Authors: Ellen Keener
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This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author’s imagination or used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2010 by Ellen Keener
Cover art by Dara England
All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work, in whole or in part, in any form by any electronic, mechanical or other means now known or hereafter invented, is forbidden without the written permission of the publisher.
Published by Decadent Publishing Company, LLC
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To Sammi, Deedee, Micha and Dee for listening to me plot my stories. You’re awesome. And special thanks to the lovely ladies at both PC and YAFF – I couldn’t have done it without such fantastic crit partners.
Last, to my family, I love you. You’re the best there is.
Aria Lagreve forced her hands to relax, blood rushing to her white knuckles. If she gripped the steering wheel any harder, her fingerprints would be embossed in the leather. Slumped in her passenger seat, a teenage boy trembled and shifted the seatbelt away from his neck.
“Where am I going, Steven?”
“Left at the stop sign,” his soft voice quivered.
She tried to keep her attention on the road, but they flickered to Steven, frequently. He couldn’t have been more than seventeen, and he hovered between life and death. Far too young to be in such a mess. It surprised her that he’d managed to stay conscious this long. His face was a swollen mass of dark bruises and cuts, and the rest of him didn’t look much better.
She knew he needed help soon, but a hospital was no place for a Shifter.
Her headlights illuminated a stop sign, and she slammed the brakes, yanking the car to the left. Steven’s body thudded against the door, and she winced. Her foot pressed the gas and allowed the speedometer to creep higher.
“Talk to me, Steven. What were you doing in an empty storefront?”
For a moment, all she heard was his labored breathing, rattling inside his chest and out his parted lips. Cradling his arm, which curved at an impossible angle, he shook his head. “Coming home from work.”
“Work?” she asked, a little confused. She’d found him beat almost to death and if she hadn’t shown up, they would have finished the job. Her fingers clenched around the wheel, and she tried to focus on the drive. Now wasn’t the time to lose control. Answers were less important than keeping him lucid. All she needed was for him to fall asleep if he had a concussion.
“Coffee shop…working after school.” His fragmented sentences were slightly slurred and his shaking started to worsen.
Aria glanced at him, anger replacing her worry. “Steven, listen to me. I’ve had one hell of a year, and if you decide to keel over in my car, I’ll resuscitate you just to kick your ass. Are we clear?” She should have kept walking when she heard those boys beating the crap out of him. Already a fugitive, she’d stopped because she knew what it was like to be helpless. Now, she just felt stupid. She had enough to deal with on her own.
From the corner of her eye, she saw him cough out a laugh, lips twisting into a strained smile. “As crystal.”
She resisted the urge to slow down. The speed limits in Harrison County were already eighty. Her worn Mustang had passed that minutes after they’d hit open road. Even so, it might not be fast enough. Her stomach flipped when she checked the speedometer. The needle hovered near the max, and she eased off the gas.
No sense in killing them both on the highway.
Steven’s hand, crusted with blood, pointed ahead. “S’on th’ right. There’s... a sign.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll get you home. How far?” She wiped at the moisture beading her upper lip.
Thank God for small favors
. Her conscience wouldn’t allow her to leave him there to die—even though she had more to lose for saving him.
“What kind of reception am I going to get? Is your Pack going to kill me on sight, or give me a chance to explain?” Aria tried to keep her voice light, hoping humor might draw his attention away from his torn flesh.
She looked at him, waiting for him to continue. But he remained silent with his eyes squeezed shut. They were close to their destination. Now was not the time to pass out. She needed him lucid to explain her position as rescuer and keep his Pack from tearing her apart.
Just drop him off and get the hell out of there.
“On what? Come on, Steven, I need to know if I should open my can of whoop ass.”
“Depends…on who—who’s there. My Uncle Thaddeus. He’s okay.”
Maybe there was hope after all.
She slowed the car as thick masses of autumn-clad hardwoods lined the road, interspersed with spiky dark cones of pines and cedars. A white sign loomed in her headlights, and she squinted to make out the words. “Deep Forest Farms?”
Her foot jammed the brake again, the tires squealed, and they careened onto a dirt lane. Aria’s heart jumped to her throat, and Steven cursed under his groans as his body shifted toward her. She whipped the wheel back around, dizzying glimpses of thick brush and pine trees flashed along with the car’s wild gyrations. The Mustang fishtailed on the mixture of dirt and gravel, the wheel fighting her attempt at control.
Adrenaline made everything a little sharper. Her sensitive nose caught the metallic tang of fresh blood, and she knew the jostling had reopened Steven’s wounds. She winced. As the car succumbed to her guidance again, she risked another glance at him. “Holy hell in a hand basket.”
He’d passed out. Not good. Even worse, a fresh bloom of blood darkened his shirt. When the car bounced through a large pothole, her passenger flailed like a rag doll, held down by the seatbelt. Maybe passing out was his best option, after all. Listening to him moan and groan had made her skin itch. She hated feeling helpless.
Thankfully, the narrow road conditions required all her attention. The dense foliage and brush hugged the road, thick and smothering. Her headlights, set to high beams, only lit a few dozen yards in front. She slowed to a crawl, gritting her teeth until her jaw ached. The need to rev the engine warred with the need for caution. Blinking a few times, her eyes morphed, becoming lupine. The scenery turned grey and shapes became more easily distinguished. Even with the enhanced vision, it was difficult to navigate the unfamiliar territory.
The lane climbed the side of the mountain. As they vaulted over another hole, Steven whimpered. Another moment and the road leveled out into a sharp curve, and opened to reveal a wide gravel loop where several cars were parked. She allowed her eyes to shift back to normal.
A large white farmhouse rested at the top of a slope above the parking area with every window on the bottom floor blazing with light. Her hackles shot up. Tension hung in the air like a tangible fog infiltrating through the windows.
Steven’s Pack knew something was wrong.
Her gaze adjusted in the dark, and she spotted the sentries watching—dark forms hugging the railing of the wraparound porch. The tires crunched on the graveled drive as three muscled-men emerged from the back of the house, loping toward the car with an easy grace. As they drew close, other Pack members spilled out of the house. She swallowed a lump of irritation laced with fear. There would be no leaving until they decided to let her go. Running now would only end in bloodshed.
Jerking the car into park, she threw open her door and ran to the passenger side as the first of the men arrived. Fury outlined the stiff set of the man’s jaw. Aria forced herself not to back up from the anger rolling off him. She had dealt with scarier men than this one.
“What have you done?” His rage fueled hers.
She’d done them a favor and refused to be treated like a criminal. “If I had done this, I wouldn’t have brought him to you, idiot. Now get out of the way.”
He blinked and stepped back.
“I came across some other Shifters beating him in an abandoned storefront.” She opened the door carefully and allowed him to help her as the boy leaned toward the ground. Sliding her arms under Steven, she lifted him as if he were a feather. “I chased them off, but the damage was already done.”
The stranger reached for Steven.
A growl escaped her throat without her permission. She could not afford to become attached to the boy, but she couldn’t help herself. He’d been shown even less mercy than she had. “Just show me where to take him,” she seethed. Aria wasn’t sure who was more surprised by her outburst.
“He’s my nephew. Let me take him, and then we’ll deal with you.” His voice promised retribution.
Her hold tightened around the boy. Steven claimed his uncle could be trusted, but she felt wary of the man next to her. “Steven told me to ask for his Uncle Thaddeus.”
The stranger looked down at the boy and back at her. “At least he had a little sense.”
Aria pulled back. “This wasn’t his fault, you know.”
The stranger’s smile seemed reluctant, and it was so quick, she thought she’d imagined it. “Don’t worry. I don’t blame him. Now, if you please, we’ll talk as soon as you hand him over.”
Finally aware of being outnumbered, she reluctantly allowed him to take the boy from her arms.
They went into a wide kitchen where a folding table had already been set up and covered with a sheet. The other two men filed in behind. Aria took note of the exits, but all were filled with large, suspicious wolves. Their anger charged the already tense atmosphere. Gently, Steven’s uncle laid the boy down on the table, where another man with short, grey hair began to assess the damage. Trying to make room, she stepped back into a solid wall of flesh.
“I need to speak with you.” His dark gaze left no room for argument.
“I’d like to stay and see what the doctor says.”
“First, we talk.”
She followed him into a large living room with worn, but good quality furniture and dozens of pictures scattered over walls and bookshelves. Her host motioned her to sit, and she took an armchair opposite from him as the other two men positioned themselves behind her.
Aria’s lips twitched. The attempt at intimidation was subtle, but she’d been intimidated by the master. This bunch couldn’t compare.
“My name is Thaddeus Tench. I’m grateful you helped my nephew, but I have to ask you some questions.”
She settled into the seat. The irritating man had the demeanor of someone who could take orders as easily as give them. “You’ve been most generous, considering how I arrived. Are you Alpha around here?” she asked, bluntly. Wondering the idea of why he hadn’t ripped her apart once she’d handed his nephew over, she tried to appear calm even though anticipation kept her alert.
Thaddeus let out a short bark of laughter. “Alpha? No, I’m merely his Third. He and Aaron will be back as soon as they can. They were out looking for Steven when you arrived.”
“How long do you plan on detaining me?”
“Are you on a tight schedule?”
She frowned, shifting in the chair. “It isn’t really a good idea for me to stay anywhere long. I’m an Outcast.”
Thaddeus’ gaze narrowed. She struggled to keep her face clean of any emotion. Too many people knew her story. The sooner she left, the safer she’d be. Finally, he leaned back in his chair and gave her a half smile. “I don’t recognize you, but you seem vaguely familiar. Have we met?”
She shrugged. “Possibly. I’ve met a lot of shifters in my former Pack.” Too many to remember. Her father had been a powerful man. Had more influence and power than any one person should have possessed, in her opinion.
“Unfortunately, you can’t leave until you speak with our Alpha. He will want to thank you himself.”
Her eyes narrowed. “And see if he can get any more information from me?”
Thaddeus chuckled. “There is that.”
She moved to draw her flannel shirt closer, but it wasn’t there. For a moment, her heart skipped a beat, and she remembered wrapping it around Steven. A low, throaty growl rumbled behind her chair when she started to rise. Panic curled into a lump in her throat and her pulse skyrocketed. She knew it was an unreasonable reaction, but she couldn’t help it.