Kari Warner walked down the alley, well aware that something was following her. No, not following—stalking. The alley was wide and the sounds of her heels as she moved along quickly echoed through it, bouncing from the dingy walls back at her. Heart in her throat, her quick walk became a slow run. Fear choked her as she heard the corresponding quickening of the footsteps of her pursuer. Cursing her stupidity, she sent out a brief prayer, exchanging chocolate for safety.
Leaving the nightclub a few minutes before, she’d known she should’ve taken the long way. But she’d been so tired and had opted for the shortcut through the alley. She’d gone that way a dozen times before.
She felt the weight of eyes on her, watching, measuring, waiting. The corner and the streetlight were only half a block away. Hope bloomed in her chest as she began to believe she was going to make it. The light cried safe haven. She held on to the light like a lifeline.
Suddenly a low growl split the air and the hair on her arms stood on end. A queer electric hum began at the base of her spine, riding up into her hairline.
What was that? her panicked mind screamed.
Eyes wild, she looked up to see a massive dog jump at her, knocking her over, ripping into her flesh with its teeth. She drew in breath for a scream, but in those short milliseconds her throat was crushed as its jaws closed in over her neck and bit down. Razor-sharp teeth tore at her. Its unbelievably strong jaw gripped tight as its head jerked from side to side, shredding her neck. Her hands pushed against the massive head as the long muzzle pressed against her open wound. Her mind, unable to accept the entirety of the experience, slipped into a state of unreality for a long moment and she felt herself drifting away. No!
Fighting, body screaming for air, she pushed up frantically, trying not to panic. Her strength ebbing, she had a hard time gaining purchase as she kept slipping in the blood she was losing. Her hands grappled with the dog, the hard muscles rippling beneath the fur. She wanted to just crawl away, to get far from the thing now tearing into her stomach with its teeth. But it was so strong, so big, that she couldn’t knock it away, or even push it off-balance enough to get away. God, he’s so soft, she thought until everything went black.
Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep.
Everything hurt. Kari tried to swallow around the fire in her throat. Her eyes fluttered open.
“Kari? Get the doctor, she’s waking up! Kari, honey?”
Kari tried to focus on the man next to her bed. It was her brother. Jack gripped her hand until she winced.
“Sorry.” The grip lessened, but he didn’t release. “How do you feel, sweetie?”
She tried to speak but all she could manage was a croak. So she just smiled at him, hoping to reassure him. Cool hands offered her a straw and urged her to take a drink.
“Small sips, don’t drink too much or you’ll be sick,” a woman’s soft voice cautioned.
Kari had to fight against her instincts because the cool water felt so good on her abraded throat and she wanted to gulp it down.
“That’s it. Good, Kari. I’m going to set the water down for a moment, okay? I’m just going to check you out. See how you’re doing.” The owner of the voice moved into Kari’s line of sight. She was a nurse—no, a doctor. Large brown eyes looked her over. Close-cropped, chic gray hair and a long, tall frame completed the package. The embroidered name on the blue coat said “Dr. Elaine Kennedy.”
“Kari, can you try to talk?” Dr. Kennedy’s cool hands smoothed over Kari’s throat where the dog had bit her. Panic rose momentarily as she recalled the size of that dog, the intelligence she remembered in its eyes. As if sensing her panic, Dr. Kennedy made a soothing sound and touched Kari’s arm softly before undoing the front of her gown to look at her stomach. Kari relaxed. Something about the other woman made her feel more secure, safe.
Kari swallowed a few times. “Wha…what happened?” Her voice was hoarse, raw.
“We don’t know exactly. You showed up in the driveway of the emergency room. You were pretty beaten up. We got an anonymous call that you were out there. Do you remember anything?”
“Dog. A big dog jumped me.” Kari moved her free hand to her stomach, where the dog had ripped into her flesh, and was surprised that there were no stitches there. “It bit me, tore into me, here.” Craning her head to look took too much effort and she slumped back, exhausted, against the pillows.
The doctor looked at her kindly, smiling as if she was not quite right in the head. “It will all come back to you with time. But you can see for yourself that you have no wounds there, just some extensive bruising. Your throat took a beating, though. Looks like your larynx was pretty severely damaged. You had a concussion and some swelling on the brain, which has lessened considerably.”
“How long have I been here?” Damn, it hurt to talk. She tried to swallow but it was so painful. “Water, please,” she asked and Jack brought the straw back to her lips.
“Three days. You came in at two thirty on Saturday morning. It’s Tuesday.”
“Jesus. Three days?” Groggy, her head hurt. No—her entire body hurt. And where on earth did the dog go? Had she imagined it? No, there was no way she could have imagined such a thing. That dog had been massive. She could still feel the razor-sharp teeth rending her flesh. The silky texture of the fur under her hands. She tried to work it through but she kept losing track. The medication made her drowsy, messing up her thought processes.
“Will she be okay?” Jack watched her, concern written all over his face.
“Well, her pupils look good, reactive like they’re supposed to be. Her pulse has remained strong. The swelling has gone down to nearly normal. It looks good for her. We will, of course, keep her in for at least another day or two for observation, just to be sure.”
Dr. Kennedy smiled at Kari, patting her hand before walking to the door. “Just take it slow, and everything will be all right. Get your rest now. Have your brother help you bring the level of the bed up a bit. Watch some TV or listen to an audiobook. I’ll be back in a few hours.”
* * *
“You’re lucky Elaine was on shift.” Andreas angrily paced the elegant, wood-paneled library. If he stopped moving, he’d be far too tempted to punch someone. “She just called. Kari’s regained consciousness and will recover.” He slammed his hand down onto the side table so hard it split into pieces. “Idiot! I told you it wasn’t the plan to change her for another month or two. Until after I’d met her and she’d gotten to know me.”
Michael, the man in the chair receiving the angry lecture, winced. His blond hair fell over his eyes, hiding his expression. Andreas wanted to curl his lip. Wanted to cuff his cousin for being so stupid and impulsive. Impulsive was dangerous in general. For werewolves, it could be deadly.
Andreas glared at Michael once more as he picked up his stalk. Back and forth across the floor. Fists clenched, rage vibrated through him. His Mate had been put in danger and his plans to meet and woo her without frightening her had been upset. His primal need to protect her—to bring her to him in a way that made her the most comfortable—had been challenged. “Lucky for you the wounds have healed already so Elaine was able to blow them off and focus on the concussion. She wouldn’t allow too close an examination by Kari’s brother, so no one saw the bites but Elaine and Henry.”
Laurent Cole strolled into the room, pausing to sigh at the wreckage of the broken table. “You’ve got to stop breaking the furniture, Andreas.” He cleared away the pieces before dusting off his hands, grabbing an apple and tossing himself into a chair. He watched Andreas pensively. “What are we going to do?”
“It’s too late to delay. The change has already started. Elaine can manage to hold Kari’s brother off for a few more days. She told him they planned to keep her there for another two days. Obviously we need to get her out before that attention.”
There was no real alternative. Her accelerated healing would garner unwanted attention. Laurent nodded. “Makes sense. How are we going to handle the brother?”
With a heavy sigh, Andreas made himself cease prowling. He moved to the chair behind his massive desk, letting the sun shining through the window warm him, calm him. He ran his hands over his face and through his hair. His muscles ached, tight with repressed fury and stress.
“Yeah, well, I don’t have any idea. We don’t have a contingency. This wasn’t meant to happen for another two months. Full moon is in three days; she’ll need to be here. With us. She can’t transform the first time alone, she wouldn’t survive. We don’t have the luxury of slowly bringing her into the Pack.” Andreas’s voice was weary, resigned.
He continued, “We’ll have to go to her and explain. Or rather, we’ll have to bring her here and explain. Make amends. She won’t believe us, of course, so that’ll make the transformation even more difficult. I hate to start off with her with distrust and fear. I wanted it to be different.” Andreas stared out the window at the pine trees surrounding the large house, toward the lake and sighed. A wolf like him fed on control. But in this situation he had very little. It ate at him.
He deliberately avoided looking back to Michael. His cousin was weak. Not in full control of his instincts. Any other wolf in the Pack and Andreas would have beaten the hell out of him. But Michael had always been sheltered. First by his parents and then by Andreas once he’d taken over from his father.
“She’ll have to deal with it, Andreas. She has no other choice. We have no other choice. We need her,” Laurent said with an elegant shrug. “The Pack needs her.”
Phillip, the final man in the room, growled. “If Michael had just kept his shit together we wouldn’t be dealing with this.” One leg crossed over the other, swinging back and forth. The movement seemed casual but there was menace there just beneath the surface.
“But he did. And so it has to be done. She may well hate us all for a long time but it’s too late anyway. She’s going to transform in three days and she’ll be far worse off without us than with us. Michael will have to explain himself to her later. The Pack needs an Alpha-bitch. We need to continue and we can’t do that without females.” Laurent’s tone was matter-of-fact.
Andreas took up pacing again, working through all the possibilities. After a few minutes he stopped and turned to them. “We’ll bring her here tomorrow. Elaine’ll help us get her out of the hospital. She and Henry will have to drug Kari and drive out. It will probably be necessary to keep her locked up for a bit. We can’t have her trying to escape out here. She could get lost easily.”
“What about the brother?” Phillip asked.
“Maybe we can bring him over later. For now, well, we can’t say she’s dead or he’ll want to see the body. We can’t just take her or he’ll wonder where she’s gone.” Laurent fell silent for a moment before speaking again. “He lives in Boston, he’s a cop there. I think I need to call the Lieutenant for the Quincy Clan. If I remember correctly, at least one of their Pack is on the police force there. Maybe we can arrange to have him go back suddenly.” Making his mind up and getting a nod from Andreas, Laurent left the room to make the call.
* * *
Kari had the dream again. The moon hung heavy and fecund overhead and it pulled at her blood. The scent of forest, fur, filled her senses. She ran. The pads of her paws sank in the loam of the forest floor. Her breath came in pants, steaming in the crisp air in ribbons of frosty white.
A dog—no, a wolf—came to her and rubbed the side of his muzzle along her own, his amber eyes alight with the joy of freedom, the joy of the run. Another wolf, this one black as night with splashes of gray on his haunches, approached, and it appeared that he was grinning at her. He bumped her, pressing his body to hers playfully. There was an overwhelming sense of rightness about the moment and a terrible sadness washed through her when she awoke. Alone.
* * *
Andreas Phinney watched the sun rise over the lake. He, Phillip and Laurent had all run the night before. He was tired but in a good way. His muscles held residual warmth, the aches were ones that would make his sleep deep and restful. He’d need to take a good solid nap before Elaine arrived in the late afternoon with Kari. He had a feeling he’d need all of his energy to deal with her and the resulting situation.
He was a werewolf. One of the very few who were born that way. And not just any werewolf—Andreas was the Alpha wolf of one of the most important packs in North America, the Cherchez Clan. Important due to size, strategic placement of Pack lands and the influence his Pack and family held nationwide and had for generations.
There weren’t a whole lot of female werewolves—especially those born that way. Those human females who’d survived the change and become werewolves didn’t always have the necessary biology to be able to crossbreed.
Kari didn’t know it but three generations ago her family had two werewolves born to it. These cousins many times removed were born to the Appalachian Clan. Andreas knew this because the genealogical records of werewolfkind were kept meticulously. Chances were excellent that Kari would be able to bear his children. Thankfully, that biology was also what enabled her to survive the transformation.
Admittedly, that had been his biggest fear. The children stuff, that would come later. But he worried for Kari and couldn’t lie that he’d been ridiculously relieved she’d come out of the process all right.
Physically anyway. There’d be plenty of emotional stuff to deal with once she arrived. Andreas hated that Michael had gone against orders and had forced transformation on her. Stupid, stupid wolf.
He snarled, angry again.
Her old way of life had ended and she didn’t even know it yet. She’d have to be guarded at all times, especially in her first year. Protected from other werewolves who smelled the chance to challenge her. Protected from herself until she could control the change better. And once she did get pregnant, the next generation of the Cherchez Clan would be guarded at all times.
All sorts of choices had been made for her. That wasn’t such a big deal in his world, where males tended to rule. But it wasn’t okay for humans.
Laurent walked into the great room, bringing him out of his reverie. “Brother situation handled. The Quincy Clan does have two members on the police force, one of whom happens to be the third in command. Apparently a case Kari’s brother worked on is coming up for trial. He probably won’t have to testify but they’ll make him believe he’s needed. I’ve spoken to Elaine, she knows what to expect. She and Henry will take Kari out once her brother leaves.”
“All right. Thank you, Laurent. I want Phillip with her at all times. Sean’s coming later today. I wish we could have a few women with her.”
“You can’t cling to what-ifs anymore, Andreas. She’ll be here. She’s our new Alpha. She might not like it but she’ll have to deal with it.” Laurent was a man of exceptional bluntness. It made him an extraordinary bodyguard and Lieutenant and an equally exceptional best friend.
“I’ve sent out the Call. There will be a Gathering Saturday. The entire Clan should be here. We’ll have a full house. Make sure Anna and Gregory check the cabins to be sure there are enough linens and firewood.”
“Of course.” Laurent nodded to placate Andreas. Andreas knew this. Naturally anyone with half an ounce of sense would never do such a thing. Anna and Gregory had run the house for decades and knew their jobs better than any of them did. Being a smart wolf, Laurent of course had no intention of risking life and limb by telling Anna how to take care of guests.
“Oh and Laurent? Be sure that Kari’s room is comfortable, please. I want flowers and those personal effects from her apartment that Michael brought put out. She’ll be a prisoner for a while, yes, but she’s my Mate and I want her to feel as comfortable as she can under the circumstances. She’s an Alpha, I want her to be treated like one.”
“It’s done, Andreas,” Laurent said and left the room.
* * *
Kari turned to catch his grin as her brother came into the room, blushing that he’d caught her annoyed muttering over the television remote.
“Hey, what’s up?” Winking, he sat on the edge of her bed.
“Not much, I’m bored. I have a headache but I feel pretty good otherwise. How about you?”
Taking her hand, he smoothed a thumb over the spot where her IV had been. “I just got called back to Boston. One of my cases finally went to trial and I might have to testify. I have to leave in an hour and a half. I’m sorry. I feel like shit for abandoning you.”
“Jeez, Jack. You’ve been here since Sunday, right? Rushed off and came out here and sat around while I was unconscious for a few days? I’m all right now. Honest. Go home. Do your job. Send the bad guys to jail. Don’t feel bad. It was good to see you. Next time come out when I’m able to show you around Seattle, okay?”
He hugged her tightly. Since their parents had died in a car accident when he was fifteen and she was twelve, he’d been taking care of her. She knew he felt awful for having to leave but she trusted he knew her well enough to know she was okay with it.
“Be good, okay? Doc Kennedy told me you’d be going home tomorrow or the next day. She says that you shouldn’t need it but your insurance covers home health care.”
“There are a few people at work who’d help if I asked. Truly. Don’t worry about me! I’m a big girl and I feel just fine. I love you. I’ll call you when they release me and I get home.”
He kissed the top of her head as he stood. “Rest. Oh, and no more alleys, Kari. Talk to you soon.” He blew her a kiss and was gone.
A while later the male nurse came in, took blood and gave her some pain pills for her headache. They made her sleepy so she lay down and took a nap.
* * *
An hour later, the man came back in to check on her and then went out to the doctors’ lounge. Elaine saw him and walked into the hallway to meet him.
“She’s out. Let’s get this show on the road. I just called the airlines, and her brother is on the plane and in the air,” Henry said quietly into Elaine’s ear.
“Okay, I’ve filled out her release papers and they’re filed. Why don’t we wheel her down to X-ray and I’ll pull the van to the loading dock? I’ll meet you there in ten minutes.”
“Right.” Henry left then, going into Kari’s room, putting the pink “discharged” placard in the slot above her bed. He rolled her out of the room, looking for all intents and purposes like he was wheeling her to get an X-ray. Instead, he took a right rather than a left and pushed her out to the deserted loading dock, where he easily picked her up, gently of course, and placed her into the waiting van.
He returned the bed to the area outside of X-ray, where other empty beds were sitting, then jogged back to the loading dock and jumped into the van.
“Call the lodge, Henry. Tell them we’re on the way,” Elaine said as they pulled onto I-90 going east. “We’ll be there—barring any trouble—in about three hours.”
The drive was fairly routine. They had to give Kari a shot about an hour away from Star Lake Lodge, the seat of the Cherchez Clan. She started to wake up but Elaine wanted to be sure she was still under until they got her settled in at the house. It would be better to avoid panic as long as possible.
Pulling off the main road down the long, wooded drive toward the lodge, Elaine finally began to relax. The main house loomed ahead of them, three stories tall, faced with windows and large timber beams. Decks ran the entire length of the ground floor. Pretty flower gardens surrounded the lodge and led down the path to the lake and the many cabins there. The lake cast silvery light up onto the windows. It was home even though she didn’t live there. It always gave her a feeling of belonging.
When they pulled the van to a stop, Andreas and Laurent came out to help. Andreas opened the door and stared down at Kari. Wonder licked at his senses as he took in the beautiful golden hair, curls softly framing her face, the gentle mouth, even the bluish smudges under her eyes. He’d never seen her this close in person before, but her genetic code sang out to his. She was his Mate, no doubt about it. Leaning down, he put his face to the crook of her neck and inhaled her. She smelled of the hospital, of antiseptic and cleansers. Beneath that she smelled like the forest, the deep woods where the loam on the ground cried out with fertile beauty. His body tightened, attraction and desire, electric, shot straight to his cock and wrapped around his heart. She was his. He was hers.
He picked her up, marveling at how very small she was in his arms, and a protective glow burst through him. Gently, as if she were the most precious thing in the world, he carried her up the great winding staircase and into her room, adjoining his own.
“When will she wake up?” he asked Elaine, placing Kari on the bed with care.
Elaine dropped to her knees, brushing the side of her face against his calves. She kept her head bowed in a submissive pose at his feet. He touched the top of her head, caressing the side of her face, and she stood, not meeting his eyes.
“In about an hour. She’ll be hungry then too. She’s healed remarkably well. Michael really hurt her, Andreas.” Elaine frowned at that. “It was so much more violence than was necessary. He needs to be spoken to about that.”
“That’s already happened. He said she fought him hard and hit her head as she tried to get away.” Admittedly he felt pride in the fact that even as a human Kari fought her hardest to survive. She was most definitely his queen. He also felt a rumbling of rage, again, thinking of the many ways the situation could have gone wrong—could still be complicated because of his weakling of a cousin.
“Yes, that’s certainly what it looked like and how she described it. If she hadn’t been an Alpha, she probably wouldn’t have survived. She lost an incredible amount of blood and the perforated bowel would have killed her if the blood loss hadn’t.”
Anger radiating from him, he clenched his fists at his sides until he saw Elaine’s nervousness. Willing himself to relax, he touched her face to calm her. “She remembers?”
“Most of it, yes. I think I managed to convince her that her concussion messed her memory up. That she’d been mugged or assaulted.” Elaine shrugged.
“Ah, well. One way or the other she’ll know the truth soon enough. Did her brother get off okay?”
“Yes, we made sure he was on that plane before we left the hospital. She’ll have to talk with him in a day or so. He’ll be suspicious if she doesn’t. I’ll call him later tonight to fill him in on her progress, stave him off a bit.”
“Thank you, Elaine. You’ve done well by me and my Mate.”