Beneath the sun’s ruthless blaze, Sasha dashed down the street, the asphalt scorching her paws. She could find no relief from the heat in the wild grass that sprouted through the cracks or among the eroding houses.
She sniffed the air, detecting only dirt and rodents, no recent human activity. This should have calmed Sasha, but deserted human habitations always put her on edge. And with the full moon two days away, she felt a familiar itch in her bones. It likely had something to do with her patrol partner. She shook out her tail and pointed her ears forward to refocus. She needed to stay alert, not brood over Aden’s rugged arms and magnetic copper eyes or the familiar comfort of knowing he was nearby, sniffing out the opposite side of the subdivision until they met in the middle.
At the end of the street, she veered close to the edge of the wasteland and stared at the decaying city crumbling in the distance. Twenty-eight years ago humans had lived within these subdivisions and cities all around the world, long before disease had brought devastation and desolation.
Turning away from the silent nothingness, Sasha continued her search of the abandoned dwellings. The hairs on her back rose when she caught the fetid stench of a vulhena. Keeping silent, Sasha darted between two houses to the next street.
Gangly overgrown grass kept her hidden as she stalked through the vegetation to a thick wall of hedges bordering the road. She crouched low and waited. Across the street, the southern-facing lawns had died long ago, leaving behind dry, cracked earth, and clumps of grass that sprouted within the structure’s protective shadows.
The animal’s stink put it within fifty feet of where she lay hidden. Through slit-like eyes, she watched the malnourished creature slink out from between two houses on its skinny legs. Covered in black, wiry hair that formed a ridge along its back, it blended well with the shadows. She waited for it to cross the road.
No one really knew how the vulhena came to be. The elders believed they were formerly cougars that had mutated after feeding on diseased human corpses. Like humans, vulhena couldn’t see in the dark, nor come close to rivaling a wolf’s sense of smell.
Still, they were vicious creatures, especially when they banded together. Thankfully this was rare, as most vulhena were solitary creatures that kept to their own territories. Sasha only knew of one instance where they’d formed a pack. The agony of that day scorched her soul. Jager had warned her, begged her to stay behind and let the other pack members clean up, but love and loyalty sent her racing the wind straight into a hailstorm of gore. Forty-three elders had been slaughtered hunting a deer herd outside the hollow, but the way their limbs littered the clearing made it look as though twice as many had been mangled and ripped apart. Through the stench of rotted flesh, Sasha’s nose led her straight to her parents’ half-eaten bodies, their intestines strewn across the dirt like earthworms. With their blood still seeping into the ground, a howl had torn through her lips, a haunting cry that silenced the forest into stillness.
Half starved and alone, the vulhena skulking toward her now didn’t look threatening, but oftentimes the most desperate ones put up the most fight.
Her jaw tightened as it crept closer, unaware of its imminent demise.
Without a second thought, she landed in front of it, fangs bared.
The vulhena screeched, lifting its black lips over jagged fangs, and took a swipe at Sasha with its extended claws.
She darted aside, snarling and circling the hateful creature, a growl vibrating inside her throat. The fur rose on her back.
A loud crunch rebounded across the road as two hundred and twenty-five pounds of werewolf landed on the roof of a rusted car. The roof caved in under the weight of Sasha’s patrol partner. Aden made an impressive entrance, especially when he stood on his hind legs and growled. He leapt off the car, hitting the asphalt on all fours.
The vulhena rose with a shriek, long matted forelegs swiping the air in a show of challenge. While the creature stood, Sasha lunged at it and clamped her jaw around its hind leg. Her fangs pierced fur and flesh, and blood filled her mouth. The vulhena yowled, and Sasha clamped down tighter, bone crunching between her fangs.
It raised its claw and slashed at Sasha’s face, missing her by a hair as she held on, refusing to relinquish her prize.
Aden snatched the vulhena’s front leg before it had a chance to take out Sasha’s eye, snapping bones when he wrenched its scrawny arm from its socket.
The vulhena shrieked louder.
Sasha crushed its leg between her jaws, barely able to control her bloodlust as fresh memories of her parents’ mangled bodies oozed across her mind thick as slime.
The vulhena fell to the ground, struggling to fight back on three legs. Aden went for the creature’s neck and shook it from side to side while Sasha growled in encouragement through the wiry hairs clenched between her fangs.
The animal’s angry screams continued until Aden ripped out its throat with a snarl silencing the vulhena once and for all.
Sasha kept hold of its leg for several pounding heartbeats before letting go. She watched the creature for any sudden signs of revival, even though she sensed its death. She panted, heart still thundering from the exhilaration of the kill, a savage part of her thirsting to rip it apart limb by limb, but the sun scorching her fur signaled it was time to depart.
One less vulhena in the world and no humans to prevent a supply run the next day—not bad for a scouting mission.
Sasha and Aden watched the vulhena’s blood stain the concrete for several seconds before they trotted to a connecting road and the wasteland beyond. Sasha’s paws sank into the fine grains of the narrow stretch of desert sand, intent on reaching the hills and the forest beyond. Saliva gathered in her mouth and her tongue lolled out several times. The withering heat made running reckless, so Sasha kept a steady pace, focused on the shrubs ahead.
Once they reached the woods, they climbed the first hill, breaking into a run on the other side. Sasha relished the feel of solid earth beneath her paws and the fresh, if humid, air in her lungs. They crossed the Manama River where it thinned out and trickled between rocks before deepening roughly five miles east. Two rivers, the Manama and the Sakhir, served as boundaries for the green oasis their pack called home.
After crossing the river, they followed it upstream to the west until reaching Skyler Falls, where they’d left their clothes strewn over a large rock.
Aden shifted first, groaning as his bones realigned themselves into his muscular human form. He crouched naked on the earth for half a second before straightening over six feet tall into the mighty figure of a man with his sculpted, robust back facing her. His hair was a rich, thick brown, similar to his werewolf’s fur. When he stretched, his tanned butt cheeks flexed.
Sasha shifted and stayed on all fours. When he turned around she found herself staring directly at his thick muscled legs and the goods dangling between them. Heat flamed over her skin, and her mouth went drier than it had in the wasteland. She fought the urge to shift back into a wolf and run out of there as fast as her four legs could carry her.
It wasn’t the nudity so much as the burning ache she couldn’t seem to control whenever she was alone with Aden. Though the full frontal view teased her mind, Sasha’s arousal was clearly one-sided given his flaccid state.
Damn human emotions. Everything felt less complicated as a wolf.
Aden reached a hand down, his grip warm and firm as he pulled Sasha to her feet. When she noticed the blood smeared across Aden’s chest, her smile faded. She stepped closer, inches from rubbing against him.
“Are you all right?” she asked.
Aden’s thick lashes dropped when he looked down. He grinned. “Not my blood. I’ll wash off while you get dressed.”
Sasha’s heart fell as Aden disappeared into the overgrown ferns lining the trail to the falls.
How could he be so oblivious to her feelings?
Was it because she was off-limits? She cursed her birth and blood. Leave it to Aden to be courteous. Maybe she should join him at the falls and make her interest clear as sky. Just the thought stole Sasha’s breath away.
And what if he didn’t return her feelings? She’d have to live with the humiliation and awkwardness every day afterward, which could jeopardize their friendship. Aden might not want to patrol with her ever again.
Sasha looked from her pile of clothes to the narrow trail leading to the falls.
Go on, she told herself. Join him. You don’t have to share your feelings; just say you want to rinse off. Go splash around naked with the sexy werewolf.
She took a step toward the falls, which sent her human heart into overdrive. Blood pumped between her thighs. She felt as though she stood on the edge of a cliff, her body knocked off axis and teetering between solid ground and the great unknown.
The only shifter she’d ever lain with had slashed open her heart as though it was dinner dashing away.
Aden would never hurt her, unlike Wolfrik.
Before she could make a decision, she caught wind of rank, sweaty fur. Her nose wrinkled. It reeked of vulhena. Two in one day? Worst of all, this one had prowled into the hollow. Blind fury sparked through Sasha, scorching her bones like kindling blazing in a bonfire, blackening the air.
She dropped to all fours and shifted, nose to the ground, inhaling the rancid scent. She didn’t waste time going to Aden for backup but took off. She could howl a warning call, but he might not hear her over the falls, or if his head were submerged underwater, whereas she’d be alerting the vulhena to her position.
She raced through the woods, leaping over fallen trees and overgrown roots. Stopping briefly to sniff around a narrow cave, Sasha continued into a small clearing. There was no sign of Tabor or Olivia, the shifters who had been assigned the area to forage for mushrooms. Sasha kept along the edge rather than expose herself by running into the opening. The vulhena’s scent never increased or decreased. She began to wonder if what she smelled was from fighting the vulhena earlier, its putrid stink left on her skin.
Sasha should have rinsed off with Aden while she had the chance. He’d probably be finished and dressed by the time she returned to the falls.
As she prepared to run back, a soft moan drifted across the clearing. Sasha’s ears twitched. She stalked along the forest’s edge then darted across the clearing, slowing to a trot as she rounded a large boulder.
The ground rose gradually, leading up to a mossy knoll on top of which lay Tabor and Olivia in human form, naked.
They should have been foraging to help feed the pack. Instead, Tabor groaned from atop Olivia, who lay on her back on the spongy moss, eyes closed, moaning as they humped, too distracted to notice the mass of black ugliness slinking up on them from the other side of the knoll.
It should have never entered Wolf Hollow territory.
Sasha flew at the vulhena as it jerked its head and screeched. Rather than stand on its hind legs, it reared back, yellow eyes full of malice. It snapped its teeth at Sasha, and she snarled in answer.
The beast moved away, one eye on Sasha, the other on the naked humans now disentangling themselves from one another. The movement seemed to excite it, causing the creature to lunge at the couple scrambling to their feet. Sasha protectively raced in front of the pair.
Again, it reared back and screeched then slunk around the perimeter, almost as though covertly closing the space between itself and the couple. Oddly, this vulhena didn’t show much interest in Sasha, other than irritation. It seemed far more intent on reaching the two humans.
Her snarl turned vicious, piercing the air like wooden spears hurtling across the knoll. The vulhena shrieked and looked at her, finally taking full notice of her as a serious threat.
It jumped onto its hind legs. As Sasha lunged for it, a gust of unnatural air threw her back as an arrow whooshed by and hit the beast in the heart with a flourish of yellow sparks that glittered like nighttime stars before flickering out. The vulhena thumped to the ground in front of Sasha in a big black heap.
Sasha’s body jerked as she changed to human form. Usually she went through the process with fluid grace, but her anger made for a turbulent shift.
“Holy mother of moonshine!” Olivia yelled.
Tabor lowered his bow, chest puffed out as a smug smile settled over his lips.
Sasha rose from the ground and glared at Tabor. His use of magic didn’t anger her so much as his idiocy.
“You fool! You could have gotten yourself and Olivia killed.”
Tabor fought back a scowl, regaining quick control of his smirk.
“I think what you mean to say is ‘Thank you, most powerful one, for saving my royal pure-blooded hide.’”
Sasha’s jaw dropped. “You? Save me? That vulhena would have ripped off your head if I hadn’t come along.” She pointed a finger at the flattened moss where Tabor and Olivia had been coupling moments before the creature stalked in. “After that it could have moved on to the den without anyone the wiser because there was no one to stop it or issue a warning.” The image of a den massacre made her body quake with horror and rage.
“It’s dead now; that’s all that matters,” Tabor said in a low voice, eyes narrowing on Sasha.
Olivia snatched her rumpled floral dress off the mossy ground, pulled it over her head, and yanked it down to her knees.
Sasha’s hackles rose. “This is precisely why the council frowns on fooling around during duty,” she said, not caring that she sounded as surly as old Jager.
Olivia’s eyes widened. “Sasha, please. You can’t tell anyone what you saw.” She looked at Tabor and grimaced before distancing herself from where he stood, naked and still unabashedly erect. Pulling Sasha aside, Olivia turned her back to Tabor and lowered her voice. “This was the first time we ever mated. And it was the last.”
It hit Sasha that Olivia wasn’t distressed over abandoning her duties; she was probably ashamed of being caught coupling with Tabor.
Tabor wasn’t just a wolf shifter; he was also half wizard, reducing his status in many pack members’ eyes.
Sasha’s lip curled. She’d never really known what to make of Tabor, but she couldn’t abide such blatant bigotry from any member of her tribe.
While the entire pack expected Sasha to choose a pure-blooded mate for the strength and survival of the pack, Sasha did not look down on werewolves or half-breeds. If she had, she wouldn’t have lusted after Aden.
Olivia seemed to take Sasha’s silence for judgment. “This is all Camilla’s fault,” she whined into Sasha’s ear like an incessant mosquito. “She never shuts up about how Tabor was the best she ever had. How could I not be curious?”
Feeling Tabor’s gaze drilling into their backs, Sasha answered in hushed tones. “Olivia, I don’t care if you mate with a mountain lion so long as it doesn’t endanger the pack.”
Olivia’s cheeks turned red. “A mountain lion!” she snarled. “I’d rather make love to a grizzly or even a . . .”
“Wizard?” Tabor offered, twirling the bow in his hand as he circled to face them.
Olivia’s eyes narrowed. “You bewitched me, Tabor, didn’t you?”
The bow froze in Tabor’s hand. Before he could answer, or heaven forbid, hex her, Sasha growled. “That’s enough! If I hear so much as a rumor about bewitchment, I will see to it that you never be allowed a mate, Olivia. Do you understand me?”
Her eyes widened in horror. “I’m sorry, Sasha. I didn’t mean any disrespect. I wouldn’t normally . . . you know.” She circled her wrist feebly in Tabor’s direction.
“Return to the glade,” Sasha said. “Find Jager and tell him what happened.”
Olivia nodded and hurried away without a second glance.
As the flighty shifter disappeared into the woods, Sasha’s earlier frustration was replaced with something else. Pride. She felt the tattered rips in her heart slowly knit back together, holding steady.
If only her parents could have seen her handle this situation. She’d always viewed herself more as a warrior than a leader, but just now she’d stood firm and diplomatic.
When the first pandemic spread across the country, thousands of urban-dwelling—non-pureblooded—shifters retreated to the woods and found guidance from shifters like Sasha’s parents, purebloods as they were called, wolf shifters who had been born and raised in the wild for generations. Together, the purebloods and urban shifters had formed packs along the fringes of a once thriving human society, subsisting in small groups to survive.
Through their example, Sasha had learned the value of generosity and acceptance in an ever-changing world.
She looked at Tabor, expecting something more gallant than the snide look he shot her.
“How very noble of you to step in on my behalf. Considering your pedigree, I suppose I should be overcome with gratitude.” His words were laced with scorn.
Tabor’s eyes drifted languidly down her body, making Sasha acutely aware of the fact she was still naked and Tabor was still erect. Averting her eyes proved difficult. It had been nearly three years since she’d seen a man aroused—even if it wasn’t on her account.
Tabor set the end of his bow on the earth in front of him and leaned against the tip of the frame.
“I saw your face earlier,” he said. “You’re even worse than the rest of the pack, so full of your own self-importance while inside you recoil at a half-breed like me. You don’t think I’m good enough for Wolf Hollow and you took an opportunity to demonstrate your superiority in front of a pack member.”
Sasha shook her head slowly. How could he say such awful things? Her chin trembled. She didn’t want Tabor to see. She ground her teeth together. “I live to serve this pack and all its members. I stepped in and saved your sorry skin, didn’t I?”
Tabor shrugged. “I meant no disrespect,” he said, sounding bored.
Tabor looked her up and down again before resting on her eyes. She’d never spent much time looking into his. They were emerald green, brilliant jewels as lush as the forest surrounding them. Most of their pack had brown eyes with the occasional blue. Something about the greens of Tabor’s irises was familiar and comforting, like a piece of home staring back, and yet looking into them felt more intrusive than his wandering gaze over her body.
Tabor lifted his bow and tapped the string against his leg. “Forgive my bluntness,” he said. “But perhaps you can understand why I would question your defense on behalf of a half-breed when you yourself chose only to couple with a pureblood and, barring none, would sooner live out a sedentary life making judgments on others.” Tabor’s smile curled. “I know Wolf Hollow is fresh out of pure-blooded males, but isn’t it your duty to breed?” He raised his brows and stared pointedly at her.
For the second time that day, memories of Wolfrik burned fresh holes into Sasha’s torched soul, charring it as black as a vulhena’s coat and the reminder of what their kind had done to her parents . . . and Wolfrik’s.
In the beginning, she and Wolfrik hadn’t been able keep off each other, easily accepting their parents’ and elders’ wishes to claim one another and continue their pure-blooded lineage. But following their parents’ gruesome deaths, Wolfrik rebelled against the three surviving elders before taking off, never to be seen or heard from again, while Sasha stayed behind and served the pack.
Her loyalty ought to count for something more than ridicule.
Sasha’s nostrils flared and heat filled her cheeks. Life was so much easier in wolf form. For instance, she could have lunged at Tabor on all fours and ripped out his throat, diplomacy be damned. Yet the truth behind his words hurt. Sasha hadn’t slept with anyone since Wolfrik, but it wasn’t for the reasons Tabor thought. Her feelings were for a werewolf, if only he’d claim her.
Sasha sucked in a breath, determined not to allow Tabor to drag her down to his level. She’d had enough of his spiteful words.
“You accuse me of making judgments when it is you who judge me.” She dropped to her hands and knees, preparing to shift when she heard Aden call her name from the other side of the boulder.
“Sasha,” he yelled again.
The anger coursing through her dissipated, replaced at once by a flurry of sparks that sizzled beneath her skin. She got to her feet quickly, feeling lightheaded.
Aden rounded the boulder, dressed in jeans and a snug cotton shirt, damp hair tousled. Carrying Sasha’s sundress draped over his strapping arm, he made his way to where she stood beside Tabor and handed Sasha her dress. Thanking him with an elated grin, she slipped it over her head while Aden stared at the dead vulhena, eyebrows furrowed.
“What happened?” he asked. “When I returned from the falls, you were gone.”
Sasha’s smile hardened when she glanced over at Tabor.
“I caught wind of another vulhena lurking nearby. I arrived just in time to save Tabor’s and Olivia’s tails.”
Tabor rolled his eyes upward.
“You took him down on your own?” Aden asked, sounding impressed.
“Tabor shot an arrow through his heart,” Sasha said begrudgingly.
Aden’s gaze flew to Tabor. He lifted his chin and smiled warmly. “Good work.”
Tabor returned the smile and lifted his bow. “We don’t allow vermin in Wolf Hollow.”
Aden chuckled and nodded in agreement. “No, we don’t,” he said, walking up to the vulhena. He kicked it over onto its back and raised his brows. “Nice shot.”
“Why, thank you.” Tabor swept one arm out and brought the other to his middle, dipping forward.
His arrogance grated on Sasha’s nerves. She was sure he bowed to annoy her. She could practically feel him glance her way with that smug smile on his lips.
“I can dispose of it,” Aden said.
“Most kind of you,” Tabor returned.
Without a second thought, Aden shucked off his faded denim jeans, letting it all hang loose. When he removed his shirt and displayed his solid pecs, Sasha’s throat went dry. He had the best-looking abs of any shifter in Wolf Hollow.
Not wanting Tabor to catch her open admiration of her partner, she looked into the sky pretending to gauge the time. As she did, she could have sworn she saw Tabor shoot her a knowing smirk. Like all the young men in their tribe, life in the wild had put muscles on Tabor and sculpted his body into a state of perfection that might have pleased a potential mate, had it not been for his aggravating temperament.
Sasha forced herself to look only at Aden’s face. “I’ll accompany you,” she said.
He flashed her a friendly smile similar to the one he’d given Tabor when congratulating him on shooting the vulhena.
Aden shifted while standing on two feet, towering above them in one big mass of brown fur.
Tabor cleared his throat meaningfully, doing so again until Sasha reluctantly looked his way.
“Before you go, allow me to remove my shaft from the body.” His eyebrows jumped when he grinned at Sasha.
She narrowed her eyes as he swaggered past, planted a foot on the vulhena’s chest, bent down, gripped the wooden shaft, and pulled it out of the creature’s heart.
Aden grabbed the vulhena by the neck, firmly in his jaws, and dragged it down the knoll.
Hurrying to catch up, Sasha lifted her dress over her head, not caring that Tabor openly watched every inch of fabric as it left her body. She tossed it carelessly onto the ground and, staring at Tabor defiantly, got onto all fours. As her bones contracted and fur covered her body, she caught Tabor’s throat bob as he swallowed, his hungry gaze following her as she hurried away.