Thursday January 11, 10:12 p.m.
Even for a January night, London had gone insanely fucking cold.
The city had come under attack by the sort of biting arctic frost that made a person’s nostrils seal shut if they dared a one-block trek to the corner shop. It was, without a doubt, the kind of forbidding frigid air that kept sane people indoors.
But Dire Wolf shifters were another matter entirely.
Standing with his back to one of Hyde Park’s more ancient oak trees, Roth huffed out a round cloud of vapour that dissipated into nothingness almost as soon it had formed. “Quite something, this weather,” he muttered, more to himself than to his companion. “I can’t say I was expecting these temperatures, despite what the newscasters were moaning on about.”
“Quite something, you say? Bloody hell, it’s freezing my dick off,” growled Laird, who stood next to him. He was currently yanking his leather coat tight around his broad chest as he pressed back against the tree’s trunk, as if hoping it would somehow offer him a warm hug.
Roth wanted to laugh, though it would have made him look like an unsympathetic arse of an Alpha, not to mention a shite friend to Laird. But the silly tosser had never bloody learned how to dress for cold. Style, apparently, was more important to him than practicality. He was the sort of man who always managed to look effortlessly handsome, his messy hair falling in exactly the way to make strange women walk up and comb their fingers through it, cooing at him as though he were a fine piece of art that they wanted to take home and devour with their eyes.
His jeans, meanwhile, were tight enough to show off an impressively muscled arse, but not tight enough to show off his religion.
Roth, on the other hand, was more conservative. Tonight he wore an elegant wool peacoat, leather gloves and a dark cashmere scarf. His hair, a similar dark shade to Laird’s, was tidy as always, a certain amount of product ensuring that it remained in place despite the bitter wind that tried to blow it about. His stubble was just the right length, his boots unscuffed, expensive-looking and warm. He knew that his pack often mocked him for looking more like a successful barrister than a fierce leader of Dire Wolf shifters, and he was perfectly fine with the description. Nothing wrong with looking good, he always said. You never know when a the fucking queen of England might wander by.
“I told you it would be cold, you wanker,” he said, eyeing Laird sideways. “You should have worn something warmer than your bad-arse motorcycle leathers.”
“Well, had I known you wanted me to come stand in the middle of an arctic sodding tundra, I might have at least brought a down sleeping bag with me, or maybe a bloody space heater, or at least a flask of scotch,” Laird replied. “Anyhow, if you’d let me summon my Wolf, I’d be fine. I’m not sure why I need to stand around in these clothes when I’ve got perfectly good fur to keep me warm.”
Strong, powerful, and all but invulnerable to any natural threat, the men’s Dire Wolf forms were blessed with double-layered fur thick enough that they could ignore any concerns about hypothermia. Much as London’s humans shied away from nights like this, cold wasn’t much of an adversary for the Wolves.
“Need I remind you,” added Laird, stomping his feet in an attempt to keep his blood circulating, “that we’re not supposed to be here? We’re meant to be in Notting Hill, remember? In fact, as I recall, it was you who assigned us that very patrol, Alpha of mine.”
“Yes, yes,” Roth replied. “We’ll head over in a few minutes and shift, if that’s what you want. But just now, I want you in your human skin. You’ll understand why soon enough.”
A smug grin worked its way over Roth’s features. Laird would forget the damned cold soon enough.
The familiar scent was already making its way on the air towards them, that luscious, heady bouquet of pheromones that managed, by some miracle of nature, to mix itself with something even more enticing. Roth had encountered the aroma so many times over the weeks that he could now describe the combination of fragrances in intimate detail, like a master sommelier might recall a particularly fine bottle of wine.
Yet this was no bottle of wine. This was something far, far better.
The woman was near now, no doubt already inside the park, making her way towards them. She took the same route each night, a shortcut through the grounds to her flat on the west side. Clever minx that she was, she always found her way inside at all hours, despite the fact that all of the park’s gates were locked by dusk.
“Whatever this surprise of yours is,” said Laird, “it had better be worthy of freezing my bollocks off. Seriously, I think one just hit the ground with a sickening sort of ‘ping’ sound.”
Roth let out a deep laugh. “Just wait. I think you’ll agree that she is once you and your Dire Wolf lay eyes on her.”
“Her?” asked Laird, spinning around to look at his Alpha. “Wait—does this mean what I think it does?”
Roth nodded. “I told you I’d found her. I wanted to be sure before I brought you here.”
“So, this is the woman you’ve been following at nights when you disappear. You’re telling me our mate is about to show up here, in Hyde Park.”
“I am telling you exactly that. She’s the one.”
For a moment, Laird looked excited. But it took only a few seconds for the cynical expression to which Roth was accustomed to return to his face. “We’ll see,” he said. “You say she’s the one, like there’s a capital O at the beginning. I’d like to know how you know. You may have followed her on occasion, but you haven’t even bloody met her. You don’t know her name. How can you possibly know she’s the woman we’re supposed to bond with?” He was grumbling now, like a petulant teenager in need of food to restore his hormonal balance. Roth always found Laird’s moods amusing. When called upon, he was a dauntless warrior, ready to give his life to save a fellow shifter or human. But when he was cold, hungry, or generally grumpy, he could be a right tosser. “Not to mention that I might not even find her attractive,” he added under his breath.
“Attractive? You’d find a well-shaped donut attractive, if it agreed to let you stick your dick in it,” Roth replied, chuckling. “As for how I know she’s the one, I just do.” The Alpha of the Trekilling Pack turned to his friend, a wry smile ticking the corners of his lips upwards. “I feel it deep in my gut, and you will too.”
“Hmm. Are you quite sure you’re not confusing your gut with your cock?” asked Laird, pulling at an overhead branch of the tree. “I mean, feel for a lot of women with my ‘gut.’ My gut gets very, very big and hard, and sometimes wants to make friends with their guts, if you know what I’m saying.”
“Oh, for shite’s sake, Laird, I’m not going to pretend the woman doesn’t give me a raging hard-on, but you know perfectly well that this is something far greater than all that. I wouldn’t bring you here simply to ogle a woman I find attractive.”
Laird let go of the tree and levelled Roth with a hard stare. “Then tell me, what is it that makes you so sure? Fate? Some magic that I don’t yet understand? I’m genuinely curious, because you seem very fucking convinced.”
“I can’t answer that, except to say that I knew the moment I saw her that she’s our future mate. My Wolf knew, as well as my human side. Doubt me all you like, shit on my human side all you want, but you can’t tell me my déor’s instincts aren’t good. My Wolf has rarely steered me wrong in all my years.”
Laird looked away, focusing his gaze on something in the distance. “No, I suppose it hasn’t. There’s a reason that you were named Alpha. Well, you may be right, but just remember that it’s entirely possible that someone’s getting his throat torn out by a Grizzly shifter on London’s streets while we stand here letting our dicks shrivel from hypothermia, waiting for this destined mate of ours to show her allegedly very beautiful face.”
Roth grimaced. Laird was right about one thing, at least; it was all too likely that someone was being hunted while they tarried by the tree.
Almost every night for the last few weeks, some human victim or other had been attacked on London’s streets by something with very large teeth and massive strength. Some had died, and those who’d survived had been too shell-shocked to recount the event with any accurate detail, a look of terror about them that most doctors couldn’t even begin to decipher. Was it post-traumatic stress? Had the brutalized victims seen some sort of violent ghost? What the devil could make people look so horrified?
The first incident had culminated in the slaying of a well-known businessman who worked near Piccadilly Circus. It had been a gnarly, bloody affair, his body left in the middle of a busy street normally frequented by thousands of early morning humans.
Two more people had been killed since, in similarly gruesome circumstances. Word had gotten around the human population quickly that something ghastly was roaming London’s neighbourhoods, tearing at innocent people as others slept. Which meant that word might soon get out that London was crawling with shifters, a secret that had long been kept from humans thanks to the Dragon Guild’s powers of concealment.
“I’m not too worried about attacks. No one’s mad enough to come outside tonight,” Roth protested. “It’s unlikely that anyone will be killed.” The words came out, but he wasn’t entirely sure that he meant them. His Wolf, who had an uncanny and usually reliable ability to sense danger before it reared its ugly head, had warned him earlier in the evening that something less than savoury was going to happen tonight. The only problem was that his animal’s warning had been a little too vague. Just a hunch, really. Roth didn’t know where to look, or when; only that something might go down on his watch. “Besides,” he said, trying to reassure himself as much as Laird, “if we’re worried about danger, it’s all the more reason to keep our eyes on the woman who might share our beds one day soon.”
“Ah,” said Laird, “so the truth comes out. You are worried.”
“I’m concerned,” his Alpha replied. “I have a bad feeling. I just wish my damned déor could see more clearly. I wish my powers were more focused…”
“Well, anyhow,,” Laird interrupted, “we probably don’t have to concern ourselves too much. As you pointed out, no one is mad enough to be out tonight. Then again, our future mate is outside,” he corrected, tightening the scarf around his neck. “So I suppose she’s got to be quite a lunatic.”
“Perhaps she is,” Roth replied, “which would be fine with me. I’ve never been a fan of dull women.”
Even as he said the words, somewhere in the distance a shadow emerged from between the trees and began to advance, her enticing scent growing stronger. She wasn’t close to them, and if she continued along the path she was on, she probably wouldn’t see them, hidden as they were under the boughs of the oak. But they had a good vantage point to take her in; her face, her gait, the aroma that she sent wafting through the bitterly cold air towards them each time her breath formed a small cloud in front of her mouth.
Roth crossed his arms over his chest, leaning back against the tree, a grin of satisfaction landing on his lips as he stared at her, grateful for his keen Wolf eyes.
“Here she comes,” he said. “We’ll follow her home—from a distance, of course. Make sure she gets in safely. Then our Wolves can head over to Notting Hill, if you’d like.”
But for once, Laird didn’t respond. Roth turned to look at him, only to see that his friend was staring into the distance, his eyes brightening as he focused on the fast-moving form.
“She’s a beauty,” he said softly, in a strangely distant tone that Roth had seldom heard out of him. “I can see now why you chose her. She’s amazing.”
“I didn’t choose her,” the Alpha replied, pleased to sense how deep and immediate Laird’s reaction was. “She chose us. She doesn’t know it yet, but she will tomorrow.”
“Tomorrow?” asked Laird, his eyes still fixed on the beauty’s face. “What’s tomorrow?”
Roth drew in a deep breath, tasting the woman’s sweetness on the icy air.
“It’s the day when we finally get to meet her.”
When the object of their attraction had passed them by, the two men began to follow, walking some distance behind her until she’d made her way out a narrow gap in a wrought iron gate. Too large to squeeze through themselves, the shifters scaled it, slipping their large forms down onto the sidewalk on the other side to watch her make her way down the block towards her building.
Only when she was safely inside did they speak again.
“I suppose my Wolf’s worries were misplaced,” said Roth. “Perhaps no one was in danger tonight after all.”
But the moment the words escaped his lips, a shrill scream cut through the night air from the direction of Notting Hill.