m.

Then she followed Hosteen into his house.

***

Hosteen and Ellery certainly did begin tracking the creature early the next morning. The sun was still quite low on the horizon, the desert awash in deep-orange light and sharp-edged, purple shadows. The night’s chill had not yet dissipated from the air, and the scent of short-lived dew hung crisp and bright over the desert floor.

In her coyote form, Ellery trotted along the track of the cougar, watching the prints carefully, sifting the beast’s sharp reek out of the smells of the morning. Now and then, as she followed the prints up into the hills, she turned back to watch Hosteen over her furred shoulder. He looked steady and stoic, striding purposefully in her wake. Ellery did feel safer with him at her back. It was good to have someone she could trust—and especially good to know that not all Diné would forever be her enemies.

The cougar’s prints climbed up the slope of the mesa, rising toward a clear sky. The air was beginning to warm, and Ellery knew Hosteen would have a harder time keeping up with her on the slope. Humans simply couldn’t cover ground as efficiently as four-legged creatures could, especially not in warmer conditions. She paused between two thick clumps of sagebrush and waited for him. When he caught up to her, she could smell his sweat and hear his heavy breathing, but he looked tireless in spite of it, ready to continue on.

“Everything okay?” he asked.

For answer, Ellery’s coyote licked her lips and yawned in a show of casual unconcern.

“Good,” Hosteen answered. “Let’s keep moving.”

He examined a blood-specked paw print in the red sand, noted the direction of movement. “There’s a road over that way,” he said. “Just a dirt road, of course. It looks like the cougar went toward it.”

Ellery led the way. After a few more minutes of bush-whacking, she could see the road before them. The hard-packed red earth climbed steeply up the side of the mesa. At the road’s side, the cougar’s tracks changed suddenly—from one stride to the next, they became human feet instead of a big cat’s deadly paws.

She stood over the first human footprint and gazed carefully down the road’s length. Near the foot of the mesa a vehicle was approaching, kicking up a small cloud of dust from beneath its tires.

Ellery shifted back into her human form and sat on a large, flat-topped rock on the roadside, catching her breath and wiping sweat from her brow. Wherever her human body went while she shifted, it still felt the strain of exertion. She was breathing as heavily as Hosteen was, and her palms and feet ached from covering the rough terrain that was so easy for Dusty to manage with her long-experienced paws and strong, wiry body.

Hosteen drew up beside her. He folded his arms across his chest and gazed silently down at the car, saying nothing.

“Coming this way,” Ellery said.

He nodded.

They waited in silence as the car approached. It was a white minivan, and Ellery could see several people inside. Most of them were Anglos—unlikely to be citizens of the Navajo Nation—and so their presence this far into the reservation was more than a little unusual.

The van slowed as it drew level with Ellery and Hosteen. The passenger window rolled down. A young woman with blonde braids and a distant, strained expression leaned out the window.

“Are we headed in the right direction?” Her voice sounded almost desperate. It raised a chill along Ellery’s spine, and she reached instinctively for her knife, for the spell-cast bead tied at its hilt.

“The right direction for what?” Hosteen asked, his voice carefully neutral. “What are you looking for?”

But Ellery didn’t wait for them to answer. She could sense their magic. A force exactly like her own: it called to her, like to like, running over her skin and vibrating a sympathetic harmony long her spine. They were not only Changers, but traders.

She stood and approached the van.

There were five people inside, but Ellery could see all their faces clearly. Vivi was not among them.

“Don’t go,” Ellery said.

The blonde girl scowled at her.

Ellery went on, more insistently “I know what you’re feeling. I know what’s out there, calling to you. But you have to resist it. Fight it!”

“You don’t know anything about it,” said a man from the back seat.

“I do. I’m just like you. You can’t go toward… whatever that thing is that calls to us. It’s dangerous.”

“It’s not,” the blonde girl insisted. But tears appeared suddenly in her eyes, and she clutched involuntarily at her necklace. It was her token, unless Ellery was mistaken.

Hosteen moved in close beside Ellery. He laid a hand on her arm. “Let them go.” He added in a whisper, “We’ll follow them.”

“I can’t just let them go!” Ellery turned to him, desperation nearly choking off her words. “You know what’s out there in the desert, waiting for them. You know what it’ll do to them! You have to do something. You’re a cop; stop them!”

He pulled her gently away from the van, and the driver punched the gas. It pulled away, climbing the ridge rapidly as a shower of red gravel flew from beneath its tires.

“Damn it!” Ellery shouted. She clenched her fists until her nails bit into her skin.

“I can’t detain them without a legal reason,” Hosteen said. “And we don’t know for sure that they’re going toward that cougar thing.”

“We do know.” Tears stung Ellery’s eyes. “The same force that’s summoning me is calling to them, too. They’re all Changers, all traders, just like me. Hosteen, you know what’s going to happen to them! They’ll be killed, just like Roanhorse. And my friend Vivi—”

He wrapped her in his arms. Ellery gave in to her fear and grief, sobbing against his chest.

“We don’t know that Vivi is in any danger,” he said. “We can save her, Ellery, I know it.”

She wished she could believe Hosteen. How could any Changer fight this force? Even her spell-cast bead was only a small shield. Even now, Ellery could clearly feel that summoning power. It grew stronger by the moment; it pulsed and swelled just outside the protective force of the Sylvia’s spell. And she was desperately afraid that soon her resistance would break, and she would be sucked back into the call.

She held tight to Hosteen, trembling as she cried. In that moment, it seemed she could do little else.

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

After the van had disappeared and Ellery had regained her composure, she and Hosteen continued following the rogue Para’s tracks.

The footprints had continued up to the top of the mesa, but once there, in the open space below the glaring blue sky, the tracks had simply vanished. Either the rogue Changer had shifted into a bird and flown away, or some other magic had taken hold, concealing his tracks from view. Even back in her coyote form, Ellery could detect nothing—not even the faintest whiff of the Para’s scent.

But the location itself had given her a distinctly eerie feeling, trembling her knees and sending a shiver of sick dread up her spine. The top of the mesa offered a commanding view of much of the desert. The highway and the town of Kayenta were tiny in the distance, and far beyond, the land folded into ripples of shadow and light, concealing far more than was revealed.

The mesa’s top seemed a place of great power, though Ellery couldn’t pinpoint exactly why she felt that way. But she knew that she wanted no part of whatever power dwelt there. Its strength felt corrupted, uncontrollable—dangerous. She had been relieved when Hosteen suggested they would be better off leaving. There was no more evidence to gather, and it was a long walk back to his home.

By the time they’d made it back, Ellery was overwhelmed with exhaustion. She fell into a deep sleep on Hosteen’s couch, waking late in the evening to the sound of fingers tapping steadily on a keyboard. She lay still for some time, curled under a wool blanket that Hosteen had evidently tucked around her while she slept. There was a pause in his typing, a sigh, and the shuffling of papers as he looked through one of his files.

Ellery sat up slowly. “How long was I asleep?”

“Most of the day. But you needed it. Shifting is tiring, or so I imagine.”

She gave him a tiny smile. “You’re being remarkably cool about my shifting.”

“I guess I’m getting used to it. It’s not as shocking now that I’ve seen you do it a couple of times.”

He took a sip from one of his ever-present mugs of coffee, then stood from his desk and stretched. Ellery couldn’t help eyeing him—his body was both strong and graceful, and she liked his hands, which were blocky and rough-looking, but had nevertheless held her gently when she’d lost her composure and cried.

She blushed, remembering the scene. She was still embarrassed by her emotional display on the mesa. Maybe she really had needed all that sleep. The strain of the past couple of days was getting to her. But she was glad Hosteen didn’t seem to mind—or at least, he had enough grace to pretend he didn’t mind.

Hosteen disappeared into the kitchen and returned a minute later with a second cup of coffee. He held it out to her

“You drink a lot of coffee,” Ellery said, accepting the cup. “That can’t be good for you.”

“As vices go, it’s pretty minor.” He sat on the couch beside her.

Ellery noticed that her knife was unclipped from her belt, lying on the coffee table next to her steaming mug.

Hosteen saw the direction of her gaze and said apologetically, “I didn’t want your knife to fall out while you were asleep. Didn’t want you to get cut.”

“Thanks.”

“It’s a nice knife.”

Ellery smiled sadly, twisting the blanket’s fringe between her fingers. “William Roanhorse gave it to me when I was a kid.”

“It sounds like he was a really good man.”

She stifled a sigh of despair. “I hope we can catch the bastard who killed him.”

“We will,” Hosteen said quietly. “I promise. I won’t rest until I’ve got that beast behind bars.”

Ellery looked into his eyes for a long moment. It felt good to hold his gaze—too good. She shivered and looked away, reached for the cup of coffee—a welcome distraction.

“I believe you,” she said. “You won’t rest. You really are dedicated to justice, aren’t you?”

“Of course. Not every cop is a corrupt asshole. Some of us actually do care.”

“Care about Paras? No Typs care about Paras. Not this much.”

“I’m perfectly okay with being a-Typical.” The corner of his mouth quirked at his own pun.

Hosteen met her eye again, and this time Ellery found she didn’t want to look away. She liked the deepness of his eyes, his air of quiet thought. He chewed his cheek for a moment as if considering some dilemma. Then, narrowing his eyes with an expression that said he had come to a definite decision, he leaned toward her.

Ellery leaned in, too, surprising herself with her eagerness to kiss him. She wanted to feel his lips against her own, wanted him to wrap his arms around her again and make her feel protected, secure.

But at the last moment her better sense caught up to her. She pulled away.

“I’m sorry,” Hosteen said quickly.

“No, it’s… it’s all right.” Ellery stood and hurried for the front door. “I just need some fresh air.”

Out in his flat, bare yard, she stretched the old aches from her limbs and breathed deeply in the evening air. She paced slowly around the yard with her hands in the pockets of her jeans. The sun had just set; the cool of night enveloped the land, but the shiver that raced along Ellery’s skin had little to do with the temperature.

She scolded herself—this was no time to be thinking about useless stuff like kissing. So many people, including herself, were in grave danger. She was no fool, but there she was, acting like a perfect idiot.

And she certainly shouldn’t even consider anything romantic with a Typ. Para/Typ romances never worked out; everybody knew that.

No matter how nice Hosteen was, no matter how thoughtful and capable and strong, nothing could ever develop between them. It was asking for trouble, and Taylor and William Roanhorse hadn’t taught Ellery so carefully, only to see her throw all her caution away for a kiss.

Lost in her thoughts, Ellery was only vaguely aware that she hadn’t stopped in Hosteen’s yard. She had kept on walking, moving restlessly toward the mesa she had climbed that very morning. She paused out in the sagebrush, her thoughts hazy and thick, feeling as if she’d forgotten something—something important. But she couldn’t determine exactly what it was, and didn’t know why it was so crucial that she go back, find what was missing, keep it close…

She gazed up at the mesa’s summit. Stars were beginning to blossom over its flat crest, but there was no moon.

A black moon.

Through her cluttered, misty thoughts, Ellery recalled that a black moon was a time of great magical power… at least according to Sylvia, though how a witch might use the phases of the moon, Ellery could only begin to guess.

Suddenly the call surged with a ferocity that made Ellery gasp. It took hold of her with a grip like an eagle’s talons, cutting into her spirit, dragging at her being with a force she could not deny. She cried out in wordless alarm, then staggered toward the mesa, drawn on by the summons.

Ellery forced her way through scratching sagebrush, simultaneously struggling against the call and pushing herself toward it. She could feel the spirits of animals crying out all around her. They too were drawn toward that magnetic force. Dusty and Ghost Owl were beside themselves with panic, clamoring inside her mind. But Ellery was helpless to comfort them, disconnected from her own thoughts as if in a trance.

As all those animal spirits cried around her, she could hear fear in their voices—one terrible chorus of chilling, soul-searing terror. But though she knew the call could only lead to ruin, she was helpless to resist it. The force was twisted, grotesque—but more compelling than anything Ellery had ever faced before. By instinct, barely conscious of the gesture, she reached down for the hilt of her knife. Her hand closed on nothing.

She staggered on through the desert, going obediently toward the mesa. Only the dimmest corner of her mind was aware of Hosteen’s voice, calling to her, shouting her name desperately through the dark of the night.

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

Ellery was aware of little as she climbed the mesa, save for the power of the summons itself and a faint recognition of Hosteen beside her. He had caught up to her just as she’d found the foot of the hill. He had spoken to her then—words she couldn’t understand through her strange disorientation—but now he kept his silence, as if aware that Ellery could focus on nothing save for the draw of that mysterious force. Knowledge of his presence beside her, his steady pace and solid strength, came to her in fleeting glances. He was the only thing that filtered to her consciousness through the wall of that unspeakable power, the call she responded to so eagerly even as her heart quailed at its strength.

Though she was dimly aware that she was grateful for Hosteen’s presence, she couldn’t speak to him. Speech was beyond her in her frenzied state, her desperation to climb the mesa. It was just as well that she couldn’t say a word; she had no idea where she would have begun. How could she explain the compulsion to a Typical? Even a Typ who was as understanding and open-minded as Hosteen couldn’t grasp the towering desire inside her now, the naked desperation she felt to go toward the thing that summoned her. So she climbed in silence, by turns grateful for Hosteen’s presence and annoyed by him, sensing distantly that he would try to prevent her somehow from meeting the source of the call—and hoping beyond hope that he would.

The climb was tiring. Long before she reached the summit, Ellery had begun to tremble with the effort. Her bare arms stung from scrapes inflicted by the sage brush, and now and then she stumbled against a rock, distracted by her trance; her shins felt thoroughly bruised. The sweat of her effort cooled her—too much. The night felt cold and vast, unspeakably hostile, and she shivered as she struggled up the mesa.

When she reached the crest and found its flat top awash in starlight, Ellery nearly walked right out into the open. But Hosteen seized her by the hand, holding her back among the sagebrush and boulders.

Ellery flinched, and not only because his sudden touch surprised her. A snap twanged through her skin, vibrating along her bones. A buffer fell between Ellery and the call, as thick and solid as a brick wall. She panted in short gasps, staring around her wide-eyed. The long walk and climb now seemed like a distant memory, a fading dream, even though her body still shook from the effort.

What had jerked her out of that trance?

She stared at Hosteen in confusion, and her eyes drifted from his face down to the hand that held her own. And then to his other hand.

Hosteen had her knife—her knife! The spell Sylvia had worked into the turquoise bead was like a dome of protection that surrounded her, body and spirit.

He held the knife out. Ellery took it gratefully and clipped the sheath to her belt.

“Are you okay?” he whispered.

Shivering, Ellery nodded. “I am now.”

“What the hell is going on here?”

He stared beyond her, to the clear, bare rock that crowned the mesa. Ellery turned and followed his gaze. She could see now what hadn’t registered just moments before, while she moved under the spell of the trance: people were stumbling out of the scrub, forming a rough circle around the open space. There were six or seven of them, and they all looked dull-eyed, shambling, every bit as much under the terrible enchantment as Ellery had been before the knife was returned to her. Relief swept her in a wave so strong that she felt nauseated. She crouched behind the nearest boulder, struggling not to retch. Hosteen sank down beside her.

When Ellery could speak again, she whispered, “I don’t know what’s going on. But I think those people out there are traders. They’re being called, just like I was.” She squeezed the knife’s hilt in her hand, comforted by its presence.

“I recognize a few,” Hosteen said. “The kids from the van…”

Ellery risked another glance around the boulder. Hosteen was right. She recognized the girl with the blonde braids who had spoken to her from the van’s passenger side, and other faces were familiar, too. They all shuffled toward a central spot, a focal point—and now Ellery could make out lines in the sand, curving patterns of various colors laid out on the mesa’s crown.

A chill wracked her again. In her childhood on the Navajo Nation, she had seen sand paintings used at traditional sings—the ceremonies that had been a major part of her spiritual life, up until the persecution that had claimed her sister. She hadn’t been to a sing in many years, but she recognized a sand painting with a single glance.

But there was something terrifying about this sand painting—something wrong. She stared at the swirls of color, unable to identify what those shapes might represent. Fear gripped her ever harder the longer she looked.

Hosteen pulled Ellery back behind their shelter. They stared at one another, wide-eyed.

“A sing?” she asked, voice trembling.

“Of sorts… I think. But I’ve never seen a ceremony that looks like that. I don’t like it.”

“I don’t, either. It feels… twisted. Like a perversion of a true ceremony.”

“And who’s leading it?” Hosteen said. “Who’s responsible for this?”

Ellery thought of the cougar-shifter mocking them with its half-human growls, remembered the way its tracks had changed from cat to human between one stride and the next. “I have a feeling we don’t want to know,” she said, her stomach clenching.

Again they edged around the boulder, just far enough to make out the figures moving woodenly in the starlight. As the traders approached the sand painting, Ellery could feel Dusty’s spirit growling and snarling inside her. Dusty had worked with Diné traders for generations; clearly this twisting of ceremony was as upsetting to the old coyote spirit as it was to Ellery. Dusty’s powerful fear shook the last vestiges of the trance from Ellery’s mind.

She watched as the summoned traders began removing their tokens from their bodies. They dropped those precious links to their animal spirits one by one onto the sand painting, discarding them as if they were worthless baubles. Soon a pile of bracelets, rings, and other tokens lay among the patterns of colored sand, glimmering beneath the stars.

Ellery gasped as a familiar figure emerged from the darkness and walked toward the circle. She would have recognized that tall, curvaceous woman anywhere: Vivi. Ellery dodged partway around the rock, trying to get to her friend, but Hosteen caught her arm in a firm grip. He pulled Ellery close to his side and wouldn’t let her go.

“That’s my friend!” Ellery protested. “She’s alive; let me go to her!”

“Wait. We don’t know what’s going to happen yet—what might be coming. We need to know what we’re dealing with before we act. Who we’re dealing with.”

Ellery gritted her teeth as she sank down beside Hosteen. She knew he was right, that caution was best until they had some idea of what exactly they would face. But still, the inactivity galled her. Ellery couldn’t take her eyes from Vivi’s face—as empty and vacant as a doll’s—as she, like the rest of the traders, threw her token on the pile.

Her connection with Dusty, a long-experienced spirit, allowed Ellery to sense the presence of the traders’ animals. They lingering around their tokens, confused and hurt, none of them understanding why those links to their human traders now lay discarded in a heap.

And that water-like rush, the force Ellery always felt when she shifted, seemed to grow around her, bearing down on her stronger than ever before. Something was coming through to this world, falling from above, pouring in a terrible current through the ley line Ellery couldn’t see, but knew was there, high above their heads like a spider web crack in the wall between this world and the next.

As Vivi backed away from the sand painting, joining the other traders in their ragged ring, another figure emerged from the desert. But this one didn’t move with the wooden gait of the entranced. Ellery could see from its height and the broadness of its shoulders that it was a man, robed in black, walking with an upheaded pride and a smooth grace that set him well apart from the others. Hosteen sensed the difference in the new arrival, too; Ellery felt him tense beside her, and his hand lowered to the butt of his gun.

The figure strode to the eerie sand painting and pulled back the hood of his robe. Even with the moon in its black phase, Ellery could make out his features clearly by starlight. Caught between wonder and horror, she stared at his eerily well-proportioned face. The flawless white skin, hardly marred by wrinkle or line that would have denoted his age. The lush, dark hair falling in waves to his shoulders. The eyes, blue and cold as the stars themselves. Through their unnatural calm and perfect confidence, Ellery could see a spark of triumph shining as the man gazed down on the tokens left like offerings at his feet.

Even from her hiding place several yards away, Ellery could tell the man was a Chanter. His preternatural good looks and impossible-to-guess age were clear indicators. But she knew at once that he wasn’t a fae. The fae were peaceful people, never more involved with others than they needed to be. A fae man wouldn’t summon traders, wouldn’t make them behave like puppets on a string. A fae would never force traders to give up their tokens, those precious lifelines to their magic.

So, then, there was only one kind of Para this man could be.

She leaned closer to Hosteen, unsure whether she was trying to get closer to preserve their fragile stealth, or whether she was shrinking against him to seek his protection.

She whispered close to his ear. “Vampire.”

The last of the summoned traders dropped their tokens into the ring. All told, there were eleven of them gathered on the mesa. The vampire bent low over the sand painting to examine the offerings. His dark hair obscured his face, but as he leaned lower, several strands of turquoise beads slipped out of the neckline of his robe. The beads swung slowly above the tokens.

Shock like an electric current jolted through Ellery’s body. The bead on her knife hilt seemed to vibrate subtly under her palm. Sylvia had broken that bead’s link to the others as best she could, but perhaps some vestige still remained. Ellery could all but hear the bead calling to its mates—trying to call to them. She wondered, with a swell of nausea, whether the vampire could feel his beads calling in return.

He has the turquoise.

In that moment, Ellery was certain, beyond any hope of doubt, that this vampire was the one they’d been looking for: the beast who had stolen Roanhorse’s tokens and his sacred beads. The bastard who had used her old friend’s own cougar spirit against him, to tear out his throat and take his life. It was impossible; it went against everything Ellery had ever known to be true about the Paranormal world. But there the evidence was, looped around the vampire’s neck, calling to the bead that hummed with desperate need in Ellery’s hand.

Her breath came short. Her heart nearly seized inside her chest. That creature was a Chanter, not a Changer. And no Chanter could shape-shift.

Until now.

Sylvia’s wild theory had been right after all. Ellery stared across the night at the most dangerous being she had ever faced: a Para who had, against all odds, unlocked the secret of someone else’s magic.

He was more than just a vampire. He was a monster.

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

With an unconscious surge of furious energy, Ellery gathered herself, ready to spring out from behind the boulder and attack. The scrap of her mind that still remained rational howled at her to stop, to slow down, to think it through. To attack was foolish—but Dusty was growling ferociously inside her. She felt ready—more than ready—to abandon all conscious thought and give herself over to pure, animal instinct.

Hosteen’s grip on her arm tightened. She pulled against him, but he was stronger by far.

“Stay here,” he said quietly. “If anybody’s going to attack this guy, I am. I’ve got the gun.”

“Doesn’t matter,” Ellery muttered. “Vampire.”

“You said Paras can be killed like anybody else.”

“Changers,” Ellery said shortly. “Traders. I don’t know how to kill a vampire. I don’t know if you can kill a vampire at all.”

But she was ready to find out. Dusty’s growls grew to snarls, and Ellery had to concentrate to remain silent, to keep from snarling herself.

The summoned traders swayed in their loose circle, their faces stricken and sickly. The vampire straightened, gazing around his ring of captives with an air of gloating so palpable Ellery could feel his triumph crawling along her skin. Then, with a serene smile, he bent again and began gathering the tokens into his hands.

The moment the tokens made contact with his skin, the animal spirits cried out. Ellery gasped and shuddered as their screams of terror—even pain—ripped through her. She choked back her own cry and fell against the boulder, wrestling with her shock and fear.

Hosteen bent over her. “Ellery! What’s going on? Talk to me.”

But it was impossible to speak. The panic of the spirit animals washed through her like an icy river; she felt certain she would drown in that terrible current.

Fighting to regain control, Ellery sucked in a deep breath of cool night air. But that breath served only to fuel her scream. The wild, panicked cry ripped out of her, going on and on until her throat was raw and her own ears hurt. Hosteen clutched her, trying to silence her, but it was no use.

One by one, the other traders joined her as they fell out of the vampire’s enchantment. Aware now of what had happened to them, some of them dropped to their knees in the dust, clutching their heads against the pain that wracked them. Others clawed at the air or rolled on the ground in agony as their animal spirits were ripped away by the vampire.

Ellery struggled to her feet and pushed herself out of Hosteen’s arms. With barely a thought, with hardly any awareness of what she was doing, she reached through the coyote-tooth necklace and shifted into Dusty’s body.

With the coyote’s ears, the sound of the screams was even sharper and more terrifying than before. But Ellery ignored the clamor and charged across the mesa toward the vampire, running faster than any mortal coyote could move. She bared her fangs to the starlight, ready to tear the Chanter’s beautiful face, ready to sink her teeth in his throat and rip and sever and spill his foul blood until the mesa ran red with it.

For the briefest moment, as she hurtled toward him, Ellery saw the vampire stare at her in shock. His sudden misgiving was clear to read on his perfect face: one trader hadn’t obeyed his enchantment. How could that be?

Then, a heartbeat later, Ellery launched herself directly at the vampire.

Even as she leaped through the air, she knew—in the small corner of her mind that still retained some rationality—that a coyote had no hope of killing a vampire. But the pain of all the suffering animal spirits, and the human traders who had lost them, filled her with a rage that blotted out all caution and could never be controlled. Her paws extended toward the Chanter; her jaws opened wide to tear at him.

She heard Hosteen shout her name, and knew he must have pulled his gun.

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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

Time slowed as Ellery leaped over the perverse sand painting. Below her hurtling body, the colored sand seemed to writhe and twist, as if even the elements of the ceremony suffered and tried to free themselves from the vampire’s dark influence.

The vampire opened his mouth, shouting something Ellery couldn’t hear over the roaring of her blood in her ears, and she saw the starlight glint on his sharp-pointed fangs.

She struck him in the chest and, scrabbling with her paws to maintain some hold on his body, snapped her teeth in his face. She fought to sink her own fangs into his flawless flesh, tried to bite his face or his neck.

It should have terrified her, to be so close to such a deadly being. Vampires were bad enough as they were. They possessed the ability to weave subtle influence over others, Para or Typ—to draw their victims deep into enchantments before they could be evaded. But this vampire was a different creature altogether. This one was attempting to capture the animal spirits of Ellery’s own kind. She wouldn’t sit back and do nothing. Not even if it cost her life.

The vampire gave a wordless yell of surprise. He clawed at Ellery’s pelt as they struggled. The speed and fury of her attack made the Chanter stumble backward, away from the twisted sand painting. She flailed at him with all four paws, trying to keep herself high enough on his body that she would have some small hope of locking her hungry jaws around his throat.

A she tore at him, one of Ellery’s forepaws caught in the tangle of turquoise necklaces that hung around his neck. The strands snapped with a sound like a bone breaking; beads scattered everywhere, bouncing and rolling across the open space, their smooth surfaces sparkling in the starlight.

The vampire roared in outrage as the turquoise fell away. Through her fury, Ellery felt the cool rush of the animal spirits fleeing the vampire, returning to the tokens he had dropped from his hands and which were now strewn around the top of the mesa along with the turquoise beads.

“Ellery!” Hosteen shouted. His voice was the only thing that could penetrate her fury. “Get away!”

She knew Hosteen wanted to fire on the vampire, but she was too intent on wounding the creature now—on inflicting whatever pain she could on the monster who had killed William Roanhorse and the poor trader back in Flagstaff—and who had tried to victimize Vivi, too. She couldn’t stop herself from scratching, clawing, biting. She wasn’t sure she would have stopped herself, even if she had been able.

The vampire grappled in return. His piercing blue eyes burned into her own, challenging her with an arrogant hatred that sent spikes of hot and cold lancing through Ellery’s spirit. His magical call was strong. Even now, she could feel the summoning power pulling at her, commanding her, demanding she submit to his will and surrender her trader’s tokens.

But without the turquoise around his neck, it seemed he had lost much of his ability to finesse that pull, to maintain his hold on the other traders. Ellery and the vampire turned and twisted in the grotesque dance of their battle, but even as they fought, she could see the other traders scrambling to retrieve their tokens from the dust and the scattered, colored sand. One by one, they fled into the night in their human or animal forms.

The vampire wrenched one arm away from Ellery’s snapping teeth, then struck a hard blow to her ribcage that sent her flying. She hit the ground in a cloud of gritty dust and lay there, scrabbling weakly with her front paws, trying to pull herself to her feet, struggling to catch her breath.

Gentle arms cradled the coyote’s body, lifting her from the hard, cold ground. For a moment Ellery thought it was Hosteen who held her, but then she heard a low, familiar, female voice speaking close beside her ear.

“Lie still, Ell. I’ve got you. Stop struggling; you might be hurt.”

It was Vivi. Ellery turned her head, wincing at the pain in her neck, and blinked up at her friend. Traces of fear shrouded Vivi’s eyes, but even so, her gaze was hard and determined. The gold chain of her cat token was back around her neck. Back where it belonged.

Vivi pulled Ellery close to her chest, then edged back into the desert shadows, away from the site of the vampire’s perverse sing. Ellery blinked through the haze of her pain. The vampire stooped, trying to retrieve the precious turquoise beads from the mess of colored sand.

If he gets the beads back—

She had no time to consider what might happen if the vampire collected all of the scattered beads. Or even most of them. In that moment, Hosteen sprinted out from behind his boulder, directly toward the dark-robed creature.

“Freeze!” Hosteen yelled.

The vampire straightened slowly. His fist was closed tight around his turquoise, and Ellery could have sworn she saw his hand tremble a little. But the slow, arrogant grin he directed at Hosteen sent ice through Ellery’s veins.

Coolly, Hosteen took aim. The night split with the sound of the shot, and it rebounded a moment later from other hills, other mesas, a wave of violent sound washing over the desert.

The vampire staggered back, slammed back by the shot to his chest.

Vivi gasped and clutched Ellery tighter, but Ellery whined in desperation, afraid for Hosteen’s life. The exertion of her fight and the pain of her fall caught up to her, making her head swim, and Ellery was foolish enough in that moment to hope the vampire might fall.

But it was only an ordinary bullet Hosteen had used. Of course; he’d been totally unprepared to fight a vampire.

The black-robed beast righted himself, clapped a hand to his bleeding chest… and laughed at the blood that stained his palm. The sound of his laughter burrowed like a worm into Ellery’s heart, twisting and gnawing toward the core of her being. Slowly, confidently, the vampire stepped forward—one step. Then another.

No, Ellery tried to shout. But only a strangled whine came from the coyote’s throat. She struggled weakly in Vivi’s grasp, trying to shift back to her human form. But all her strength was gone. She couldn’t make the trade.

As Vivi carried Ellery back into the desert—as the shadows of unconsciousness closed over Ellery’s mind—the last thing she saw was Hosteen, standing in fixed fascination as the vampire locked eyes with him… as the vampire closed with terrible confidence on its prey.

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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

The first thing Ellery felt was softness and warmth against her back—the comfort of a safe, peaceful bed, a place to rest easy, to recover from the pain. She lay still. Her body was nestled into the bedding. She smelled the cleanness of the sheets, the familiar odors of a place she knew well.

She was in no danger—she was sure of that, although she couldn’t recall why she was thinking about danger, why her mind had even ventured there.

What danger could there be in this bed? Soft…warm…safe.

She regained consciousness slowly, flitting in and out of awareness. There was a pleasant, soothing light in the room, dancing just on the other side of her closed eyelids. When she pried her eyes open, she saw a half-open window partially covered by a long, translucent, lace curtain. The curtain stirred in a lazy breeze. Ellery breathed deeply, searching the breeze for any scents that might indicate danger.

Danger again. Why?

There was no danger here. She heard quiet conversation, and as she listened through her misty daze, the voices took on a familiarity that made her sigh with happiness and snuggle down deeper into the bed. Sylvia. River. Vivi. She heard Sylvia’s soft laughter from another room, and in the same moment, she realized that something strong yet gentle pulsed around her, thrumming like the beat of a well-known heart. She lay still, feeling that pulse. It was a protective spell; Sylvia must have cast it over the bed where Ellery now lay.

More laughter from the other room. The smell of chicken soup drifted toward Ellery along with the sounds of happiness. Her stomach rumbled suddenly, sharply, and the awareness of a powerful hunger brought her fully awake. She moved carefully, sitting up in the bed, blinking as she looked around.

Vivi sat at her bedside, perched on a folding chair, working half-heartedly at a knitting project while she watching Ellery with obvious concern.

“Take it easy,” Vivi said. “Move slowly.”

Sylvia entered the bedroom, carrying a bowl of hot soup in her hands. “You’re awake!”

“And I’m starving.” Ellery’s words grated in her dry throat.

She held out shaking hands for the bowl, savoring the smell for a long moment before she raised the bowl’s rim to her lips, not bothering with the spoon. She sipped the broth. It was only canned soup, she could tell—nothing home-made. But in that moment, she was convinced it was the best thing she’d ever tasted in her life.

Ellery went on drinking down the soup until her stomach began to protest. Vivi took the bowl and set it aside on the night stand. Nourishment had perked up her senses considerably; Ellery looked around with a sharper eye and realized she was in Vivi’s bedroom, at her little cottage on Izabel Street.

She rubbed her eyes with her knuckles. “How long was I asleep?”

“Nearly a whole day,” Vivi said.

“How did I get here? I was…” She trailed off, struggling to recall what had happened. “I was in my coyote form.”

But what had she been doing as Dusty? The last clear memory she had was of grappling with a vampire, clawing desperately at his powerful body while he stared at her with those piercing, predatory eyes.

Ellery shuddered and swallowed hard. “Vampire. Where’s the vampire?”

“Relax,” River said. He leaned against the wall next to the window, arms folded casually across his chest. But Ellery could see the worry in his eyes. “The vampire isn’t here. You’re safe.”

Bit by bit, fragment by fragment, the memories assembled themselves into a clearer vision. “The traders,” Ellery said. “The ones he… enchanted?”

“Got away,” Vivi answered. “Thanks to you. Once that vampire’s enchantment broke, all the traders ran. I carried you back to my car and got you the hell out of there. I brought you right here and called all our friends to let them know I had you.”

“We were worried sick about you,” River added.

Ellery frowned, trying to recall everything that had led up to that moment—the coyote struggling desperately with the terrifying creature. “I sent a text. I told you I was with…”

“We didn’t know who you were with,” Sylvia said.

“They thought the call had taken hold of you, too,” Vivi added. She worked a few more stitches into her knitting, then her hands fell into her lap. She watched Ellery with fear and regret written plainly on her face.

Ellery reached out and squeezed Vivi’s hand. Sylvia and River were the best friends anyone could ask for, but neither of them could possibly understand what Ellery and Vivi had gone through—the terror of being subjected to the vampire’s summons, and worse, the feeling of one’s animal spirits being ripped away.

“Are you all right now?” Sylvia sat on the edge of the bed, staring at Ellery through her thick-rimmed glasses, concern plain in every blink of those big, blue eyes.

“I’m okay,” Ellery insisted, though she still felt sore and trembly. She wondered how Dusty was doing after the fight with the vampire, but the coyote’s spirit seemed content enough. “It’s Vivi we ought to worry about. She was the one who actually had her magic co-opted. Thanks to the spell you cast on that bead, Sylvia, I was mostly okay.”

Vivi shuddered and covered her eyes with one hand. “That was the most awful thing I’ve ever experienced. I can’t even tell you what it was like, that certainty that I had to give up my cat spirit, even though I didn’t want to. And then once I gave my token to that… that thing… the feeling of my cat being ripped away.”

Her voice broke; for a moment, Ellery thought Vivi would cry. But she regained control and smiled bravely at Ellery. “But you came to find me. And you fought the vampire. You saved me, and the rest of the traders who were there.”

River left his place by the window. He, too, came to Ellery’s bedside. “While you were sleeping, Vivi told us what happened up there on the mesa. It sounds terrifying. I wish we’d been there to help you.”

“You guys are brave,” Ellery said. “And you’re the best friends I could ever want. But I’m glad you didn’t have to face that blood-sucking bastard. It was the scariest thing I’ve ever done.”

“That place on top of the mesa…” Vivi’s voice was almost inaudible, lost as she was in dark memories. “It was… awful. Everything felt so wrong there.”

Ellery nodded slowly. “The power was so strange in that place… the shifting power, I mean.” For Sylvia’s and River’s benefit, she said, “Normally we feel a rush of something when we shift, a kind of power that flows around and through us. But that force was so strong there, almost out of control. And the ley lines… I saw them in my owl form. They were like swollen rivers about to break their banks and flood the whole world. It scared me.”

“Me too,” Vivi whispered.

“It didn’t scare Dusty enough, though,” Ellery said with a rueful laugh. “My coyote was going crazy, but the human side of me knew I should have just run away as fast as I could go…” She trailed off, looking down at her hands. “How did I get back to my human form, anyway?”

“You shifted back in your sleep,” Vivi said. “I didn’t know that could happen, but apparently sleep-shifting is a thing now.”

“There are a lot of things now that were never things before,” Ellery said drily. “A vampire that can shift, for example.”

“Only with stolen tokens,” Vivi said.

“But he sure had some innovative ways of getting those tokens, didn’t he?”

“And,” River said, “anybody who thinks that vampire is through with his pursuit of unorthodox knowledge is a fool.”

Sylvia nodded soberly. “I agree. He’ll be looking for more ways to steal magic, and he’ll use more aggressive tactics. Vampires are like that.”

Vampires are like that.

Ellery remembered the penetrating, cold confidence in the creature’s eyes.

The creature’s eyes

—locked with Hosteen’s.

Hosteen, frozen in place, helpless before the advancing vampire, as Ellery was carried away…

Hosteen!

She tossed the blanket aside and tried to stand, but a wave of dizziness stopped her.

Vivi pressed her back against the pillows, gentle but firm. “Where do you think you’re going, Ell?”

“Back to the Rez.”

“You can’t,” Sylvia said. “You aren’t well enough yet. And anyway, that vampire is still out there—”

“I know,” Ellery cried desperately. “And he has Hosteen.”

“Who?” Sylvia exchanged confused glances, first with Vivi, then River.

“Hosteen. He’s a Typ,” Ellery said quickly, squirming to get up again. “An officer with the tribal police.”

“Whoa!” Vivi stood, towering over Ellery. “What are you thinking, girl? You can’t mess around with the tribal police.” Vivi knew just enough about Ellery’s past to understand that the Rez held certain dangers for her. “You should never have gone back to the reservation in the first place. Though I can’t say I’m sorry you did, since you saved my magic, and possibly my life, too. Still: it’s not a risk you can afford to run a second time.”

Sylvia bit her lip, unable to meet Ellery’s eye. Finally, she said, “If the vampire had your friend, Ell, then you know it’s already too late. I’m so sorry.”

Ellery shook her head in helpless denial. She refused to believe it was true. She managed to stand up this time, and her legs were steadier than she expected them to be.

“Vivi’s right,” River said. “It’s too dangerous for you to go back. Even if you weren’t weakened like this, still you couldn’t mess around with a vampire. You can’t. Especially not a vampire of this kind, capable of stealing somebody else’s magic.”

Ellery clenched her fists. “It doesn’t matter. I’m going after Hosteen.” Whatever is left of him. “I’m going to get him away from that vampire, even if it kills me. I owe him that much, at least.”

Ellery headed through Vivi’s house toward the back door. Her friends scrambled after her, still trying desperately to convince her that it was crazy to try it, crazy to even think about confronting the vampire a second time.

“Contact the tribal police, if you want to do something,” Sylvia suggested. “He’s a Typ; they’ll take the report seriously. They’ll look for him and help him if they can.”

“Take it seriously?” Ellery snorted. “What, when I tell them that a vampire put an enchantment on one of their own? They’ll just hang up on me, if they don’t laugh me right out of Arizona first.”

She made it to the back door and swung it open, but Vivi caught her by the arm. Ellery turned to face her friend.

“Don’t do this,” Vivi pleaded. “I lost my cat spirit once. Only for a few minutes, but those few minutes were agony. If you won’t think of yourself right now, Ellery, then think of your animals.”

She hesitated, yielding for a moment to Vivi’s advice.

Ellery reached through her tokens with tentative care, asking Dusty and Ghost Owl what they wanted her to do. After all, Vivi was right: it wasn’t only Ellery herself who would be caught in the vampire’s sick enchantment if the plan went badly.

Not that she had a plan at all…

Ellery touched their spirits almost timidly, but she found Ghost Owl ruffling his feathers in eagerness, opening his pale, hooked beak in a screech of determination that she felt echoing through her heart. And Dusty stood stoic and alert, her senses quivering with readiness for the hunt.

Gently, Ellery pulled herself free of Vivi’s grip.

“I’m going,” she said. “And I’m ready.”

As ready as I’ll ever be.

***

THE END

of

BLACK MOON SING

Book 1 of The Turquoise Path series

The story continues in Red Fire Glow. Tap here to find Red Fire Glow at your favorite ebook retailer!

MORE URBAN FANTASY BY THIS AUTHOR

The Turquoise Path series

Red Fire Glow – Book 2

Blue Sky Break – Book 3

The Alpha House series

Virgin Shift

Witch’s Reign

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

L. M. Hawke doesn’t really buy into in anything supernatural or spooky, but like Fox Mulder, she wants to believe. She lives in the tiny island town of Friday Harbor, Washington, writing every day in an office perched above the town’s book store, which is located in a historic house built in 1890.

L. M. (Libbie to you) avoids writing there after sunset, because once darkness falls over Friday Harbor she hears footsteps and a desk drawer opening and closing in her office, even though she’s the only one there. She is absolutely certain that ghosts don’t exist, but she has uncovered some information that leads her to believe that if ghosts did exist, the particular spirit who haunts her office once went by the name of Julie.

Her greatest ambition is to purchase a Victorian mansion in the nearby town of Port Townsend. It is reputed to be haunted, and is supposedly inhabited by three well-known ghosts. It is said to have some of the most consistently observable “paranormal” activity of any house in the Pacific Northwest. Libbie is saving diligently to achieve this goal, even though she definitely-probably-kind-of doesn’t believe that ghosts are real. She does, however, believe that owning a notorious haunted Victorian mansion will inspire her to write a lot more urban fantasy.

She also writes historical and literary fiction under the pen name Libbie Hawker. Black Moon Sing is her twenty-third novel. Visit her online at libbiehawker.com.

 

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CURSE OF THE ALPHA: EPISODES 1 & 2

by Tasha Black

CURSE OF THE ALPHA: EPISODES 1 & 2

by Tasha Black

CURSE OF THE ALPHA: EPISODES 1 & 2 © 13TH Story Press 2014

Ainsley Connor is determined to turn her back on her shifter past.

But the wolves of Tarker’s Hollow call on her to choose the next alpha, and Ainsley becomes the object of desire for every eligible wolf in the quiet college town.

Surrounded by seductive shifters, all desperate to claim her, Ainsley wants nothing more than to leave the pack behind forever. But her newfound passions will not be ignored.

Ainsley soon finds herself torn between the mysterious stranger with the dark secret, the gorgeous and loyal friend from her past, and the hunky sheriff that wants her all to himself.

And the shifters aren’t even the strangest part of Tarker’s Hollow.

As she struggles to come to terms with her true nature, Ainsley is thrust into the center of a steamy web of shifters, ghosts, witches and warlocks, caught up in a life-and-death struggle for control of the pack she tried to abandon.

But for Ainsley Connor, the toughest wolf she must face might just be the one inside herself.

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Curse of the Alpha is told in six installments, or episodes, like a TV show. Each episode contains a cliffhanger to entice the reader to tune in for the next one. If you’re not a fan of the serial format, all six episodes are also available in a complete bundle!

In Episode 1, Ainsley Connor is on a mission to get back to the penthouses of Manhattan before the full moon. Will the wolves manage to stake their claim on her before it’s too late?

In Episode 2, Ainsley learns about the danger facing the pack, and discovers that someone she trusts is hiding a dark secret. Will she be able to restrain the beast inside as it struggles to break free?

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EPISODE ONE

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

CHAPTER NINETEEN

CHAPTER TWENTY

CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

EPISODE TWO

CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER TWO

CHAPTER THREE

CHAPTER FOUR

CHAPTER FIVE

CHAPTER SIX

CHAPTER SEVEN

CHAPTER EIGHT

CHAPTER NINE

CHAPTER TEN

CHAPTER ELEVEN

CHAPTER TWELVE

CHAPTER THIRTEEN

CHAPTER FOURTEEN

CHAPTER FIFTEEN

CHAPTER SIXTEEN

AUTHOR BIO

 

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EPISODE ONE

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CHAPTER ONE

 

Ainsley was having the dream again.

She had worried that coming home to Tarker’s Hollow would bring it back. Her hands twisted the sheets as she tossed in her old childhood bed. At the same time, she smelled the pine needles crunching underfoot as her dream-self ran through the college woods.

In the dream she was always a teenager again.

Brian Swinton, the new boy at school, ran a few steps behind her, laughing.

Brian had just a few freckles on his cheeks that made you look at his eyes, his big, dreamy, hazel eyes. Once you were done with his eyes, which could be quite a while, you couldn’t help but see how his t-shirt hugged his wide shoulders and his Levi’s hung from his narrow hips. And even though he was a new kid and quiet, he made Ainsley’s heart beat loud, loud, loud.

After school he would walk her home, and sometimes, Brian would try to pull her toward the woods. And Ainsley, who had always been a good girl, would sometimes let him.

There, they would kiss under the pine trees until Ainsley was dizzy and heated and pushed him away to run as fast as she could back home. He would call after her, both of them laughing.

But the dream wasn’t about one of those times. The dream was always about their last visit to the woods.

In the quiet night of her parents’ empty house, a more grown up Ainsley thrashed in the sheets and tried desperately to wake up. But her traitorous feet carried her deeper into the woods, deeper into the dream.

As she ran, her own laughter mingled with Brian’s, close behind. At last, she stopped, whirled around, and wrapped her arms around his neck, ready for a sweet, slow kiss.

Instead, he spun them both around and pressed her back against a tree.

He’d never done that before.

Before she could react, he slid his hands gently down her ribcage and let his thumbs brush her nipples.

Ainsley gasped as she took in the brand new sensations.

Brian pressed his mouth to hers again and angled his whole lean body against her soft one. She felt his heart pounding in his chest, and the hardened length of him throbbing against her hip.

Her insides clenched in pleasure and she deliberately pressed her breasts against his chest.

He inhaled sharply and stilled for a moment, then devoured her mouth again, fists clenched in her hair now, his hips rocking that mysterious stiff bulge against her.

In that moment Ainsley felt a surge of awareness. Suddenly she could hear every twig snap and every squirrel scamper in the woods. She could smell the wood shavings at the hardware store in the village, and hear the train on the tracks in the city half an hour away, thundering toward Tarker’s Hollow.

What was happening to her?

The sensory assault washed over Ainsley in a tidal wave until she felt that her heart could not keep beating.

Even poor Brian Swinton, excited as he was, must have felt the change in her. He pulled away, panting.

“What’s wrong?”

“I don’t know,” she said. “I’m sorry, I…” Tears welled in her eyes.

“Listen, we don’t have to make out, Ainsley. I know you have a lot of school work and you’re a nice girl…”

From her bed, Ainsley wanted nothing more than to agree with him and walk away. But she knew that was useless. The dream would run its course.

It always did.

Teenaged Ainsley touched a cautious finger to Brian’s lips, then cupped both hands around his familiar face, letting her thumbs brush over the freckles on the tops of his cheeks, and staring into his hazel eyes. The smell of anxiety wafted off the light sweat on his brow.

She ran her hands through his sandy hair and he closed his eyes. Her fingers traced the gentle swell of his biceps, and her nails raked slowly down his chest. He leaned into her hands, but she brought them back up to his face.

“Being with you, like this, it might just be my favorite thing,” Ainsley breathed.

Before he could respond, she grabbed his lower lip in her teeth and sucked on it gently.

Something was building inside Ainsley, struggling to break free.

Brian moaned softly. His hand cupped her breast, then worked its way down. He fumbled with the button of her jeans while they kissed.

The sounds of the surrounding woods disappeared – Ainsley could hear nothing over the pounding of her own pulse. At last, the button gave way and Brian slipped his fingers into the waistband of her cotton panties.

There was a blur of movement, and a harsh growl, then everything went black as the air filled with shrill, unnatural shrieks.

Ainsley Connor finally opened her eyes in the safety of her old bedroom, her throat raw from screaming in her sleep.

The dream was over, but the feeling of it still draped her like a thick fog.

Any hope of rest was gone for the night.

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CHAPTER TWO

 

Ainsley jumped out of bed, silk pajamas clinging to the cold sweat that covered her. A shiver ran through her at the late summer breeze drifting through the open bedroom window. The familiar trappings of Ainsley’s youth surrounded her.

Her parents had never taken down her boy band posters, or packed away the shelves of trophies. Just sitting there made her feel like she was in high school again, her parents asleep at the end of the hall. Like she could run to their room, snuggle herself between the two of them and everything would be all right.

Of course that wasn’t the case.

Her parents were dead. That’s why she was here, reliving old nightmares in her childhood bedroom.

Ainsley was a very practical person, but this particular dream, one she’d been having for the last ten years, always left her feeling scared and lonely. And now she really was alone – in Tarker’s Hollow, and anywhere, if she was being honest.

She decided to head down to the kitchen for tea to soothe her throat. She slipped on a bathrobe and walked down the narrow hall of the creaky old Victorian.

Her hand instinctively reached for a cell phone in her robe pocket, but came up empty. In New York, she would have found an email from a client or another agent to keep her busy – no matter the hour. But her phone was plugged in downstairs, where she had sworn not to touch it, and she had handed her client list over to a young upstart agent in her firm for the duration of this trip.

Ainsley knew she needed to focus every waking moment on emptying this house so she could get back to New York. Back to her real life. Back to her clients.

And out of Tarker’s Hollow before the full moon.

Boiling water hit the peppermint teabag in her mug with a hiss. Ainsley brought the steaming brew to her face and inhaled.

It took her back to after school tea parties with her best friend, Grace Kwan-Cortez, in this very kitchen. Ainsley set her mug on the round oak table, where it rested on a ring stain put there by so many previous cups.

When Ainsley’s parents died in the accident, Grace’s parents had sent her a card. It read as though no time had passed since the day Ainsley left Tarker’s Hollow at age seventeen without looking back.

In the card, Mrs. Cortez told Ainsley that she loved her and that they would always think of her as their daughter and hoped she would think of them like her parents now. Mrs. Cortez also explained that they had set aside a bedroom for her. She could come home anytime to stay for as long as she wanted.

Come home.

The honesty had shattered Ainsley’s frozen heart and she’d immediately stuffed it in the bottom of her underwear drawer, unable to bring herself to throw it away.

The Cortez family home and her own had been the settings of so many happy girlhood memories. She could lose herself wallowing in the past if she wasn’t careful.

That’s why she was practically hiding out in the house.

If she didn’t bump into any of her old teachers or schoolmates, if she didn’t call Mrs. Cortez, then she couldn’t get sucked in. She could get in and get out – just like she planned.

That was sort of the name of Ainsley’s game. Since middle school she had been what people might describe as a Type A personality. She liked to ask questions and get things right on the first try. She and Grace had been two peas in a pod.

Until that night with Brian had ruined her life, and ended his.

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CHAPTER THREE

 

She had spent days in her room after Brian’s death. When she was finally able to leave her bed and take a shower without breaking down, her parents had told her it was time to have a talk about growing up.

She had thought it ludicrous under the circumstances, and pushed them off again and again, until they cornered her in her room two weeks later, as she packed for college. She’d gotten accepted early, and, like it or not, the summer session was about to start.

It turned out that Ainsley’s family had a very different version of “the talk.”

“Mom, Dad, you missed the boat. We already talked about the birds and the bees in health class.” Ainsley neatly rolled a skirt in plastic and placed it in the blue suitcase they’d bought for her.

“I was thinking more about the wolves,” her dad said.

Ainsley froze, thinking of the growl she’d heard in the woods with Brian right before…

“Ainsley, we knew we needed to have this talk with you before you went away. But we hoped you could have a little more time to enjoy your childhood,” her dad said. “We weren’t even sure if…”

A look from Ainsley’s mom made him reconsider finishing his sentence.

Ainsley swallowed and smoothed her hair behind her ears, a nervous habit. She began rolling another skirt.

“I know you’re still hurting, honey,” her mom whispered and reached to touch Ainsley’s face.

Ainsley cringed. The hurt look in her mother’s eyes would be with her for a lifetime. Her mom withdrew her hand.

“No matter how you feel right now, it’s important for you to learn as much as you can about being a wolf. It is who you are. And you’re going to need to know what to do,” she said.

A wolf?

There it was. Ainsley had always known she was different. She just didn’t realize how different, until that day in the woods. The day she had transformed into some kind of monster and killed poor, innocent Brian Swinton.

Of course she didn’t actually remember that part; she had blacked out, mercifully. But Sheriff Warren said it looked like Brian had been mauled by a bear.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist.

The realization of what she’d done hit her like a kick in the chest.

“Not to mention that you’re very important to the pack,” her father added.

Her mother shot him that look again, like he’d said too much. Ainsley seized the opportunity.

“How am I important?”

“Ainsley, our family has been part of this pack for generations,” her mother explained. “Your grandfather led the pack as alpha, and now your father has that role.”

“A lot of changes are coming to this town, Ainsley,” Dad said, “and we will need strong leadership to survive.”

Ainsley stared at her father in wonder.

“Is that why everyone in town is so friendly to you?”

“I suspect it has more to do with my effervescent charm, but being the alpha doesn’t hurt.”

Ainsley ignored his attempt at humor.

“Are they all werewolves?”

“Not all of them, but yes, a lot of the people here are wolves. We don’t use the term ‘werewolf’ – it’s a little offensive.”

Even monsters had to be politically correct, it seemed.

“And you are the leader of the pack?” she asked.

“That makes it sound like the old Shangri-La song, but yes, I am the alpha.”

Ainsley thought about it.

Her quiet father was always at the center of every party. Their friends came to him for advice. Underneath the old tweed blazers his body was strong and warm. He could still sweep her up and throw her over his shoulder as a teenager as easily as when she was a little girl. His vision was excellent in spite of decades in front of a computer or with his nose buried in an old tome. Even the soft voice he used now vibrated with strength.

She had never really thought about it.

He was her father. He would always be big and strong and brave in her eyes, and she would always want to obey him and make him proud. There was nothing crude and animalistic in that.

Was there?

“I believe you, Dad. But I need to leave. I can’t be part of this. What happened was unforgivable.”

“It’s tragic what happened to Brian, honey,” her mother said. Ainsley could tell she wanted to say more.

“He’s not the last boy in Tarker’s Hollow, Ainsley,” her father said. “Another wolf would be the best choice. Until now I’ve held them back. Now that you know the truth, that can change.”

Ainsley had a sudden flash of insight into why the other boys had started being so weird. Lately, she’d begun to actually feel the hungry stares she’d thought she’d been glimpsing for years, and hear the hearts pounding.

When she turned around they always cast down their eyes. She thought that was just how boys were – cowardly. Until the new boy had met her eye and gulped when she looked his way. Her heart turned to ice at the thought.

“The last, the absolute last thing on this earth that I want to date is another wolf. It’s bad enough that I can’t get out of this.” She paused, considering. “Wait. Is there any way for me to get out of this?”

“No, Ainsley,” her father said. “No, there isn’t.”

“So no matter what, I’m going to turn into a gigantic wolf?”

“Yes.”

“Did I turn into a wolf because… because I was making out with Brian?”

“No,” her mother said. “Although that sort of… activity can draw your wolf to the surface. Your cycle as a wolf has to do with the cycle of the moon.”

“Do I have to turn?” Ainsley asked. “What if I don’t want to?”

Ainsley shot her a pleading look. Her mom had always been able to make things right. Ainsley wished more than anything that she could go back to being that little girl with the pigtails and the skinned knees, running to her mom for a bandage and a glass of homemade lemonade – to go back to a simpler time, before all this mess.

Her mother sighed.

“You can’t change who you are, Ainsley, and turning is part of who you are now.”

“There are stories,” her father said, slipping into the academic tone he used with his students. “Of wolves that were under duress and couldn’t turn. They say the pain was excruciating, both mentally and physically.”

“Michael.” Her mother shook her head at him.

“So it can be done!” Ainsley said, latching on to the possibility of a normal life.

“It may be technically possible to withhold from turning, Ainsley. But I would advise against it,” her father said. “The amount of self control it would take would be monumental. Your mind and body will be consumed with your new life at every moon cycle. You should engage with it, master it, and enjoy it. It is who you are. You can’t just run away.”

“Watch me,” Ainsley said firmly. The teeth of the zipper came together with a satisfying hiss and she swung the suitcase off the bed.

She was going away to college, she had a full scholarship to Columbia, and there was nothing they could do to stop her.

“You’re coming home two days before the full moon.” Her father’s tone made it clear that it wasn’t a request.

“Yes, Dad.”

Of course she didn’t.

She hadn’t set foot in the house since that day. Until the car accident claimed her parents’ lives and forced her back into town.

Her parents had hidden the truth from her just long enough to make her a murderer.

And now their degenerate lifestyle meant that Ainsley couldn’t just hire an army of ladies armed with boxes and stickers to empty the house. Instead, she had to put her life on hold and risk damaging her career to go through their belongings herself and annihilate any trace of what her parents had been.

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CHAPTER FOUR

 

Ainsley realized that her cup was empty and she was drifting again, losing herself in memories of a past she’d tried to forget.

She got up quickly, washed her mug, dried it and put it away. When she was satisfied that the kitchen was as tidy as when she’d come down, she headed back through the dining room and parlor to the stairs.

As soon as Ainsley found herself back between the sheets, all her drowsiness vanished. She stared at the stick-on stars glowing on her ceiling, waiting for sleep to come.

At some point, she must have drifted off.

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CHAPTER FIVE

 

The next morning, Ainsley woke early to finish sorting the pile of papers on the dining room table. She sat at the table sipping a mug of hot English Breakfast tea – she couldn’t bring herself to make coffee using the Keurig that perched on kitchen counter, those little pods seemed insulting, to her and to the coffee.

She set aside any invoices and receipts related to her mother’s hardware store. Those would be for the estate attorney to worry about. There didn’t seem to be any references to werewolves so far.

Ainsley knew that sooner or later there would be nothing else that needed sorting downstairs and she would have no choice but to tackle her father’s study. The prospect both excited and depressed her.

Michael Connor had a perfectly wonderful book collection. Its volumes included all the classics of Russian literature. From Tolstoy to Turgenev, he had them all – in most cases, he had multiple copies.

There were dog-eared paperbacks with copious notes in his careful handwriting – those had sentimental value and would find their way onto Ainsley’s own shelves.

There were also hard backed volumes in shining leather and in paper jackets – some in the original Russian, some translations. Some were gifts from her father’s students and colleagues. A few were even yard sale finds, which he bought and gave away if he found the translation acceptable.

And then there were the rare gems. A few of them she would recognize on sight, because she had been with him when he bought them. Each was worth thousands or even tens of thousands.

Michael Connor hadn’t believed in locking away rare books. They lived among the rest of the collection. Ainsley recalled the way he used to pull out a volume to pore over it, noting slight differences in the translation. She had even seen him caress their spines in passing with an unconscious tenderness, the way he had sometimes tousled her hair when she was little.

Unless he had made an inventory that she hadn’t found yet, Ainsley had no idea which books ought to go to the library sale and which should be sold at auction. Although she knew she ought to ship them all off to a book dealer, it felt wrong to send them away.

She wished that she had someone more versed in rare books to help her with the job.

Ainsley stretched her arms over her head. It was impossible to keep working. She needed a walk, and to open up a conversation with a local real estate agent.

She was going to have to leave the house.

Maybe she would even reward herself with a cup of coffee on the way. Tarker’s Hollow had avoided the Starbucks revolution, which was a shame. Ainsley imagined the jolt of a hot Pike’s Place with soy as it warmed her chest and belly and brought her to life. Surely there was still a place to get a half-decent cup in town somewhere.

She pulled off her t-shirt and yoga pants and slipped on a sheath dress and a pair of heels. She even remembered to grab a pair of big sunglasses, hoping to preserve her anonymity.

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CHAPTER SIX

 

The walk to town was short but beautiful. Tarker’s Hollow had a shade tree committee, dedicated to maintaining the glorious canopy of maples and oaks that met over the streets, dappling the old sandstone sidewalks with soft green shadows.

Each house she passed belonged to a character from her youth. Sadie Epstein-Walker squatted in her garden across the street, big floppy hat and sunglasses in place, harvesting late summer roses just like she had when Ainsley was in high school.

Was she a wolf?

Ainsley studied her back, trying to decide. When Sadie turned, Ainsley shifted her gaze straight ahead and sped up her walk.

A few houses down, Mrs. Hooper’s bicycle still sat on her front porch, even though Mrs. Hooper must be seventy by now.

As she turned the corner onto Elm, she could hear a few cars a block over on Yale Avenue. All the streets in town bore the names of either trees or colleges. A gorgeous garden still bloomed in front of the post office, even in the late summer.

She turned the corner onto Yale and passed the flower shop, the toy store, and some new place that sold eco-friendly home décor. Then there it was – the hardware store. There was a lump in her throat when she saw the old sign was still in place.

Selling her mother’s family store had been really hard for Ainsley. She remembered how Mr. MacGregor, her high school History teacher, had approached her at the funeral:

“Ainsley, please come home,” he said simply, hands pressed against his sides. His blonde hair was still a little long. All the girls at Tarker’s High when Ainsley has been there mooned over him.

“Mr. MacGregor, thank you for coming.”

“Can we please talk after the service? There is so much I need to tell you.”

Ainsley squirmed. “I’ve really got to get back to New York.”

“I’d like to buy the hardware store. Can we at least talk about that?”

Ainsley had resisted the instinct to snarl at him.

Why did she feel so protective of the old place?

Of course she wasn’t going to come home to Tarker’s Hollow and run a hardware store. Something had to be done about the business and the building.

She agreed to meet him after the service. MacGregor, it turned out, was the beta of the Tarker’s Hollow wolves.

He perched on the edge of her father’s brown leather chesterfield with his hands clasped in front of him.

“Ainsley, a beta can’t lead a pack forever,” he said. “It’s complicated. The wolves are patient, but something’s going to give way soon. We need an alpha.”

Ainsley shifted uncomfortably and re-crossed her legs. His heart pounded in response and she froze.

“I’m sorry, Ainsley, I know this isn’t the world you chose. But we are your people and we need your help.”

“Why don’t you just choose an alpha?”

“That’s not the way it works. Lineage is important.” He twisted in his seat. “We need you to choose.”

“Fine. I choose you,” she said immediately. “Does that fix everything?”

He swallowed, “Do you know what it means for you to choose?”

“Um, you become alpha, right?”

“The only way for an alpha to emerge is for you to choose a mate.”

Oh Jesus.

She studied the face of the teacher she’d fantasized about in high school. He was gazing miserably at her and sweating a little. The scent of his growing arousal was overpowering. A soft, golden haze formed around him. The creases at the corners of his eyes disappeared and his shoulders broadened.

What the hell was going on?

“So, if we just?” she whispered.

His eyes widened and he leaned toward her hungrily. The thundering of his heart vibrated through her whole body as her own pulse struggled to match its rhythm. His face had gone from mildly attractive to dazzlingly handsome; he looked like a young god. The air seemed to crackle with energy, and she moved to bridge the distance between them.

At the last second, he pulled back with obvious effort and sighed, looking away from her.

“We don’t just have to couple – choosing a mate means choosing a mate. It’s for life.”

Ainsley shook her head, and the haze disappeared. The room returned to normal. Mr. MacGregor looked just as he always had – handsome in a rumpled way.

She had only been home three days for the funeral, and already strange things were happening. She couldn’t wait to get back to New York.

“Sorry, Mr. MacGregor,” she said. “I’m not interested in choosing a mate.”

“I know you’re not. And even if you were, I shouldn’t be on your list.” He smiled ruefully. “There are several promising candidates, and one in particular your parents hoped you would choose.”

Her parents had a mate in mind for her? Lovely.

“Okay, I’ll bite, who’s the lucky guy?”

“Erik Jensen.”

Ainsley swallowed. The thought of Erik Jensen always made her feel a twinge of regret. Erik had been her best childhood friend. When the boys in school decided that girls were dumb and couldn’t play in the woods, Erik had stubbornly insisted that Ainsley Connor was super neat and that they would kick her out over his dead body.

He’d won out over the other kids and Ainsley was allowed to keep her place by his side. By third grade they had ruled the woods and creek and even built a massive tree fort, just the two of them.

But when the school labeled Ainsley as gifted, she had been pulled out of their shared classes. The extra homework cut into her playtime, and she found herself spending more time with Grace Kwan-Cortez and her studious, less “outdoorsy” crowd.

She never exactly had a falling out with Erik. But by middle school, Ainsley realized that not only did she not hang out with him anymore, he wouldn’t even look at her when they passed in the halls.

By high school he was really handsome. His strong jaw contrasted with soft, dark eyes that were framed with long lashes. His hair was so dark it was almost black. He wore a black leather jacket that Ainsley secretly thought was pretty cool.

Although he had “bad boy” good looks and excelled at sports, everyone knew that he was a nice person. He even headed up a group of boys who would shovel out the senior citizens around town in the frequent winter storms.

Realizing now that Erik Jensen was the man her parents wanted for her gave Ainsley a pang of longing. At ten years old, Erik had shown her more respect and kindness than any other man she’d ever met. And like every other person of importance in her life, she’d dropped him like a hot potato.

Ainsley realized Mr. MacGregor was waiting for her to respond.

“Wow, Erik Jensen?” she said.

“That’s who your father told me he hoped you would choose. That was a long time ago, but I know he didn’t say it lightly.”

“Well, I appreciate the insight but I’m not going to be choosing a mate. I’m sure you guys can vote or something. Can we take care of the paperwork for the hardware store?”

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CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Ainsley shook herself out of her reverie and continued her walk. She didn’t have time to reminisce. No good would come of that.

Mr. MacGregor had kept up her mom’s tradition of putting out some seasonal items on tables out front with silly signs reminding everyone why they needed them. There was a collection of rakes and paper leaf bags laid out with the sign: You’ll be raking in the compliments on your beautiful fall lawn! MacGregor clearly did not have her mother’s wit. But she was glad he tried.

She caught a glimpse of him grinding a key for Patty Loveless, one of the local real estate agents. That reminded her that she had better stop by and talk to Charley about the house. In her periphery she could sense them turning toward her as soon as she shifted her gaze.

Ainsley wasn’t about to risk getting pulled into a conversation. She looked both ways and crossed Yale. There was nothing over there except the empty construction site.

No one to bother her.

The construction vehicles seemed out of place, especially for a town that feared change as much as Tarker’s Hollow. The former ball field was going to be an Inn and restaurant soon. The town had approved it fifteen years ago, but they were only just now breaking ground because there had been such a fuss.

As Ainsley crossed Yale, she studied the temporary fencing, trying to picture the size of the building and the parking area that would be there one day. Many of the trophies that still lined the shelves of her room featured miniature golden softball players. Ainsley had thrown her share of strikeouts on the field that had already been erased by the heavy treads of the earth movers.

Just as she arrived on the sidewalk on the college side of Yale, a figure appeared behind the fence in the construction area. Tall, dark and handsome didn’t begin to describe him. But Ainsley was never the kind of girl who fantasized about Neanderthal types, so she tore her eyes away from his tantalizing shape and headed toward the overpass. She would just walk back over Yale to the café and real estate office.

“Hey!”

She angled away from the guy who yelled at her. Ainsley expected that kind of behavior on the streets of Manhattan, but here? Did construction workers actually think girls liked that?

She turned up her nose and sped up her walk.

“Ainsley!” he called.

She spun on her heel and squinted at him. Did she know this person? She didn’t think so. She would have remembered a body like that.

“Ainsley Connor, I didn’t know you were in town.”

Well, she wasn’t going to get out of this. She swallowed a sigh and walked toward him. God, he was good-looking. A white T-shirt stretched over his broad chest. His arms rippled with muscles. Faded jeans hung low on his hips.

Why were these blue-collar types always so hot? It wasn’t fair.

“Do I know you?”

“It’s Erik. Erik Jensen.” His eyes crinkled in a smile. He had the longest eyelashes – that was the only part of him she recognized.

Erik?” Ainsley did not remember that incredible body.

“Yeah, I almost didn’t recognize you either, Ainsley. We grew up, didn’t we?”

Yes. Erik had grown into an underwear model. Ainsley had just grown curvier than she wanted to. But she couldn’t help smiling.

“We did,” she said.

“I was really sad to hear about your parents.” He glanced down and kicked at some dirt with the toe of his work boot. “Sorry. I was out of state for the funeral, or else I…”

“It’s okay,” she said, letting him off the hook. “I’m dealing with it.”

“So you live in New York, right?”

“Yes, I’m in real estate. It’s going well.” She left it at that. He was still stuck in Tarker’s Hollow, and digging holes for a living. How awkward. It would be better to not make a big deal of her success. “How are things with you?”

“They’re great, thanks for asking. I just found out I’m on the short list for the highway.”

What could that possibly mean? Was he on clean-up duty as some sort of community service?

“I’m not sure I know what you mean.”

“Sorry, Ainsley. I guess our small-town news doesn’t make it into the New York Times.” He flashed a playful smile that made her forget to breathe for a minute. “I own this excavation company. We’re working on the Inn project now. And it sounds like we’re on the short list to do excavation for the new highway coming in. It’s a huge opportunity.”

The highway, was that really going to happen? She knew the residents had been fighting it for years, but the highway would finally put the town on the map. Although given the special kind of diversity found in Tarker’s Hollow, maybe that wasn’t such a good thing.

Ainsley’s cheeks flushed at her assumption that Erik was a bog standard construction type. His ambitions had clearly brought him well beyond the role of ditch digger.

It dawned on her that Erik was a wolf, too. She remembered what Mr. MacGregor had told her. Her cheeks flushed even more. She must look like a fool.

“Wow, Erik, that’s amazing. I’m really happy for you.”

He smiled and looked down modestly, showing off those eyelashes again.

For a moment she allowed herself to imagine what it would be like to be his mate. She let her eyes run down the length of his body, wide shoulders forming a triangle with his narrow waist. His jeans hung just low enough that she couldn’t quite see, but could well imagine the silken trail leading down to what just had to be a beautiful cock. Even the jeans couldn’t disguise the size of the bulge between his legs.

Plus, he was a wolf. No need to worry about losing control and hurting him. Erik looked like the type that could take care of himself.

He looked up and she met his eyes.

In a heartbeat, the edges of her vision blurred and nothing mattered but Erik. His eyes were luminous; his sweat was an intoxicating musk. His too long hair lifted in an imaginary breeze as his heartbeat strained to match hers. Tiny, golden motes danced along his muscular body.

It was happening again. Just like with MacGregor. Only this wasn’t a middle aged History teacher standing on the other side of the fence.

Ainsley licked her lips and moved toward him. Her palms clinked against the chain link fence, just as he crashed into it, clenching the metal in his powerful hands and twisting until several of the links gave way with a pop. God, but he was strong. She had a vision of him tearing down the entire section of fence just to get to her.

A tiny moan escaped her lips and he growled softly in return, his dark eyes flashing a spectacular amber. His wolf must be close to the surface. She could feel her own, begging to be unleashed. Somehow she tore her eyes from his and the spell was broken.

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CHAPTER EIGHT

 

Erik cursed softly to himself. He had almost lost control. In front of everyone. He hadn’t felt so reckless since he first learned to shift. His father was ex-military. Erik had grown up valuing the benefits of self-discipline.

On the other side of the fence, Ainsley panted and held her head in her hands.

“Wow,” Erik said. “I didn’t think that was real.”

“What was real?” Ainsley asked, regaining her composure.

“The drawing of the alpha.” He could tell from her befuddled look that she had no idea what he was talking about. He couldn’t remember the last time he had seen Ainsley Connor confused about anything. “Did you think about mating with me?”

“Uh…” Her cheeks began to flush again.

“It’s okay, I thought about it too.” He smiled but didn’t make eye contact. He didn’t want her to feel too embarrassed about it.

“Yes, Erik, I’m an adult and have had those thoughts casually about plenty of men.” She was trying to sound cool and composed, but her racing heartbeat betrayed her. Ainsley obviously wasn’t used to dealing with wolves. When your senses were this sharp, there wasn’t much use in putting on airs. Most wolves were pretty straightforward as a result.

“Wow, plenty, huh?”

“Well, enough men.” A hint of a smile danced around the corner of her mouth. “Did something crazy really happen just then? Because of who I am?”

“Yes, I always wondered if that part was fairy tale. I guess not.”

He scaled the fence and landed next to her in a fluid motion.

Her closeness was almost intoxicating, and he could feel heat radiating from her in waves. He had to try very, very hard not to think about mating. Not to think about her clawing her fingernails down his chest as he licked the spot where her neck met her collarbone…

He could tell she was having the same problem.

“Let’s not go down that road again,” he teased, letting out a long breath.

“So what’s the drawing of the alpha?” she asked.

“A wolf can’t become alpha without a mate. There’s no room for lone wolves as pack leaders. All wolves have the potential to be an alpha, but most never get a glimpse of it. You are the rightful heir, so when you looked into my eyes and thought about mating with me, it brought out my inner alpha. It was crazy. Did you really see a halo around me?”

She studied him for a moment, as though she were trying to tell if he was joking at her expense. Couldn’t she hear his pulse, or smell him at all? Ainsley was not a very good wolf, but he supposed that was hardly her fault.

“Yes,” she said. “There was light all around you and your hair was moving and your eyes were…”

“It’s funny, there was light around you too – you looked just like an angel,” he mused. “I guess they don’t really talk about that part.”

“So if I were to, um, choose you, you would become the alpha?”

“It’s not that simple. It has to be real, Ainsley. You’d have to love me. Or whoever,” he added, looking away again.

Erik wondered how any small town wolf from Tarker’s Hollow was ever going to convince Ainsley Connor to fall in love. He remembered her stubborn determination, even as a child. The pack might be in more trouble than anyone suspected.

He wished Ainsley’s dad were still around. Michael Connor would know how to handle all of this. He always did.

They stood in silence for a moment.

“I guess I should go. I need coffee, and I have to see Charley about getting the house on the market.” She let out a sigh that would’ve escaped normal ears.

“You must miss your dad so much.” The words were out before he had a chance to think. He could tell Ainsley wasn’t as okay with everything as she pretended to be. Tears welled in her beautiful eyes.

What an asshole.

“It’s just, I know it’s tough.” He tried to recover. “My parents have been gone for a few years now and…”

“Oh, Erik.” A shocked look crossed Ainsley’s face. “I had no idea. I’m-”

“To Florida.” He cut her off. Could he possibly mess up this conversation any more? “My parents moved to Florida when my dad’s military pension kicked in. And I had to deal with clearing out their old place.”

“Oh. I thought you meant…”

They stared in awkward silence for a moment, Erik unsure what to say next. Then Ainsley laughed. It was a full, throaty laugh that made him think of church bells, and Erik thought he might do anything in the world to hear that sound again.

“Can I walk you over?” Erik asked, feeling relieved.

Ainsley shook her head. “No, thanks. I’m fine.”

They both smiled. He wanted to hug her, but it felt too intimate and she probably didn’t want his sweat and dirt all over her dress.

“Listen,” Erik said. “I don’t want to offend you, but are you staying in the house alone?”

“Yes.”

“Ainsley, everyone in town knows who you are. You might get unwanted visitors.”

“You think there’s anyone who wants to be an alpha so much they would tie me up and tell me to think about mating?”

“I think there are plenty of men who would try to convince you in a nicer way.”

He bristled at the idea of the other young wolves in town, and what they might do to try and work their way into Ainsley’s good graces. The thought made him want to punch someone.

Why?

He had no claim to Ainsley. Why did seeing her again after all these years make him feel like this? Most likely it was an aftereffect of what had happened, or almost happened, between them a few minutes ago. But Erik thought it might be something more than that.

He sensed Ainsley stiffen at his words. Whatever it was, she felt it too. And she obviously didn’t like it for some reason.

“Well, unfortunately, my parents are dead and I’m not married or anything, so I’m going to be by myself in the house until it’s empty. Don’t worry. It won’t be long,” she said sharply, then stormed away.

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CHAPTER NINE

 

Ainsley felt Erik’s eyes on her as she marched away.

Who did he think he was, anyway?

Treating her like she was some little girl, all alone in Mommy and Daddy’s house, in need of protection. Ainsley Connor was perfectly capable of taking care of herself. She certainly wasn’t about to start taking life advice from someone who howled at the moon in his spare time.

Still, Ainsley thought about Erik’s wide shoulders, straining the seams of his t-shirt. She fought the temptation to turn around for another look.

By the time she got across the overpass, her head had cleared a little. Erik was a total hunk, but at the end of the day, he was not really her cup of tea. Her parents had been wrong.

She passed the bookstore and the yoga studio and saw that the storefront next to the train station had changed hands again. Its awkward triangular shape had hosted an endless parade of boulangeries, cheese shops and frozen yogurt parlors. It looked like it was now an independent coffee shop – that was promising. She glanced at the sign:

“Edible Complex.”

Ugh. Hopefully their coffee was better than their sense of humor.

Ainsley decided to risk a cup, and maybe just a little something sweet to go with it. She pushed open the door to a wave of cool air, rich with the scent of fresh coffee. Her shoulders went down an inch in relief.

A chalkboard by the counter listed the coffee choices. The pastry flavors were labeled with wax pencil on the glass of the case. Pretty decent spread. The boy at the counter swallowed when he saw her.

“Um…Hi…what can I get for you?”

He didn’t look familiar. But he was pulling that thing where he stared while she looked at the menu and then looked away when she turned to make eye contact again. Stupid Tarker’s Hollow.

“Soy latte, please.”

She turned to look around while he steamed the milk. The dim room was filled with small wooden tables and sofas. It seemed to be a popular spot for college students – a relief since they were mostly passing through, not wolves-in-residence.

A table of kids with blue and purple hair sipped tea and fussed with their laptops. An awkward couple on a vintage sofa pretended to look at their iPads while it was clear each wished it were a regular date, not a homework date. At the table by the window, a man read a book – a real book – not on some electronic device. Ainsley squinted to see what it was, but the angle was wrong.

The man holding it was hot, though. No, that wasn’t quite right, he was handsome. He was too refined to be described as hot. He was just Ainsley’s type.

“Uh, soy latte,” the kid called out, as though she weren’t the only one standing at the counter. “Anything else?”

“No, thank you.”

Ainsley’s mood for a treat was ruined. She wouldn’t want the man with the book to think she was the type of person who ate pastries in the middle of the day for no reason, even if she was never going to see him again.

She used a napkin to wipe the stray drips from the sides of the cup, then headed toward the window. If she could just grab a seat close to the book guy, she’d be able to see what he was reading.

She wiped down a table catty-corner to his and took a seat. The heavy oak chair clattered on the pine floor as she pulled it out, causing him to glance in her direction.

Ainsley took him in. Bright blue eyes in a finely chiseled face, crisp white tailored shirt, and longish blonde hair that was too well styled to be cut anywhere in Tarker’s Hollow.

She surveyed his table.

It was free of crumbs and occupied by a paper coffee cup, and a tattered copy of War and Peace.

She checked his hands.

No ring. Manicured nails. An understated Breitling watch peeked from his shirt cuff, not trying too hard to draw attention.

Her eyes were drawn back to War and Peace in wonder.

“Have you read it?” His eyes crinkled when he smiled.

Of course she had. She read it every fall. It was her dad’s favorite, and eventually hers as well, though she’d gone through a rebellious Dostoyevsky phase.

“It’s my favorite book.” That didn’t sound too desperate.

“Join me,” he said. “If the table seems clean enough.”

She studied him again. He was certainly not from Tarker’s Hollow.

He raised an eyebrow and her stomach did a little flip flop.

She grabbed her clutch and her latte as she stepped to the table, and he stood up immediately and pulled out her chair. She couldn’t decide if the gesture was sincere or ironic, and frankly didn’t know which she would have preferred.

“So, what brings you to Tarker’s Hollow?” It sounded like he was going through niceties by rote.

“I could ask you the same,” she said.

“A local, eh? I’ve been here six months and haven’t seen you. I would remember.”

“I was born here, grew up here, went away to college, then to a job in New York and now I’m back here to close out my parents’ estate.”

“An economical biography. It’s nice to meet a fellow New Yorker,” he said.

“You’re from New York?”

“Not originally, no. But I teach Russian Lit at NYU. I’m at Tarker’s Hollow College on sabbatical, and doing a few lectures here and there to earn my keep.”

Ainsley pursed her lips.

“What’s wrong?” he asked.

“My dad was the chair of the Russian Lit department at Tarker’s Hollow.”

His eyebrows lifted.

“Michael Connor? He was a legend in the field,” he said. “He was the whole reason I came to study here. You probably know more about this book than I do. I’m Julian Magie.”

Ainsley smiled. It was gratifying to think that someone could admire her dad for something other than being the president of the furry monsters.

“Nice to meet you.” She extended her hand. “Ainsley Connor.”

“His passing was sad news for us all.”

He took her hand and looked into her eyes. She waited for something weird to happen, for her senses to heighten, for a haze to appear around him, for the roof of the coffee shop to cave in.

Nothing.

Except for his gorgeous blue eyes, which were doing a very straightforward kind of magic on her, and one corner of his mouth, delicate and sensual, which was curving upward.

Julian. The Russian Lit professor from New York.

That was more her style.

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CHAPTER TEN

 

Erik watched until Ainsley’s small form disappeared. When she was gone from his sight, he let out a long breath.

Erik had always been popular with human women, who seemed drawn to his latent power. He found them intriguingly delicate, but it was like going through the motions compared to being with a wolf.

And of course there were plenty of female wolves in his life. As a high-ranking young male he pretty much had his pick of willing partners in town. There was even interest from nearby packs, looking to forge alliances in these troubling times.

But there was no one like Ainsley. She had the charms of a woman and the lure of a wolf, all at the same time. It was an intriguing combination.

And they had a history. Though you wouldn’t have guessed it from the way their conversation began. Or the way it ended. He wasn’t sure why she was so mad at him, but he was sorry, whatever it was.

The sweet smell of her scented lotions still hung in his nose along with the more alluring musky scent of Ainsley herself. His heart pounded as he remembered how she had drawn his alpha. Her plump lips had parted and the air vibrated with his lust. If that fence hadn’t been there he might have taken her before either of them changed their minds.

He imagined what her soft little body might feel like in his arms. He would pin her down and latch onto her neck, burying himself in her exciting smell. Would she submit to him willingly like a human? Or would she give him a little fight like a wolf?

She was a wolf, after all, even though she pretended not to be. Erik had never seen something so strange. Why would anyone not want to be a wolf?

Erik nosed the air, his own wolf searching for a last whiff.

With a sigh, he reined himself in. Ainsley was a childhood friend, and a pack VIP. And he wasn’t the kind of guy to lose his focus. Especially over a woman whose job was to choose the next alpha.

He wondered idly what it would be like to be the alpha. The business was really taking off and work required most of his time. Erik knew he should hire a site manager, but he liked to be on the job himself – making sure the work was done to his standards. He would never have enough time to devote to pack business. Plus, his wolf felt happiest outside in the fresh air.

On the other hand, his role in the inn and highway put him in a unique position to help the town through some complicated transitions. They were set in their ways, but he knew the changes could be good for them. And they were a smart group – they would understand if he presented it properly.

And to do it all with delicious, high-strung, Ainsley Connor warm and waiting in his bed? He would have to be crazy to not find that part appealing.

He was sure she would choose an academic like her dad. And that was just fine.

But there was no reason he couldn’t spend some time with her. They’d been good friends as children – until middle school when she’d gotten very serious about school and hooked up with Grace Kwan-Cortez and the rest of the homework brigade.

Ainsley and Erik had been drifting slowly apart. When her dad had issued the decree that she was off limits, that sped up the process. Erik hadn’t said more than a few words to her since.

Until today.

She said she wanted coffee. There was no reason he couldn’t take his lunch over and join her. They’d have a cup and sort out their misunderstanding. It would be good to catch up, and maybe he could talk to her a little more about the coming changes in town. No matter who she chose as a mate, her opinion about the inn and the highway would be influential.

With a spring in his step, he grabbed his messenger bag and called to Carl that he was heading out. His foreman gave a mock salute, and Erik took off at a comfortable jog.

A city woman might drink her coffee fast.

In moments, he stood in front of Edible Complex. He took a second to run his fingers through his unruly black hair. He’d probably made it worse, but he wasn’t supposed to be here to impress her.

As he reached for the door he saw her.

She was sitting with a man. He was the opposite of Erik: slight build, blonde hair, fancy clothes, and a little smirk of a smile.

Ainsley was leaning forward in her chair. She was looking at the man like he was wrapped up in a pretty box with a ribbon on top.

Erik’s chest ached like he had been punched. He spun away from the door before she could see him and picked up his pace.

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Ainsley took another sip of her coffee. It wasn’t as bad as she had feared.

“So how’s the estate going?” Julian asked.

“It’s going fine. Slowly. I’m hitting a wall about my dad’s books.”

“What kind of a wall?” He leaned forward with interest.

“He had quite a collection of rare books, but he kept them mixed in with the rest of his library. Some of the titles I know are valuable. I’m having a hard time with the rest. I hate to ship them out and trust it to a book dealer, but I guess I’ll have to.”

“Rare books are a hobby of mine. I would be glad to lend a hand.”

“Really?”

“It would be my pleasure. When can I stop by?”

“Today?”

Julian laughed at her eagerness.

“I’m giving a talk at the college tonight which I’m supposed to be preparing for now.” He smiled at her conspiratorially.

“Oh, I see.”

“Say, why don’t you come to the talk this evening? It’s open to the public, but I’m told that very few people ever attend.”

“I’ll see how the day goes, I have so much to do,” she said lightly, knowing she needed to spend her time getting the house ready, but wishing she could spend more time with this man who seemed to share her interests.

His hand shot across the table to grasp her wrist.

“You’ll come. Give me your phone.”

Ainsley was surprised to find herself slipping her phone out of her bag and handing it over.

She immediately experienced the usual dread that overcame her whenever she let the phone out of her possession. But she played it as cool as she could, and studied his smooth expression instead of craning her neck to see what he was doing.

“The talk is in your calendar and my number is in your contacts,” he said, handing it back.

“Then I guess I’ll see you tonight,” Ainsley said, gathering her latte and clutch.

“It’s a date.”

Ainsley stifled a grin and fled the coffee shop.

Outside, she took a minute to adjust to the glare of the afternoon sun and the hot, thick air.

Did that just happen? Had she really met someone interesting in Tarker’s Hollow?

As the sun warmed her hair and shoulders, she allowed herself to picture him without the beautiful white shirt. How did a college professor have the money to dress like that anyway? Maybe he had family money.

It had been a long time, maybe forever, since she had thought about a guy in such an appraising way. He seemed too good to be true. He was even from New York. Maybe they could see each other after this whole nasty Tarker’s Hollow business was behind her.

There was something dreadful about taking a risk with someone she might let herself care about.

But she definitely didn’t want anything to do with the slobbering wolf guys in town. She shivered at the thought of dating a dog of a man who would allow himself to change into a big matted thing every month. Half of them probably had fleas.

Julian Magie was certainly not a wolf.

He was different from the one-note New York business types too – a reader of Russian lit. He had brains, and he was passionate about something she loved.

And somehow, although she found him attractive, it wasn’t a helpless crazy attraction like she’d felt for Erik Jensen earlier. Maybe that would help her keep her wolf in check.

Plus, he could help her sort through her dad’s books. She felt a weight lift from her chest at the mere thought of it. Getting through the books meant getting out of Tarker’s Hollow before the full moon.

Ainsley considered her options thoughtfully and made the decision to surrender an evening working on the house in order to explore the option of a mutually beneficial relationship with Julian Magie.

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CHAPTER TWELVE

 

Ainsley was about to pull on her sunglasses when she noticed she had already reached the awning for the local real estate firm, C.M. Coslaw.

This whole town seemed so much bigger when she was a kid.

Coslaw was a small office, but very good. They knew the local market inside and out and the owner, Charley (who inherited the business from his dad, Charley), was a kind, honest guy. Their sophisticated black sale signs were synonymous with Tarker’s Hollow and the college town sales angle.

As usual, they had pictures of a few homes up in the window. She stopped to glance at them. She recognized most of them. The Mangelsdorfs were selling their Victorian, which made sense, since they were older and probably getting ready to downsize.

She did a double-take at the price. The Mangelsdorfs’ house was very similar to the Connors’. Was the market here really that low? She shook her head and pushed open the door.

“Hi, I’m Susan. How can we help you?”

The desk agent was not someone she recognized. Blonde hair, petite, big smile.

“Is Charley here?” Ainsley asked.

“Sure, he’s in the back!” Susan enthused and trotted down the hall to find him.

“Is that Ainsley Connor?” Charley boomed from down the hall.

Ainsley smiled and smoothed down her dress. He was headed right for her with that Andy Griffith smile and she just knew he was going to hug her.

“You’re a sight for sore eyes, little lady!” he thundered, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. Somehow he had instinctively known better than to give her the full bear hug she would have gotten as a girl.

“Thanks, Charley,” she said, re-smoothing her dress.

“So, you’re done with the big city and you’re home to beg me for a desk, right?” He winked at her.

“Nope, just wondering what you think the place is worth,” she replied, and gestured to the window. “I see that the Mangelsdorfs’ place is up, but the price…”

“The recession was hard on us, and the Philadelphia area has always been modestly priced anyway,” he explained. “I guess the prices look low to you in general compared to Manhattan, huh?”

Ainsley pressed her lips and smiled. She couldn’t buy a 400 square-foot studio on the lower east side for what her parents’ beloved six bedroom Victorian was worth. She sighed as she thought about the chestnut built-in bookshelves and the wraparound porch overlooking the rhododendrons. Would it be crazy to hold onto it for a summer home?

She shook the daydreams out of her head.

“It’s fine, Charley. I just want to clean up and move on. Can you swing by in a day or two to take a look and give me some advice about paint and floors?”

“Sure! Anything else we can do?”

“Is Franklin still around? I’d love to have him come get rid of some of the clothes and books.”

Franklin Rime drove a pick-up truck around town picking up junk. He donated what was useful to charities in the city and took the rest to the junkyard.

Charley shook his head sadly, “Frankie just retired again. This time it’s for real. His wife made him sell the truck.”

“You should go on Neighborly dot com,” Susan chimed in from behind him. “There’s a site for Tarker’s Hollow. You can sell stuff or give it away. And it’s not creepy like Craig’s List, because it’s only for our town.”

A troubled look crossed Charley’s face, but it passed quickly and he clapped Ainsley on the shoulder. “If you do that, keep in mind that real estate listings on the site are only seen locally, as well. And once you put a house on there, you take the wind out of our sales for marketing purposes.”

Oh. He was afraid she would try to sell the house by-owner. She’d been around the block enough to know she’d be leaving a ton of money on the table by doing that – and wasting precious time.

“Don’t worry, Charley. I’m one of your kind,” she said, “and I’m not a fool. Bring your paperwork. I’ll sign when you come.”

“Thank you, Ainsley. I appreciate it. You’re a straight shooter, just like your dad.”

Ainsley walked home, figuring she had time to post a few things online before heading out to Julian’s talk.

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

Ainsley set her designer sandals in their travel case, slipped out of the linen shift and hung it on a padded hanger. The yoga pants and Tarker’s Hollow Timberwolves t-shirt she’d worn during the morning’s work were folded neatly on the bed. She regarded them with a sigh. If she could get another two hours of work in she would reward herself with a steamy bath.

She decided to start at the top of the house and work her way down. She knew Charley would find more value in the house if it looked nice. Professional or not, everyone was affected by tidiness.

Her parents weren’t slobs, but the house wasn’t show ready and of course things always got worse before they got better when you tried to empty thirty years of personal effects. She grabbed the radio from the kitchen counter and headed up the stairs.

Two hours later, covered in dust and sweat, Ainsley was ready to surrender. One of the closets had held boxes full of old photos, which she added to the stack on the dining room table. She’d already brought down four bags of clothes for GoodWill and a couple of chairs. Now the bedrooms had just the right amount of furniture for staging and were free of personal items. Except that somehow, there was a gigantic dresser, roughly the size of an elephant, which she could not budge to save her life.

It looked like the kind of thing her parents would have picked up at the Jumble Sale, but of course she couldn’t envision anyone actually picking it up. And the idea of getting it down the stairs terrified her. The plaster lathe in the walls of these houses was pretty sturdy, but once you cracked it, the mess was terrific and you needed someone who knew what they were doing to patch it.

After a cold drink of water, Ainsley stood with her laptop at the counter and pulled up Neighborly.com. She chose a username and password and then posted that she needed help moving and disposing of a gigantic dresser. Hopefully someone would write back by tomorrow.

A smile spread across her face as she anticipated how the hot bath was going to feel. She padded into her childhood bedroom and began removing her jewelry. Impulsively, she pulled out her iPhone and looked again at the calendar entry – Scott Hall 7:15pm.

Laughing at herself a little, she peeled off the t-shirt and yoga pants and placed them in her old pink hamper. Then she pulled out the band of elastic that held her ponytail in check and let her hair cascade down her back.

In high school she had wanted curls, but nowadays her long straight hair was in fashion. She kept it up for work. There was no place for being a girly-girl in the real estate world, not if you wanted to be taken seriously. A chignon and a Victoria’s Secret Body minimizing bra helped camouflage her assets enough to let her clients and colleagues focus on her brains.

Her parents ran a frugal household. The hardware store made modest profits and, as with most college faculty, her father’s job paid more in prestige than in dollars. But one place her parents splurged was on their bathroom renovation. Her dad had won a Slavic literature studies award that came with a cash prize, a rarity. They ripped out the old sticky tiles and rotten sub-floor and installed a heated marble floor. The restored clawfoot tub beckoned her.

Once the steam started rising from it, she added a dollop of crème brulee honey bath oil. It smelled heavenly. She dipped in a toe and sighed in delight, then eased her whole body in. The tension drained away from her in warm waves.

Soon, the dust and sweat of the day was washed away, so she emptied and refilled the tub for a good soak. Her dad was surely rolling over in his grave at the wasted water, but Ainsley figured she had earned it. She closed her eyes, leaned her head back on a towel and let her mind wander.

She thought of Erik, and the way he had almost torn through the chain link fence to get to her.

What would it be like to be with someone without having to worry about losing control?

The thought terrified and exhilarated her. Her wolf perked up and a small sigh escaped her lips.

Only that wasn’t her world. It would never work. She needed something more refined.

Julian.

She imagined his cool blue gaze and raised eyebrow and her nipples hardened. The water was suddenly too warm. She let her hand slip below the surface of the water to explore her body. Her skin tingled, and her pulse began to race.

What was going on with her? Ever since she came back to Tarker’s Hollow, it was like her senses had turned up to eleven. She usually didn’t feel like this until the moon was full.

She certainly couldn’t show up to Julian’s talk in this frame of mind. There was no telling what she would do. She slipped her hand lower, deciding to take the edge off a little.

Just then the doorbell rang.

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

Ainsley’s eyes snapped open. No one had been living in the house for months. Who would stop by?

She dried off quickly as the bell rang again, and wrapped her Victoria’s Secret white kimono around herself as she ran for the door. Maybe it was Charley with the name of a junk man?

She opened the door to see two young men leaning on the porch columns. Both were dark-haired, suntanned jock types. One wore a red Tarker’s College Tennis t-shirt. The other was shirtless. Ainsley’s eyes followed the trail of his lean, muscular abs to where they disappeared into the waistband of his shorts.

“Can I help you?” she asked, holding her robe together at her collarbone.

“We read your post on Neighborly and thought we would help you out with your dresser,” said T-shirt.

“Oh, um, thank you. That was fast. I thought I would get an email or something.”

“You have to make your email public for that. Your post just showed your user address,” No Shirt chimed in.

“We can come back at another time if you want,” T-shirt offered.

Ainsley thought about how little time she had. She also thought about how much she was enjoying the view of these two strapping young men.

“No, no, by all means, now is great.” She showed them inside. “I’m really sorry it’s such a mess in here, my parents passed away in January and I’m here to clean out the house. But it’s harder than I thought it would be.”

“I’m sorry about your parents,” T-shirt said solemnly.

“It’s okay,” Ainsley murmured.

T-shirt had put his hand on her shoulder in sympathy, but now he was looking at the trail of her wet hair leading down to her cleavage, easily visible in the silky robe. Her nipples were stiff in the cool air conditioning and made little peaks in the fabric as it clung to her hastily dried curves. She knew she smelled like honey.

His heartbeat sped up and she could smell his fearless arousal. Behind them, No Shirt stirred restlessly and she caught a whiff of jealousy.

“I’m Will,” said No Shirt, trying to win back her gaze.

“Justin,” said T-Shirt.

“We’re seniors,” Will said.

Ainsley smiled at their awkwardness. Had the boys looked like this when she was in college?

“Let’s run upstairs and you can take a look at the dresser. It’s okay if you can’t help. It looks to me like getting it out of here without smashing it to pieces is impossible, but maybe you’ll think of a way.”

Will was right behind her on the stairs and she could feel his admiration.

When they reached the third floor, Ainsley opened the door to the front bedroom. They all looked at the dresser.

“This dresser?” Justin asked.

“Yes. It’s just so big, I don’t know what to do with it,” Ainsley said playfully, letting the double entendre hang in the air.

“I’ve always been good at squeezing big things into tight places,” Justin said, returning her jest like the tennis player his shirt proclaimed him to be.

“I’ve handled bigger,” Will said.

Ainsley suppressed a laugh, but they were already ignoring her as they got down to business.

It was obvious that they were good friends and that they had moved stuff together before. With a lot of nodding and grunting and very little talking they angled the beastly dresser and headed for the door.

“Don’t you want to take the drawers out first?” Ainsley interjected, sounding far more like her mother than she would have liked.

The boys just laughed.

“Nope, this is no problem, miss,” Will said.

Justin actually winked at her.

Down the stairs they went, and it was beginning to look like they were right and it was no trouble at all when they turned the corner onto the second floor landing and slammed Justin’s hand into the plaster wall. He grimaced and Will strained and unpinned him. The plaster was pulverized, which meant Justin must be in a lot of pain.

They eased the dresser down on the landing. Justin held his hand to his chest. Ainsley hurried over to him, racked with guilt that she had let them move something that obviously ought to have been hacked to pieces with an axe and gone out in the trash.

“We need to get ice on that right away,” she said. They followed her downstairs obediently. She pulled a tray of ice out of the freezer. Her parents must have been the only people in the state without a working icemaker. She cracked the tray and shook it into a plastic bowl, grabbed a plastic bag and a towel and made her way back to the living room.

The boys were standing by the sofa looking at the wound.

“I’m so sorry, Justin. Sit down and we’ll get some ice on it.”

He sat on one end of the sofa and she knelt on the floor in front of him. She knew her kimono was barely covering her assets in the back. She sensed Will move a few steps to get a better viewing angle.

“Give me your hand.”

He offered her the hand right away. They were so quick to comply to her every command. She wondered what else she might tell them to do.

“Can you open and close it?” she asked.

Justin flexed his fingers. Ainsley took his big hand delicately in her smaller one. She lifted the bag of ice from the bowl, wrapped it in the towel and ever-so-gently applied it to his hand.

“That feels good.”

“I’m glad. And I’m so sorry you got hurt trying to help me.”

“It’s okay. We will get that thing out of your hallway and come back to fix your wall, I promise.”

“Please don’t worry about the wall. Everything’s fine. Are you feeling better now?”

“Yeah,” he said, no longer trying to hide the fact that he was staring straight down her robe.

She stood up slowly, letting her breast graze his leg. She heard him swallow. The scent of arousal poured off them both. It was wrong to tease them like this, but she couldn’t seem to help herself.

“I guess we’d better go, it’s a shame about the dresser,” Will said.

“Really, it’s no big deal, the junk man will have to come for other stuff anyway, I’m sure.”

“No, I mean we need a dresser. It’s a long story but we had a third roommate for our apartment who bailed on us. Most of the furniture was his.”

“Do you want to come back another day for it?” Ainsley asked.

“Yes!” they said in unison.

“I see,” she said. “Well it’s fine with me if you want to come back for it, but it needs to be this week. Let me give you my number. Next time maybe text me on your way over?”

She wrote her name and number neatly on a honeysuckle scented note card and thrust it in their direction. Will grabbed it before Justin could challenge him.

“Thank you…Ainsley. We really appreciate it. And we’ll be glad to help you move anything while we’re here. Next time we’ll be more careful.” He grinned and she couldn’t help but grin back.

“That’s fine,” she said lightly, as the two of them stepped onto the porch. “I’m sure two strong, young guys like you could help me with a lot of things. Maybe next time we can just skip the part with the furniture.”

Ainsley closed the door, leaving them both standing on the porch with their mouths hanging open. She leaned back against the door and covered her mouth with her hands to stifle a laugh.

Had she really just said that?

What was this town doing to her?

She pushed it out of her head and went upstairs again to dress. It was almost time to leave for Julian’s talk.

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

Peeling off her robe, Ainsley contemplated her body in the mirror. She thought idly to herself that she’d been a senior in college herself just a few years ago, but somehow those few years in the adult world had changed her point of view.

She gazed at her own naked reflection, trying to see what they saw instead of the million flaws and imperfections she always inventoried.

Deep down, Ainsley loved her body and all its soft, sensual curves. She just wasn’t sure why anyone else would like it. She certainly didn’t look like the women on the magazines and TV – all hard lines and cheekbones.

She turned and surveyed the closet. She’d brought so little with her. It would have to be the linen shift again. At least it fit well. Finding nice things that didn’t overly accentuate her voluptuous body was annoying, but Ainsley refused to hide in over-sized clothing.

She slid back into the dress and sandals and applied a little powder and lip-gloss. It took restraint not to make up fully, but she wasn’t going to work, and she wasn’t going to look like she was trying too hard.

Satisfied, she grabbed her clutch. Impulsively, she stuffed a mini-bag of toiletries in it, just in case.

“Don’t over think this, Ainsley,” she said to her reflection as she wondered what was happening to her sense of propriety.

Although she had her parents’ old Volvo station wagon, she decided to walk to the college. The temperature had dropped to a few degrees below sweltering, and the scent of night-blooming jasmine filled the air. Ainsley was normally a very fast walker, but, not wanting to sweat in her dress, she walked slowly and took it all in.

The lights were all on at Sadie Epstein-Walker’s house. Ainsley wondered whether she was having a garden party or if she was just lonesome and wanted the house lit up warmly. The new people down the block were having a deck put on; the men had just added the copper post tops today. It looked nice even though it was a change.

She crossed Yale and passed the construction site where she’d seen Erik earlier. Her heart lurched and she forced herself to keep up her pace.

Soon, she found herself at the edge of the college woods and the path to Scott Hall. She stopped under a streetlight to powder her nose and smooth on a little more lip-gloss. Her eyes were sparkling and her cheeks were flushed. The gloss made her lips look almost swollen. She angled her compact to see her breasts straining against the creamy linen of her dress. She hoped Julian wouldn’t guess how wanton she felt tonight.

All her life, she had gotten what she wanted by playing it cool. If she could own the Manhattan luxury real estate market without a famous last name, she could certainly hold the interest of one handsome academic.

Without further ado, she smoothed down her skirt, tucked her hair behind her ears, and marched down the path and up a set of wide stone steps.

The cool air enveloped her as she entered Scott Hall. Her heels clacked on the marble floor. It was amazing how quickly she could come out of the hot, humid woods and back into crisp civilization.

The foyer was mostly empty. A few elderly townies stood by the refreshment table. It was stocked with what she knew to be stale crackers and sparkling apple cider in plastic cups.

There was a sign-in sheet on the lectern by the door, so she stopped and printed Ainsley Connor neatly. She had a sudden stab of panic about writing her real name, then laughed at herself a little. Erik’s earlier warning was pretty silly. Besides, everyone in town pretty much knew who she was anyway.

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

As if on cue, a great big blonde guy strolled up to her with a big smile on his face. He looked like every popular kid from an 80s movie – but twice the size.

“Hey Ainsley,” he boomed.

“Clive?”

“You remembered me.” He looked triumphant, though Ainsley wondered how even a nerd like herself could be expected to forget the star of the football team.

“How could I forget? What are you doing here?” She wouldn’t have pegged Clive for the type to read much Russian Lit.

Clive’s smile turned sheepish.

“I was sorta’ hoping to find you. I heard you were in town. When I saw a flyer for this talk I remembered you always liked this stuff, and thought I might bump into you here.”

Ainsley knew she should be annoyed, but she couldn’t help smiling back at him. His honesty was disarming. She surveyed his enormous body – he was even bigger than in high school, but somehow he’d found a polo shirt wide enough to encompass his shoulders. She refrained from brushing a cracker crumb off his chest.

“Why did you want to see me, Clive?”

His face grew serious and he took her by the elbow and led her behind a column.

“Ainsley, we need you,” he said simply.

“This isn’t my world, Clive.”

“They’re building an Inn. They’re bringing in the highway. There are going to be more and more people here.”

“This town might change, Clive, but it will be okay. Change isn’t always a bad thing.”

“We need real leadership if we want it to be safe. MacGregor is a good guy, but he’s not an alpha. Things are going to get really bad, Ainsley.”

“What do you suggest?”

Clive looked nervous. He wiped his big hands on his khakis and took a deep breath.

“Ainsley, you know I have an easy way with people. If I led the pack, I could make everything right again. I’m not as smart as you are. Maybe I’m not the one you would want to choose as a mate. But I would protect this town. You wouldn’t have to get involved at all. And I’d do anything to try and make you happy.”

Wow. Nothing like the direct approach.

Ainsley could see how Clive would be a good leader. Although he had been a bit of a bully in elementary school, he was certainly brave and usually honest. And he had obviously grown up to be a more thoughtful person.

She knew that she was not the mate he would choose either. Though the way he was staring at her breasts made her think it wouldn’t be such a sacrifice for him.

“I don’t know what to say, Clive, that’s so kind of you. But I’m not cut out for this life. Why don’t you just ask the pack to vote you in as the alpha?”

Clive sighed, and smiled grimly.

“It doesn’t work that way, Ainsley.”

There was an awkward silence.

“Well, it is nice to see you again. What are you doing with yourself these days?” she asked, trying to steer the conversation in a more friendly direction.

“I’m the sheriff.”

“Following in your dad’s footsteps. That’s really nice. How’s he doing?”

“He’s fine,” Clive said abruptly, obviously not in the mood for small talk. “Ainsley, if you change your mind. Or if you ever just want to talk about it, call me.”

He pulled a card out of his pocket and thrust it into her hand.

“I know you don’t think of this town as home, but we’re your family. There’s good people here. We deserve to hold our traditions. Please promise me that you’ll at least think about my offer.”

Ainsley nodded. When he put it that way, she couldn’t help feeling kind of selfish.

Clive reached out and touched her shoulder. His massive hand made her feel small. It made her wonder about the size of his other parts. She looked away, terrified that she might draw his alpha without meaning to. He pulled back and she looked up at him carefully.

“Maybe I’ll see you in town.”

“How long are you here?”

“Just long enough to get my parents’ house on the market.”

“I’ll be sure to patrol, make sure you’re okay.”

Why did everyone seem to think she needed protecting?

“I’ll be fine, Clive. But thank you.”

The lights blinked, signifying that it was time to go in for the lecture. Clive took a deep breath. Ainsley smiled.

“You don’t have to attend the talk, Clive. I’ll see you later.” She reached up and pecked his ruddy cheek.

“Okay, Ainsley. Talk to you soon.”

He smiled a relieved smile, winked at her, and strode away.

She sighed, smoothed her dress over her hips and tucked her hair behind her ears. She knew her dress wasn’t wrinkled, and that her hair looked better when she let it hang loose, but the old, nervous habits were just one more thing Tarker’s Hollow seemed to bring out in her.

Ainsley joined the other attendees as they shuffled toward the door, their orthopedics scraping, zombie-like on the polished floor.

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CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

 

Ainsley stepped through into the great hall, and grabbed a seat in the front row. It was habit – she’d always seated herself at the front of the class – it helped her avoid distractions and it was easier to get called on.

Once she was, she realized that maybe sitting in the back would have been a smoother move. But changing seats at this point was probably even less cool than sitting up front in the first place.

Julian stood at the front of the room, leaning back on the podium and gazing at her impassively.

The rest of the attendees shuffled in and eased their way into the seats.

Ainsley had fond memories of Scott Hall. Her dad had held his classes here. She remembered curling up under the over-sized podium with a book on sick days when her mom had to man the store. Dad would set her up under there with a big pillow, even a sleeping bag if it was winter – Scott Hall was drafty. She would curl up in the shadows and rest or read a book with a flashlight and listen to her dad talk.

Michael Connor was a great talker when it came to literature. He was a showman, really. Sometimes Ainsley thought he saved all his talking for Tolstoy and Dostoevsky – leaving him with no more words when he got home.

He would begin the semester with The Brothers Karamazov. It had funny parts that drew the students in. He liked to read passages aloud and he did all the voices too. When he read Fyodor Pavlovitch’s speeches he would simper in a sly drunken voice, nothing like his usual boom.

Ainsley usually tried to stay hidden, but sometimes she had to peek out and see her father reading sweet Alyosha or over-bearing Madame Hohlakov.

Ainsley had been proud of her father. She knew that he was very good at making the scruffy college kids pay attention and read their books. And he made them laugh too. Some of the girls laughed a little too hard and clutched their books against their boobs in a way that made little Ainsley inexplicably angry, but her father just smiled kindly at them and treated all of them the same.

It wasn’t until she was older that she realized he was one of the most distinguished Russian Lit professors in the country. Important contemporary Russian novelists would visit the school, hoping to gain his favor. Her father’s opinion of them, whether he chose to publish about them, or even just add them to the syllabus, meant something.

A brief squeal of feedback from the mic jolted Ainsley back to the present as Carol Lotus from the Russian Lit department stepped forward.

“Welcome to our talk on War and Peace with visiting professor Julian Magie,” Carol said in her quavery voice. “Dr. Magie has just published a new look at this classic, entitled A Sleight of Hand: The Magic of Tolstoy. He is here today to share his thoughts on an old favorite.”

Julian stepped forward with a half smile.

“Who here has read the book?” he asked sternly.

There was a pause and a rustling as most of them raised their hands.

“I see,” he nodded. “And who has read it in the last twenty years.”

Ainsley glanced around. All the hands went down except hers and Carol’s.

Julian smiled. “Then let’s begin by remembering the story. And all those names.”

Everyone laughed. Julian began slowly re-telling the familiar story. Counts and Princesses, Rostovs and Bezuhovs and Bolskonskys wooed and wed and fought and schemed. They made assumptions and learned better. They saw opportunities arise and failed to seize the day. Finally, things came together for the worthy. Mostly.

Ainsley enjoyed his interpretation. It was meant as a summary, but in what he shared and what he left out, she felt that she learned a lot about Julian. And she liked what she learned. He had a dark way about him, with his half smile. But Julian focused on the battle of Good and Evil, the effect every day people have on history, and the importance of family in his run-through.

Ainsley began to daydream, just a little. Her eyes went to his thin lips and the smooth line of his jaw. He looked like a prince himself. His clear blue eyes caught hers.

Busted.

“Miss Connor.” His smile was disarming.

“Um, yes?”

“You looked like you wanted to make a point about Count Bezuhov and the peasants?”

Oh dear. She wasn’t going to let him embarrass her. But she was damned if she could think of anything quickly with him leaning back against the podium in that sexy way.

“You know, Dr. Magie,” she said, “I was just thinking maybe Count Bezuhov and the peasants are similar to the problem of modern gender equality and family dynamics.”

She pulled that out of nowhere. Hopefully, there were no follow up questions.

He raised an eyebrow. “Continue.”

Shit.

“Well, Pierre built schools for the peasant children and they learned to read and write. Then they had to go back and work on the farms. Pierre expected them to be grateful for the beautiful schools, but they were angry with him instead. This was because knowing how to read and write was of no use to them on the farms and simply made them dissatisfied with their lives.”

Ainsley paused. She had forgotten how much she loved a good book debate. Julian nodded.

“Two hundred years later, women go to school. They spend years studying and pursuing careers, then most women go on to get married. Women from families who can afford to do so, often stay home for a few years with small children. When they are ready to return to the workplace, there aren’t opportunities commensurate with their level of education – those opportunities go to younger workers. They are then faced with being under employed or continuing on in the same role their great-grandmothers held as homemakers. Which begs the question: Why all that education?”

You could hear a pin drop. Ainsley knew her theory had about a thousand holes in it. Plus she was pretty sure it was offensive – though she couldn’t decide if it was the women or the peasants who should have been most offended.

“So you’re asking what’s the point in having an ability if you don’t use it?” Julian asked.

“I guess I am.”

Although when he put it that way, it hit a little too close to home.

Just as she was about to turn purple and scurry away, Julian began to laugh softly.

“You’re quite the rabble-rouser, Miss Connor,” he said.

“Thank you.” She managed to meet his eye. He was smirking again.

“At least we can conclude that you did read the book.”

Now everyone laughed. Ainsley smiled down at her lap and smoothed her dress over her thighs. He might have won this round, but only because she hadn’t been paying attention.

The talk went on for another hour. Julian had a great perspective on the novel. Ainsley found herself hearing new notes in War and Peace that she had never heard before. Many of the attendees asked a question here or there, but more and more Ainsley saw that Julian was focusing his thoughts on her, looking to her as he made each point, waiting for her to ask a question or add a thought.

It was electrifying to share a room with a man who was smart, cultured, creative and passionate – and one who knew how to get a shirt to the drycleaner’s. Ainsley was overwhelmed at the possibilities.

And the way he looked at her was almost unbearable. Her inner wolf stopped pacing behind its bars, and lifted its nose to scent the pure excitement wafting off him.

They sparred a few times, and he argued eloquently, though once or twice he lost his patience and ran his fingers through his golden hair as she quoted passages to shoot him down. Ainsley knew her stuff and she wasn’t going to pretend she didn’t. If he couldn’t handle it, she’d rather know now.

Oh, but he could handle it. Sometimes, he would come back at her with a brilliant point, leaving her with nothing to do but nod. Other times, he would shake his head and smile admiringly at her, in what she could swear was a pleased way, then raise his hands in concession.

At one point in the evening she heard Carol cough a tiny cough. They stopped their latest argument just as Carol rose and spoke.

“This was a real treat for all of us tonight. For anyone here who didn’t know it already, I’d like to explain that Miss Connor in the front row is the daughter of the late Professor Michael Connor.” A murmur rippled through the crowd. “I think you’ll all agree she is cut from his cloth. I don’t know when we’ve had a more spirited discussion at one of our campus talks!”

She stopped to smile at Ainsley and then at Julian, who bowed his head in acknowledgment and began to clap his hands. The rest of the crowd joined in. Ainsley blushed and shot him a look that said she would get even with him.

“At any rate, I know it’s getting late,” Carol said. “Thanks again to Dr. Magie, and please don’t forget to grab a flyer in the lobby about our upcoming series of campus talks.”

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CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

 

The audience shuffled toward the exit.

Julian leaned forward, and Ainsley’s heartbeat sped as she realized he wanted to continue their conversation privately. But before he could take the first step in her direction, Carol Lotus strode over.

“Oh, Ainsley,” she wavered, “it was just like listening to your father. The way you talk about Tolstoy…”

“Thank you, Carol,” Ainsley said, trying to hide her disappointment at losing her moment alone with Julian.

“We all miss him so much.”

“Tolstoy?” Ainsley asked.

Carol looked confused for a moment, then realized Ainsley was making a joke and managed a weak smile.

Ainsley felt a pang of regret for the older woman. She had been close with Ainsley’s dad, and was obviously still dealing with the loss. Ainsley was just so tired of going through the same song and dance every time she talked to someone in town.

They all knew she hadn’t spoken to her parents in years. She hadn’t been there near the end. And bringing it up sometimes felt like they were just rubbing salt in the wound.

Seeing Carol reminded Ainsley that her parents were important to a lot of people, and many of them had their own reasons to grieve. It wasn’t always all about her. Ainsley made a note to not be such an insufferable bitch to people who cared about her.

Carol looked around surreptitiously. Ainsley followed her gaze. Julian was thumbing through his notes slowly at the podium as though he was looking for something. Or maybe he was biding his time, waiting for Ainsley? Her pulse quickened.

Carol cleared her throat and continued.

“Well, it’s a pleasure to see you, Ainsley. You know, I remember when your dad let you nap under that very podium when you had the flu. I gave you my cough drops and you said they tasted like candy.”

“Oh yes, and that little box with the wax paper was so fancy.” Ainsley laughed.

“Ainsley, we haven’t yet had the time, or frankly the heart, to clear out your father’s office.” She put a hand on Ainsley’s arm. “Would you be interested in looking through his things? I know there are some personal items. And maybe you’d like his copies of the classics?”

There was a lump in Ainsley’s throat. Of course she was overwhelmed with stuff to go through as it was, but the idea of spending time in her dad’s beloved office and being allowed to look through his books and notes was comforting. She managed to nod her head.

“I’m so glad, dear.” Carol patted her firmly on the shoulder. “Let me give you a ride home. My car is right out back and we can work out getting you a key to your father’s office.”

“Excuse me, Carol,” Julian interrupted smoothly. “Miss Connor and I were planning to go for a stroll after the talk. She brought up some ideas for my new book and I was hoping to hear more.”

“Oh dear,” Carol exclaimed. “I didn’t realize you had plans. Well, of course, Ainsley. We’ll find another time to chat and get you a key, dear.”

“Thank you, Carol,” Ainsley said, after throwing a dirty look at Julian behind Carol’s back. He just gazed back at her calmly with that insolent half-smile.

Carol gave her arm one last squeeze and headed out to the hallway to clear up paper cups and turn out lights, as she always did after campus talks. Ainsley turned to Julian.

“What was that about?” she whispered angrily.

He gave her a lazy smile, then closed the distance between them in a long stride. She could feel his breath on her neck, but couldn’t make herself pull away, even though she knew she should.

“I’m sorry, Miss Connor,” he said in her ear. “Were you hoping to reminisce about cough drops, and go moon over your father’s books?”

Ainsley was speechless.

“That’s not why you came here. And it’s not where you want to go after, is it?”

“I…”

“Go ahead, smooth that skirt down again, and tell me that you want a ride home in Carol Lotus’s Volvo.”

His warm breath on her neck shattered her concentration. He slid his hand down to the small of her back and led her to the podium. He touched a finger to her chest, just above the cleavage. Her skin tingled in response.

“Stay.”

He gathered his papers and neatly arranged them in his leather briefcase. He turned to her and snapped it shut.

“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go for a walk.”

Wordlessly, she tucked her hair behind her ear and followed him.

Carol waved at them enthusiastically from under the card table where she was gathering dropped paper cups.

“Do you need some help, Carol?” Ainsley asked, almost hopefully.

“Not a bit. I’m just about packed up here. You two enjoy your discussion.”

They continued down the hall toward the gigantic wooden doors.

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CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

Ainsley stepped through the door as Julian held it for her politely. A rush of fragrant, humid air met her.

They walked together in the moonlight. This was just what Ainsley had wanted. But she hadn’t pictured being the one off balance. Julian was clearly in control of the situation and it was exciting and a little scary at the same time.

Three street lamps winked in the velvety darkness, showing the path through the woods.

Little red riding hood went off through the woods to her grandmother’s house…

Only who was the wolf in this story?

Ainsley almost giggled. It would be very silly of her to be scared of being alone in the woods with a man.

Julian’s hand slid down between her shoulder blades to the small of her back again and she inadvertently shivered with pleasure.

“Are you cold?” he asked, letting his eyes trail slowly down her body.

Ainsley shook her head before she could think the better of it. She was never cold. That was one of the special things about being a wolf. She always ran hot. Of course now he knew her shiver was because of his stupid hand.

He smiled to himself and they continued to walk silently. They were nearing the thickest part of the trees.

She had a flash from her dream of Brian.

These very same trees.

One of them was the tree he had pinned her against in his passion. Somewhere nearby was where they found his body.

She shivered again, this time not from Julian’s touch, and pushed the thoughts out of her mind. She had spent a decade trying to forget that day. She was very good at it.

Julian began to trace tiny circles on her back with his thumb, drawing her attention back. Around, and around, until all she could think about was his touch and imagine it elsewhere. She stole a glance up at him.

His cold blue eyes locked with hers. She willed him to toss his briefcase to the ground, wrap his thin fingers around her shoulders, and pull her in for a kiss.

He didn’t.

Instead they walked on for a few more quiet minutes, his circling thumb creating an agony of anticipation. Ainsley was consoled when her wolf smelled Julian’s excitement rise and heard his heartbeat thunder.

At least she wasn’t the only one feeling this way.

They reached the fork between the path to town and the path to the house for visiting profs. She paused, knowing that they should part ways here.

Julian moved her firmly toward the path home.

“I’m coming home with you,” he said matter-of-factly.

Ainsley felt a tiny thrill of victory.

It was followed immediately by a stab of panic. The house was a mess of papers, and though it looked better after today’s work, she wasn’t about to entertain there. Plus, there was something about taking a guy to her parents’ home at night. It felt all wrong.

She stopped walking.

“Julian, I’m sorry but we just met-”

“Please,” he whispered. “I’ve never met anyone like you. We’re so alike. I know you feel it too.”

His sudden sincerity was disarming. She looked up at him and he gazed back with a longing in his eyes that tugged at places inside her.

“Who else is staying at Thayer House?” she heard herself ask.

“Just me.”

“Let’s go there.”

An odd look flitted across his face for an instant. Before she could interpret it, he took her hand and marched her down the path to Thayer. She felt like an errant child being dragged out of a store. The idea of it made her want to giggle again. But Julian was so serious she knew it would only delay their progress. And Ainsley wasn’t sure she could handle a delay.

They flew up the mossy stone stairs of the old house. The overhang of the cedar shake roof made the stone cottage look like something out of a fairy tale.

My, grandma, what big eyes you have.

As she usually did in intense situations, Ainsley worried a little about holding in her wolf. It wasn’t the wolf’s time, but this place seemed to be goading it, loosing it enough to poke out its snout and revel in the wealth of sounds and smells.

And Julian was luring it out. It was fascinated with him. More so than anyone else she’d been with.

What was so special about him?

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CHAPTER TWENTY

 

Julian rattled the key into the lock and flung open the door.

There was a large sitting room encircled by arched leaded glass windows. A low fire crackled in the fireplace. Soft oriental rugs carpeted the floor.

Julian dropped his briefcase and shut the door behind them. It was the first time he had broken physical contact with her since they’d left Scott Hall.

She stood in front of the fire, suddenly less sure she was making the right decision. When he turned back to her she felt nervous.

He smiled.

“Would you like a glass of wine?”

She shook her head shyly.

He stepped out of his shoes and slipped off his jacket, hanging it neatly on the hook by the door.

“A cup of tea?”

She shook her head again.

He unbuttoned the top button of his shirt and slowly pulled off his tie, hanging it on the hook over his jacket. Ainsley licked her lips and smoothed her dress over her hips.

“Then let’s get those shoes off,” he suggested, gesturing to the inglenook benches on each side of the fireplace.

Ainsley perched on one of the benches. Julian knelt at her feet and slipped off one sandal, then the other. His lips turned up in admiration and she wasn’t sure if it was because he recognized the expensive shoes, or he liked being on his knees between her legs. She hoped it might be both. He placed the sandals carefully under the opposite bench.

Most guys would have thought it was cool to hurl her shoes across the room in passion. Or they might have carelessly put them on the threshold of the fireplace, where she would be forced to either ruin the moment by moving them, or spend the whole night with a nagging worry that they might end up on fire.

Before her nervous brain could find something else to think about, he turned back to her.

“Is that better?” he asked.

Ainsley nodded. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d been so quiet.

“Good girl.” He reached up and smoothed the fabric down over her thighs with a playful smile.

She stared wordlessly at his hands as they gently but firmly caressed her through the thin dress.

“So soft,” he mused. “No wonder you’re constantly smoothing your skirt down. I could do this all night.”

Waves of longing coursed through Ainsley. She wanted to tangle her fingers in his hair and pull him to her. She wanted to unbutton his shirt and lick his chest.

His hands never stopped their slow stroking, but her wolf could hear his pulse hammering and it pawed at the bars, claws scraping.

Ainsley closed her eyes and took a careful breath. Slow down, be careful. It shouldn’t be this hard so soon. The wolf drew back a little. Ainsley opened her eyes.

Julian had stopped stroking her thighs and was looking up at her.

“What’s wrong?”

Wasn’t that a terrific question?

Gee, Julian, I’m sorry. You’re making me so hot I can’t think straight, but I can’t really let go because I might turn into a giant wolf and maul you.

“Nothing.”

“Ainsley, you’re a very sexy young woman.” His hands went back to her thighs. “And you’ll have to forgive me for trying to seduce you. Of course we don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do.”

But as he spoke, he slipped his hands under her dress and firmly pushed it up instead of down.

“It’s just that you seem to have cast a spell on me, and I’m helpless before you.”

His hands were on her bare skin now as he gently pressed her thighs apart and moved between her legs to look right into her eyes.

“Now, Ainsley, tell me. Do you want to go home?”

She licked her lips and he leaned forward slowly and brushed his own lips against them.

The effect was immediate. Her heart pounded in her chest, and she could feel his pulse reverberating through his kiss. She arched her back involuntarily and he wrapped his arms around her, cradling her as she moaned against his mouth.

In one smooth movement, he stood with her in his arms, then carried her to the bedroom. He sat her gently on the coverlet at the edge of the bed.

He knelt again and turned her slightly, then slowly tugged down the zipper on the back of her dress. She heard each tooth release. Her senses increased until she heard the leaves whisper in the trees in the college woods and felt the warmth of each star in the window from their remote distances.

He turned her to face him, then rolled the straps of her dress down. Dipping his hand into the bodice, he allowed his fingers to caress her cleavage as he eased the dress down just enough to reveal her lacy white push-up bra.

His intake of breath and the increase in his heartbeat told her that he liked what he saw.

“So lovely,” he murmured, brushing his lips across the tops of her breasts. Her nipples hardened instantly and she thrust herself forward.

“Greedy little girl,” he breathed. “Slow down.”

But he was already peeling down the cups to nuzzle her nipples. She gasped at the sudden pleasure as he circled one and then the other with his inquisitive tongue. With one hand between her shoulder blades, he pressed her back toward him so that she arched into his mouth. With the other he held down her leg, his thumb circling maddeningly on her inner thigh.

She felt the white pain and pleasure of his teeth against one nipple and stifled a moan. He rewarded her by sucking her deep into his mouth. The taste of her seemed to overwhelm him, and his hips jerked against the edge of the bed as he groaned into her breast, then turned to the other.

Her hands found their way into his hair at last and she clutched him to her and felt the delicious suction on her other nipple. Her hips began to buck, in spite of her attempts at control, but he pressed her down insistently and she surrendered with a moan.

He pulled back to look at her and she could see his pupils dilate with desire. She could only imagine what she must look like, all wild hair, swollen lips, and stiff pink nipples pushed up over the bodice of her dress. She didn’t care. As long as he would just touch her again.

He stood them both up, pulled her dress over her head, and folded and placed it on the bedside table. He turned to her as his eyes hungrily took in her curves. The bra pushed up her exposed breasts. Her white lace panties were the last bit of covering she had. And he was eyeing them.

Ainsley had always been shy about her body, but somehow she didn’t care tonight. She could tell by the way he was drinking in the sight of her that Julian was not disappointed.

“Beautiful girl…”

Her whole body responded with a wave of desire. As he took of his Breitling watch and unbuttoned his shirt, her wolf tilted up its head and howled in frustration. Ainsley caught her breath, but managed to stay in the moment.

Julian was gorgeous. He had a ballet dancer’s physique – thin but powerful and lightly muscled. She stepped toward him and he froze as she traced her fingers across his chest and nuzzled his tiny nipples. When she caught one in her teeth and caressed the tip with her tongue he let his head fall backward in pleasure. Then he wrapped a hand in her hair and pulled her away.

“Easy,” he said, as he unbuckled his belt, letting his pants drop to the floor, then pushed her into the bed on her back.

She lay back, praying for control, as her wolf threw itself at the bars. Julian turned off the overhead light and removed his socks, underwear and shirt and placed all his clothing on the chair in the corner. He left on the lamp by the dresser.

In the dim backlight, his silhouette looked timeless and youthful. She could see his cheeks swell as he smiled down at her and she couldn’t help smiling back.

He fell to the bed, pushing her thighs apart and crawling up between them. He fed on her neck for a moment, then her mouth again, licking and sucking her tongue until she could barely breathe.

His hand found a breast and plumped and kneaded gently. She arched into him while he let the pad of his thumb graze her nipple. Again, her hips pulsed up against him. She felt the length of his hard cock against her belly as her insides clenched pleasurably.

He pulled away from her mouth, only to descend upon her breasts again. Ainsley thrust her hips against him urgently, growing impatient. He pulled back and smiled, then drew a trail of light kisses lower, right to the edge of her lace panties.

He slid his hands under her hips and pulled her to his mouth. She could feel his breath through the soft cotton. She was so wet, she was sure he could taste her through it.

“Oh my poor darling,” he whispered.

She bit her lip to stop herself from begging him for satisfaction.

He traced one long finger along her center and she was sure he could feel her open for him. He traced it again. And again. She could hardly contain herself. He dropped his head to mouth her through the fabric and she cried out frantically.

He cursed softly, hooked his fingers under the lace band and slid off the last vestige of her clothing. Ainsley lay beneath him panting. She didn’t know what he would do next and she didn’t care, as long as he touched her again right away.

Julian didn’t disappoint her. He pushed her thighs apart and studied her glistening pussy with ravenous eyes.

All the better to see you with, my dear.

One long finger traced a line down, and she could feel herself swelling and opening. He leaned forward, placing a hand on each thigh, and traced the same line with his tongue.

Ainsley lost track of her own sounds. Julian caressed her with his tongue softly and slowly. He moved to her clitoris until her moans grew desperate, then he abandoned it to slide up and down soothingly.

Ainsley tossed her head against the pillows, hair flying wildly, and tried to lift her hips up to meet his infuriating tongue. Her wolf slavered and snapped behind the bars.

With excruciating slowness, one long finger entered her. Her pussy clenched around it convulsively as she tried to move her hips again for friction. Again, his arm across her hips thwarted her, and she moaned in despair as he eased his finger in and out unhurriedly.

“Such a good girl, Ainsley,” he cooed approvingly. “Do you want to come for me now?”

“Yes!”

“I think we can arrange that,” he whispered.

Suddenly his mouth was on her again, suckling and tugging on her clit as his finger hooked a spot inside her she hadn’t felt before. The pleasure was blinding. Ainsley’s whole body went taut.

Please don’t stop, please don’t stop, please don’t stop.

She knew the moment before the orgasm took her that she was coming, and nothing could prevent it. The tidal wave of convulsions washed over her with ecstasy, and finally a woozy relief.

Before the last tremor of pleasure had left her, Julian was tracing a path of hot kisses up her chest and taking her mouth in his. She could taste herself on him. Just as she began to explore his mouth, he pushed her legs apart impatiently and nudged the tip of his cock against her drenched opening.

She opened her eyes and saw he was looking at her with a desire that was almost pain. She tilted herself up to him and he eased himself into her with a groan.

Once inside her, he held her still for a long moment, then drew himself slowly out. Ainsley cried out at the emptiness and he growled and pushed in and out of her with hard, fast strokes. Her pussy clamped down on him as he grit his teeth and rubbed his thumb against her clitoris.

Ainsley immediately melted under him again. He seemed to lose his resolve, then and pounded into her mercilessly as she finished her second climax.

Just as she was coming down, she felt him swell inside her.

“Ainsley,” he cried helplessly as he jetted and spurted inside her, grasping her hips and pushing himself in deep.

When he was finished, Julian stayed inside her and rolled her over on top of him.

“Thank you, Miss Connor,” he whispered. “That was almost as good as the Tolstoy debate.”

She giggled. He stroked her back gently with his fingers. They both sighed.

Ainsley wondered how she would get out of the sticky embrace and clean herself up without offending him.

Sex was lovely in the moment, but if you thought too much about all the bodily fluids, it was not very nice.

“You know,” he whispered. “I love cuddling, but I’ll be happier when I have fresh linens for you to sleep in and I’m not so sweaty. Would you mind if I showered?”

Ainsley smiled a genuine smile.

“Me too,” she said. “Meet you back here in fifteen minutes?”

“It’s a date.”

She headed up to the second floor bathroom as he went to the first floor. By the time she was showered and back he had changed the sheets and had a fresh T-shirt laid out for her as well as a pair of Calvin Klein boxer briefs. She slipped into them and then into Julian’s arms. He wrapped a sheet around them.

For a long time she lay against his chest, listening to his heart beat lazily.

She was sure he didn’t actually expect her to stay the night. It was time to let him off the hook.

“Julian, this was lovely, but I should probably head back now. I have a long day tomorrow. I’m sure you do too.”

She waited for his weak argument, masking a secret relief. She didn’t get it.

“That is a dreadful and unthinkable idea. Ainsley Connor, go to sleep immediately.”

She was too tired to argue. She fell asleep with his hand softly grazing her back. Her last waking thought was to hope absently that she wouldn’t drool on his chest as she slept.

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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

 

At about 2:00 AM, Ainsley woke with her heart pounding.

It happened occasionally, although it had been awhile since the last time.

Her wolf.

She had restrained it too much tonight. The wolf always liked to run in the night, and now it was insistent.

Ainsley eased herself out of Julian’s embrace and pulled a scented note card and pen from her purse.

Thank you for a lovely evening, she wrote neatly. I’m sure we’ll see each other around town sometime. –Ainsley Connor

It was a non-committal note but she didn’t want to show her hand too much. And besides, something about all this felt like it was too much, too fast.

She slipped out of his T-shirt and shorts and put on her own things. Her poor dress. She was really going to have to go shopping tomorrow.

She headed out into the woods at a swift walking pace. By the time she got close to home she was trotting. Once the wolf got going it liked a long, loping stride.

Ainsley was a little worried about what that might look like if she bumped into anyone in town in the middle of the night. Though what anyone who wasn’t a wolf would be doing out at 2:00 AM in Tarker’s Hollow, she couldn’t begin to imagine.

As she pulled out of the woods behind her parent’s house she immediately sensed that something wasn’t right.

Then she saw it.

The back door of the Connor house stood wide open. Ainsley Connor did not leave doors open. A shiver went through her as her wolf’s hackles lifted.

She slowed her pace, letting her inner wolf prick up its ears and lift its nose to the breeze.

A tremendous howl echoed from inside the house.

[
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EPISODE TWO

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CHAPTER ONE

 

Ainsley sprinted across the open space between the woods and the back of her house, following the sound of the howl. Anger ripped through her body, bringing her wolf dangerously near the surface.

Who would dare invade her family home in the middle of the night?

The howl told her it must be a wolf. Given their obsession with lineage issues, maybe it was finally time for her to pull rank.

Someone was going to be sorry.

She bounded up the back steps two at a time and burst through the open kitchen door.

A familiar smell hit her nostrils as her feet touched the linoleum floor. Before her eyes could adjust to the deeper darkness, she felt the presence of a wolf. She froze in her tracks, letting her wolf’s superior eyesight take over as the intruder began to take shape in the darkness before her.

The creature was enormous, even on all fours it was almost as tall as she was, and black as night. Heat radiated off its body in waves, along with an ineffable, spicy scent.

Behind him a second wolf, nearly as large, had startled at her entrance. It crouched, chest near the floor, silvery paws splayed on the linoleum, leg muscles coiled like steel springs, ready to pounce in her direction.

Fuck.

Ainsley’s breath caught in her lungs, her anger giving way to fear. Maybe this had been a mistake. She had expected normal, dog-sized wolves. These must be something different. They made the dire wolves on Game of Thrones look like lap dogs.

She wouldn’t get this big if she changed, would she?

She locked eyes with the magnificent black wolf. Their amber depths enveloped her; they seemed almost familiar.

Who was he?

He blinked and stepped toward her. The gorgeous mantle of his ebony fur was almost hypnotic as it shone and winked in the moonlight filtering in the kitchen window.

Before she could take a step backward, he began to change. In one fluid motion, his hindquarters dropped and his head lifted as his fur disappeared. The wolf was gone, replaced by a man.

A naked man.

The dim light played off his chiseled body, accentuating the contours of each muscle. Though he was smaller than his wolf, he was enormous. Again, Ainsley’s breath caught in her throat. Her eyes moved back to his.

Fuck again.

It was Erik.

Erik Fucking Jensen.

Erik Fucking Jensen in her house.

“What the hell, Erik?”

“Ainsley, thank god,” he took another step toward her. His expression was awash with relief.

Ainsley’s whole body shook. Anger at the intrusion was layered with sudden arousal from the sight of his glorious naked form. Her wolf was very close to the surface. Just under her skin, ten thousand cells hummed and prickled dangerously.

Erik’s eyes went from relieved to hungry in an instant. His lips parted. The golden haze began to form around him.

She shook her head and tore her gaze from his to prevent calling his alpha. As she lowered her eyes, they lingered for a heartbeat on his stiffening cock, which pointed at her like an arrow. She didn’t know they even made them that big.

He lifted his nose in appreciation.

Then he recoiled.

“Are you fucking kidding me?”

What? She froze.

“Ainsley, Jesus. How could you?” He sounded utterly betrayed. Had he smelled Julian on her?

She couldn’t respond. Her heart pounded.

“You have one responsibility – to mate with a male from the pack. That’s IT. The whole town is full of good men, men who care about you. And you choose to fuck around with a goddamned human?”

His words hit her hard. He wrung each one from his mouth bitterly.

She bristled. She could understand why he would be upset if she was out chasing a husband. Maybe. But she was just a young woman, enjoying herself – it was none of his business. Why was he so upset?

Oh god. Was he jealous?

She sought his eyes again without thinking and found them burning in accusation and something else.

Erik’s closeness and nakedness hit her again. His smell was intoxicating, and he was warm as the sun. His dark, too-long hair dripped with sweat. Again, she felt a primal pull as his skin began to glisten.

Not again.

Before Ainsley could tear her eyes away, the silver wolf was between them and the contact was broken.

Erik snarled, but the silver wolf only butted its massive head against his shoulder and continued to pace.

Ainsley shook the cobwebs from her head.

“Other than breaking into my house and nosing around in my personal life, what do you want?”

Erik drew in his breath with a hiss.

“We were going for a night run – just like you. We saw your door open. But there were no fresh tracks or strange scents. We thought something might have happened to you.”

Oh.

“Do all wolves run at night?”

“That’s the first thing you’re worried about?”

“I, I was never sure why I wanted to run at night.”

He sighed and ran a hand through his hair.

“Ainsley, you really don’t know what’s going on here, do you?”

She shook her head.

“Cressida, check out the upstairs, just in case.”

The silver wolf growled as she trotted away.

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CHAPTER TWO

 

Ainsley kept her gaze averted. She couldn’t afford to take any chances now that their chaperone was gone. It seemed she was developing a hair trigger with this alpha drawing thing.

“May I?” Erik gestured to a box of her father’s old jeans on the table, waiting for GoodWill.

Ainsley nodded and smiled to herself. When she heard the hiss of his zipper, she looked up carefully.

The jeans hung low on his hips. Her father’s physique had been quite different from Erik’s. She tried and failed to ignore his rigid abs, bulging biceps and the wide planes of his chest. There was something to be said for manual labor.

“Tea?” she asked.

“Sure.”

“So what’s really going on? Please enlighten me. I don’t see how an inn and a highway are really going to change the way of life in a town as old as Tarker’s Hollow.”

She busied herself washing out the old copper kettle.

“Do you know how the pack works?”

She shook her head and waited for him to get sarcastic.

“Okay, well, the alpha is the leader,” he began softly. “He sorts out minor disagreements within the pack, monitors concealment within the greater community and plans the future of the pack. More importantly, though, he protects the pack.”

“What do you mean protects?”

“I mean he protects the pack – he has to be strong enough to fight off any threats.”

Wow. She tried to picture her dad fighting anything more than a stack of books. There really was a lot about him she never knew.

“Is that why Mr. MacGregor told me he wouldn’t be a good alpha?”

“When did he tell you that?”

Ainsley was instantly embarrassed.

“When I was home for the funeral, he came over to talk about buying the hardware store. He told me he was the beta and he asked me to stay here and choose an alpha…”

Oh god, she couldn’t.

“What did you say?”

“I told him that I chose him.”

Erik made a choking sound. Ainsley whipped around to see him hiding a smile behind his hand.

“Did he..?”

“Yes, he did,” she said crisply, turning on her heel.

Erik began to laugh. It was genuine, without malice. Ainsley focused primly on filling the kettle.

“Then what?”

“He stopped it, thank god. I didn’t know what was happening. He told me that I’d have to mate for life for it to work and that my father had someone else in mind for me.”

Shit. Double shit. Triple shit. Fuck.

“Who was that?”

She couldn’t admit that it was him.

“What kind of tea do you want?”

“Whatever you’re having. So who did your dad want you to choose?”

“Erik, I don’t think it matters, seeing as I’m not going to do it.”

“If it doesn’t matter, then tell me.”

“Clive Warren,” she said before she could stop herself. She turned to see if he would believe her lie.

“Clive Warren, really?” Erik looked disappointed. “I guess he’s a nice enough guy. He certainly is strong.” There was a faraway look in his eye.

Ainsley almost felt guilty.

“Yes, but it doesn’t matter how nice he is because I’m not going to,” she forced herself to say it, “mate with him. End of story.” She turned and reached for the mugs.

He laughed again and the warmth of it was comforting.

“Anyway, Ainsley, the beta assists the alpha and also keeps an archive of the pack’s history and bloodlines. He’s generally not an alpha-type.”

“So pick someone else!”

“The alpha’s leadership has to be absolute. This isn’t like voting for president and choosing someone else in four years if you change your mind. The drawing of the alpha is for life, and packs are torn apart if an alpha is displaced. It needs to be done the right way – so that it feels right and smells right and is right.”

He paused, and she knew there was more. She placed an Earl Grey in each mug and turned to him again.

“It seems to me, the wolves of Tarker’s Hollow are more than capable of making a good decision and sticking with it. There must be something else.”

“Ainsley, you’re in real estate. What do you think will happen when the Inn comes, and the bookstore, and the highway?”

She leaned back against the counter, finally in her element.

“At first it will be messy – like it is now – dirt everywhere and neighbors complaining.”

He nodded, “And then?”

“Then the property values will increase: once for the downtown area and again, by much more, for the highway. Center City will be thirty minutes by car, twenty minutes by train, and you’ll be able to have wine with dinner then walk home.”

“How much land do you think the pack owns?”

“You mean individually?”

“Well, yes, we do own a fair amount of the village individually. But I meant the pack as a whole. Do you know about the land owned by the pack?”

Ainsley shook her head slowly.

“To begin with, we own the woods on the south side of town, and the apartments on Drexel.”

Nice.

“We also own the apartments on Princeton, and a majority share in the Co-op grocery. Plus, we own all seven parks, though we lease them to the town for $1 per year. And we own the woods.”

“You already said the woods.” Ainsley’s head spun.

“I mean the college woods,” he said. “And all the college property.”

What?

“That’s impossible,” she murmured, grasping the counter behind her with all her strength.

“It’s not impossible. Your great-great-grandfather bought the college out of ruin during the Great Depression. But he made them sell him the land. He gave the college a 75 year leasehold.”

Ainsley’s knees felt weak. She gulped air. Why had her parents never told her that?

“I’m going to wager that you would say that the pack has some pretty impressive assets, correct?”

“Yes,” she nodded, relieved to focus on trying to figure out how to go about calculating the value of all those acres. Anything to distract her from Erik’s own impressive assets. The college literally occupied a third of the land inside the town. And the woods at the border went on for miles.

“Did you know that there are wolves in other places?”

“I never thought about it.”

“Well, there are. As a matter of fact, there’s a Federation that the packs from all over the country report to. There are bigger, stronger, richer packs than ours. But with our land rising in value and that leasehold coming to an end, we’re becoming more interesting.”

“So?”

“So if we have no alpha, we become vulnerable. Young wannabe alphas from all over will come to try their hand at taking us. The Federation will step in to ‘protect’ us.” A dark look crossed his face.

“Isn’t that a good thing?”

“By protecting us, I mean that they will send in new leadership.”

“But that’s perfect!”

“I told you, wolves don’t work with assigned leaders and the Federation doesn’t take chances. They will break up this pack and scatter us so we don’t rise up. They will raze our land and turn Tarker’s Hollow and the college into new construction and strip malls. Then they’ll lease it out or sell it off and it will all be gone.”

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CHAPTER THREE

 

Gone.

A barrage of scenes from Tarker’s Hollow flooded Ainsley’s mind.

Her bare, four-year old feet slapped the old sandstone sidewalks, the trees forming a warm green ceiling above. Young Sadie Epstein-Walker waved at her from across the street where she was pruning the pinkest roses in the world.

Mrs. Lee, the librarian, greeted her quietly and slipped her the next Nancy Drew book while her mother perused the mystery section.

The smell of the moist earth filled her nose as she picked blueberries at Penny’s house, putting as many of the tangy sweet berries in her mouth as in the bucket.

Pine needles squeaked under her feet as Brian Swinton chased her into the college woods.

Even to this day, the sound of the fire horn was the same. Sadie Epstein-Walker was still gardening in her floppy hat. The trees embraced each other over the streets and dappled the sidewalks with green shade.

Could this be wiped away so easily?

She opened her eyes. Erik was gazing at her with a look of naked sympathy. Did he realize she loved this town, in spite of everything? Did he know how much it hurt her to go?

That turned her thoughts to Brian again, and her heart iced over.

“I’m sorry, Erik, I really am. But I’m not a wolf. I’m just not.”

He stood angrily. At that moment the silver wolf appeared.

One second its shoulders rolled under a pelt of silvery fur, then in the space of a single step, it transformed into a young woman.

Ainsley caught her breath in shock.

Would she ever get used to such a thing?

Not changing was so difficult. How did they make changing look so easy?

The girl sniffed and threw her head up proudly. Naturally, she was naked as well. Tousled blonde hair skimmed her thin shoulders, but didn’t reach her small, perfectly shaped breasts with their tiny pink nipples. Ainsley could see each of her ribs under her tawny, flawless skin. She was tall and lean – the opposite of Ainsley’s softer, darker look.

Running at night, my ass. The way the blonde was hanging on Erik gave Ainsley a clue as to what they were really up to. She could see why Erik would choose this beautiful wolf. She was lovely and brimming with a restless energy. For a fraction of a second Ainsley met the she-wolf’s eye.

To Ainsley’s horror, the girl’s skin began to shimmer. Her luminous brown eyes widened and her lips parted as her hand dropped from Erik’s shoulder. Ainsley could hear the girl’s heart banging frantically in her chest.

The kettle whistled and Ainsley managed to break eye contact. Quickly, she busied herself pouring the steaming water into the mugs.

Fuck.

Ainsley willed her heart to beat slowly. She knew the girl didn’t like her. Now she was surely going to laugh at her and tell Erik that Ainsley was a giant slut, trying to draw every wolf she met, male or female.

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CHAPTER FOUR

 

Erik’s heart almost stopped. The way Ainsley and Cressida were looking at each other…

Cressida was a low-ranking female and females weren’t alphas anyway. He had to be going crazy to think that Ainsley could draw an alpha out of Cressida.

Lust warred with jealousy in his chest and he struggled to tamp them both down and forget he’d seen what he thought he’d just seen.

It was impossible.

He forced himself back into the moment.

“What the hell, Cressida?” Erik sighed, “Could you maybe say hello?”

Ainsley turned. She seemed to be purposefully looking down, away from Cressida’s eyes. That left her looking straight at the she-wolf’s stiff little nipples. Erik’s suspicions were at least partly confirmed when Ainsley blushed and looked away.

“Hello,” Cressida said in a low purr.

“Hi, I’m Ainsley.”

“I know who you are.”

“Would you care for some tea?”

Cressida gave Ainsley a slow smile. “Nope, I think I’ll be going now. Erik?”

Ainsley was clearly squirming.

“Ainsley, I think we’ve taken up enough of your time. Call me when you’re ready to talk more about the pack,” he heard himself say.

She shook her head, but pushed him a sweet smelling little notepad and pen across the table anyway.

“You will want to talk more. There’s no point trying to run away,” he said as he scrawled down his number. “And I saw your ad on Neighborly dot com. You can take it down. My crew will be here tonight at 5:00 to take care of anything you need.”

“Thank you, Erik, and Cressida, for checking on me,” Ainsley replied in an annoyingly formal way. “And I would appreciate your help tonight, Erik, thank you. Cressida, did you find anything amiss in the house?”

Cressida shook her head, puzzled. “There were some books all over the floor in your dad’s sitting room, but I assume you’re just going through them, right?”

“Were they stacked neatly?” Ainsley asked.

“No, they’re all over the place. Did you not leave them like that?”

Ainsley was pounding up the stairs in an instant.

Erik followed her, taking the stairs two at a time. They threw open the door to the study. There were books everywhere – spread across the floor in a single layer.

“Did your dad have any valuable books?” he asked.

Ainsley dropped to her hands and knees and scanned the titles frantically. Erik tried to keep his mind on her search and away from her ass and her unbelievable smell. In this position he could take her hips and just plunge himself into her.

To hell with the books.

To hell with the house.

To hell with Cressida.

“I’m not sure if anything is missing, but I can see at least fifty thousand dollars in books right here on the floor.”

Cressida whistled in admiration.

“What could they have wanted?” Ainsley asked plaintively.

Erik was at a loss.

“Cressida,” Erik finally said, “I’m staying here to protect Ainsley – do you want to stay and take a shift or go get MacGregor?”

Erik stood and Cressida was instantly draped over his shoulder. For some reason, it annoyed him. He fought the urge to push her off.

“I don’t need your protection.” Ainsley retorted, jumping to her feet.

“Erik, she says she’s not one of us, why should we protect her?” Cressida asked.

“She is one of us. Whether she wants to admit it right now or not. We need her safe.”

Ainsley closed her eyes.

“Get out, please. I don’t want you here,” she said.

Before Erik could decide what to do, Cressida turned on her heel, dropped seamlessly into her silvery wolf form and trotted down the stairs. He heard the sound of her claws on the kitchen linoleum as she headed out the back door.

“Ainsley,” Erik tried once more.

“Erik, please go.”

He unbuttoned her father’s jeans, loving the way she caught her breath before she realized that he was just returning them.

When his hand touched hers for an instant as he handed them over, he was sure she couldn’t have missed the electric shock between them.

But her eyes were cold.

He sighed, and by the end of the breath, he was a gigantic black wolf again.

Ainsley looked searchingly into his eyes.

Before he could think the better of it, he affectionately bumped his furry head into her perfect breasts. Then he leapt down the stairs and loped away into the night.

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CHAPTER FIVE

 

Ainsley was alone again.

She padded downstairs to close and lock the doors. In all the time she had lived in the house, her parents had never locked the doors. Maybe it was time to start.

She returned to the study and snapped a quick picture of the mess with her iPhone. Then she organized the books into the stacks she had created earlier in the week. Nothing was missing.

She was still filled with a helpless anger, but there was nothing left to do, so she got ready for bed.

As she slipped between the sheets, too furious to go to sleep, she found herself thinking of Erik.

His arrogance at thinking he could tell her what to do. His muscular shoulders. His assumption that she was a frail thing that needed protection. His deep, kind eyes.

Her thoughts on Erik continued to war as she drifted off.

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CHAPTER SIX

 

That night, the dream returned.

Something was different this time.

Ainsley burst from the sidewalk and into the college woods, delighting in the sudden scent of pine as her eyes adjusted to the shade. She could hear Brian’s footsteps behind her, so she ran even faster. Pine needles could be slippery, but Ainsley never fell.

Somehow today, the trees seemed taller and the pine smell more pungent than usual. There was a thunder of footsteps. She looked back to see Julian crashing into the woods behind her.

The hair went up on the back of Ainsley’s neck. This wasn’t right. It was supposed to be Brian. She stopped and began to turn back.

Julian swung his arm around her and lifted her up to spin her in a wild circle. He seemed so strong – she was practically weightless. Suddenly, she felt like a helium balloon, and grasped his forearms – trying not to float away.

He laughed as she looked into his eyes. Their color was off. The calm, sea foam blue had been replaced with a intense azure that crackled like lightning.

He set her down and flung his backpack to the ground.

“Well?” He raised an eyebrow.

She slowly slid her own backpack off her shoulders and placed it down.

He was watching her, the electric blue of his eyes glowing oddly.

What was wrong with him?

“Julian, I don’t think this is a good idea.”

The woods around them darkened.

Ainsley shivered.

“Poor darling, you’re cold! Let me warm you.”

His smile was sincere but his eyes were all wrong. She backed up a step.

“I’m okay.”

“Ainsley, what’s wrong?”

“What’s happening to your eyes?”

A fleeting look crossed his face and was gone.

“It’s the light, Ainsley. Your eyes are glowing too.” He took a step toward her. “You’re beautiful.”

His voice had grown low and hypnotic, it made her heart race. She stepped forward to meet him, expecting soft teasing kisses.

He surprised her by pushing her into the tree at her back. The bark pressed its fingers to her shoulder blades as his insistent mouth claimed hers. He ran his hands down her ribcage and let his thumbs brush over her nipples.

The unexpected thrill of pleasure made her gasp.

He pressed his lean body against her soft one and she could feel the length of him harden against her hip. Another shiver of desire ran through her in response.

She pressed her breasts against his chest and ran her nails down his lightly muscled biceps.

He growled in excitement and devoured her mouth again, rocking the bulge against her helplessly.

Suddenly, Ainsley could hear the clink of silverware at the Barry White diner. She could smell the exhaust from the cars on the highway just outside town. She could taste the rain in the air. A storm was coming, a hundred miles away.

What was happening? Everything seemed familiar but it wasn’t right. Like a bad imitation.

She began to cry. Sobs racked her body.

Julian pulled away.

“Ainsley, I’m sorry, I know you’re a nice girl. We don’t have to do this.”

She heard herself say, “Julian, being here like this with you might just be my favorite thing.”

Her arms went around his neck as she grasped his bottom lip between her teeth and suckled gently.

He surrendered with a growl and took her face in his hands. His tongue sought hers. Again, he pressed himself against her.

A wave of desire coursed over her and she moaned into his mouth.

He swept her off her feet and laid her gently on the bed of pine needles. He lay down next to her on his side and stroked her from her rib cage down to her hip, his azure eyes searching hers.

She could feel each individual pine needle under her. But she couldn’t feel the cold ground and she didn’t care anymore about the color of his eyes. She only cared about the heat of his hand as it traveled the length of her body. She arched her back, offering him her breasts.

He responded immediately, reverently cupping her right breast in his hand. She watched as his thumb brushed her nipple again while his lips parted in wonder as her nipple swelled, popping over the demi-cup of her bra, and pushing against the fabric of her thin t-shirt.

Ainsley’s head fell back on the pine needles as he mouthed her nipple through the cotton of her shirt. The sensation was overwhelming and she felt it all over at once.

Soon the muted contact was not enough for him and he lifted her shirt. She helped him slip it over her head. Her breasts ached as he pulled away from her to remove his Tarker’s Hollow High t-shirt.

His lightly muscled body was graceful, yet powerful.

He gave her no time to admire it. Quickly he dipped his head down to nuzzle and kiss her breasts gently.

She clutched his hair, pressing him to her.

He responded with gentle sucking. The moan that escaped her immediately seemed to give him confidence and he drew harder.

Ainsley could see stars. Her skin prickled all over. She felt too big for her body. And she could hear Julian’s blood pounding through his veins. The scent of his arousal burned in her nostrils.

When he pressed against her side, she could feel his erection through their clothes. She began clawing at his jeans, trying to remove them.

They groped at each other frantically. Their shared lack of experience slowing progress. But in the end passion won out and all their clothing lay spread around them.

Julian moved on top of her. They were both naked and shivering with desire.

By this time, Ainsley was half-mad with strange combination of lust and a horrid crawling feeling. She was sure as soon as he was inside her, the fire would be assuaged.

Wasn’t that how it was supposed to work?

She lifted her hips to meet his as he found his way to press against her most sensitive spot.

He tried to be gentle but in the end he had to push hard against her to find entry. He gasped with pleasurer as she received him.

The pain was brief.

“Are you okay?” he asked her through a clenched jaw.

She smiled tightly and nodded.

When he was fully inside her, she shuddered in ecstasy, but the crawling feeling grew instead of receding. Her teeth began to ache and her skin rippled unnaturally over her muscles.

Julian was too lost in his own sensation to notice. Tiny beads of sweat formed on his forehead. He thrust slowly, but his restraint was costing him. Soon he would lose control and Ainsley knew it would be over.

Hoping to end it quickly and escape the wretched pull, Ainsley lifted her hips and raked her nails into his back.

“Easy,” he pleaded.

She responded by latching onto his neck and sucking his salty skin.

“Ainsley!” He grasped her hips and ground himself into her, unable to contain himself.

She could smell the blood throbbing in his cock and hear the semen teeming and buzzing to be released into her.

The pain inside her was entirely gone. There were only the strange nauseous pull and the sharp honeyed pleasure, warring for her attention.

He shifted his weight and found a different angle inside her.

The pleasure in Ainsley flared, washing over her as she soared and exploded like a firework. Every nerve ending sparkled until she cried out in her ecstasy.

Julian swelled inside her immediately, his blue eyes glowing with anticipation.

But Ainsley’s pleasure had dissipated and now all that was left was the roiling crush of the nasty thing slowly consuming her.

It all happened in an instant.

She felt her body expand. It felt like the first stretch after sleeping late on a lazy Sunday. The relief was exquisite.

The glimmer in Julian’s eyes turned to terror. His mouth gaped open.

She pushed him off of herself effortlessly and hardly noticed as he ejaculated into the air. Her eyes were focused on his throat.

He hit the ground hard on his back. The fall had knocked the wind out of him and he made the sound of a creaking door as he struggled for air. His oblivious cock was still convulsing and shooting out liquidy webs that covered his belly. The veins in his neck were bulging.

Ainsley pounced. Her paws framed his head. The smell of his fear and pain filled her muzzle. The cocktail of weakness was dizzying. She lifted her head and howled a note of triumph before biting down on his neck.

Her canines sank through his flesh effortlessly. She was rewarded with the mewling, gurgling sound of his wordless pleas. Then the first shot of blood hit the back of her throat.

Its coppery warmth spread down her chest and into her belly. Her whole body sang with happiness. She dove into him again, enjoying the spectrum of texture – the soft, buttery flesh, the bone that worked her vise-like jaw, but most of all the seemingly endless waterfall of blood.

An alarm sounded in the distance, reverberating in her sensitive ears at an awful pitch. It was too far off to be a threat to Ainsley’s prize, so she ignored it.

He spluttered once or twice and was out. The game was too easy, but the prize was so delicious. She lapped the sweet ambrosia from his neck.

The alarm jangled again.

She shook her head and her lean muscles rippled down to her tail. But she couldn’t escape the horrid sound. She batted at her ear with a paw.

Her paw was caught in a tangle of long, human hair.

Ainsley startled awake.

Her cell phone was ringing from its charger next to the bed. She grabbed it.

Julian Magie

She dropped it back on the bedside table like it was on fire. Ainsley hugged her knees to her chest and rocked back and forth, coaxing her mind back to the real world.

Breathe in. Breathe out.

It was only a dream.

The phone jangled again.

There was no way she could talk to Julian right now.

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CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Ainsley awoke with a dry throat and a sticky, awful feeling. Sunlight poured in the window.

What time was it?

She leapt out of bed. Ainsley Connor never overslept. She snatched up her phone and noticed a message from Julian.

Julian.

The dream.

She closed her eyes and took a careful breath. It was just a dream.

She had been having the dream off and on for a decade. It never changed.

Until last night.

Was that what really happened to Brian? Usually in the dream she woke up before that part. She had blacked out that day, and didn’t remember anything.

Was this her subconscious trying to let her know the truth?

Ever since she came back to this godforsaken town, it had been one nasty surprise after another.

She glanced back at the phone. It was 8:17am. Ainsley couldn’t remember the last time she’d slept past 6:30.

She made her bed carefully. It was a mess of tangled sheets and overboard pillows, but when she had finished, there was no more physical evidence of the troubled night.

She picked out a pair of faded jeans and a pink Timberwolves t-shirt from high school and glanced at the logo in the mirror.

Tarker’s Hollow Timberwolves.

Subtle.

It was certainly going to be a shopping day. She headed to her parents’ bathroom and turned on the hot water.

After a few minutes under the heavenly spray of the fancy dual shower heads, Ainsley began to relax. She lathered a loofah with sea salt soap and scrubbed herself until she was pink all over. The scent of cinnamon bun shampoo made the corners of her mouth turn up as she smoothed it into her hair.

She remembered the delicious smell of Erik and her heart thudded.

God, he was handsome.

The memory of his masculine body and the graceful, sinewy way he moved was almost overpowering. Now that she was safely out of his gaze, she could fantasize all she wanted.

What would it be like to be his mate?

Ainsley sighed as she imagined curling up under the sheets with him, sliding her hands across his muscled chest and drinking in that heady aroma.

It was awful to be so attracted to someone who was so wrong for her.

It seemed that he was attracted to her, too.

Or was it just that she drew his alpha?

Clearly Cressida was more his type. Come to think of it, the nicest guys usually were under the thumb of a mean skinny blonde.

Though Cressida hadn’t been as mean as she could have been.

Ainsley blushed a little at the memory of whatever had happened with Cressida. She had never had those feelings about a woman before. She wondered what it could mean. It had to be part of the whole wolf thing. Maybe her call to Erik had been strong enough to affect her as well.

Thinking about Erik with Cressida was horrible and exciting at the same time. Ainsley firmly pushed her thoughts away from it.

Could Erik be right about the town?

Once again she wished she had taken advantage of her parents’ information while she’d had the chance. It seemed outlandish that an underground wolf organization existed that was powerful enough to destroy a whole town.

But if it were true, which would be worse – to let them take the town, or to surrender to her wolf and become a bloodthirsty murderer at every full moon?

Ainsley thought again of last night’s dream and repressed a shudder. The water beat down to rinse away every bubble. She imagined the thoughts of the previous night swirling down the drain alongside the lather, and felt a little more normal.

It was natural to have weird crazy dreams at a time like this, wasn’t it?

She had lost her parents, slept with a new guy, found giant sexy wolves in her childhood home, and discovered her father’s book collection ransacked.

If she wasn’t allowed a super weird dream last night, then really, who should have those dreams?

She smoothed on her honeysuckle lotion. Somehow the only underwear she had brought was sexy stuff, so a layer of thin satin and lace went on under her old jeans and t-shirt.

She dried her hair, then brushed it until it shone and put it into a pony tail. Once her diamond studs slid into her ears she was feeling like herself again.

Ainsley’s skin had always been blessedly clear. Her large, dark eyes and dark hair gave enough contrast that a bit of sheer powder and tinted lip-gloss were enough for a day of shopping.

It was odd to lock doors for a daytime trip. Ainsley walked all around the house, securing the porch and patio as well as the back door.

As Ainsley considered that each window onto the porch was large enough for a person to walk through and none had working locks, she realized she ought to call the police to establish that someone had been in the house.

She sighed and looked at her watch. It was already 9:30. Who knew how long it would take to file a police report?

But it had to be done.

The tiny police station picked up on the first ring.

“Tarker’s Hollow Police, Fire & Ambulance. What’s your emergency?”

“Hi there. This is Ainsley Connor. It’s not an emergency, but someone has been in my house.”

“Ainsley, is that you?”

“Um, yes.”

“It’s me, Dale. Are you okay, honey? Did they take anything? I’ll send someone right over!”

“Yes, I’m fine, Dale. Thank you.”

“I hope you don’t mind me saying so, but I don’t know if you should be staying by yourself these days. Does Margie have a room to let?”

Dale was an elderly man. It was odd to realize that he must be a wolf. Ainsley wondered fleetingly if Margie was a wolf too. She was the proprietor of one of Tarker’s Hollow’s two bed and breakfasts.

“I’m fine, Dale. Really. Tell Lana I said hello.”

There was a loud chirp-chirp outside as a police car pulled up out front. Ainsley winced. She wished they hadn’t done that. No need for Sadie Epstein-Walker to have a reason to come bang on the door.

“Sounds like help is at your doorstep, honey. Stop by the house if you have a minute to visit.”

She hung up with a little smile. It was such a small town.

Footsteps on the front porch reached the door just as she did. Ainsley smoothed down her ponytail and grabbed the handle as the bell rang.

The door swung open to frame a trim officer in a navy blue uniform. Her shiny black ponytail shone in the morning sunlight. A look of professional concern was on her heart-shaped face.

“Grace?” Ainsley breathed. No way.

“Ainsley.” Grace smiled and her dark eyes danced.

“I heard you went to the police academy, but I had no idea you were working in Tarker’s Hollow.”

Ainsley stepped aside to let her in. They embraced impulsively, then headed right for the kitchen just like they had in high school.

“Yes. They brought me in when Herb Yarnall retired. It’s a great feeling.”

Grace sat in her usual spot at the oak table and Ainsley rummaged in the fridge for something fancy to drink. When they were younger, Mrs. Cortez had never let Grace drink anything but water or milk at home, so she adored the apple cider, lemonade and flavored teas Ainsley’s mother kept around.

Ainsley hadn’t been grocery shopping since she got home. But there was a bottle of mint Honest Tea in the door of the fridge. She held it out to Grace, who nodded enthusiastically.

“I would have thought you’d set your sights higher than Tarker’s Hollow. You were valedictorian.”

“You gave me a run for my money though, didn’t you?” Grace joked.

Ainsley filled two mason jars with ice and opened the tea bottle.

“Seriously though. I don’t mean to be rude, but…”

“Ainsley, I love this town,” she said simply. “There is nothing I want more than to protect it. And maybe one day I’ll raise my own children here.”

“You didn’t get married yet either, huh?” Ainsley asked, glancing at Grace’s bare ring finger.

“Kwan-Cortez is enough of a mouthful. I don’t know if I can add another.”

Grace had a love-hate relationship with her hyphenated name. Her parents had adopted her from China when she was only a year old. To honor her nationality, they given her the surname of her biological mother, hyphenated with their own last name. The Cortez family tree’s roots were in Mexico.

“No way. You’ll just make Mr. Right take yours.”

“You seriously need to get on FaceBook, Ainsley, this is embarrassing. How could you be out of touch for so long? You’re not one of these luddite, hipster-types that doesn’t believe in technology, are you?”

“God, no,” Ainsley laughed. She was normally never without a phone in her hand and an iPad tucked under her arm. Technology owned her. There were times when she felt like her MacBook Air was an extension of her lap and she was more machine than woman. This trip home was a welcome relief from all those screens.

“Then why no social media?” Grace teased her with a pretend sad face.

Ainsley poured. The ice cubes crackled as the tea hit them.

“It’s complicated,” she explained. How did you tell someone they were part of a life you’d worked hard to forget? She settled for a half-truth. “Mostly it’s because in my job I can’t have a public social life.”

She sat down in her usual spot, opposite Grace, and put down her own cup on the ring that had marked the space for her drink ever since she could remember.

“I think I may know why else, but that’s not why I’m here today. Or is it?”

Ainsley froze and looked into the Grace’s eyes. She hadn’t lost touch with Grace by accident. Ainsley never had the heart to share what she was. She wouldn’t have been able to bear the look of disappointment from her childhood friend.

Grace held her gaze. Her expression was dead serious.

“Grace, you know that Tarker’s Hollow is a special place. Do you know how special?” Ainsley asked carefully.

“When Herb Yarnall retired, the chief had an important decision to make. He needed to bring in someone new and trustworthy. My loyalty was tested and I did not come out wanting. If you’re asking if I know what happens in this town at the full moon, the answer is yes.”

The wind went out of Ainsley’s lungs.

“So, with that in mind,” Grace said crisply. “Can you tell me what happened here? When did you discover that someone had been in the house?”

Ainsley went through the events of the previous evening leaving out just a few choice bits. Grace took careful notes.

“As far as I can tell – nothing is missing,” Ainsley finished. “Maybe it was just kids – sneaking in here on a dare.”

Grace nodded and brushed an invisible fleck of dust off her thigh.

Ainsley recognized her friend’s old tell.

“You think it’s serious, don’t you?”

“You’re not just anyone, Ainsley, and those are not just anyone’s books. May I see the room?”

“Sure.”

They ascended the steps quietly. Grace’s eyes took in every detail.

When they reached the study, Grace pursed her lips.

“Ainsley, did you reorganize these books?”

Uh-oh.

“Well, yes,” Ainsley smoothed her ponytail. “I needed to know if anything was missing.”

“Why didn’t you call last night?”

Because I was mad at Erik?

Because I’m a big bad wolf and I’m not afraid of anything?

“I don’t know. It seemed silly to call when nothing was missing.”

“It’s not silly to call. You’ve already disturbed any evidence that might have been here. Didn’t you stop to think that the police ought to be called in to look at it? Or that maybe you shouldn’t just go to sleep in the house after finding this? Have you ever even seen a cop show on TV?”

“You know what I am, Grace. No, I wasn’t afraid to go to sleep. I just wanted to establish that there was an intrusion, just in case. I took a picture of the books with my phone before I cleaned them up. Do you want me to send it to you?”

“Sure, it’s better than nothing.” Grace handed her a business card. “My email’s on here.”

Ainsley took the card and slipped it in her pocket.

They looked at each other awkwardly for a moment.

“Is there anything else I should know?” Grace asked. “If your father had anything special in this room, or in the house, I need to know about it. Keep in mind that I know how important he was and that I have pledged to serve and protect this town, with all its secrets.”

“Grace, you probably know more about my father and his secrets than I do.”

“You left in a hurry – but you must have asked questions first.”

Ainsley shook her head ruefully.

“I didn’t. And now I can’t.”

The finality of it hit her again and tears prickled her eyes.

To her credit, Grace didn’t try to hug her or comfort her. The young officer’s presence was soothing. Ainsley could hear her heart beating and smell the mint tea on Grace’s breath and the musk of a single dog hair on her uniform pants. Labrador? No, German Shepherd.

Grace hesitated for a moment, like she was trying to decide her course of action carefully.

“Maybe you still can,” Grace suggested softly.

Ainsley’s head snapped up.

“What?”

“Tarker’s Hollow is unusual even when there isn’t a full moon. But I shouldn’t really discuss it when I’m on duty. Let’s just say I might know of a way you can ask your parents a few of those questions.”

“Unless you can bring back the dead, I don’t see how that’s possible.”

Grace was silent.

“Grace, You can’t mean…”

“No. I can’t bring back the dead. But sometimes I can open a line of communication.”

Ainsley couldn’t think of anything to say that wouldn’t show her disbelief. Who would think that Grace Kwan-Cortez would turn out to be a flake?

Grace must have caught the look in her old friend’s eyes.

“Ainsley, you turn into a giant wolf once a month. Are you really in a position to look at me like I’m on the cover of the National Enquirer?”

Fair enough.

“I’m sorry, Grace, it was a long night. What exactly are you saying you can do?”

“Why don’t I come back when I’m off duty and we can talk about it?”

“I don’t know, Grace.”

“I’m off all day tomorrow. You have my card. Text me. It would be good to catch up either way.”

Grace smiled her movie star smile and Ainsley couldn’t help smiling back.

[* *]

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CHAPTER EIGHT

 

Ainsley sighed.

She had promised herself that she would spend just ten minutes breezing through work email after Grace left, and then head out shopping.

Nearly half an hour had passed and she had just finished skimming the mountain of messages. It seemed that although her clients thought her stand-in, stupid Zach Gratz, was “great,” they all wanted to check in with her on “just one little thing.”

Ainsley prepared a quick spreadsheet with suggestions for damage control on the “little things” that really mattered and emailed it to her broker. Then she shut the laptop and plugged it in.

As soon as she stood she felt dizzy. It was 10am. Had she really not even had breakfast yet?

As she tried to remember, her cell phone rang.

It was Julian.

Again.

She dismissed the call. Even though she knew the dream was just a dream, the whole thing was still creeping her out. She’d feel better after a meal, probably.

Ainsley grabbed her bag, turned off the lights and locked the doors. Surely she would smell any intruders – her senses seemed to be heightened in Tarker’s Hollow.

Ainsley froze.

Why hadn’t she smelled an intruder?

She closed her eyes and inhaled deeply through her nose. She smelled herself, Grace, Erik, and Cressida. There was a softer note of her parents, her younger self, the mailman, the plumber, the guy who serviced the heater, and the faculty and students who used to visit. There was nothing unexpected and recent.

There had to be an explanation. Was it possible to hide your scent? Once again, she regretted not knowing more about being a wolf. Maybe she could ask Erik when he came tonight with his crew to help her finish moving things.

Why did her heart skip a beat thinking about having Erik back in her house?

She glanced at her phone again and sighed at the time, then headed outside.

Ainsley approached her dad’s old Volvo wagon with caution. It had as much character as the house, she was sure. On the other hand it was old as dirt. Her dad had been determined to drive it into the ground. It had about 200,000 miles on it and he probably felt it was only halfway there.

Once the air conditioning was on and the music was bumping, Ainsley began to feel better. She decided to run to the upscale mall half an hour away. She was sure there were shops in Tarker’s Hollow she ought to patronize, but sometimes a girl just wanted anonymity. And designer clothes.

After an almond croissant and a hazelnut coffee, Ainsley felt energized enough to shop. Her heels slapped the marble floors with a purpose as she skirted the leisurely women wandering aimlessly through the mall.

Ainsley’s curvy body often made shopping a challenge in the high-end shops in Manhattan. Sometimes she wondered if the whole city were made up of starving ballerinas. She didn’t think of shopping as enjoyable, but as a challenge to tackle.

However, Philadelphia’s storied love of soft pretzels and cheesesteaks perhaps influenced the size choices in the shops. It turned out that there was plenty to choose from over a size 2.

Nordstrom was her usual fare for work suits, but somehow nothing seemed quite right. As she headed toward Neiman Marcus the quirky little cotton dresses with swirly skirts in a boutique window caught Ainsley’s eye, so she stopped in.

The vibrant colors were almost overwhelming. Manhattanites dressed in a predictable wash of grays and blacks with the occasional blood red scarf or power tie. These dresses, on the other hand, were a feast of greens and yellows and cerulean blues. Ainsley paused in front of a dress so pink it made her think of a child’s drawing of a birthday cake.

“Looking for something special?” The shop girl said, viewing Ainsley’s choice in an admiring way.

“Well, I usually dress either for business or for cleaning the house. I’ve got a little time off and it seems that I have nothing in between,” Ainsley confided, enjoying the chance for a little girl talk that didn’t involve anything supernatural.

“I’m Jamie,” she said. “And I know just what you’re looking for. Go grab a changing room – I’ll bring you a stack.”

Indeed, they did have just what Ainsley wanted, and even some things she hadn’t known she wanted. And somehow, Jamie had known Ainsley’s measurements without asking or using a tape. Everything she brought fit like a glove. Ainsley spent a relaxing hour draping herself in light fabrics and lush colors and enjoying the company of the straightforward salesgirl.

“Well, I think you cleaned us out.” Jamie laughed delightedly as she rang up two large bags of playful dresses.

Ainsley smiled. It was nice to think that someone as dedicated to customer service as this young woman would be taking home a healthy commission for her hard work and good instincts.

Before she left Jamie suggested the best shops for shoes and which salespeople to ask for. Ainsley couldn’t resist giving them a try. Jamie hadn’t steered her wrong. Shoe shopping then led to a mani-pedi session at the salon that was highly recommended by the young man at the shoe store.

Afterward she stopped in Victoria’s Secret for just a few more nice things. In for a penny, in for a pound, she told herself. But now it was really time to go.

On the way out, she passed David Yurman. The blue topaz cuff that always caught her eye in the window on Madison Avenue was in a display case just inside. And it would look perfect with the faux-wrap dress she’d just bought. She paused uncertainly, then ducked inside and made one last purchase.

Carrying her bags back to the car, Ainsley almost felt guilty. Then she thought about the long hours she put in. Ainsley worked long and hard enough that she literally had no place in her closet for fun clothes.

Well that was going to change – at least for a couple of days. If she had to deal with wolves and who knew what else, she was going to look good doing it.

The Volvo started up right away, the radio played all the right songs, and the traffic was light. The trip back to Tarker’s Hollow was the capper to a perfect morning.

Ainsley hopped out of the car humming. As she carried her bags inside the phone rang again.

Julian.

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CHAPTER NINE

 

No matter what he did, Erik could not get Ainsley Connor off his mind.

He hadn’t slept much. He’d tossed and turned and thought of her eyes, her soft body, her luscious smell. Everything at the site this morning seemed to be going smoothly – leaving him too much time to think.

Clive Warren.

Had Ainsley’s dad really wanted her to mate with Clive?

The Warrens were total purists. Clive’s parents weren’t big fans of Connor as alpha. But Clive himself never seemed like that bad a guy. He had been a good football player in high school, but he didn’t lord it over anybody. Now he was a good cop, who did right by the town.

There were worse choices.

Funny that Connor wanted a working man for his daughter, not an academic. Erik had always respected Michael Connor. And he truly felt that the respect was mutual.

Erik couldn’t help wondering if a blue-collar man was good enough, why hadn’t Connor thought of him?

Connor called him in all the time for his opinions on the highway and how to handle the pack finances. The more Erik thought about it, the more it seemed like Ainsley’s dad had been grooming him for the role of the pack’s next alpha.

Erik could picture him now, listening intently with those unblinking brown eyes. He never shared his own thoughts – an alpha didn’t have to let anyone in on his decisions. But he would ask questions – just the right questions to help Erik articulate facets of the problem he hadn’t thought of before. When he had heard enough, he would nod and reach over to shake Erik’s hand.

“Thank you, son,” he would say. “Well done. As usual you’ve given me plenty to think about.”

Erik’s wolf would stand tall with pride at having pleased his alpha.

Erik did not remember ever hearing of Clive Warren being called to the alpha for counsel.

At that moment, he heard the chirp-chirp of a police car. As though Erik’s thoughts had summoned him, Clive Warren pulled up on the shoulder by the site. Erik strode over to see him.

“Hey, Clive!”

“Jensen, what’s new?”

“Nothing, man. Beautiful day – perfect for digging.”

Clive smiled.

“Anything wrong?”

“Nope – just patrolling. Grace told me there was a break-in at the Connors yesterday. You didn’t see anyone coming out of there, did you?”

Erik shook his head. He needed to be careful. He couldn’t outright lie to Clive.

“Have you seen Ainsley since she got back?” Erik asked, before Clive could ask any follow-up questions.

Clive colored and looked down. Erik could hear his heart beating hard.

“Yeah, I bumped into her last night,” he muttered.

So it was already happening. Erik mentally gave his wolf a shake and, as much as it hurt, made himself do the right thing. It was about the pack. It was about Ainsley. It wasn’t about him.

“Clive, I think you would make a great alpha. And Ainsley needs you. Don’t give up on her. She’ll come around.”

Clive’s head snapped up and he opened and closed his mouth. His cheeks got a little pinker and he swiftly grabbed Erik’s hand and pumped it enthusiastically.

“Thank you, Erik. I know you love this town, just like I do. I’ll bring Ainsley home.”

Erik nodded. It was painful, but he would get used to thinking of Ainsley with Clive.

Wouldn’t he?

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CHAPTER TEN

 

Ainsley rejected the call.

It wasn’t that she was playing hard to get. It was just that the dream had thrown her off a bit. She would catch up with Julian tomorrow.

She carefully unpacked each bag, hanging the dresses in her girlhood closet next to a row of homemade Halloween costumes that no one had the heart to part with after all these years. Ainsley’s mom had been handy with everything from lawnmower repairs, to needle and thread. Her Halloween costumes were always spectacular.

God, she missed her parents.

She always had, but when they weren’t speaking, there was at least a tiny part of her that knew she couldn’t stay mad forever. As she mused over the zombie Girl Scout costume that had been one of her favorites (complete with a box depicting brain flavored cookies), she decided that maybe she would like to visit the college today and take a look at her dad’s office. She would need to get in touch with Carol for the key.

But first, a snack. She had missed lunch. Sleeping in had thrown her off schedule.

A search of the pantry yielded a can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup. She really needed to go to the Co-op.

Ainsley poured the soup in a cup, added half the recommended water, then heated it in the microwave. She drank it slowly while she watched the neighbor kids through the window. They chased their deliriously happy chocolate lab with water pistols, as the dog tried to catch the water in her mouth. One little girl doubled over in delight, squealing, “She’s trying to DRINK it!” as the dog leapt for a jolt of water and landed in the rhododendrons.

Ainsley was suddenly aware that the mailman was walking down the sidewalk to her house, though she couldn’t see him. He would arrive at the front door in 3,2,1 …clink. The mailbox snapped shut.

Her senses were really heightening here. Usually the moon was full before she got waves of sensory info without trying. It must be something about the town. Or maybe it was the nearness of the other wolves.

Ainsley walked to the mailbox. Across the street, Sadie Epstein-Walker looked up from weeding the flowerbeds and waved her gloved hand once. Ainsley waved back.

The mail was mostly coupons, but there was a thick manila envelope, too. It had her name written on it – no postage mark or stamp. Someone must have dropped it in the mailbox earlier.

Ainsley carried it back into the kitchen and bent the metal brad on the envelope to open the flap. A sheet of paper with the college letterhead greeted her.

It was a pleasure to see you last night, Ainsley. I know you’re busy with the house, but I thought I’d stop by with the key to your father’s office just in case you find some time to come by. Please let me know if there is anything I can do to help you. Your Friend, Carol Lotus

There was a phone number at the end.

Ainsley upended the envelope and a single brass key slid into her waiting palm.

Ask and ye shall receive.

Funny that she hadn’t noticed Carol’s scent when she arrived back at the house. Maybe it was just that Carol had been here before over the years.

Ainsley slipped into one of her new dresses and a pretty pair of slides and headed out on foot. Somehow the heavy, humid air felt cool and light on her bare shoulders. The flats meant she had to walk more slowly than usual.

It was a gorgeous day in spite of the heat. The flowers and trees were at the peak of their summer lushness. The town looked like a Photoshopped postcard of upscale suburbia.

By some miracle, she made it down Elm and across Yale without bumping into anyone. Soon, the shade of the college woods embraced her as she strolled down the familiar path and mused about last night.

Given the intimate evening she’d had with Julian, it was funny that her thoughts kept going back to Erik.

She could see the shimmering heat around his powerful naked form every time she closed her eyes. A thrill coursed through her as she imagined what it would be like to lose herself in the thrall of his alpha.

If only it didn’t mean giving up her life and dreams to literally be his bitch. She remembered how ready he was to start ordering her around.

Why would her parents want her to marry him?

Thank goodness she hadn’t told him about that.

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CHAPTER ELEVEN

 

Ainsley rounded the corner to Scott Hall and pulled open the heavy wooden door. The second floor was up a tremendous flight of marble stairs. The auditorium ceiling was so high, it made the upper story feel much farther up than normal. By the time she got to the top, she was nearly breathless.

Ainsley turned the brass key in the lock to her father’s office, preparing to take in the whoosh of leather and books that always came out of this room. What she found, she wasn’t prepared for.

All of her father’s gorgeous volumes lay spread across the floor. Papers were everywhere. The quarter sawn oak roll-down desk had been forced open, revealing another mess of papers and books.

Ainsley stood frozen in the doorway.

It was too much.

She took a breath and pulled Carol’s note from her purse. With shaking hands she entered Carol’s number on her iPhone.

“Hello?” the quavery voice said after the first ring.

“Carol, it’s me, Ainsley.”

“Did you get my note?”

“Yes, I’m at Dad’s office. When were you last in here?”

“The department has been in upheaval since we lost your father. I stop in there almost every day for one reason or another. Why?”

“Were you here today?”

“Well, no, but I stopped in yesterday. Is something wrong, Ainsley?”

“How did things look? Were they in order?”

“Your father was a very neat man,” Carol said.

“Someone has been here. It looks like a tornado went through. I…I don’t even know what might be missing.”

“Oh my word! I’ll be right over, Ainsley. Don’t move a muscle, I’m coming.”

Ainsley hung up and slid the phone back in her purse. She wanted nothing more than to sink into the leather chesterfield. But after being scolded by Grace this morning, the last thing she wanted to do was touch anything.

Instead, she walked back to the marble staircase, sat carefully on the top step and leaned against the wrought iron railing. She shut her eyes and inhaled deeply. It was no use. There had been so many people in and out of this hall and that office – she would never be able to track a single scent.

There was the sound of footsteps on the stairs. Before Ainsley could stand, Clive Warren appeared at her feet.

“Ainsley, are you all right?” he asked, a little too loudly.

“I’m fine, Clive. I’m fine.”

He paused and knelt on a step below her, a look of obvious relief on his handsome face.

She studied him calmly. His gigantic hands, one on the railing and one just below her, made her feet look tiny. His blue uniform pulled against his muscular chest. He was breathing heavily after his rushed trip up the staircase. And he was exuding a woodsy scent that, if not as delicious as Erik’s, was certainly attractive.

He searched her face.

She smiled reassuringly at him.

His returning smile was so pure and happy that the kernel of fear that had settled into the pit of her stomach dissolved.

“Whoever it was is long gone. Did Carol call?”

“Yes, I was patrolling campus. Every once in a while we get pranksters over here when school’s out of session. When Carol said you’d called I rushed over.”

“Thank you, Clive. Maybe you can take a look inside. I didn’t touch anything this time.”

“I’m just glad you’re okay,” he said gruffly.

He was on his feet swiftly for a man of his size. Ainsley remembered again that he wasn’t only a man.

He reached for her and she allowed him to take her hand in his and lift her back to standing. His grip was warm and he pulled her up like she was as light as a feather. She smiled up at him. His eyes were so blue. Just as she began to fight her brain, which decidedly wanted to indulge in a quick fantasy, he looked away politely.

Clive headed into the open room. He strode over the threshold and scanned the room coolly. Then he turned back to her and his gaze softened.

“Ainsley, this is going to take a little while. Can I run you home?”

“Oh. I’ll be fine,” Ainsley said quickly.

“I don’t think you should be by yourself right now. You must be very upset. And besides, you may be in danger,” Clive said carefully.

“But I might be able to help you if I’m here.”

“I’m assuming someone is looking for valuable books of your father’s.”

“That would make sense except that from right here I can see three first editions.”

They looked at the room together.

“The same thing was true at the house, Clive. I can’t think of anything of value that was taken – and so many valuable books were left behind,” she said.

“Ainsley, I’ll tell you what. Why don’t you let me take you home? We will catalogue everything here that we find. Then you can go through it with us, and tell us if anything isn’t here, or point out if anything is still here that a burglar would have wanted. I know you might feel fine now, but you’re probably close to shock with so many surprises. It would be best for you to go about whatever else you had planned for the day and let us take our time here and contact you when we have a better read on the situation.”

She had to admit it sounded reasonable. And seeing her father’s office this way was making her more upset by the minute.

She looked back into his Caribbean blue eyes to nod her assent.

His jaw relaxed and he reached out to touch her shoulder in sympathy.

An electric shock ran through her and his outline began to dance around her eyes. His hand slid to her hip and she felt her heart slow and then stutter to match his.

Suddenly there was the clattering of high heels on the marble stair.

“Ainsley!” a quavering voice squeaked.

Fuck.

Ainsley withdrew from Clive and instantly the haze disappeared. They both looked away, though Ainsley could hear him panting and she knew it wasn’t from the staircase.

“Hi, Carol,” she returned weakly. “I’m fine. Clive Warren is here.”

“Oh, thank goodness, Ainsley. As soon as we got off the phone I started to worry that someone up to no good might still be lurking around. After all, I was in your father’s office just yesterday.”

Carol tottered breathlessly up the last few steps.

“I’m fine,” Ainsley repeated, smoothing her dress over her hips.

Carol clapped her on the shoulder firmly and sighed. Then she peeked over Ainsley’s shoulder into the office.

“Oh my heavens!”

“It’s bad, Carol,” Clive agreed. “I’ve just told Ainsley that I’ll run her home and then come back to take stock of the damage. This will take time.”

“Oh, I’ll take you home, Ainsley. My car is right out front.”

Clive raised his eyebrows at Ainsley in question. She nodded, not without a passing twinge of regret. He nodded back and looked almost relieved. His duty was important to him.

“Thank you, Carol, that’d be great.”

“Carol, please make sure you see her inside,” Clive interjected. “She’s had a long day.”

“Of course.” Carol chirped. “Come on, Ainsley, let’s get you home. I’ll fix you some iced tea.”

“Thank you, Clive,” Ainsley said softly, tucking her hair behind her ear self-consciously.

“Ainsley, it’s my pleasure.”

He looked like he wanted to say more. Instead he turned back to the open doorway.

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CHAPTER TWELVE

 

Ainsley and Carol stopped on the way home for groceries. The Co-op was in full swing and Ainsley was grateful for the older woman’s comforting presence.

As they walked the aisles, Ainsley received many glances and stares. Most were very friendly.

“Ainsley Connor, it’s a pleasure to see you,” declared Anna Rodin with a little wink.

“Carol,” Trudy Weiss nodded approvingly. “Ainsley.”

There were the less grandmotherly stares of the young men, too. Several of them gaped at Ainsley in open admiration.

Ainsley smoothed her skirt and tucked her hair behind her ear. Carol gave her a sympathetic smile.

“They can’t help it, Ainsley,” she said. “It’s instinct. You’re going to draw the alpha. This whole town is buzzing with male energy.”

Ainsley did a double-take.

“Are… are you saying…that you…?” Ainsley couldn’t finish.

“Of course I’m a wolf.” Carol whispered. “Good heavens! Did you not even know that?”

“Hi, Carol. Hi, Ainsley,” Stan Snyder said with a leer. He tried hard to catch Ainsley’s eye.

“Good-BYE, Stan,” Carol said firmly.

“I had no idea, Carol,” Ainsley said. Her heart lifted as she realized she might have found a confidante who could give her answers. One who wasn’t trying to get into her pants, that is.

“Well, I’m starting to realize that there’s a lot you don’t know. At any rate, your mere presence in town is stirring up the wolves. You’re going to have to choose as quickly as you can. Do you want my input?”

“Uh…”

“I personally can’t say enough good things about Erik Jensen. I know he’s not as good-looking as Clive Warren, but he’s smart and everyone respects him.”

Wow. Ainsley didn’t know what to say.

“I know you still may have, er, wild oats to sow, dear,” Carol said uncomfortably. “But I might suggest avoiding the human men. I don’t think many people in town know that you spent time with Julian Magie yesterday, and I know you only did because you miss your dad. But it would probably make the men crazy if they found out. We’re a quiet town but we can only take so much. I hope you don’t think it’s sexist. It’s only because we need an alpha so very much.”

She looked searchingly at Ainsley.

“Carol, I’m only beginning to realize what a big deal it is for me to be here. But I need you to understand that I’m just here to pack up the house and get it sold so I can go back to New York. Whatever wolf issues there are, they will need to be worked out by the wolves. I’m not part of it.”

“I’m sorry you feel that way, Ainsley. I don’t know what we ever did to disappoint you. I know we’re not ‘normal’ here, but you are one of us and we love you. And our community is in danger. If you think we can work it out without you, you’re wrong.”

“Carol, what would have happened if I’d died in that accident too? You can’t tell me that the town would be wrecked. There has to be someone else.”

“Hello, Myrtle,” Carol called.

Myrtle Turner smiled shyly at Ainsley.

“This probably isn’t the best time to talk about it, Ainsley. But the short answer is that you didn’t die, thank goodness, and no – there is no one else to take your place. Now, grab a cart, honey, there’s no rush and I’m sure you’ll need your energy to clean out that big house.”

Ainsley tried to concentrate on shopping. Everything at the Co-op these days seemed to be grass-fed, organic and gluten free. And the new building was cheerful and so well-lit. She remembered the days when the Co-op was housed in a dark fishy-smelling storefront next door. Some changes in this town were for the better. She remembered that Erik had said the pack owned the majority of shares in the Co-op and she felt an odd little twinge of pride.

Erik. All roads led to him. Ainsley was going to be face to face with him in just an hour. Though she knew it did no good to befriend him if she wasn’t going to stick around and be his mate, she couldn’t help feeling a rush of excitement at the thought of seeing him again.

As her heartbeat quickened, several young men turned to her. Could they have noticed?

She could suddenly smell arousal, thick in the air. There was a thunder of hearts beating in response to hers. The air was practically reverberating with it.

Fuck.

A young man with a Co-op sweatshirt rounded the corner of the dairy cabinet and stopped just short of knocking her over. He stared into her eyes with unveiled longing.

Ainsley caught her breath and tried to slow her heart. The young man gained control of himself, barely.

“Can I help you find anything, miss?” His pulse throbbed in his neck and a bead of perspiration appeared between his forehead and the dark brown curls of his hair.

She shook her head mutely.

Carol took her arm and firmly marched her to the line.

“Was that because of me?”

“Yes. And that is going to get worse as the moon waxes. What were you thinking about?”

“Nothing…just…Erik.” Ainsley blushed.

“Good girl.” Carol smiled, but her lips were pressed together in concern.

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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

By the time they got back to the house, it was nearly 5:00. Ainsley thanked Carol and explained that Erik was coming to help move some furniture.

“That’s wonderful, dear. It’s just like him to want to help and maybe it’s a good way for you to get to know him.”

“Carol, you’ve been so kind.”

“It’s my pleasure, Ainsley. Please let me know when I can stop in to check on you.”

After the niceties had been said, Ainsley had only a few minutes to run a brush through her hair and smooth on a touch of lip-gloss. When the cuckoo clock announced the hour, she was back in the kitchen putting away groceries.

The doorbell rang and she did her best not to run to the door. She opened it to find two young men. They were clean shaven, but big, and both had their fair share of tattoos. They looked like extras in a prison movie. One of them removed his battered T-Wolves cap respectfully and stepped forward.

“My name’s Jake and this is Joe,” he said. “Mr. Jensen sent us over. He said you had some furniture you needed moved?”

“Oh, thank you so much for coming. Let me show you.”

Ainsley tried to control her disappointment. Had Erik really not come himself?

Actually it made perfect sense. She had kicked him to the curb so angrily last night. And besides, he had Cressida to spend his evenings with.

She showed the men to the third floor and indicated the items to be moved. They sent her back down to open doors for them.

The men were strong and fast. A few trips later and the third floor was nearly empty.

The final item to come down from the attic was an ancient walnut hope chest with a sulfur inlay design of howling wolves. Ainsley eyed it with appreciation. This was one piece of furniture she didn’t remember from her childhood, even though it looked like it had been sitting upstairs forever.

“Please leave that in the study.”

“Sure, Miss Connor.”

Ainsley ran her hand over the clasp that locked the lid down. There was probably a key somewhere in the house, but so far she hadn’t uncovered it.

“Would you gentlemen happen to know how to jimmy one of these open if you don’t have the key?”

“I don’t know if you can, ma’am,” Joe said. “That’s an Amish chest. It’s well-built.”

“Just smash the lock. I have a wrench in my truck. Hang on!” Jake said.

As soon as he was gone, Joe confided in her.

“Miss Connor, I don’t think you should smash that lock. A chest with a sulfur inlay is rare and probably worth something. Most of them were made before the Civil War. I’d take it to an antique dealer when you find the key.”

“Thank you, Joe. I’m sure you’re right.”

“My aunt had one like that. She gave it to GoodWill and then we saw something like it on Antiques Roadshow. She still talks about it.”

Jake returned and shrugged when she told him she’d changed her mind.

“How much do I owe you?” she asked.

“We’re taken care of, Miss Connor,” Jake replied.

“Mr. Jensen gave us an hour of overtime,” Joe added.

“Well, thank you very much for your help.” Ainsley tried hard not to think about generous ‘Mr. Jensen’ too much – who knew if these young men were wolves? The last thing she wanted was any extra attention from them.

She sent them each out with a cold bottle of Coke. As they hopped into the pick-up truck out front, a little green MG pulled into the driveway.

Who could that be?

Julian hopped out and smiled at her. He looked like a Banana Republic model. His snowy white dress shirt was unbuttoned at the top to reveal a few inches of his smooth, tan chest. He removed his sunglasses and she could see the sexy little creases under his eyes.

She couldn’t help smiling back.

He gestured for her to wait a moment and he grabbed a re-usable canvas bag from the passenger seat. He strode up to her at a leisurely pace.

“Miss Connor, I understand that you had a lot to accomplish today. But there is no reason to be anti-social.”

His mouth quirked up in that knowing half smile, and she knew that she would let him in. But she stalled for time anyway, fixing him with a cool gaze.

“I’m new to town, Ainsley,” Julian said in a low teasing voice that was full of promise. “You won’t abandon me to that lonely cottage, will you?”

“Depends on what’s in the bag,” she teased with a straight face.

“So pert, Miss Connor. Lucky for you, I’ve got just the thing to melt your defenses – a homemade hummus and pita tray, fresh from Caspian. And a bottle of shiraz.”

Nice.

That was a soft spot. Tarker’s Hollow Mediterranean restaurant, Caspian, had fantastic, fresh food. And she hadn’t had a glass of wine in a long time.

He smiled that enigmatic smile again and she broke and smiled back. He reached out and slowly tucked her hair behind her ear. Then he took her arm and guided her into the house.

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CHAPTER FOURTEEN

 

The kitchen was suffused with the warm light of the setting sun. It bounced off the coppery highlights in Julian’s hair, reminding Ainsley briefly of an alpha being drawn.

He had uncorked the wine as soon as he arrived. They sipped and chatted as Ainsley set the oak table.

“So, how did you spend your day?” Julian asked.

Ainsley pursed her lips as she peeled the plastic wrap off the hummus platter. Did she really have to go into the break-ins? How could she tell him what was going on in her life without talking about giant wolves?

And Erik?

And bad, bad dreams?

“Is something wrong?”

“When I got home last night, someone had been in the house.”

“What?”

“I had all my father’s books organized in his study. When I got home they were spread all over the floor. At first I thought the study was just trashed. But then I realized the books were spread out in such a way that they must have been looking for something.”

“What did they take?”

“I’m not sure. So far everything I’ve thought of is still here. All the first editions and valuables are here.”

“Well that’s very lucky,” Julian said solemnly. “But I’m concerned about what someone might have wanted with your father’s things. Do you have any idea of what they might have been looking for besides books?”

Ainsley shook her head and got out serving utensils. She hadn’t thought of anyone wanting anything of her father’s other than books.

“Maybe it was a random break-in. Maybe they were looking for cash and they didn’t know the books were valuable,” Julian suggested.

“I thought the same until this afternoon.”

“What happened this afternoon?”

Ainsley smoothed her skirt down. Instantly, she remembered Julian running his hands down her thighs last night. She blushed and caught him following her movements out of the corner of her eye. She deliberately ignored him and turned to grab glasses for ice water.

“I went to visit my dad’s office at the college. It’s been ransacked too.”

“Oh dear.”

“I didn’t know as much about what he had there, but I could see that there were a ton of valuable books left behind.”

“What would they have been looking for, Ainsley? Was your father working on something new for publication?”

It was an idea.

“I don’t know,” she admitted. “But wouldn’t they have stolen his laptop if that’s what they wanted? They didn’t touch the computers.”

Julian shook his head.

“What do the police say?”

“They have no idea. They’re going to catalogue what they find on campus and get back to me.”

“And at home?”

Ainsley looked down.

“I, um, cleaned up the study before I thought to call them this morning.”

“Are you telling me that you left me in the middle of the night, came home to discover that an intruder had been in the house, cleaned up the evidence, and went to sleep alone without calling the police?”

When he put it that way it sounded seriously reckless. She couldn’t exactly tell him she could turn into a gigantic wolf at any sign of danger.

Instead she shrugged.

“It didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Besides, what are the police going to do?”

“Well, I can’t believe they’re going to let you stay in the house after what’s happened.”

“No one has threatened me. It seems like they just want something of my dad’s.”

“Why didn’t they look for it before you came home. Wasn’t the house empty for a couple of months?”

Ainsley froze. She hadn’t thought of that.

“Why don’t you stay with me for a few days? Thayer House isn’t exactly crowded.”

“I’ve really got to get finished with this house. I can’t spend the rest of my life here. I have to get back to New York.”

“Those penthouses won’t sell themselves, eh?”

When he put it that way it sounded superficial. But those penthouses were her career.

“What about you?”

“What about me what?”

“How long are you going to be in Tarker’s Hollow?”

“I’ll be here for the fall semester.”

“Then what?”

“Wow, we really didn’t devote much time to conversation last night, did we?”

Ainsley smiled wickedly and shook her head.

“You were all business, Miss Connor.”

Ainsley smirked.

“Did you just smirk?”

She shrugged and laid cloth napkins on the table.

He grabbed her wrist and pulled her closer. She thought about resisting, but the wine was making her lazy. And besides, she was curious to see what would happen next.

“Why are you so obedient in the bedroom and so saucy outside of it?” he whispered in her ear, tickling her neck with his warm breath.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean,” she said lightly, pulling her wrist out of his grip and sliding into her seat at the table.

“Impudent. American. Girl,” he declared with a smile.

“Hungry too,” she replied, piling her plate with cucumbers, olives and a stack of warm pita wedges. “And what do you mean ‘American’?”

“I’m from England.”

“Where’s your sexy accent?”

“Seemed pretentious to hold onto it when I’ve lived here so long. I’ll tell you what,” Julian said, as he topped off her wine glass. “You can eat, and I will fill you in on the minor details, so that our fuck tonight doesn’t have to be so goddamned anonymous.”

Ainsley tried to be annoyed at his presumptuousness, but couldn’t. Instead she smiled at him, popped an olive in her mouth, and gave him a queenly gesture to proceed.

“I grew up in rural England,” he began. “My mother was a seamstress. My father owned a small farm that had belonged to his father. We had a happy life until a lady moved in next door. She was a widow.”

Ainsley looked up.

Oh shit. It was going to be a my-parents-got-a-divorce-and-I’ll-be-forever-traumatized story. What a shame that everyone Generation X and younger had one. She prepared herself for a whiney evening.

“Her name was Eugenie. She was lovely. Long black hair, soft white skin – just like yours, Ainsley – and a smile that would make your stomach do flips.”

He paused to dunk a baby carrot stick in hummus and offer to feed it to her. She accepted and let her lips graze his fingers as she sucked the carrot out of his hand.

“I was only twelve, but I would have done anything to earn one of her smiles. And I had plenty of opportunities. My mother felt dreadfully sorry for her and would send me over to do every kind of menial task.”

Okay. Right. Ainsley adjusted her expectations. It was going to be one of those braggy I-had-sex-when-I-was-twelve-because-ladies-can’t-resist-me stories.

“One day when I was there to trim her hedge, I heard a small sound inside her cottage. At first I thought it might be a kitten, but as I listened it sounded more like crying. I went inside to see what was wrong.

“When I got inside, I saw Eugenie curled up on the sofa crying. I didn’t know what to do. I was twelve and very stupid socially. But the sight of her broke my heart and so I naturally did just what I would have done if she had been my own mother. I ran to kneel by her side and put my arm around her as best I could and patted her back.

“She looked up at me in surprise, and the smile that came through her tears was the most beautiful I had ever seen.

“‘Do you miss your husband very much, Eugenie?’ I asked her.

“‘Oh, my friend,’ she said kindly. ‘I do, but I’m not crying for him.’

“‘Then why are you crying?’ I asked.

“She lifted her hand, and in it was a little book. The Cherry Orchard.

“Oh,” Ainsley breathed.

“And that is the story of how I met the love of my life. Russian lit.”

They smiled at each other. Then he selected a cucumber, dipped it in hummus and offered it to her.

Ainsley slowly licked a drip of hummus off the underside of the cucumber. Then she snatched the whole thing from him with her front teeth.

Julian’s eyes flashed.

“Behave! I’m not finished.”

Ainsley gave him an innocent look.

“My father wasn’t wild about me reading so much – he wanted me to be more interested in small dairy farms, like he had been when he was a boy. And my mother realized how attractive the widow was and stopped sending me to Eugenie for errands. But it was too late.”

He paused and pulled a triangle of pita across the bowl of hummus. It left a wake behind it like a little sailboat. He ate it, sipped his wine, and continued.

“I was hooked, and I couldn’t stop. We read them all together: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov. They broke our hearts, they made us laugh, they seemed somehow familiar to us in our lonely, country life.

“I ignored my parents and my chores and spent all the time I could with Eugenie. I would sit on the floor by her sofa and read to her. Sometimes she would read to me and carelessly run her fingers through my hair while she did.”

Ainsley leaned forward a bit. Maybe this was the part where the story would turn in one direction or the other.

“I ended up at university for Russian Lit and never looked back. Ultimately it led me here.”

“What about your parents. Have they forgiven you?”

“They died a long time ago. But yes, they wanted me to be happy.”

“And Eugenie, what happened to her? Did you ever…” Ainsley couldn’t finish.

“Stop with your endless questions, woman. I’m hungry!”

Ainsley realized he must have decided not to tell her the whole story. It actually made her curious even though she was pretty sure she knew where he was going with it. She decided the best way to get at it was to back off and get to it from another angle, another time.

Instead, she swept a baby carrot through the hummus and fed it to him. He took it and licked at her fingers. The unexpected tickling contact made her giggle.

“I love that sound,” Julian said simply, looking into her eyes.

Ainsley felt almost uncomfortable under the sincerity of his gaze. She liked him a lot, she really did. He was everything she’d dreamed of.

What was holding her back?

Maybe it was just the strain of so much happening at once.

She dismissed her doubts and returned his intense gaze with a shy smile.

He rewarded her with a smile so warm, she felt it in her belly. The smile lines at the corners of his eyes were so sexy. He must be in his mid-thirties, at least. How old was he?

And how much wine had she had?

As she wondered, he poured the rest of the bottle into her glass.

Oh well, it had been a long day. It was nice to relax. And it wasn’t like she could get really drunk anyway. Another benefit of being a wolf.

She swirled the wine in her glass and took another sip.

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CHAPTER FIFTEEN

 

Ainsley finished her wine as Julian looked at the books on the bench next to him.

“You enjoyed a little Dostoyevsky with your breakfast this morning?”

Ainsley giggled again.

Julian pulled back the pages of Crime and Punishment with his thumb and let them go until he came to what he was looking for. Then he paged through carefully and stopped.

“This one makes me think of you, Ainsley: ‘We sometimes encounter people, even perfect strangers, who begin to interest us at first sight, somehow suddenly, all at once, before a word has been spoken.’”

Whoa.

“That’s very romantic,” Ainsley began carefully.

“No! Hold that thought!”

He grabbed The Brothers Karamazov and thumbed and paged through quickly.

“‘Man, so long as he remains free, has no more constant and agonizing anxiety than to find, as quickly as possible, someone to worship.’”

“Oh.”

Julian put the book down.

“’Much unhappiness has come into the world because of bewilderment and things left unsaid.’”

The last quote hung in the air. Suddenly, Ainsley didn’t feel like giggling anymore.

“I’ve never met anyone like you, Ainsley,” Julian breathed. “I know we just met but you’re already so important to me. Promise me that no matter what happens you won’t forget that.”

“What do you mean?”

A dark look crossed his face like a storm cloud, then vanished.

Instead of answering, he took her hand and kissed each knuckle.

His lips were so gentle. Her skin tingled and she felt a wave of giddiness. She leaned forward and ran her fingers through his hair.

He groaned and pulled her other hand into his hair. His arms went around her waist as he kissed her like there was no tomorrow.

His hair was silken between her fingers and his kiss was doing crazy things to the rest of her body. There was urgency between them now that she hadn’t felt last night.

He drew back from their kiss and pulled her up. Once again she found herself being led by the hand at top speed. She was beginning to feel like Alice in Through the Looking Glass. But unlike Alice, she knew just where she was headed.

Her girlhood bed seemed to embrace her as Julian tossed her on her back. The room spun a little as he stripped off his clothes. She tried to lift herself on her elbows to undress, but he was on her in an instant.

“Uh-uh.” He shook his head playfully. “I’ll take care of you, Ainsley. You relax, sweetheart. Is this okay?”

“Yes, please.”

He smiled and lifted her up enough to unzip her new dress. It slid down her shoulders. He lowered her to the bed and lifted her hips to slide the dress off.

The evening air felt cool on her skin and she could feel her nipples stiffen and push against the lacy cups of her bra.

Julian sat back on his heels and took her in. He looked like a hungry man looking at a feast.

“Ainsley.”

She reached for him and he fell on her, kissing her cheeks, her neck, the tops of her breasts. In a moment he had peeled off her bra and panties and she was as naked as he was.

Her whole body felt like it was floating on a wave of delicate pleasure. She was almost overwhelmed.

She caught her fingers in his hair again. He gasped as she dragged him up to her face.

He took her lips in his own and sunk his tongue deep in her mouth, while sliding his cock against her already moist opening without penetrating her.

Her insides clenched and she cried out, grinding her hips up against him.

She could feel his smile against her lips as he dragged his cock across her again.

Her whole body ached for him to possess her. Her pussy yawned open for him and soon his stiffened member was slick with her desire.

He groaned in defeat.

She almost cried with relief as he eased himself into her.

He cradled her face in his hands, his calm, blue eyes holding her gaze as he found his way home. The pleasure of their joining was almost eclipsed by the intensity of his gaze. He looked happy and sad at the same time.

Ainsley felt a tug at her heart – though whether it was love or compassion she couldn’t say.

The whole thing felt like a dream. He whispered her name and she closed her eyes and melted around him immediately. It was a gentle climax- slow, easy and sweet as honey.

As soon as she opened her eyes, his jaw tensed and he came, calling her name again as he searched her eyes in desperate concentration.

She was asleep almost as soon as he rolled next to her. Her last memory was of his arms cradling her as she drifted off.

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CHAPTER SIXTEEN

 

Ainsley awoke in a haze. Light bled through the sheers in her room. Her head was pounding.

Something happened last night. What was it?

Julian.

Ainsley lay back and stretched. She could feel to either side of the double bed, he wasn’t in there with her.

Her first thought was that maybe he had been the one to sneak home this time. But she could sense him somewhere in the house.

She sat up again and swung her feet to the floor, then had to stop and steady herself. She was lightheaded.

How much wine had she drunk?

Her wolf’s chemistry normally metabolized alcohol almost as fast as she could drink it.

Suddenly, her wolf was alive inside her like she had called it.

Before she could think, she was crouched low to the floor. Soundlessly, she slunk to the door and into the hallway. She threw her head back and inhaled deeply.

He was close.

She closed her eyes and listened. His heart pounded away at a dull pace down the hall.

Inside her father’s study.

The wolf pushed at her bones and clawed at her skin, but somehow Ainsley held her back.

She padded softly down the hallway, unsure why she was sneaking around her own house, but knowing in her core that it was necessary.

A ghastly blue light was coming out of the doorway of the study. Ainsley thought of the electric blue glow of Julian’s eyes in her dream.

Her wolf shuddered and her scalp prickled in sympathy.

Still, she crept forward. She could see Julian’s frame silhouetted in the azure glow. He was whispering something.

She let go enough to let her wolf hear him. He repeated a phrase. Not English.

“Invenies quod perierat.”

A glowing blue arrow floated in front of him, spinning lazily inside a circle.

Her wolf sensed a great wrongness, and it pulled her straight into the room.

She crouched for cover and slid backward to avoid knocking over a stack of books. Her hip slammed into the chest from the third floor with a resounding thud.

No.

The strange thing in the air swung around to point at her. It looked like a compass settling on north.

Julian spun and stared.

“You?” he said, clearly confused by her arrival.

Ainsley didn’t stop to think about how he had betrayed her. She didn’t think about the thousands of hours of acute agony over a lifetime of resisting her wolf at every full moon. She didn’t think about her parents or past.

She let the burden of thought and control fall to her feet and shatter into a million pieces.

The wolf nudged her consciousness, offering, urging.