Trouble with Wolves Sneak Peek

December 20, 2019     admin     Snippet

If you’re in my facebook group the Snark Squad then you were expecting this. Here’s the first chapter of Trouble with Wolves, coming February 2020

Chapter One: Red

The forest’s edge greeted us like the maw of a hungry beast, the silence deafening.

Despite Halbread’s declaration the previous night that, “Come morning, we ride!” No horses nickered or stamped the ground in anticipation. In fact, no horses stood beside us at all.

Why was that you might ask? Because despite sounding like an idiot, Halbread O’Herra wasn’t one. Not that that negated from the fact that entering these woods was a terrible idea—for them, not me. But no amount of talking could sway the eight men who stood beside me.

They were idiots. Idiots who drank too much and thought themselves indestructible.

Unfortunately for them, I didn’t care enough about their sorry asses to persuade them with any real force that this was not only a bad idea, but a suicidal one—again, for them.

Ask yourself, if you were a werewolf and saw a group of men who carried weapons entering Pack lands, how would you respond?

Exactly.

If I were a better man, I would have tried harder to dissuade them. But I wasn’t a better man. I had a job to do and keeping these idiots safe wasn’t on my to-do list.

If you don’t give a shit, Red, then why are you here?

I sighed and surveyed the surrounding men.

I wasn’t looking out for them by being here, I was looking out for me, I told myself. If any of them found the Pack Den before I did, I could kiss the bounty goodbye. I needed this job. Needed the money. And I wasn’t about to let a group of fools take it away from me.

A full third of the total number of Hounds living in Lethbridge had made the trek from the town center to the surrounding woods. Those missing from our group had either raged too hard the night before and were sleeping it off—thanks to some moonshine I’d conveniently brought along—or had woken with just enough coherency to stand guard around their small Canadian town and ensure the safety of their people.

There. I’d managed to keep some men from coming on this fool’s errand. That should earn me a few brownie points or something for my trouble. Not that it would be enough if the wolves decided to attack.

They hadn’t listened to that argument either. I was a soldier, yes. But I wasn’t a bodyguard. I couldn’t be their protector, nor did I want to be.

Everyone but me wore the customary red cloak that signified themselves as members of the Lethbridge Hounds. I wasn’t one of them, not officially, and I had no plans to become one, either. The cloaks were obnoxious. They might as well shout out an warning to the wolves saying, we’re here, come take a bite. 

I mentioned the Hounds were idiots, right?

Because despite Lethbridge public opinion, werewolves weren’t stupid. And having that opinion made my job infinitely more difficult. Lethbridge was a sheltered community. Most had yet to travel outside its borders, and the Awakening had only further encouraged them to stay isolated within these woods.

I shook my head. My twin sister, Caroline, would have loved this. Would have relished the opportunity to teach the men beside me about the new world around them and all its possibilities. She loved a good challenge, and Lethbridge would certainly give her one.

Not for the first time I wondered how she and I had ended up so different.

She took her job as a Paranormal Liaison with the Human and Paranormal Enforcement Division—also known as the HPED—seriously. Caroline always tried to do good. If she were here, she’d try to bridge the rift between the humans and paranormals. She’d relish the opportunity to forge new connections. This was exactly the type of community she would have sought out.

And it was exactly the type of the community I tended to avoid. I was a bounty hunter. I didn’t care who the job came from so long as it paid. I didn’t ask questions, and I always delivered.

I’d promised her I’d stop. Promised I’d find honest work that didn’t keep me up at night. But then she went missing. And Caroline was the only moral compass I had.

Doubt wormed its way through me, making me second-guess my decision to be here in the first place. I could have kept moving. Found somewhere in the states—a bigger city filled with less ignorance—to settle down in. Caroline would show up eventually. She always did.

Only, she’d never been gone this long.

It’d been six months since we last spoke. Not an unreasonable amount of time given her line of work, but I was starting to worry. She’d said she was heading to Canada, but Canada was a big country and Caroline had a habit of finding trouble.

I should’ve gone with her when she’d first left, but I’d been wrapping up a gig—one that had made her proud of her hard-edged brother—and she wasn’t supposed to be away this long.

I rubbed my hand over my close-cropped black hair and exhaled an exasperated sigh. I needed to focus. I knew what hunted these woods and cursed my circumstances for it. Cursed my sister for trying to protect people like this. Ignorant, stupid people with too much bravado and too little sense. I’d done my time. I’d served my wars and fought my battles. I was done with that shit.

I was supposed to be done putting my neck on the line for other people.

I wanted a quiet life in the city. I wanted to put the wars behind me.

What I did not want, was to chase around a bunch of grown men who thought they looked cool in little red riding hood cloaks and called themselves Hounds as they tried to find fucking werewolves.

Wearing a red cloak was akin to wearing an orange vest when hunting for deer. The stark difference being that the deer were likely to ignore the message.

The wolves wouldn’t.

But telling the men beside me that tidbit of information did me no good.

Idiots.

So here I was, doing my best to protect men who looked down on me for being an outsider—I was definitely not getting paid enough—and dealing with their ignorance all because their leader, Alton Devereaux, was the only person in this godforsaken town who realized humans could not in fact go toe to toe with a shapeshifter Pack.

That leads me to the job. Find the shapeshifter Den. That was it. I didn’t lie to myself that once the Den was located, the humans would do the smart thing and give the Pack a wide berth. No, I knew they’d use it to their advantage and plan a slaughter. But I’d be gone by then. Paid for my time and on my way, one step closer to finding my elusive twin.

Caroline—wherever you are— you’d better appreciate the shit I’m putting myself through for you.

She wouldn’t.

I swept my hand over my hair in disgust. She’d be disappointed, but what choice did I have? The Awakening made for brutal times. I was following in Caroline’s footsteps, hoping it would bring me closer to her, but doing the complete opposite of what she would do in my shoes.

She would argue with the town council. Plead her case for peace and integration with the shapeshifters. But I didn’t have her silver tongue.

Resolve settled in my bones. I was doing the right thing. Sometimes the ends justified the means. There was a nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach that urged me to find her. And I never doubted that feeling when it came to my twin. This job would get me the money I needed to keep looking for her. The rest was inconsequential.

I took a long draft of a warm beer from the night before and quieted the discomfort in my mind. Water would have been better, but no one had bothered to pack any for today’s morning adventure.

Idiots.

From beside me came a terrible retching, followed by a series of spits and coughs.

I shook my head and poured out the remainder of my beer before tucking the bottle in one of the loose pockets of my black cargo pants.

“Why didn’t you stop me last night?” Roland complained as he righted himself.

Because I didn’t want you to come. Because I’d hoped you’d be too hung over to join in on this farce of a mission to hunt fucking werewolves.

Roland stumbled before catching himself on a tree, his pallor gaining a sickly sheen. I almost felt bad for encouraging him to get drunk last night. Almost.

There would be no hunting. Not if I had anything to say about it.

The men were high on liquid courage and, as I’d found out, trying to get them to see reason was a wasted effort. It was easier to let them stumble through the woods for a few hours and tire themselves out.

Vomit caught in Roland’s beard, and I subtly flicked at my chin. He caught my meaning and swiped a hand across his face. “I think I mighta had a few too many.”

I fought the urge to roll my eyes. That had been the point.

“A few? You drank the place dry. Nox is probably still counting out his winnings. You should know better than to bet against the young ones. They’ll drink you under the table every time.” I grinned with wry amusement. If I were being honest with myself, last night had been fun. Boisterous laughter. Drinking games I hadn’t played since high school. For a few hours, I’d been able to forget the wars. The bodies. The deaths of my friends.

“Eh. Only because their livers still work,” he grumbled.

Roland wasn’t like the others. He didn’t want a sheltered life. Safety and security, sure. But he wasn’t one to hide behind a veil of ignorance. He’d at least listened when I’d spoken last night. Nodded when I’d explained the dangers, and even agreed when I’d suggested the men stay behind and let me track the shifters on my own—until it became evident that the others wouldn’t be staying behind, and Roland refused to miss out. He relished the opportunity to speak with a shapeshifter face to face. He wanted an adventure, and as he’d reminded me more than once, meeting a shapeshifter was on his bucket list. He was a few years younger than my thirty and I liked him well enough, but he was an idiot, too.

“Reddington, Roland, you two songbirds done chirping?” Maxus asked, though not unkindly. There was a wry smile beneath the greasy, wiry hair of his blond beard. “Don’t think every critter in the forest quite heard you yet.”

“The name’s Red,” I countered. I only ever let Caroline call me Reddington, and only because as she often reminded me, she was my big sister—by a whole four minutes, mind you—and could call me whatever the hell she wanted.

“Well then, shut yer trap, Red,” he offered. “And get moving. We’re heading east.”

This time, I did roll my eyes. The shifters didn’t need to hear us to know we were here. Even I could smell the men around me.

I kicked a clod of dirt. At this rate, I’d never find the Pack Den.

“We’re ready,” Roland called. He hitched up his pants another inch and strode forward with a hand on the hilt of the small axe at his side. A larger one lay strapped across his back.

Wolves were fast. Werewolves were even faster. And while there was an argument to be made that a swing from an axe couldn’t hit a wolf moving at speed, the way Roland saw it, a man going toe-to-toe with shapeshifters was likely to get only one shot, and he trusted the heft of an axe over the smooth, sliding precision of a sword to break bones and crush organs.

I wasn’t sure I agreed, but I hoped we didn’t get the chance to test his theory. I held my bow by my side, its length parallel to the ground. A silver-plated arrow lay nestled along the inside line of my palm, the shaft poking between my fingertips, but I didn’t pay it much attention.

I didn’t want trouble with the local Pack. All I had to do was find them, I reminded myself. There was no reason to engage. The shapeshifters weren’t my enemy.

I was a pacifist reformed, and an occasional asshole. But hey, we all had our strengths.

I’d served two tours and got out of the Army right before the Awakening struck and thank the fuck for that. Eight years in the Army was enough for me and if I thought the world was going to shit before, it really went to shit when all things paranormal came out of the woodwork.

When you’re young, you think everything is a fight and you fucking live for it. You embrace the moments that make your blood rush in your ears and your adrenaline spike. It’s like a drug you can’t get enough of. But after war, you pray you never have to fight again. You pray for peace and normalcy. I spent years retraining myself. Years dealing with flashbacks and adrenaline rushes and instincts that told you to kill first and ask questions later. Instincts that made me a fucking liability to the few people I cared about.

Caroline was a big contributing factor in my recovery. She was my anchor when the sea battered my resolve and threatened to sweep me away.

Where are you, Caroline? I shook thoughts of her away.

Most of the Hounds walked with weapons drawn, though none at the ready, believing there was safety in numbers. I decided not to correct their poor judgment. I carried a bow and quiver full of arrows because it was a long-range weapon. Close range fights with a shapeshifter would always be a losing battle.

A rifle would have been a safer choice but I was confident in my skills as a bowman. While it lent an extra layer of security, a rifle also sent the wrong kind of message in these woods and ammunition was fucking expensive.

The air was wet and thick from the previous night’s rainfall. Soft soil shifted beneath my boots, which I knew would need a thorough cleaning before the day was over.

Some military habits died hard.

Damp, flattened leaves littered the ground, a patchwork of colors that complemented the browns and greens of the forest floor. That was the other supposed reason for this little adventure—the seasons were shifting.

Halbread said the local shapeshifters were led by a white wolf, and soon he’d be all but invisible against a backdrop of snow. He thought he could somehow capture the wolf.

Idiot. 

I had to keep reminding the men they weren’t common wolves. They were shapeshifters. Men and women that looked like the rest of us when in their human skins.

I was beginning to wonder if any of them had come face to face with a shapeshifter or if all of their knowledge was really just overzealous fantasy and speculation.

But still, if Halbread was right, if the elusive white wolf was the Pack Alpha, he’d have a hell of a time finding him unless he wanted to be found and fur color had nothing to do with it.

Alphas weren’t Alphas for no reason.

They were the best of the best. The strongest, fastest, most capable members of their Pack with razor sharp minds. If I was lucky, the Alpha would remain elusive. All I needed was a glimpse of their Den entrance. That was it. I’d prefer to wrap this up without coming across any of the shifters themselves.

We scouted through the forest in almost complete silence, each man lost in his own thoughts. The group moved in a clockwise rotation, scouring the nearby area for wolf tracks, to no avail.

Over an hour passed, and I breathed a sigh of relief. Sweat dampened my chest and my back between my shoulder blades. I wiped my forehead with the back of my hand. “This is stupid,” I told Roland, who stood five meters away from me. “We should head back. There are no wolves for the men to intimidate. Let’s go home and grab a beer.”

“Bring it up with Halbread,” he advised with a hiccup.

I exhaled a long breath, but turned my attention toward Halbread—the Hounds’ fearless leader. Alton warned me about him when he’d hired me. He wanted the glory accompanied with taking down the Pack and he didn’t care whose life he risked in the process. He was stubborn and a bigot and he wouldn’t think twice about stealing the bounty out from under me if the chance presented itself.

Halbread swatted aside a low branch covered in hanging moss and peered around as if it was the forest that was intruding on his domain, rather than the other way around.

He was a big man, made bigger by the layers of wolf pelts he insisted on wearing over his shoulders as fall turned to winter. All the pelts belonged to natural wolves, but the insult was still clear and wouldn’t garner him any favors with the local Pack.

I wondered what would happen to him if he were foolish enough to enter these woods alone? If he did, and if he went missing, it would make my job easier.

Not that I wanted him to be murdered. Really, I didn’t. But still…

Halbread wanted to hunt the shapeshifters as if they were nothing more than common wolves, and he made his opinions clear at every town meeting.

So far, level heads held him at bay. But the town was divided and sooner or later, something would happen that would give Halbread the inch he needed to take a mile and war would be waged. I wasn’t disillusioned into thinking I would locate the Den and the humans would leave the shifters alone. But it wasn’t my problem. If the men wanted to sign their own deaths by waging war against the Pack, that was their mistake to make.

I knew from experience it wasn’t the humans that would come out on top of that confrontation.

Canada never experienced an outright war with the paranormals like the United States had. No, they’d sat back and watched our country crumble in the face of the Awakening. But now that it’d been several years, tolerance was dwindling, and you found more pockets like this where the divide between humans and other was a mile wide.

Where the people forgot just what paranormals were capable of since they’d never seen it with their own eyes and barely remembered watching it on their television screens.

A cry erupted from the far right and I jumped, my full attention now riveted in that direction.

“Aaaahhhhhhh!” one of the Hounds screamed.

As one, we turned and sprinted toward the voice. Unconsciously, we’d spread ourselves wide, an arc of men each spaced dozens of meters apart, but now we consolidated into an arrowhead in pursuit of the beleaguered man.

I shot a quick glance around—Who was missing?—and looked over the men assembled on either side of me.

Maxus. Shit. An older Hound who’d just recently been recruited.

“We’re coming!” Halbread shouted. “Hold on!”

I cursed again and sped up as scenarios played through my mind. Maxus wasn’t strong enough to go head to head with most of what lived in this forest. If we were lucky, he’d taken a fall and earned a broken bone for his misstep. If we were unlucky—I didn’t want to think of the consequences.

But, we’d given the shifters no reason to attack in the first place, right?

The oily sound of steel blades being drawn from leather scabbards echoed through the forest. Unlike Roland, many of the other Hounds favored the longer reach and lighter weight of a sword and they were preparing themselves for what we might find.

Shit. If it’d been a confrontation with a shifter, I hoped they were long gone by now. A fight with the Pack wasn’t on my to-do list.

We shot forward as one, weaving around ancient trees and splashing through shallow, narrow streams.

I skidded to a halt. My chest tightened and my body filled with trepidation as I came upon a grisly scene.

The forest floor was stained red, blood already pooling where the ground was low. Droplets of crimson clung to nearby plants like tiny rubies and paw prints the size of my fist marked the earthen floor.

“Spread out,” Halbread ordered, his tone harsh. He stared intently at the tracks. “Look for a trail.”

The Hounds responded to his command and started scouring the immediate area. I kept my eyes trained on the surrounding forest—leaving the search for Maxus to the others as I turned in a slow circle. The spot between my shoulder blades itched. The sensation we were being watched washed over me, and it was an instinct I’d learned to trust.

Where are you?

The men stayed close, working in small groups. With the amount of blood already spilled, Maxus would have left a clear path leading in whatever direction he had limped off to.

The only reassurance we had was that there was no corpse on the ground; somewhere, he still drew breath.

One Hound took to calling out for him. “Maxus!” he cried. “Maxus!”

“Be quiet, you idiot,” Roland whispered harshly.

Too late for that.

As if in response to the Hound’s call, a wolf song started low and then pitched high, sending a chill down my spine. There was more than one wolf in the woods today.

Cold dread washed over me.

The Hounds scrambled into a circle around me and Halbread. Roland was closest by my side, his eyes alert and sober. I rested my first arrow against my bow, still keeping it low and undrawn.

Seconds ticked by.

We braced ourselves.

A groan sounded to my left, but I didn’t move. Neither did anyone else.

As seconds dragged into minutes, the tension in my shoulders eased.

Was this a game to them? Was whoever was out there just toying with us?

Whatever attacked Maxus must have run off. Maybe Maxus had gotten in a few good blows? Enough to discourage it from returning?

Halbread seemed to reach the same conclusion. He slid his sword back into its sheath.

“We’re wasting time,” he said. “If Maxus is nearby, he needs our help. Pair up, keep alert, and stay within eyesight of your partner.”

“Halbread,” Roland called, his tone drawing the attention of every other Hound. “Look.”

Like the others, I followed Roland’s pointed finger further down the narrow stream that ran beneath our feet. Somehow, Maxus’s body had rolled perfectly so that only faint bits of blood marred the worn earthen sides of the rivulet of water.

It was easy to see now how we’d missed it in their first search. Aside from a drop here or there, no signs of the man were apparent until maybe thirty or forty feet down the stream where there was a scarlet streak of red through the green undergrowth.

I led the march forward, bow in hand, arrow at the ready. Unease gathered in my gut as I approached the thorny bush, each step making me more and more certain of what I would find there—but I needed to confirm it.

The other Hounds held back. I didn’t blame them; there was no need for all of them to see what was left of their friend.

I rounded the bush and released the tension on my arrow, drawing it into the palm of my right hand so I could cup my mouth with the left as bile threatened to rise.

Flesh was torn open. Blood seeped in rivulets from a face mottled black and blue. Bone stood out of Maxus’s leg, the limb twisted at an unnatural angle and tangled up in the torn and tattered red hood Maxus wore.

Little was left to make him recognizable.

A groan and a shaky breath escaped the downed man.

Shit. 

“He’s alive,” I shouted.

I rushed closer, military instincts taking over.

His eyes stared at nothing in particular. His breaths shallow sounds that rattled in his chest.

“We’ll get you some help. Just hang in there.” I took a closer look at his injuries, lifting his shirt and cutting away the torn cloak with a pocketknife.

His leg was badly broken, but it looked like the result of a horrible fall, not an animal attack.

Bruises marked his face, neck, and shoulders. His shirt was torn across his torso, the flesh there unmarked.

Halbread stopped beside me and cursed.

“It’s worse than it looks,” I told him. “The leg is the worst of it.”

“He’s white as a sheet.”

“He’s in shock. Between the injury and the blood loss, it’s probably for the best. Help me stabilize the limb so we can splint it and get him back to town.”

He nodded and crouched beside me. I scanned the immediate area, finding several large branches and stripping them of twigs before placing two on either side of Maxus’s leg. I ripped his cloak into thin strips and used them to secure the branches around his leg.

It would have to do, at least until we got him to a doctor.

“Roland—” Halbread called out. “Grab his shoulders, I’ll take the legs.”

“Grab him at an angle, with his bad leg braced against your chest.” It’d make the walk back to town awkward but it’d be less painful for Maxus that way.

The two men hefted him between them. “Niles, Rook, you two return to town and inform the Doc of our arrival. Get a stretcher ready and try to meet us at the halfway point.

The two men I’d indicated nodded and took off west for town.

“Red,” Halbread said, drawing my attention. “Find whatever did this.”

Right. I rolled my eyes. Because that was my job here.

 

Chapter Two: Lindy

I shouldered Embry and Asa away from the downed man. “What are you doing?” Footsteps headed in our direction and I shoved at the brothers with my muzzle, urging them into the foliage.

Embry vibrated with barely contained rage. He’d kill the man if he could, uncaring of the consequences. It made no difference that the altercation was unprovoked or that this could be the push the humans needed to hunt down the Pack.

This was just another reminder of why we weren’t a good fit for one another, regardless of what he or my father believed. He was too impulsive. Too self-centered. He always put his own wants before the needs of the Pack.

“Did you hear what he said?” 

His voice boomed inside my head, raw, angry.

“Yes, I heard. There’s this great adage, sticks and stones may—”

“They think we’re animals to be put down. We’re not dogs, Lindy.”

I ground my teeth together. I knew that, and yes, the man’s comments had sparked a rage in me that nearly matched Embry’s, but we couldn’t afford to go to war with the humans. Not with our numbers already dwindled as they were. The odds were stacked against us and I refused to lead my people to slaughter.

We needed to find a way to coexist, but I was doubting whether that was even possible.

Asa remained silent, neither agreeing nor disagreeing with his brother’s actions. In their wolf forms, the brothers were nearly identical with rich brown fur, intermixed with shades of wheat, and amber-colored eyes flecked with gold. But while their wolves might look similar, their personalities couldn’t be more different.

Asa exuded this aloof attitude regardless of the situation. He was always calm and collected and he always followed the rules. Very little could rile him up so I never had to worry about him lashing out without thinking.

Whereas Embry was quick to anger. He was stubborn and dominate. Everything was a challenge to him and swaying him away from his chosen path was nearly impossible once he decided on a course of action. He was infuriating to deal with. That my father considered us a good match was laughable.

Feeling my gaze, Embry turned toward me as we huddled beneath the underbrush, out of sight of the humans who now stood surrounding their fallen man.

He would live. But whether he would walk again was another matter entirely.

“We won’t survive winter if we let them continue to believe we’re the weaker species. We have to show them we won’t be cowed into hiding. They’re spreading like fucking rabbits, Lindy. They’re encroaching on Pack lands. That can’t go unanswered.”

My lip curled. I knew that, but…

Two of the humans took off, running through the woods at a clipped pace.

“Follow them,” I said to Asa in silent communication. “Make sure they don’t get too close to the Den.” The humans had strayed unusually deep into the forest. Despite their efforts, they’d yet to discover our Den, and we needed to keep it that way.

See where the men are going, but stay hidden. Do not engage them on your own.” I said the last part with a mental growl. I refused to risk Asa’s life or that of anyone else’s in our Pack. These humans carried weapons. They wouldn’t hesitate to strike out at Asa if they caught him unawares and alone.

With a nod, he crept backward through the underbrush and went around to follow the men who’d sprinted off.

In silence, Embry and I watched as the others moved to help their fallen friend.

“We have the element of surprise. We could—”

“No.” I cut off his comment. We weren’t savages and attacking the men wouldn’t solve our problems.

“Lindy, you’re being unreasonable.” Embry growled, a deep rumble in his chest that caused the humans to grow still and silent, their eyes now turned in our direction.

Shit. Shit. Shit.

“What was that?” one man called out.

“You all heard that growl, right?”

Several men nodded.

I flicked my gaze left then right, looking for our best means of escape. “Idiot,” I said, but Embry was no longer listening. He crouched low to the ground, his paws digging into the earth as he readied to strike.

“Don’t you dare.”

The humans all turned to one another, aware of our presence and uncertain of what to do. I crouched beside him, my body pressed up against his side. “Don’t do this.” I nudged Embry with my nose, urging him to retreat.

We could disappear deeper into the forest, leave the humans to their bidding. We’d already driven them off their intended course—away from the Den and our vulnerable. There was no need to remain now that the imminent risk had subsided.

The humans approached together, their eyes wary and their weapons raised. Two others shouldered their fallen man and slowly made their retreat.

What to do…

I scanned their numbers. One of the humans carried a bow. He stepped forward, his piercing eyes scanning every inch of his surroundings with cool efficiency. Unlike the other men, he didn’t smell of fear. Darker skinned and with a militant stance, he didn’t have any nervous ticks either. Trepidation flooded through my me. He was an outsider and something told me he was the one we needed to be wary of.

“There are only four of them,” Embry said, following my train of thought.

“That doesn’t matter. We can’t—”

He lunged.

Damn us all to hell—I lunged after him, unwilling to leave him to fight alone.

Eyes locked on the human with the bow, my fangs closed around his weapon before he could fire his arrow in Embry’s direction. I jerked the wood free from his hands and flung it toward the tree line. He stumbled back, landing on his backside as I stalked forward.

I curled my lip, exposing my fangs as a snarl tore through my chest.

Embry scattered the remaining humans, many choosing to run rather than face his fangs. Unwilling to leave me on my own, he didn’t follow them.

Thank God for small favors.

“Red!” one man shouted.

One of the men who’d just left carrying his fallen barreled towards me, axe held high and eyes red and bloodshot.

Embry took notice and shot out from behind, biting the man’s bicep. Fabric tore in his attempt to break away. The smell of blood saturated the air as he stumbled back knocked off balance.

The man yelled in pain and swung his axe in a wide arc at Embry, who barely avoided the blow.

Blood dripped down the man’s arm but he paid it no mind, squaring off against Embry while still keeping me and the human I’d disarmed in his line of sight. The others stood scattered throughout the trees, watching with their swords drawn.

It wouldn’t take long for one to muster up the courage to join the fray.

We needed to go. Now.

“Embry—”

He lunged at the human, but the swing of the axe kept him from getting close.

We have to go,” I snarled.

Another human stepped forward, his sword at the ready as he leaned on the balls of his feet. We were running out of time.

The man in front of me tried to stand, a hand open in front of him as he attempted to rise from his crouched position.

I snapped at him in warning. A snarl rose from my chest and he stopped, holding his hands out in a silent plea.

I took a deep breath, inhaling his scent. Beer, pine, and a spice I couldn’t put a name to.

“Easy there.” His voice was a deep timbre intended to soothe. He rose to his feet, hands still held out in a placating gesture. “We’re all friends here.”

I growled again, a low warning. He chanced a look over his shoulder at his companion. “We don’t want any trouble.”

I highly doubted that. If he hadn’t been looking for trouble, then why was he here?

The man with the axe swung, connecting with Embry who let loose a pained whine.

No! I watched in horror as he fell to his side, red staining his coat and soaking into the soil.

Aroooo! Asa’s far away howl filled the air, his wolf having sensed his brother’s pain. Several other howls joined him, beginning a chorus through the woods.

The man with the axe scanned the trees, his look of triumph fading, unaware that the others were too far away to be of much help.

He shook off his trepidation and moved toward Embry’s prone form. I had to do something.

Embry tried and failed to stand, angry whines coming from him as he struggled to get his feet beneath him.

“Get up.”

He tried and failed, again and again. 

Shit.

“Go. Leave me.”

“Idiot. I’m not going to leave you.”

My mind whirled through possibilities before settling on the only one that had any chance of success. Before I could think about it too much, I pounced on the human in front of me, my claws digging into his chest. His eyes widened, his breathing heavy as he let loose a string of curses, calling out to his friend. But he didn’t try to get away. He settled back against the ground, bearing my weight with cool determination.

“Roland!” my quarry shouted.

I eyed the man with the axe and in slow motion, bent my head and wrapped my fangs around the man’s wrist beneath me. My hold was firm; I applied just enough pressure to let him feel the strength in my jaws without breaking the skin.

Roland glowered at me, and then at Embry, a look of concentration stamped on his face. “What do you suppose we do, then?” The question was directed to his comrade.

The man beneath me tilted his head back to look at his friend, exposing the column of his neck. It was a submissive move, and I wondered if it’d been intentional.

I watched the thrum of his pulse. If they so much as stepped toward Embry…

“A trade?” He suggested, looking back at me. His eyes were a blend of brown and green with flecks of honey. Hazel. That was the color.

Most men with skin as dark as his didn’t have eyes as light. I tilted my head to the side and considered his words.

A trade?

I shifted my attention to Embry; he wasn’t going to get out of here on his own four paws. I’d have to carry him. I huffed at the human, urging him to continue.

“You let us go, let us leave the woods unharmed, and my friend Roland over there,”—he indicated the man with the axe—“will stop trying to hack your friend to bits. Deal?”

Embry growled. “You can’t trust him.”

“You don’t get to have an opinion. We’re in this mess because of you.” That shut him up. I felt Asa’s presence behind me and heaved a sigh of relief that he’d come back.

He padded towards his brother, his steps cautious and his eyes never leaving the humans in front of him.

Roland stepped away from Embry but kept his weapon raised. Asa licked at the wound on his brother’s side and whined.

“It’s bad, Lindy. Really bad.” When the other humans were a far enough distance away from the brothers, I released the man’s wrist and backed away from him.

He slowly rose to his feet and backed away, his steps cautious and his eyes never leaving mine.

While I might not admit it aloud, I agreed with Embry. These men couldn’t be trusted.

Uncertainty thrummed through me. I had no clue if they’d keep their word long enough for Asa and I to get Embry out in our wolf forms, but I hated the idea of relinquishing my wolf. I was still strong in my human skin, but not as strong as my wolf and giving up that sense of security grated on my nerves.

With no other alternative, I made the decision and shifted, pushing my body as quickly into the change as I could.

Fur receded into my skin and my bones grew and lengthened, forming human limbs. I gritted my teeth and fought the wave of pain that always accompanied a shift.

Crouched on my hands and knees, I took a deep breath, steadying myself before I rose to stand on two legs.

The shift had taken a matter of seconds and a thin bead of sweat ran from my temples down between my breasts. My legs shook, but I gritted my teeth to hide the weakness and faced the wide-eyed humans, naked, with my white-blonde hair hanging down to my waist.

Holy shit. It’s a woman,” Roland said.

Ignoring their gazes, I walked to Embry’s side. I hefted the wolf into my arms, using every ounce of werewolf strength I had. He growled as I shifted his weight more comfortably but quieted down when I nipped at his nose with human teeth.

“We have a deal,” I said, my words directed at the man I’d threatened. “Now leave our woods. These are Pack lands and you’re trespassing.”

Before he could respond, I turned and left without a backwards glance, Asa’s fur brushing my leg and protecting my back until the humans were out of sight.

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