Submitting to her Mate
Forced out of her pack,
straight into the arms of her fated mate…
After being accused of murdering her mate, Anya has no choice but to seek refuge in a rival pack. With a death sentence hanging over her head, Anya barely manages to escape her hunters. But she quickly finds herself thrust into another nightmare…
During the first full moon, it becomes clear Anya is the bonded mate of Hayden, her new pack’s leader. He’s not cruel like her dead husband, but his power and strength are fearsome to behold. It’s impossible for Anya to fight the fact that they are fated mates. But she’s determined to deny any affection she feels for the powerful alpha.
Hayden has enough problems keeping rival packs and local rogues in check. The last thing he needs is a new mate. Still, he can’t help but want to keep Anya safe—even if he doesn’t quite trust her. What is it about this woman that tempts him so?
With enemies closing in on all sides, Hayden finds himself fighting for control of his territory while resisting the pull of his bond with Anya. Some battles, though, may be worth losing…
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His normally tanned skin was pale and thinly stretched across the bones of his face. The handsome face that had so charmed everyone had turned skeletal, as if someone had taken a straw and sucked Atticus dry.
That’s what silver poisoning did, but it didn’t normally work so quickly. There must have been a shocking amount of silver. He hadn’t even had time to begin to shift, to try and push the silver out.
As fast as it worked, he wouldn’t have even felt all that much pain.
I stepped over my husband’s body and hurried across our kitchen as a plan formed in my head. There was no point in taking clothes. I’d need to stay in my human form only long enough to trek across the rest of the territory—that would make it harder to track my scent. But once I reached the borders, I could shift and run. A duffle bag full of clothes would only slow me down.
There would be no food until my wolf could hunt for me, so I grabbed the peanut butter jar from the pantry, wrenched it open, and began devouring it by the spoonful as I raced upstairs to our bedroom to change into new clothes I’d carefully hidden away. Clothes that didn’t carry my scent. The peanut butter stuck in my throat and chest, heightening my anxiety.
Stopping in the bathroom, I turned on the faucet in the sink and shoved my mouth under it to wash the peanut butter down. Then I ripped off my tee-shirt and jeans and the expensive panties and bra that Atticus had liked so much.
Falling to my knees, I ripped open the floorboards. I’d hastily made the niche when they were newly stained and sealed so the stain would overpower the incongruous scent of cotton clothes hiding below. The board ripped up and slammed my hand against the bottom of the bed, but I ignored the pain as I grabbed the clothes. No point in putting the board back or trying to hide the niche now. Instead, I just tore open the plastic and hastily changed. The black cotton panties were in a pack. The bra was cheap and fit a little awkwardly. The black pants and tee shirt were a little big on me, but that was fine.
The only thing that really needed to fit perfectly were the black shoes. Running shoes—because I was about to run like hell.
It took me two minutes flat to change, and I grabbed the last thing I needed.
A sealable wet bag with my pack inside.
Bundling my long hair up on the top of my head, I secured it with a hair band. Yanking off all the stupid gold pieces of jewelry, I left them littering the floor as I hurried to the door.
For the first time since marrying Atticus, I was thankful that he’d insisted on separate housing away from the pack den and close to the border. I wouldn’t have to explain my appearance to anyone.
It would take me three minutes to get to the river. It was heavily patrolled, but it was deep enough and the current strong enough to carry me out of everyone’s reach so long as I could keep my wolf under control.
Only the most desperate would get into the Mahowlin river. It was deep, rocky, and rough, and land and air shifters were hardly strong swimmers.
But I was fucking desperate.
I was so close to the door when I saw the first shadow of movement through the window. The window frames in the bunker-style house peeked only a foot above the ground, but that was enough for me to see feet and ankles.
One set. Two sets.
Bag in hand, I froze. Maybe it was juveniles out roaming. Maybe I still had a chance.
Or maybe it was the guard, the new second and third, and the alpha.
The alpha bond pulled viciously inside me. He was there. Right outside the door.
I was never going to make it.
It wouldn’t make any difference, but I whirled around and shoved the pack under the arm chair. I’d barely straightened with the door busted open, and my alpha bounded inside with a roar. He was quickly followed by Raymond and Tripp, both who would have gotten a new promotion with the death of my husband. Silas would have felt the death in his bond. That, at least, gave me some comfort. Until challenged, Raymond and Tripp just moved up the hierarchy. I didn’t bother looking closely at the various guards who filed in behind them. They were basically interchangeable—all of them were equally vicious, equally domineering, equally devoted to Silas.
Silas turned to me, his green eyes wild and nostrils flaring. Lowering my gaze, I immediately sank to my knees while he roared above me. His fury shook me to my bones, but I remained as still as possible. Hands grabbed me roughly and wrenched me up. Someone yanked my hair, and pain shot through my scalp as they forced me to watch Silas kneeling over my dead husband’s body.
“Where,” he snarled. “Where did you get the silver?”
Inside, I quaked, but I would not give him the satisfaction of seeing my fear. “I did not kill my husband,” I said as calmly as possible.
He moved so quickly that I didn’t even get a chance to ready myself before he struck my face. “Lies!”
“You are bound by pack law to investigate,” I reminded him. “And you will find nothing to tie this to me.”
“Pack law.” A sneer crossed his face. “I am pack law.”
I felt his power press inside me, all but suffocating me, as he attempted to manipulate the bond that compelled me to always be loyal to him, as I had vowed. My knees weakened, but I did not give him the confession he needed to justify killing me right then.
“Chain her in my basement,” he thundered. “And find me proof of her guilt.”
The guards sprang into action. Some immediately began tossing the house, but I wasn’t given a chance to watch. Three of them dragged me through the longest route, making so much noise that other shifters began coming out to see what was going on. No one stepped up to interfere, and the guards had no problems making certain I got good and banged up along the way. The scrapes and bruises, the cuts on my head, they would be nothing compared to what was waiting for me.
Too late, I’d waited too late. I should have run yesterday. Last week. I’d been thinking about it. Too fucking chicken to do it.
Outside the alpha’s home, his wife, Kai, stood at the door. Beautiful with long blonde hair and perfect features frozen in an icy facade, Kai watched in silence as they dragged me inside.
Down in the windowless room in the lowest part of the house, I was thrown to the floor. “Enough,” a voice said calmly. “She needs to be in one piece to be sentenced.”
Raymond picked me up, almost gently, and carried me to the chains on the wall to close the irons around my wrist. They were spelled so I couldn’t shift.
The wolf inside me whimpered.
He’d never been kind to me. He’d never really been anything to me, but he made no move to harm me, not even now when he’d certainly get away with it. That was kindness, and there was no reason for it that I could see.
But then, with Atticus’s death, he was now second. Maybe he was thankful for the promotion.
They all paraded out, and the door closed behind them, encircled me in darkness.
I was caught and caged, but knowing Silas, the nightmare wouldn’t last long.
A strange sense of relief course through me, and I sagged against the stone wall and closed my eyes. The only strength that remained was the wolf inside me, raging against our imprisonment, but I’d subdued her for so long that it wasn’t hard to shut her out.
I used to be a fighter. I used to think that if I could just get to Primus—the leader over all of the pack alphas—and tell him the truth about how Silas and his guards ran the Mahowlin pack, this would all finally end.
I couldn’t remember the last time I’d thought that. Atticus had won—even if he was too dead to enjoy his victory. He’d broken my spirit. This life held nothing but misery for me, and all I wanted to do now was escape.
Even if it was through death.
But there had been so few nights without my husband, and this was one of them. Even if it was my last night alive, at least there was relief in that.
With that in mind, sleep took me.
Fear and pain woke me, a combination that had me crying out as I tried to get away, but there was a stone wall digging painfully into my back, iron cuffs still around my wrists, and a hand wrapped around my throat.
“Bitch,” he whispered. “I bet you think you’re so fucking smart. Not a goddamn ounce of silver anywhere but on Atticus’s body.”
His hand squeezed, and I couldn’t speak. Just as well. He wouldn’t care about anything I might have to say. The only voice Silas ever wanted to hear was his own.
“He loved you. He treated you like a queen, and you murdered him. Did you really think I would let you walk away? That I would let you get away with it?”
My vision started to darken. The door opened behind him, and he released me as his guard, second, and third filed in. A nasty smile crossed Silas’s face. When he backed up, there was a syringe in his hand. It had been emptied of its contents, but something liquid still glinted on the needle. He pressed it again my skin, and I felt the sting of silver.
“We found this,” he announced dramatically, “under the mattress. You injected it into the man who so adored you, killing him instantly. Anya, I find you guilty of murder. It is my right to end your life right where you stand.”
There was a growl in the darkness.
Claws ripped across my throat, and all I could smell was my own blood.
“Anya. Anya! For fuck’s sake.”
Cold water doused me, and I woke with a start. My nostrils flared and my wolf panicked as the scent of blood hit me.
My blood. A lot of it.
Shit, how was I not dead?
Kai stood over me, the bucket of water in hand. It was odd to see the alpha’s wife down in the filthy dungeons while she was dressed to the nines. The royal purple dress fit her every curve, skimming low over her ample cleavage and riding high along her thighs. As she tossed the bucket aside, she lifted her leg and inspected her four-inch stilettos with a frown.
“Ruin your expensive shoes?” I croaked.
“So long as I don’t get your blood on them, I think I’ll be okay. Silas has ordered your execution at dawn, which is in three hours. Zoe has already been down here twice to wake you, but you wouldn’t budge. Now we’re running low on time, and she depleted her little potion stash to sneak in here. She went to get more. We’ve got to get to the river to meet her.”
Anxiety crept into Kai’s voice, and I struggled to sit up. To anyone else, it might surprise them to see Silas’s perfect wife attempting to break a prisoner free, but she and I shared so much in common. False masks. Bastard husbands.
And Zoe. My best friend. Her half-sister—though scarcely anyone knew about that, not even Silas. Especially not Silas.
I think, deep down, Kai and I both hoped that one day, someone would challenge Silas and save us. We’d heard about it happening in some of the other problem packs, but Silas was far too careful. We weren’t allowed in the cities. We weren’t allowed to leave the territory without guards. He claimed it was for our protection.
Really, it was to keep our mouths shut on the off chance that we might meet someone strong enough to challenge him.
And speaking of strong…it was exactly what I wasn’t. I’d lost too much blood. As soon as I stood, I staggered. Kai immediately raced to my side to support me.
“So much for keeping my blood off you,” I muttered. “My chances of surviving the river were fifty-fifty before I was injured. I’m never going to make it now.”
“Do you want to stay?”
Staying would mean suicide, and right then, I knew that Kai would allow it. She would give me the chance to give up, if that was what I wanted.
Was she on the verge of giving up herself?
“I’d rather die escaping,” I told her as fiercely as my weak state would allow. “I’d rather die fighting. I deserve more, Kai. We deserve more.”
Sadness filled her eyes—the only hint of true emotion on her face. She clung to her masks so tightly that she couldn’t drop them, even with someone she trusted, like me. “You think if you survive, you’ll come back and save us,” she murmured. “But Silas has made that impossible. The death sentence on your head rips you of your credibility. You could tell the primus himself what’s really going on here, and he would believe that you were only trying to save your own skin. Once you’re out, Anya, you have to stay gone. You have to become a new person. When you leave that river, you can’t know me. You can’t know Zoe. Not ever again.”
My heart broke. I didn’t have the strength to refute her, but inwardly, I raged. I would not abandon them. I would find a way.
If I survived.
She helped me to the back of the prison and put her hand on the rock. Sweat began to dot her skin as she stared at the stone, and she whispered in an ancient language I could not begin to understand.
The language of the witches.
The rock began to crumble, but it was clear how much it took out of her as she sagged against me. We leaned on each other while she caught her breath and I tried to rein in my shock.
I hadn’t known…hadn’t realized. Though I was in on the secret that both Zoe and Kai were born of a witch father, I had thought that Kai—like Zoe—didn’t have any magic of her own. If Silas knew the truth, he would torture Kai just as he had tortured Zoe back when she was a teenager, attempting to force her to manifest magic. The latent genes were the only reason he’d allowed Zoe to stay in the pack. His hatred of witches was so strong that he wouldn’t hesitate to turn against the wife who was the target of his obsession if he had any inkling about what she could do—what she was.
A million questions ran through my mind, but I didn’t have any time to ask them. We slipped through the small opening, and she turned and placed her hand on the rock again. Incredibly, the stones bent to her will, rising from the ground and fitting themselves perfectly back in the opening.
“You’ll have to burn your clothes,” I reminded her. “And shower immediately. Scrub three times.”
“Don’t worry about me. Silas will never know.” Reaching into her pocket, she pulled out a vial. “Drink this. It’ll hide your scent for a few hours. Long enough to get you to safety.”
The dark green sludge hardly looked appetizing, but I didn’t question it. I had proof enough that it worked, given all the times Zoe had used it to slip in and out of the territory to help smuggle things in when needed. I didn’t know who her supplier was, and the only time I asked, Zoe told me to never ask again.
Kai took one as well but a smaller dose. “I can’t have Silas wondering why I don’t smell,” she explained. “I told him I was spending the night hunting. He thinks the smell of blood activates my wolf.”
Under the cover of darkness, we limped to one of the small buildings that dotted the area. There were showers and changing stations all over the territory. As fast as I could, I stripped off the bloody clothes, and Kai helped me in the shower. “Do as much as you can on your own while I get rid of the clothes.”
What she planned to do with them, I couldn’t imagine. The guards would notice smoke from a small fire and there wasn’t time to adequately bury them. Still, I didn’t question her as I tried to wash as much of the blood away as possible. With her magic, who know what she could do?
The wound on my neck had already healed, thanks to my wolf. She shimmered to the surface, desperate to come out and help, but I wouldn’t let her. If I shifted, no amount of potion would hide my scent.
When Kai returned, she was in jeans, a tee shirt, and tennis shoes, and she carried two packs. The set of dark clothes in her hand were for me, and she helped me dress. “The pack has food, toiletries and a change of clothes. It should last you for a few days. Zoe has an extra vial to give you. The guard change is in an hour. Timing will be tight.”
I heard what she was saying. I needed to move my ass.
Closing my eyes, I took a deep breath and connected with my wolf. I couldn’t let her out, couldn’t let her fight, but I could draw on her strength.
She fed it me with no hesitation.
I opened my eyes. The wind rustled, carrying sounds and scents from a mile away that were days old. I picked up on them and nodded.
We moved as one, silently creeping along and avoiding the light of the moon. We paused at the slightest indication that another shifter was near and changed course. The zig-zag motion was frustrating, and it made what should have been a twenty-minute walk take nearly three times as long. With only moments to spare before the guard change, we waited behind a thicket of trees.
Two guards patrolled the rivers edged above the hills. After a moment, they disappeared. A bird call sang through the night, and Kai tugged on me. We didn’t dare speak until we were closer to the river. A figure stepped out among large boulders lining the river.
“The night guards are lazy,” Kai muttered. “They always leave early. This is where I say goodbye. Live, Anya. For me. For all of us.”
After a hug that was far too short, she turned and raced back to the trees.
I was never going to see her again.
“Mourn later,” Zoe said, her own voice breaking—but only for a moment. When she spoke again, she sounded strong and determined. “We have to go. Put your pack in here.”
She handed me a water-tight bag and while I shoved my things inside, she placed a hand on my neck and growled at the evidence of my injury. It had healed, but the scar would still remain.
I sealed the bag just as voice filtered over the hills.
Our time was up.
“Ride on your back,” Zoe instructed. “Face up. Feet down stream. Come up for air only when you need to and do not let go of my hand.”
We’d grown up together. We’d held hands on our foray out into the woods before we shifted for the first time. We’d held hands when my mother died and my father wasted away to join her. We’d held hands before her first date ever and again when he broke up with her.
We’d held hands the night before my mating ceremony and so many other nights when I’d raced to her to escape, just for a little while.
And now, we’d be holding hands as we jumped to what would probably be our deaths.
I looked at her, but there was no time to say anything. No time for me to tell her how much I loved her.
So I intertwined my fingers with her, and we jumped.
Night faded into dawn as the sun’s rays began to peak over the hills. I sniffed the small nook I’d found and dug at the moss. My wolf was tired but exhilarated after the fast-paced run. With a sigh, I sat and nosed at the special pack fastened around my belly. With my teeth, I found the catch and released it. Normally, I’d give my wolf a few minutes to relax before the change, but I was already late.
Closing my eyes, I called on the shift.
I endured the cracking and shifting of bones, the prickly sensation of the receding fur, and the tingling of my skin. It was more painful than usual, given my exhaustion, but at least it didn’t take long. Several minutes later, I panted on all fours, fully human on the outside.
I opened my pack and changed clothes, on alert for the woman I had come here to meet. I had no idea what the hell Zoe wanted, but the life debt had to be paid, no questions asked.
Even if I really wanted to know why the hell I had to agree to meet her on two feet rather than four.
Zipping up my jeans, my head snapped around at the familiar voice. Zoe jumped down from one of the trees with another female. The hairs on the back of my neck rose and my nostrils flared at the wrongness of their smell—or rather, the lack of it. “You have no scent.”
“For the moment.”
At the sassy retort, I growled and unleashed just a little of my power. Zoe curled her lip. She was dominant in nature and didn’t like to back down…but her defiance couldn’t hold up against an alpha. She didn’t belong to me. If anything, I belonged to her, but I still had far more power, and her wolf would never have a choice but surrender to me. She eventually bowed her head and averted her eyes.
The woman next to her trembled.
“My apologies, but we don’t have a lot of time,” Zoe said. “Do you want me on my knees, or do you think we can dispense with the formalities and get on with our chat?”
Since she wasn’t one of my pack, there didn’t seem to be much point in laying down the law. I pulled my power back just a little and buttoned my jeans. “It’s been a long time, Zoe. I’m pissed that you wouldn’t let me bring Miles.”
“I don’t have time, and Miles…Miles takes time.” Her voice trembled just a little, the only indication that she was affected by the mate she left behind. My second, my best friend.
“Fine. To be clear, this wipes the slate clean. I will owe you nothing else after this.”
“You say that like I’ve asked hundreds of favors from you. This is all I’ve asked,” she said with a touch of irritation.
I paused, my gaze landing on the stranger again. There was something odd about her. Unlike Zoe, she was no heart-stopping beauty. The woman’s dark hair hung in frizzy waves down her back and dirt streaked her narrow angular face. She was petite, barely skimming over five feet.
Her gaze had yet to meet mine, and I couldn’t help noticing the way she’d folded herself up, trying to make herself smaller.
Her gaze darted around, looking at everything but me, but I finally caught a glimpse at them—enough to see that they were large and a sparkling grey.
Was her wolf that close to her skin? I focused but couldn’t sense the wolf at all. What the hell had Zoe done to them?
“Fair enough. What do you need?” A guard for safe transportation, no doubt. Zoe was an amazing hunter, but even with hiding her scent, she’d never get through unmarked territory unscathed with another female.
“This is…Blair,” Zoe said carefully, averting her eyes.
My attention snapped toward her. She’d just lied. But why?
“She needs a new home, a new pack, and protection. You, Hayden, Alpha of the Ferrinwyn Mountain pack, are charged with her safety. Her life for the life I have already saved.”
“Zoe!” The stranger hissed. “Don’t you dare!”
The single bond that threaded between Zoe and I, the pledge of loyalty I made on the day that she saved my life, tugged at me, and I bared my teeth. When Zoe saved my life, I was not yet an alpha. She was asking me to risk the safety of the pack under my charge to shield and shelter this woman I knew nothing about.
Even more odd, the stranger seemed to have no idea that this was what Zoe had planned to ask.
“One moment,” Zoe said coolly before she gripped Blair’s arm and dragged her to the river. Obviously, they hoped the rushing water of the river would drown out their words, but a few sentences drifted toward me.
“I won’t pledge myself to another alpha. I won’t!”
“You wouldn’t survive as a rogue.”
They argued some more, and I closed my eyes and focused on my wolf. He rose to the surface, and I opened myself up to him. I expected him to advise me to refuse Zoe—to put the safety of our people first. To my surprise, my wolf called on me to grant this favor.
I sensed them climbing back up and opened my eyes.
“What do you say, Hayden?” Zoe asked. Her tone was hard, almost defiant, but I saw the pleading in her eyes. Whoever this woman was, she was deeply important to Zoe.
I watched Blair closely. Her cheeks had flushed a little, the first hint of color I’d seen her oddly pale face. “Why does she need protection? Do not lie to me.”
“She’s my best friend, Hayden,” Zoe said softly. Then, she took a deep breath. “She’s wanted for the murder of her husband. Silas has sentenced her to death.”
Shock ricocheted through me, and I growled as I stared at Blair. Murder between mates was unheard of. It was the darkest of betrayals. I would be damned if I brought that kind of evil into my pack. Into my home.
Only the desperation in Zoe’s eyes stopped me from giving them a flat no.
Blair met my gaze for the first time, and my gut twisted. Her wolf’s power was right there, right at her fingertips, and the dominance I witnessed there was staggering. Looking at her, I let my own power rise so she could see the question in my eyes.
“You want to know if I did it,” she rasped, her voice hoarse. Her body was weak, but there was spirit there. I braced myself for a challenge to spill from her lips, but the power died down right before my eyes even as her gaze never left mine.
Fuck, but she had beautiful control over her wolf. Who the hell was this stranger?
“I could tell you no, but you know nothing about me. Maybe it’s the truth, or maybe I’m just worried you will kill me where I stand if I say yes.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Zoe cut in. “Repaying this debt is not contingent on her innocence.”
The thread pulled between us once again. It was an annoyance, and one that I wanted to see severed. Short of death, though, fulfilling her request was the only way to get rid of it.
I knew almost nothing about Mahowlin pack or Silas, its alpha. Miles, determined to get his mate back, had tried to travel there several times, but Zoe had always deterred him, insisting it wasn’t safe, that Silas would declare war on the slightest provocation. Unless his pack threatened mine, it never seemed worth the risk.
Taking on someone he had marked for death was a massive provocation.
“He can’t track us,” Zoe said. It was not the first time I’d wondered if she could read minds. “I’ve taken precautions to make sure you’ll have enough time to get back to your pack, even in human form. I don’t know if she’ll have the strength to shift for the next couple of days.”
Just how long had she been Silas’s prisoner? Or did murdering her husband sap her of all her strength? “My pack is going to question why I’ve returned with a stranger.”
“They won’t expect that she’s come from another pack. As you can tell, the bond between her and Silas is already severed. He severed it himself when he announced her execution.”
That made sense. That way he wouldn’t feel her death.
Blair turned her head and stared out at the river. I watched as the breeze picked up her hair. Her wolf was back on the surface, leaking power. Did she realize it?
Zoe was right about one thing. If the rogues sense her power, they would hunt her down in droves. As powerful as she was, she would not survive on her own. It wouldn’t be long before she was captured. Beaten. Forced to bend to their will. They’d fight over her until there was nothing left, and it would happen fast.
With a snarl, I crossed over to her, called to my wolf, and let my fangs grow. Her fear rose, but instead of trying to run, she froze and squeezed her eyes shut. Taking her palm, I placed a soft kiss to it before ripping the skin open. Blood welled up to the surface.
I slashed my own palm as well and paced it over hers. There was no way that Blair was her real name, and I wasn’t even certain the ritual would work without it, but I tried to speak directly to the wolf.
“I am Hayden, Alpha of the Farynwind Mountain Wolf pack. Do you swear your loyalty to me and mine, to act in favor of me and mine?”
She shuddered, and her gaze locked onto mine. As our blood mixed and our power intertwined, I felt her weighing her certain death against the risk of bonding with me.
“Pull it together, Hayden, before your fucking power calls out all the rogues,” Zoe snapped.
I ignored her, all my focus on the ritual.“For your loyalty, I bind us. Mine to protect and yours to serve.”
The ritual complete, I felt the invisible threads reach out to her, binding us together. Hot power seared me as I felt the reaction of my pack, hundreds of miles away. Their bonds reached her as well, and Blair opened her mouth and screamed.
When I released her, her eyes closed, and I just managed to catch her before she dropped to the ground.
I looked up at Zoe. The thread between us dimmed and diminished into nothing. “She’s yours now,” Zoe said in both relief and sorrow. “Our deal is done.”
“If mine suffer because of this…”
Zoe’s eyes glowed purple. “There will be suffering,” she whispered. “I see it in my dreams. Your mountain will never be the same, but should she die, a darkness like you have never known will descend upon you.”
What the fuck.
Her eyes snapped back to normal, and she shook her head. “She’s lost a lot of blood recently. Her shift will be slow and painful until she regains strength. When she awakens, tell her I love her.”
Zoe turned and waded back in the shallow end of the water, following it around the bend until I could no longer see her.
I turned back to Blair’s unconscious form. Had I known that Zoe was a witch, I never would have made the deal, but it was too late now.
I fed my strength through my bond to Blair and willed her awake.
Hayden barely spoke a word the first few hours that we traveled. I was still struggling with the amount of power coursing through me. Silas had been the most powerful wolf I’d ever met, but his power didn’t taste anything like Hayden’s. Silas’s bond inside me had constantly felt frayed, ragged, and stretched thin. The bond had tugged frequently, like Silas was testing it.
Or tormenting me.
Hayden’s bond, on the other hand, was smooth and bright. It was impossible to ignore and didn’t sap any of my strength.
In fact, without it, I wouldn’t have made it as long as we were able to go without having to rest. The sun was starting to set before Hayden finally stopped. It was obvious that he was annoyed at having to walk in human form, but my wolf was buried deep within me, and she didn’t appear when I called.
I didn’t have the energy to try to call her twice.
He was tense, and it was easy to see why. There were plenty of obvious signs that we were not the only wolves nearby.
My nostrils flared, but I never detected anyone close. I couldn’t even be sure whether the wolves were natural or rogue shifters. If they were rogue, they might flee and hide after sensing Hayden’s power…or they might challenge him.
I tried to summon the same kind of fear, but all I could feel was the bond. It was almost euphoric and left me a little dizzy. When he finally spoke to me, it took me several moments before I realized that he was talking.
And saying my new name.
I wish Zoe had told me what she’d planned to do. Then I could have practiced getting used to the name.
“Sorry,” I muttered. “What was that?”
“Food,” he said shortly. “There’s a cave nearby. We’ll stay there tonight. Will you be able to shift by morning?”
I sought out my wolf. “Dinner might help. And rest. For now, she seems to be slumbering. She’s never been so out of reach before.” It left me a little disjointed. Even when I was so beaten down that I didn’t think I could go on, she was always there for me.
“Zoe said you lost blood. You might have pulled too much strength from her. It happens.”
That wasn’t it, but I didn’t want to say what I was really feeling from my wolf.
It was a feeling that she hadn’t felt in a long time, but with Hayden’s bond running through me, she finally felt safe and content enough to sleep so deeply that I couldn’t even reach her.
He sat on a fallen tree trunk and opened his pack. Slowly, I sat next to him as he handed me an energy bar. “I wasn’t expecting to bring someone back with me,” he said wryly.
“This is fine. I didn’t mean to use up your supplies. I had some food with me, but the pack wasn’t as airtight as we’d hoped. You can shift and hunt, if you want.”
“I’m not leaving you.”
I jerked at his words. Atticus often said something similar, but Hayden’s words weren’t menacing or threatening. He spoke them more like he was stating a fact. I wanted to rebel, to tell him that I wasn’t his responsibility, but that wasn’t exactly true, was it? Zoe had made me his responsibility, had even called in a debt to guarantee it. Even without questioning him, I knew that he wasn’t the type to abandon a promise.
“I’ll try to shift,” I offered. “I can go with you. I haven’t hunted in quite some time, but I can stay still and quiet.”
Hayden grimaced and glanced at the darkening sky. “It’s a full moon tonight. The wolves will be wilder. I’d rather stick close to the river.”
We ate in silence, and I studied him. When we were walking, he’d always stayed no more than a few steps ahead of me, and I’d spent most of that time staring at his back and ass.
And making comparisons.
He was as tall as Atticus and just as built, but that wasn’t surprising. Shifters in general tended to be in excellent shape. Shifting between animal and human burned a lot of calories, keeping shifters from getting pudgy, and running in the wolf’s form built strong muscles. He was tan, the kind of man who stayed out in the sun. Also not surprising—and not dissimilar from Atticus.
But Atticus had been fair whereas Hayden was dark. Dark hair that brushed wildly along his shoulders. Dark eyes that missed almost nothing. A strong straight nose and sculpted cheekbones with a square jaw. He wasn’t exactly beautiful. A scar ran down his right cheek ruining what might have been classic beauty, but he was striking to look at.
And I looked.
“You might as well tell me your real name,” he said suddenly. “And the rest of your story. Otherwise, I’ll have to find out for myself.”
“Why bother? It doesn’t change the promise that you’ve made to Zoe.”
He growled, just a little, and I froze. It wasn’t until a growl answered him in the dusk that I realized he was not growling at me.
“We are passing through,” he said, pulsing power in his voice. “We mean no trouble, but I will defend us if I have to.”
Panicked, I called to my wolf. I would be dinner if I couldn’t shift when the wolves attacked.
She awoke and roared to life, filling me right to my skin, readying for a shift. My senses sharpened and my skin prickled. It had been so long since I felt her full spectrum of power, that I threw my head back and howled just as the moon started to rise over the tree line on the other side of the river.
“Blair,” Hayden said tersely. “The wolf is leaving. Do not shift.”
Pleasure rushed through me at the feel of the wolf so very close to coming out, but I managed to stop before I shifted. Exhaling, I turned to him, and when our gaze locked, a whole different feeling flooded me.
The moonlight hit us. Full, bright, and powerful. Heat blazed along my skin in a way I’d never felt before. My heart stopped, and the wolf in me howled. The howl was answered by the man in front in me, and his jaw dropped. I did my best to resist, to shut it down before it gripped me, but there was no stopping it.
The ritual, called forth by the moon herself, had already begun.
The mating bond snapped into place.