All right, it was official - her date had stood her up.
Honestly, it shouldn’t surprise her. Seriously, who took someone on their first date to a bar?
And not even a nice bar. Howl was anything but swanky. With wooden floors that looked like they hadn’t seen polish - or a broom - in a decade, posters of couples in crude positions all over the walls, and the stench of sweat, beer, and sex in the smoky air, it looked like a gigantic version of a man cave.
Speaking of men, there were entirely too many rough-looking individuals here. Admittedly, it made her pause when she drove up and discovered there were more motorcycles than cars parked outside. She loved chrome and fast wheels as much as the next girl, but all the, er, “decorations” - animal skulls, hides, etc. - adorning said motorcycles gave her the heebie-jeebies.
She took another long sip of her beer. What the hell had she been thinking, agreeing to meet a total stranger at a place like this?
Because you’ve been lonely since Seth broke up with you and moved away.
Being the only person left in her high school town, the only one in her old circle of friends who hadn’t gone to college or gotten married, Danica had started to feel pretty damn unwanted. That definitely showed in the extra pounds she’d packed on since the “Epic Breakup.” Since the only people left in the small town of Moonstruck, Arkansas were either the young or the old, it was sparse pickings for friends, and even slimmer prospects for dating. And since her empty bank account said moving was not an option, she’d turned to online dating.
“They worked,” the advertisements said. Countless people on the commercials preached, “I met my soul mate online, and we got married, like, instantly.”
In hindsight, she should have known better. If history had taught her anything, it was “Karma isn’t going to make it easy for you.”
She smiled wryly. “Karma, fifty, Danica, zero.”
Taking another swig of her nearly empty beer, she looked around. For the most part, the men had watched her with curiosity, but they hadn’t come over yet. People seemed to be keeping their distance, which she found odd. She thought she looked damn cute, with tight Jeggings, black ankle boots, and a black see-through tunic that showed off her black lace bra. The bra alone should have at least earned her a “get-to-know-you” beer from somebody. But alas, here she was, sitting by herself at a bar, waiting for a date that obviously was never going to come.
Shouting erupted from across the room as one burly man threw down his pool stick and shoved another man, nearly spilling beer all over the pool table.
From the dais near the table, a tall man stood from the shadows, his silhouette suggesting broad shoulders and a lean torso. The dim lighting revealed dark jeans, a button-down shirt, and a dinner jacket - not the typical biker bar garb the other men wore.
He also wasn’t nearly as stacked as the two guys about to go at it in front of him, yet they took one look at the man and instantly backed down.
Huh. This place was getting weirder by the second.
Danica felt her arms prickle with the sensation of being watched. She looked up to find the mystery man had stepped into the light - and was looking right at her.
Her breath caught.
Okay, the lighting in here sucked, but she could definitely see a defined jawline, a straight nose, and light brown hair that had been styled with a bit of gel. Despite his Adonis-looks and more fashionable wardrobe, he didn’t look any less masculine for it. If anything, it made him look sexier.
Danica sighed, feeling heat building below her navel.
She blinked. Wow, this was an all-time record for her. She’d gone from falling head over heels for a man in a few weeks - i.e. Seth, who’d been a jerk - to lusting for one at first sight. She blamed the fact she hadn’t had sex in six months, at least, not with anything human. Plastic, while cherished, could only get a girl so far.
But she wasn’t about to bring a man home with her tonight. She didn’t want a one-night stand. She wanted romance, flowers. She wanted “the fairy tale,” as Julia Roberts had said.
And something told her she wasn’t going to get that with any of the guys here. Might as well cut her losses and bail.
She’d started to take another sip of her beer, with the intent to finish it, when that pleasant tingling sensation went up her spine. Unable to stop herself, she turned around.
The handsome stranger smiled at her.
And dammit if she didn’t smile back.
Gage’s inner wolf grinned as the luscious blonde tried covering up the smile she’d flashed him. Normally, human women didn’t do it for him, but this one had a sense of spirit about her that was incredibly alluring. The fact her top left little to the imagination in regards to her plump breasts only made him harder.
God, he was so freaking horny. Ever since the mating heat had taken hold of him at the beginning of the month, his cock sprang to life at the mere sight of a little cleavage. It was like going through puberty all over again, a hell he never wished to relive. The heat had only intensified as the month drew to a close. In exactly one week, the Blood Moon would rise, sealing him forever with his mate the first time they made love.
Now, if only he could find a mate.
His best friend and body guard - as if he needed one - came up beside him. He was also his brother. The slightly older wolf wasn’t wearing as much metal tonight as he usually did. His ears were only partially lined with studs, and he’d taken his tongue piercing out. Ink crawled up the wolf’s massive arms, which he showed off in a black tank top, despite the chilly autumn weather. Since wolves ran hotter than humans, due to their animal nature - and especially during mating season - they rarely worried about the change of temperature.
His body guard, Nikolas, nodded in the direction of the bar. “You’ve been eyeing that female since she walked through the door.”
“And?” Gage raised a brow in challenge.
Nik shrugged. “And I can’t blame ya. She’s hot, for a human. Got soft curves too. Wouldn’t be like banging one of our she-wolves, all hard muscle and bones.”
Gage’s rigid dick throbbed with desire at the thought of feeling the woman below him, of his hands moving over her soft, smooth skin. He’d never been with a human before. He wasn’t the type to hold back during sex, and the she-wolves were tough by nature. Humans were fragile. Breakable. He’d feel guilty if he injured a woman during love-making.
Yet the thought of making her dizzy with pleasure never left his mind as he watched the woman down the rest of her beer and snag the bartender to cash out her tab.
Nik chewed on his lip ring. “So I take it you’ve had no luck with the last were-princess I brought you, Your Highness?”
Gage scowled. He knew Nik was aware he hated being called that, which was exactly why Nik did it. Sometimes, he was as childish as a pup. “I’ve… bedded all the princesses you’ve brought me, but alas, I have yet to form a bond with any of them.”
While the sex had been hot, fast, and furious, as it always was between weres, none of his partners had been Marked by his touch.
He swallowed past the lump in his throat.
Nik studied him, then elbowed him lightly. “Think nothing of it. You’ll find your mate before this month’s Blood Moon sets.”
“I have to,” Gage muttered darkly. An unmated packmaster was not worthy of calling himself a King of Wolves. After at last claiming the position of Alpha over that rebellious whelp Malachite only this past month, Gage couldn’t afford to be demoted for the sheer fact he couldn’t find a worthy female to be his mate. But he didn’t get to choose - the magic in his blood did.
His attention snapped forward as the woman, casting him one last look, donned her jacket and purse, then started walking toward the exit. His blue eyes trailed her, unblinking, his heart speeding up. He took a step forward, and Nik grasped his arm.
“Best let that fish return to the sea,” he said. “Your efforts are better spent on courting other royal she-wolves, considering the circumstances.”
Still, he found himself leaning toward the woman, wanting to go with her.
What was the matter with him?
A dark figure moved within the shadows, detaching itself from the wall and following the woman out the door.
Gage’s hackles raised. “Excuse me,” he said, shoving Nik’s hand aside as he stepped off the dais and toward the door.
Nik swore then rubbed his temples. “Don’t say I didn’t warn you!”
Following a gut instinct and feeling half-mad for it, Gage continued his deliberate pace toward the exit, senses wired for danger.
Then he heard her scream.
Danica had gotten all of two steps outside before this shadow lunged out of nowhere and pinned her upside the building.
Skull meet cinder block, she thought as pain exploded along the back of her head.
Disoriented, she scrambled to pull her keychain from her pocket and give this asshole a face full of mace, but he pinned her arms above her head in one massive hand. His elbow drove into her windpipe, threatening to crush it.
God, this guy was super-strong. Could steroids do that?
She struggled to remain calm as her lungs screamed for air.
The man was tall, with a dark coat and hat that hid his face.
All but his eyes. They seemed to glow gold, but that was impossible. It had to be the dim lightning, and a combination of being a little buzzed and probably having a concussion. She stomped her heel on the man’s foot, but he never so much as flinched. She started to bring her leg up, with the intention of kneeing him in the groin, but he pressed his full body weight against her, stopping her cold.
“Ah, ah, ah,” the man purred in a scratchy voice. “This doesn’t have to be difficult.”
“What… doesn’t?” she gritted out, afraid to ask.
He grinned, showing the points of fangs. All his teeth looked like they’d been filed to a point, and his gold eyes blazed brighter. “Your death.”
Fear took over, throttling her heart rate.
He chuckled, then ran his hot tongue over her cheek, making her cringe. “You looked lovely tonight, by the way. Thanks for dressing up for me.”
What was he talking about?
The realization hit her with the force of a two-by-four. Oh, my God. He was supposed to be my date!
She’d never actually met the stranger she’d been talking online with for two weeks now. He’d seemed so understanding, so perfect.
Should have known better.
Now, for her stupidity, she was going to die out here in the woods, after he’d done God knows what to her.
“Hmmm,” he purred. She could feel his bulge against her thigh, turning her stomach. “I wish I had more time. Might be fun to fuck a queen.”
Queen? Now, she knew this guy was crazy.
The man licked his lips. “Any last words, sweets?”
Danica trembled, her brain paralyzed by terror. It occurred to her how much more she could have done with her life, if she’d only had more time. She felt stupid for taking it all for granted. But most of all, she felt angry. Really, really angry.
This wasn’t how it was supposed to end. It was supposed to end sixty years from now, with her spending the last years of her life with the man she loved.
Now, she’d never get a chance to meet him.
She thrashed, but that only made Crazy drive his elbow harder into her windpipe. Her lungs screamed for oxygen as she tried clawing at his hands, but she might as well have been scraping at cement for all the good it did her.
“Yeah, I have some last words,” a deep voice said from behind the man. “Get your paws off her, Onyx.”
The man didn’t spare a glance over his shoulder. He smiled. “Well, if it isn’t the King of the Moonstruck Pack himself - Gage Johnson.”
Danica peered past Onyx’s shoulder, and her eyes widened. It was the handsome stranger who’d eyed her from the dais, like she was a piece of candy he couldn’t wait to eat.
That intense heat spread below her navel, warming her despite the chill Onyx’s death threat had left in her bones.
What the hell was wrong with her? Clearly, she was caught up in the middle of some gang-related violence, and she was horny?
It had to be something they’d done to the beer. So help her, she was never having another drink again.
Gage stepped forward, one deliberate step at a time. “You’re on my soil, Onyx. What’s a Nightshade wolf like you doing all the way out here, I wonder?”
“Just passing by,” Onyx replied smoothly, still not letting up on her throat. Stars started to blue the edge of her vision. Soon, she’d black out altogether. She clawed at Onyx’s hands, but his attention was fully on Gage.
Gage cracked his knuckles. “You must think I’m pretty damn stupid to believe that.”
Onyx’s toothy grin widened. “Almost as stupid as you leaving your mate unprotected.”
Gage’s eyes flickered to her. “What are you talking about? Let’s get real. She’s human.”
Onyx shrugged. “Your loss.” He took advantage of the other man’s surprise. He threw Danica down hard, swinging out with his other hand, fist angled for Gage’s jaw.
Gage’s reflexes were crazy, because he ducked and followed up with an uppercut that connected with Onyx’s chin, sending him staggering back.
Onyx wasn’t down for the count for long. He lunged at Gage, snarling, getting in a swipe at the man’s ribcage before Gage blocked his assault and decked Onyx hard across the cheek.
Danica watched in morbid fascination from her lovely view on the ground as she waited for her world to stop spinning. Her temple had connected with someone’s bumper on the way down, making her whole face hurt from the impact.
The men moved in blurs. Onyx’s hat flew off, revealing the outline of a pentagram on his neck. A word was scribbled at its center in another language.
Gage yowled as Onyx raked his nails - which had morphed into claws - across his face, leaving behind marks.
She blinked. That had to be her imagination, something brought on by the terror flooding her veins and the tampered beer.
She had to do something. She couldn’t just lay there, helpless. Getting to her feet, she grabbed her keychain. “Hey, asshole!”
Onyx looked over with a snarl, and she let the pepper spray fly.
It hit him square in the eyes. He howled with fury, clenching his eyes shut while he stumbled about blindly for a few seconds.
Gage wasted no time. He seized the man’s head.
Danica realized with dread what was about to happen. “No-!”
As Gage started to twist, Onyx grabbed something from his pocket and threw it at the ground. A pillar of black smoke went up, crackling with purple electricity. Gage cursed, shaking out his hands.
The smoke billowed for a bit, then it was sucked backward into the object Onyx had thrown on the ground. It was a silver locket, which split apart the moment the smoke had cleared.
Danica stood there, trembling so badly she thought she might shake herself apart. Holy crap. Did she just see that? A scream slowly built in her throat, but it never came. Her legs gave out, and Gage rushed forward to catch her.
He pulled her to him, tucking her head against his chest. “I’m sorry,” he muttered against her hair.
“What… was that?” she blubbered.
“A cloaking charm,” he said gravely.
She pushed away from him, shaking her head and stumbling about. He reached to steady her, but she stepped out of his grasp. “Cloaking charms, packs, wolves… what the hell are you?”
“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you, love,” Gage murmured with a hint of humor.
“So, my date from hell just up and vanished into thin air?”
“Something to that effect, yes,” he said without hesitation.
She laughed, sounding more than a little loony. This whole night had taken a turn toward the insane. She never should have come here.
“Somebody slipped something into my drink,” Danica said. “That’s it. I’m having some kind of hallucination. About creepy dude, my hot rescuer-”
“You think I’m hot?” he said with a smile.
She shrugged. “You can’t be real, so why the hell not? Yes. You’re hot. With a capital H.” She looked around and found her keys lying a few feet away. Falling to her knees, she snagged them then used a car hood to help pull herself up.
“Where do you think you’re going?” Gage said, following her.
“To the ER,” she said, trying to remember where she’d parked. It shouldn’t be hard. She was one of the few people who’d drove a car. “I need to get a bloodtest, see what kind of drug this is.”
“Your blood is fine,” Gage said, grabbing her arm.
She jerked free and rounded on him. “Don’t tell me it’s fine! I just freaked out and thought someone tried to kill me!”
“That’s because someone did try to kill you!”
“Oh, right. So says the hallucination. I’m probably standing out here right now talking to myself.”
“This is no dream.”
She stared at him. He looked so serious.
And so delectable.
Damn, my imagination can cook up a stud.
Her eyes dipped to his mouth. She swore she heard him take in a sharp breath, that his eyes darkened - then flashed gold.
Her mouth went dry. “I have to get out of here.”
She started to turn again when Gage grabbed her, this time by the wrist. “Wait. You’re not safe.”
“No shit? I’m in the middle of nowhere, I’ve clearly been drugged, and I should probably-”
All the warning she had was a strange tingling along the back of her hand before blue light lit up the area, shooting straight out of her.
Danica shrieked. “What’s happening?”
Gage swore, staring at her hand. “It can’t be…”
Danica held her breath, staring at the light, too afraid to move. This couldn’t be happening. Light didn’t just shoot out of people’s skin.
But it sure as hell looked like that was what it was doing. It was gone as quickly as it came, dissolving into a pretty, shimmering crescent moon marking. “What the hell?” she muttered when she’d recovered enough of her senses. She examined her hand, turning it every which way. Licking her thumb, she rubbed it against the mark. “It won’t come off! What the hell is this?” she said, her voice ratcheting up in pitch.
Gage sighed, looking grave and awed at the same time. “That, my dear, would be the Blood Moon Mark.”
“Am I supposed to know what the hell that means?” Danica said, tasting panic.
“It means,” Gage said, pulling her to him and staring down into her eyes, “that you are my mate.”
“Excuse me, I’m your what?”
Gage stared at the Mark. I don’t believe it. “This can’t be possible,” he murmured. “You’re human.”
“Right now, I’m apparently high,” the woman said. “I need medical treatment.”
“You need to come with me.” He had no idea what the hell this meant, but he knew he would be a fool to stay here. There was a chance Onyx could come back to finish the job.
Gage started to pull her away when she dug in her heels and pulled back. “Whoa, cowboy, I’m not going anywhere with you.”
Her willfulness was not unlike the she-wolves he bedded. It was one of their more enticing traits. The promise of a challenge only served to pump more blood south of his navel. “Do I have to pick you up and carry you?”
She crossed her arms. “I dare you.”
Shouldn’t have done that.
He reached under her knees, lifting her into his arms as if she weighed no more than a feather.
“Hey!” She struggled, and he tightened his grip. “What do you think you’re doing?”
“You did dare me,” he said, smiling slightly.
“Put me down! Help!” A few men - all weres - came out of the bar, took one look at them, and chuckled.
“Oh, my God,” she said, digging her hands into her hair. “I’ve decided to have date-night in psycho central. You’re kidnapping me. You’re going to kill me.”
“I’m not going to kill you,” Gage said, rolling his eyes. “But that other man might.”
“This is a dream,” she said, not even listening to him. “That’s it, I’m dreaming. This can’t be real. Nothing this effed up would happen to me in real life. My life is boring. Predictable. Safe.”
Gage sighed in agitation. “Well, for someone who’s supposedly so ‘safe’ and ‘boring,’ you sure do cause a lot of trouble.”
She scowled at him, but he smelled the desire wafting off her like perfume. His dick quivered, putting a hitch in his step. God, if he didn’t hurry up and get her home - and away from him - then he might just lay her off in the nearby grass and take her now and then.
Damn this mating fever!
He walked on with determination. His queen deserved more than a roll on the grass, even if most she-wolves didn’t mind it. He had to remind himself she was not a she-wolf, at least, not yet, though she would start exhibiting the traits of one since being Marked. Besides, he wanted her to want to mate with him. Call him old-fashioned, but he’d always had this image of true love and finding “the one” to spend his life with. Maybe this was his chance.
That is, if this wasn’t some cosmic mistake.
Once they got to his Audi, he tucked her into the backseat, and he slid in beside her. She didn’t go in easily; she kicked and shoved the whole time. It was cute.
When they were inside, he locked the doors right as she was reaching for the handle. She pulled, but nothing happened. “Is this the part where you break out the knife?”
If he rolled his eyes one more time, they were going to roll right out of his head. “For the last time, I’m not a serial killer.”
“Then you’re a rapist.”
“Really? We’re going to play this game?”
“This isn’t a game. This is serious! Why are you laughing?”
Lord help him. Maybe he should have let Onyx knock her out to save his sanity. He wasn’t even sure mating was worth this.
She crossed her arms, pouting and looking all the more adorable for it. The fact she looked adorable while being such a pain in the ass only irked him more. “I’m not laughing at you,” Gage said with all the care of speaking to a temperamental child. “You’re just overreacting.”
“Overreacting? Are you kidding me? I’ve been drugged and I’m having kidnapping fantasies!”
“Just keep telling yourself that, sweetheart,” he muttered, growing impatient. He pulled out his phone and pressed 1 on his speed dial.
Nik picked up on the first ring. “Hey, there, Master. Need me to bail you out of trouble with the little lady?”
“Onyx was here.”
“What?” Nik growled. Gage heard footsteps - the wolf was probably on his way out now. “What the hell is a Nightshade wolf doing here?”
“That’s exactly what I’d like to know. We’re in the car. Hurry.”
“… the girl and I. I’ve Marked her.”
There was a moment of stunned silence. Nik swore, then the line went dead. A few seconds later, Nik climbed in the driver’s seat and revved the engine. “Crescent Manor, my liege?”
“Yes,” Gage clipped. His thoughts were too overrun by the girl to reprimand Nik’s use of a royal title.
Tires spun as Nik gunned the gas pedal. The woman toppled over, and Gage steadied her. She looked up at him through her dark lashes. Her eyes were green, the color of summer grass. Staring up at him, she looked so vulnerable. He resisted the urge to pull her closer when she cleared her throat and blinked, then moved back over into her seat.
Nik pressed a button on the dash, and a wall of tinted glass rose up, separating the front from the back.
Gage almost begged him to keep it down, to not leave him back here with this crazy woman whom he was starting to doubt more and more was his mate. Too late, the glass closed shut. Gage looked at the woman, who sat staring straight forward with a blank look on her face and her arms crossed over her chest. “You’re oddly silent.”
“That’s because I’ve decided I’m dreaming. And nothing can happen to you in a dream, right?”
Gage felt pressure start to build between his brows. What he wouldn’t give for some aspirin right about now - or a very stout drink.
He caught movement from his eye. Her hands, which were piled in her lap, were trembling.
His eyes softened. Of course she was scared. The poor woman had been viciously attacked, and now she thought she was drugged. Given the situation, he would probably overreact too if he were in her shoes. The strange sense to chase her fears away and make things better overcame him. With too many other things on his mind to think about it, he reached over and grabbed her hands, taking them into his own. Her hands were so delicate compared to his, so soft. “Don’t be afraid,” he said gently. “I will not harm you.”
“Why else would you take me, if not to have your way with me?” she said simply, though he caught a quaver in her voice.
He winced. “I promise you, my lady, I have no intention of hurting you.”
She stilled somewhat, closing her eyes and taking a deep breath. “I need water, to help flush this stuff out of my system.”
“You’re not drugged,” he insisted, “but I shall have Mary give you some ice water once we get to my house. I’ll have her draw a hot bubble bath for you, as well.”
She stared at him, mouth open in shock. “You have servants?”
He looked away. “Yes. It comes with the title.”
“Are you like a CEO or something?”
He snorted. If she was pretending not to know anything about the Underworld, she was doing a good job. Then again, most humans weren’t aware of the supernatural creatures that walked the earth alongside them. “Something like that,” he said.
She seemed to be calming down, her curiosity taking over. “If you’re such a big shot, what was a guy like you doing in a bar like that? It didn’t exactly scream opulence.”
“That was the beauty of it,” Gage said, letting go of her hands now that they’d stopped shaking. He leaned back in his seat and stared pensively out the window. “I came from a normal family. I had to fight my way to riches and power. I guess I wanted to be reminded of home.”
She cocked her head at him, blinking as if surprised. The way her blonde hair shone in the moonlight coming through the window… was she aware how beautiful she was?
He blinked. First, he thought she was crazy, now he was getting all sentimental over a little moonlight? The fever sure did behave in strange ways.
“What’s your name?” he asked, trying to distract himself.
She swallowed, staring back at him unblinkingly. “Danica. Danica Williams.”
“Gage Johnson,” he said, offering her his hand. She stared at it, then reluctantly took it. At the last minute, almost as an afterthought, he brought it to his lips and kissed it. “A pleasure, Danica.”
She shivered. Her coat had been nearly ripped off during the assault, as had her sheer blouse. The lace bra was see-through, showing a tight cherry nub begging for Gage to suck it. He watched it round and harden to a point, her breasts rising and falling as her breath quickened.
Without meaning to, he found himself leaning in to her, his hand reaching for her waist.
Her pupils dilated. He could smell the lust coming off her, as surely as his own suddenly saturated the car. She licked her lips as his mouth hovered closer to hers. “Might as well enjoy the fantasy right?” she whispered, closing her eyes.
He stalled. Oh, he could give her a fantasy, all right, as he had many she-wolves. Fantasies were what he specialized in. Except for tonight.
Squeezing his eyes shut while he composed himself, he leaned back against the seat.
She opened her eyes and blushed when she realized he wasn’t about to kiss her. Falling back with a “hmph,” she crossed her arms and said, “Weird. What type of fantasy doesn’t allow you to control it?”
He groaned. This was going to be a long night.
An uncomfortable - albeit, lust-charged - silence stretched between them for the rest of the drive. Danica had no idea what to believe right now. Part of her thought, “Break the windows, stupid! Get the hell away from this guy!” and the other part of her was content believing this was some kind of half-baked fantasy her drug-addled brain had cooked up. After all, there weren’t such things as men with glowing eyes, claws for hands, or razor-sharp teeth. It had to be drugs. In a few hours, she’d probably wake up to the sound of her alarm, press snooze a half dozen times like she usually did, and finally drag her ass out of bed to barely make it to her day job from hell.
She sighed, leaning her head against the cool glass. In a way, the fantasy was fun, if not confusing. It was the most excitement she’d had in a long time, like something out of a movie or one of the romance novels she read where the handsome knight showed up to save the beautiful princess. If only someone would save her from her loneliness. She didn’t like to admit it, but she missed Seth. No, not Seth necessarily, as a boyfriend. She missed the friendship she’d had with him before they decided to try dating and things went to hell.
That weird prickling sensation went off inside her head, and she looked over to find Gage staring at her. He looked away at the last moment. She crossed her arms, smiling smugly. “I caught you.”
“What?” he said, trying to sound bored.
“I caught you staring.”
“I was looking out your window.”
“Because yours wasn’t good enough?”
He gave her a bland look, at which she smiled wider. She stared at her hand. What kind of guy kissed a girl’s hand? She thought that kind of stuff only happened in movies. Her loins tightened as a shiver of desire rolled through her, and she decided to do what she did best when she was nervous: ramble. “So, were you, um, raised around here?”
“Up north, in Kentucky.”
“Oh. I’ve never been there.”
He smiled, casting her a sideways glance. “You’ll have to go there someday.”
“With you?” she wanted to ask, but kept her mouth shut. The thought of going off alone somewhere with her knight-in-shining-armor made her sex tingle with anticipation. Her shoulders started to relax. This dream was kind of fun, like a date. Typical she could only get a date with a dream guy.
How sad is that?
“Are you from Arkansas?” Gage asked in that deep, silky voice. Lounged in the seat with the top few buttons of his shirt open and his elbow propped up under his chin, he looked like he was posing for a magazine cover.
Her mouth began to water. “Um, yeah. Born and bred,” she said lamely. She felt stupid for admitting it. He seemed like such a worldly man. If he didn’t think of her as a country bumpkin before, he surely did now.
To her surprise, he responded, “Nothing wrong with that. I would have stayed put myself if I could have.”
It was an almost imperceptible shift, but still something she picked up on from judging people’s moods her whole life. His expression became guarded, and his jaw tensed, like he was erecting an invisible barrier between them. She had the sense that whatever had caused him to leave hadn’t been good.
Wetting her lips, she was scratching her brain for another “safe” topic when something white shone from her peripheral vision, and she turned her head.
She blinked. “Holy shit.”
It sat on a hill in the distance - and they were heading right toward it. It was the biggest house Danica had ever seen. No, scratch “house” - this was a “mansion.”
Greek sculptures lined the drive, alternating with tall, perfectly primed bushes. A huge fountain stood in the center of the wraparound driveway, and spotlights shone on the Greek columns holding up the balcony that stretched across the front of the manor. A marble sign out front said “Crescent Manor” in elegant script. The driveway was made up of that expensive pea gravel she always saw on the TV at rich people’s homes.
“Wow,” Danica breathed again as they pulled up to the staircase leading to the sweeping porch. “This is where you live?”
“Do you like it?” Gage asked, sounding hopeful.
“It’s beautiful,” Danica said, still taking it all in. It beat the hell out of the roach-infested shack she called home.
The driver, a wild-looking man with tats all over his arms, opened the door for her and offered her his hand. “My lady?”
What was with the formal talk? “Er, thanks.” She took his hand and let him help her out. His eyes darted to her chest. With a blush, she realized her blouse was still hanging off her shoulder. Covering herself up quickly, she stepped aside as Gage got out and growled at the other man.
He grinned and held up his hands. “Easy, there. You know I wouldn’t dare.”
“Then keep your eyes to yourself.”
Gage put a hand on the small of her back and guided her up the stairs and across the porch.
And he took the princess back to his castle….
The door opened before they’d even gotten close. A middle-aged man clad in solid black with a red tie stood there, bowing as they passed. “Welcome home, sire. I trust your trip was pleasant?”
“As always, Malcolm.” Gage smiled warmly at the butler, clapping a hand on his shoulder. “Would you mind telling Mary to prepare the Crystal Room and to draw our guest a bath?”
“Certainly.” Malcolm’s eyes fell to Danica’s hand, and he stilled. “I don’t believe it. You found her.”
She looked at her hand, at the shimmery blue moon. “Oh, this? Yeah, I must have gotten drunk and tattooed myself or something. Pretty crazy, huh?”
Neither of the men laughed at her attempt at humor. They looked at each other. Something unreadable passed over Gage’s face, then it was gone. “I hope so.”
Huh? Hope for what? Once again, she felt one chapter behind the class.
Malcolm at once took her hand and dropped to one knee, bowing his head low. “My lady, let me swear my allegiance now. I gladly serve the queen of the Moonstruck Cl-”
“That’s quite all right, Malcolm,” Gage said loudly, grasping the older man by his shoulders and helping him to his feet. He leaned in, whispering something into the butler’s ear while Danica stared, puzzled.
Malcolm’s eyes widened. “Oh. I thought I smelled something different about her. I see.” Malcolm, without saying another word, bowed and took off toward one of two staircases at either end of the large foyer.
Danica stared after him, then at Gage. “What the hell was that?”
“What was what?” he asked innocently.
“The whole bowing and swearing allegiance thing. Are you, like, some kind of foreign dignitary or something?”
“It’s hard to explain,” Gage said, running a hand through his hair. She wouldn’t mind running her hands through it herself, but she was a good girl and kept them by her side. “Care to let me in on the big secret?”
Gage actually looked scared for a second before his calm, suave mask slipped back into place. “Soon. I promise.”
“You know, you can’t avoid the topic forever. You’re gonna have to-” She sneezed, shivering. Gross! Snot was the worst in front of a hot guy, dream or not.
Gage frowned, feeling her skin. “You’re cold as ice. You need a bath to warm up before you catch a cold.”
Before she could argue, he had wrapped an arm around her waist and was guiding her up the stairs.
She looked around the foyer as they walked, her curious nature taking over. The room looked like it could have been used in a Jane Austen movie. Gleaming pearl floors, silver candelabra everywhere, with fur rugs and vases overflowing with roses adorned the place. Paintings of landscapes, particularly those of the Arkansas landscapes, hung along the walls. Most of them were of night scenes - moon overlooking a lake, moon shining through trees. Most also had wolves featured in them.
“What do you think?” Gage asked, studying her.
“I think it looks expensive.”
He chuckled. “Each… leader of my, er, business has lived in this house over the decades. We’ve had a lot of time to accumulate junk.”
“A lot of pricey junk.”
He offered her his arm. “May I?”
Secretly, she preferred the feel of his strong arm around her waist, but it was just so flipping romantic. It made her feel like a lady and not a hair salon secretary/bitch who earned minimum wage and ate raman for dinner.
As she stared into his hopeful eyes, her heart skipped a beat. It had no business whatsoever getting pitter-pattery with her. She still had no idea who this guy really was. At least, that’s what her common sense kept telling her as she let him guide her up one of the stairwells and down a long hallway on the second floor. It’s just a dream, she told herself. Just go with it.
You should find a phone and call the police! her common sense sang.
She sighed inwardly. Honestly, her CS was ruining her wet dream. While a good idea - you know, if the dream had actually been real - truth was, Danica didn’t want to wake up. She didn’t want to admit her life was nothing special, and she was starting to slip into depression thanks to her loneliness.
None of her family was left in Moonstruck, not that they’d care what happened to her anyway. Her mom certainly hadn’t when she’d run off with her boyfriend the day Danica had turned eighteen, leaving her to fend for herself. Who knew where her dad was. She’d given up looking for him after ten years of no contact. Some people didn’t want to be found. She wasn’t sure what she’d say to him if she did.
Pushing back those depressing thoughts, she lost her breath again when Gage led her to a beautiful room dripping in crystals.
“We call this the Crystal Room,” he said.
“No kidding. It’s so sparkly.”
Crystals were embroidered in the silver curtains and along the silver and champagne-colored comforter. The four poster bed was surrounded by crystal beads, as was the huge circular whirlpool tub she could see in the adjoining bathroom. Several pillar candles and candelabra had been lit, giving the room a soft, feminine feel, and pitching rainbows along the floor and walls when the light caught the crystals. Double French doors stood at the opposite end of the room, leading to the balcony. Malcolm knelt before the fireplace, getting a fire started.
“Is this her?”
Danica turned as an elderly woman dressed in a simple black dress with red trimmings scurried up to her. She looked about ninety, considering all the wrinkles folding her tanned skin. She gripped Danica’s hands, tears shining in her eyes. “Bless you, dear! I was worried our poor master wouldn’t find his mate in time!”
“Um,” Danica said, smiling because she didn’t want to be rude, “I’m sorry, I think there’s been some mistake.” She looked to Gage, raising a brow.
Gage rested a hand on the lady’s shoulder, smiling kindly. “Mary, Lady Danica doesn’t know all the details yet.”
Mary, frowning, turned to Danica - and sniffed her hair.
Danica’s brows shot up. Were all these people on crack? She’d been reading too many fantasy books lately.
Mary gasped. “Oh. I see. How surprising.”
Danica nearly growled from frustration. “How? How is that surprising? Is she talking about the type of conditioner I use? It is surprising it works so well, being as cheap as it is.”
Gage sighed and rubbed his temples. “I’m sorry, Danica. I’ll explain everything later, after you’re rested. Mary’s prepared a bath for you, if you’d like to get clean and take some time to relax. I’ll find a doctor and have him tend to your injuries afterward.”
“I’m fine,” she said, not wanting to be a bother. Which was stupid, because this was a dream, anyway. My, how polite her fantasy men were!
He frowned, not looking like he believed her, but he didn’t push the topic. “I also believe you said you wanted water, am I right?”
“Um, sure. Please.” She was parched. Must be the happy-beer.
“Miss Mary,” Gage said, “would you please get Lady Danica a glass of ice water?”
Mary smiled. “Sure.” She patted Danica’s cheek before scampering out of the room.
Lady Danica. Hmmm… must be part of some weird custom rich people do.
Malcolm, having finished the fire, left with Mary. Gage turned to Danica. “I know this is a lot to take in, but know while you are under my roof, you will come to no harm.”
“Sure. That’s why you kidnapped me, to protect me, right?”
“You didn’t seem to object back in the car,” he said huskily.
No, she sure hadn’t. Her cheeks heated at the reminder he hadn’t kissed her. Clearing her throat, she looked away, thankful the lighting was dim so he wouldn’t see her blush. Licking her lips, she said, “So, are you going to watch me undress, or give me some privacy?”
“Which would you prefer?”
There was that teasing, sultry tone again. Why was he flirting if he wouldn’t take advantage of what she was putting out? It was her dream, dammit! The sound of his voice made her sex quiver; it hadn’t stopped tingling since that weird Mark appeared on her hand. “A gentleman would leave.” It was the wise response. All she wanted to do was invite him to join her, but she knew so little about him.
Didn’t stop you from wanting to tongue him in the car.
Good grief, her conscience was super-chatty tonight.
Gage smiled, looking wicked and sexy. “As you wish, my lady.”
Nodding, he turned and closed the doors behind him, his gaze roving down and back up her body.
That suggestive gesture alone was almost enough to make her run after him, but she stood firm. A bath did sound amazing, and whatever oil was scenting the water made the whole suite smell like roses, her favorite flower.
Undressing, she gingerly lowered herself in the tub and sat back, trying to relax. She had no idea why she was dreaming about a bubble bath, but whatever. It was like a collection of her favorite things - bubble baths, hot men, a huge freaking house….
Popping bubbles with her toes, she smiled. All in all, not a bad dream. Sure, the earlier part had been pretty shitty, more of a nightmare, really, but this was nice. If every dream were like this, she never wanted to wake up. This was every little girl’s fantasy, to be swept away by the handsome prince and live happily ever after. She had no idea why she was thinking of “happily ever after” with a make-believe guy, but she felt a strong pull toward him she’d never felt with Seth. Sad, but true. She’d also thought he’d been the love of her life, that is, until he ripped her heart out by saying she wasn’t the type of girl a future doctor would marry. As if.
Irritated with herself for breaking her cardinal rule - never spend time thinking about jerks who wouldn’t spend a second thinking about you - Danica laid her head back and closed her eyes.
Something delicate tinkled beside her, and she nearly jumped out of her skin when she opened her eyes and found Mary offering her a glass of water.
“Jeez!” Danica said, heart hammering against her sternum. “You’re like a ninja.”
Mary smiled pleasantly. “It comes with being a wolf.”
The hell? “A wolf?”
“Oh, yes. Stealth is one of the attributes all werewolves share.” She said it as if she’d been merely commenting on the weather.
Danica stared at her as if her hair had caught fire. Maybe she had Alzheimer's and didn’t realize what she was saying. “I see.”
Mary, still smiling, dipped into a little curtsy and scurried out of the room. A moment later, Danica heard the doors to her suite close, signaling she was alone.
Werewolves. A secret mansion in the middle of the woods. Strange markings on her hands and on that guy Onyx’s neck. Golden eyes, mates….
She giggled. She always thought the best part about all those Twilight movies was getting to see the shirtless werewolves. And considering she’d just read a werewolf romance the other night, it made sense she was dreaming about them.
Sipping on her water, she leisurely rinsed herself off, feeling sleep coming on.
Which was weird, since she was already technically supposed to be asleep.
Brushing it aside, she finished up her bath, toweled off, and found a change of clothes had been laid out for her on the bed. It was an elegant red silk nightgown that was perhaps a little flashier than what she would regularly wear to bed. She admired the way the firelight bounced off the silk. It was so pretty. She’d always wanted to wear something as sexy as this, but showing so much skin always made her self-conscious. As Seth got older, he tended to favor more athletic types, always bringing up her curves and the topics of “diet” and “exercise” as often as he could.
But he’s not around anymore. What’s the harm in trying it on?
She chewed her lip. It was her favorite color. Not seeing any other options, she pulled it on, liking how it dipped low to show off her breasts. Pulling on the matching robe lying on the bed, Danica went over to the mirror, admiring herself. She looked different, bolder.
Moonlight spilled in through the open sheer curtains, landing on her skin and making it tingle.
She felt it build in her throat first, then her mouth stretched in a yawn.
She paused, a sliver of fear creeping into her chest. Why was she yawning? Never once had she dreamed about yawning. Then again, she usually couldn’t remember those dreams.
Chewing on her lip, she slowly reached up and pinched herself as hard as she could.
She stared at the red mark on her arm in disbelief. Then pinched herself again. And again, until her arm was red with the truth of the matter.
That she wasn’t really asleep.
And she really had been kidnapped by a gorgeous, mysterious stranger.
After suffering through a half hour of listening to his packmates argue, Gage’s head was ready to explode. This was exactly why he avoided get-togethers, like holiday meals, with this unruly crew. The food would end up decorating his walls, along with the blood spilled when their brawls inevitably got out of control. It’d start with “He offended me,” “I had to defend my honor,” and BAM! Full-blown pack fight.
He sighed. Family. Gotta love them.
Gage had barely paid attention throughout the meeting after explaining what had went down at the bar. He was too distracted by the thought of his future mate barely dressed, looking so sweet and ripe for the picking as she stood outside the door to the bathroom. He had wanted to close the suite off, strip her naked, then join her in the tub, but business called first.
Like who the hell had dared kill his queen.
“I’m telling you, this has Black Witch all over it,” Erik said. The older, more solemn wolf’s eyes darkened to a shade as black as his long hair.
Murmurs of agreement rose from the table, the only thing they’d been able to agree on. Well, at least, with the “witch” part. Black Witches were as rare as an eclipse. Theories - which had quickly turned into arguments - sprang up, and before long the room was once again filled with the voices of his blood brothers.
Gage thrummed his fingers across the massive, wooden table. He had had about enough of this chatter. Action was needed - and quickly. Threats were like roaches; they grew in number if not snuffed out quickly. “All right.”
The room immediately fell silent at his voice.
Gage stood. “Obviously, someone knew Danica was my future mate. They must have wanted to kill her so I would lose my position within this pack. To what other things they hoped to gain is something we must investigate. I say we start with men and women who have been vying for the position and lost in the past, someone with a vendetta. Erik is right - considering how Onyx had vanished and the fact he knew who my mate was before I did, a witch is involved. I want every packmember questioned about their recent encounters with witches. Find out who they go to. Interview witches and warlocks yourselves, if you must. We need to know who recently purchased any premonitions.”
His packmates fisted their hands over their hearts, bowing their heads to Gage.
“Erik, Nik. A word. The rest of you are dismissed. Report back to me the minute you find anything.”
The two wolves made their way over to Gage as the rest of the room cleared out. Gage lowered his voice. “I want you two shadowing Danica at every turn. Do not let her out of your sight.”
“Ever?” Nik prodded with a grin.
Gage frowned. “You know what I mean.”
“Yes, sir,” Nik said with a salute. “Speaking of Danica, I believe she’s at the door.”
Gage’s eyes snapped up. Sure enough, a blonde head poked in, as well as a touch of crimson.
Ah. So she was wearing the ensemble he had Mary lay out for her. He couldn’t wait to see it on her. He could already feel his body temperature rising at the thought of what lay beneath that soft silk, of the bare skin that was probably softer still.
“Excuse me, gentlemen,” Gage said, heart picking up its pace. “But I’d like a moment alone with my mate.”
Erik smiled, clasping Gage’s shoulder. “I am happy for you, sire.”
“As am I.” Gage smiled, though it felt stiff. What if he was getting his hopes up too soon? What if this was never meant to be? She was a human. To his knowledge, no other packmaster in the history of all werewolf lore had ever bonded to a human. They were always other royal weres. Not to mention she thought she was either drugged or dreaming. How would she react when she found out he truly had, in a weird sense of chivalry, kidnapped her?
Erik left while Nik gestured for Danica to enter.
Slowly, she walked inside, like a doe cautiously entering a meadow, eyes searching for a hunter.
Gage’s inner wolf became interested. Oh, how he wished to hunt her….
Once the door was shut, he clasped his hands in front of him. She was ravishing. The silk suggested curves, and the outline of her nipples through the material made him begin to harden.
Damn it all. Was he ever going to be able to concentrate while she was near?
His heart skipped a beat, sending an unpleasant bolt of fear through him he was entirely unaccustomed to. It took a moment to realize what sparked it.
He was afraid of losing her. More than that, he feared she may never love him.
Thing is, he didn’t know he wanted her to until he’d Marked her.
“May I assist you with something, my lady?” Gage at last asked, noting his voice sounded significantly rougher.
She looked pale and frightened, but determined. “Yeah. You can.”
Her hand slipped into her robe, producing a large dagger.
Danica fought not to let her hand shake. Dammit, why couldn’t she flip a badass switch and go all Buffy on this dude?
This very hot, enticing dude.
“There’s no phone, like, anywhere. But there are all these handy, decorative knives hanging all over the walls outside this room,” she rambled. Inwardly, she winced. Way to sound intimidating and not take any shit, Danica.
Gage stared at her. “As I said, my predecessors collected antiques. And we don’t have a landline. It was disconnected years ago when we moved to using cell phones. Why? Were you wanting to call your family?”
“I wanted to call the police. I know I’m not drunk,” she said, proud she’d kept her voice steady. “I don’t feel drunk. I’ve pinched myself silly out in the hall after hearing you guys talk, and I haven’t woken up yet. The only thing I can deduct is this is real, and I want you to let me go, right now.”
Gage didn’t reply for a long while. He stood there, staring at her, an amused sparkle in his eyes. “Is that really what you want?”
Hell, no, that wasn’t what she wanted. Her raging libido wanted him to strip her naked and screw her on the bearskin rug in front of the fireplace a few feet away.
“Yes,” she finally said, throat tighter.
She blinked. “I did not.”
Gage took a step forward.
Danica stood her ground. “Stay back!” she said, brandishing the knife like a circus performer would a chair at an angry lion.
Gage smiled. “Make me.”
Danica swallowed as he pressed his chest against the tip of the knife. Her heart pounded in her ears as he trailed his finger along the blunt side of the blade. “No one’s drawn a knife on me in a long time,” he said.
“Why? Because you’re some big, scary mob boss?”
That bemused sparkle returned to his eyes. “Something to that effect.”
His eyes, she noticed were vibrant blue tinged in gold around the irises. The firelight caught the gold in his eyes, enhancing it. Her breath quickened, and she licked her lips. “You don’t scare me.”
He raised a brow. “No?”
It happened in the blink of an eye. One moment, she was fantasizing what he would look like without his shirt on, and the next, he’d disarmed her and had swept her up in a passionate kiss.
Danica’s eyes widened, startled. She started to protest when his tongue began tangling with hers, and she forgot how to think. His kisses were hungry, desperate, like he was starving for her taste. Losing herself, she wrapped her arms around his neck as he shoved her up against the wall. His rough palm moved along her thigh, gripping behind her knee and hoisting her leg around his hip. His hand trailed to her ass, squeezing. She moaned, nipping at his lip, and he chuckled.
“You’re demanding,” he said. “Good. My mate needs to be.”
There he went with that mate stuff again. She was about to demand an explanation when his head dipped lower, trailing kisses along the crest of her breasts. His mouth hovered over one of her nipples, tonguing and teasing it through the fabric. Her back arched, and she pressed her breast into his mouth, wanting him to remove the barrier between it and his tongue. He pulled the neckline down, baring her chest before squeezing her breasts together and sucking on each nipple, teasing them until they ached.
She clawed at the wall with one hand as his tongue worked, slipping her fingers into his hair and holding him to her breasts. His hands roved her body, stroking up and down along her sides, feeling her curves through the soft robe. It was so thin that she could feel the heat off his hands wherever they went. God, he was hot, like an inferno. One hand cupped her, and he rolled his thumb along her sex, pushing her closer to the edge. An ache built deep within her, the need to spread her legs and invite him in growing as he sucked and nipped and rubbed. She reached down and stroked his crotch. A feral groan rose from deep within his throat as he pressed himself against her hand, rubbing, as if he wanted to be inside her just as badly. He kissed her again, more roughly this time. His hands slipped inside her robe, leaving trails of fire along her hips and waist. Agitated, he ripped open her robe, exposing her bare body. For a moment he paused, going still as he took her in.
She blinked, dazed at first, then returning to her senses. Gasping, she quickly covered herself up, knotting the belt tightly. She crossed her arms, her face as flushed as the rest of her body. It took a few seconds to compose herself and calm her quick breathing. She sounded like she’d run a marathon. It sure felt like it, from the way her heart was racing. “Look, I don’t want you to think I’m easy.” She groaned. “I know it probably seems that way, but I’m not usually the one-night-stand kind of girl. Hello, are you listening to me?”
She snapped her fingers in front of his face. Gage shook his head and blinked, then looked at her. “Sorry, I was distracted,” he murmured. “Yes, I’m aware you’re probably behaving a bit… outside your sensibilities.”
“That’s one way to put it,” she grumbled. She shifted her weight, feeling the slickness along her inner thighs. Good grief, she was horny. She hadn’t had it this bad for a man in a while.
She looked at Gage, at the noticeable bulge against his crotch, reconsidering. Her mind filled with the image of his muscular body, dripping in sweat, hovering over hers as he slowly pushed himself into her, again and again, banging her core while she brought her hips up to meet him…
You know what happened last time you fell into bed with a man on the first date. Seth ripped out your heart later.
That cheerful thought promptly dried up her lust. “You’re not good for me.”
He frowned, going still. “Why not?”
“Because… when I’m near you… I don’t know, I can’t control myself.” She looked away, letting her hair hide her face.
Gage tenderly grasped her chin and turned her gaze. “Passion is not a bad quality.”
“Ha. I’m not sure I’d call this passion. Lust maybe.”
“What do you think it is?”
She met his gaze. “… I don’t know.”
He reached up and caressed her cheek, eyes intently burning into hers. She’d never had anyone look at her that way. It made her knees shake.
And it scared the hell out of her.
“I’m not sure what this is either,” Gage said slowly, “but I can tell you feel it too.”
He shrugged. “That spark.”
His eyes flicked to her hand.
That’s right. How could she have forgotten about that weird Mark? After figuring out she wasn’t dreaming, she’d ran to the bathroom. The Mark hadn’t washed off in the sink, and she’d scrubbed it raw. “I don’t know what any of this means. I don’t know why I’m acting this way.” She looked at him. “I don’t know you.”
Fear pumped into her heart. Walk away. She took one step when he grabbed her wrist.
“Do you want to?” he asked softly.
Her heart started pounding, but not from lust, as her stomach did a little flip that made her insides tingle. Her throat ran dry.
What do I say? What do I say?
Seth used to whisper such sweet things too, used to make her feel this way.
A chill went through her. “I… need some air. Stay away from me, kidnapper.”
With that, she jerked free and ran, praying he wouldn’t follow her yet hoping at the same time that he would.
Gage watched her go, forcing himself to stay rooted to the spot. He wanted to give chase - all wolves did. And normally he would have, had she been any other she-wolf.
Danica was nothing like them. She was so much more.
The image of her body, bared and smelling of roses and her arousal, was burned into his mind. He hardened thinking about her. He could still feel the soft plumpness of her breasts against his hands, taste how eagerly her nipples had responded to him.
Groaning, he shook his head and paced the room, trying to cool down. The fact it was warm in here due to the fire didn’t help.
Striding toward the balcony, he opened the doors and strolled out into the crisp night air. He gripped the railing, inhaling deeply. The smell of cigarette smoke drifted toward him. Lucky Strikes. He didn’t need to look to know Nik was standing a few feet away.
The two wolves stood in silence for a moment. “Looks like you two are going to get along just fine,” Nik said, the sound muffled because the cigarette was caught between his lips.
Gage smirked. “I should have known you were watching, you dirty bastard. I’d think you’d see enough porn, as frequently as your bed is occupied. You should have been an incubus.”
“Nah.” Nik took one last drag then tossed the butt. “I couldn’t deal with the ‘no relationships’ clause.”
Gage smiled softly. “You’ll find her. Be thankful your fever hasn’t taken hold.”
Nik grinned. “Can’t wait ‘til it does.”
Gage snorted. A light flashed in a window from the corner of his eye, and he looked up. He sucked in a sharp breath. Danica was watching him from her room. The drapes quickly drew shut, and Gage’s shoulders slumped.
“How’d she take the werewolf thing?” Nik asked.
Gage avoided his brother’s gaze and mumbled, “I haven’t told her.”
“Cut me some slack. What was I supposed to say? That I kidnapped her so I could have sex with her and bind her to me forever?”
“Nah, talk about destiny. Women like destiny and soul mates.”
Gage sighed. “You’re hopeless.”
“Besides,” Nik said, “it didn’t seem like she was putting up too much of a fight.”
Gage’s jaw ticked. It didn’t bother him so much that Nik had been spying on them as it did he’d seen his mate partially naked.
Nik studied him for a long, silent moment. “You know what I think?”
“I don’t know why you bother asking. You’ll just tell me anyway, whether I want to hear it or not.”
“Damn right I will.” Nik crossed his arms. “I think you’re afraid of scaring her off.”
“What? Don’t be ridiculous.” Gage looked away.
Nik pointed to himself. “Werewolf, remember? And your brother and packmate, at that. I can sense your fear. I just hit the nail on the head.”
Gage’s hands gripped the railing so tightly his knuckles were white. “I can’t lose her. Ever since I got packmaster, I’ve felt like I was king of a castle of cards, like the whole deck can topple at any minute. Our peace with the other packs - and with each other - is fragile.”
Nik’s expression softened, and he placed a hand on Gage’s shoulder. “You did what you had to do. Exiling those set on war was the right thing to do. They’ll find new packs.”
“Do you think one of them is behind this, wanting to kill Danica, that is?”
Nik sighed hard and rubbed the back of his neck. “I don’t know. Maybe. It’s hard to say.”
“Do we have any leads?”
“Not yet. A few have checked in, saying they haven’t found anything.”
Gage’s frown felt heavier.
“Don’t worry. We’ll find the son of a bitch who tried to kill your mate. And when we do.” He cracked his knuckles. “We’ll do what we do best.”
Gage’s mouth quirked up in a small yet wicked smile.
Nik slapped him on the back as he walked by. “You should go see your woman. It’ll be a shame if she goes through her first Change without a warning. Been there, done that. It sucks.”
“I know,” Gage murmured, resting his elbows on the railing and running his hands through his hair.
Nik left, leaving Gage alone with the wilderness. A blanket of moonlit trees spread out before him, and a lake shimmered in the distance. Normally, he’d find this environment calming, but tonight the moon, about a week from swelling to its fullest, reminded him of the impending Blood Moon.
Growling a curse, he turned and strolled back inside and up the stairs. Nik was right. Danica had a right to know what was happening to her. The question was, would she listen to him long enough for him to explain? Or worse, would she think him crazy?
With trepidation, he knocked on her door and waited. Soft footsteps padded closer; he knew she was standing on the other side of the door.
“Who is it?” she called.
“Gage. Can we talk?”
“I don’t want to talk.”
“You said you wanted answers.”
There was a pause, then the bolt clicked and the door opened a hair. Green eyes stared back at him warily. “You just want to talk?”
She stared at him, biting her lip, then at last opened the door and stepped aside.
He strolled in and she shut the door, folding her arms over her chest. “All right. Let’s hear it.”
She’ll make a fine queen. Pushing aside his admiration, he gestured to the bed. “Sit with me?”
Her eyes turned suspicious.
“Or you can stand,” he amended cautiously. “Just thought you may want to be sitting down for this.”
The suspicion in her eyes immediately shifted to fear. “Why? Is it that bad or shocking?”
Sweetheart, you have no idea. He took a moment to figure out how to start. “The tattoo on your hand is permanent. It’s called a Mark.”
She looked at it. For a moment, he feared she’d refuse to believe him, but she surprised him by saying, “How did it get there?”
She snorted. “Yeah. Okay.”
His hope deflated. “I know this sounds nuts-”
“It’s not just nuts. It’s completely out in the stratosphere. Magic doesn’t exist.”
“Do you really believe that?”
She stared at him. “Yes.”
He braced himself. Looked like this was going to require the hard way…. “I’ll have to prove you wrong, then.”
Taking a deep breath, he closed his eyes, feeling his skin tingle with the first twinges of the Change. It didn’t hurt like it did the first few times. His body was used to it, anticipated it even. He tried to focus on nothing, to let the Change flow effortlessly, molding his bones and muscles into a new shape. The thing about weres and shape-shifters is that they never quite lose touch with their humanity, even when inhabiting another form. It was a fantastic blend of animal and human, and he reveled in its power. It reminded him of what he was supposed to be - where and who he was supposed to be. The power of nature brought security, something he hadn’t had growing up. Being the baby brother in his rowdy family didn’t exactly help.
As his wolf senses took over, he could sense more of the emotions rolling off Danica - surprise, denial, awe, terror.
Not wanting to repulse her, he quickly pushed the Change along. Within seconds, a great white wolf stood on four paws before her.
Danica shrieked, backing up against the wall. “Oh, my God! What the hell? Help!”
There’s no need to call for help, he said, reaching out to her through her mind. Thanks to the Mark, he knew she’d be able to hear it. She was bound to him now, connected in a way no other man or woman could ever be.
Her head whipped around. “Who said that?”
I did. He took a careful step forward.
“Stay back!” She edged closer to the fireplace, taking her eyes off him only long enough to grab a fire poker.
I won’t hurt you.
“This isn’t happening,” she said, pinching herself hard. “Wake up!”
All right, maybe shifting before her wasn’t the best idea. He quickly Changed back, standing completely naked and covered in sweat.
Her face went completely white, those enchanting green eyes going so large he thought they may pop from her head. “What are you?” she at last whispered.
He kept his eyes on her shaking knees, preparing to catch her should she faint. “I’m a werewolf….” He swallowed hard and sucked in a breath. “As you will soon be.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That Mark - it’s the Mark of the Change. All werewolves have them.”
“No. I don’t want to be a werewolf. I didn’t ask for this.”
“Few of us rarely do,” he said darkly. His heart broke a little, staring at her terrified face. “I’m sorry, but once the Mark has been given, there is nothing I or anyone else can do to revoke it.”
“But that’s impossible! Surely, somebody, somewhere, knows how to get rid of it!”
“Believe me, people have tried.”
She stared at him for a while, silent tears falling down her face. “I just wanted to go on a date, maybe fall in love. Start over.”
He walked toward her, but she whipped up the fire poker, holding it before her like a sword. His hands clenched into fists as he paused. “This doesn’t have to be a curse. It can be a gift - a new life.”
“What kind of life?”
“A life with me, as my mate.”
“What are you talking about?”
“That Mark,” he pointed to it, “it only appeared when I touched you. That only happens when a were finds his mate.”
“You mean… like forever?”
He pressed his lips together, bracing himself for her rejection. Since when did he so desperately crave this woman’s approval?
“I know this is a lot to take in,” he said slowly, gently lowering the poker.
“A lot to take in? My whole life has been turned upside down!”
“When you came to the bar that night, you were looking for something, for someone to belong to. Otherwise, what’s the point of dating?”
She stared up into his eyes. Hope, longing, and fear mingled in the green depths of her irises. Her breathing quickened as she wetted her lips. “This Mark… is it responsible for making me feel this way around you?”
“What way is that?” he murmured.
She swallowed hard. “I want you,” she whispered. “I don’t know why, but… since meeting you, it seems to be the only thing I can think about.”
“And what kind of things do you think about?”
She took a breath and wetted her lips, her long-lashed eyes ducking to his mouth. “All kinds of things.”
Those beautiful eyes looked up, a question in them. He could feel her fear - and her desire. For a long moment, they stared at one another. She was so exquisite, so innocent.
With perfect tenderness, he reached up and cupped her cheek, brushing away a wisp of blonde hair with his thumb. His tanned skin contrasted nicely with her creamy flesh. “May I kiss you, my lady?”
Her throat flashed as she swallowed hard, and her pulse picked up its pace. “Yes.”
He didn’t waste another second. No sooner did the answer pass her lips then his mouth crashed down on hers, his hands burying in her hair. She moaned as he ravished her, his hands searching every inch of her plush, silky body beneath the robe he was ready to tear off.
“I would treasure you,” he whispered against her mouth, “would treat you like the queen you are. Please, don’t fear me.”
She sighed with pleasure as he kissed her neck, stooping to her breasts, her nipples erect and primed for his tongue. She reached forward and grabbed his length, stroking him long and hard.
He groaned. “Yes, just like that.”
She gripped him with both hands, pumping him in slow, tantalizing movements. He felt himself growing longer for her, needing to be inside her wet, hot depths, needing to claim her.
Slowly, she lowered herself to her knees so her face was in front of his crotch.
“What are you doing?” he asked raggedly.
A coy smile was his answer. “Seeing what I could potentially be getting myself into.”
Potentially. He could work with “potentially.”
She ran a finger along him, making him quiver with desire. “You’re so big,” she whispered, leaning forward and kissing the swollen head tenderly.
He braced himself against the wall as her tongue danced along the tip, then licked him as her mouth swallowed him whole.
“Danica,” he gritted out as she sucked him. He bucked his hips, grabbing her head and holding it steady, taking over the rhythm. The faster he pumped, the harder she sucked, squeezing her mouth around him as he moved in and out, in and out.
She grabbed his hips, digging her nails in.
He groaned, bucking harder. Sweet release was close; he could feel it building up, bubbling to the surface. Just a few more pumps….
Frantic knocking came from the door. Nik’s voice yelled from the other side. “Sire! A word with you!”
“Not. Now,” Gage growled. He was losing his mind. Never had he felt such intensity during any sexual act.
More banging, louder this time. It didn’t stop, becoming more insistent.
Danica pulled back, and Gage swore profusely. The mood ruined, he stormed toward the door. “This had better be damn good, or I swear, Nik-”
Nik opened the door before he reached it. “It’s Onyx - he’s been spotted on the property.”
Gage wasted no time. Danica was already covered again in her robe, to his immense disappointment, when he turned around. “What’s going on?” she said, mouth swollen and wet with his juices.
“Nothing to worry about,” he said soothingly, not wanting to frighten her anymore than he already had earlier with the wolf stunt. Never would he do something so stupid again. “We have to go.”
He went to the bathroom and grabbed a towel, wrapping it around his waist. His erection hadn’t gone away, the towel making it more obvious, but that was the least of his concerns.
“Why?” Danica said as he ushered her out the door and down the hall, Nik leading the way. “What’s happened?”
Her face turned stormy. “Tell me what’s going on right now! Obviously, I can handle it. I saw you turn into a wolf earlier, and you haven’t had to commit me to an insane asylum.”
Nik stifled a snicker.
Gage glared at him. “I’m taking you to my quarters, where you will remain under my watch. The rest of the premises is to be under lockdown. I want him found and brought to me, Nik.”
He parted ways with them at the next landing, disappearing around a corner.
Danica glanced around anxiously. “Is that man back?”
Gage felt a strong, protective urge surge through him, and he hugged her tight. “I won’t let anything - or anyone - hurt you. I swear it on my life.”
Werewolves. Mating. Stalkers.
Her horoscope had not forecast this. More so, what the hell was wrong with her? She’d gone from freaking out over seeing him literally turn into the biggest wolf she’d ever seen, to taking one glimpse of his dick and wanting to mount him right there. It was like PMS on crack.
Gage held her close the rest of the way to his room. It felt right being held by him - a sense of rightness that was growing by the minute - but she couldn’t help looking all around her, expecting Onyx to leap from the shadows like a bogeyman.
Two guards stood outside a large, ornate golden door. They looked like they just stepped out of Howl, wearing torn jeans, sleeveless shirts that showed off their muscular arms, and a leer to make most people think twice about crossing their paths. They bowed as Gage approached, opening the doors for him.
The room was huge, with a California King-sized bed on one wall with another gigantic, walk-in fireplace opposite it. A large fur rug lay before the fire, and a window seat sat beneath a window that took up a good portion of one wall, providing a spectacular view of the distant lake and the star-spackled sky.
“Wow,” she said. “You wolves spare no expense on interior decorating, do you?”
He chuckled slightly. She felt some of the tension drain out of him as he wrapped his arms around her. She instinctively leaned into him, liking the way he held her. She imagined falling asleep in his arms every night, staring out at the sky, feeling safe in the warmth of his embrace.
And how safe had you felt in Seth’s arms, hmmm?
Shaking her head, she stepped away and he reluctantly let go. He didn’t move to stop her as she walked around, exploring. Her face heated. “Earlier… in my room… that…”
“Was amazing?” he said with a sly smile. “You scandalize me, my lady. What will this do to my sterling reputation?”
Now, her face was on fire. “I just don’t want you to think I’m some nympho looking for a quick fix.”
His face turned serious. “I would never think that of you. Your reaction is entirely normal, actually.”
She looked again at her hand, at the dark blue ink that seemed to catch the moonlight. “The Change, you mean.”
“And the fever.”
“What’s the fever?”
He cleared his throat, staring at the rug. “When a wolf reaches his or her prime, they go through the mating season - their Blood Moon. That’s when the mating fever takes hold.”
“Oh.” Awkward. “When does it go away?”
His eyes met hers, burning as brightly as the fire. “When we mate.”
“As in… have sex?”
Had the rational side of her brain been working, the idea of having sex with a total stranger would definitely not have been down her alley. If anything, now, it made her wetter. Who knew soft-spoken, “good girl” Danica could be such a total slut?
“What happens if we don’t have sex?” she asked.
His eyes grew troubled, and a shadow seemed to fall over his face. “We both remain unmated forever.” It looked like he wanted to tell her something more, but he remained silent.
“That sounds lonely,” she said, shoulders falling.
She shook her head, going to sit on the bed. Patting the bedspread beside her, she said, “Tell me about the Change.”
He blinked, then sat down beside her. “The first one is out of your control. I’m also sorry to say it will be the most painful.”
“Great. Like a second period.”
He laughed. “I’ve never heard of it put that way before, but I suppose you could compare the two. You’re in wolf form for the entire night, Changing back at dawn. From then on, you can control it, shifting at will.”
“So the whole thing about shifting during a full moon…?”
“Nonsense. Humans mixed up our Blood Moon with the ‘Curse of the Werewolf’ that’s so popular in modern culture. It’s completely ridiculous.”
“You’re taking all of this surprisingly well,” he said warily.
She laughed. “Aside from my initial freak-out? Yeah, I suppose.” She shrugged. “When I was little, I wanted to be a superhero. Somebody special, who was strong enough to make a difference in the circumstances around me.”
He waited patiently for her to continue.
“My folks were always fighting while I was growing up. We didn’t have much. When my dad nearly broke my mom’s jaw one night, she grabbed me and ran away with me to here.”
“Where’s your father?”
“In jail. He’s in and out so much, I think they just keep a cell prepared for him.”
“And your mom?”
Her throat nearly closed up. “Dead.”
Gage took her hand and squeezed. For once, the gesture actually was comforting. “I’m sorry for your loss.”
Blinking away tears, she said, “It was a long time ago, a car accident. I lived with my aunt, whom we were staying with, until she left me one day too for her boyfriend. They eloped.” She smiled. “I’m happy for her. I hear they had a kid.”
“But she still left you.”
“I was eighteen.”
“That doesn’t make it okay.”
She looked at him. “No, I guess it doesn’t. But it still happened.”
“You’ve been alone for a while, haven’t you?”
“Yeah,” she said flippantly, picking at a pearl sewn into the comforter design.
Gage stared into the fire. “My dad couldn’t hold down a job to save his life. He moved me and my brothers all over the place, and you could forget about him settling down with a woman. When we got old enough to work, we all pitched in and helped. But it wasn’t enough. My father owed a lot of bad people money - one of them the were who Marked him as punishment. He Marked us the same day.”
She listened intently, frozen by the sadness in his eyes.
“More than anything, I think the Mark was what tore our family apart. Dad couldn’t handle it. He killed himself after the first Change, and eventually, my brothers drifted off to different walks of life - all except Nik. I was a lot scrawnier than my brothers for a long time, since it took me a while to hit my growing spurt. Nik looked after me, protecting me at school and at home. He took a lot of shit from Dad.”
Danica could see the regret written on his face, making his handsome face seem much older as he spoke about his past.
“Nik and I set out on our own, moving from pack to pack until we found one that more or less fit. It wasn’t easy. Packs are supposed to be like your family, but there was a lot of in-fighting and warring with other packs when we first joined the Moonstruck Pack.”
Danica was silent for a moment, digesting this. Gage had to be incredibly tough to endure something like that. “You’re the Alpha, aren’t you?”
“Why would you say that?”
“Well, the guards and the fact everyone keeps calling you ‘sire’ or ‘your highness’ kind of gave it away.”
He gave her a small smile. “Does that bother you?”
She blinked. “No! I think it’s great. You’ve fought your way to the top. You’ve earned it.”
That troubled look returned. “If I could spare you from the Underworld, I would.”
“The supernatural world most humans don’t know about.”
Pause. “You mean, there are other creatures? Like vampires?”
“And succubi, incubi, demons, angels, witches, warlocks, faeries.”
Her face lit up. For the first time in a while, she felt like a kid again. “That’s awesome!”
His brows raised.
“I, er, read a lot of fantasy books to ‘escape’ while growing up.” And still do, but she didn’t want to look any more like a dork than she already did. “Anyplace was better than home, you know?”
He smiled, seeming amused. “I see.”
Her mind spun with questions. Who knew there was a whole other world out there, one she’d only dreamed of?
Maybe life was more magical than she thought. Maybe there was more to look forward to than working for “the man,” always owing on taxes, and never being able to pay rent on time. She started to open her mouth, another question on her tongue, when a yawn escaped instead. “Jeez,” she said, blushing, “sorry. I didn’t realize I was so worn out.”
Gage shifted his weight. “You should rest. You’ve had a tiring day. I’ll sleep on the rug.”
She wanted to talk to him more, but she couldn’t argue that sleep sounded fantastic. She caught his hand as he started to stand. “Stay with me?”
It was nearly inaudible, but he sucked in a tiny breath. “Are you sure?”
She nodded. With that man still on the loose, she wanted to be as close to Gage as possible.
She wanted to feel safe, plus she was too tired to fight the urge to be near him. She couldn’t begin to understand it. Nothing about the whole situation made sense. Hell, up until he’d literally shifted in front of her, she’d been ready to tie the bed sheets together and scale the side of the building in hopes of escaping. But there was one thing she’d noticed ever since he’d Marked her - she craved his touch, to be as close to him as possible.
Starting with right now.
To her disappointment, he pulled on some pants before they pulled back the covers. She climbed in then waited for him. And waited. “What are you doing?”
“I was going to sleep on top of the covers.”
She suppressed a giggle. “After what we did earlier, you’re going to be shy now?”
That look of arousal spread through his eyes. Without a word, he crawled under the sheets with her and wrapped his arms around her as she laid her head on his chest. They lay there, staring at the fire. It was so cozy, nothing at all like her rundown apartment.
Home sweet mansion.
“What do you think is going to happen?”
“I don’t know,” he said after a while. He held her tighter, reminding her of his earlier promise, that he wouldn’t let anything happen to her.
She intended for that promise to work both ways.
She snuggled closer to him, spreading her fingers over the taut muscles in his chest. Exhaustion began overtaking her, turning the world blurry and her thoughts to mush.
“If this is what forever would look like with you, I can’t say I’d mind.”
She was asleep before she could hear his response, a smile on her face. For the first time in a while, she was content. Maybe she would have tried to savor it a little bit longer if she’d known it would all come crashing down the next day.
Gage didn’t sleep the entirety of the night for fear he’d doze off and wake to find this had all been a dream. As the early morning sunlight spilled through the window and onto the blonde of his mate’s hair, he marveled at how angelic she looked. Her face was peaceful, that same tiny smile spread across her cherry lips she’d had when she’d fallen asleep in his arms last night. She’d accepted him when he told her about his past, about the future she would face. And his brave she-wolf had taken it all with surprising grace and strength. She was more than he ever could have hoped for. His sweet, perfect Danica.
A stray curl of blonde hair lay across her cheek. Gently, he stroked it back, his heart swelling as she whimpered and snuggled closer to him.
A soft knock at the door diverted his attention.
What is it? he said telepathically, not bothering to hide his irritability. Since Danica had come barreling into his life, he never wanted to be disturbed while in her presence. He never wanted to take another second with her for granted.
Sorry, man, Nik’s voice said in his mind. But we’ve got a lead on the witch.
She runs a private practice. Lives out in the boondocks about an hour from here.
Be right out. Have the car ready in ten. Fetch Erik. He’s coming with us.
Gage heard Nik hurry away. He hated rousing Danica, but he wasn’t about to leave her here. No, he was never going to let her out of his sight again.
He nuzzled her neck. She sighed and stretched out beside his mostly naked form. Slowly, her eyes opened and she smiled. With the light caught in her hair, she looked like sunshine. Hell, if every morning was going to be like this, he never wanted to get out of bed again.
“Morning,” she said sleepily.
“Morning,” he said gently. “I’m sorry to wake you, but we have a lead on the witch who helped Onyx.”
She sat straight up. “Well, what are we waiting for?”
He grinned, his admiration for her growing. Good lord, he was falling hard and fast for this one. He just hoped they didn’t crash before they’d been able to bond forever.
Gage had already prepared his room with a change of clothes for her. It seemed natural, with her being his future queen. They both got out of bed and dressed in a hurry before meeting Nik and Erik downstairs. Nik was wearing typical battle attire - sweatpants and a hoodie that had a picture of a bottle of moonshine and a caption that read “I got Moonstruck in Moonstruck.” Not the cleverest title, but he seemed to like wearing it, calling it his “lucky sweatshirts.”
Erik was dressed a little more practically. The older wolf had on camo, the dog tags from his army days dangling around his neck. Gage and Danica greeted them. “Thanks for coming,” Gage told Erik.
He chuckled, shaking his head. “After serving that prick Malachite for so long, I’m never going to get used to hearing my Alpha actually thanking me for doing something he could have easily commanded me to do.”
Danica looked at him curiously.
“Alphas can force their cohorts to do their bidding,” Gage explained. “Some abuse that power, turning their packmates into slaves.”
“It was,” Gage replied, then led her down the steps.
The car was waiting out front, the heater going full blast. Nik and Erik took the front seats while Gage and Danica crawled into the back.
He stared out the window, brooding. The more he thought about it, the more taking Danica along seemed like a bad idea. But the thought of leaving her here, unprotected….
She wouldn’t be unprotected, though, would she? his conscience said slyly. She would just be where he couldn’t see her, which would drive him bonkers. He had no intention of hovering over her, but considering the situation, he failed to see how he could do anything but. He couldn’t afford to be reckless about this, not when it meant losing the thing he valued most on this earth.
Gage looked up to find Danica watching him curiously. “I’m fine. Just thinking,” he lied.
“You’re tapping your foot,” she said, pointing.
He looked down, finding his foot had begun patting out its own nervous rhythm. He hadn’t noticed.
“It’s the same habit I have when I get worked up over something. Drives my coworkers crazy when I’m wearing heels.”
I’ll be damned. He had the feeling she could read him like a book if she wanted to. The only other person who could do that was Nik.
Gage bit his lip, bouncing back and forth between his decisions and getting all the more anxious for it.
On the verge of telling Nik to turn around so Gage could place Danica under maximum security, he started to open his mouth when she reached over and grabbed his hand.
He blinked, looking down.
With a small, confident smile, she squeezed his hand, and his agitation slipped away. He squeezed back, enjoying her nearness and the strength it gave him.
“Teammates work together,” she said.
He slowly smiled. “That they do.” He wasn’t used to sharing power. The closest confidante he had in his pack was Nik, but even he knew his place. With Danica, he would have to start thinking about her as a partner and not as her protector, though he intended never to stop that aspect. He already knew the first he kissed her he’d die for her.
Several cars followed them, about half his pack, a string of trucks, SUVs, and two door sports cars that made an odd caravan. Witches were clever. If she became aware of their approach, she might call for help herself. They needed to be prepared for the worst, though he hoped through a little diplomacy it wouldn’t come to blows, magical or otherwise. After dealing with so much death and destruction in the old regime of his pack, he’d vowed to work hard toward peace, in any situation. “Tell the others to wait about a mile out and to surround her property,” Gage said. “I don’t want her growing skittish.”
“Yes, sir,” Nik said. He pressed a button, giving Gage and Danica privacy as the opaque black glass scrolled up.
Danica looked tense. She was wringing the bottom of her blouse with her free hand, staring out the window while tapping her foot. He smiled at that. “What do you think will happen once we get there?” she asked.
He sighed. “It’s anyone’s guess. It depends on how hostile she is. I won’t draw first blood, but I will defend my own.” He squeezed her hand tighter.
She relaxed somewhat, staring at the back of her hand. “So, are all new werewolves made by Marks?”
“Yes. Though mates can only be Marked by touch. All others have to be bitten while in wolf form for the Mark to appear.”
“So you and your brothers…”
“Yes. The were transformed then attacked us.”
Gage closed his eyes. He could still see the blood in the snow in the back of his mind, where he’d buried all other dark memories of his past. Like if his oldest brother, Jason, had died in a pack brawl or in a gutter. He was always hanging around a rough crowd, even by were standards. No one had heard from him in forever. He’d given up hope he’d find him alive. He wouldn’t know what he would say to him if he did. Some ghosts were better left buried.
He opened his eyes, banishing the thought of a once well-loved smile he’d grown to despise.
Danica cocked her head to the side. “You okay?”
He looked at her and smiled. “I am now.”
That pretty blush returned to her cheeks, and she stared at her lap. The skirt she wore was short, showing off her smooth, creamy thighs. He may or may not have planned it that way. He wanted to run his hands over her legs, feel their softness, and touch other parts of her.
“So we’re to be mated,” she said softly.
“Yes.” There was no beating around the bush. It was either going to happen or it wasn’t. Throat tight, he said, “I would never force you into something you didn’t want. The Change will still happen. I can’t do anything about that. But I can give you your freedom if you want to walk away from this pack… from me.”
Danica was silent for so long, his heart nearly pounded out of her chest waiting for her to respond. “I don’t want to walk away,” she whispered at last, meeting his gaze. “Even saying it out loud feels like I’m ripping my heart out, corny as it sounds.”
His own heart sped up a beat as relief flooded him. “I don’t want you to, either. I want this, more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life.”
He leaned in without realizing he was doing it. Her breath caught right before his lips covered hers in a questioning kiss. The question is, he thought to her, do you want it too? It wasn’t just permission to continue he sought. He needed to know she was committed to this, to him.
She responded, closing her eyes and kissing him back. For a few precious seconds, their kisses were innocent and sweet. Her tongue flicked out to meet his, and he deepened the kiss, reaching around her and pulling her close. She still had hold of his hand. Before he fully realized what she was doing, he felt his fingertips slid up her skirt and touch her soft curls. She was soaked - and not wearing any underwear from what he could feel.
He leaned back to look her in the eyes as he touched her. She gasped as his fingers caressed her wet folds, his thumb running along her sex. She arched her back, and he kissed her beautiful neck as his fingers slid deeper, probing a little further each time.
“Yes,” she whispered raggedly, bucking her hips to his movements. “Just like that.”
“I can’t wait to be inside of you,” he said into her ear.
A groan was his answer. He knew the two wolves up front could sense and hear everything going on, but hell if he cared. His mate was opening up to him, and it made him the happiest - and the horniest - he had been in years.
She lay her head back against the seat, sighing softly as he touched her. He wanted to please her, more so than any other woman he’d been with. He needed to make her happy. He wanted her to come with him inside her, sealing their bond permanently, but he knew he’d have to be patient.
That can wait.
He went deeper and deeper, reaching for her sweet spot. He knew he’d found it when she gasped sharply. Her nipples stood erect against the white blouse, showing through the sheer material of the thin lacey bra she wore. She was so damn sexy. Her hip thrusts became more frantic as he reached into her, nipping her core, growing harder as he watched chills break out over her skin.
“Yes. More. Faster,” she breathed.
He obeyed, all too willing to give her what she wanted. Her panting steamed up the window, and sweat broke out over her chest. “Gage,” she whimpered.
“Come for me,” he said.
A strangled cry escaped her throat before she clamped down on her bottom lip, bucking several times before lounging like putty in his arms. She lay there panting.
He kissed her damp cheek. “Feel better?”
“Much. Thank you.”
“The pleasure was all mine.” Giving her one last stroke, he pulled his hand out of her and licked his fingertips, one by one.
She went silent, staring at him. Her tongue ran over her lips, and she leaned forward, kissing him slowly. When she leaned back, she licked her lips again, tasting herself.
That alone was almost enough to make him jerk down his pants and thrust into her right there in the car. The ritual be damned. He needed to mate with her, and soon, otherwise he’d lose his mind.
The car came to a stop, and Nik’s voice spoke through the intercom. “We’re, er, here, sire,” letting on he had heard them. “Not picking up on any paranormal signatures. I don’t think she’s here.”
“All the better. We’ll still scope her place out.”
Gage reached over and straightened Danica’s skirt and blouse. He helped her pull on her jacket, leaning in to kiss her one last time. “You don’t have to come in.”
“I want to. This whole thing started because of me.”
He cupped her face. “And I thank God it did, because it led me to you.”
She smiled, leaning into his hand and closing her eyes. Kissing his palm, she twined her fingers with his and let him help her out of the car after he’d gotten out and walked around the back. He pulled her close as they walked to the door, with Nik on the other side of her. Erik stayed with the car, in case something went down outside.
Nik and Gage listened by the front door of the old log cabin a moment before trying the door. It was unlocked. Nik shoved the door open, both of them waiting to see if any wards would go off.
Nothing happened. The place had been abandoned.
Gage swore, feeling that crushing despair sinking in. They were already too late to catch the only lead they had.
“Let’s see what we can find,” he said gruffly.
“I’ll go first.” Nik went in without waiting for Gage’s response.
Gage slapped a hand on his brother’s shoulder. “Be careful.”
“Aren’t I always, cupcake?” Nik said with a grin, and went inside.
Gage had never known a more loyal friend. They’d die for each other. Gage did owe him his life. Without Nik, he’d be lost, probably starving in a gutter somewhere. It was Nik who’d earned them the right to try out for the pack, being the stronger of the two brothers at the time.
After a moment, Nik reappeared and gestured them to come inside. “There’s not much here. Smells like a hundred cats took a piss in here.”
“So witches do keep cats,” Danica murmured as she and Gage stepped inside.
Gage smiled slightly. “Familiars, to be exact. A powerful witch or warlock can look through the eyes of her or his familiar, often using them as spies. The more familiars they have, the more powerful the witch or warlock tends to be.”
Danica looked fascinated by everything around her. Gage couldn’t imagine her hanging out in any New Age shops, so she probably was intrigued by all this. Pentagrams, cursing dolls, rows and rows of potions and dusty spellbooks took up every inch of free space in the tight cabin. One room was set off to the side, complete with a crystal ball and spooky lighting. It was cleaner than the rest of the place, probably where the reclusive witch met her clients and ripped them off. Most people didn’t believe in magic, thus falling prey to the more cunning witches and warlocks. All it took was one charm, and the client would get home only to discover their bank account was emptied and they couldn’t remember where they’d been.
Gage kept Danica close as they set about tearing the place apart for any clue as to if Onyx had hired her, or if someone else had hired both witch and wolf. Nik wasn’t kidding when he said the place smelled like a gigantic litter box that hadn’t been cleaned in weeks. Danica was handling it surprisingly well, her cute little nose curled up in disgust the only indication it was bothering her. Her full wolf senses wouldn’t develop until after her first Change, bless her heart.
It became clear within the first few minutes this witch was anything but tidy. It became apparent that as they sifted through her dusty junk it was going to be highly unlikely they’d find anything of any value in here. Gage was about ready to call it quits when he moved aside a stack of papers and his eyes fixed on a familiar symbol. “Check this out.”
Nik walked over to where Danica and Gage stood. “It’s another one of those charms.”
“We’re at the right witch’s house, all right. It’s identical.” Gage frowned. “Now if we could just find a ledger or a receipt book.” Paranormals weren’t exempt from tax laws; the Underworld’s government didn’t differ much from the human’s on that note.
They nearly tore the place apart trying to find a receipt book, but at last they found one. They combed through it, not seeing Onyx’s name but finding a “Mistress Black” scrawled across several receipts. None of them indicated any patterns or gave any clue as to what the buyer was needing the spells for. Most were standard potions, though several advanced cloaking charms of the variety Gage found on Onyx had been purchased.
“Do you think this Mistress Black is connected to Onyx?” Nik asked.
“I’m not sure. Possibly. She could be involved in one of the witch mafias we’ve heard about being active around here lately.”
Danica’s eyes widened. “Witches have mafias? Weird….”
Gage grinned, nudging her. “Bet you didn’t expect that, did you?”
She shook her head. “I didn’t expect any of this. It’s a lot to take in.”
He winced, reminded how different she was from him. When his eyes fell on the Mark, his regret went away. It didn’t matter where she’d come from - she belonged with him now.
Intending to hold onto the receipt book, Gage tucked it into his pocket, then checked his watch. “We should get going. Our scents will be all over this place, and though it looks abandoned, I don’t want to take any chances.” He reached for Danica’s waist and tucked her against him as he said it.
They walked quickly toward the door. The instant they set foot outside, Gage and Nik immediately tensed.
“What is it?” Danica said, wide eyes searching the woods around them. Fog had descended upon the place, but there was something off about it. It was shimmering. Things moved within it as it stirred restlessly over the ground.
Nik growled. “Black Magic.”
Gage swore. He hadn’t been able to detect what type of witch they were dealing with inside. She looked more like a dabbler. It wasn’t until the flock of wraiths came swarming out of the trees like a hoard of angry bees that he knew they’d made a grave mistake in coming here.
At first, Danica thought there was no way in hell she was seeing what she was seeing. Several slow, hard blinks later, she knew without a doubt that she was seeing ghosts. Or at least, they looked like a mixture between a zombie and a ghost. Skin peeled off their exposed bones, and they were a murky green color and see-through. They whipped through the air, screeching and howling like a pissed off flock of birds.
As the commotion increased, Erik got out of the car. The moment he turned around, he opened his mouth to scream when the zombie-ghosts attacked him, tearing him apart.
Bile rose in Danica’s throat, and she forced it back down. She leaned into Gage, fighting hard to tear her gaze away from the eviscerated werewolf but finding it impossible to do so. It was like watching a train wreck. She wanted to look away but couldn’t.
“Run!” Nik yelled. With the monsters swarming the car, the trio of wolves bolted back through the house and out the back door. Danica nearly tripped down the rickety wooden steps as they barreled toward the surrounding woods. She’d give anything to be laying back in Gage’s bed at the mansion. That was safe. Curiously, it was also starting to feel like home, crazy as it sounded, and she had no idea why. Her shack used to feel like home, but the joy she felt at actually coming home had waned over the long, hard years. Maybe the difference was at the mansion, she had someone to come home to.
And now she may never see shack nor mansion again. Her calves burned as they ran. That horrible screeching filled the air behind them, growing louder, spurring her on. Muscle burns be damned. She was going to haul ass away from those things.
The toe of her shoe caught on a rock, and she nearly went down, making her heart slam against her sternum.
“I’ve got you,” Gage said, holding her up and never breaking stride. “Keep going.”
“Easy for you to say, Mr. Gold Star Gym Membership,” she gritted out between heavy pants.
He chuckled. It was exactly what she needed, considering they were probably going to get eaten alive at any minute by those ghost-piranhas.
“Just keep moving,” he said. “We’re going to make it. I won’t let anything happen to you.”
Okay, considering what those things did to Erik, she knew good and well Gage had to be bluffing. Still, it sparked a small ember of hope inside her to hear him say that.
Nik crashed through the trees ahead of them. The woods seemed to grow thicker the farther into the forest they went, like it was trying to choke out all the sunlight. That eerie mist crept along her peripheral vision, closing in on them and making her run harder.
“We have to get to the river!” Nik shouted. “Wraiths can’t cross moving water.”
“What did he call those things?” Danica yelled.
“Something not of this world,” Gage answered, a dark look on his face. Fear swam in his eyes. Since meeting him, this was the first time she could honestly say he looked scared. He seemed so fearless.
Branches snapped above them, and something clawed at her hair. Danica screamed as Gage snarled, his nails turning into claws and lashing out at the wraith that had hold of her.
The sound of rushing water encouraged them to keep running.
“Almost there!” Nik said.
There it was; the river lay only a few feet away.
Run faster. Harder.
Fists pumping, she ran with everything she had toward the rushing water. Nik leapt clean over the river, bounding over it as easily as if he were playing hopscotch.
There was no way she could do that. She was going to slam into the water.
“No matter what, don’t stop moving until you get to the other side,” Gage said.
Danica screamed as white-hot pain lit up her left shoulder; one of the wraiths had clawed her. It swooped down, going for her head, when Gage ripped it out of the air and stomped it beneath his boot. It screeched, writhing before lying still. “I’ll hold them off!”
“No!” Danica yelled, pulling on his arm. “You can’t do this!”
“I can.” He kissed her fiercely, then shoved her backwards. “Don’t watch!” The words were barely out of his mouth before he was jerked backwards with a cry.
“Gage!” Danica screeched, skidding as her footing slipped.
Gage was surrounded by wraiths. He swung at them, grunting and snapping his jaws like a beast. Through the blur of shadows, two gold eyes burned.
“Get her, Nik!” Gage shouted.
Nik bounded back across the river, seizing Danica. She struggled as he pulled her toward the river. “No! I can’t leave him.”
“You don’t have a choice! I’m not risking him killing me if something happens to you.”
Without warning, he swung her over his shoulder and ran toward the river, Danica kicking and screaming the whole way. Her eyes remained glued to Gage, calling his name, praying this was all a nightmare she would wake up from any minute.
There was the sense of weightlessness and the rush of cold air through her hair as Nik lifted them over the river. The moment he set her down, she started back toward the water, but he grabbed her in a bear hug, not letting go.
“Gage!” she screamed. “Gage! Don’t you dare die on me!”
Only the sounds of battle met her ears as her mate fought for his life. She didn’t even know when she’d started thinking of him as her mate. It was an unconscious decision, something her heart decided without her common sense to hold her back or screw things up for her.
“Let me go!” she cried.
“No!” Nik said, sounding anguished. “I’m sorry, love.”
Tears streamed down her face as she watched the golden eyes slowly vanish beneath the mass of ghostly bodies. Rearing her head back, she screamed into the sky, sounding like a wounded animal. Her knees gave out from under her, and Nik sank with her to the ground, holding onto her. Tears leaked from his eyes as he silently stared at where her mate had been seconds ago but now only a whirling mass of wraiths swarmed.
They were coming closer.
“I thought you said they couldn’t cross moving water,” she said, starting to stand.
“They can’t,” he said, standing with her, looking puzzled. “Something’s moving with them.”
With a yell, Gage forced his way through the mass of wraiths, crashing into the water.
“Nik!” Danica yelled, but he was already diving into the river. She watched him swim after Gage’s lifeless body, grabbing hold of it and pulling him back to the shoreline. She ran to them, sinking to her knees beside Gage. His clothing was shredded, as was his skin. It was so covered in blood, she couldn’t tell where the cuts were.
“Gage!” She grasped his face, turning it toward her. “Open your eyes!”
An unintelligible mumble came from his mouth as his lids slowly fluttered open. “Is she safe… please tell me she’s safe…?”
“I’m right here,” Danica said, grabbing his hand and cupping it against her cheek. “You scared the hell out of me.”
“You scared the hell out of us both,” Nik said, rocking back on his heels. He ran a hand over his face. “You look like shit, man.”
Gage groaned and started to sit up.
“Don’t!” Danica placed both hands at his shoulders, trying to force him back down. “You’ll hurt yourself! We need to get you to a hospital!”
“There’s no need, love,” Gage rasped with a chuckle. “I just need to lie still for a while. My wounds will heal.”
“Werewolves heal fast. Other than silver, about the only thing that can really kill us is a vampire bite.” He shuddered. “Or being torn apart by wraiths.”
“Good to know.” Danica sat back and sighed hard. Without her permission, she started crying all over again.
Gage frowned, starting to speak. Nik stood and looked around, cutting him off. “We’re close to Swallow’s Peak. The cave there should provide some refuge from other predators until you’re well enough to move.”
“I know,” Gage said, never taking his eyes off Danica. “I’ll get us there.”
“It’s you I’m worried about,” Nik said in a low voice.
“I’ll be fine. We need to get in touch with the others, find out how many were injured or killed.”
“I’ll run recon and go for help, see if Penelope’s around.”
He started to leave when Gage caught his wrist. “Thank you.”
Nik smiled and nodded. “Anytime.”
Changing into a black wolf, he took off like a shadow, disappearing into the darkness hiding amongst the trees.
All the while, Danica couldn’t stop crying. Damn these tears!
“Hey,” Gage said, wiping them away with his thumb. “What’s the matter?”
“Whats… the matter?” she said, hiccuping. “You… almost died….”
He pulled her to him, rocking her back and forth. “It’s all right. I’m safe. We’re both fine.”
She pressed her ear against his chest. She felt a sudden urge to hear his heartbeat, to assure herself he was still alive. “Why did you do that?”
“I couldn’t let them hurt you. I needed to distract them.”
She cried into his shoulder, the shock of nearly dying wearing off after several minutes. The wraiths swarmed along the opposite shore, seeming agitated they couldn’t cross.
Gage wobbled to his feet, Danica hovering close in case he stumbled. Jaw set, he forced his spine to straighten, pride radiating from his face. “River or not, we should seek shelter. Other things take to the woods at night.”
Danica gulped. “Like what other things?”
“Faeries, for one.”
She snorted. “What could be so bad about Tinker Bell?”
“Think wraiths - only ten times worse.”
“Oh.” That just blew her cute Disney version completely out of the water.
Looping her arm under his shoulder, she said, “Where to?”
He was dying, or at least he sure as hell felt like it. By the time they reached the cave, most of the lacerations had healed, a process which left him feeling exhausted. Worry locked his jaw. Several times along the way he’d tried telepathically communicating with his pack, only to find silence. Even Nik hadn’t answered him, meaning he was either too far away or was too busy to afford distractions. Gage refused to believe he could be dead. Nik was tough as nails. No way in hell the fierce wolf could succumb to something so vile as wraiths.
The cave wasn’t very deep, but it was secluded. Seclusion equaled safety; that much brought comfort to Gage, as if would mean keeping Danica protected from the dangers of the woods. She had no idea what the night could be capable of, of the abominations that lurked there, waiting for something innocent like her.
After laying him on the stone floor, Danica collapsed beside him, her shoulders heaving with heavy breaths. Her earlier hysteria had subdued, though Gage hadn’t stopped watching her the entire time. He was going to need a vacation after his Blood Moon set. Maybe, if she agreed to be his mate, he would whisk them away to a foreign country, something not quite so “on the map” and riddled with tourists. Peace sounded awfully nice about now.
Pain shot through his side as a sharp rock poked him between the ribs, right in one of his healing wounds. Gage buried his groan, not wanting to worry his mate further. She’d been through so much already, and she wasn’t even a full werewolf yet. The amount of control she’d shown as a newcomer to their world was nothing short of astounding. With all the care of touching a baby animal, he reached over and lifted her hair from her face, brushing the long blonde locks behind her shoulder. “How are you feeling?”
She laughed. “How am I feeling? Seriously? You’re the one who’s been mauled by ghost piranhas.”
“Er, nothing.” She did that cute thing where she took her bottom lip between her teeth, shooting a protective surge through him.
His gaze softened. “I heard you screaming my name back there.”
She swallowed hard. “I just didn’t want anything to happen to you. It scared me, thinking I’d lose you. You’re the first decent person I’ve met in a while.”
He wondered how anyone could be cruel to his angel, and his hand clenched into a fist. He would destroy anyone who tried to hurt her.
She rubbed her arms, which had broken out into goose bumps. “When do you think Nik will be back?”
“I don’t know. We could be here for a while, depending on if he gets held up and when he can find help.” Gage prayed that was sooner rather than later. Not that he minded spending time alone with Danica, but spending the night in the cave wasn’t his definition of a romantic evening. And a girl like Danica needed romance.
“What made you stay?”
“With me,” he added softly.
She paused, staring out over the trees in the valley below the bluff. Her legs were drawn up to her chest, and she had her arms wrapped around them. “You’re the first person in a while who’s wanted me around.” She laughed. “Guess you can say I’m a bit of a lone wolf.”
He smiled, but it was abruptly weighed down by guilt when she spoke. “Besides,” she said, “I’m Marked now. You said there was no taking it back. The Change is coming whether I want it to or not, and going at it alone scares me ten times more than having someone to help me through it.”
His shoulders sank. Of course she wasn’t doing it just for him. How foolish could he be? Guilt weighed down the smile that had been there seconds before. “I’m sorry for bringing you into this.”
“You don’t have to keep apologizing,” she said, shaking her head with a wistful smile. “Truth is, I’ve been feeling a bit lost lately. I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. I was working a job I wasn’t thrilled with, but it paid the bills, and taking it one day at a time. I was beginning to doubt I’d find a friend again to share life with. I went to the bar to meet someone, and I did.” She smiled at him, easing some of his worry.
“What do you do for a living?” he asked.
“I work at Cassie’s Cute Cuts.” She frowned. “Only as the front desk girl, not a hair dresser. That is, if I haven’t been fired by now. I was supposed to be in this morning at eight.”
Gage winced. He hadn’t meant to get her fired. “I’ll take care of you.”
She set her jaw. “I don’t need anyone to take care of me.”
“I don’t doubt it,” he said gently. “Something tells me you can look out for yourself. That doesn’t mean you have to do everything by yourself. You’ll break, eventually. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
She stared at him thoughtfully. “What do you do? Besides being a packmaster.”
“I deal in real estate,” he said. “It’s a bit of an inherited business when you join our pack. We have rental properties all over the United States and several overseas. We all help out.”
“I see.” She shivered.
Gage opened up his arms. “Come here.”
She eagerly curled up next to him. For a moment they laid there, neither talking, just enjoying the silence. “So what’s the Change like?”
He thought his answer through. “The first time will be unpleasant.”
“It’s going to hurt like hell, isn’t it?”
He grimaced and she sighed. “You don’t have to treat me like I’m breakable. As I said, I can take care of myself. I’m a big girl.”
“That doesn’t mean I like the idea of you being in pain.”
Danica shivered and he held her closer. He closed his eyes, trying to memorize her scent. Her fear had washed away as she’d calmed down, and he could pick up on her scent. Roses. The woods. Arousal.
That last one sent a shiver of longing straight to his loins.
He wasn’t sure if she’d done it on purpose, but she nuzzled closer to him, until their bodies were plastered together. Parts of his still-healing body ached in protest, but he firmly shoved those protests back down. “Will I not be as horny after the Change?” she asked.
He chuckled. “Doubtful. Werewolves are horny by nature.”
“Oh. Then I’ll fit right in,” she said huskily.
His breath caught as she rubbed herself against him.
He growled deep in his throat, turning her around so she was straddling him. “Does this hurt?” she asked with concern.
“No,” he breathed, shaking his head. He was lying through his teeth, but damn if he was going to tell her to stop.
She clung to him, moving her hips, bare sex rubbing along his bulge. “I have to admit,” she breathed as he watched her nipples harden through the sweat-dampened material of her shirt, “that I’ve been fantasizing about you lately.”
“Also a side effect of the Fever.”
She shook her head. “Something tells me I would have anyway.”
He held onto her hips to help keep her steady. What he wouldn’t give to make love to her…. The urge to see her, all of her, overwhelmed him. Silently, he sat up, keeping her straddled on his lap, and began peeling her blouse up and over her head. She lifted her arms, leaving her naked from the waist up, except for the lacy bra. With deft fingers, he snapped open the clasp and her plush breasts came spilling out. He tossed the bra to the side along with her blouse. He started to lift her up, intending to go for her skirt next, when she raised a brow and stopped him.
Gage sighed hard, running a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry. I got carried away. I just wanted to see you… all of you….”
A sexy grin came over her face. “Well, this works both ways, you know. It’s only fair if you get naked too.”
He stared at her, breath catching as she slowly undid the buttons on his shirt. She pulled it open, revealing the soft black hairs along his pectoral muscles. He shrugged his shirt off, then reached for the zipper in her skirt. It slid off easily, sliding down her long legs. For a moment, all he could do was stare.
She was perfect, with the right amount of softness in all the right places.
She slowly undid his zipper, and in a few seconds, he was pants-less and boxers-less. They both sat there, naked, eyeing each other. A tear slid down her cheek. “Oh, Gage….”
With gentle fingers, she touched the quickly disappearing bruises on his skin. The cuts were healed. Having your skin sew itself back together in fast forward sucked, but he never let on it was painful as she ran her hands over his chest, his abs, his back. He brushed away the stray tear with his thumb. His queen had such a big heart. “I’m fine.” He kissed her softly. “I’m going to be fine.”
With his free hand, he pulled her closer. With her bare breasts pressing against his chest, he could feel himself hardening, growing longer and more eager to mate with her.
She must have felt him brushing her leg, because those gorgeous green eyes ducked down. Her gaze grew hungry and she licked her lips.
Lifting her up, he leaned back and sat her on top of him. Though he was hard and ready to take her, he didn’t want to do so without her permission. She was tasting this idea, of being his permanent lover, and he didn’t want to scare her away, not now that he had a chance of winning her forever.
In subtle movements, she began raking her sex along his shaft. He reached up and cupped her breasts, teasing her nipples with his mouth. She gasped, rubbing harder, coating him with her honey. He ran his hands over her body, reveling in her softness.
“What does mating feel like?” she asked, her voice ragged.
“I don’t know,” Gage admitted. “I’ve heard the bond between mates is incredible. You can feel their emotions, where they are. You’re linked closer to them than any other person, human or were.”
She smiled. “That sounds nice, to never be alone.”
He smiled back. “Yeah.”
He was leaning up to kiss her when a wolf howled in the distance. Gage sighed and squeezed his eyes shut as Danica looked toward the cave entrance. “Was that…?”
“Nik,” he said, closing his eyes and letting out a slow, calming breath. “Sorry to cut this short, love.”
“It’s okay.” She climbed off him and began dressing, casting one last eyeful of him as he rose. “We can take a raincheck.”
He grinned. He liked the sound of rainchecks. And a very naked Danica moaning his name and digging her nails into his back as he made her come over and over again.
He quickly dressed, pulling on his damp shirt and pants and not cherishing any part of it. Wolves didn’t like to be wet any more than humans. Another howl came. “That’s definitely Nik. I’d recognize his howl anywhere.”
More howls joined in, along with a blinding white light that spilled into the cave. Relieved as he was to be rescued - mostly for Danica’s sake - Gage wished he’d had more time with her.
Danica got dressed, and he held her hand as they walked to the mouth of the cave. They squinted against the brilliant, pure light that seemed to come from everywhere. A woman with flowing white hair and a blue dress stood in the center of the light, surrounded by wolves.
Wraiths shrieked and swirled around her, but they didn’t dare enter her protective bubble. Raising her arms, she shot bolts of light through the wraiths. The bolts went right through the shadowy figures, disintegrating them as their screams filled the air.
The wolves growled and howled, pawing at the earth as if eager to get in on the fight.
Finally, she bellowed, “Enough!”
Light exploded from her, radiating through the woods like a bomb went off.
Abruptly, it vanished, sucked back into the woman who now sparkled like snow. All the wraiths were gone.
“Wow,” Danica breathed, hardly able to believe what she had just seen. Beside her, Gage breathed a sigh of relief.
The woman smiled and walked forward. “Gage. It has been too long.”
Danica stiffened beside him, and he squeezed her hand, letting her know it was all right. “Penelope. It’s good to see you. Thanks for coming.”
He gave her a quick, friendly hug. “I couldn’t believe it when Nik called me and said you were stuck out here with wraiths. Honestly, what is the world coming to?”
“What did you do to them?” Danica asked, clinging to Gage’s arm.
“Oh, I banished them back where they came from. A little light and poof! All gone.”
Danica sighed with relief.
Penelope smiled and extended her hand. “Hi. You must be Danica. I’m Penelope. Gage is an old friend of mine.”
“Nice to meet you,” Danica said warily, eyeing the witch and her mate.
Penelope caught on and laughed. “Oh, not like that. He’s like a little brother to me.”
Gage rolled his eyes, but smiled. “Penelope’s a White Witch, or a magic user in control of light and life. Her powers are about the only kind that can trump Black Magic, like what summoned those wraiths.”
“Obviously, someone knew you were coming. Those wraiths must have been summoned when you arrived. It takes a while for a summoning charm that powerful to kick in,” Penelope said with a frown. “Who did you say lived out here?”
“A generalist witch named Violet, I think. Well, at least, I thought she was a generalist. Apparently, she’s taken to dabbling in Black Magic.”
Penelope’s face scrunched up in thought, then she whistled. “I remember her. She’s a bit of a quack in the witching community. Keeps to herself a lot.”
Danica looked around at the woods. “You don’t say,” she mumbled.
Penelope grinned. “I had no idea she was this powerful. Guess appearances can be deceiving.”
“No kidding,” Gage murmured. He hugged Danica to him. She was chilled. He needed to get her warm before she caught a cold. Humans and weres had that in common - they could still get sick. “When we were snooping, we came across a name several times. Ever heard of a Mistress Black?”
Penelope pursed her lips together, thinking. “Nope. Doesn’t ring any bells. Sorry.”
Gage’s brows stooped. He’d really hoped Penelope would have a lead on who had hired the construction of the cloaking charm for Onyx.
Gage smiled at Penelope. “Thank you for coming to help us. I’d better get her home.”
“Anytime. You know where to find me.” With a snap of her fingers, she disappeared in a poof of pink smoke.
“Wow,” Danica said, blinking. “I need to learn how to do that. I’d never be late for anything again.”
“Sorry, love. That’s a witch trick, I’m afraid. Come. Let’s join the others and get the hell out of these woods.”
They couldn’t walk fast enough back to the car. Most of the wolves had changed back into men. It felt a little weird being surrounded by so many naked men, but that was the least of her concerns. Despite Gage’s reassurances the wraiths would not return, Danica kept glancing over her shoulder, yelping every time a leaf brushed her arm or she tripped over a rock. Eventually, Gage picked her up and carried her.
“This is completely unnecessary, you know,” she huffed, wrapping her arms around his neck a bit tighter. Truthfully, the feel of his enormous muscles beneath her calves and back was comforting - and enticing. He had taken his shirt off, saying he was hot.
She was inclined to agree. Sweat suited him, glistening along his exquisite body.
“It’ll make you feel safer, and I won’t be so on edge with you shrieking at every little shadow,” he said dryly.
She punched him playfully in the arm. It was like hitting a rock. “Very funny, Mr. ‘I’m a badass werewolf Alpha, hear me roar!’”
He chuckled, the deep sound vibrating against her chest. Closing her eyes, she rested her head against his shoulder, and his grip around her tightened. “Are weres always this warm?”
“Yes. That’s why we rarely go to human doctors. They always think we have a fever. Our temperatures run a bit hotter during mating season.”
She felt her cheeks heat. Technically, humans mated all the time, but she wasn’t used to calling it something so… carnal. It made her feel like an animal.
Might as well get used to it.
Nik and the others were waiting for them back at the cottage. “About time,” Nik said, grinning and clapping a hand on Gage’s shoulder as he set Danica down. “We thought maybe a bear had gotten you.”
“A bear’s no threat to me,” Gage said with a wicked glint to his eyes that bordered on arrogance. It didn’t make Danica think any less of him, though. If anything, it made her pant for him a little more.
Gage sniffed and looked at her, a slow smile lighting up his handsome face.
She shifted her weight and looked away, humiliated. He could smell her. Of course he could - he was a freaking werewolf!
Soon, my queen, he murmured in her head.
She blinked, startled. It was going to take some time to get used to someone invading her thoughts.
“What are our losses?” Gage asked gravely. He looked afraid to ask, like he was steeling himself for the answer.
Nik’s expression was equally grave. “Erik, you already know about.”
Danica subconsciously glanced at the car and wished she hadn’t. Nothing remained of Erik but a dark stain on the ground. A tremble worked its way through her body, and Gage pulled her to him, keeping her face away from the gore.
“Tony, and that kid from Kansas, Alec, I think his name was didn’t make it,” Nik said. “They couldn’t outrun the wraiths when they started swarming in the woods. Apparently, that’s where the trap was set.”
“Only a handful were injured. They’re back at the mansion recovering.” Nik gave Gage a hard look, and Danica had a feeling he was intentionally not telling Gage something.
Gage nodded once, curtly. “We’ll have funerals arranged for them when we get back.” He swallowed. “Then we’ll notify their families, and contact the Prima if Penelope hasn’t already.”
“Prima?” I asked.
“Witches and warlocks are big on the whole north, south, east, and west thing. There’s a head witch or warlock of every corner of the United States. They have laws, same as we do. Some things, all of the Underworld has to obey, including reporting when a witch is illegally practicing Black Magic, especially when there are deaths involved.”
Heavy silence settled over the group.
The other weres had watched the exchange but now came over and acknowledged their leader. Gage looked happier to see them than the other way around.
Something felt off to Danica. There wasn’t so much warmth in their eyes as accusation.
They blame him, she realized.
Fisting her hands, she started forward, mouth open to defend Gage, when Nik shoved an arm out. “Not now, little queen,” he said quietly.
Danica looked from Gage’s brother to her mate, and pressed her lips together. Feeling restless and alert, she crossed her arms, warily watching the wolves that she would soon rule.
She blinked. Since when did she start to think of them as her subjects?
Since you decided to give Gage a chance.
She shivered. Taking chances on people in the past had cost her dearly. She had thought people had loved her enough to stick around, but they hadn’t. She hadn’t been enough.
Would she be for Gage? What was to stop him from leaving her someday?
She rubbed her arms, trying to think about anything but her upset stomach.
Gage spoke in low tones to the others for a moment before declaring they head out. “There is much to be done,” he said, heading for the trunk and pulling out a change of clothes. “Gather the remains and meet back at the base.”
The wolves put their right fists over their hearts, some giving lingering glares to Gage before heading back in the opposite direction, to the cars waiting down the road.
Danica watched them leave, frowning, then eyed Gage as he changed out of his wet clothes into some dry ones. “You keep clothes in the trunk?”
“We’re always prepared,” Gage said, “since you don’t know when you might need to Change.”
Not much was said after that. The ride back was tense. Gage sat in the back beside Danica, though he and Nik went over details of what had happened. “Damn things trailed me for clear eight miles,” Nik said. “I didn’t think I was going to lose ‘em, but I did.”
That troubled look left Gage’s face for the briefest of moments. “Nik’s the fastest wolf in our pack,” he explained with a look of pride.
“Ah, stop, precious,” Nik said gruffly. “You’re making me blush.” His eyes glinted gold. “Onyx was there, all right. I could smell him all over the woods and in that cottage.”
“So could I,” Gage said. “If we can’t find anymore leads, we should find him.”
“My thoughts exactly.”
The two men made arrangements while Danica listened silently in the back. Yesterday, her life was boring. Today, she didn’t recognize who she’d become. Who was this girl who made out with a stranger, who got involved in life-threatening situations? She’d never strayed too far from the safe zone. Maybe that was why this freedom - the permission Gage gave her to enjoy being a carnal creature - felt so good to her. It felt right. Until she’d lived on the edge, she realized she hadn’t fully been living. She’d grown numb to life. It was easier to deal with that way, deal with her friends moving on and creating the perfect life she couldn’t seem to reach, of her boyfriend dumping her for someone more “suitable” to his lifestyle, of the aunt who chose her boyfriend over her niece, a house that would probably fall apart within the next ten years, and a job she loathed.
Yes, she hadn’t just wanted this - she had prayed for it, had been begging for a change. And it had come in the form of a hunky werewolf named Gage Johnson. With him, there was no pretending, no hiding the fact she was a bit of a dork and had a big imagination. He didn’t judge her like her friends had, didn’t chastise her like her aunt did, saying she’d, “Better stop daydreaming and get her head back in the real world.”
Being with Gage felt right, like she could be herself and be accepted for who she really was.
When they arrived at the mansion, Nik went to get preparations for the funerals underway while Gage led Danica up to their room. She watched him as they walked, worrying about the heaviness on his face and miserable she couldn’t do anything about it.
When they were inside his chambers and the door was closed, she nearly ran into him when he stopped suddenly, staring at the floor. Without warning, he picked up a vase and threw it across the room, where it shattered.
Danica jumped. It hadn’t entirely been unexpected, but she didn’t have much of a taste for violence. Her childhood had given plenty of that.
Gage punched the wall, driving his fist through it. “DAMMIT!”
Danica stood frozen, unsure what to do.
Gage’s shoulders heaved as he took in deep breaths, closing his eyes as his composure broke, and all the anger leaked out of him. With a sob, he collapsed to the floor, shaking as tears ran down his face.
Danica immediately went to him, resting a gentle hand on his shoulder. When he leaned into her, putting his head against her chest, she cradled him and rocked him. She didn’t say anything - she didn’t have to. For some things, just being held, being close to someone, was enough.
She let him grieve, holding him until he decided to sit up. “I’m sorry,” he said raggedly, wiping a hand over his face.
“For what?” she asked softly.
“For putting you through that. I never meant for you to be dragged into this world of backstabbing violence.”
“Sssh,” she said, putting a finger to his lips. “I wouldn’t rather be anywhere else except right here, with you.”
He looked at her, a small smile appearing. “You say that now just because you haven’t experienced Thanksgiving with us.”
She snorted and sat down beside him, their backs to the footboard. “At least you have a family to share it with, no matter how dysfunctional.”
He studied her. “You spent the holidays alone?”
She looked at the floor and shrugged.
Gage grabbed hold of her and hugged her to him. “I swear, you’ll never feel alone again.”
It sounded so wonderful. She didn’t realize how much it meant to hear that until tears pricked her eyes. Taking a deep breath, she closed her eyes and pushed the emotions back. She needed to stay strong for him. Losing his packmates had broken a piece of him, and he needed her strength.
“So do you really think a witch mafia is behind this?” she asked, sitting up and pushing a strand of unkempt hair from her face. “Who are they, anyway?”
He sighed hard. “The Underworld’s races have houses of power, much like human’s. Some bloodlines are ancient, going back into the dark ages. There’s been a lot of bloodshed, and witches aren’t known for being modest when it comes to conquests of power. It’s said there are two main mafias, the Blackwater Brethren and the Order of the Sun. The two most powerful houses are light and dark, or it used to be that way. Black Witches are all but extinct, which is probably why the Blackwater Brethren are the most desperate for more power. As for whether or not they’re behind this, I don’t know. I wish I did. Some clarity of motive is much needed about now.”
“Can’t you hire a psychic to spy on them or figure out what’s going on?”
“That’s the thing. True psychics are rare, even rarer than a trueborn Black Witch.”
“Born with the innate disposition for a certain craft, whether it be black, white, red, blue, green, or gray magic. Clairvoyance falls in the area of white, though few White Witches or Warlocks are gifted with it. If they all came psychic, we would have asked Penelope.”
Danica chewed on her tongue. This world was turning out to be more and more complex by the minute. She wondered if they had some sort of “supernatural Bible” she could learn from.
“Why do you think they want to kill me?” she asked.
Gage’s gaze turned deadly. “More than likely to unseat me. Could be for revenge, one of the contenders I beat.”
Danica grasped his forearm and squeezed.
He squeezed her hand back. “It’ll be all right. I’ll keep you safe.” He pressed a kiss to her head.
Danica smiled. She could look out for herself - had been for a while now - but it was nice to know someone cared.
They sat like that for a while before Gage murmured, “I need to check on Nik, see how things are going with the arrangements.”
She nodded. “Of course. Whatever you need.”
He stroked her cheek, staring into her eyes. “I don’t know what I did to deserve you.”
Her cheeks grew warmer. “Well, I consider myself pretty lucky to have met you.” She pecked a kiss to his lips. “And I want you to know I’m here for you, no matter what.”
His shoulders visibly slacked as he rested his forehead against hers. They both closed their eyes, enjoying a moment’s peace.
It began with a kiss, a slight tug of the bottom lip, which quickly turned into something much hotter as hands began to roam over naked flesh. Breaking away when she reached for his hardening erection, Gage said, “Soon. I promise.”
Kissing her hard, he started toward the door. “I’ll post guards outside. Yell if you need anything, or just think my name. I’ll hear you. I’ll be back soon.” With one last lingering look, he strode out of the room, closing the door behind him.
Danica stood there for a moment, debating what to do. Next to hot sex with Gage, one thing in particular sounded wonderful.
Heading to the massive bathroom connected to the bedroom, the first thing she did was take a nice long bath. After filling the tub with sweet-smelling bubble bath she’d found amongst some more feminine products she assumed Gage had set aside for her use, she lounged in the steamy water.
It was a pity her intended couldn’t join her. She saw the fear reflected in his eyes as he spoke of the attempt on her life, and she wanted to do something to make it go away. The fact he worried so much over her safety was endearing. No one had ever shown that much concern over her before.
The dread he would someday run away returned, making the air seem chilly despite the steam. Bitter reality sank in as her common sense gave her a talking to. Popping floating bubbles idly, she considered what the hell she was doing here. Did she really want to stay? Gage had said mating was forever, and forever was a long time to spend with someone you barely knew. She couldn’t be stupid about this.
She sank deeper into the tub, reclining her head back on the porcelain rim. She closed her eyes and smiled. Seth had never looked at her the way Gage had in the cave, like he couldn’t take in enough of her. For the first time in a while, she hadn’t felt conscientious about the extra curves on her body. She had felt desired, and it had been amazing. It also made her wonder what was the catch?
Sighing, she began washing her hair. Honestly, she could think of worst fates than being cosmically linked to a hot werewolf forever. It wasn’t like she had much to go back to - as in, no one. Even her cat had run off. She knew what awaited her back home - an empty house, a job she could care less about, and an empty life.
“How depressing,” she muttered, rinsing her hair out. She wasn’t afraid to be alone because she’d been alone for most of her life. But was she just staying with Gage because she didn’t want to be alone anymore? Sure, there was a spark between them, and more than enough lust to fill a room, but she knew she didn’t love him.
Could she grow to love him? Could he grow to love her?
She didn’t know what scared her most: the fact he could someday leave her, or what would her life be like if she decided to walk away from him. Would she regret it?
More anxious than she was when she got in the tub, Danica got out and dried off after pulling the plug. She dressed in another pretty white silk bathrobe and was drying her hair while mulling things over when the door creaked open.
“I’m glad you’re here,” she said, walking into the bedroom. “I need to talk to you.”
That’s when she looked around and realized it hadn’t been the door that had opened. It had been the window.
Inhaling a breath, she started to scream when a gloved hand clamped down on her mouth.
“Good. You’re here,” Onyx said. “We needed to finish our conversation.”
“Gage, are you listening?”
“What?” Gage blinked, snapping back to reality as Nik’s concerned face came into view once more. They were seated in the conference room, the same room Gage had first gotten a glimpse of his lovely Danica half naked.
Nik looked over his shoulder, at the place on the wall where Gage had been staring. A knowing smile spread across his lips. “Ah, the girl. You were thinking about her.”
“Maybe,” Gage said gruffly, crossing his arms.
Nik leaned back and stretched his arms above his head. “It’s all right. You don’t have to hide your emotions around me. I won’t make fun of you for being a lovesick pup.”
“You like it.”
Gage smiled, but the motion seemed wrong. Like he shouldn’t be smiling with so much death and tragedy hanging over his head. Clearing his throat, he sat up and leaned his elbows on the table, his hands clasped together in front of him. “I caught the part about the funerals being in two days. I’ll call their loved ones in a moment so they can make arrangements. Good thing Tony, Erik, and the kid were all locals. At least their families won’t have to travel far.”
Gage tensed, staring at his hands. He could just imagine the blood of his brethren on them…. He had led them to their deaths.
“Stop blaming yourself,” Nik said quietly.
“Who else is there to blame? I was their leader. I should have been there.”
“You can’t be in two places at once.”
“Then I never should have split up the group!”
Nik pressed his lips together. Gage knew by now that meant he was hiding something. “Spit it out,” he snapped, already knowing what Nik was about to say.
Nik sat up and drummed his fingers along the tabletop. “You might want to give the others some space for a while. To grieve.”
“It’s not just to grieve, and you and I both know it. They’re angry with me. They know this is my fault.”
“Dammit, Gage!” Nik said, slamming a fist down on the table. “Stop acting like you’re the only one to blame! You’re not! If anything, Tony, Erik, the kid, they all decided to go. You didn’t make them.”
“But didn’t I? When I commanded them as their Alpha?”
Nik was silent.
Gage was coming apart inside. Wolves felt the loss of a packmate as deeply as a relative. It was one of the quirks of being bonded through pack blood.
But Gage also knew that while their mistrust was natural, since he was the leader of a mission gone horribly wrong, it had been there far longer. Malachite had ruled with an iron fist. His atrocities and the abuse of his pack would linger for many years. Gage knew taking on the position of packmaster was not going to be easy, not when he had a band of abused wolves under his protection.
And how good a job did you do of protecting them?
Restless, Gage stood and decided to pace.
Nik watched him silently from his seat.
“We’re still no closer to finding out who was responsible for the hit on my mate,” Gage said.
“I’ll put the word out, and I’ll ask Penelope to do the same. That name is bound to pop up again. Still sounds like mafia involvement, if you ask me.”
“But why? Why kill my mate? What do they have to gain by knocking me out of the leadership position?”
Nik sighed hard. “That I can’t tell you.” He looked at Gage warily. “Have you decided when you’re having the mating ceremony?”
“I can’t possibly think about that now, not after the massacre that happened yesterday.”
“The Blood Moon rises in three nights.”
“And we have three wolves to bury day after tomorrow!” Gage roared.
Nik stood, his voice every bit as steely as his brother’s. “I’m aware of that. But regardless of what happened in those woods, you are our leader, and to remain so, you have to mate before the Blood Moon sets. It’s in the law.”
Gage thought he would blow a fuse. With a roar, he fisted his hands, tempted to throw something but knowing it wouldn’t solve the problem at hand. “Damn our laws,” he growled. “Can we not have a few days to grieve?”
Nik looked at him with sympathy, resting a hand on his shoulder. “The Blood Moon Law is a magical rite. You can’t risk losing Danica and your pack forever. Take some time to grieve. I can call the families.”
“No,” Gage said, grasping his brother’s hand and squeezing. “I appreciate the offer, but I’m not helpless. I can call.”
“Take care of yourself, brother. And don’t forget there’s nothing wrong with letting others help you. You can’t carry the weight of the world on your shoulders.”
Gage smiled slightly. “But I sure as hell can try.”
Concern weighed down Nik’s sharp features. “True, but how long will you last before you break?”
He started to turn to leave when a thought crossed Gage’s mind. “Do you think it was planned?”
Nik paused. “What?”
“The attack in the woods. What if… what if it was someone in our pack trying to kill Danica?”
“No, listen. What when Onyx failed, they lured us out to the woods, knowing it was a trap.”
Nik shook his head. “The pack might be a mess emotionally right now, but I don’t believe for a second any of them would be out to get you like that. You’re not Malachite.”
Gage shivered at the mention of the cruel ex-Alpha’s name. “And I never will be,” he murmured, a promise to himself.
Nik smiled. “No. You’re too kind. You’re a damn good Alpha. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise, including yourself.”
He walked off, leaving Gage in the room by himself. He stared into the fire, then out over the bleak, overcast sky. Deep down, it was one of his worst fears, that his pack would betray him. He couldn’t blame them for being wary of a new king. Seeing them so frightened, so scared… it had reminded him of when he’d been alone, with no one to defend him. Except for Nik. Nik had always been there, his guardian, tattooed angel. Gage knew there was no way he could ever repay Nik for taking care of him when he needed it most, so he had vowed to pay it forward by helping out this pack. Truth be told, he didn’t want to be a leader. But with Nik’s encouragement, he began to believe in himself more and more. That he truly was capable of being a great leader, a guide, a shepherd.
The urge to nurture and protect was still in him. Growing up, Gage’s gentle heart had been a weakness to the kids who bullied him. But as he grew older - and with Nik’s guidance and nonjudgmental love - it became a strength.
He could - would - turn this around.
With renewed hope, he prepared himself mentally for the difficult task of delivering the news to the victims’ families. He had almost made it to the door when he heard Danica scream his name in his mind.
Her terror ripped through him, causing him to stumble and grit his teeth.
“No,” he breathed, the moment he realized what was happening. Bolting through the door, he raced up the stairs.
Nik saw him and immediately raced after him. “What’s wrong?”
He didn’t stop to talk, only kept running toward his bedroom. The guards stood at their posts, their heads facing forward.
Gage slowed. Maybe he had only imagined his beloved’s voice calling out to him, a reaction from lack of sleep and stress. Then he saw the purple hue over the guards’ eyes, and the blank expressions on their faces.
“Damn,” Nik said, “they’ve been enchanted.”
Which could only mean…
Gage tried the door, finding it locked. Not wanting to waste another minute, he kicked the door down and rushed inside, Nik close behind.
He searched the room, mentally and physically, unable to find a paranormal signature or any sign of his Danica.
She was gone.
Since Onyx had gagged her - and threatened to shoot her should she not comply - she’d been pretty quiet. But he didn’t say anything about reaching out to Gage with her mind.
It was weird, and she had no idea if she was doing it right, but she focused every brain cell on Gage’s handsome face. Then she started yelling his name in her head.
Onyx had also tied her hands behind her back. As he guided her out the window and to the edge of the roof, she started having second thoughts about this whole kidnapping thing. Onyx must have sensed it, because the barrel of the gun pressed to the back of her skull.
“Don’t think for one minute I won’t follow through,” Onyx growled into her ear. “It would give me great pleasure to kill you, then march back in there and take out that obnoxious wolf of yours.”
The thought of Gage coming to harm at her expense was too great a pain to bear. Nodding once so he’d get she wouldn’t try anything, Onyx pulled her to him and jumped. Her scream was muffled by the handkerchief, her eyes wide as they plummeted toward the ground. Like an animal, Onyx landed on his feet, catching Danica so she wouldn’t injure herself.
Two shadows moved around the side of the house. Danica recognized them as two of Gage’s packmates. Spotting her bound and gagged, one of them swore and started to transform when Onyx aimed and shot him. The bullet went clean through his head. The man’s body arched backward, and Danica’s eyes widened further as he hit the ground, dead.
“Let’s go!” Onyx hissed, dragging her across the lawn toward the woods.
The second were had Changed, coming up behind them in a blur of snarls and brown fur. Onyx whirled, placing Danica in front of him as a shield, and planting the gun against her temple.
The wolf drew up short, lips pulled back over its fangs, ears pinned low against its head.
“Tell your master not to pursue us, or I’ll kill her,” Onyx demanded.
Danica trembled against him, not sure if she should be more afraid of her captor or the ferocious, giant wolf pawing at the dirt like a bull about to charge.
After a stare down, the wolf at last turned and ran back toward the house, howling. Danica’s eyes flashed up to her bedroom window to see Gage.
Though he was too far away for her to tell for certain, she swore their eyes met. It was a feeling she had inside, a rush of hope that was quickly extinguished when Onyx took her into the woods.
This part of Harper’s Forest wasn’t nearly as ominous as that which surrounded the witch’s cabin, but it still made her skin crawl to be handled so roughly by Onyx.
Her heart pounded in her chest as panic set in, making it harder to think.
You have to stay calm. You can’t afford to lose focus in case an opportunity to escape or tell landmarks shows up. If she could give Gage directions and clues, maybe she could guide him to where Onyx was taking her.
A black SUV was parked along a dirt path. Onyx shoved her in the backseat, then walked around toward the driver’s side.
Danica immediately tried going for the door handle while his back was turned, but he grabbed her hair and yanked her away.
She glared at him as he started the engine, her scalp burning. She had a hundred questions and couldn’t ask any of them.
Closing her eyes, Danica focused on sending info to Gage. Black SUV. License Plate 067HGNM. At least, she hoped that’s what it was.
“Oh, no you don’t.”
Danica had just enough time to open her eyes and see the butt of the gun flying toward her skull. There was a cracking sound, followed by a flash of pain, and then darkness pulled her under.
As Gage climbed through the window and leapt from the roof, he couldn’t get the image of his mate staring back at him, green eyes wide with fear. If Onyx hurt her….
He would kill him, either way. No one broke into his house, kidnapped his mate, without paying the price.
With fury running through his veins, he started to shift when Nik yelled, “Wait!”
Gage Changed as fast as he could, ignoring his brother. If Nik weren’t as fast a shifter, he might have actually made it all the way to the woods before the great brown wolf pounced on him, and the two went rolling through the grass. Desperate and panicked, Gage snapped his teeth at Nik, growling as he tried bucking him off.
Stop it! Nik yelled telepathically.
What the hell are you doing? Gage yelled back. They’re getting away!
We’re in no shape to chase them down. There are too few of us.
Then let me go after them alone.
No, Nik said firmly, growling low in his throat.
Gage paused. Are you working with Onyx?
Nik barked a laugh. Don’t be stupid. You couldn’t pay me to cooperate with thug-ilk like Onyx. I thought you knew me better than that.
I don’t know what to believe.
We need a plan. We need to regroup the others.
Gage strained to turn his neck enough to be able to see the SUV he could hear driving away in the woods. That’s when Danica shouted something at him through their bond - a license plate.
Gage’s tail wagged. Perfect.
She gave us a lead. He started to sit up, and this time Nik let him. Shifting back to human form, Gage stalked toward the house, not caring in the least he was naked. The only thing that mattered was getting Danica back as soon as possible, before anyone could hurt her.
If Onyx hadn’t already.
Gage’s throat tightened with worry.
Nik had shifted back as well, and followed him into the house. Gage reached out to his packmates. One of the perks of being the Alpha was the ability to reach out to his fellow wolves whenever and wherever they were. Board room - now.
Soon as Mary spied him, she just sighed. “I’ll get you both some pants.” Muttering something about “indecent, knucklehead wolves,” she scurried off to one of the guest rooms. She’d seen so many naked men wandering around the mansion it was commonplace for her now. Mary got it - she was were after all.
Mary returned with pants for both Gage and Nik about the time the first wolf rolled in, a youngster named Jason.
“What’s happened?” he asked, toweling off his still-damp hair. His face was flushed and the scent of pine body wash clung to his pores.
“My mate’s been kidnapped,” Gage said, pacing. If he didn’t move about, he’d go mad.
Jason’s face turned serious. “What do we need to do?”
Gage had to admit, he was impressed with the kid’s maturity. He had almost not let him join the pack, with him being only nineteen, but not once had he felt like he was babysitting. The kid had pulled his own, more so than some of the adult members.
“I have a license plate we’ll need to get one of our friends in the D.P.I. to do a quick trace on,” Gage said.
Nik whipped out his cell phone. “On it.”
“After that,” Gage went on, “We’ll need to track it down, which is why we can’t waste too much time. For all we know, the vehicle could be stolen.”
“Got it,” Nik announced. “Thank God for witchery. It seriously scares the shit out of me sometimes, but times like this, I have to admit tracing spells are pretty handy. Verika said she’d even put a Trail on the vehicle.”
Gage’s shoulders visibly relaxed, and he made a mental note to take her out to dinner for all the help she’d been. It was a good thing Nik was on such good terms with his ex. He was actually on remarkably good terms with most of his exes, a quality that astounded Gage.
“Well, then, let’s waste no time.” Gage paused. “Where are the others?”
Jason and Nik looked around, then at the floor.
Gage didn’t have to ask to see what had happened. They’re abandoning me. They must still be upset with him over what had happened in the woods.
He warred with himself. No, he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t - wouldn’t - force them to do his bidding as Malachite had. If anything was to change, then he needed to set as good an example as possible, to show he was not Malachite.
“Let’s go,” Gage said at last, walking purposefully toward the door.
“Don’t we need backup?” Jason said, striding after him with Nik at his side.
“That’s what you’re for,” Gage said with a wicked smile.
Nik just shook his head and muttered a curse. “You should reconsider your stance, brother.”
“No,” Gage said without hesitation. “I knew their loyalties would have to be earned, and I would be tested. I failed one test with the massacre that happened with the wraiths. I’m not failing another by forcing them to do my will.”
Nik let out a long breath. “Too good for his own good,” he grumbled under his breath.
Gage looked at Jason, who’d gone pale despite the determination burning in his eyes. “You don’t have to do this. I’m not going to hold it against you.”
“I want to go! I mean, I never got to help with anything at home. No one trusted me. I want to do this. Please?”
Gage softened, his respect for the kid growing by the minute, and grunted a response.
He swallowed hard, praying he wasn’t leading them all to their deaths.
Hold on, Danica. I’m coming.
“Wakey, wakey, little wolf.”
Sound, color, and smell swirled together in Danica’s foggy mind. It felt like her brain had taken a beating. The lights of the warehouse were way too bright, causing her head to throb more.
As she slowly came to, she looked around her. She sat in a chair, with her hands tied to the arms and her ankles to the legs. The warehouse was empty and chilly, with dirty concrete flooring and long, bright lights stretching across the high ceiling.
There was something else about the air, a tingling sensation along her skin she couldn’t quite place. “Where are we?”
“Somewhere your wolf won’t be able to hurt me.” Onyx pulled out a dagger encrusted in blood-red gems. The blade glowed with a pale blue light as shadowy tendrils wrapped around it.
Danica swallowed, her eyes never leaving the dagger as Onyx stalked toward her. “If you were going to kill me, why didn’t you just do it back in the car? Or back at the manor?”
“Because I don’t want to kill you. I was just bluffing to get you to cooperate.”
“What about the parking lot?”
He grinned. “I did want to kill you at the time. It was the reason I was getting paid, after all. Then once I saw what Gage was willing to do for you, I had another idea. You were far more useful to me alive. With you, I can kill two birds with one stone.” He forced her palm up and raked the sharp edge of the blade across her skin.
She hissed at the sharp pain. The skin puckered as it split, and blood welled between the edges of the cut.
Onyx held up the blood-drenched blade, his eyes wild. He closed his eyes, whispering fervently, “I trust you, Mistress.” Grabbing the hilt of the blade with both hands, he plunged the dagger into his heart.
Danica’s mouth dropped open in shock as Onyx’s eyes widened and he fell to the floor on his knees, staring at her. She was unable to look away as black ooze dripped from his eyes and down his face, and from the wound in his chest. The inky liquid spread all over his body, consuming him until he was completely covered. He writhed, moaning as his body grew in size and transformed into a familiar shape - a wolf, the biggest she had ever seen. This one was more like the werewolves of old Hollywood legends, with long legs and the height of a grizzly. Onyx laughed in a deep voice as he rose to his full height. The dagger shimmered with red light, becoming a pulsing crest along his bulky chest.
Danica trembled as Onyx’s gold eyes landed on her and he bared his fangs.
“Do you fear me, girl?” he said in a low voice, taking a step toward her.
“What have you done?” she whispered as his muzzle loomed near her face, taking a sniff. She cringed, biting her lip to keep from yelping.
“I have evolved,” Onyx said, rising again with a wicked flash of his great fangs. “I am what no wolf has been before - I am darkness! I am death!”
Danica wriggled in an attempt to break free, but she might as well have been cemented to the chair, as tightly as Onyx had secured the binds.
“This feels incredible,” Onyx said, flexing his massive paws, which were tipped in black claws the size of dinner knives. “I should have let my mistress imbue me with darkness months ago.”
Danica looked up sharply. “Mistress Black?”
Onyx wheeled about, gripping her hands with his paws and growling in her face. The dark magic moved along his body like ink, shifting and writhing with a life of its own. Every fine hair along her body pricked at the proximity of the darkness cloaking what was once Onyx. “How do you know of my mistress?” Onyx demanded.
Danica swallowed hard, mind racing. “Gage put out the word for any information leading to your whereabouts. That name crept up.”
Danica’s eyes narrowed. “I don’t know. He didn’t say.”
“You’re lying. I have ways of making you talk.” A big black claw raked across her throat. She could feel it cutting her skin, and panic started to creep in.
Gage’s heart started pounding harder as Jason, Nik, and he neared the secluded warehouse on the other side of the county. As promised, Verika’s Trailing spell had led them right to Onyx’s vehicle. Gage now owed that woman more than ever for this favor, and he had every intention of repaying her loyalty.
That is, if they survived.
Slamming on the brake, the car squealed, the tires spinning on the gravel before the Dodge Charger ground to a halt. Wolves were fast, but their speed couldn’t compete with a four-hundred-and-seventy horsepower V8. The trio got out and heading toward the building.
Jason looked ready to vomit but no less determined for it. “What’s the plan?”
“Not get killed?” Nik said with a grin, shoving the pup.
“I’ll enter first,” Gage said in a more serious tone, “and you and Nik will flank me. If we can get the element of surprise, we’ll take it. We just need to find a door-”
Gunfire erupted from in front of them, and the group split apart to narrowly avoid being hit. They dove behind the car as the other side was pummeled by bullets. One rolled by Nik’s foot and he stomped on it. “Silver,” he hissed, holding it up. “Looks like our friend invited a few other guests to the party.”
Gage loaded a clip into his handgun, as did his packmates. “Just makes things more interesting. On three, we run. One, two-”
Nik rolled along the ground and came up firing, a gun in both hands. That bloodthirsty grin that sometimes made Gage shiver was plastered over his brother’s face. There never was a better shot than Nik.
“Impatient show-off,” Gage muttered, then motioned to Jason. The two wolves rose, following Nik as he ran toward the back end of the building, the three covering each other’s backs. The guards who’d been charging them tried shifting, realizing too late they’d be faster in wolf form, but Nik made quick work of them. Silver wasn’t deadly to humans as it was wolves, but bullets sure as hell would finish off anything.
Within minutes the first wave of guards lay on the ground, dead, in varying stages of shifting. “Amateurs,” Nik muttered, reloading both cartridges.
Gage’s chest tightened as he stared at the carnage. It jarred memories of the bloodbaths his pack had endured while under Malachite’s reign.
Did this make him no better than his adversary, all this killing?
“Heads up,” Jason said, wiping sweat off his brow with his forearm. “We’ve got more company.”
Gunfire outside diverted Onyx’s attention from her. She took in a shaky breath as the humongous were stalked to the front of the warehouse.
“What’s going on?” Onyx bellowed to the guards who now poured from the side rooms.
“Security footage picked up on a Charger parking out front. It’s Gage Johnson, sir.”
“Good,” Onyx purred. “Let them come.”
The guard hesitated. “Do you not want us to fight them off?”
“Of course, you idiot! If you get a killshot, take it!”
Danica’s blood ran cold. Focusing through her terror, she thought of Gage’s face. Gage! she shouted telepathically. It’s a trap! Onyx is using me as bait! Don’t come in!
Danica! came Gage’s reply. Are you all right? Has he hurt you?
I’m fine. He performed some kind of ritual. He’s huge.
What do you mean?
I mean, he’s a bigass freaking werewolf! Were-zilla!
Stay calm. We’re coming for you.
An explosion rattled the front of the building, blowing chunks of metal siding everywhere. Guards shouted as bullets sailed out of the billowing smoke, killing them, and Gage, Nik, and a teenage boy stepped into the room.
Nik spit out the grenade stub. “Evening, bitches.” He stepped over the bodies of the fallen guards, his eyes landing on Danica. “Gage, she’s over there!”
Her heart filled with hope as her mate stepped out of the smoke and his gaze found hers. He looked haunted, like a man who thought he’d lost everything and was seeing hope again for the first time in ages.
He took a step forward when a black shape charged out of the smoke, pinning Gage to the wall.
Nik’s eyes nearly bugged out of his head. “Holy shit-”
“It’s Onyx!” Danica screamed. “He cast some sort of spell using that jewel on his chest!”
Gage’s feet dangled in the air as the oversized were choked him out. “You should have let me just killed your mate. Now you all know too much, and my master won’t tolerate that. The Order cannot let you live.”
Order? She remembered Gage telling her about the witching mafias of the Order of the Sun. He was right – Onyx was working for them.
Gunfire lit up the back of Onyx’s hide, bouncing off him as if he were made of steel. Irritated, he growled and lunged at Nik, dropping Gage in the process.
“Jason,” Gage sputtered from the floor as he stumbled to get back up, “get. Danica.”
“Right!” The kid shook his head, as if clearing his thoughts, and bolted for her. “Hi,” he said as he began untying her. “I’m Jason.”
She could barely mange to speak, she was so shaken by all that had happened. “Danica.”
“Hang on. I’m gonna get you out.” Her wrists were free; now he was going for her legs. “There. Can you stand?”
“Yeah.” She winced as blood rushed back into her extremities, and she rolled her ankles and wrists to work out the kinks. “I’m fine.” She was lying through her teeth. She was anything but fine. “Scared out of her mind,” maybe, but she couldn’t focus on that now. She had to push through her fear and find a way to help Gage and the others.
Snarls erupted from in front of them. Gage and Nik were both in wolf form and were tackling Onyx to the floor. The larger wolf might have had size and strength on its side, but it didn’t possess the ruthlessness and brutality of the two smaller wolves. They clung to Onyx like leeches, snapping and clawing and biting. Black ooze spilled from the open wounds in Onyx’s hide, making him more desperate as he began bucking and running into the walls in an attempt to knock the other wolves off.
Jason reloaded his gun and started forward. “I need to help.”
“Wait.” Danica clapped a hand on his arm, staring at the wolf and the flashes of red she caught when the gem hit the light. “That’s it. Shoot the gemstone.”
“Look.” She grabbed him by both arms, forcing him to face her. “I don’t know anything about Black Magic or whatever he used to get this way. But I’m guessing since that gem is still there, he’s drawing his power from it. It’s worth a try.”
Jason deliberated, shifting his weight.
“It might be our only chance.”
Otherwise, we might all die.
She couldn’t say that last part aloud, though it was a very real possibility.
Jason finally set his jaw and nodded. “Okay.” Holding up the gun, he aimed and waited. The moment the gem came into view, he fired - and missed.
Onyx’s eyes snapped onto him, and he growled, stalking toward him.
Jason’s eyes went wide, and Danica screeched, “Shoot again!”
Jason fired another round, but Onyx was prepared. He moved at the last second so the bullet went toward his chest, bouncing off of it.
Jason swore and Onyx lunged, forcing him and Danica to dive to either side. Danica landed hard on her elbows, hearing them crack. She cried out and the next instant, Nik had changed back to a man and was beside her. “You all right, love?”
“I’m fine,” she gritted out. “The gem. We have to destroy it.”
Jason was now in wolf form and was fighting for his life. The big white wolf she knew to be Gage had taken a few knocks. His beautiful coat was marred by bloody patches, which smeared across the floor as Onyx tried fighting them off.
Nik grabbed the gun without question and checked the clip. “Three rounds. Better make this count. Hey, shitface!”
Onyx turned around just as his jaws were about to close around wolf-Jason’s neck.
Nik grinned and held up the gun. “You sure you’re a wolf or a pussy? To be as big as you are, we’re sure holding our own.”
Onyx barked, a deep sound that reverberated around the warehouse, and ran toward Nik.
Nik fired once. The bullet skimmed the stone. The second round hit the floor as Onyx leapt out of the way, and Nik swore. Onyx was air-bound now, paws outstretched toward Nik, jaws opening wide to literally bite his head off.
Nik shoved Danica out of the way of the wolf and ran forward, sliding along the floor below Onyx. He aimed straight at the gem, which was directly above his head now, and fired. The bullet sailed true, embedding in the gemstone. It cracked and Onyx groaned in agony before the gem exploded. Onyx screamed as shadows swirled around him, leaking out of him as he fell to the floor and rapidly shrank in size. Within a few seconds, he lay on his back, naked and covered in blood from the many bullet holes, lacerations, and bite marks all over his body.
Gage immediately shifted back and stumbled over to Danica. She rose and went to him, hugging him fiercely.
“I thought I’d lost you,” he breathed into her hair.
“It’s going to be harder than that to get rid of me,” she said with a shaky grin.
He smiled, kissing her forehead and holding her close.
“What’s up with all the wounds?” she asked, gesturing to Onyx. “I thought he was practically Superman.”
“Must be a loophole of the spell. As long as he remains in wolf form, the shadows protect him, absorbing the pain. But the moment he turns back, he takes on all the injuries as if he’d fully received them.”
Nik knelt beside Onyx and placed the barrel of his gun to his head. Though Danica and Nik knew the gun was empty, Onyx did not. “I’d start talking,” Nik said.
Onyx chuckled, spitting up blood. “You don’t know who you’re dealing with.”
“Why don’t you inform us?” Gage said in a steely tone.
Onyx shook his head, his eyes wild with pain. “I am but a pawn for the greater good. My master will bring forth a whole new world for us, one where we don’t have to hide or be persecuted for being different.”
Nik looked at Gage. “He’s gone mad.”
“You’re all fools!” Onyx sang. “When the never-ending night falls, anyone who stands against her will die!”
“Who?” Nik shook him. “What the hell are you talking about?”
Onyx started chuckling again. “Mis-”
There was a cracking sound, and black foam spilled from Onyx’s mouth.
Gage grabbed Nik, yanking him up as the liquid spewed from the were’s mouth like a geyser. “Someone just detonated a killing spell. Don’t touch it.”
“Yeah, I kind of figured that,” Nik said dryly, shrugging out of his brother’s grasp.
Onyx slowly stilled, his eyes finding them once more. “The end… has… only… begun…”
Silence filled the warehouse as Onyx’s last breath was spent delivering the cryptic message.
“What do you think he meant?” Nik asked.
Gage sighed and pulled Danica closer, who couldn’t take her eyes off the dead man. “I don’t know. But something tells me this isn’t over yet.”
As per paranormal law, the D.P.I. was called shortly thereafter. The Department of Paranormal Investigation, made entirely of paranormals, crawled the area, asking the Moonstruck wolves questions, which Danica backed up. After about an hour and a half of questioning, they were free to go. No one spoke on the drive back from the warehouse, though Danica knew what was on everyone’s minds.
What kind of revolution had Onyx been talking about? Was there some sort of civil war about to break out in the Underworld?
She waited until they were back at the manor and in their bedroom to ask Gage about it. “What do you think Onyx was talking about?”
“Probably the ramblings of a cult,” he said, rinsing off his face. They were in the bathroom, with Danica leaned up against the door with her arms crossed. “I have a contact in the D.P.I. who’s supposed to let me know if they find anything.”
“And you trust this person?”
“With my life. She’s actually an ex of Nik’s.”
“Wow. It’s nice to have friends in high places, I guess.”
“As a royal were, that’s crucial.” He toweled off and came to her, holding her shoulders. “I know you’ve endured so much, and if this were any other time, I wouldn’t press it. But the Blood Moon rises three nights from now.”
“So we need to be mated, or forever hold our bachelor-hood, er, bachelorette-hood. You know what I mean.”
“Yes. Danica, I don’t want to push you into anything you don’t-”
She pressed a finger to his lips. “I already made up my mind back in the cave, when I saw what you were willing to do to protect me.”
Gage held perfectly still. It didn’t even look like he was breathing. “And your answer is…?”
She smiled brightly. “Yes, Gage. I’ll be your mate.”
Guilt overshadowed the brief flickering of happiness she saw in his eyes. “I don’t want you to feel like you owe me anything.”
She placed a finger to his lips. “I’ve lived in the same house my entire life, but it never felt like home. This town never felt like home. Then I met you.”
His gaze softened. “Danica-”
“And,” she went on before he could interrupt again, “I want you to know I’m not doing this out of some need to repay you or because I’m some desperate, lonely woman.” She pressed his hand to her chest, right over her heart. “I’m doing it because I feel a connection between us I feel is worth exploring. You make me feel safe. For the first time in my life, I feel wanted. Needed, even.” She took a shaky breath. “And I want you to know I need you, too.”
For a moment, he looked stunned. Then he smiled and swung her up into the air, twirling her. She giggled as he nuzzled her neck. “Danica, you have no idea how happy you’ve just made me. I swear to you I’ll always be loyal and true, and I’ll protect you with my life.”
“As I shall do for you,” she said softly as he set her down and she stared up into his eyes.
Gage bent down and kissed her, and she wrapped her arms around his neck, that familiar feeling of “home” wrapping around her.
The next three days were a blur of grief and anticipation for the upcoming mating ceremony. The weather had been forecast for the funerals, the air heavy with sadness. Danica hated funerals. She generally disliked anything that made her really sad. Though she hadn’t known the young wolves who were killed, she felt their loss all the same. Gage had said it was because of her were bond to them. She wondered what other changes she would face. Gage had told her since they’d mate on the next full moon, her first Change wouldn’t officially happen until the next month. She didn’t know whether to be excited or disappointed. On one hand, she was relieved she didn’t have to face it now. On the other hand, that meant she had another whole month to get worked up about it. But it was hard to focus on being nervous about the Change when her stomach was alight with butterflies over the mating ceremony.
The third night sneaked up on her. It was beautiful out. It wasn’t even that cold, being only fifty degrees. They stood out on the lawn under the light of the blood-red, full moon, surrounded by Gage’s pack. Gage swore to them he bore them no ill will for not aiding in the retrieval of his mate, but Danica could see the hurt in his eyes. It pained him his comrades hadn’t come to his aid when he needed them most. From what he told her, Malachite’s rule had been bloody and full of sorrow. Gage said it would take a long time to heal those wounds when he was sheltering so many traumatized wolves.
She stood by him, holding his hand, both of them dressed in the white ceremonial robes of the mating couple. Nik was performing the ceremony, a sort of “were wedding.” A roaring bonfire sat behind Nik, warming the altar laying on the grass in front of it. The altar was much like a bed, with silk blankets and flowers strewn along the rim. Danica’s cheeks burned as she stared at it. Gage had explained to her how it worked, that they must consummate their vows before the pack. Having sex in front of a group of strangers made her stomach crawl with butterflies, but she couldn’t deny the thrill at finally becoming one with the man she desired more than anything else in the world.
Gage looked handsome, the firelight bouncing off his freshly shaved face. Clean-shaven, he looked a few years younger, and his eyes were alight with happiness as he gazed at her.
“Do you, Gage Johnson, Packmaster of the Moonstruck Pack, hereby take Danica Williams to be your queen?”
“I do,” Gage said, his gaze never wavering from hers.
“And do you, Danica Williams, Marked by PackMaster Gage Johnson of the Moonstruck Pack, vow to take Gage as your king?”
“I do,” she said, nerves tickling her belly.
“Hold out your palms.”
Danica wasn’t too crazy about this part, but she knew it had to be done. Nik produced a ceremonial dagger and ran the blade first across Gage’s palm, then hers. He was as gentle as he could be with hers, making a light incision. “Join hands.”
Gage took Danica’s palm in his own. “You okay?” he whispered.
She nodded. “Never better.”
He smiled wistfully, leaning his forehead against hers.
“By taking this blood oath, you are bound for life. Do you both swear to remain faithful to one another and protect one another until you draw your last breaths?”
“I do,” Gage and Danica both answered at the same time.
“Then let it be.” Nik ran the bloodied dagger through the flames and embedded the blade in the ground. “Do our brothers acknowledge this alliance?”
“Yes,” the other weres answered.
“Then let it be known from now on you are lawfully mates. Please proceed to the mating bed.”
Finally, the last stage of the ritual. Danica’s heart rate kicked into high gear as Gage led her to the bed and removed her robe. It fell away and he tossed it onto the grass. The night air, along with the desire coursing through her veins like fire, made her nipples swell and harden. Gage let his hungry gaze rove over her bare body, and she caught her breath as she finished untying his belt and removed his robe.
He was beautiful. Though she’d seen him naked before, he seemed to glow with a pale blue light. Her eyes fell on the erection that was already hardened between his legs.
“Are you ready?” he whispered, taking her hands in his.
Her heart hammered inside her chest, making her breathless. She nodded and her voice shook when she spoke. “I’m ready.”
Tenderly, he lowered her onto the silk sheets. He lay beside her, shielding her from the onlooking stares of their packmates. “Don’t think about them,” he said into her ear. “This night - this moment - is for us.”
“For us,” she murmured as he gently brought his mouth down on hers.
The kiss was tender and sweet as his fingers probed her, testing her folds, seeing if she was prepared for him.
She moaned as he touched her, spreading her legs as her juices coated his hand. Slowly, he repositioned himself over her, spreading her legs apart so her knees were on either side of his hips. “Don’t let me hurt you,” he breathed. “Tell me if I’m hurting you.”
He lowered himself inside her, pushing her walls apart as he made her stretch. She sighed with pleasure as he went deeper, and she brought her hips up to meet his, allowing him full access. “Deeper,” she breathed. She reached around and pressed his butt down. Another inch and he was fully sheathed.
He groaned deep in his throat, arching his back and holding that position for a few seconds before beginning to work his hips. He kissed her, and she closed her eyes, forgetting she was lying under the stars, being watched by a group of strangers who began chanting in a language she didn’t know.
The strange blue light enveloped them both, seeming to leak out of his skin and covering hers. The tattoo along her hand lit up like starlight, as did the Mark along his shoulder, where he explained his maker had bite him.
Faster and faster Gage pumped, their lovemaking turning into something feral. She could feel herself coming to climax, could feel the fire growing with every stroke. The light intensified, lighting up the area.
“Danica,” Gage breathed against her neck.
“Yes,” she said, clawing at his back and whimpering. “Yes, more. Oh, Gage.”
She cried out as she came, arching her back and writhing as pleasure exploded deep inside her. Gage growled about the same time, arching his back and pumping hard and deep as he deposited his seed inside her. The light burst from them, and the crowd cheered with whoops and hollars.
When the light receeded, Danica and Gage lay there soaked in sweat, staring at each other. Her eyes followed the traces of swirling blue tattoo along his shoulders and arms. An identical one ran all the way from her hand and up her arm, flowering along her chest and down the other arm. Only mated wolves had these types of “complete tattoos,” Gage had explained to her the night before. Which meant…
“Are we…?” she breathed.
“Yes.” He reached up and pulled her face toward his, kissing her softly. “We are one.”
She rested her head against his. “Forever.”
He smiled. “Forever.”
The party commenced shortly thereafter. Gage, cloaked in his ceremonial robe again, stood near the fire watching his mate with a smile. The other members of the pack were greeting her, welcoming her into their fold with hugs and kisses on the cheek.
A warm glow filled Gage’s chest. He had heard the mating bond was unlike any kind of human tie, like literally becoming “whole.” It had been a long time since he’d seen his pack this happy, and his Danica was all smiles as she warmly embraced her blood brothers, though her eyes kept cutting to him every now and then.
His cock quivered in anticipation of later that night when he took her back up to his - no, their - bedroom. Mating with her had been everything he had dreamed it would be. And he planned to make her dizzy with pleasure later.
Nik came up beside him, taking a swig of a beer. Tables had been setup with refreshments, including several kegs, and a stereo system had been brought outside with an extension cord. “Congrats,” Nik said.
“Thanks.” He sighed. “I’m glad I can stop worrying about this whole mating fever thing now.”
“But now you have a mate to take care of.”
“I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Nik grinned and offered him the beer. Gage accepted it and took a long pull. It was ice-cold, the only way to drink a beer in Gage’s opinion.
“So I just got a call from Verika,” Nik said.
Gage raised a brow. “Thinking about rekindling things?”
“No, no. Some things are best left alone.” He smiled ruefully.
Gage had never said it aloud, but he thought some part of Nik hadn’t let Verika go. She was the closest he’d come to loving someone, but when he didn’t Mark her, they both knew it was only a matter of time before he found his mate and the bond tore their relationship apart. Gage felt bad for them. It was both the gift and the curse of being a were.
“She subpoenaed the calling records from the manor.”
Gage tensed at the grave expression on Nik’s face. “And?”
“Turns out, several late-night calls were going to a private number.” Nik looked at him. “Gage, the calls were all coming from the manor.”
“Do we know whom the calls were going to?”
“No,” Nik said with a frustrated sigh. “Someone’s got the line protected by magic. Verika’s working on breaking it.” He was quiet for a moment. “You know what this means, right?” he said quietly.
Gage inhaled a breath and let it out slowly. “Yeah.” He looked his brother in the eyes.
“It means someone in my pack has possibly betrayed us.”