unchained (dark shifter romance)

 

 

UNCHAINED

 

SOPHIA WREN

 

UNCHAINED Copyright © 2016 by Sophia Wren.

 

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews.

 

This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organizations, places, events and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

 

For information contact [email protected]

 

Book and cover design by Sophia Wren

 

 

CONTENTS

ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

EPILOGUE

Also by the Author

About the Author

CHAPTER
ONE

 

"I'm going to need you to turn around, ma'am."

Lacey eyed the man stationed ahead of the roadblock, but his expression was immovable. "But I have to get in there! I’m
from
Greenvale, okay, and my little sister--"

"Turn around, ma'am," he repeated.

Fuming, Lacey stormed back to her car. In a way, she was almost grateful for the anger that had taken hold of her as she tried to talk away past the man. For just a few minutes, it had drowned out the sick feeling of panic that had sat heavily in her chest ever since she'd heard about the cordon.

She'd been working a shift in the crappy dive bar that paid her bills when the first news story had come through. It had been nothing big, no national coverage dwelling on it 24/7, but it had still made her snap to attention. She thought she'd been happy to leave little old boring Greenvale, but the sight of it on the news had bought up feelings that she'd thought long buried.

She hadn't worried at first. The news reports had simply said that traffic to her old hometown was cut off due to a landslide, and Lacey had spent enough time around the crappy crumbling mountain roads there to simply accept that. She could picture how it would go, the small community drawing close and grumbling to each other as they prepared to spend a few days without visiting the next town over.

But then days had turned to weeks, and as time went by, there were more and more excuses, each making less sense than the one before it. Lacey had tried to call Jenny, but all calls to the area had simply resulted in a flat, beeping dial tone.

And now, there was the roadblock. From her seat in the car, Lacey glared at it. It had given her the creeps as soon as she'd laid eyes on it, and that was even before she'd seen the men in body armor that prevented her passage. Not cops. Not rescue workers. They were professionals, not budging from their posts, but not a single one of them wore name-tags or ID. Lacey didn't know what to make of it— working in a crappy place like she did, she tried to avoid cops and their ilk as much as possible-- but a sick spike of unease was growing inside her chest.

The sensible thing to do, she knew, would have been to turn around and head back home, driving the few hours back to the city she now called home. Jenny was a grown woman now. Legally an adult, and with their family home in her name, she could take perfectly good care of herself. There was nothing that Lacey could offer in an emergency situation. Hell, she'd never even been a Girl Scout. In a pinch, she could mix up a Jägerbomb, she supposed.

But, still… the thought of Jenny, alone and afraid, with God knows what happening on the other side of the roadblock… no, she had to get past.

"Lacey?"

For a moment, Lacey thought that Jenny had somehow made her way through the roadblock, but then reality kicked back in. She turned to find herself looking in the eyes of an old woman. Slowly, recognition set in. "Mrs Smith?"

The old woman smiled, and the full weight of memory settled down upon Lacey. "That's right. I see you remembered something about my piano lessons all those years ago." The old lady twiddled her fingers, looking towards the roadblock nervously. "Have you managed to get in contact with anyone? Have you had any luck talking to those goons?"

Lacey shook her head sadly. "Nope, and nope. I can't get through to Jenny's number, and when it comes to these guys? It's like talking to a brick wall."

Mrs Smith's face sagged. "I haven't managed to get in touch with my boys, either. I've been trying to find out what's happening for a few days now. At first they said it was a road slide, but now they're telling me that the river burst its banks and cut off the roads..."

Mrs Smith didn't say anything further than that, but her disapproving tone told Lacey everything she needed to know. Lacey might not have spent as many years in Greenvale as the older lady, but she'd grown up in the town, and she knew the river as well as anyone who lived there.

"That's bullshit," she said, then caught herself. "Pardon my French. I’ve never seen the river overflow once, not even during that huge storm that one winter. And they want us to think that happened now? After the dry summer we've had? That's just--"

"Bullshit." Mrs Smith smiled a little at Lacey's startled expression. "Pardon
my
French."

Lacey drummed her fingers on her steering wheel, staring at the roadblock. Even from here, she could hear the pleasant sound of the river flowing on its merry way. It sounded perfectly fine, not the sort of gigantic torrent that you'd need to overflow and take out the town's roads.

It didn't make sense. They were hiding something.

Again, the sensible thing would have been to turn around and head back home. Clearly some sort of government agency was at work, and she had no reason to doubt that they'd do what was best for the townspeople. Running around a disaster area would just add to their workload, and she could be a real risk.

But even as she ran through her thoughts, she could hear the echo of Jenny's voice in her head, scolding her for being so stubborn on so many occasions.
God, you always need to call the shots, don't you?

Lacey had always been a stubborn kid, and she'd grown up into a stubborn young woman, too.
Sorry, Jenny,
she thought.
Ready or not…

"Mrs Smith? I need you to do me a favour."

 

***

 

In the near distance, Lacey could hear the tireless tones of Mrs Smith's voice. The old woman was giving a gold star performance, drawing on a lifetime spent wrangling unruly children.

"Young man, I demand that you tell me what's going on! This instant!"

"Ma'am, I'm going to need you to turn around…"

Around the corner of the winding road, separated by only the thinnest wall of shrubs and trees, Lacey crouched down and made her way towards the sound of the river.

The roadblock had efficiently cut off the road, and that barricade didn't look like it was going anywhere. Whoever the men at the cordon were, they had cut off the town as best they could. But there was more than one way to skin a cat, especially if you looked at things from a different perspective…

Lacey's boots crunched softly on the fallen leaves and twigs of the woods as she made her way towards the river. She cursed silently, but kept going. There was no time to try to be completely silent, despite Mrs Smith's excellent haranguing.

"Now listen here," Mrs Smith shrilled, teacher mode now fully engaged. "I am very unhappy with--"

"Ma'am, I told you--"

"--
very
unhappy with your attitude, and what's more--"

Lacey almost wished that she could see the look on the other man's face. Almost. She kept edging towards the river-- or, more accurately, what ended at the river.

When you grew up in a small town, you found your own entertainment. For the children in Greenvale, that entertainment had been exploring the old drain system that lay underneath the town’s houses and roads. It was like something out of an adventure novel, a secret world for them to claim as their own.

The adults had punished them every time they found out, of course, but there had been graffiti down there that was older than Lacey and Jenny, and even older then the kids in the years above them at school. Lacey knew without being told that their parents had once scrambled through the concrete tunnels as well, claiming them as secret clubhouses and hiding holes.

If Lacey's memory hadn't failed her, there was a storm water drain that emptied out onto the river not too far from the roadblock. It would have been madness to plunge headfirst into a drain at any other time, at any other place, but she knew that the weather had been sunny and clear recently. If she just managed to slip into the drain, it was a clear shot straight through to the centre of town, and from there it wouldn't be far on foot to her family's house-- Jenny's house now, she corrected.

Behind her, the sound of Mrs Smith diversion rose in a panicked pitch. "--so rude, and I am definitely going to write a letter to your manager informing him of this, and--"

"Ma'am, for the last time…"

Lacey bit her lip and quietly prayed for the scene behind her to continue, but not for the last time that day, it looked like luck was definitely not her side.

"Hey! You over there, stop!"

Crap!
Lacey rose from her sneaking crouch and burst into a run, her boots thudding on the ground. Behind her, Mrs Smith's complaints cut off sharply as masculine voices rose in alarm. "Marks, around there! Blake, that way! Cut her off!"

There was no way that she could have beaten them in a fair race. But this wasn’t a fair race. Lacey crested the bank with a leap that bought her back to her childhood, while the men behind her were slowed by the unfamiliar ground. Then the storm drain was there, exactly as it had been all those years ago, closer to her than she was to her pursuers.

She stuck out a hand and gripped the edge of the man-sized pipe, letting her momentum spin herself into the drain in one smooth movement. It was smaller than she’d remembered, but she wasn’t exactly an amazon. For the first time in forever, Lacey gave silent thanks for being 5’4”, and ducking her head, ran into the open pipe.

There’s a passageway... here!
She jinked around the waiting corner, and then threw herself up against the wall, trying to control her breathing. Behind her, she could hear the sound of her pursuers at the mouth of the pipe. The reflected light of flashlights bounced around the dull concrete interior as they looked inside, but their footsteps didn’t move.

Someone swore. “I can’t see her. Hell knows where she could be. It must be a warren in there.” There was a sigh. “Radio that in.”

“Are you kidding me? I’m not radioing that in. Command will have my balls for this.”

“Shit, Command has bigger things to deal with. Let the damn bitch go. She wants to hand them her head on a stick, she’s welcome to.”

Yeah, definitely not rescue workers. Lacey held her breath as the sounds of her pursuers faded out, footsteps on crunching leaves growing more and more distant. Then it was just her, and her pounding heartbeat.

Her head on a stick.
It wasn’t exactly a great thing to hear. What the hell was happening in town?

Well, there was only one way to find out.

Holding out her phone as a light, Lacey began to head towards the centre of town.

 

CHAPTER
TWO

When Lacey climbed out of the storm drain, she wasn’t sure what she was going to find. They’d said floods, but the drains hadn’t been flowing. They’d said road collapses, but that didn’t make sense, either. Why were those goons blocking the road like it was a national security matter?

The official answers made no sense at all, so she’d started considering options that made even less sense. Zombie outbreak? Alien landing. Jonestown-like cult uprising? Nah. She couldn’t imagine any self-respecting cult leader setting up shop in a boring little place like Greenvale.

Trying to ignore her growing sense of unease, Lacey got to her feet, looking around.
I’m ready, alien zombie cult leaders... come and say hi.

Instead she found no-one at all.

Greenvale hadn’t exactly been a bustling metropolis to begin with. It was why she’d packed her bags and left as soon as she’d been able to, seeking the liveliness of a big city. But even at its sleepiest, there had always been someone around. Neighbours, mowing the lawn. Cars in the distance. Kids chatting with each other, playing some meaningless little games. The sound of people going about their business in a hundred different ways; their small sounds not noisy or distracting, but just a reminder that other people were present.

The silence and stillness were unnerving.
Where the hell is everyone?

Lacey had just turned the corner towards the grocery store when she found the first corpse.

At first her brain couldn't figure out what she was seeing, the huddled lump of curves and lines meaningless to her. But then it clicked, its meaningless shapes becoming slumped shoulders and sprawled legs, the dark stain surrounding it like a halo resolving into blood.

Lacey stumbled back, her hand flying instinctively to her mouth. A cold sweat broke out over her, and she forced herself to move towards the body on shaking legs. Her brain threw out scenarios for her, hoping for it to make sense-- had someone been hit by a car? Had they suffered a heart attack during run, and collapsed? But none of that explained the silence in town.

 

Even as she knelt down beside the corpse, she knew that it was that it really
was
a corpse. None of her meagre first aid skills would have done much good. There was too much blood on the pavement around the body, their skin lifeless and cold.

Lacey was so caught up in processing the sight in front of her that it took her a while to notice the next body.

There was someone equally pale, slumped in the front yard, as if on they’d been on their way to check their mailbox. With a sickening lurch, she realised that she recognised their face, some friend of a friend of her parents. Her mind reeled, trying to tie up the dual images of the women she had: one, lively and bustling, selling Lacey brownies at the school bake sale, and then this, blue-skinned and bloody on the bright green lawn.

She forced herself to take a deep breath, and then another. Lacey closed her eyes, drawing on every little scrap of meditative information she'd ever picked up from trashy magazines. What was it that they said? In through the nose, out of your mouth? She breathed in deeply, and then fought the urge to retch. The scent of blood was too thick in the air, as if she was in a slaughterhouse. But it had done the trick anyway. Her glassy moment of panic had passed, and her senses had come back to her.

She stood up, looking around. Now that she realised what she was looking for, she could see a string of corpses spotted here and there down the main street, blood smearing the asphalt. There were more signs of violence, too: smashed windows, great gouging tears in the ground. Somewhere in the distance something was burning, the scent of ash carrying through the town in the breeze.

Okay, this definitely wasn't a flood. Maybe zombies weren’t so out-there after all.

When she turned around, she saw the men.

They had been lounging on a porch, shielded from view by a hedge as she'd walked down the street. A cold shiver, feverish, ran through her as she realised that they’d been watching her silently.

Now, though, they got up of the porch, swaggering towards her with matching grins.

Lacey backed off.
Okay, these guys are definitely not here to rescue people.

She didn't recognise either of them, not even in passing. Was it a gang, coming to town? At this point, it didn't really matter.

Lacey raised her hands placatingly, breathlessly willing the men to stay where they were instead of padding their way down the road towards her. “I'm not looking for trouble, guys,” she said, then winced.
What a cheesy thing to say.

One of the men snickered. "Us neither," he sneered. "But here it is, just walking down the middle of the road."

They kept walking towards her, like they had all the time in the world to do whatever they wanted to do with her. Maybe they did. Lacey didn’t intend to find out.

Without another word, Lacey spun on her heel and ran.

She half-expected the men to shout at her, some automatic
Hey!
or
Hold it!.
Instead, they laughed, and then silently began trotting after her. It was somehow much, much worse.

Lacey raced through the streets, her eyes jumping from house to house. All of them looked equally vandalised, windows smashed and stained with blood. Whatever had happened, it looked like it had happened to the whole town.

Belatedly, she realised she was heading down the road that lead to her family home. Hot tears pricked at her eyes, threatening to spill despite herself. No, no, it couldn’t
all
be like this... she’d turn the corner and there would be Jenny on the porch, sitting in their father’s old armchair and reading a book, her brow creased deep in escapist concentration as she ate up yet another fantasy novel.

The thought that reality might hold anything other than that made her stomach lurch, cold sweat breaking out over her skin. She risked a look behind her, trying to spot her pursuers.

Which is when she ran in to someone.

If this was a romcom movie,
she thought, light-headed with terror and panic,
that’d be the hero, ready to save me.
But when she looked back up, righting herself on the asphalt, she found herself staring up into the face of a stranger.

He grinned down at her. It wasn’t a nice grin.

Lacey shot backward, scrambling to her feet, and turned to run from this new threat.

Behind her were the first two men.

She looked back and forth between the two sides, instinctively trying to keep everyone in her vision at the same time. There was a wall to one side, an open lawn to the other, but she knew they were too close for her to outrun them, now.

Even if she could outrun them, there were more. Strange men— and a few women, she numbly noted— were peppered around the place, some of them looking over at her like she was a vaguely entertaining TV show. They made no move to help her as the strangers closed in. Her stomach lurched again as she realised that some of them were stained with blood, dark dried blotches of it spattered across their chests and faces.

The men ringing her in stepped closer, closer— and then froze. Lacey’s heart pounded as she stared at them, uncertain.

There was no sound on the breeze, but, as one, the men turned away from Lacey to look down the road. Lacey couldn’t help but turn as well. What was important enough to freeze them in their tracks? A cop, maybe, or their leader, or--

It was a dog.
A dog?
She blinked, but it remained the same. It was definitely a dog trotting down the middle of the road, not bothered by the people around it. It was big, thick fur covering its powerful frame. A husky? Malamute, maybe? Lacey didn’t know. She’d always been more of a cat person.

And then she realised exactly how wrong she’d been. It wasn’t a dog at all.

It was a wolf.

Her captors made space around her as it approached, backing away. Suddenly Lacey felt exposed and vulnerable, but couldn’t say exactly why. A single animal couldn’t possibly be more of a threat than a gang of violent strangers, but still some strange instincts, long-buried under millennia of civilisation, rose to the fore. Her ancestors had once been wary of beasts like this, all white fangs and red lolling tongue. A raw, basal fear sent goose bumps racing over her flesh, urging her to run away from the thing, to put fire between herself and it, to get a weapon in hand.

But this was no early primordial scene, with wolves kept at bay by campfires. The strangers barred her escape on all sides, leaving her facing down the giant hound that seemed to be heading straight for her, its amber eyes bright with some internal fire.

Then something began to happen.

The wolf began to change.

Later, Lacey couldn’t quite remember the details of it. It was like something straight out of a nightmare, something deeply unnerving. One fixed shape began to warp into another, the wolf growing less and less wolf-like as it moved forward, shedding one form in favour of another.

A scant moment later, the wolf was gone. In its place was a man.

The men who had chased Lacey had struck her as petty thugs, the sort of men who lingered outside gas stations at night, smoking and drinking and shouting obscenities at women. She’d been afraid of them, sure— what woman wouldn’t be?— but they were a threat that she recognised, nothing new.

This guy... well, he was definitely something new, and not just because he’d been a wolf a moment ago. He walked with an easy swagger, a smooth, liquid movement that spoke of a lithe, muscled strength. His eyes were bright, the same amber colour that the wolf’s had been, his teeth just as white as its fangs. He gave her a smile that was reminiscent of the wolf’s lolling grin.

There was something about this man that was different to the others. It was impossible to imagine him hanging around, drunkenly catcalling. When he’d changed into being a human, he’d been wearing nothing more than a simple white shirt and black jeans, but he still somehow seemed intimidating despite his simple wardrobe. He seemed like something cut and pasted straight from some scene of high-society debauchery, his charming smirk and intelligent eyes seeming like they’d be at home sprawled on a chaise longue, classy women surrounding him.

He radiated power, Lacey realised. He didn’t seem at all fazed by the situation he’d walked in to, not bothering to look at his men or to worry about the prey they’d captured. For this man, everything was under his control, no matter the circumstances.

He gave her a grin, and Lacey’s heart skipped a beat.

“Hello, little one.” He stepped forward, peering into her face. “Where on earth have you come from?”

“Nowhere,” Lacey blurted. His tone was friendly enough, his face pleasant, but her instincts screamed at her: G
et away! Get away!

He raised an eyebrow at her nonsense answer. She caught herself, sucked in a breath. “I mean, here. I’m from here.”

At that, he cocked his head. “Well, you must be the world champion of hide and seek. My pack’s not known for missing people. They’re very thorough.”

Uh, okay. I officially have no idea what’s going on here.
“Okay,” Lacey said, backing off. “You know what, I’ll just get out of your hair...”

As she stepped backward, he stepped forward. “I don’t think so. In fact, you’re exactly what I’m missing.”

He moved
fast
. Before Lacey knew it, he was behind her, holding her in grip like iron. She struggled, trying to stomp on his feet, elbow him in the ribs,
anything
, but he ignored her clumsy attempts.

Lacey watched with numb horror as the hands holding her in place began to sprout thick, white fur, their nails turning to blunt claws.

“Well,” he purred into her ear. “Not
quite
exactly what I’m missing. I need to make one tiny little adjustment...”

“Fuck off, creep!” Lacey yelled, but her voice sounded weak even to her own ears. “Is what you’re missing a kick in the balls? Because I can definitely help you out with that!”

“Very clever,” the man said, his rich voice dripping with sarcasm. “No, I’m afraid all my men got a little... overzealous. They didn’t save anyone for me.” He pressed his cheek to her, and she could
feel
him grin. It made her stomach lurch.

Her cheek itched, some new prickly sensation. When he grinned again, she felt the press of fangs against her skin.

“Let’s fix that, shall we?” he said in that deep, seductive voice.

Then he bit her.

Lacey opened her mouth to scream, but it felt like the air had been knocked from her lungs.

She’d never been bitten by someone— the bar she worked at was bad, sure, but not
that
bad—but there was no way those were human teeth. The man’s bite was like a bear trap, long fangs sinking into the vulnerable curve of flesh between her shoulder and throat. She let out a thin whimper, petrified by pain.

The man freed his fangs from the bite-wound, and then
licked
her, his tongue lapping at the blood beginning to trickle down her throat.

It was revolting, making her stomach heave. But, distracted by the taste of her blood, his grip on her loosened a little...

Without thinking, Lacey slammed her elbow into his ribs with as much force as she could muster. The man let out a bark of pain, his hands letting go of her for a second.

A second was enough. Lacey tore herself from his grip, and ran.

She lurched away from the other men and women who had been watching, but they didn’t seem inclined to catch her. One of them let out a laugh, then immediately covered his mouth, as if hoping no one had heard.

Behind her, the man who had bitten her let out an inhuman growl. “Get back here,” he commanded.

Uh, going to have to pass on that one, chief.
Lacey staggered dizzily down the road as fast as she could, one hand clamped to the bleeding wound. She had to get somewhere safe, she
had
to! But she was slow, her legs wobbling with shock, and there was no-one in town but those monstrous men...

She stumbled, her head spinning, and caught herself on a safety rail. Down the incline in front of her, the river streamed along merrily, unaware of her plight.

“I said, get back here!” the man shouted, and there was real anger in his voice. Lacey heard the sound of his footsteps, coming her way. He wasn’t walking fast. He knew she wasn’t going anywhere. And how could she? Numb, her teeth chattering, she knew she was succumbing to shock. Even if she hadn’t been, there was no-where to run. She was trapped. He’d got her.

Fuck that. Everyone always said that Lacey was a contrary, stubborn bitch, didn't they? Why prove them wrong now?

She braced her blood-slippery hands on the railing. In one ungainly movement, she hurled herself over the barrier.

She’d just wanted some distance between her and the monster behind her, but as she tried to catch herself, her uncooperative feet slipped on the grass. The world spun around her as she tripped, showing her little blurry slices of the world: the railing; the man, his face contorted with rage as he reached out to grab her; the grass; the river, growing bigger and bigger...

Lacey fell into the icy cold water. She struggled, trapped in the current, her shock-ridden body unsure which way was up. The water, which had always looked so picturesque, buffeted her around until her lungs burned for air.

As her vision began to go dark, the last thing she thought was
Well, that was the world’s worst rescue. Great job, Lacey.

Everything went black.

 

CHAPTER
THREE

All Jack could do was walk.

How long had he been worth walking for? He didn't know any more. Usually someone would have been there to mark the passage of time, to call him for meetings, or to invite him into their homes for dinner. The pack bond would have been deep within him, dozens of mind touching his, letting him know he was part of something greater.

Now… Now, there was nothing.

Colt's pack had come through the North-west, sniffing at the door of isolated little towns, turning them into their own savage dens and taking their human inhabitants apart. And Jack... Jack had been stupid enough to get in their way.

If he shut his eyes, he could still see them all, his pack-mates drawing the line at the next town on Colt's pack’s agenda, ready to defend people they didn’t know. At the time, their courage had filled him with a warm, golden, sense of pride. His pack, strong and glorious and ready to fight for what was right.

He hadn’t expected everything to go so badly.

But the cruellest thing of all wasn’t that Colt had killed each member of his pack. It was that he hadn’t killed Jack.

Jack had heard of alphas cut off from their pack, but simply hearing about it was nothing like experiencing it for himself. It was like Colt had cut off one of his limbs-- no, it was worse. It was like a lobotomy, like Colt had slipped a blade into his brain, severing some vital internal part of him.

The wolf inside him wanted to howl its misery to the uncaring sky, howling and howling until its throat was raw, calling pack-mates that would never respond again. Jack forced its urges down deep within. Colt had been willing to toy with him by letting him leave, but whatever small part of Jack that was still capable of sensible thought knew that wolves like that were easily bored. If they found where he was, they would track him down and kill him.

What's worse was that he thought he might welcome being put out of his misery.

No.
Jack forced the thought away. He wasn't going to let that happen. He needed to kill Colt, to revenge his pack. He needed that son-of-a-bitch in the ground before the memories of his pack could be laid to rest.

One foot in front of the other, step-by-step through the woods. But Colt had a pack to protect him; he was an alpha in the prime of his life with a pack to match. Jack had… nothing. Not any more. The loss of his pack had carved a hole deep within him, and he knew that without filling the hole, he couldn't match the other alpha in battle. Alpha duels were as much about fighting spirit and the will to protect your pack as much as they were about muscle and fangs.

If Colt had cut off a limb, Jack would have bled to death. But instead Colt had cut off his pack, and that was no less dangerous. Jack knew, deep down within him, drawing on wolf instincts, that if he did not fill the hole within him, he would die.

He needed his pack. He needed another mind connected to his, filling him with the urge to possess and protect and fight for them…

He needed a pack-mate…

Just one…

 

***

 

He didn't know how long he walked for, mindlessly moving through the woods as if blind. He wanted to lie down to rest, but he knew that the exhaustion seeping into his bones had nothing to do with simple tiredness. Even if he didn't know where he was going, he had to keep moving. If he sat down, he would never get up again.

Once, nothing had filled him with love more than the sight of nature, the magic of its ways. But that was when its majesty was reflected through the hearts and minds of his pack, all of them moving together as one aspect of nature, coming together as pack. Now, he felt cut off from it all, somehow alone.

Shit. He really did just want to die.

His misery was interrupted by a whimper. He froze, one foot held above the ground. The whimper sounded again, a noise of abject pain, the sound of something suffering.

In another life, he would have been curious, coming to see if he could help. Now, he didn't care.

But what if it was one of Colt's pack? What then?
The thought made something hot and pulsing throb deep inside his chest. He flexed his hands, knotting them into fists. If one of Colt's pack was out here, wounded and alone, well…

Colt might not know the pain of being cut off from his pack, but at least Jack could lower its number by one.

He walked quietly, now careful of his footfalls. The low sound of pained breathing was nearly drowned out by the noise of the river. If he hadn't been a shifter, he knew he wouldn't have been able to pick it out over the sound of rushing water.

Coming to a rise, Jack paused, then slowly peered out from behind the cover of an Aspen tree. He was prepared for the sight of a wolf or a man, wounded and ready to finish off.

Instead, washed up on the bank of the river, he found a woman.

Jack stared. Dimly, his mind worked, trying to figure out the situation.

He knew that the town had been cleared out weeks ago. Colt's pack had been efficient in what they'd done, and as soon as Jack’s pack had died at their hands, Colt's pack had turned their attention towards the human citizens of the town. They were well practised in violence, and they had torn through the town like the people were no more than cattle. Jack, set free in the woods surrounding the town, had been too caught up in his misery to pay much attention to the massacre when it had begun. Despite that, he'd heard the screams, had caught the scent of blood on the hour. He knew how savage Colt's pack was from first-hand experience. He doubted that there had been any survivors, especially after weeks without outside help.

But here was a girl— no, a young woman. Had she survived all these weeks out in the woods? He doubted it. He couldn't see much of her, but from where he stood, she looked like a city kid, not prepared for hiding in the woods. Skinny jeans, running shoes, a bright visible jacket, long honey coloured curls hair cascading down her back… No, she definitely didn't look like she'd gone to ground for weeks.

As Colt silently watched her, wary of being led into a trap, she whimpered again.

The sound did something to him. Just that one little sound, pitiful and alone and needing protection, jolted down his spine like electricity, grounding itself in his nervous system. He felt his heart beat fast and hard, his hands reshaping themselves from fists into clutching, grasping hands. His body responded to the sound of her helplessness, urging him onwards, together her up into his arms.

It's because you're cut off,
he told himself, trying to shake off the demands of his body.
Your instincts are crying out for someone to protect, that's all. Keep moving, don't let her get under your skin.

The instincts of his alpha side wanted to protect her. The logic of his human side told him to keep moving, to step aside from whatever trouble this mysterious young woman had bought with her.

But above both instinct and logic, engrained into his bones through the years, was habit. He’d never walked past anyone who needed help.

He made his way over to her, scenting the air warily, but caught no trace of any shifters on the wind. Another inhalation bought up the clean woodsy scent of the forest, but no human tracks. It was just him and her, alone in the woods. How had she got here?

A quick look around told him. She was soaked through, and crumpled up on the bank of the river. It didn't take a genius to figure out where she would come from, half mad from loneliness or not. A human, then, fallen in the river in a more civilised world, only to wash up in the nightmare slaughterhouse of the town. Jack grimaced as he knelt down beside her.
Whoever you are,
he thought,
luck is definitely not on your side.

No, luck was not on her side at all. As Jack turned her over, rolling her up to face him, the sight of blood stopped him in his tracks.

This girl had been bitten.

Jack's mind reeled. The bite was unmistakable, wolf teeth puncturing her skin between and throat and shoulder. The flash wasn’t torn, either, as if a real wolf had worried her, driving her down in the normal way of the predator. This was a clean bite, a wolf’s teeth puncturing in out of her vulnerable flesh without tearing or shredding.

This… this was a
making
bite.

Even despite his state, Jack’s blood turned to ice. Colt's pack was more depraved than he'd even given them credit for. Throughout the ages, shifters had occasionally killed humans, but turning them? It was worse than simply wrong; it was abhorrent, a taboo. Packs would shun or punish a wolf for killing a human, but if one turned a human, the pack would destroy wolf and human both, erasing the travesty from existence.

Unbidden, Jack's hand reached out to the girl's throat, his thumb and forefinger settling around the pale column of her neck before he could realise what he was doing. Belatedly, he pulled his hand back. Just the sight of that wound had been enough for him to want to put her out of her misery without thinking. But should he?

No.
He dragged his eyes away from the wound along the rest of the girl’s body. She was slender, attractive, even half drowned. Her clothes were soaked to her body, showcasing the slender curves of her form.

Despite himself, Jack felt the first embers of arousal begin to burn deep within him. He caught himself, shaking his head as if to clear out the thoughts. He may have been a shifter, but he wasn’t a monster.

But that mark… His fingers trailed along her shoulder, skirting the edges of the wound, even now still rapidly closing. Within a day, he knew that would be closed, the skin healing over as if never broken at all, save for a bite scar. And then what? She would begin the transformation into a shifter, with her wolf side being born even now within her, slowly coming into existence as she slumbered.

She would be tied to her maker, course. That was how things worked in the tales that had been passed down through his pack. Wolf bites human, human becomes wolf, wolf is now tied to wolf with the powerful bond that existed between pack member and alpha.

But she was out here all by herself, alone, away from anyone at all, let alone whoever had turned her.…

Jack knew that it was possible to change pack allegiance. His own pack had had members who had run away from other packs, forcing themselves away from abusive alphas or harmful dynamics. He'd seen the pain in their eyes as their inner wolf had held out for the alpha it was used to, but eventually, they'd settled in. They'd learnt to accept him as their alpha, and eventually they'd worked in his pack without hesitation, indistinguishable from the born members of his pack.

Was it possible to do that to a turned wolf? Jack's breathing quickened. There was no way that he could convince one of Colt’s pack to join with him, for a bond to blossom between the two of them. He knew that. A wolf that was ready to kill humans on the word of its alpha was not easily swayed by kind words.

But this girl… She had no alpha-- or, at least, none that was around. If Jack took her from here, tended to her wounds and took care of her…

… Would she bond with him, instead of Colt?

Desire rose up in his body, nearly overwhelming him. He wanted that! He knew nothing about this girl, didn't even know her name, but he suddenly wanted her with him with a hot, liquid intensity. He needed someone, and soon.

He needed her to need him.

She whimpered again, but he ignored it. If she was turning, then her wolf healing would deal with any injuries she had sustained. She would heal, and then…

Then she would be his, and he would be hers.

Sinking to his knees, Jack slid his hands underneath her, raising her to his chest. The girl whimpered again, a tiny, riveting noise, sending his instincts wild. He exhaled hard, cradling her to his chest.

A better man might have tended to her wounds, getting her to her feet, then taken her to safety, getting her out of the town. But with that wild crazed loneliness howling inside him, Jack could not be the better man.

Whoever this was, she was going to be his. She would give him strength, filling that raw, ragged hole within him, restoring him.

And then Colt was going to die.