The Wolf's Secret
CHAPTER 1 - Rosalind
Under the full moon’s pale light, I ran like the devil was chasing me…
Because he was.
Not the actual Devil, as in the King of the Underworld himself, thankfully, but a man who deserved an eternity in Hell just as much.
Branches snagged on my shirt and hair and tore through my skin. My lungs ached with each gasping breath, and my legs threatened to buckle beneath me. I pushed past the pain, refusing to give up. I couldn’t.
He’d kill me if I did.
I couldn’t believe I’d been so stupid, so naïve. I couldn’t understand how I hadn’t seen the signs right from the start, the dangerous glint in his dark eyes. Looking back, they were so obvious.
Even if I hadn’t discovered his secret tonight, he never would have let me go, not with his demented fantasy that we were destined to be together. That we were mates.
As I ran through the dark woods, I almost snorted at the ridiculous thought. Wolves and other shapeshifters had mates, not witches. We weren’t some lesser animal like them, functioning off animalistic needs and instincts.
Witches were chosen by the moon goddess herself, gifted with magic to fulfill her sacred tasks.
Shouts pierced through the trees behind me, startling me back into focus. I forced my legs to pump harder, ignoring the burn in my calves and thighs. Being on the track team through high school and college had come in handy, though I’d never thought I’d use my love of running to escape a nightmare.
Unfortunately, I had never trained in the middle of the forest at night. I tripped over a hidden root and crashed onto my hands and knees. My breath whooshed out, and wet dirt soaked through my jeans. My wrist twisted and cracked under my weight.
A stabbing pain ricocheted up my arm, and I held my wrist to my chest, biting down on my lip to keep from crying out. Moisture formed in my eyes, and I wanted nothing more than to lie down and rest, let the moon’s glow heal me.
Except, I couldn’t stop—their shouts were getting closer.
Get up, Rose, I urged my tired limbs to obey. On shaking legs, I stood and threw myself forward. My mouth had never been so dry; my lips cracked and raw and stinging in the wind.
It wasn’t like I planned on running tonight. I’d wanted to be more prepared and have a go-bag packed at the very least. I hadn’t had a chance to grab my wallet and money or decent running shoes. Not even to bring Mouse, my only real friend in those last few weeks.
I huffed out a laugh. Yes, my friend list had narrowed down to one tiny furred creature who loved to sit on my shoulder in the evening and curl up near me during the day.
Somehow we understood each other, even though he never spoke back. I missed those little squeaks already, and I vowed to rescue him once I was back on my feet again. Hell, the whole coven needed saving.
If only Josef hadn’t found me when he did…
Images of the horrors I’d walked in on returned, raising goosebumps across my skin. Images of women he’d claimed left his retreat voluntarily. I found them half-dead and strapped to operating tables, attached tubes siphoning their magic from their unconscious figures.
Shudders racked my body and threatened to spill me onto the ground again. I shoved the memories away. I’d have to deal with those feelings later.
How the others hadn’t seen through his façade too was beyond me. Sure, I’d thought he was charming and handsome at the beginning of the retreat, just like everyone else had. But it had only taken a few months for me to see through to his true colors.
Well, that wasn’t quite true. It had taken seeing it for myself to truly believe he was capable of such atrocities. If I hadn’t been discovered and attacked and forced to run for my life, I could have proven it to the others once and for all.
An owl hooted somewhere amidst the branches overhead, and the far-distant calls of hunting wolves drifted over the canopies. I prayed that they were too far away to pick up our scent because if they found witches trespassing in their territory, we’d all be dead.
Not that I cared so much about Josef’s life, but I certainly wanted to live, and most of the others had been my friends once. They’d been deceived, just as I had. Someday, I’d help them see the truth, and they’d come to their senses.
Holding onto that hope might be the only thing keeping me going.
My wrist ached with every jostling step, and I clutched it tighter to my chest. I also hoped that the next town wasn’t much farther because I wouldn’t last, not at this speed. Not even with my running background.
The only saving grace was the time of year. Fleeing through these woods in the depths of winter would have been a death sentence. Instead, I only had to deal with swarms of insects that stuck to my sweat-soaked skin, and the muggy air didn’t help that situation.
A branch snapped behind me, much closer than I would have expected. Fresh tears formed in my eyes. I couldn’t let him catch me. Not now, not after everything that had happened and what I saw.
There would be no more second chances.
Why, oh why, had I waited so long to leave?
Heavy footsteps and huffing breath closed in, heard even over the wind rushing past my ears. If I didn’t do something quick, I would need to make a stand, and there was no way I’d win in my current state.
A glance up reminded me that it was a full moon close to the summer solstice, which was a blessing and a curse for someone like me. My magic would be at its highest level tonight. Lunar magic was rarer than the others, and sometimes feared, or coveted as Josef had done.
A cloudless full moon night also made hiding next to impossible.
For most people, anyway.
I reached outward with my mind, drawing the shadows to me. They came in wisps and tendrils, curling around me eagerly, ready to do my bidding. When I gathered what I hoped would be enough, I prayed to the moon goddess to guide my spell.
Skidding to a stop, I whirled around and threw my arms up, grimacing as the sudden move tweaked my hurt wrist. The shadows I’d gathered sped forward, engulfing the man who ran into sight. Our gazes met for the briefest of moments, and Josef’s dark eyes sparkled with malicious desire.
Then my spell swallowed him whole, and the smothering blackness muffled his angry shouts.
I spun on my heel and ran, choking back a sob. That was way too close.
Other coven members caught up to him, their urgent voices carrying through the woods as they tried to break through my spell. It would take them a while since my magic was so potent during a full moon. Had it been just one of them, I might have stood a chance at fighting back.
For the umpteenth time, I almost wished I didn’t have this magic either. He wouldn’t have noticed me then.
Who would he have obsessed over instead? And what would he have done to her?
Howls sang in the distance, closer than they’d been before. Goosebumps broke out across my skin despite the dripping sweat, and pinpricks crept across my scalp.
Had they heard all the shouting? Were they on their way?
A full moon meant mating night for the wolves. With any luck, those animals would be too busy rutting in the dirt to notice us or give us much thought.
If not, then as evil as it sounded, I hoped they found the coven first. I didn’t wish harm on any of the others, but they hadn’t believed me. They’d listened to his lies.
A tear slipped down my cheek only to be whisked away by the wind. My shoes pounded against the forest floor as I tired, losing the energy to move more stealthily. My pulse thudded in my ears and drowned out most of the forest sounds.
The howls continued, and soon, so did fearful shouts from the coven. I glanced over my shoulder. Above the trees, sparks of light shot into the sky, accompanied by pops and crackles. The witches had blended their magic to break my spell binding Josef.
They were going to draw the wolves’ attention for sure, as if they didn’t know how dangerous it was to be in these woods.
Didn’t they value their lives?
Sharp jabs dug into my arms and legs, and I cried out from the unexpected pain. Not watching where I was going, I’d plowed straight into a bramble thicket.
Cursing under my breath, I extracted myself from the thorny branches, tugging at my jacket sleeve as it caught. Wolves called to each other, closer. Panic seized my lungs tight, and I yanked harder at the caught sleeve.
The fabric ripped, and I stumbled away from the claw-like bushes. I sucked in a gasping breath and dropped to the ground, crawling beneath the thick brambles. I hoped that they—witches or wolves—would think I’d stopped at the thicket and gone the other way.
Thorns shredded my clothes and skin as I crawled. I bit back another sob as warmth trickled down my face and across my back until I heaved myself through the last of the brambles and stood on shaking legs.
The bushes behind me burst into flames, and I gasped. Two witches stood on the thicket’s other side. Their familiar features wavered in the fire’s heat, but the hatred in Beverly’s expression was undeniable.
I spun and ran, praying the bushes would burn slowly. Wolves barked only a short distance away, and I banked to the left, away from the sound.
Except my body wasn’t ready for that quick of a move. I tripped over my own foot and flew forward. Expecting to hit the ground again, I windmilled my arms as I kept flying.
When I finally smacked into the ground, my breath left my body in a violent rush. I bounced head over heels down a steep hill, rocks and sticks gouging into my skin and dirt filling my mouth and eyes.
The hill evened out, and I thumped to a stop, collapsing onto my side. Spitting out dirt and leaves and gasping for breath, I rolled onto my back. Growls and barks announced the wolves’ arrival at the top of the hill, as did the witches’ subsequent shouting and screams.
As I panted, I blinked up at the moon. The bright light blurred in my vision. A concussion, possibly. It was hard to tell—everything hurt. My chest rose and fell as I sucked in deep breaths, and the small charm I kept on a chain slid toward my neck.
Reaching up with a trembling arm, I clasped the sapphire charm and squeezed my eyes shut. Tears slid down my face, hitting the leaves beneath my head with small splashes.
If only I hadn’t left home. If only I’d listened to my parents’ warning. It was almost like my mom and dad knew Josef had lied about everything, and now I would never have the chance to tell them they were right.
My mom had given me this charm before I left home a year ago, making me recite the spell until I had it memorized. I’d told her she was being ridiculous, that nothing would ever be bad enough to warrant using such a spell.
Then I left in a huff like a total idiot.
None of us knew it would be the last time we saw each other. No one expected them to lose control of their car, taking them from me forever.
Leaves rustled farther up the hill. Someone was sure to come down the slope at any moment. Someone, or some wolf.
Either way, I would be dead if I didn’t make a move.
Summoning the last bit of energy I had, I opened my eyes and focused on the moon, drawing on its energy for strength. I rolled onto my side and put my foot beneath me to stand. Stabbing pain ricocheted up my calf, and I collapsed back onto the ground, my ankle throbbing.
I was out of options. I clutched the charm again, my heart thudding hard against my ribs.
If I did this, there was no going back. It was against the rules, against the covens’ law. This spell was unthinkable for my kind…
But as the crunching leaves and snapping twigs veered closer to the ravine’s edge, my time had run out.
Beneath my breath, I chanted the spell my mother had taught me and prayed to Luna that it would work in time. It had to. Changing my nature, the very essence of who I was, was the only way to survive.
I had to become a monster.
CHAPTER 2 - Liam - Twelve hours earlier
Sunlight filtered in through the bedroom window and across my eyes. Cursing myself for not drawing the curtains last night, I threw my arm over my face, not quite ready to face the day. The full moon had come too fast this month.
The slight scent of stale beer mixed with honeysuckle reached my nose, and I released a quiet groan when I remembered I wasn’t alone. I glanced over at my bedmate.
Amanda’s blonde hair, which was just long enough to reach her shoulders when she stood, fanned out over the pillow beside me. Her tanned shoulders and bare back weren’t covered by the sheet, and I knew the rest of her was fully naked beneath the thin fabric.
She hadn’t done anything wrong to deserve my groan. The opposite, in fact. She was exactly what I needed last night. Almost exactly, anyway, but she’d satisfied my needs and I hers. In the past, that was as far as it would ever get with Amanda.
She might wish that my wolf and I would claim her beneath a full moon like the one tonight, but she had never been what I wanted in a mate. No one in this pack was my fated mate or intrigued me enough as a potential partner, but I wouldn’t have the luxury of waiting much longer.
A strong alpha needed a mate, fated or not.
Someone rapped lightly on the door. It cracked open, and Caleb stuck his head in. His deep brown eyes glanced between Amanda and me before rolling skyward.
My beta didn’t understand what I saw in Amanda, and honestly, sometimes I didn’t understand either. She was crass, brutally direct, and could drink most wolves under the table without a hint of a hangover the next morning.
Out of the pack’s view, she had a soft, kind side that made her blue eyes sparkle, especially when it came to the cubs. She would make for a fearsome mother.
And behind closed doors, she was an animal. The sex was great, and my wolf enjoyed the frequent release until we found a proper mate. Even though he and I had agreed Amanda wasn’t proper, she might be our best option.
Caleb tilted his head for me to follow and disappeared. I dropped my feet to the floor silently, but Amanda stirred.
“Mm, good morning.” Her voice was still sleepy, giving it a breathy, sultry edge. As she rolled over, the top sheet caught beneath her leg, revealing her naked breasts and stomach.
It was a shame she wasn’t my fated mate. Those full, perky breasts made just about every man’s mouth water, and her tanned, toned figure came from years of running through the woods. She was as much of a skilled hunter as any of the others, more so than most, which was a fact she loved to rub in their faces.
But as alpha, I needed more from my partner than good looks and hunting skills. I needed an equal, someone whose leadership the pack respected.
I stood and crossed to the dresser. “Caleb needs me.”
“He can wait,” she purred, sitting up so that she was visible in the mirror over the dresser.
Catching me look her way, she held my gaze as she ran a hand over her breast, pinching her budding nipple slightly. She slid her hand lower, over her flat stomach, until it disappeared under the sheet.
Her soft moan nearly did me in, but as the pack’s leader, I had duties to attend to, and right now I didn’t mean my dick.
Are you sure? my wolf asked, his excitement rising.
If I let him have his way, we’d never get any work done.
“You know your way out,” I said and shut the bathroom door behind me.
Something soft thudded against the door, likely a pillow. I smirked and started the shower. She’d get over it. If not, I’d remind her of her place. She was one of my advisors and a friend with benefits. Nothing more for now, and she knew it.
After a quick wash and fresh clothes, I combed my hair. The dirty blond strands were dark from the water and dampened my shirt. I hadn’t bothered to cut it over the last year, not since I took over as alpha.
I met my blue-eyed gaze in the mirror, hating the tortured look that always stared back. Everyone knew I would be the next alpha after my father, but knowing didn’t make the job any easier.
If I hadn’t stepped in when I did, he would have destroyed the pack, and ripped every wolf to pieces in his grief-fueled rage. As his son and the next strongest wolf, putting him down had been my responsibility.
My father had understood, but his dying breath still haunted my dreams.
Shaking off the unwelcome memory, I left the bathroom and found the bedroom empty. Relief lowered my shoulders. As expected, Amanda knew her place, even if she thrived on pushing boundaries.
Caleb waited in the hall outside my room, leaning against the wall with his arms crossed.
My beta was my opposite in many ways, with short black hair and brown eyes that almost matched his hair depending on the light. He and his twin sister Mallory shared the same light brown skin, born from a white mother and a Black father.
Because I was an only child, Caleb and Mallory had been as close to me as siblings. Their mom and dad were like second parents, even more so over the past year. They were currently on a much-needed and well-deserved summer-long European vacation.
Caleb’s gregarious personality was well-received by our pack, and his witty commentary made it easier for me to be the hardass. Good cop, bad cop. That had been us since we were little more than cubs.
Today, his demeanor was more reserved, and his unique peppermint and pine scent was thick in the air. Neither of which were good signs.
“There’s been another kill,” he said, uncrossing his arms as he followed me down the stairs to my cabin’s main level.
I should have known better than to bother with clothes.
“Where? When?” I asked, already dreading the answers.
This would be the third unsanctioned hunt on our lands in as many months. Our pack controlled almost fifty miles of the Shenandoah woods south of Front Royal, but rival packs had been pressing in recently, claiming the loss of their lands due to human construction.
Like any other species, shapeshifters could live wherever we pleased, but wolves preferred the less populated mountainous regions. My pack had lived in this village for generations, and with proper care and attention, we would for generations to come.
After ducking through the opened door leading into the kitchen, I nodded to Cecilia who bustled about the stove cooking breakfast. The grey-haired woman had been with our pack since my grandfather was a cub, yet she had outlived every other wolf from that time.
Some of the pack teased that she would outlive us all. As a rare red wolf, she was a gifted seer, and the exceptional accuracy of her visions only added credence to the jokes.
Except the prophecy she saw for me when I took over as alpha was anything but a joke. It could mean the utter destruction of everything I held dear.
“They hunted early this morning, near Dark Hollow Falls,” Caleb said.
When Cecilia turned to look at me, he snuck around her side and snagged a piece of bacon. Lightning fast, her wooden spoon cracked down on his hand, and he yelped and dropped the bacon back onto the plate.
She shook the spoon at him and scowled. “No food until it’s on the table.”
I smiled. Despite her advanced age and stooped frame, no one messed with Cecilia. She was a force to be reckoned with.
Holding his hand to his chest as if injured, Caleb offered her his infamous sad puppy eyes. “Can you blame me? Your cooking is the envy of every pack in the National Park. Probably the entire east coast.”
As she muttered and returned to the stove, I bent to kiss the top of her head, at least a foot below my chin. We weren’t related by blood, but she was like a grandmother to me and had lived in my home for years before my parent’s passing, cooking every day without complaint.
I’d make sure she was happy and wanted for nothing until her final day.
She shuffled toward the cabinets. “Sit. I’ll get you both plates.”
“We’ll eat when we get back,” I promised and nodded Caleb out the kitchen’s back door.
Facing the forest, we stripped and let our wolves take over, our bones snapping and reforming in a matter of seconds while fur sprouted across our skin. Caleb’s wolf was nearly as large as mine, but his coat was a more typical dark grey for a beta while mine was pure black.
The majority of wolves had shades of grey, brown, and tan fur. The darker the color, the more likely the wolf would be strong enough to become an alpha.
White and silver didn’t equate to weakness, however. Although not as uncommon as black, white wolves were thought to be blessed by Luna herself and often became alphas’ mates or their closest advisors.
Red was the rarest of all, designating some sort of psychic ability like Cecilia. Typically, they drifted between packs and didn’t settle in one spot for too long. Cecilia was an anomaly staying with us for so long, though she visited other communities from time to time.
Caleb and I raced into the surrounding woods. Our pack’s main village wasn’t too far from the human town of Syria, Virginia, which was where we went for shipments and supplies we couldn’t make ourselves.
For the most part, we were self-sufficient and lived off the human grid. Solar panels provided enough electricity for our basic needs and technology, and we distilled moonshine with our bountiful potato and corn crops.
Technically, we didn’t have a license to distill alcohol, but considering some of our best customers worked in state government, we weren’t too worried about getting shut down. Still, a handful of wolves accepted jobs as park rangers as a source of backup income and for tax and paperwork purposes.
The Dark Hollow Falls was about eight miles away as the crow flies. Normal wolves would need an hour or two to get there, but we weren’t normal wolves.
Within a half hour, we’d picked up the rival pack’s scent and tracked it to the deer’s remains. The bones were mostly picked clean from wolves and scavengers. Before shifting back to human form, my wolf and I sniffed the area.
A dozen wolves had been through here, and only two were from my pack. Their scents were the most recent since they had discovered the unsanctioned kill, but I recognized the other wolves’ scents just as easily. This wasn’t their first infringement.
My wolf and I growled, and our hackles raised. This was a blatant challenge to our lands, and I would not let it go unpunished. I couldn’t—failure to do so would appear weak, an alpha no longer worthy of his pack.
Caleb and I shifted back to two legs, a change that ceased to hurt decades ago. Only the earliest weeks of shifting caused pain, but those days had been excruciating.
“I know you’re willing to let accidents go,” Caleb said and gestured to what was left of the deer, “but this is no accident. Three’s not a coincidence, and they sent at least ten wolves in this time.”
I rubbed my chin, realizing I’d forgotten to shave before I showered. Amanda’s naked body and roving hand had been more of a distraction than I cared to admit.
“Then it’s time we hit back,” I said. “I want maps of their territory and schematics of their homes. I also want routines and schedules. We don’t make a move until we can be certain that any cubs will be out of harm’s way.”
Caleb nodded but made no attempt to follow through with my orders. He had something else on his mind.
I raised an eyebrow. “Go ahead.”
My beta cleared his throat as he met my gaze and held it. Whatever he was about to say, I wasn’t going to like it.
“You need to claim a mate tonight,” he said, cutting straight to the point. “The prophecy said—”
I held up a hand. “I know what the prophecy said, but my fated mate is not in our pack. You know that as well as I do.”
Caleb let out his breath and ran a hand through his dark hair. “It’s always possible you’ll feel something new on the run tonight. You and I both know fighting the Massanutten Howlers will cost more than we can afford. If this goes much further, lives will be at stake. Wolves’ lives.”
He was right, of course. He usually was, which was one of the reasons he was such a nuisance.
The Howlers had pressed their luck by hunting on our lands, but they also outnumbered my wolves, the Skyline Pack.
“I’m open to whomever Luna chooses for me, but I don’t believe picking a mate just to do it is the answer,” I said at last.
Cecilia’s visions had proven true time and time again, even if we misinterpreted them. There was no reason to start doubting them now.
“Maybe not, but it can’t hurt, right?” he asked.
For once, I disagreed with him. Choosing the wrong partner could hurt quite a bit.
Especially if my fated mate ever showed up.
CHAPTER 3 - Liam
The campfire’s roaring flames cast shadows over the surrounding area, dancing and tangling with the trees and edges of darkness like old friends. Hefty, worn logs circled the fire, providing plenty of seating for those pack members not joining the mating run until the rest of us returned.
Tonight, the summer moon was full and bright, not a cloud in the sky to block her radiance. Whether they were participating or not, most of my pack gathered around this fire, coming from small communities all across our territory. They would cheer on the wolves running and celebrate any unions when we returned.
Our wolves were restless within us, visible as fidgeting movements and darting gazes. Laughter rang out around the camp as contagious excitement grew.
Every month, our unmated wolves of eligible age ran together beneath the full moon, surrendering control to our wolves as we sought and selected mates. Luna played a significant role in that task, guiding us toward our fated mates whenever possible.
Some were too eager to wait for a fated mate, which was understandable and hadn’t resulted in any issues in the past. There was always a chance the non-fated union would turn out poorly, but it was also possible the fated bond broke once a wolf chose another mate. Only Luna knew for sure.
Not every wolf found their fated mate in their lifetime, but the goddess did her best to create happy unions. Only once in our long history had a fated mating gone wrong, centuries ago, when one wolf rejected his chosen mate.
The rejection was the primary cause for our split from the witches and the root of our deep hatred of each other. Betrayal and lies had caused too many deaths, marking it as one of our history’s darkest times.
The story had become something of an old wives’ tale, but Cecilia swore every time the tale was told that it was true and should never be forgotten. I believed her, and with any luck, it would never happen again.
My gaze wandered over the less familiar faces who’d traveled in, but no spark indicated my fated mate was among them. Yet again. I hadn’t expected her to suddenly appear, but my level of hope could be a fickle fuck.
No one was surprised I hadn’t claimed a partner yet; mates worthy of an alpha were few and far between. But tonight, I might have to do what was best for the pack even if it meant giving up on ever finding my fated mate.
Having a strong partner by my side would strengthen my pack, especially once we produced a few cubs. With encroaching rivals, we needed to be as strong as possible, and soon.
The thick, mouthwatering scent of honeysuckle closed in. Amanda’s arm brushed against mine, and my wolf made a sound of appreciation. She was my best option out of those gathered.
I ground my teeth together as the pack elders addressed the crowd, blessing the wolves about to run beneath Luna’s bright gaze. I hated that my options for a mate came down to settling. A wolf should never have to settle.
The elders finished their speeches, and the crowd cheered as pack members stripped their clothes in a rush. Some of the younger wolves competed with each other for the fastest to bare it all.
Tonight's summer heat and campfire provided more than enough warmth for bare skin in our two-legged forms. But even in the dead of winter, the shift would turn into a competition as the frosty air nipped at our shivering limbs.
I followed their lead and tossed my clothes into a pile. Growing up in a wolf pack, nudity was a daily occurrence and far from taboo. It was almost as normal as breathing, and stripping before shifting saved a fair bit of money in the wardrobe department.
A warm hand ran up my thigh, edging inward.
“Do not disrespect me in front of the pack,” I growled low so only Amanda could hear. “Or ever.”
She dropped her hand and rolled her eyes, a bold move that made me wonder if I’d been too lenient with her over the years. She met my gaze straight on. “After tonight, it won’t be seen as disrespectful. You’ll be mine.”
With that taunt, my wolf took over. He leaped forward in our consciousness, ripping through my skin and fracturing my bones with resounding cracks. Pitch-black fur sprouted across my limbs, covering my body in a heartbeat.
Pack members around the camp surrendered to their wolves willingly, and sometimes unexpectedly, as their wolves followed their alpha. Shades of brown, grey, and hints of red gathered together, nuzzling and playfully swatting and nipping at one another.
My wolf and I raised our black snout to the sky and howled, a long, lonely sound that the others quickly took up and drowned out. Their excitement reverberated through the air, as contagious as their laughter had been. I wished I could share in their carefree revelry.
We raced for the woods, leading the charge. Winding through trees and trails we’d known since cubhood, we ran. Other wolves caught up, their fur blurring by as we took turns passing each other, delighting in the group activity. Here and there, two wolves would break off in their own chase as Luna urged them on into a union.
Soon it will be our turn, my wolf said with undeniable eagerness and a hint of wistfulness. He wanted a fated mate as much as I did, but he was less willing to wait.
A smaller grey wolf from an outlying community made her way into our periphery, panting hard as she struggled to keep pace with us. As alpha, we were the biggest, strongest, and fastest of our pack. We had to be to keep every member safe.
The wolf caught our eye, interested and looking for reciprocation, but there was no spark. No recognition within my wolf or me that this meeting was fated. We peeled off to the left, leaving her behind.
Two more females approached in similar ways, and both times we left them disappointed. Neither of them had been our mate, not a single spark or twinge of excitement.
None of them were Amanda either, my wolf noted, his tone irritated.
I laughed in our joined thoughts. Still holding out hope that Luna will change her mind on that one?
His growl just made my mental smile bigger.
A sudden scent caught on the wind, and our nostrils flared—danger.
Without slowing, we howled out a warning and called for a hunt through our shared pack consciousness. It wasn’t a telepathic ability; more like connected emotions. Younger wolves would return to the fire, and my hunters would join me.
We chased after the scent, and a familiar brown wolf edged closer, her gaze taunting me even now. As much as my wolf wanted me to forget the fantasy of a Luna-blessed union, this was not the time to be thinking of claiming anyone. Not with the potential danger on the wind.
The scent grew stronger, and recognition sparked a new kind of eagerness within me.
Witches, my wolf and I thought in unison, surprise tinting both our tones.
What were witches doing on pack lands?
Deep growls erupted around us as others recognized the hated scent. By the strength of the smell, there had to be at least a dozen, an entire coven. Their hubris knew no bounds, and we would be glad to remind them of their place.
My wolf and I slowed as a new scent blended with the breeze. Something up ahead was burning. Our pack slunk forward, ready to attack our mortal enemies.
We wouldn’t kill them unless necessary; we weren’t complete savages. But we’d enjoy frightening them.
As we cleared a thick copse of trees, a smoldering bramble bush barred our way forward. Crackling flames devoured the dry, blackened branches, which crumbled to the forest floor, and ash covered the grass and foliage around the bushes.
My hunters spread out, sniffing the area to determine which way the witches had gone. Caleb barked farther along the bush, and my wolf and I headed toward him. The witches’ stench grew stronger as we approached.
Tilting our head and sniffing the air, we stopped as another new scent drifted toward us. Our ears perked up, and we trotted toward the spot Caleb had found. A strip of cloth hung from a thorny branch.
An unfamiliar sensation rose within us, along with unmistakable arousal. Whoever this scent belonged to, it attracted us like nothing ever had. We sniffed the cloth, relishing in the zaps of electricity that zinged through our body with each inhale.
Our mate? my wolf asked.
It had to be. Desire clouded our senses, nearly drowning out everything else.
Caleb barked again, drawing our attention to a narrow path between the brambles. We needed to deal with the witches’ threat before we could track down the scent’s owner.
After casting a final longing glance at the fabric, we led the way through the path, our hunters right on our heels. The witches’ scent built until we spotted them beside a steep ravine.
We lifted our snout and howled, calling for the attack. Like legends born from nightmares, we tore from the trees and surrounded them. Snarling and baring our teeth, saliva dripped from our mouths. Their cowardly eyes widened, reeking of terror as they huddled closer together.
Growling in warning, we lowered our head and eyed the man we assumed was their leader. He pushed the others behind him and faced us fearlessly as he chanted. Magic swirled thickly around him.
We lunged, and our teeth snagged on a fluttering skirt as it disappeared, along with the rest of the coven.
That was when scents hit us hard—the owner of the ripped fabric and the metallic rust of blood. She was nearby and injured. If those witches had harmed her, we would rip out their hearts and swallow them whole.
From the bottom of the ravine, a bloodcurdling scream pierced the air, raising the fur along our back. Icicles of fear stabbed through our heart.
We dove for the steep side, leaves and branches crunching under paw as we slipped and slid our way down. Through our shared consciousness, our hunters questioned our blind leap and urged us to wait.
Except the call of fate was stronger, and I’d waited long enough to answer.
CHAPTER 4 - Rosalind
My mother had taught me the spell that would save my life, but she’d failed to warn me about the pain. The excruciating, soul-shattering torture as I changed into something I wasn’t supposed to be.
I screamed in agony as my body ripped itself apart atom by atom, and I writhed among the leaves and fallen branches. My arms and ears lengthened, and new teeth sprouted from my gums within my elongated snout.
As my bones cracked and stretched, reforming into a shape other than human, a blinding light filled my vision.
Suddenly, it was over, the pain only an echo of a memory. I sagged against the ground and panted, too exhausted to lift my head.
Bushes rustled and a massive wolf stepped forward. His coat was as black as midnight and shining like freshly scribbled ink. His eyes were such a perfect blue, like a clear summer sky.
He laid his ears flat against his head and growled, though I somehow knew he wasn’t threatening me. It was the opposite—he seemed cautious yet curious.
Whimpering, I tried to raise my head a fraction of an inch before it became too heavy to hold. An odd feeling came from my lower back like I was waving my arm. White fur flashed across my periphery, and I wanted to laugh. I had a tail.
The only way to survive this night was to hide in plain sight, and the spell had worked.
I’d become a monster—a disgusting wolf.
Well, I looked, smelled, and acted like a wolf. I hadn’t turned into an actual shapeshifter with an animal spirit residing inside me, thank the goddess, but no one would know that little fact except me.
My mother hadn’t said why she’d chosen this form out of all the supernatural creatures when she created the charm, but I assumed it was because of the retreat’s location. Josef’s family estate in Shenandoah Valley bordered known packlands.
Regardless of her reasoning, my mom had given me the key to my survival.
The black wolf stepped closer, his tail wagging behind him, though his eyes still regarded me with caution. He lowered his head to mine and sniffed, our noses touching briefly.
Sparks zapped across my body as if handling a live wire. Heat surged through every part of me and pooled low in my belly.
When he drew away, the sensations faded, leaving me breathless as I stared up at him.
What in the world had just happened?
Several more wolves dashed into view. Their lips drew back from their teeth in threatening snarls, and they snapped powerful jaws in my direction.
Fear flooded through me, and I lowered my head, flattening my ears. If any of them sensed the truth about me, then I was as good as dead. There would be no more second chances.
The black wolf was bigger than any of the others, and he barked back, growling as he stepped over me.
Confusion invaded the others’ gazes, mirroring my bewilderment. I had no idea why the wolf above me was defending me, but finding out—or communicating at all—was impossible in this form. I took a deep breath, steeling myself for the pain, and willed my body to return to my human shape.
The forbidden spell that camouflaged the essence of who I was could only be cast when the moon was at its fullest. It would last a month, until the next full moon, and allow me to change forms at will until then.
I wouldn’t need to shift again after this encounter, though. All I needed right now was to get away from Josef.
Fingers crossed the wolves took care of him, I thought.
As my body contorted and shifted, fur and claws retracting, I clenched my jaw. The incredible pain was nowhere near as bad as the first time, but I was glad that it was the last time I would have to experience the unnatural torture.
Cold, wet earth squished beneath my fingers as I pushed myself upright, and my arms shook with the effort.
The big wolf above me sensed my movements and leaped gracefully away. He faced me, and his wolfish gaze raked over my body.
Belatedly, I realized that I was naked. Head to toe, buck naked, my clothes shredded around me thanks to the quick shapeshifting.
Good one, Rose.
It took all my willpower not to cover myself with my hands. Wolves were perfectly comfortable with nudity, and they wouldn’t believe my lie if I tried to hide. Instead, I tilted my head forward, letting my long black hair cover what it could naturally.
I didn’t trust myself to stand just yet, but some of my strength had returned, and the throb in my wrist and ankle had dulled.
Witches healed faster than humans, but wolves surpassed witches. Maybe the spell had given me a boost for extra fast healing. One minor blessing on this hateful night.
“I’d li—” My voice was hoarse and cracked, and I cleared my throat before trying again. “I’d like to request safe passage through your lands.”
The black wolf’s gaze never left mine as he shifted to his human shape. Like me, he was as naked as the day he arrived in this world, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t stare.
Might have drooled a bit, too.
This man was as massive as his wolf and built into pure perfection. Muscles that must have been chiseled from stone rippled beneath his broad shoulders and chest, his skin tanned to a golden bronze.
Dark ink spread along his arms and over his shoulders. Judging by the pattern, I’d bet the tattoo continued down his back.
His abs were a well-defined eight-pack, and a deeply indented V led straight down to…
I tore my gaze away, and heat rose in my cheeks.
His sizable genetics did not stop with his muscles.
I forced myself to look up at his face. He didn’t appear to be much older than me, possibly in his late twenties or early thirties. Blond hair fell around his shoulders, and a light scruff hugged his chin but did little to hide his strong jawline.
His nose was classically straight and drew my eye up his sharp cheekbones to his eyes. And, oh, wow. What unbelievable eyes. Even in his human form, they were so blue, so intense.
I swallowed hard, my mouth watering.
What was I doing again?
“Safe passage to where?” His deep, gravelly voice rumbled through me, striking every nerve, igniting within me until I was about to combust.
Oh, dear goddess.
I licked my lips, acutely aware of his gaze tracking the movement. “Anywhere but here.”
He narrowed his eyes. “Why?”
“I’m being hunted by witches,” I managed to stammer out.
This man was affecting me in a way I’d never experienced. I kind of liked it, but I kind of hated it at the same time. I mean, he was a wolf, for Luna’s sake. Gross.
The man’s gaze flicked to the side, and a moment later, several wolves tore off into the trees. He looked at me again with those beautiful blue eyes, and my breath caught in my throat.
I swear he could see right down into my soul.
“Who’s your alpha?” The volume of his voice dropped with his next question like he was mystified. “Who are you?”
That made two of us.
“I’m…” I couldn’t tell him who I was. If he looked up my name, he would know my secret and immediately kill me for deceiving him. I scrunched my eyebrows together. “I’m not sure. Everything’s fuzzy past this evening.”
Technically, none of what I said was untrue. If I needed to change my identity to hide from the coven, I wasn’t sure who I would be.
Plus, I’d hit my head hard in that fall down the hill, a fact my body enjoyed reminding me of just then. Nausea twisted in my stomach.
A light brown wolf padded closer and shifted into human form. Like the man, the change took only a few seconds, except this wolf was a woman.
Make that a drop-dead gorgeous woman. Blonde hair fell in choppy waves to her shoulders, and she glared at me with deep blue eyes that sparkled with danger.
There wasn’t an ounce of fat on her body aside from her voluptuous curves. She was any man’s wet dream come to life.
She stepped up to the man’s side and put her hand on his arm.
Instantly, the hairs on my nape raised. I wanted to slap her for even touching him as if I were jealous of a man I didn’t even know. Not just a man—a wolf. I swallowed hard.
What the hell was wrong with me?
The man glanced at her hand then her face, the lines of his jaw moving as he clenched his teeth.
She removed her hand but stayed close. “This can’t be a coincidence.”
My heart leaped to my throat. A coincidence? With what?
What mess had I run into?
“She doesn’t smell like them.” His deep voice rolled through me again, making my body respond in the best and worst way possible.
“Like who?” I asked, ignoring the traitorous sensations.
Blondie glared at me. “He wasn’t talking to you.”
A deep growl came from the man’s throat, and the woman took a step back, frowning.
I took a deep breath and sucked in my pride. Time to go full birthday suit. Urging my body to obey, I tucked my legs beneath me and stood.
My injured ankle rebelled, and my vision swam as a woozy, dizzy feeling took over. I nearly toppled over sideways, but strong arms wrapped around me, keeping me upright.
“Thank you. I hurt my ankle in the fall…” my voice trailed off as I tilted my head toward the incredibly handsome man who had caught me.
Dark brown eyes twinkled down at me, amusement spreading across the man’s light brown face. Adorable freckles sprinkled across his cheeks and nose. His curly black hair was cut short, and his body was just as muscular as the other man’s.
Wolves definitely stayed fit, which might be their only redeeming quality.
“Caleb,” the other man growled.
A shiver ran down my spine, but it wasn’t from fear. Not even close.
I needed to get out of here.
“She’s barely standing, man,” Caleb said, his arms loosening around me but not letting go. “Look at her. She needs help.”
Glancing down at my body, I immediately regretted it. Numerous cuts marked my skin, and streaks of blood and dirt covered just about every inch. My ankle and wrist were bruised and swollen, and leaves and berries stuck out of my black hair, all the way to my waist.
I looked like a flea-bitten mongrel.
“Absolutely not.” Blondie crossed her arms, smushing her breasts into her chest. “She’s one of them. There’s no other explanation.”
I had no idea who they were talking about, but my gut told me it wasn’t the witches. Guessing she’d just bark at me again, I bit back my question. Besides, I needed to save the little energy I had for getting away.
“Maybe she’s got a concussion,” Caleb suggested, adjusting his grip on my arms.
His move brought my head closer to him, and his wolfish heat drew me in. Without thinking about what I was doing, I rested my head against his bare chest, and my eyes drifted closed.
“Sanctuary,” I murmured. “Please.”
Caleb’s body stiffened as I relaxed against him, but a breath later he was ripped away from me. Strong arms scooped me off my feet before I collapsed, and I looked up beneath heavy eyelids.
Intense blue eyes stared down at me.
This man, the massive wolf who made my body react in odd ways, carried me through the trees as if I weighed little more than a feather. His body heat, a characteristic of the wolves I found delightful right now, enveloped me like a warm blanket.
I breathed in his scent, a warm, rich smell of fir that reminded me of Christmas. Happy memories from long ago bubbled up, of wintry mornings and ringing laughter. Of hot cocoa by a roaring fire.
For the first time in months, I felt safe.
I let out a contented sigh…
…and passed out.