MacTague completely knocks it out of the park with this one, one of the best lesbian paranormals I’ve read. This book blew me away. Not just for the imagination MacTague demonstrated around the different creatures that haunt the darkness and the work Malice and her colleagues have to undertake to defeat the rogue ones, but also because of the underlying themes and threads that hit on so many subjects. Family, commitment, what it means to belong, what it means to trust–MacTague covers them all and in writing that’s so powerful it took my breath away at times.
It’s another winner from MacTague, who is rapidly becoming one of my all-time favorite lesfic authors.
This book is absolutely brilliant. It is filled with memorable characters and a plot that will keep you coming back to it even when you know you should be working or sleeping or doing something else. MacTague really got into her head and gave us a beautiful account of what it would be like to be a werewolf. It was so wonderfully done that I now have a massive book crush.goodreads
Lex Kent’s reviews- I really enjoyed this and I want more! This is a pure paranormal story, with some romance mixed it. This story has some grit. I can already tell that this is the kind of book, that will stay in my mind for a long time. I don't know if MacTague will turn this into a series, but it is primed for it. I really hope she will because in my mind it screams for it. I want more with these characters!
She barely kept her feet, hunched over as she was, trying desperately to fill her lungs with air. The large pillar kept her hidden well enough for now, but it wouldn’t be adequate concealment for long. The stitch in her side was nothing compared to the knot of fire higher up along her rib cage. The bastard was damn fast. If she’d been almost any other human, she would be lying dead on the floor, a crater bashed into her rib cage. As it was, her torso bled slowly from half a dozen shallow puncture wounds. Whatever he was, he was covered in spikes. That had been a surprise. She was lucky it hadn’t been worse. There was none of the grinding that would have accompanied broken ribs.
Sucking in a slow deep breath, she tried to focus on her surroundings through her agony. Beyond herself, she listened as hard as she could for the slightest whisper out of place.
The darkness of the loft pressed in on her and seemed to swallow all sound. All she could hear was her strained inhalations. She struggled to get them under control. If she could hear herself breathing, chances were the thing hunting her could as well.
Where is he? He’d gotten the drop on her, moving faster than she’d believed possible. According to her intel, he was little more than a run-of-the-mill demon, though of a type they’d never seen before. It hadn’t stopped him from clawing out his own little corner of the shadow-world.
Why did it have to be a demon? She hated demons the most of the creatures she was set to take down. Demons came in so many horrible flavors, not like the rest of the supranormals. Werewolves and vampires started out human, at least. Demons were so different they might have been from an alien planet, not that her superiors would confirm or deny that. Human values meant nothing to them; they simply didn’t operate on anything near the same set of morals. Fortunately, there weren’t that many of them. Hunting vamps and furries took up most of her days. Confrontations with demons and the fae were fewer and further between.
She hadn’t dealt with fairies and changelings enough to get a handle on them. They’d been brought up in training, but she could count the number of interactions she’d had with them on the fingers of one mutilated hand. Demons on the other hand… Her theory on demons, not shared by her employer, was that they came from another dimension. Such ideas bordered on the mystical and were not accepted by the United States government, but their theories had so many holes and required such mental gyrations that they weren’t any more reasonable. She’d never met a demon she could stand to share a room with. Her current quarry was no exception.
A brush of air across her cheek was her only warning. She dropped to her knees, one hand on the floor, the other slicing through the air, the katana an unthinking extension of her body. His hand thudded into the pillar where her head had been less than half a breath before. Masonry exploded and small bits showered down on her head. The katana bit, blade sliding deep into his thigh. A hiss that turned into a wordless shriek was her satisfaction.
Determined not to lose her advantage, she surged to her feet, turning the sword in both hands and lining up for another strike. As fast as she was, the demon was faster. He blurred away from her and disappeared back into the darkness, leaving her fencing with shadows.
There was no time to consider her next move. He was on the run and she had to track him down before he made it out of the building. Now that he knew she’d been set upon him, he could easily disappear and she could not allow that to happen. He couldn’t be allowed to prey upon the unwary any longer. Countless scores of young runaways had already been sacrificed to his appetite.
Stalking through the empty loft after him, she was glad she’d at least marked him. Droplets of bright blue blood glowed and smoked on the concrete floor, corroding it, leading her onward. She peered deep into the gloom. Even enhanced as it was, her night vision was barely enough to keep her from running into the debris that littered the ground. He had a decided advantage in the dark. She pulled a compact cylinder from her pocket, holding it in her right hand as she stalked the darkness.
The droplets stopped and she looked ahead into the shadows. There was no sign of him, but from behind her came the barest rustle of spine upon spine. She grinned tightly, clamped her eyes shut, faced the other direction and pressed the button on the cylinder in her right hand. Light splashed across her corneas despite her precautions. If her calculations were right, though, the flash would have blinded the demon.
Another scream met her efforts and she dropped the cylinder, bringing her right hand up to grasp the end of the handle of the katana. In one smooth motion, Malice turned and raised the sword, getting her first good look at the thing. The demon cowered in front of her, hands over too-wide eyes that oozed thick blue blood. A spiny crest jutted aggressively from the top of his head. He was covered everywhere in spikes of varying lengths, even on the backs of his fingers. Her blood still stained the protrusions on one hand. His movements were jerky and quick, almost impossible to track.
“Don’t,” he choked, voice thick with pain. “For the love of the Seven Realms, Malice, please don’t.”
Malice gazed down at him. How many of his victims had pleaded with him in just the same way? They hadn’t deserved their fate, but he certainly did. She brought the sword down in a smooth arc, cleaving through his neck and both up-raised hands. They hit the floor in a series of small thuds as his body slumped over.
Already, the acrid stench of his death threatened to overwhelm her.
Another reason to hate demons, Malice thought. They can’t even die cleanly.
Not for the first time, she wished supranormal corpses simply disintegrated into ash, the way vampire ones did on human television shows. This wasn’t Buffy the Vampire Slayer, for better or worse. She had no sidekicks to rely upon, no snappy banter; it was just her and her prey. Reality, as was so often the case, was much messier than fantasy. His body should corrode away to nothing over the next twenty-four hours, if her previous experience was anything to go by. At least he’d had the sense to make his lair in an abandoned factory building. She could leave his corpse and be relatively certain nobody would blunder across it. It wouldn’t do for some luckless human to stumble across the body. They weren’t supposed to know about the nightmares that congregated in the underbelly of society. The government made very certain to keep knowledge of the beasts from their constituents. Their presence was an inconvenient truth, which was where Malice came in.
Impassively, Malice stared at the blackening corpse for another moment before turning. She pulled a cloth from her pocket and drew it along the blade of her katana. Demon blood was so corrosive it would pit the metal if left there more than a few minutes. Satisfied the blade was clean, she dropped the cloth. Already, holes were being eaten through the fabric. It would dissolve completely long before his now-inanimate corpse would.
Through the abandoned loft and down four flights of deserted stairs, Malice kept the katana ready in her hand. Demons sometimes ran in packs. She wasn’t sure about this one. His spiky exterior and impossible speed were brand spanking new. He could have had a dozen brothers and sisters with him, or he could have been the last of his kind. If there were others, they wouldn’t catch her unaware. Malice hadn’t survived as long as she had without keeping her head on a swivel.
Nothing moved in the shadows and she emerged into a dark courtyard. Light poles dotted the perimeter, and broken glass glittered in the light of the moon below each one. Folded in a neat pile in one corner was a black trench coat. Malice picked it up and slipped it over her shoulders, sliding the katana back into its sheath on her back. She pulled up her hood to disguise the sword’s handle. With easy strides, she left the courtyard, never looking back at empty windows that seemed to follow her every move.
The area was mostly industrial and deserted at that time of night. Malice walked swiftly down silent blocks, past shuttered factories and storage facilities. Her truck was a few blocks away from her target’s nest. She’d been trained never to get too close in a vehicle, and years of experience had only reinforced that training. Most supranormals had excellent hearing. She smiled slightly as she contemplated the other reason. If she didn’t survive the mission, her superiors didn’t want anything to connect her to them. She would be simply one more dead Jane Doe in a city full of them.
There were many reasons why she and her remaining cohort were stationed in major cities. The beings they hunted were drawn to large urban centers, full of humans who wouldn’t be missed, full of easy meat. In the wash of humanity, another dead body wouldn’t be a big deal. Malice knew that when she died, her body would spend its last days in a drawer in the morgue before being interred with the other John and Jane Does beneath the tall trees of Homewood Memorial Gardens. Unclaimed bodies went there, and there was no chance her body would be claimed upon her death. Her family would never know what happened; she would simply disappear from their lives. It was only a matter of time. It had only been, what, five years since she completed her training? Of her original platoon, six were already gone and that was of the sixteen who had survived their training and…enhancements.
Malice grimaced slightly and twitched her mind away from the scant memories she still retained of that time. Even what little she remembered was more than she cared to. They said that memories of physical trauma were never as sharp as the actual pain, but that didn’t seem to apply to what had been done to her. Her bones ached, cold and sharp, and Malice brought her sister’s face to mind. Cassidy’s smile chased away the last vestiges of remembered agony.
Her truck was where she’d left it. The black Mitsubishi pickup gleamed under a lone street lamp. She extended her senses, but nothing seemed out of place. She emptied her pockets, pulling out more light grenades, a couple of knives and a Taser, and placed them in the toolbox in the truck’s bed. Her katana had its place in a specialized holder in the box’s lid. Satisfied that everything was secure, Malice headed home.
It was a long drive home, over forty-five minutes. At least with as late as it was, Chicago traffic wouldn’t be the headache it usually was. She flipped on the radio and relaxed as pounding drums and heavy guitar riffs seemed to absorb the adrenaline that still coursed through her veins. It would be a while before she would relax completely. This night’s takedown had been closer than most. Still, not as close as some.
Malice pulled off the side street and onto the Tri-State. Prudently, she kept her speed down. Traffic blew by her on the left as she made sure not to be the fastest one out there. If she was pulled over for speeding, she would have a hard time explaining the contents of her toolbox.
The wind whistled through her window, stripping the last bits of acridness from the inside of her nose. She breathed deeply, tucking a stray lock of hair behind one ear. Regs demanded that an operative with long hair club it back into a tight bun, but she preferred the ponytail. At just above her shoulders, her hair didn’t always cooperate with a bun and the pony was easier. It wasn’t like she had some sergeant waiting at home to get on her back about it, only her handler, and he certainly didn’t go out on missions.
Slowly, the Chicago skyline passed by on her left, lights twinkling merrily at her through the stillness of the evening. It was a gorgeous autumn night, but late enough that traffic on the Tri-State was almost non-existent and she made it home five minutes earlier than she’d anticipated.
Her neighborhood wasn’t that different from the one she’d just left. It was mostly warehouses and as quiet at night. She pulled up in front of one of the older buildings, three stories of weathered brick and frosted glass windows. It took up half the city block. Bending over, she felt around for the small button hidden under her dash. It was little more than a depression in the molded plastic, but it clicked loudly when she pressed it down.
The large metal door a few yards away raised, metal creaking slightly in protest. As soon as the door was barely high enough to drive under, she roared in, pressing the button again. The tortured squeal of the door reversing in its track echoed throughout the cavernous first floor. It reminded her uncomfortably of the demon whose existence she’d terminated scarcely an hour before.
The entire area was open and mostly empty. Large pillars marched along the interior and did much to break up the emptiness. Malice could have parked anywhere, but she pulled up next to a small area enclosed with chain-link fence. She opened the door and vaulted from the truck’s running board onto the edge of the bed. Bending her knees, she picked up the toolbox in both hands. It was heavy, but nothing she couldn’t handle. Since no one was around, she made no effort to hide her strength. The weight would have been too much for most men, never mind most women, but she handled it with little more than a grunt.
She knew she was on the short side. Oh sure, statistics might say the average height of a woman in the US was 5’3”, but she always felt short when around other humans, though by the numbers she was exactly average. Even her baby sister was taller at 5’6”, and that rankled. The day Cassidy had discovered Mary Alice was no longer the taller one still burned in her memory. As a moody teenager, that had done nothing to improve her attitude. That had been the day before she’d joined the US Army.
At least her strength was a hell of an equalizer. Some people thought they could mess with her, normal humans who didn’t know any better. Little did they know that even the fastest and most ripped man had little chance against her, all thanks to Uncle Sam.
With another grunt, she stepped up on the side of the bed and dropped to the ground, bending her knees again to absorb the extra weight. Malice gasped aloud at the pain in her ribs. She’d forgotten about her injury. Adrenaline and a boosted metabolism had driven it from her mind. She set the box on the ground and took a deep breath. It didn’t feel like she’d damaged herself any further, but she needed to be more cautious.
Against the chain fence was another toolbox, identical in appearance to the one she’d just removed. This one actually carried tools, and not ones meant for dispatching supranormals. Carefully, she lugged it to the end of the truck and balanced it against the bumper as she pulled down the tailgate. Placing the box on the bed, she gave it a good shove. It slid the length of the bed before coming to a rest against the cab with a muffled thump.
Satisfied, Malice headed over to the freight elevator on the other side of the enclosure. Wooden gates stood open, and the elevator car waited for her. Weariness dragged at her. It was all physical, the adrenaline finally waning. She knew from experience that her mind would continue to churn for hours yet. It was good to be home where she didn’t have to worry about anything else.
Inside the elevator, she pulled the wooden gates closed before pressing the button for the top floor. A reluctant rumble accompanied the car as it moved between the floors before coming to a stop on the third floor. She opened the doors and stepped into the echoing loft. Almost home, she thought. Her quarters were all the way across the large empty space. If anyone ever tracked her to her home, she wanted as much warning as possible. Her distance from the elevator gave her some peace of mind, but she really wanted to unwind. A hot bath sounded divine, and it was still too far away.
Privacy screens created the illusion of walls, turning the cavernous space into something cozy and comfortable. Malice dropped her trench coat on the floor by the door. It wasn’t really a door, more like a gap between the screens, but she couldn’t help but think of it as such.
I should really pick that up. She hesitated for a moment. Nah. There was no one to nag her. That was a good thing. Why does that always sound like I’m trying to convince myself?
A blinking light in the kitchen caught her eye. Her personal cell phone lay on the island, flashing mindlessly, the light gleaming off the stainless steel countertop. She had a message. Malice fished out her other phone, tossing the burner down onto the counter without much thought. Unlike her own phone, this one was built like a brick and could take a beating after being submerged in water for three days. Operational security dictated she leave her own phone at home on a run, but the burner was indispensable if she needed backup. She rarely did, but the few times she’d gotten in over her head, she’d been glad for it.
She had seven messages, as it turned out. Malice eyed the screen before sighing. That didn’t bode well. Only a handful of people had the number and a reason to leave her a voice mail. Even if they all called at once, there wouldn’t be seven messages. Malice left a very light impression on the human world. Tapping in her password, she brought up her voice mail and set it to speaker.
“Hi, Mary Alice.” Her sister’s voice filtered tinnily through the speaker. Malice smiled and pulled her shirt over her head, ignoring the twinge that went through her ribs. “Don’t forget, we’re on for lunch with Mom next Wednesday before she heads home. You can’t get out of seeing her for much longer. I can’t wait to introduce you guys to the new place I went with my classmates.”
Cassidy’s voice did more to relax her than even veterinary-grade sedatives could. These days her metabolism was too high for most drugs to have more than a fleeting effect upon her anyway. She smiled as her sister prattled on for another minute or so while she prodded her side with cautious fingertips. Satisfied that the worst she had to deal with were a few bruises and shallow cuts, Malice advanced to the next message.
“Mary Alice, it’s Uncle Ralph. I miss you, kiddo. Call me.” Despite the words, the voice was curt, almost impersonal, and Malice rolled her eyes. Her handler wanted to know how the night’s activities had gone. He was always impatient. After five years of working together, he still thought he could rush her into debriefing. She needed to come down before she’d talk about it. He knew that, but it didn’t stop him from trying to prod her into talking it out sooner than later. He would simply have to wait. Daylight would be more than soon enough to touch base.
“Hi, Mary.” Her head snapped up at the voice that filtered through the phone’s speaker. Her voice light and slightly breathless, the woman sounded nervous. “I had a great time the other night, and you said you’d call, but you haven’t. I hope you don’t mind me calling, but I got your number from your gallery.”
Oh no, she didn’t! Disbelieving, Malice slumped into one of the high chairs at the island. She stared at the phone. It had been a mistake to go on that second date with Ann; she’d known it when she agreed to it. The girl was nice and they’d had a lot of fun at her apartment. So much fun, in fact, that Ann’s downstairs neighbor had pounded on the floor to get them to tone it down. But all it had been for her was an opportunity for some fabulous sex and to blow off some much-needed steam. Apparently, Ann hadn’t taken the hint.
She picked up the phone and scanned through the other messages. They were all from that Ann chick. With a groan, Malice deleted them without bothering to listen further. She was going to need to change her phone number. That was no big thing—she did it periodically as a security precaution. But Ann had said she’d gotten her number from the gallery. Her hand tightened around the phone and it flexed slightly. She quickly relaxed her grip; it wouldn’t do to crack another screen.
The morning was the earliest she’d be able to track down the gallery owner and find out what the hell had happened. If the answer wasn’t satisfactory, she would have to take her sculptures elsewhere, somewhere that understood the value of discretion.
She glanced around the darkened kitchen, and then heaved a sigh of irritation. There was no point trying to unwind for bed. Her heart rate was back up and thudding in her chest. She was keyed up for more action, almost tingling with the need to hit something. If she wasn’t going to be able to sleep tonight, then she might as well do something useful. It was time for a little workout. Maybe if she worked her body past the point of exhaustion, she’d be able to grab a couple hours of sleep before the sun came up.
“Ruri. Ruri…” The voice cooing in her ear sent shivers down her spine, and she grinned, face turned against the pillow. “Come on, baby. Wake up.”
Determined to keep up the charade that she was still sleeping, Ruri kept her body limp. A tongue’s warm tip brushed delicately against her earlobe, chasing shivers with delicious goose bumps. Ruri bit her lower lip to keep from gasping. A low chuckle told her she’d failed to sell the illusion of sleep. The tongue was replaced by teeth that grasped hold of her ear and tugged gently.
Unable to contain herself, Ruri let out a low groan and was rewarded by a warm hand sliding over her rump, cupping and kneading it. Agile fingers slipped between her legs and dipped between lips already soaked by arousal. She couldn’t help but raise her ass to allow better access to her aching pussy.
“I know you’re awake.” A warm body draped itself across her back. Ruri cried out when fingers penetrated deep inside her in a single thrust. Teeth closed over the back of her neck. Pain and pleasure intermingled, and she couldn’t stop the growl that rose in her chest. She pushed herself up on her elbows and rocked back to meet each thrust, intensity increasing until they strained at each other, battling for orgasm.
She wasn’t going to come this way. Ruri knew it. The pressure to orgasm built until she couldn’t take it anymore. Sweat covered her body in a thin sheen and her gums ached from holding herself back, keeping herself together.
“Stop,” she grunted. Immediately, the fingers stroking her pussy were removed. Ruri looked over her shoulder in time to catch her lover licking the juices from her fingertips. She caught Ruri looking and winked, before exaggerating the motion of her tongue.
“Britt…” Ruri whirled around on her knees and tackled her lover to the bed. Brittney’s long, white-blond hair splayed out on the rumpled navy blue sheets. She stared at Ruri with mischief in her pale blue eyes. Normally, Ruri would have paused to admire the beautiful color of her eyes, but she had other things on her mind.
She straddled Britt’s hips, grinding their mounds together, and the mischief was chased off her lover’s face by raw desire. Her eyes practically smoked from the passion of her arousal, and she undulated her hips against Ruri.
“That’s it, Britt.” Ruri leaned forward and took Brittney’s breasts in each hand, plucking at the nipples and smiling as they pebbled even harder in response. She looked down into Britt’s face and noticed with satisfaction that her eyes had shifted. They were electric blue, a color never seen in humans. Britt was getting close.
Ruri’s whole body jerked when her lover closed both hands over her hips and dug in. Nails, hard and pointed from their transformation, dug into her skin, sending prickles of pleasure-pain rushing up her spine and pooling in her groin. The ache in her gums gave over to a sweet pain and teeth, pointed and sharp, burst free.
She leaned forward and placed her hands on either side of Brittney’s shoulders and thrust her pelvis against the soaked mound of her lover. Brittney growled at the increased friction, and Ruri dug her own hardened nails into the comforter beneath them in response.
Below her, Brittney’s teeth erupted and her head thrashed from side to side. Her breathing picked up pace until she was almost panting. Abruptly, Brittney stiffened and arched her back, howling as her release tore through her. Twin pops and the tear of fabric accompanied Ruri’s orgasm as she absorbed the energy Britt released when she came. Her back arched and she stiffened too, throwing her head back and howling in triumph at the ceiling. A thousand points sparked to life along her skin, then twinkled out slowly. She sagged forward, cradling Britt to her chest.
Entwined, they lay on the bed, breathing slowly, returning to something that resembled normal.
“Not again,” Brittney said. “That’s the third comforter this month.” She lifted a hand and waved it indolently through the air. Feathers floated down upon them.
“You have that effect on me,” Ruri said. She blew out a puff of air and laughed as downy white feathers swirled about.
“Don’t I know it.” Brittney pulled slowly out of Ruri’s arms and sat up. She stretched, running long fingers no longer tipped with claws through her thick mane of hair before letting her arms drop.
“So was that all you needed?” One nipple seemed particularly fetching, and Ruri reached out her hand, running her hand over the perfect globe of Brittney’s breast before giving her intended target a slow squeeze.
Brittney bit her lip and inhaled, closing her eyes. When she reopened them, the orbs that had only just reverted to their usual ice-blue already held a rim of brilliance around the center. She gently removed Ruri’s fingers and slid out of her reach. “Actually, it’s not why I came to wake you up at all.” She swung her legs over the edge of the bed and stood up. “Dean’s looking for you.”
Alarmed, Ruri sat straight up, whipping the still-drifting feathers into a small blizzard around her. “The Alpha wants to see me and you thought we should go at it for a while before you told me that?” She regretted her sharp tone as soon as Brittney turned her back.
“He said it wasn’t a big hurry, only that he wants to talk to you before the meeting.”
Ruri repressed a groan. Britt was pouting and she was right to be annoyed. She should have known Britt wouldn’t jerk her around if it was important. They’d been sleeping together exclusively for almost six months and Brittney had never given her any reason to doubt her. She wasn’t prepared to initiate mate-bonding with the other woman, not yet, but she harbored hopes they would soon get there. They had fun together and their chemistry was explosive, if destructive—as the eviscerated duvet showed.
“I’m sorry, Britt.” Ruri softened her voice. “I shouldn’t have snapped. You did the right thing.”
“You’re damn right I did.” Brittney unbent enough to turn around and regard Ruri through a curtain of hair. Satisfied that Ruri was sufficiently remorseful, she smiled. “I guess you do deserve the cup of coffee I made for you.”
“You made coffee?” Greedily, Ruri sniffed the air. Now that she wasn’t distracted by thoughts of sex, she could smell the delicious aroma of freshly brewed espresso. They didn’t drink regular coffee. It wasn’t strong enough for the caffeine to have much effect, so most wolven couldn’t be bothered. A quadruple-shot of espresso would perk her up, however. “You’re a lifesaver.”
“I know.” Brittney walked across the room, with a roll to her hips that made Ruri’s mouth go dry just watching it. She picked up the cup and handed it to Ruri who slurped down an ecstatic mouthful.
“Mmm.” She closed her eyes as the caffeine hit her system. “It tastes different than usual. Did you add one of your flavors to it?”
“Yep,” Brittney said brightly. “Caramel macchiato. What do you think?”
“It’s great.” Determined not to piss off her lover for the second time that morning, Ruri forced herself to take another gulp. The flavor was too sweet for her taste, heavy and cloying, but she wasn’t going to screw up again by seeming ungrateful.
“I’m glad you like it.” Brittney reached down and collected her clothes from their neat heap beside the bed. “I’ll leave you to it. I promised Raquel I’d look in on her this morning.”
“Have fun.” Brittney pulled on her clothes as she walked out the door, and Ruri craned her neck to catch one last glance of exposed flesh before it was gone. She needed to get ready herself. Dean might have indicated that their meeting wasn’t particularly urgent, but it never paid to keep the Alpha waiting.
She cast another glance at the open door. Knowing that people passing by could see her lounging naked on the bed didn’t bother her. Her people were comfortable with nudity, and many of them spent their days half to fully naked.
This was not going to be one of those days for her. With a shudder, she put down the overly sweet cup of espresso. From the dresser, she pulled a pair of cargo pants and a tank top. Underwear was a strange conceit of humans, one she never bothered with. Ruri pulled back her chin-length hair into a short ponytail and slipped on a pair of sandals.
The Alpha’s quarters were on the first floor near the front of the building. The pack had been living in the old hotel for a few years now. It was perfect for their purposes; everyone was close to each other, but there were opportunities for privacy. Ruri smiled as she walked through the hallway toward the stairwell. When they’d first moved in, the place had been a pit, everything stained and dirty. And the smell! Even for a human, the smell would have been overpowering. For them, the stench had been almost unbearable.
Now, the paint was pristine and the old carpets had been ripped up, exposing the original hardwood floors. Those had been stripped and refinished until they gleamed. The pack had restored the place to its original turn-of-the-last-century glory.
It was the kind of project Ruri thrived upon. She loved fixing things. She was a mean carpenter, electrician, plumber, a jack-of-all-trades really. When she was happiest, it was because she’d stepped back from a successful project and was basking in the glow of a job well done. When she thought about it that had a lot to do with how well she got along with Britt. The woman had come to them barely six months before. She’d been turned against her will and was struggling with controlling the change. Ruri had taken her in and helped her along, and now she was a stable, contributing member of the pack.
At the stairwell, Ruri took a quick peek over the railing before vaulting over and dropping down to the landing below. She landed quietly, knees bending slightly to take her weight. She repeated the maneuver two more times, then jogged from the stairwell into the building’s lobby. The restored chandelier glinted and Ruri gave it a satisfied glance. That project had also turned out well.
The Alpha’s door sat behind a long front desk, which had originally been used for check-ins. Now it was a guard post of sorts. A tall man slumped in a desk chair, his feet up on the counter. He was so tall that even in the chair he gave the impression of towering over everybody in the room. Couches and easy chairs were grouped in various configurations throughout the lobby. Unlike the building, the furniture looked tatty and beaten up. Werewolves were hard on the furniture. Even now, two young men and a girl roughhoused together on one couch.
“Dean’s waiting for me, Lewis.”
The tall man yawned, exposing his teeth to her in an unsubtle attempt at asserting his dominance. Mentally, Ruri rolled her eyes. Poor Lewis simply couldn’t understand how a female could be the pack Beta. Clearly, he thought himself better qualified for the task. Constant posturing came with the territory. There were some days where it got the better of her, but she was in too good a mood today to care.
“Can it, big man.” She vaulted the counter and kicked at the back legs of the chair. Lewis and the chair toppled over in a clatter and a shout. Derisive hollers greeted his spill but were quickly quelled when he bounced back up and bared his teeth at the disrespectful younglings. The growl was impressive, Ruri had to give him that. She grinned broadly.
“Don’t even try it,” she said when he turned toward her. She looked him in the eye and stepped toward him until they stood chest-to-chest and breathed the same air. He couldn’t hurt her. She was faster and nastier and they both knew it. Lewis kept his eyes locked to hers as long as he could before he looked away, sweat beading his brow. An uncomfortable whine trickled from his throat. Happy that she’d gotten her way, Ruri backed down and stepped out of his personal space envelope.
“He’s in there.” Lewis’s voice was soft, his eyes still averted. He righted the chair and sat back down, his spine ramrod straight.
Ruri pushed open the door. The comfortable living room was empty, so she wandered through to the near bedroom. In there, a short man, broad through the shoulders with defined muscles flexing across his back and rump, paced back and forth. His skin was dark, except where lighter lines ran through it. Short dreadlocks covered his head and swayed with every movement. He’d had them for as long as she’d known him, almost seventy years now. Even when they hadn’t been fashionable, Dean had held onto the locks.
“Ruri.” He didn’t turn to greet her, instead pulling up his pants over a well-muscled backside. He reached over and grabbed a cookie from the plate on the bedside table. A quiet moan of pleasure reached her ears.
He laughed lightly. “She’s a witch in the kitchen. Between the coffee and the cookies, I think I’ve died and gone to heaven.”
Ruri shared his laugh. “She spoils us, Alpha.”
“That she does.” Dean turned around, and she got a good look at the scars that crisscrossed his chest and abdomen. She carried her own scars and pulled her hand down from where she unconsciously fingered the notch in her right ear. Her scars were nothing compared to his; the Alpha carried many burdens for his or her pack. Being Alpha had its advantages, to be sure, but in Ruri’s mind they weren’t worth the constant struggle, both within the pack and without. She was satisfied with her position as Beta and had never striven to reach any higher.
“So what’s the deal?” She relaxed against the doorway, crossing her arms over her chest.
“We have another loner petition. MacTavish is passing through again.”
“Already?” Ruri frowned. She’d never liked the lone wolf; he’d spent too much time in town the last time he’d passed through. “Wasn’t he here just a few months ago?”
“A little more than that. Seven or eight, I think it was.” He raised both hands in a mollifying gesture when her brows drew even closer together. Ruri was rapidly losing her post-orgasm relaxation. “He’s heading back through the other way, I’ve been told.”
Ruri huffed in irritation. She seriously wanted to bite something. “I don’t trust him. I say you close your jaws around his neck and shake. I mean, right off the bat. Show him you mean business.”
Dean tutted at her. “That’s not who we are. We’re more than just monsters in this pack.” He crossed the room and placed his hands on her shoulders. His closeness radiated reassurance and Ruri leaned into his calming energy. “We’ll treat him like any other lone wolf who’s never offered us any problems.” He grinned suddenly. “Besides, do you really think he wants to go up against this?”
Against her better judgment, Ruri acquiesced. Dean was a fine specimen for a human and was even more impressive in wolf form. He might be short, but he was built, which meant he was a huge wolf. When they changed, they kept their mass. A 180-pound wolf was a sight to behold. Not only was he big, but he was also clever and quick. Ruri was the only one faster than he was, but he had no problems outsmarting her. It wasn’t that she considered herself to be stupid; by her own estimation, she was plenty crafty. However, Dean was usually five steps ahead—or more.
“Fine,” she said. She leaned into him and inhaled, pulling his scent into her and allowing it to calm the last of her nerves. “But if he even looks at you sideways, I’m going to rip out his throat with my teeth.”
“Of course you will,” he said, cupping the side of her face and holding her to his neck. The move wasn’t sexual or threatening. It grounded her and drove home how much he trusted her. It would have been the work of a bare second to tear out his throat from this close if she’d wanted to.
Finally, she pulled back. “When will he be here?”
“In a couple hours. Do what you feel is necessary to prepare.”
“Yes, Alpha.” She looked up at him for a moment, and then carefully averted her eyes. His dominance demanded that she submit. His personality was almost palpable, but she was dominant enough herself that her display of submission was subtle. The same instinct that had howled at her when Lewis had been insubordinate to her demanded it.
“Cookie?” He held up the plate to her, the corner of his eyes creased in good-natured amusement. He knew how much it cost her to submit, even so little. While she had no designs on the position of Alpha, she probably could have been one in a smaller pack. More likely, though, if she hadn’t found Dean all those many years ago, she would be a lone wolf today. Either that or dead.
“No, thanks. Britt will have my head if I scarf half the cookies she made special for you.”
“Suit yourself.” He tilted the plate toward his mouth and snapped a sliding cookie out of the air.
Ruri shook her head as she headed out the door to find Dean’s honor guard. As Beta, she was in charge of his security, though she shared the duties of bodyguard with a dozen different packmates. She would need the strongest ones. There was no point in giving MacTavish a reason to think there was any weakness he could exploit.
The man kneeling before them was rank with stale sweat and something darker. Ruri’s lip peeled back from her teeth and she snarled silently at him. To either side of her she was flanked by wolven, four on one hand and three on the other. Of them all, she was the only one not in fur-form. Instead, she wore loose black pants and her black tank. Her main concession to the meeting had been to show up armed to the teeth. The weight of the machete at her hip was scant comfort. A human would have been surprised to find out there was no silver in the weapon. Of course, a human would have been surprised to discover her existence.
Silver’s effect on wolven was an old wives’ tale, but one Ruri was just as happy was out there. Silver made shitty weapons. Anything that would handicap humans from hunting them down was fine by her.
There was no magic bullet to killing wolven. The only trick was to do as much damage to them as possible in a short time, before they could heal from it. Their high metabolism gave them healing properties that were off the charts. As a result, clashes between wolven typically involved bloodshed, but rarely death.
Dean stood in front of them and stared down at the disheveled loner.
“Alpha,” MacTavish said. His voice was rough, like he didn’t use it very often. “I…beg leave to pass through your territory.” The form of his request was ancient and bordered on ritual. Still, it was clear in the tension along every line of his body that he despised asking permission for anything, let alone begging for it.
Ruri eyed him closely and stiffened when he raised his head enough to peer at the people gathered along the edges of the ballroom. Most of the pack had turned out for the audience. That in itself was unusual. Typically, only a handful would be present; they weren’t the most exciting events to watch. She supposed they’d heard about MacTavish passing through barely more than seven months before and wanted a look at the wolven outsider who was becoming a fixture.
When the loner dropped his gaze again, Ruri relaxed a bit.
“You know the drill, MacTavish.” The Alpha’s voice was low and commanding. As happened every time she heard him speak in that tone, goose bumps rolled along her skin. She fought the urge to expose her own neck. Beside her, the wolves shifted, and those watching from the ballroom’s dance floor cast their eyes down almost as one. A flash of almost-white hair in the throng caught her attention. Brittney was out there, watching. Alone of those around her, she looked directly at the group on the low stage. Her eyes were hungry, almost feral. When she caught Ruri watching, she shook herself slightly and gave her lover a wink and a smoldering look. Even across the huge room, Ruri felt herself warm at the promise in Britt’s eyes.
“I do.” MacTavish clambered slowly to his feet. Standing, he was huge, much bigger than Dean. His unkempt hair and dirty skin detracted from the imposing figure he might otherwise have been. He peered up at the stage. Yellow eyes slid from Dean to Ruri before coming to rest on the wolven next to her. It was obvious to Ruri that he spent a lot of time in wolf form. Usually, wolven only betrayed fur-form characteristics while clad in skin if they were very old. Eventually, the accumulation of time as a wolf caused some characteristics to bleed over. Idly, she wondered if his ears were pointed. It was impossible to tell with the matted mop of long hair he sported.
The wolf MacTavish had locked eyes with whirled on its hind legs and buried wickedly sharp teeth into the haunch of the wolf to its left. Before the hapless wolven could do more than whine in surprise, the aggressor whipped its head to one side and the wolf went down in a screaming heap, hamstrung.
Dean whirled and advanced upon the aggressor at the same time as Ruri. As she moved forward, she tugged her tank top over her head. Unbuttoning her pants, she paused in her tracks opening herself to her wolf. Stupidly, she stood there. Instead of the rush of adrenaline and fur she expected, Ruri felt nothing. Her wolf coiled at the base of her spine, asleep and refusing to wake.
On the stage, the wolves had erupted in a seething mass of violence. Fur flew and teeth snapped. Growls and snarls filled the air. Aghast, Ruri watched as the discipline of her hand-chosen cadre of bodyguards dissolved into chaos.
Dean ripped open his shirt and stood before them, hands curled, but no claws burst from his fingertips. Like her, he seemed to be having problems calling forth his wolf. He raised his head and howled his rage at the ceiling. The sounds that came from his throat were much less than wolf; they were wholly human. Against the backdrop of vocal violence on the stage, he sounded puny and insignificant.
MacTavish stepped up onto the stage like he was taking a stroll in the park.
“I do know the drill, Alpha.” He sneered at Dean, the teeth in his mouth pointed and dangerous. “If I want something, I take it.” He snapped his teeth together, the sound shocking Ruri from her stunned reverie.
Dean pulled away from the lone wolf, pulling back his arm to punch him, but his reflexes were slow and MacTavish caught his fist before it made contact. Slowly, he squeezed, but the Alpha refused to give in. Bones cracked audibly and Dean’s nostrils flared. He gave no further sign on pain.
Wake up! Ruri screamed inside herself. She was rewarded by her wolf shifting as if in the midst of a dream. Ruri launched herself at MacTavish, drawing the machete from its sheath and aiming for his spine. She wasn’t at mere human level, but she wasn’t at full strength either; her reflexes were dulled. MacTavish leaned forward, the machete just missing him. He let go of Dean’s hand, and then backhanded her across the face hard enough that her ears rang and stars spangled in her vision. She staggered to one side; the machete slipped from nerveless fingers. Deep inside, she could feel her wolf stirring. Fur rippled softly through her mind, but not enough to shift. What the hell is wrong with me? With us?
Around them in the ballroom, the watching crowd was silent in marked contrast to the ruckus that was only beginning to subside on stage. Fights for the position of Alpha were between the Alpha, the challenger and their seconds. MacTavish had no second and hadn’t observed the proper forms for a challenge, but that hadn’t stopped him.
Taking advantage of MacTavish’s distraction over Ruri, Dean lunged forward and fastened both hands around the upstart’s neck, squeezing for all he was worth. The muscles of his forearms stuck out in stark relief, his hands dark against the sallow flush of MacTavish’s skin. MacTavish reared back, his face flushing as he struggled for breath. Try as he might, Dean couldn’t hold on with his damaged left hand and MacTavish staggered free. The Alpha followed up with a hard right to the sternum and a kick to MacTavish’s knee. A harsh crack echoed through the now silent ballroom and MacTavish went down.
Exhausted by his exertions, Dean stepped back. From his knees, MacTavish chuckled. Ruri couldn’t believe he would be laughing at a time like this. He was getting his ass handed to him by a wolven who couldn’t shift. If that didn’t prove he wasn’t worthy of the mantle of Alpha, then nothing would.
On the dais, behind Dean, three wolves prowled forward around the forms of their fallen enemies. Their jaws were streaked with blood and one of them moved forward with a pronounced limp. Another was missing the better part of one ear.
Dean kicked MacTavish under the chin, snapping his head back. The loner put a hand back to keep from falling over, but only laughed louder. The sound echoed through the large room. Many of the spectators looked uncomfortable. They had no idea how to act. Nothing about this situation was normal. It followed none of the rituals or dictates they lived by. Some of the watchers looked expectant, almost eager. A few moved forward and Ruri whipped her head back to the action on stage just in time to see one of the wolves launch itself through the air.
Two huge paws hit Dean between the shoulder blades, opening gaping rents in the skin on his back. He tumbled forward onto MacTavish.
Wake up, wake up! Wake! Up! Ruri screamed at her slumbering wolf. Her frantic fear and accompanying adrenaline spike finally got through to her wolf. All fur and teeth, her wolf rolled through her.
The pain was excruciating, as it always was. She could hear her bones break and reform and a terrible burn as fur erupted from her skin. She dropped to her hands and knees and struggled to keep her head raised, to watch the scene unfolding in front of her. Powerless to do anything but watch as her wolf completed its transformation, she stared with unblinking eyes.
With Dean on top of him, MacTavish turned his head and bit a large chunk of flesh out of the Alpha’s shoulder. Dean had managed to keep silent so far, refusing to show weakness even as his hand had been crushed and his back flayed open. The bite was too much, even for him, and he screamed his anguish.
Ruri’s jaw ached from the inability of returning his howl. Teeth shifted and poked through her gums. A salty wave of blood and fluid filled her mouth and she opened it, allowing the bloody mess to spew forth onto the floor. Liquid and more blood spattered the ground around her, artifacts of the speed of her change. She was almost there, just a little longer and she’d be able to help her Alpha…
In the middle of the stage, MacTavish pushed himself to his feet. He held Dean close, one arm around his neck, squeezing until the Alpha stopped struggling and went limp. With a terrible cry of triumph, MacTavish lifted Dean’s still form over his head. He turned to face the silent audience. Maybe a quarter of the pack had moved closer to the stage and stood watching, faces rapt and eyes hungry. Ruri had to swallow a whimper when she saw a familiar shock of white-blond hair among them.
The whimper was ripped from her throat when the loner dropped the Alpha’s body down upon his raised knee. A snap like a dead tree limb breaking echoed through the room. Even the group of pack members who clustered in front of the stage seemed taken aback by the brutality of the act.
Dean still wasn’t dead. His fingers twitched and he drew a pained breath as he lay in a tortured heap on the floor. It was harder than that to kill a wolven, and MacTavish knew it. He stepped back and gestured at the fallen Alpha.
“Eat your fill, my brothers.”
The three surviving wolves from Dean’s protection detail slunk around him. There was a bare pause before they threw themselves at his prone form.
“The rest of you will submit!” MacTavish turned to face the room of quiet onlookers. His supporters turned to watch the gathered pack. First one, then another of Ruri’s packmates went to their knees. Half the pack had submitted before MacTavish’s wolves moved toward them. Raquel, one of Brittney’s close friends in the pack, was still on her feet when Brittney stepped up next to her.
“You will kneel,” Brittney said.
Raquel shook her head, chin raised proudly. Tradition allowed those who chose the time to leave; Raquel was clearly asserting her rights. Ruri was surprised so many of Dean’s pack had chosen to stay, given the way MacTavish had beaten their Alpha. Her heart swelled with gladness that Raquel wasn’t among them.
Brittney slapped Raquel across the face. Blood sprayed from the four deep scratches her claws ripped into her friend.
“Brittney!” Raquel held a hand to her face and stared at Brittney in disbelief. “We’re friends!”
“Kneel or die,” Brittney said, unmoved by her friend’s pleas. She grabbed hold of a hank of Raquel’s hair and yanked her head back.
Something happened to Britt, Ruri thought. That can’t be her. She looked like her lover, but the warm fun-loving wolven was gone as if she’d never existed. Maybe the whole thing was a horrible dream. None of it felt real.
Another MacTavish supporter stepped up next to Raquel. With casual brutality, he closed his teeth over Raquel’s exposed throat and tore it out. Pandemonium erupted in the ballroom. Wolven whirled and made for the exits, while others cowered on their knees, bent in half at the waist, faces pressed almost to the floor.
Ruri howled, her anger and frustration finally given voice. She needed to help. She had to do something. Her wolf demanded it as did she. Not far from the stage, one of MacTavish’s wolves backed a pair of mated wolven into a corner. Mouse and Skippy were no threat to MacTavish. They were the gentlest pair Ruri knew, often stepping in to watch the pack’s few cubs. Skippy stepped between their stalker and his mate. Mouse’s frightened eyes met Ruri’s eyes around Skippy’s shoulder.
“Ruri!” she cried. “Help us!”
Ruri snarled and lunged forward, grabbing the back leg of the nearest wolf and twisting. Her wickedly sharp teeth shredded the skin around his hock. He yipped and whirled around, snapping back with teeth as sharp as hers. She’d been expecting the move and dodged out of the way. Ruri struck and fastened her teeth around his throat. A quick shake of her head and his neck was laid open. Blood fountained and she skipped back.
“Kill her,” MacTavish roared, pointing at her. The two wolves turned away from Dean’s bleeding form and advanced on her. There was so much blood. Even with a wolven’s rapid healing and heightened metabolism, she was certain Dean couldn’t survive the damage that had been done, but she had to give him as much of a chance as she could. Satisfied she had their attention, Ruri whirled on hind legs and hopped down from the stage. By the time she’d gone three steps, she was at a full sprint. The two wolves were right on her tail. Both were males—Francisco and Jamieson—from the smell. Both were solid, if new, members of the pack, or so she’d thought. Their betrayal hurt as badly as anything else she’d seen that afternoon.
She needed to get as many of MacTavish’s wolves to follow her as she could. The others would have the chance to escape while she was being taken care of. The wolven chasing her were big and strong, but she was faster and had no doubt that she could outrun them. As she wove her way through the fracas on the dance floor, she nipped and bit at those who were attacking Dean’s supporters. They joined the chase.
Ruri launched herself shoulder-first at the ballroom’s swinging doors. They gave way beneath her weight and swung back into the path of her pursuers. She glanced over her shoulder to see that the wolves had paused to avoid the doors in their way. She whuffed a little in satisfaction and turned down a long hallway. Her claws scrabbled on the hardwood floor, and she cursed that they’d removed all the carpeting in the place. She was able to catch herself before she went over and bunched her legs under her, heading toward the back of the building.
There was no way she would be able to open the door that led out of the building. To do so, she’d have to shift back to human form and she definitely didn’t have the time for that. There was just one way out in her current form. It was going to hurt, but she had no choice.
Two of the wolves were close enough behind her that she could hear their breathing and occasionally feel the heat of their breath on the back of her legs as one or the other tried to get close enough to hamstring her. Others followed close behind, unable to get past the wolves and close the distance because of the narrow hall. Ruri dug deep and put on an extra burst of speed she didn’t know she had in her.
The hall opened into a brightly lit recreation area littered with exercise equipment. She slowed to dodge around an elliptical machine before vaulting over a treadmill. The far wall was glass with floor-to-ceiling windows. Ruri leaped over a set of barbells and landed on top of a weight bench. Her nails dug into the leather of the bench and she pushed off, leading with her shoulder.
Glass shattered around her, coming down in a crackling rain as she burst through the large pane. Agony bloomed along her body, and she stumbled when she hit the ground, rolling forward in a hail of glass shards. Smaller pains shot through her body as glass sliced cruelly into her skin, but she couldn’t let it slow her down. Riding the crest of adrenaline and pushing the pain down, she surged back to her feet without missing a beat.
The wooded lot behind the old hotel promised shelter and safety. She would lose Jamieson, Francisco and the others in there. Then she would figure out how to take the Alpha’s death out of MacTavish’s hide. Slowly. Very, very slowly. Before this was over, he would suffer.
Her tongue lolled from her mouth in a canine grin that went away as she disappeared under the trees. Wolven still chased after her, but not enough to take the pressure off her people. She’d just abandoned dozens of her pack members to a rabid dog and his followers.
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