Authors: Stacey Espino
Ben neared the clearing behind the cabin. He stopped and dropped his boots before shifting into his human skin. The long run through the forest did wonders to ease the burn in his groin and the rage he carried for the males sharing Bella’s campsite. This new killer possessiveness was distracting. All he could think about was getting back to the human campsite. He stretched out his muscles before pulling his rolled-up jeans out of one boot and dressing. If he showed up naked and Ingrid happened to be around, Ethan would have his head.
He tucked the edge of his T-shirt into the waistband of his jeans and strode the remaining distance on two legs. Before reaching the log cabin, he already knew it wasn’t empty. The hormonal signature of Ingrid’s pregnant body was undeniable, and his connection to both alphas was ever present.
Ben bounded onto the front porch and reached for the door handle. Before his hand made contact, the door flew open and Ethan’s large frame blocked the entrance.
“What is it?”
“I need to talk with you and Callen about something important.”
I found my mate
. Ben tried to peer inside the cabin, but Ethan shifted to the side. He could only imagine what transpired in the bedroom, the air laden with the scent of sex.
“We’re busy. Is it important?”
“You mind if I bring some guests over for dinner? I’ll do the hunting and cooking.” It wouldn’t take much effort to shift and hunt down a deer to roast over the open fire out back. He really hoped Ethan was desperate enough to get back to Ingrid and wouldn’t question him about the guests. Telling his alpha that he wanted to bring a group of five humans to their private residence wasn’t something he expected to go over well. The least Ethan knew beforehand, the better.
“Don’t worry about Ingrid. I’ll take full responsibility for them. They won’t be a problem.”
Ethan dragged a hand through his thick black hair and chewed his bottom lip. After a few moments, he nodded as if agreeing with his own decision. “Glad you’re finally coming around.” Then he slammed the door shut.
Complicated? Hell yeah. Ethan thought he was inviting members of the new pack over for dinner. Ben refused to accept them since they started arriving. A few months back when they discovered that their pack member, Callen, was actually the long lost alpha to a pack of shifters in northern BC, things were bound to change. The new pack needed a leader and since their alphas, Ethan and Callen, had mated with the same human woman, merging packs was the next logical step. Having two alphas ruling one large pack was unheard of, but so far, Ben seemed to be the only one that had a problem with the newcomers.
They’d always been a small group, just the five of them, Ben, Callen, Ethan, Johan, and Grant. Joining the larger pack of eighteen put the numbers against them. Ben refused to trust the newcomers just because they claimed to be loyal to Callen. Their scent was foreign, and he had no desire to socialize or bond with them.
Now, Ethan thought he’d had a change of heart. Nope. But he wouldn’t argue the misunderstanding when it meant a free ticket to getting Bella on the property. If Ethan threw a fit tonight, Ben would just remind him that he had okayed the visitors. Sometimes a communication failure could work to one’s advantage.
It was time for him to return to his mate and bring her back to the cabin.
Let the courtship begin.
There were over a dozen new shifters roaming these woods. They weren’t as refined as Ben and his pack mates. They’d lived away from civilization and were more wolf than man, unfamiliar with human customs and behavior. If they thought Keith and his friend were a threat, they wouldn’t think twice before killing them and using the women for their pleasure. Ben’s blood ran cold after the unpleasant thought. If any harm came to Bella, he wouldn’t stop until he destroyed every last shifter from Callen’s new pack, even if it meant his own death or banishment.
“Where you off to?”
Ben turned to his right, only to find Johan squatting beside a large oak, watching him. “You wouldn’t believe me if I told you.”
“If you’re heading back to check on the humans, don’t bother. Last I saw, about five of the new guys were onto their scent. Bet you they’ve packed up and barreled back to the city by now.”
Ben’s heart rate increased as he envisioned another male touching or harming Bella. He was a good thirty-minute run from her campsite. “They’re still there,” he said, his voice monotone as he plotted the fastest way back to his mate.
“How would you know?”
“Huh?” He turned to his friend again, trying to focus. “Oh, I slashed their tires.”
Johan stood, his head tilted in disbelief. “You slashed their tires? I thought you wanted them gone? You do realize you’ve sealed their fate. If they can’t escape, those fucking wolves will rip them to shreds.”
He didn’t stand around to converse, but dropped down to all fours as his body shifted. His bones snapped and morphed as he went from man to beast in seconds. The change hadn’t caused him pain since puberty. It was as seamless as diving in the fresh water lake east of the cabin. In the blink of an eye, the change enveloped him, caressing his flesh, bonding all the facets of his mind into one. Once fully transformed, he leaned down and snatched his jeans into his mouth and bounded off into the forest.
* * * *
After an hour of hiking through near impenetrable forest and over downed trees and numerous obstacles, the group split up. Bella was too exhausted to argue when Keith led Amanda one way and told Dave to split up and go the other way with Sara. Nobody questioned the fact that Bella would be on her own. Like she’d raved, she was a queen in the forest. All her stories came back to bite her in the ass. She’d only been a kid when she got her survivalist awards. It was just one of the few things she had to be proud of in her life. The summer months spent away from her parents’ control were her best childhood memories. Those days had been about fun and innocence. The forest and potential danger around her was all too real, and she felt smaller than an ant in the center of awe-inspiring nature. Bella accepted her insignificance as she tried to make sense of the greenery around her.
She was lost. The distant footsteps and the sounds of the two couples arguing had vanished long ago, and every moss-covered tree trunk looked the same. If she knew for sure she’d come across Ben’s camp sooner or later, she’d have the energy to plod on, but only God knew where she was. She could be traveling in the opposite direction and deeper into oblivion. The sun was no longer high in the sky, and the thick forest canopy above her gave a sinister shadowy effect to the world below.
When the first set of glowing yellowish eyes stared at her from the thick tangle of brushwood in front of her, she stepped back on instinct. She held her breath when the second set appeared a few feet from the first. By the time she saw the third pair of eyes focusing on her every move, she’d resigned herself to a gruesome death. She had nothing to protect herself with, not even a utility knife.
Her voice failed to work when she attempted to scream. It was like a nightmare where nobody could hear her cries for help, but this was all too real. She could hear her heartbeat in her ears and heaviness of her breathing as she gasped for air. As she mentally tallied the odds and all possible avenues of escape, nothing gave her hope. She was trapped, alone, and helpless.
“Don’t you know it’s dangerous to be walking around the forest alone?”
Bella whirled around, a voice the last thing she expected to hear in her last minutes of life. A very naked man leaned against a tree, casually raking his gaze up and down her body, unfazed by the wolves moving in around her. When she turned to watch her back, the eyes that had been watching her were gone.
“Who are you?” Her entire body was tense and on guard. She felt surrounded and vulnerable, not sure if the man in front of her was more of a threat than the wolves or a saving grace. Where were his clothes, and why was he so comfortable with his nudity? He leaned casually with one broad shoulder against the tree, his arms crossed over his muscled chest.
Keep your eyes up, Bella.
For the first time since the sun began to go down, she was thankful for the thick shadows surrounding them.
“My name is Draco. The question is who are you?”
His eyes were a greenish-yellow and seemed to glow in the dim lighting like the wolves’ eyes had. When he took a step toward her, she moved away from him, closer to the wild animals. She felt like a trapped rat. “Stay away from me…”
“Would you prefer me to leave you alone with the wolves?” Then his deep baritone lowered to a whisper. “They don’t like you as I do.”
She had to stay safe, keep this stranger away from her. “My friends are nearby. My boyfriend will be looking for me.” Did her trembling voice give away her lie?
“Boyfriend?” His eyebrows rose and humor rang in his voice. “Where is he? Shouldn’t he be near you, protecting you?” He cornered her against a thicket.
“He’ll be here.”
“I don’t think so.” Draco reached out and ran his hand down her arm. “You’re cold and all alone. Let me take care of you.” Rather than freaking out, an odd sense of calm trickled through her blood. She became lost in his eyes, spellbound by his rugged masculinity. There were so many questions plaguing her mind—who was he, why was he naked, why did he look at her like she was the only woman in the world? But all that mattered now was his dominant presence, his mesmerizing voice, and electric touch. Even being buck naked, the man was warm—almost hot. And she was so cold.
“There were wolves,” she whispered, barely able to form the words. Bella should be afraid, but every second felt safer with Draco.
“Are you afraid of wolves, little one?” He tilted her chin up, and she didn’t pull away. In fact, she felt a pull between them, making her rational thought fizzle away. All that mattered was the here and now, she and him.
“No wolf would dare touch you when I’m with you. Do you believe I can protect you?”
He caressed her face, lightly running his fingertips along her jawline. “Do you believe in fate?” She leaned into his touch, closing her eyes and just absorbing the energy between them. “I’ve seen you before. In my dreams.”
She opened her eyes and looked up into his. He stood so much taller than her, so broad and all male. “I’m confused.” It was the truth. She felt as if she were drugged, unable to think coherently. Her fear had dissipated. Why?
“As am I. A little human female.” He chuckled. “I never would have thought.”
“Are you going to hurt me?”
He pulled away with a frown, his exotic eyes narrowed in disapproval. “I just saved you from the wolves. I’m not here to harm you.” Her mysterious rescuer ran a hand through his mop of shiny black hair. She examined the sharp planes of his face, his strong jaw shaded by new stubble, and his unusual eyes. He aroused a hunger within her that she couldn’t squelch, not even with her uncertainties. “Now…tell me your name.”
He repeated her name as if savoring the sound.
Then he licked his lips, firm, full lips that she craved to feel between her teeth. She swallowed hard as lust crept up her body like unstoppable wildfire. This was ridiculous. In one day, two men had aroused a passion deeper than all the men she’d dated put together, a hundred fold.
“I need to find my friends. I need to leave.” She had to breathe, to clear her head.
Draco grabbed her upper arm as she attempted to shift away. He tugged her against the hardness of his body and stared at her with a heated intensity. God, was he ever warm. She wanted to wrap her arms around his waist as much as she wanted to run away. “Why do you resist me? I know you feel it, too.” His free arm reached around her body, securing her to him.
Bella’s body jolted as the booming voice startled her. Draco released her and turned to face an enraged Ben. She had to stop herself from smiling. She’d been so desperate to find him and here he was. The remnants of daylight highlighted his dirty-blond hair.
“Benjamin. Out patrolling the woods again? I thought we had that covered.” While Draco remained nonchalant, the volatile energy radiating out from Ben was palpable.
“What are you doing with her?” he snapped, stalking forward. With just low-hung, faded blue jeans and no shirt, she felt overwhelmed by all the muscled goodness. Both men had to spend their fair share of time in the gym with those chiseled pecs and abs. These men were unreal. They didn’t fear the elements or the beasts of the woods. She was afraid of everything at this point.
“Keeping watch. It’s not safe for a human to be hiking through the woods unattended.”
“Thanks for your concern. I’ll take over from here.”
Draco didn’t need or want help from Ben, the youngest wolf from the new pack. He’d come to investigate outsiders with a few others on their new claim when he’d come upon
. As soon as his wolf picked up her scent, he knew she was his female. It was strange how instincts could take over so suddenly, but he’d heard the stories about finding one’s mate time and time again. When you found her, you knew, without a doubt.
He shifted and ordered his pack mates to give them privacy. Reluctantly, they skulked away, consumed by the forest. The fact that the girl was human amused him. Draco had always detested the human race. They destroyed wildlife for sport and ravaged virgin forest out of greed. They took more than they needed and only left a path of destruction behind them. Humans were weak, soft-skinned, and, in his opinion, the inferior race.
But there was no denying that he’d do anything for the frightened little human. His hatred did not include her. She was beautiful with big, dark eyes on a pale face and adorable feminine features. All his protective instincts seemed to surface when he drew near. She was his, and he had to take care of his own. In one moment, he had a new purpose in life. Unfortunately, he knew little about the human race, except that they didn’t know shifters existed, one of many obstacles he’d have to overcome. Fate certainly had a sense of humor.
He’d watched her for a few moments before revealing himself. She might have feared him initially, but he could smell the moisture escaping her body as her hormonal signature fluctuated, increasing by the minute.
“You don’t understand. Finders, keepers, friend.” Draco had learned the ins and outs of his new pack from his new alphas, Callen and Ethan. They were fair and honorable. Finders, keepers was one of their ways—you kept what you hunted and shared of your own free will. He liked that. Although he’d normally be more than happy to share everything with his friends, he would not share his woman.
Ben moved forward, his eyes darting to Bella and back to Draco. Why was the shifter radiating such malevolent energy? You’d think Bella was his mate the way his eyes narrowed as if ready to kill for her. It made no sense. She was clean, with no scent of a male on her body, no claim of ownership, no love bite.
Draco wanted the merge to be successful. His pack had been desperate to find their true leader, and when they found Callen after decades of absence, they all vowed to make the merge work no matter how difficult. The new pack had only four members besides Callen, one being another alpha. So on top of adjusting to obeying two leaders when he never had to follow the rules of even one, Draco was forced to create friction by guarding his mate from his new pack member. He didn’t lash out because if he could handle the situation diplomatically, he would. The elders of his group continually preached about the importance of the merge, but, if the young shifter pushed him, well, he wouldn’t hand over his woman after just finding her.
“Finders, keepers won’t work here. She’s mine, Draco.”
“Whose?” questioned Bella, looking between the both of them.
Draco furrowed his brows. “She’s unmarked, which means she’s up for the taking.” While his voice remained steady, there was no denying the threat it carried.
“Back off while you can.”
Bella’s fear signature finally captured his attention. “What’s happening here?”
Draco maintained his position in front of Bella. He’d shelter her body and protect her from his pack mate to the death if need be. The poor little human was scared and clueless. Ben was ruining everything. Although love was something that developed over time, the bond from finding his female was no less significant.
“Give me two minutes. I promise to explain everything.” Bella shouldn’t have to hear what they had to say. She was an innocent human and no doubt confused by their hostility. He took a couple steps forward until nearly chest-to-chest with Ben. They were similar in height and build, both several inches over six feet. “You don’t understand, pup. The moment I picked up her scent, I knew. She’s my mate, and I plan to mark her properly.”
“I think you’re confused,” he grated out. “Maybe it’s the new territory or something messing with your senses, but she’s clearly mine. I’ve never been more certain of anything in my life.”
“Well, isn’t this perfect?” Draco threw up his hands and paced the area.
“In these parts, it’s custom to wear clothing.” Ben shook his head in disapproval.
Should he be ashamed? He’d never hidden his human flesh behind manmade clothing before. He spent most of his time in wolf form anyway.
“Is it? Are you threatened?” Draco chuckled, reveling in the shifter’s discomfort. He knew his body was strong, and his cock nothing to laugh at, even semi-flaccid.
“No, but I know how to respect a woman. Exposing yourself is, well, just plain tasteless.” Ben tilted his head to the side with a sly smile, thinking he’d gained some ground over Draco.
Draco turned when the air shifted behind him. Bella was attempting to sneak away. He shared a confused glance with Ben before going after her. “Bella…where’re you going? It’s not safe in the woods.”
“I have to find my friends.” Fear rang in her voice. He didn’t want her afraid of him. Ben had ruined everything.
“I don’t think Bella would be too pleased if your friends found them first, do you?”
Eventually he’d have to reveal he was a wolf shifter and the truth would carry enough obstacles on its own. She’d blame Draco for not stopping an attack if the wolves decided to tear apart her friends. With a low growl, he turned to Ben. “Keep your paws to yourself.”
Then he bounded into the forest. Once out of sight, he dove forward, landing on four canine legs. He was the logical choice for Bella’s mate, not that pup, Ben. He’d never keep up with Draco in wolf form. The new pack was soft, used to living as humans and immersed in human culture. That was a sure fire way to lose sight of the wolf.
As he navigated the young saplings and underbrush with ease, his thoughts drifted. Draco would have preferred a female of his kind, but those were few and far between. He couldn’t even remember the last time one was born. When the plague hit, decades earlier, few females were spared its devastation. Shifters that were mated with the remaining female wolves continually birthed males. Due to the lack of selection, many wolves turned to human females, creating a generation of half-breeds. His elders said the mating call was a gift from the gods, something you couldn’t choose or turn away from. Now he believed the wisdom of their words. Bella’s spirit called to him. Although he worried about the future of his species, he knew he’d never choose another over Bella, not even if a female shifter became available.