Dark Terror (Spirit Wild #5)
Before she was rescued from a human trafficking ring by the Chanku, Mary Ryder had lived a tortured life as a sex slave and prostitute, and the emotional scars of that time still haunt her. Through the patient strength and genuine devotion of Jack Temple, Mary is slowly learning to open herself to the possibility of uncorrupted love and passion in his arms. But before the two can explore their newfound connection and dream of life as a mated pair, they must face a dark menace threatening all Chanku.
Aldo Xanakis was thought to be dead, but harnessing the life force of those he had slain, he has reappeared as a dark and vicious demon hell-bent on the destruction of the pack--and all of humankind. With only days to stop the demon’s lethal plans and the fanatical religious cult he has enlisted to serve him, the entire Chanku pack unites to combine their power against him.
As Mary and Jack are thrown together in an epic battle against evil, they and the rest of the pack will be forced to harness all the magic and sensual power they possess to save the pack--and the world.
“Douglas introduces her Spirit Wild series with a new generation of sexy Chanku wolves. Set in the San Francisco Bay area and the wilds of Montana, supported by a cast from the Wolf Tale books and fresh faces as well, this novel thrives on action and strong sexual encounters.”
—Donna M. Brown for RT Book Reviews, on Dark Wolf
read the 3 chapter excerpt of DARK TERROR~~
—Donna M. Brown for RT Book Reviews, on Dark Wolf
read the 3 chapter excerpt of DARK TERROR~~
SPIRIT WILD #5
Chanku pack headquarters, South of Glacier National Park
Wednesday, June 6, 2040, 11:45 p.m.
Goddess but she ached. The pain was difficult to describe, though one of her friends had come close. Janine said it felt just like what it was—being caught in an endless cycle of unfulfilled lust, a pain so intimate, so visceral, that it burned like an orgasm forever denied. Pain that went on, and on, and . . .
“Whatcha thinking, Mary?”
Jack Temple’s teasing voice slashed through her misery. Mary floundered for an answer, took a deep breath and shot him a saucy grin instead. He’d caught her, fair and square. She had come out here to the pond to think.
Unfortunately, Jack was the one she was thinking about . . . in a roundabout way. All that unrequited lust was killing her. She almost laughed at that. Poor guy didn’t have a clue.
Shaking her head, she laughed self-consciously while checking to make certain her shields were up, her personal thoughts blocked. “Oh, nothing important.” She patted the rock she liked best for sitting on out here, one big and flat and wide enough for two. The alpha’s mate had designed this beautiful pond with secluded gardens and private walkways all around, a perfect place to find solitude on a lonely night. “You’re welcome to join me in my vast mental wasteland. At least we have a gorgeous view.”
As late as it was, the solar fairy lights twinkling along the edges of the pond lent a mystical, almost supernatural feel to the dark shadows beyond. The faint slice of the waning crescent moon was barely visible in the night sky, almost lost in the countless numbers of stars that swept from one mountain-studded horizon to the next.
Jack folded his big, powerful body down beside her. Odd, how she could be so afraid of men and yet never fear this one. “That actually sounds pretty appealing,” he said, tweaking her long hair with his fingertips. “Today was nuts with the final testing—math is not their favorite subject. Tomorrow’s the last day of school and the pups are growing restless. I can’t wait to turn them over to their parents for the summer.” He laughed. “I really love my job, but there are days . . .”
“I’m well aware. They’re cute, but hellions, every one.”
He laughed. “That’s right.” He bumped shoulders with her. “You were one of the chaperones on that field trip to the sheriff’s department Monday. I heard it got pretty crazy.”
Shaking her head, she smiled at his vast understatement. At least her inner turmoil rested now that Jack was beside her. For whatever reason, his presence calmed her more intimate neediness, and he made her feel safe. He’d had that effect on her from the very beginning. It was only when he wasn’t around that she let herself dream, and that’s when the pain started. The hopeless yearning, wanting what she didn’t have. Would probably never have.
“We definitely earned our keep,” she said. “Everything was fine until a couple of the younger boys started teasing two older girls, who shifted in the deputies’ cafeteria and turned into wildcats. Shocked the boys, who, obviously were expecting wolves, and the deputies were no help. They were laughing hysterically at the girls chasing the boys, who were too freaked out to shift. Janine and I were there as chaperones, and I think we were laughing harder than the deputies.”
“Thank the goddess they weren’t my kids. I bet their teacher was traumatized.”
She raised one eyebrow and just stared at him for a long moment. “The boys were yours last year. This was Jace’s group.”
Jack covered his eyes and moaned when she added, “The ten-to-twelve-year-olds. Your seven-to-nine-year-olds are all taking notes.”
“Thanks for that!” Laughing, he shook his head and then banged his forehead against his upraised knees. “I had no idea it was Jace’s group. I haven’t had a chance to talk to him all week.” He wrapped his arm around her shoulders and hugged her close. Mary’s whole body went stiff. She froze and Jack’s smile slipped. He released her immediately and rested his hand on the rock behind her instead, as if nothing had happened.
Mary hung her head. She’d done it again. Totally overreacted to a touch made merely in friendship. No wonder he didn’t see her as a potential girlfriend. According to her father she was ruined for any man, but even if he was wrong, she’d never be able to relax, never learn to enjoy simple touches, much less the sex everyone here so easily took for granted.
The sexual release all of them needed. She loved being a shapeshifter, but knowing that the need inside would grow each time she shifted was killing her.
Tears stung her eyes. Staring blindly at the dark spikes of the Rocky Mountains to the east, she tried to accept what she could no longer deny. She was all used up. Twenty-two years old and her only sexual experience had come from whoring, when she was forced to service terrible men who treated her like the garbage she was. Her own parents had disowned her. They didn’t care that she’d been kidnapped by sex slavers, sold like so much merchandise. They only cared that she was no longer pure. Mary knew that wasn’t important, but she feared that Jack would never understand, not a man as beautiful as he was, not one who every single woman around thought was the sexiest thing alive. She knew he was more than that—Jackson Temple-Fuentes was kind and gentle and he honestly cared about the kids he taught, the friends he kept, the men and women he loved.
He’d had sex with just about every single woman she’d met here at the pack’s headquarters in Montana. With a lot of the men, too. It was no secret, something the Chanku talked openly about, something they did without a second thought. When your entire existence was ruled by an unstoppable libido, a person’s sexuality was a given. Yeah, he’d slept with just about everyone she knew. Everyone except her. No wonder. What could he possibly find interesting about a woman who flinched whenever he touched her?
She treasured his friendship. She just wished she knew how to encourage his interest beyond what they had—and how she could somehow accept that interest. It made her angry—at herself, not at Jack—that her stupid reactions had her permanently placed in the friend category. She didn’t want to lose that. He was her best bud, a guy she could talk to, ask questions of, laugh with, but she wanted so much more.
She wanted to get naked with him. She wanted to find out if he might be the one who could make the aching loneliness, the overwhelming need, finally go away. The one who could teach her that sex wasn’t something forced on a woman, it was something to enjoy, to share with a partner. Or partners . . . She glanced at him, caught him smiling at her. That beautiful open smile of his. So perfect, except he smiled at her the way he smiled at his students.
Somehow, she had to get over her hang-ups, stop flinching whenever he touched her, and just do it.
“Look, Mary!” He raised his arm and pointed to a spot in the sky just to the north of the crescent moon.
A shooting star streaked across the dark sky, bright fire against the shimmer of stars, trailing sparkling embers in its wake. Without thinking, she made a promise instead of a wish. Tonight she was going to speak up, tell him that she was attracted to him. How was he to know, the way she always pulled away when he touched her? Tonight Jack would see she was a woman who wanted him. She bit back a laugh. She probably should add that she was also a woman with major issues.
• • •
It was almost midnight. Jack thought he could sit out here with Mary all night long, but he had his last day of classes with the little monsters tomorrow, and if a guy wasn’t on his toes, chaos was sure to ensue.
“C’mon, m’dear. I’m going to walk you back to your cabin and then collapse into my own lonely bed. I’ve got one more day before I’m free for the summer.” He held out his hand. Mary looked at it for a moment—she always did that, and at first it had hurt him, that she seemed not to trust him, but then he realized it was so ingrained in her that she probably didn’t even realize what she was doing.
Now, even though she still had that first uneasy reaction, she always clasped his hand and let him tug her to her feet. She’d even reached the point where she’d let him hold her hand when they walked. Spending time with Mary was like gentling a wild creature—a silly analogy, maybe, given that she could become a wolf in less than a heartbeat—but he knew her past, knew she’d been hurt and hurt badly. He knew she’d been a virgin when she was taken, that a man had paid a lot of money to be the one to take her virginity in a brutal rape that left her traumatized and bleeding.
She’d had no chance to get past that trauma, either. No time to heal from the bastard’s cruel treatment. No, she was sold again and again, until the various men blurred into a single creature that became all men. Jack was still included in that group, but he was working on it. Working on building his friendship with Mary. Working on earning her trust. She was worth it, and he was positive there was a strong, vibrant woman hiding beneath all her layers of fear.
If anyone discovered the real Mary, he hoped like hell it was him.
They walked along the trail toward her cabin, not talking, but it wasn’t an awkward silence. It never was with Mary, even though her shields were always high and tight. He didn’t breach her trust by prying. It was common knowledge among the pack that she’d been victimized for over a year. He didn’t want to rush her. They were Chanku. Almost immortal, which meant they had all the time in the world.
Lost in thought, he stopped in his tracks when she caught him by surprise with a sharp tug on his hand. He turned and she held her finger to her lips.
Voices. And not all that far away. I hear them. Janine and Leo?
They’re arguing again.
She glanced at Jack with troubled eyes. Janine was one of Mary’s closest friends, one of the young women who’d been held by the same sex slavers as Mary. Leo Cheval had attached himself to Janine the very first week the girls arrived at pack headquarters. He was mostly a good guy, sometimes a controlling jerk, but Janine had appeared to handle him pretty easily. She was tiny but wonderfully strong-willed. He heard Leo’s crude curse and tugged Mary forward. I think it’s time we say hello, don’t you?
If you think it’s okay?
The question, along with the trust in her mental voice, shook Jack. He’d been hoping she would come to trust him. Don’t worry. Leo can be pushy at times, but he’s mostly okay.
She smiled at him as they walked toward the sound of their packmates arguing. She still held tightly to his hand. They rounded a curve in the trail. The two were focused on each other and appeared unaware of Jack and Mary. Their argument seemed to have morphed into angry silence between the two of them.
Mary was the first to speak. “Hey, Janine. Leo.”
The two spun around. Jack noticed the relief on Janine’s face first, but he felt Leo’s anger just before the jerk slammed his shields down tight.
“Hey, guys.” Jack used his calmest voice. Anything to offset Leo’s swirling emotions, and Janine’s obvious fury. There were red spots high on Leo’s dark cheeks and his green eyes flashed. If Janine had been a cat, her back would be arched and her hair sticking on end. The image fit her so perfectly, Jack couldn’t help sharing it with Mary, though he wasn’t sure she was listening for him. She looked more concerned about Janine, but her choked giggle and the tight squeeze of his hand was enough to keep him from glancing her way.
“What are you guys doing out so late?” Janine stepped away from Leo, closer to Mary. If they hadn’t just been yelling at each other moments ago, it wouldn’t have caught Jack’s attention, but he wondered if she was afraid of the guy.
“We’ve been sitting out by the pond, discussing the joys of herding Jace’s kids on the field trip last week.” Mary glanced at Jack and he rolled his eyes. “Jack, of course, knew nothing about it.”
Janine laughed. “Head in sand, maybe?” Grinning at Mary, she said, “A little ostrich in his shapeshifting bag of tricks?” She turned and wagged a finger under his nose. “Jack. The two boys who started it all were yours last year.”
“Thanks for the reminder. Mary already filled me in. I’m gonna catch hell from Jace next time I see him.”
They talked for a few minutes, just the three of them since Leo stayed off to one side with his arms folded across his chest. Then Janine flashed a bright smile at Jack and Mary. “I’m headed back to the cabin. It was good to see you two.” She turned and slipped off the trail toward the main route back to the cabins before Leo reacted.
He watched the way she’d gone, muttered a curse and left in the opposite direction.
“Should we follow?” Mary stared in the direction Janine had gone.
Jack shook his head. “No. She made it clear she was through with him for tonight.”
“I wish she’d stay through with him.” Sighing, Mary glanced at their clasped hands. “I’m exhausted. I think I’ll catch up with Janine. You don’t need to walk me home.” She rose up on her toes and kissed him, just a quick peck on the lips that was absolutely void of any sense of passion. But it was a kiss, which was better than he’d ever gotten before. Still, she looked sad and sort of lost when she turned and went after Janine. She turned as she reached the fork in the trail and her pensive smile touched him. “G’night, Jack. I hope I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He watched her go, wondering how their night might have ended if they hadn’t run across Leo and Janine. There’d been something about Mary tonight, almost as if she had something planned.
Unfortunately, he doubted it had anything to do with getting naked. He turned and headed in the opposite direction, toward his own cabin. Alone.
Yellowstone National Park
Thursday, 10:40 p.m.
This was a truly wondrous place, this fierce land called Yellowstone. It was even more magical after the sun went down. Reko crouched beside Ari, his brother. He’d been told they were almost identical, the way they were marked, their massive size. Two enormous wolves much larger than their wild brethren. He and Ari had paused here to watch the boiling mud bubble up from beneath the ground. The ambient starlight illuminated wisps of steam as it danced overhead before disappearing into the darkness. Fi would have loved it, would have wanted to know everything there was to know about the boiling muck that flowed up from the ground and smelled so foul, but their littermate—their sister—was gone.
She’d been killed by a rabid wolf somewhere north of here in a place the humans called Idaho.
Thank the goddess she’d bled out after fighting the beast rather than die a slow, agonizing death from the sickness.
I hear your thoughts, Reko. We’ve no reason to thank the goddess. That bitch forgot us long ago.
Reko turned his head slowly and stared at Ari. Like their father before them, Ari blamed the goddess for just about everything. Reko, however, preferred to believe as their mother had. We don’t know that for sure, Ari. Our kind stopped honoring her long ago. Maybe, after we forgot her, she just couldn’t find us.
Ari’s snort was all the answer Reko was going to get. Carefully he stood, sniffed the air, and immediately went flat to the ground. Ari! To the right. Men. It’s hard to smell them over the sulfur, but if that’s their scent I caught, they stink of fear.
Ari raised his head. His nose twitched and he sucked in a great breath. Fear and adrenaline. They’re excited about something, but afraid, too. We need to get away before they find us.
No. Reko glanced at his brother. They’re afraid of getting caught, which means they’re doing something wrong. I’m going to see what I can find out.
Idiot. This isn’t our concern.
We live in this world, for better or worse . . .
It’s usually worse. Ari shot him a dirty look.
For better or worse, and we need to protect it when things are wrong. Whatever they’re doing feels wrong.
Be careful, Reko. Ari’s eyes filled with sadness, as if he, like Reko, already knew their future. What little they might have. You’re all I have left. With Thor dead, with Fi gone . . .
I know. I promise. Reko gave his brother one final glance before quietly blending with the shadows. Moving with great stealth through the darkness, he crept around the rocks, drawing closer to the group of men.
Reko heard the muffled shot at the same moment fire streaked across his skull.
His legs crumpled beneath him.
• • •
Chanku pack headquarters
Thursday, 11:00 p.m.
“Hey, Jack! It’s been too long. Wondered if you were going to show up.”
Jack waved at Gabe Cheval, grabbed a cold can of beer out of the ice chest and then wandered over to sit with Gabe and Jace Wolf. It had been way too long since he’d hung out with the guys, but he knew they’d be taking off within the next couple of days. “Don’t harass me,” he said, taking a long swallow. “I bet you haven’t seen much of Jace, either.” He tipped his beer to his fellow teacher.
“Yeah, but I’m making up for lost time. This is my third.” Jace tipped his head back and emptied his can. “Going on my fourth, and I may need a fifth.” He pointed at Jack. “You owe me one, bud, after what your little monsters pulled on the field trip last week.”
Laughing, Jack sat down on top of the picnic table across from his buds. “Mary reminded me that the girls proved once again that women are the smarter sex.”
“No doubt in my mind. But not my worry for the next three months.” Jace held his beer up to acknowledge Gabe. “We’re headed out on our annual wild wolf survey tomorrow.”
“Romy and Emeline are going with us,” Gabe said. “I was afraid they wouldn’t want to, but they’re both really excited about the trip. Of course, Romy’s seen a lot of that country before, since we picked her up halfway through the route last year.”
Jack sipped his beer. Things had definitely changed, now that both Jace and Gabe were mated, but in a good way. Both his friends were still just as much fun as ever, but they were more mature, too. More settled? It wasn’t easy for him to describe, but he admired them in a way he hadn’t before.
Which led Jack, in a somewhat convoluted journey, to thoughts of Mary. For whatever reason, that woman was stuck in his mind. Gabe and his mate, Em, had been the ones who’d freed Mary and the other young women from the sex traffickers. Mary and three others had turned out to be Chanku and were now part of the pack.
And Mary? Mary, for whatever reason, haunted him. In a very good way.
Gabe raised his head and grinned at Jack. “What’s with you and Mary? I saw you two sitting out by the pond last night. She’s so quiet that I can’t see her hanging with a hound like you.”
How the hell did Gabe do that? Sometimes Jack wondered if Gabe read minds the way his dad did. “Mary’s okay.” He shrugged, unwilling to say anything personal. “We’re friends. I like her.”
Jace snorted. “Friends? C’mon, Jack. You don’t do friends. You do fuck buddies. Mary, though? I think she’s a little too good for you.”
Jack punched Jace’s shoulder. He wanted to hit him a hell of a lot harder. “You’re probably right. I’ll try really hard to remember that.” He laughed, but it wasn’t funny because he halfway agreed with Jace. Mary was too good for him, but for some reason they’d actually become friends. He’d been drawn to her that very first day when they arrived from San Francisco. She’d been timid and shy, still traumatized by her experience and the fact she had just discovered her Chanku heritage. All he’d really wanted was to be her friend, to show her not all men were bastards, but it was an unusual experience. He was so used to women coming on to him, but Mary wasn’t like that. Considering what she’d been through, he’d avoided letting her know just how much he’d come to want her; instead, he’d sort of been waiting around for her to make the first move.
She hadn’t. Not even close, though last night was proof she was more comfortable spending time with him than she’d been. There was definitely some real chemistry. But Mary, obviously, wasn’t ready to act on it. Jack wanted more, but it was hard to know how to approach the subject. You didn’t just ask a woman if she wanted to have sex when she’d been kidnapped, held prisoner, and whored out by bastards who were absolute slime.
The sound of laughter had the three men lifting their heads and staring across the meadow. Jack glanced at Jace and they both cracked up when Jace sent the thought Woman radar his way. Em, Romy, and Mary walked toward the picnic tables where the guys had parked their butts. Jack took another swallow of his beer, watching Jace’s and Gabe’s reactions as their women drew closer. He might as well have disappeared off the planet, as focused as the two had suddenly become. Like predators stalking prey, except Romy and Em weren’t trying to get away. No, they were coming closer, as focused on their guys as Jace and Gabe were on them.
His revelation was just that simple: Jack wanted what his buddies had. Wanted that kind of look from a woman. Not any woman, though. Only one. Mary. He dumped the rest of his beer out on the ground, tossed the can in the recycle barrel and stood. Romy walked into Jace’s embrace, and Em wrapped her arms around Gabe. Jack took Mary’s hand.
“C’mon,” he said, playfully tugging her closer and spinning her around. Laughing, she went with it. She didn’t flinch at all. “There are some things a nice girl like you should never see.” Standing behind Mary, he covered her eyes with both hands and she laughed again.
When it appeared that neither Jace nor Gabe would be coming up for air anytime soon, Jack took Mary’s hand again and led her down the trail toward the woods. It was a beautiful night, a perfect night for getting naked with a gorgeous woman. Mary was definitely that, with her most amazing blue eyes and her long dark brown hair waving over her shoulders. Unfortunately, he didn’t see getting naked together in their immediate future.
He would never push her. Most of the females, at least of his generation, born and raised within the pack, saw sex as one of the necessities of life—sort of like eating, sleeping, and breathing. Mary’s experience hadn’t been anything like that. Which was why it would be entirely up to Mary to make the first move. That is, only if she was at all interested in moving . . .
There was an old fallen tree near the path and Jack lifted Mary up to sit on the massive trunk. He’d always liked this spot, right at the edge of the forest where you could look out at the houses scattered across the huge meadow and the little fairy lights that marked the pathways through the landscaped gardens. It was like living in a park, and when he sat beside Mary and took her hand, he realized it felt different tonight, sitting here and looking at the place that had always been his home.
Was it him? Was he finally getting older, feeling a bit jaded and yet at the same time lost? Where the hell had that come from? He almost laughed. Introspection really wasn’t his thing. He glanced at Mary. “You’re quiet tonight. Everything okay?”
Turning, she studied him for the longest time. After a minute, she took a deep breath, sucked her lips between her teeth. Then she exhaled, and absolutely floored him. “Jack? Do you find me at all attractive?”
He almost choked. “You’re kidding, right?”
She pulled her hand away from his. “I’m sorry. I never should have . . .”
“Whoa. Mary.” He reached for her hand, held on, and all his best intentions disappeared. Shaking his head, he tried to figure her out, but she wasn’t an easy read. “You’re absolutely gorgeous. The first time I saw you I couldn’t look away. I still can’t. Truth, Mary? I’ve had a case of blue balls since that very first day. Ever since we’ve gotten to be friends, I’ve become way too intimately acquainted with my right hand, if you get my drift.”
She covered her mouth and actually snorted, and then she blushed a fiery red. Jack grabbed both her hands and laughed with her. “Are you coming on to me, Mary Ryder?”
“I don’t know.” Cocking her head to one side, she stared at him out of those amazing blue eyes. He felt as if she saw right through him. “I’ve never come on to a guy before.” She stared at the ground. “I wanted to, last night, but then I chickened out.” Raising her head, she looked him directly in both eyes. “What do I need to do, you know, to get it right?”
He hadn’t expected this at all, but he slipped off the log and stood, reached for Mary, and pulled her into his arms. “This, for starters,” he said. And then he kissed her.
At first she froze, her lips as still as her body. He kept it easy but intimate, continued his slow but thorough exploration of her mouth, and within moments she was kissing him back. When she tentatively slipped her tongue between his parted lips, Jack wanted to jump up and cheer, though that really wasn’t necessary. His dick was doing that all on its own.
When he took her hand and led her toward his cabin, Mary didn’t hesitate. Not a bit.
• • •
Yellowstone National Park
Thursday 11:05 p.m.
Ari watched in horror as the four men reached his brother. They stood over him, speaking quietly among themselves while Ari’s heart broke. They called Reko a trophy, congratulating the one who had killed him with gunfire. No wild creature stood a chance against men and their guns, even if that creature was sentient, every bit as intelligent—if not smarter—than the one who’d pulled the trigger. As Berserkers, Ari and Reko were much larger than wild wolves, and though only a few of their kind—including their brother Thor—had been taken by hunters over the years, their skins were much prized.
Ari flashed back on Thor’s death, the obscenity of his murder, the sudden pain that had brought Ari to his knees.
Reko and Fiona had said the same, that they’d known when Thor died, even though they were nowhere close. The three of them had avenged their brother’s death. They’d found his body, tracked the hunters. Fi had ripped out the throat of the shooter while he and Reko took care of the man’s companions. They’d buried Thor and hidden the human bodies.
Not long after, they’d gone in search of more of their kind. They’d only been traveling a few weeks when he and Reko had buried Fiona, careful not to touch the tainted blood or saliva from the rabid wolf that killed her.
But he and Reko had felt her death. There’d been a link that told them she was gone.
Ari kept his gaze locked on Reko. He hadn’t sensed Reko’s death, and had to believe that Reko lived. He would not give up on his only remaining sibling.
One large man reached for his brother’s body, checked him over and then nodded to one of the others. The two of them grabbed Reko’s legs front and rear and lifted him between them—a dead weight. The stench of sulfur and blood left Ari light-headed, but he followed as close behind the small group as he dared. He refused to accept Reko’s death. Not without proof. He had to find out if his brother still lived.
Somehow, if Reko was alive, Ari would save him, as much out of love for his brother as for the fear of life without him. As far as he knew, with both Thor and Fi gone, he and Reko were the last of their kind. He stayed as close as he could, listening, but the men spoke quietly, their voices much too soft for him to hear with the hiss of steam and the bubbling mud blocking the sound. He stopped behind a large boulder when, still carrying Reko, they slipped between two rocks in the face of the mountain and disappeared from sight.
They’d taken Reko into a cave. Ari weighed the possibilities. If he followed, he would most certainly be killed and there would be no one left to save his brother. If Reko still lives. If they killed Ari and Reko was already dead, there would be none of their kind left.
He didn’t want to be the last, and he had the responsibility of their species, the promise they’d made to their parents. Their mother and father had been dead for many years, but what if their father with his powerful anger had been wrong? Reko had always been the man to think things through, to use reason tempered by emotion. Maybe his brother was right to hope.
Slinking away from the rocks, Ari hid behind a huge fir tree, one of the largest he’d ever seen. Crouching in the darkness, he opened his heart, grasped Reko’s spark of hope and opened his very soul as he called out to their goddess. Ari trusted Reko, and Reko believed.
For that alone the bitch owed his brother salvation.
• • •
Jack’s cabin at the Chanku pack headquarters
Friday, 1:45 a.m.
Jack Temple sprawled on his big bed, his body bathed in sweat, heart pounding, his dick totally limp for the first time in forever. He lay there a moment, blowing like a damned bellows until his lungs quit straining for air and his heart rate settled down to something closer to normal . . . for a guy running a frickin’ marathon.
His ears were actually buzzing! Between that and the pins and needles prickling his fingers and toes from what had to have been the most mind-blowing sex ever, he honestly felt as if someone had knocked his personal foundation totally out from under him.
Damned female! It was all her fault. He wanted to laugh, but instead he rolled to his left and propped himself up on one elbow to stare at the amazing woman sleeping beside him. She was beautiful. A little repressed sexually, but that was to be expected. What hadn’t been expected was the experience of burying himself deep inside Mary Ryder. And whatever hang-ups she had about sex certainly hadn’t kept her from totally rocking his world, just as he’d known she would.
Goddess knew, she had a good reason for her issues. But as far as Jack was concerned, Mary was utterly fascinating. For one thing, she hadn’t thrown herself at him. It could get tiresome, the way women treated him like a piece of prime beef, though he had to admit that most of the time he hadn’t minded.
He could be such an idiot sometimes, but it was difficult for a single guy to have issues with constant offers of sex from men and women, human and Chanku. He’d not been emotionally invested in any of them, so it was all good times and, if nothing else, good exercise.
Now though? Tonight, sex with Mary had gone so far beyond his usual experience that it felt wrong to refer to their coming together as something so mundane as ordinary sex. Was this the difference? The difference between having sex and making love?
He certainly hadn’t expected this tonight, but she’d been the one to touch him first, the one to ask him if he had ever thought of her sexually.
Well. Yeah. Most of the time, but he’d been very careful not to act like a slavering hound. Sometimes it was hard to believe that they hadn’t been intimate before now. He’d never been known for his patience, but looking back, he wondered if somehow he’d recognized her importance to him, if he’d instinctively known to go slow and easy, to let this build. He’d grown to treasure her friendship over the past six months. Now? Now that he’d tasted her, touched her, made love to her, she’d effectively ruined him for any other woman. Ever.
He wrapped one glossy brown curl around his fingers. Mary sighed in her sleep.
It was almost as if she was meant to be his, and in spite of their totally different upbringings, tonight was proof they had something important. He’d grown up Chanku with a set of parents unique even among the sexually open shapeshifters. His mom, Tala, had two mates, and Jack and his twin sister, Star, had different dads. Since Chanku females had total control over their breeding, Tala had popped out an egg and mated with AJ, then she’d done it again with Star’s dad, Mik. Miguel Fuentes, aka Mik, was Hispanic and Native American; Jack’s dad, AJ Temple, was a man who had always identified as gay, but who loved Tala as much as he loved his other mate, Miguel.
AJ fathered one more with Tala, Jack’s full sibling Andrea, and as much as the three parents loved each other, their three children knew that they were loved most of all. Loved in so many ways. In spite of some of the politics and issues with humans going on outside the pack, Jack, Star, and their little sister, Andrea, had grown up in an idyllic setting. They’d been protected from the world outside—protected until they were ready to deal with it, surrounded by packmates, loved unconditionally by their parents and their pack.
But Mary? She’d been orphaned when her single mother died, and adopted as an infant by an ultra-conservative family, members of a cult-like fundamentalist religious group that hated Chanku. Her father had been furious to learn she was no longer a virgin after her kidnapping, and then he’d disowned her when he’d learned she was a shapeshifter.
Mary still hadn’t come to terms with the loss of her adoptive parents, or the way they’d cut her out of their lives, seemingly without any remorse at all.
When Jack thought of his loving family, how his dads had both welcomed Mary into their home the night they met, how his mom had put her arms around Mary and promised to be there for her whenever she needed a mom, Jack had been so proud of his parents he’d almost cried. Mary had cried, as much for what she’d never had as for the love the pack and his family had offered. Unconditional love, no strings attached.
It was something Jack had known all his life, something Mary had never experienced.
Maybe he could be the one to show her what real love felt like. He already knew that his feelings for her went well beyond the usual fuck buddy, or even good friend. Way beyond. He wrapped more of her curls around his fingers, gazing at her face as she slept. Then her eyes opened and her lips curved in a warm smile.
“What are you doing?” She reached up and brushed his messy hair off his forehead.
“Watching you.” He leaned over and kissed her, inhaling her scent, tasting her mouth, delving deeper to sweep his tongue along her teeth, licking over the ridge of her mouth. She moaned, arching her hips, pressing herself against him in welcome, her tongue dancing with his in a seductive parry and thrust that quickly had both of them panting. There was no sign of the shyness he’d noticed earlier when they’d first made love, none of the hesitation. Then, though she’d been the one to instigate it, she’d hardly met his eyes and he’d easily taken the lead.
Most of the Chanku females he’d been with were alphas, and that could create a battle of wills atop the sheets.
Not with Mary. She’d followed him so naturally, so easily, that before long their lovemaking had taken on a natural rhythm, smooth and effortless, as if they’d partnered like this forever, yet he didn’t think he’d ever been as aroused as he’d been with her.
When she’d reached her first climax with him, the look of surprise in her eyes had been his undoing. He’d wanted to slaughter the ones who had taken her, every single man who’d hurt her. Instead, he’d given her everything he had until she’d fallen asleep in his arms, sated, exhausted, and smiling.
Now she was sleek and warm, her body still slightly damp from the perspiration of their earlier efforts. This time he wanted more. The first time . . . that first time, dear goddess, they’d come together in a shocking blaze of need, their bodies primed and ready after months of friendship, after consciously avoiding any expectation of actually getting naked together.
He’d not wanted to frighten her, hadn’t wanted her to think he was anything like those men who had hurt her. But Mary? Foolish woman. She’d thought he was too good for her. Somehow he had to make it perfectly clear that she was the one who was so far superior in this relationship that he was still trying to figure out why she’d chosen him out of all the other single guys.
And she had chosen him. He’d not pursued her at all, had merely offered friendship, and she’d taken his offer and expanded on it. He was the one she’d come to for companionship, yes, but also for advice, for safety. She’d told him some of the horror she’d survived, she’d honored him, showing she felt safe enough with him to curl up against his chest and cry harsh, ragged tears when her parents abandoned her. He still couldn’t believe she’d come to him, of all people.
He knew she’d been with some of the women, knew that women weren’t her first choice, but she was still healing. What had shocked him most wasn’t her treatment as a captive, it had been the life she’d lived before. It had to have been horrendous for a young woman raised within a repressive religious cult, where women were treated as second-class citizens. She’d admitted that being captured meant she’d merely traded one form of slavery for another, that her parents had been trying to marry her off to one of the older men in the church. The only reason she’d gotten to attend college was that she’d earned an academic full-ride scholarship to UC Berkley. Her parents hadn’t wanted her to go, but she’d been over eighteen and had defied them for the first time in her life.
Then, just a couple of years later, close to graduation, she’d been captured, and for a time she’d believed it was God’s punishment for defying her parents that landed her in such a hellish existence. The other girls had quickly convinced her that God had nothing to do with it—that the blame was all on the men who’d kidnapped her and the johns who paid for her.
She would never be without choice again. Not if Jack had anything to say about it. He nuzzled her beautiful breasts, reveling in the freedom to touch her, knowing she wanted this with him—but did she want it again so soon? Arching her back, she thrust her taut nipple against his mouth, answering his unasked question. He sucked on one, pinched the other until she was squirming and thrashing beneath him.
“More, Jack. Please, harder.”
He bit down gently on her nipple and she cried out. When he pulled away and moved down her sleek torso, she whimpered. Nuzzling her smooth belly, he ran his tongue around the rim of her navel and then moved even lower. She’d stopped him here the first time, closing her legs when he’d nuzzled the soft curls between her thighs. This time, he palmed her firm buttocks and lifted her hips, sitting back on his heels and holding her up for his pleasure—and hers.
The only sign of her distress was her tight grasp on the tumbled blankets. He chose to ignore that, for now. Instead, he dipped his head and licked once across the damp folds between her thighs, then the crease between her thigh and groin. When she showed no sign of wanting him to stop, he parted the lips of her sex with his thumbs, tasted her nectar, and licked her deeper still.
• • •
Arching into that unbelievable feeling of Jack’s tongue between her legs, Mary had a sudden urge to giggle. She’d been totally fascinated with him since the first moment she saw him, but Jackson Temple was almost too beautiful, too kind to be true. She’d never known anyone like him and she’d never imagined being with him like this.
For that matter, she’d never imagined ever choosing to be with anyone like this ever. She’d only ever known ugly men who got off on some truly disgusting acts, things she’d never imagined. She had no idea they’d want to use her mouth for sex—or her bottom. That was something she’d never even heard of, and when it happened all she could think of was that it was painful and dirty and nasty. Of course, she’d not been taught very much about sex, not beyond the fact that it was for procreation, never for pleasure. Losing her virginity before marriage meant, according to her father and their church teachings, that she was damned to burn in hell forever.
When she’d told her father what had happened to her, that she’d been captured and forced, he’d told her she might not be able to come back home because she’d sinned. The fact she’d been taken against her will and held prisoner hadn’t mattered—if she’d really believed that it was evil, she would have found a way to escape. When she’d explained that their captors always kept one of the girls as collateral so that the others wouldn’t try to get away, he’d said they didn’t matter. They weren’t true believers.
That’s when she’d first begun to doubt him. A few days later, he’d told her he managed to get some sort of dispensation from their church for her. It would require a lot of prayer and most likely severe punishment, and she’d never be truly forgiven. She could still live with them, but probably not until after her little sister, Rebecca, found a husband. Having a whore for a sister would hurt Becca’s chances for a good marriage.
Thank goodness the other girls had convinced Mary she really didn’t need to go back because she was better than those hypocrites, who hadn’t even tried to find her when she’d disappeared. Instead, she’d been invited to join the pack and accepted the invitation to come to Montana—and then she’d met Jack. He’d introduced her to his parents, his mom and her two mates, one of whom was AJ, Jack’s father. The other girls had already met AJ and couldn’t stop talking about the guy because they thought he was movie-star gorgeous. He was definitely handsome, but she thought his son was a lot hotter. The thing she’d remembered about AJ was how nice he was, how he’d hovered over Jack’s mom, how he’d hugged and even kissed their mate Mik like he really loved the man. These people weren’t all sexual deviants like the church taught. No, they were good people, loving, kind, and thoughtful of each other. Of Mary, too, though they didn’t even know her.
But Jack? He was just amazing, and he’d noticed her from the beginning. Unlike the human men and boys she’d known over the years, even before she was taken, he’d not pressured her for sex. Just the opposite. He’d been really sweet to her, had teased and laughed with her and helped her out during the past six months as she’d adjusted to this new life, but not once had he pushed her for anything physical.
The closest they’d been was the night she fell apart, crying over so many different things she doubted either of them had any idea what had hurt her the worst—being sold for sex or discovering how little she meant to her family. He’d held her, his arms strong, his chest broad and warm, the steady beat of his heart a reminder that he was there for her, that she wasn’t alone. But that was it—he’d offered friendship, but no hint of anything further.
She still couldn’t believe she’d been brave enough to make a pass at him.
Couldn’t believe that had been just a few hours ago, and in that short period of time her life had changed yet again.
Only this change felt even bigger than finding out she was a Chanku shapeshifter. Her breath caught as his tongue swept over her sex once again. She’d never experienced anything remotely like what he was doing. He’d tried this earlier and she’d sort of freaked about it, but then she’d remembered what Emy Cheval had told her, that the Chanku were very sensual creatures and believed that any sexual act between consenting adults, as long as no one was uncomfortable or afraid, was okay.
She’d vowed not to let the horrible things her father had said affect this new life of hers, and that meant banishing him from her mind. He’d said she was breaking the rules that God had set down for his people, and she was a sinner for putting another deity in his place, but Mary’d actually seen the Chanku goddess. Eve was a living part of their world, a truly good and loving goddess.
She was the one Mary believed in because Eve believed in Mary.
Jack hummed against her clit and she felt the vibrations deep inside. Her nipples peaked and the muscles over her belly rippled. He licked her again; she was shocked to realize that the groan she heard was hers. She wanted him inside her, wanted him filling that empty space where she’d much prefer his rather large penis to his talented but much smaller tongue.
He raised his head, his beautiful black hair tousled and curling around his face and his amber eyes sparkling, and he grinned at her, a very wolfish expression that almost made her laugh. The thought was definitely apropos, but then he lowered his head again and his tongue swept inside her, laving swollen tissues already buttery soft from her arousal. Rising, he sat back on his heels between her legs, spread his fingers across her butt to hold her hips with one large hand and traced the crease between her cheeks with the fingers now freed. When he teased the tight opening on her bottom with a single fingertip, her first reaction was to move away, to tell him not to touch her there, except it felt good. Really good.
She was still lost in the sensation when he moved his hand again. His fingers swept between her cleft and he thrust inside her with two of them, filling her channel, curling his fingertips up against her inner walls. Then he pulled his fingers out of her, grasped both her hips and planted his butt on the bed.
Lifting her over him, he held her above his erection so that she knelt with her knees on either side of his flanks. Reaching for him, she wrapped her fingers around the upper part of his cock and held him steady while he settled her over the dark plum-shaped head, her feminine muscles grasping his thick shaft as he slowly lowered her down his full length.
He was big and she was tight, but her sheath opened for him. She felt every inch of his erection as he filled her, sensed Jack’s desire to make this good for her. She rested there a moment, absorbing the sensations: her body resting on her knees and shins, on Jack’s muscular thighs, the dark tangle of their pubic hair closely meshed. He was larger than any man she’d ever been with—and over the past year she’d been with far too many—so at first she’d been afraid she wouldn’t be able to take him, but her body adjusted perfectly to clasp him deep inside and hold him tight. She felt the subtle pulsing of her inner muscles, the thick head of his cock resting against the mouth of her womb, and yet, as large as he was, as fully as he stretched her, there was no pain.
Only pleasure. Such extreme pleasure that she consciously fought against her climax. No, not yet. She wanted to experience every sensation leading up to that amazing sense of fulfillment she’d discovered in making love with Jack.
That was something else Em had told her, that now that she was Chanku, her body was designed for sex, even more so than before she’d had the nutrients. She’d said that different things like the difference in the size of the men, even oral sex and anal sex were much easier for Chanku than for humans, that their bodies could make the necessary adjustments that would allow her to swallow a man’s cock without gagging or pain. If she wanted to try anal sex, it wouldn’t hurt.
Tonight, now that he’d shown her what a gentle, thoughtful lover he could be, she knew that whatever Jack wanted to do with her, she’d at least be willing to try. He thrust his hips up and held her there, lifting her up to her knees. “Open to me, sweet Mary. Let me into your thoughts. You’re blocking me, but if I know what you’re thinking, what you’re feeling, I can make it better for you.”
She laughed, opening her mind. I didn’t know I was blocking. I’m sorry. And I don’t see how you can possibly make this any better.
There you are. When Chanku are intimate, we share our thoughts. Then you can feel what I feel, I know what you are feeling, and with that knowledge we can make it even better.
If you make this any better, I might melt.
He laughed. She felt the thrust of his laughter inside.
That’s the point, sweet Mary. I want to make you melt.
She tightened all those feminine muscles. Jack groaned, grabbed her hips and rolled with her, flipped her over onto her back, driving into her harder, faster, taking her higher. And then his thoughts filled her mind, and she knew.
This wasn’t just sex for Jack. This went beyond the mere physical, beyond the melding of two bodies. There was no melting now, no easy slip and glide. This was hard sex, rough sex, and it grabbed her deep inside, made her feel herself as if she were Jack. His sensations, his feelings filled her thoughts, the way her muscles clasped his thick erection and how she appeared to him, like some amazing goddess, so beautiful he wanted to kneel before her, but he couldn’t.
Not if it meant pulling himself away from her body, away from the most amazing sexual experience he’d ever had in his life. She was giving this to him. Mary Elizabeth Ryder, a woman whose own father had branded her a whore. She was giving something special to Jack, and he in turn shared that with her.
This man saw her as a goddess, and his feelings were so true, so powerful, she knew she’d never hold back the tears. Her climax was upon her, so fast, so powerful she screamed. Jack’s fingers tightened on her hips and he drove into her harder, deeper, finding his own climax as Mary’s was finally ebbing.
The thick, hot wash of his seed spurting so deep inside threw her up and over another peak, so closely entwined, mentally and physically, that the orgasm was shared, a loop that repeated itself in slowly receding waves of pleasure between the two of them. Finally, Jack lowered himself carefully and fell to one side with his forearm resting across her breasts. When her orgasm ended, when the tremors subsided, she couldn’t stop weeping, overwhelmed by what Jack had given her. Overwhelmed by what she had discovered about Jack, about herself.
Finally, she turned her head, saw his face so close to hers as he lay beside her, watching her. His beautiful dark amber eyes were awash in tears, his lips curved upward in an almost shy smile.
“Is it true?” she asked. “You? Me?”
He nodded. “I think it must be. I’ve been watching you since the first day. Making up stories about what it would be like if you were mine.”
“But . . . you . . . you’re . . .” She shook her head. Laughed, except it sounded more like she was sobbing. “You’re you. You’re Jack Temple. Every single woman I’ve talked to who knows you wants you.” She laughed again, embarrassed by how watery her laughter sounded. “I’m just . . .”
He laughed, lying there beside her, staring at the ceiling. After a moment he rolled to his side and kissed her gently. “I know who you are,” he said, punctuating his words with another kiss. “You’re just Mary Elizabeth Ryder, a woman who has fascinated me from the first moment she arrived. Making love with you has merely reinforced my original opinion. You are strong, and so brave, and yet so very good inside. There’s nothing about you that I don’t admire. There’s nothing that could possibly be any better, any more perfect for me.”
He rolled back over her, holding his chest and shoulders off her body. His penis had slipped free but rested now between her legs. He was still partially erect, his legs tangled with hers, their bellies pressed tightly together slick with sweat. Propped on his elbows, he rubbed circles over her nipples so that it was hard to concentrate on what he said. He was growing hard again, his shaft filling the space between her legs, trapped so close against her, but not nearly close enough.
She realized she was concentrating more on the sensation of that thick, hot organ pressing against her sex than what he was saying. Until he tapped her nipples with his fingertips.
“Pay attention, sweet Mary.” He grinned and kissed the tip of her nose.
She blushed and raised her hips just enough to press them tighter together. He settled closer. All her feminine muscles clenched.
“Mary, I want to see where this goes, whatever this thing between us is. I’ve been with a lot of women—men, too, for that matter—but no one has ever affected me the way you do. Are you willing to give us a try?”
She couldn’t speak. She hadn’t expected anything like this. She nodded, biting her lips to keep from sobbing. She’d never dreamed . . . Well, actually she had dreamed, but that’s all she’d thought it would ever be. She reached for Jack, pulled him down to her and kissed him. Hard.
His lips parted and he deepened the kiss, lowering his torso onto hers, pressing her into the mattress as he tangled his hands in her hair, holding her for his mouth.
Her phone rang. A distinct tone she had to answer. Jack broke the kiss when she stiffened.
“It’s my mother.” Mary stared at the stupid phone. Why was she calling now, in the middle of the night?
Jack rolled to one side and grabbed her phone off the dresser. He handed it to her, left the bed, and stepped out of the room.
Sunny Daye’s cabin at the Chanku pack headquarters
Friday, 2:10 a.m.
Blinking into the velvety darkness, Igmutaka wondered just what the hell had awakened him. He’d been sleeping so peacefully with his beloved Mikaela Star draped across his chest, tiny Sunny Daye curled tightly against his back, and Fenris, his beautiful Fen, pressed close to Sunny with his long fingers splayed over Ig’s thigh.
It really didn’t get any better, and he shouldn’t be so anxious, not with all three of his mates surrounding him, but the visceral sense of need, as if he had to be somewhere right now, would not free him.
He had no idea where that somewhere might be or why, but the sensation was real. His skin was cold, clammy, as if he were bathed in the sweat of fear.
No. That wasn’t it. It couldn’t be.
Igmutaka had lived many lives, from wild puma to spirit guide and then to man, existing over countless centuries through every kind of trauma imaginable. He could be many things, but afraid wasn’t one of them, especially when there was no one sneaking up on them, their home was safe, and his lovers—his mates—slept beside him.
At least the women did. Fen’s fingers gently stroked his thigh—the big man was as wide awake as he, and obviously just as perplexed. Containing the immediate rush of arousal raised by the sensual sweep of Fen’s hand, Ig reached for his mind. Any idea why we’re both awake in the middle of the night, my brother? Other than the fact you’re obviously hoping for more playtime?
Fen’s mental laughter tickled his senses. Not a clue, but something or someone is telling me we need to be awake. A moment later, the mattress dipped and rose again as Fen quietly got out of bed and left the room.
Reluctantly, Ig disentangled himself from the sleeping women and slipped away from their warmth. He carefully covered Star and Sunny with the soft down blanket they’d left twisted at the foot of their bed. Their earlier lovemaking had been sinfully heated, but the night had grown cool and the women would miss the warmth two large men generated. Ig paused, gently stroking Mikaela Star’s glossy curls while thinking of all that they’d done to generate that heat. It was not easy to leave either the warmth or the women he loved.
After a moment he followed Fen, trusting the man’s instincts to lead them in the right direction. Fen always seemed to know the answers. A surprise, actually, considering just how recently Fen had learned of his Chanku heritage, the fact that he, like Ig, could trace his origins to the ferocious Berserker wolves of old. Ig found him sitting in one of the Adirondack chairs on the front deck. The sweet scent of the freshly milled cedar they’d used to enlarge Sunny’s cabin was a reminder why it had been so hard to leave that comfortable bed. He was tired and his muscles ached, as much from the hard work of remodeling Sunny’s small home so they’d all fit as from the lovemaking they’d enjoyed last night. A perfect celebration for having finished the job.
Of course, they never needed an excuse for that kind of celebration.
Sleep—at least for now—was no longer an option. He and Fen were awake for a reason, and they’d find out soon enough. The Mother had told them—after they’d surprisingly ended up in a four-way mating—that they might be called upon to serve their kind by serving her. They’d all agreed, but had yet to be called. At least not for anything major.
Until tonight. This felt deadly serious. Ig greeted Fen with a gentle caress to his broad shoulders before dropping into the chair beside him. “Find any answers yet?”
Fen merely grunted.
Ig heard footsteps, sensed his Mikaela Star before she walked through the door, rubbing her eyes as she wandered, half asleep, out of the house. Sunny was right behind her. Ig held out his hand, and Star took hold. He tumbled her into his lap as Fen reached for Sunny.
Star nuzzled Ig’s chest and yawned. “What’s going on?”
“Did we wake you?” Ig brushed his woman’s tousled hair out of her eyes.
“No.” She glanced at Sunny. “We both woke up at the same time.” She shrugged and snuggled against his chest, rubbing her arms. “Nightmare, maybe? I woke up feeling anxious and afraid, but I have no idea why.”
“So did I.” Sunny sat up in Fen’s lap and stared past the railing surrounding the deck. “But I have a feeling I know why. Hi, Eve. What’s going on?”
Igmutaka’s gaze snapped to the glowing cylinder of light appearing just beyond the deck.
“Nothing yet. Praise the Mother.” Their goddess was little more than a shimmering column in front of the cabin, but there was no mistaking her presence—or her voice. She grew brighter, gradually corporeal, until her aura shimmered like silver fire with streaks leaping within the silver, more flames covering the full color spectrum. Finally she stood before them, solid, unbelievably beautiful, and obviously feeling the same anxiety as her four Chanku.
“The Mother wants you to come to the portal. She’s contacting Sebastian and Lily now. Bring Anton. We’ll need his alpha strength as well. Something terrible is coming.”
As she took form, Ig realized that their usually composed goddess wrung her hands nervously; the colors of her otherworldly eyes spun in wild flashes—green and amber, brilliant blue to subtle gray. Her long blonde hair usually hung straight to her ankles; now it floated wildly about her, as if caught in a burst of static electricity, and her voice faltered.
“We don’t know if you can stop them.”
“Stop who, Eve?” Eyes blazing, Fen leapt to his feet, his wolf very close to the surface, though his voice remained soft, filled with respect.
Like Igmutaka, Fenris would protect his goddess to the death if need be.
Eve shuddered and then took visible control of her emotions. “We have sensed an apocalypse, an event of total destruction planned by men, but somehow involving an entity of pure evil. Bits and pieces are coming to us slowly, but the terror will happen quickly. You’ll need to pass through the portal. We’ll use the astral to travel more quickly. Time is of the essence.”
Ig was already in motion, but he heard Fen’s soft question. “Where are we going?”
Eve’s answer didn’t give him much confidence. “I don’t know, Fen. I hope to find out when we reach the astral.”
• • •
The home of Sebastian Xenakis and Lily Cheval-Xenakis
Friday, 2:10 a.m.
Sebastian had been dreaming, but then he wasn’t. No, he was answering the Mother’s call. Coming awake so quickly was disorienting, to say the least, but he gently stroked Lily’s shoulder, calling to her mind, bringing her as gently as possible from sleep.
Staring blindly into the darkness, she took a moment to focus on him. “What’s happened?” She sat up in bed, blinking furiously, already wide awake, mind and body in sync and ready for whatever was needed.
Seb was still trying to master that one. “We need to go to the oak. I feel the Mother calling me, but not with words. It’s a physical pressure, as if she’s pulling me there. I’m not sure what’s going on, but we need to hurry.” He reached for his jeans.
Lily’s hand on his arm stopped him. “It’s warm enough. I know you connect in your human form, but we can get there faster as wolves.”
She was right. Lily was always right, and it was one of the many things he loved about her, but he hadn’t been a shifter for all that long. There were some things a guy had to get used to. They shifted out on the deck, leapt over the railing and raced up the mountain. There was no moon tonight, but the sky was so perfectly clear that starlight lit their way. The oak stood on the promontory as it had for over a thousand years, its thick branches reaching forever into the sky. Sebastian shifted, pressed his palms against the rough bark and bowed his head to the tree.
He still found it absolutely surreal that a powerful goddess would choose to speak to him, here, through a tree large enough, old enough, filled with a strong enough life force that it could harbor her overwhelming spirit for brief periods of time.
But this time was different. Usually she spoke clearly to him, her voice so filled with power that it often left him physically shaken. Tonight there were no words, merely images, as if he orbited in space high above the earth and watched horrifying scenes of massive destruction, continents breaking apart, fire reaching into the sky. He saw it all in less than a heartbeat, then shook himself free of her connection the moment all sense of the Mother was gone from the oak.
He turned to Lily, realized he was practically hyperventilating. Taking a moment he felt he didn’t have to give, he shook off the aftereffects of communing with a being whose strength was beyond imagination. “Lily, I have no idea what she just showed me, but it’s definitely not good.” He opened his thoughts to her, showed her the images.
Her eyes opened wider. She clasped his hands. “From the Mother?”
“Yes. C’mon. We need to go to your parents’ house.” Her eyes flashed in panic and he shook his head. “They’re fine. It’s so we can get to the astral.”
“Thank you.” Obviously relieved, she kissed him quickly and they shifted. The two wolves raced down the mountain toward the home where Anton Cheval, Lily’s father and the pack’s alpha, lived. His house wasn’t merely his home—it was strategically placed atop an underground cavern that presented the closest portal onto the astral plane.
There was only one tiny problem that Sebastian couldn’t quite shake. He hoped someone knew where they were going, and just what the fuck they were supposed to do once they arrived, because whatever the Mother had shown him in that vision? Well, it was a hell of a lot bigger than anything any of them had ever dealt with before, and he could say that without even knowing what it was.
• • •
Friday, 2:15 a.m.
Mary stood beside the bed and answered the call. Her mother’s face appeared on the small screen. She looked pale and exhausted, and it was obvious she’d been crying. Mary hardened herself—the last conversation Mary had had with this woman had been filled with recriminations and threats. Her first reaction was anger. It was stronger even than the curiosity over why her mother was calling, why her face was streaked with tears. Why did the woman who’d so clearly denied her have to call now, when she and Jack were just starting to talk?
“Mother? Why are you calling? The last time we talked you called me a whore and told me you never wanted to see or speak to me again. What’s going on?”
Her mother stared at the screen, tears flowing, and Mary thought she looked as if she’d aged a good twenty years. “I was wrong,” she said. “Dead wrong. I should never have listened to your father. Mary, I think he’s crazy, he’s doing crazy things. The church I’ve always followed? It isn’t a church at all. You need to listen to me, try to find a way to stop them.”
She took a deep breath. “Your father and Brother Thomas have found a way to hasten the Apocalypse. They believe that Armageddon is here, in this country, that the signs are right and the Apocalypse is coming. He says there is a gateway to Armageddon, and they have a spirit guiding them, an angel.” She drew in a harsh breath, coughed and doubled over, covering her mouth with a tissue. After a moment, she faced the screen again, but her lips were tinged in crimson, her voice ragged and halting. “They’re wrong, Mary. It’s not an angel helping them, it’s a demon. A being who is evil, someone powerful enough to help them blow up the world.”
“What? That’s impossible . . . they can’t do that! That’s crazy.” This was so not like her mother; something was terribly wrong. “Why are you saying this? What happened? Are you bleeding? Mom? What is it?” Mary glanced wildly about. Where was Jack?
“Mary. Listen to me. There’s no time. I heard them talking. It’s going to happen in Yellowstone, and if you’re in that Chanku stronghold in Montana, he’s not all that far from you. About four hundred miles, if that. Your father thinks he’s a soldier for the Lord, but Brother Thomas has lied to him. He’s lied to all of us and they have some sort of bomb that’s huge, like an atomic bomb. You have to stop them!”
Mary hadn’t even heard him come back into the room, but Jack grasped her shoulders, his big hands steadying her. “Mom, you’re not making any sense. How could Dad get a nuclear bomb? That’s crazy. Why would you believe something like that?”
Her mother looked directly into the screen, staring at Mary as if she could reach out and touch her, and her voice was strong again. Strong and angry, not the subservient wife at all. “Because your father is evil. He killed your sister, Mary. At least a day ago . . . I don’t know how long. I’m so sorry; I’ve been unconscious. He strangled Becca in front of me. Then he shot me. He said he did it so we wouldn’t have to die in the chaos that was coming. He thought he killed me, but I fooled him. I played dead and he left, but Mary?” She took a deep breath and said, “I won’t see you again. Not in this world. I’m hurt, bad, Mary. Worse than I realized. I should have called you weeks ago, but I was ashamed. Now this. I prayed and I prayed, but Becca didn’t come back. She’s really gone.” She shook her head slowly. “It’s too late for shame. Too late for forgiveness for me, but not for you. I never should have doubted you, Mary. You’re my daughter and I love you, but I’m dying.”
Then she panned her phone slowly away from her face, focused on the body of a little girl with dark hair, lying on the floor. Becca was obviously dead, eyes open wide, the purple, almost black bruises on her pale throat an abomination.
Mary gasped and shoved her knuckles against her mouth. Jack tightened his grip on her shoulders. His harsh curse echoed inside her skull. Her heart pounded, her ragged breath rasped unnaturally loud and she couldn’t stop staring at the horrific image of her baby sister. Rebecca was nine, her father and mother’s natural daughter. A blessing, they’d said, after so many years of trying.
The image on the screen was unsteady as her mother turned the phone back to herself, but she held it away from her face and there was no missing the huge bloodstain across her midsection. “I love you, sweetheart. I never wanted to say those awful things to you, but your father made me. Now I wish I’d left him years ago, when you first went to college. I so wanted to be with you, to be that young girl tasting freedom for the first time. It’s too late for me. Do whatever you can to stop Brother Thomas and your father. They follow one of the devil’s minions, a demon they call Master Aldo. Your father thinks he’s a saint. He’s not. He’s the one who told your father to kill us because he needed our life force. Saving us from the Apocalypse had nothing to do with it. That’s not how God works, is it? God loves his children.”
She started coughing again. Blood spattered the screen, obscuring much of her face. Mary wanted to wipe the screen though she knew it was the lens on her mother’s phone now covered in fresh blood. “You have to stop them, Mary. Maybe that man who rules the Chanku? Mr. Cheval? He can do anything, can’t he? Go to him, if he’ll see you. Beg him if you have to. Your father and the others must be stopped. From what your father said, you only have two more days at the very most. Master Aldo will be ready then. I’m trying to stay alive. I don’t want him to get my life force. I am so sorry, Mary. So very, very sorry. I love you.”
The call dropped. Mary stared at her phone and felt the numbness settling in, the same emotional disconnect that had helped her survive her year of slavery. She turned to Jack, studied his beautiful face, the expression of . . . what? Anger? Sadness? She couldn’t tell, but when she blotted out her emotions it was difficult to read those of another.
He shook himself and grabbed his phone off the dresser. “What is your mom’s address, Mary? I need to call for help for her. She might still make it.”
Struggling to shake herself free of the creeping sense of oblivion, Mary shook her head, a short, sharp jerk that just might shake her senses loose. The pain that arrived was a visceral thing, a pain she immediately buried.
“The address, Mary. I need it now.”
She rattled off the familiar numbers, the street, city, state, but it didn’t make any sense. She’d been so angry at her mother, but now . . . “Jack?” Tilting her head, she frowned, wondering who this person was who spoke, curious at her lack of emotional distress. This was something awful, wasn’t it? It must be. Jack was talking to someone, reporting a murder. Giving Mary’s address.
“He killed my sister, maybe my mother, too? I don’t understand. What was that about?”
He didn’t answer. Instead, he gave his personal information and ended the call. “Sweetheart, I don’t know.” He pulled her into a close hug. Then he clasped her shoulders, made her look at him. “We need to get to Anton. He can help us figure this out. Get dressed. It’s too late to call, but if we’re close I can reach him with my mind. Let’s go to his house.”
Still numb, Mary went into the bathroom and grabbed a damp cloth off the towel rack. Carefully, methodically, she washed away the evidence of their lovemaking.
None of this made sense. Her mother didn’t make sense. Her father wouldn’t have murdered his daughter. Tried to kill his wife. He loved them. At least he said he did, but he’d loved her, too, and look how well that had worked. Jack was right. Anton would know. He knew everything.
Mary tied her hair back in a ponytail and grabbed a piece of fabric hanging near the closet. She’d grown used to wearing the sarong-style dresses—easy to slip in and out of when she needed to shift. Another example of the changes in her life. Jack had put on a pair of running shorts and a T-shirt. They both slipped on lightweight sandals.
He had a tight grasp on Mary’s hand as they practically ran down the trail toward Anton and Keisha’s house. Small solar lights illuminated the broad path, but little beyond. She glanced at Jack, at the taut line of his jaw, the determined look in his eyes. “What’s going on, Jack? How can Anton help us? I don’t get it, not anything my mother said. What could he be doing that she’s warning us about here? Why would my father shoot my mother, strangle my sister?”
She should be inconsolable right now. All she felt was numb. Except where their hands linked. She felt alive where Jack held her.
“I don’t know, Mary. But your mother mentioned that their minister was talking to a devil spirit, they called him Aldo. It’s impossible, but maybe not. Aldo’s an unusual name. You’ve met Sebastian and Lily, right? Sebastian’s father was named Aldo Xenakis. He was a totally sick son of a bitch who hated Chanku. He was also a powerful wizard, but his magic was dark. Sebastian called it ‘blood magic.’ His spells needed the life force of young women that he raped and murdered. Sebastian killed him, but I’m wondering if part of Aldo survived.”
She really didn’t want to think of that, but they’d reached Anton’s house. It was ablaze in light. Mary glanced at Jack as they reached the steps to the front porch. “They must be awake. What time is it?”
“Almost three,” he said. “Something’s definitely going on.” He pounded on the front door.
Anton flung it open before Jack had time to lower his arm. “Did the goddess call you two as well?”
Mary shook her head. “No. My mother called. She was talking crazy, about an apocalypse, and I thought she was nuts when she said my father had killed my little sister and shot her—my mother. That a demon spirit had ordered it. Then she showed me Rebecca.”
She turned to Jack, her muscles clenched tightly, all that held her from exploding into a million pieces. “You saw her, right? She’s dead, isn’t she?”
Wrapping his arm around her shoulders, holding her close, Jack nodded. “Anton, she warned Mary, said her father was in Yellowstone, that he has ‘some sort of an atomic bomb.’ Her description. She said we need to get out of here, that something terrible is going to happen within the next two days.”
“Crap. That fits with other things we’re hearing.” He opened the door, stepped aside.
Jack shook his head. “There’s more, Anton. The devil spirit, the demon Mary mentioned? They call him Master Aldo, said he ordered the killings because he needed their life force. Isn’t that what Aldo Xenakis did? Killed those young women for their living energy? I called 911 and gave them Mary’s home address and they said they’d send someone to the house to check, hopefully in time to save her mother, but the thing is, I’m wondering if Aldo Xenakis isn’t quite as dead as we’d hoped.”
“Come in. Both of you. We’ll fill you in with what we know, but it sounds as if a lot of what we’re learning fits much too closely to your news.” Shaking his head, not looking nearly as in control as Mary expected from a man who never, ever appeared at all flustered or ill at ease, Anton gestured for them to come into the house. “So far,” he said, straightening his spine, somehow finding that laser focus she’d grown to expect, “none of it looks good, but I’m glad you’re here. You can either answer some questions or add to the confusion.” He shook his head, obviously frustrated. “Either way, welcome to the madhouse.”
• • •
Anton Cheval’s home
Friday, 2:56 a.m.
Sebastian and Lily shifted as soon as they reached the house. Lily’s mom, Keisha, met them at the back door that opened directly into a mudroom and then into the kitchen. Sebastian grabbed robes off the hook by the door and handed one to Lily. Covered in warm terry cloth, they followed Keisha through the door into the kitchen. Stefan and Xandi Aragat, sipping at steaming cups of coffee, greeted them just as they would any other morning at the pack alpha’s house—if it weren’t almost three in the morning, and if that unfamiliar look of fear wasn’t so clearly etched on each person’s face.
Even Keisha looked worried, and Sebastian knew how difficult it was to ruffle her amazing composure. “Is Anton . . . ?”
“He’s in the cavern with the others—Ig, Sunny, Star, and Fen. Jack and Mary. They’re waiting for you. Hurry.”
Lily quickly hugged her mom. Sebastian followed his mate as she took the door to the stairs leading down into a large basement. A heavy door disguised as part of the pantry was open, and in less than a minute they’d reached the cavern where Anton and the others were gathered in front of the portal.
Sebastian wondered if he’d ever get used to looking directly into the astral, a world of brilliant hues, of trees and grass and sky so perfect it made him think he was looking at an artistically rendered high-definition photo of the world’s most perfect park. He slipped his arm around Lily’s waist, and the two of them joined the others. Anton turned toward them, nodded at Sebastian and then drew his daughter into a tight hug.
“Eve is conversing with the Mother,” he said. “It appears that Eve heard a cry for help, a voice she didn’t recognize. They’ve pinned it down to Yellowstone, but so far it’s not specific enough. She’s trying to reestablish contact.”
Frowning, Sebastian glanced at Lily before turning to Anton. “This seems like a rather large response for a single call for help.” He thought of the brief connection he’d had with the Mother, the terrifying images he’d glimpsed.
Shaking his head, Anton glanced once again toward the portal. “The Mother linked with Eve just before the original contact and sensed something absolutely apocalyptic. End-of-the-world stuff, somehow associated with the creature who called out for help moments later. She explained, through Eve, that this sort of prescience happens very rarely, but she’s learned to take heed.”
Now those frightening images made more sense. “That explains the visuals she showed me. I woke up knowing I had to connect with the Mother.” He described that brief but frightening period filled with apocalyptic visuals. “That was it. No explanation other than the knowledge that we had to come here.”
Anton nodded just as Eve appeared in the glowing portal. She looked badly shaken, but after a moment she raised her head and was once again composed as ever. Still holding on to Lily, Sebastian moved closer to the portal to hear Eve.
“We have connected once again with the one who warned us. His name is Ari.” Eve focused on Igmutaka and Fenris. “He is a Berserker who has never shifted from his wolf form. He and his brother are in Yellowstone, traveling in search of the Chanku they’ve heard of, hoping to find what they need to be able to shift. They don’t know of your compound here, only of Chanku in San Francisco. That was their destination.” She shook her head and took a deep breath. “They’ve never had the grasses. They are from many generations of wolves with the thoughts of men, knowledge of what they should be able to do, but they don’t know . . .”
Clasping her hands in front of her, she shot one very frustrated glance at Anton. Sebastian knew the alpha had done everything he could to get the word out about the grasses, but still there were more shifters out there. It was even more difficult reaching those Berserkers who had never been able to shift.
“Originally there were four of them. Their brother was shot by hunters about a year ago and their sister was killed along the way here. Tonight . . .” She took a deep breath. “Tonight, Ari’s twin brother was shot and taken by a group of men who are planning something terrible. Ari’s not sure exactly what, but he’s followed them as far as he could. They’ve gone into a cavern that leads to a series of tunnels. He said they spoke of a nuclear device, something they hope to detonate deep inside the great volcano caldera that lies beneath Yellowstone. Their goal is to trigger an eruption.”
“Holy shit.” Totally out of character, obviously shaken, Ig turned and looked to Anton. “That volcano is huge, and it’s still active. If that thing blows, it could wipe out most of the population in the U.S.”
“Even worse.” Sebastian tightened his grasp on Lily, as if holding her close would protect her. If what he’d seen was true . . . “The Mother showed images to me. Massive worldwide destruction. If they know exactly where to set that device, and if it’s powerful enough to set off the Yellowstone super volcano, the explosion could be enough to cause slippage along the Ring of Fire. That’s the series of earthquake faults and volcanoes that runs from the tip of South America and circles the Pacific all the way down past New Zealand.”
“You’re not just talking about a massive nuclear explosion that would only disrupt life in this country, are you?” Anton looked as if he’d aged fifty years.
The small group glanced from one to another, as if trying to recognize the source of the powerful voice that seemed to come from everywhere. From nowhere. Only Sebastian knew her as intimately as if they’d been lovers. He fell to his knees and bowed his head, with Lily dropping to her knees beside him.
Eve immediately knelt as well, and the others followed suit. A brilliant glow filled the portal, spilled out into the dark cavern, bringing with it a sense of immeasurable power. It pulsed with the beat of his heart, breathed with Sebastian’s breath.
And then she spoke, her voice inside their heads even as it echoed off the walls of the cavern.
The Mother, the supreme being, an entity filled with unimaginable power, and yet one unable to stop or even begin to understand those pitiful humans with their free will and foolish, uneducated minds. Sebastian felt her touch, the intimate caress of one growing tired of the foibles of mankind.
“Eons ago your ancestors faced a similar threat, but they had mastered space travel and knew where there were planets that could harbor life when the destruction of their world was imminent. Earth was one of them. You don’t have that option. From what I can tell, the fools planning this terrible act are too stupid to realize what they’re doing. They think the volcano will explode and kill only unbelieving Americans and Canadians from Yellowstone east. They don’t understand the science behind the tectonic plates or the danger of a nuclear winter, when so much ash fills the sky that all life on this world will die, if any at all survive the destruction of so many continents.
“Fools. They are all fools, but there’s more. Sebastian, I don’t want you to learn it at an inopportune time, but these idiots follow the teachings of your father. This heinous act is being carried out in the name of Master Aldo Xenakis. His evil does not reflect on the man you are, nor does it have any bearing on the man you will become. But if his dark magic is involved, if a fragment of his spirit still exists, you and your mate might be the only ones who can stop him.”
Blindly Sebastian reached for Lily’s hand as she took hold of his. He bowed his head, fully aware of the weight of his father’s sins. “Thank you. You’re right. I much prefer knowing the evil we’ll face, the one we must defeat.” He raised his head and gazed at her, the entity he had grown to honor and love almost as much as he loved his beloved mate. “How can we stop them? What do you want us to do?”
Rising, standing before her, he gazed directly at the supreme goddess, unafraid of her power. She had only ever used it to help him. Her light should have blinded him, but instead he looked into the swirling glow and felt peace. The Mother was on his side, in spite of his father, despite the evil Aldo Xenakis had created and nurtured. She was always on his side.
Why the Mother favored him, Sebastian had no idea, but one thing he was certain of—he trusted her.
“I can show you where they are planning this heinous act,” she said, speaking to Sebastian but allowing the others to hear her. “How you can access them through the astral. Eve will share whatever we are able to learn, but she and I cannot stop them ourselves. Eve will be permitted to aid you where she can, but this fight will rest in your hands.”
He felt her sigh of frustration. “There are rules. Always rules that even the gods are unable to break. Think of yourselves as chess pieces on a very large board in a game only marginally controlled by fate. Move with care, Sebastian. What you, Lily, Mikaela Star, Sunny, Igmutaka, Fenris, and yes, Jack, you, and Mary with your knowledge of the humans involved, do in the next few days could determine whether this world and all upon it live or die.”
“How do the Berserkers fit into this?”
The Mother’s light pulsed. “We don’t know. Only that they somehow hold the key. You must save them first.” Her glow began to fade.
Sebastian tightened his grasp on Lily’s hand and asked one last question. “When do we leave?”
“In one hour. Sooner if possible. You will know what you need to gather, and then you will return to this place.”
Her light winked out, the portal closed. Sebastian turned to Anton. The weight of the world rested on his shoulders, and he thought of the warning his mother had given him when he’d told her he wanted to know about his father. She’d been right. The man had been evil personified, and Sebastian could never pretend Aldo Xenakis’s blood didn’t run in his veins.
But if he’d followed his mother’s advice, he never would have met Lily. Never would have found a father figure who loved him as if Sebastian were the man’s own son, and that knowledge gave him the confidence to face Anton Cheval, an über alpha if ever there was one.
“Gather the pack, Anton. I have a feeling we’re going to need all the strength—and more—that they can give us.”
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