The Earth opened before her with a blood-curdling scream. Day turned to night.
There was no escape.
Mere feet in front of her, an unearthly red-orange light burst from that wide, gaping hole. Still the Earth screamed. Tied to a stake at the edge of that abyss, she could do nothing but watch. And tremble.
She was not alone and, oh, if only she were. Because one of the other four tied around that gaping maw with her was her brother, Xavier. All her life, she’d watched over him. Now she could do nothing to help either of them. And they were surely going to die.
Around them, half a dozen large, muscular males—half of them clothed, half naked, ran, shouting, drawing blades, as a second group of men descended on the circle and drew them into battle.
As steel clanged, one of the naked men disappeared suddenly in a spray of sparkling lights to be replaced by a large, maned African lion. Another lunged at one of his attackers and, in a similar spray of light, turned into a huge wolf.
Thunder rolled across the sky.
A horrible stench met her nose. Fire tore down her cheek as if one of the warriors had turned his blade on her, but there was no one close.
And then suddenly there was.
She cried out in pain and shock, staring at the monster that stood…that floated…in front of her—more hideous than anything she’d ever imagined. He was the size of a man, black hair floating around his head as if each lock were alive, gleaming in the unholy red-orange light. A black cloak hung around his indistinct body. And his face…his face… Features hung at odd angles, his flesh like melted wax, wicked fangs protruding unevenly from a slash of a mouth.
She froze with terror, her heart pounding out of her chest, as his hand…his claw…lifted, red with her blood.
Natalie Cash woke with a start, her heart pounding, her body damp with sweat. An early dawn glow lit the window shades of her bedroom and she blinked, trying to catch her breath from the nightmare that even now scampered back into the shadows of her mind, leaving behind only wisps of horror and fantasy—a man shifting into a wolf, a terror too awful to remember.
With unsteady hands, she raked her hair back from her face.
A hell of a way to start the day.
Xavier had been in the dream, she was almost certain, though in what capacity she had no recollection, now. Every night was the same—the nightmares that slipped away upon waking. They’d been plaguing her ever since the incident, the week of her life that had vanished six weeks ago, leaving three of her friends dead and her brother missing.
The cops didn’t have a single lead.
Easing from the bed quietly, so as not to wake Rick, she padded to the bathroom down the hall, then to the kitchen for a cup of hazelnut coffee. Mug in hand, she let herself out through the glass sliding door onto her deck. A pleasant breeze brushed her cheek as she settled onto her favorite cushioned chair and soaked in the beauty of the woods behind her house drenched in the light of dawn.
As the sky slowly lightened, as the birds woke and began to sing, she sipped the fragrant brew and slowly found the equilibrium that was usually such a natural part of her. Before six weeks ago, she’d felt settled and satisfied, her life on track, everything falling into place. Her optometry practice, a year old now, was thriving—she had a full patient load and she loved it, especially working with the kids. Her mom was thrilled that she was out of college and back in town. And she was engaged to marry Rick, her longtime boyfriend and best friend.
Everything had changed in a single day—the day two of her best friends from high school suggested a day trip to Harpers Ferry. Rick had made plans to help his dad, and since one of her friends had invited her own younger brother and his girlfriend, Christy, Natalie had brought Xavier.
Her stomach clenched with the grinding, constant yearning to go back in time and change that decision. If only she hadn’t invited him. If only they’d chosen the outlet mall in Leesburg that day instead.
The morning had been pleasant as they’d traipsed about the quaint, historic town. And then her memories just blanked out. A week later, she and Christy had awakened in a field nearby with no memory of the time between. The bodies of three of their companions had been recovered that first afternoon. Except for Xavier’s. He was still missing.
And her life had careened off the rails.
Taking a small sip of the hot brew, breathing in the hazelnut and warm coffee scents, she tipped her head back and watched the pink clouds amble slowly across the dawn sky.
Somewhere, somehow, Xavier still lived, she was sure of it. She’d awakened in that field to find a quarter-sized circle on her palm, drawn in pen. A circle with a small curve in the middle—a smiley-face without the eyes—one of her blind brother’s favorites. She felt certain Xavier had put it there, a message that he was okay. But where was he? Where had she been? And why hadn’t he come home, too?
As the weeks passed, her fear grew that she might never see him again.
She had no choice but to carry on. But that missing week haunted her. Grief at the losses she’d suffered had settled like a fist beneath her breastbone, an ache that throbbed constantly, refusing to abate.
Natalie took another sip of coffee, envying the clouds that floated free of the cares of the world.
A low sound caught her ear and she straightened. A movement in the trees caught her eye and her heart lifted on a thrill of pleasure as the huge wolf who’d visited her a few weeks ago, bounded into view. He was a magnificent animal, easily the size of a bear, with a thick coat—variegated black and gray—on his back and head, sable on his legs and belly. He wasn’t really a wolf, of course, though he might have some wolf blood. He was too friendly. At least, he had been the last time he came by.
She watched him carefully, her more primitive instincts urging her to retreat to the house, just to play it safe. But as he crossed her yard, as she peered into that beautiful, intelligent face, she once again felt no fear. Exhilaration, yes. And awe. But not fear, not when those golden eyes of his radiated a warm, joyous welcome.
She smiled, his arrival lifting her heart and easing the burden from her shoulders, holding it aloft for a few precious moments. Setting her mug on the table beside her, she turned to him as he leaped up the few steps to the deck with a grace that belied his size.
At the top of the deck stairs, he stopped, gazing at her like a human might, rather than rushing forward like a dog. Still, unbridled pleasure filled his eyes, a pleasure that burst in her chest with utter delight. Grinning, Natalie held out her hand.
“I’m so glad to see you,” she said quietly, not wanting to wake Rick or the neighbors.
The dog’s hesitation lasted all of two seconds more before he strode forward, sliding his massive head between her waiting hands. How was it possible she’d missed him so profoundly when she’d only met him once before? Yet that’s exactly how she felt.
Stroking the thick, soft fur on the sides of his neck, emotion welled up inside of her, a strange mix of grief and sorrow, and peace. As if the sheer power of his soul tore away the protective defenses she’d been struggling to build around her grief, then lifted the grief itself, helping her to carry it.
A fanciful notion. And yet stroking his fur, gazing into those intelligent eyes, she felt as if she’d somehow grabbed hold of the anchor she’d been struggling so unsuccessfully to find. She’d always heard that pets had an amazing ability to ground and calm humans, but she’d never expected to feel such a visceral reaction to an animal she barely knew.
“I needed your visit, today,” she said quietly. “I already feel better. Lighter. Stronger.”
If possible, the look in those golden eyes, grew even warmer.
“Who are you? You don’t wear a collar or dog tag, yet you can’t be wild, can you? You’re far too comfortable with humans.” She ran her fingers between his forelegs, scratching his chest. “Whatever your situation, you’re certainly thriving. Look at you. You’re well fed. Truly gorgeous.”
While she stroked his head with one hand, Natalie sipped her coffee with the other, marveling that what she’d told him was true. She felt one hundred percent more capable of handling the day than she had when she’d first awakened. She felt almost calm again.
Or she did until the big animal stiffened, suddenly, and leaped to his feet. Hackles rising, he turned toward her back door, a low deadly growl rumbling from his throat.
Wulfe smelled the male before he saw him through the screen door. The fiancé.
Instinct, or maybe jealousy, had him growling.
“For god’s sakes, Natalie,” the man exclaimed. “He’s a wolf!”
Natalie’s soft hand slid through the fur on Wulfe’s neck. If he were a cat, he’d be purring. Deep inside, the wolf animal spirit that had marked him howled with pleasure.
“He’s a dog and a friend. He won’t hurt me, Rick.”
Hell no, he wouldn’t hurt her. He’d kill anyone who tried to hurt her. He’d just come to check on her, to make sure she was okay after all she’d gone through in Harpers Ferry. Xavier worried about her. They both did.
His gaze shifted back to the man behind the screen door. The prick just stood there, making no move whatsoever to protect his female. And, okay, that wasn’t entirely fair since Wulfe had made it more than clear he wouldn’t hurt the female. And more than clear he didn’t like the male. It wasn’t that he didn’t like him. He just didn’t like that, standing there in nothing but boxers, he’d almost certainly come from Natalie’s bed.
“Natalie, please. Come inside? You said you didn’t want to talk about it last night, but we need to. I feel like I’m losing you.”
Wulfe felt Natalie’s tension through her hands and it was all he could do not to growl at the fiancé again, because he really, really wanted the man to go away and let him enjoy these few minutes with Natalie. He loved having her hands on him, even if it was just in his furred state. Only in his dreams was he free to touch her back.
Not only was she engaged to the prick, but Wulfe would scare her half to death if he revealed his human face. So he’d take what he could.
It was so good to see her again, to smell her sweet scent and to drown, even for a few moments, in those calm gray eyes. She was so lovely, the morning sun turning her hair a bright gold, bathing her entire body in rich color. Even with his wolf’s far less color-sensitive eyesight, he could see the sun’s light creating the illusion of an aura—gold, blue, and green.
“Nat, I understand you’ve been through hell. I know you’re grieving for your brother and your friends. I’m trying to be here for you, but you’re shutting me out.”
Still she didn’t answer, but Wulfe had a front row view of her expression and he saw the sorrow in her eyes. The sadness. And his heart gave a painful squeeze.
Finally, with a sigh, Natalie rose. “Go home, boy.”
Instead, he sat, staking a claim, though on what…or who…he wasn’t sure. Natalie was not his.
With a wry smile, Natalie stroked his head, then brushed past him and walked inside, closing the screen door. As Wulfe watched, she pressed her palms to the other man’s face, filling Wulfe with a sharp, piercing jealousy.
“I love you, Rick. I just need time.”
“You’re different, Nat.”
Mentally, Wulfe blinked. She was different. And not in the way her fiancé meant. That sunrise glow—the gold, green, and blue aura—had followed her inside. Even out of the sunshine it clung to her flesh, bright against the dark shadows of her living room.
What the hell?
Natalie dropped her gaze to the other man’s bare chest. “Rick…” She shook her head. “You’d be different, too, if you’d lost days, and friends. If your brother was missing.” She looked up, meeting the man’s gaze. “I have dreams…the most terrifying dreams. Sometimes I think I’m beginning to remember some of it, but the things I remember…aren’t possible.”
Wulfe gave a loud mental groan. The last thing they needed was for Natalie Cash to remember seeing shape-shifters and wraith Daemons and the inside of Feral House. Not that she’d be able to find it. Probably. And not that anyone else would believe her. Still…
“Nat, if you remember something, you have to tell the cops.”
“They’re just dreams, Rick.”
The man ran a frustrated hand through his hair, mussing it even more, then held out that hand to her. “Come back to bed, Natalie.”
For a moment, Wulfe thought she’d say no. Instead, she turned back to the screen door, to him, that odd aura clinging to her. “Go home, boy.”
Was he really seeing something, or were the changes that had been coming over him of late affecting his vision, now, too? Maybe it was just his wolf’s eyesight that was affected. But he couldn’t very well shift to human form to check. Not when he’d had to leave his clothes in his truck on the other side of the woods.
With a growl of frustration, he leaped off the deck and headed back into the trees. Natalie’s odd glow was probably just a factor of his own vision—either a side-effect of the Ferals’ endangered immortality, or the Daemon blood within his own heritage that had begun to stir to life.
But his gut gnawed at him, the possibility raising its head that she really was glowing. That perhaps she’d been changed in some way by the Daemon who’d attacked her six weeks ago. He needed to get someone out here to take a look at her without alarming anyone. Because if Natalie Cash had been changed, and the humans started to see it, she could endanger the anonymity of the immortal races. Which could endanger her life.
Hell. She didn’t deserve this.
Leaping over a rotting log, he ran through the woods, his wolf’s paws quick and sure. The forest scents played in his senses, the smell of moss and leaves, of rabbit and spring dawn, pleasing the animal. But his mind remained firmly on Natalie.
He’d first met her on that field of battle where the evil Mage had captured her and her friends to use as Daemon bait. He’d noticed her because she was pretty, but also because her stoicism in the face of such horror had drawn his respect. In the end, only three of the six humans had survived and the Ferals had taken them back to Feral house and locked them up until they could steal their memories of all they’d seen. They’d only succeeded with the two women, and had subsequently sent them home. But Xavier was blind and memories were stolen through the eyes. He could never go home again. And Natalie could never know her brother remained alive. No one could.
Her grief made Wulfe ache.
Clearing the woods on the other side, he loped down the hillside to the deserted warehouse outside Frederick, Maryland where he’d parked his truck. Sending his wolf’s senses outward, he reassured himself no humans lurked about, then shifted, calling on the power of the animal spirit that lived within him to change back into a man in a rush of joy and sparkling colored lights. The June morning was warm, the birds twittering in the trees above as the sun slowly rose in the east.
As he rounded the cab to fetch his clothes out of the open bed, he caught a glimpse of himself in the window—the crooked nose set amongst nearly two dozen scars, one of which slashed across his mouth, tugging his lip downward, giving him the appearance of a perpetual scowl. His was a face that made women scream, a face that sent children running into the night.
With a sigh, he tugged on his jeans. He hadn’t always been this way, of course. Centuries ago, in his youth, women had sighed over his beauty, claiming him the most handsome of males. At seven feet tall, he’d towered over his competition in every way. Despite that, he’d never thought himself vain or arrogant, which in hindsight had probably been the height of conceit. The fates had punished him for his hubris. In a single day he’d lost it all—his looks, the admiration of his peers, his self-respect. The goddess had, in her terrible wisdom, declared his soul flawed, then marked him so that everyone would know it. Marks he’d carried for centuries now, and would for the rest of his immortal life.
He shrugged into his tee shirt, then pulled on his boots. At least the wolf animal spirit hadn’t found him lacking. Three years after the scarring, the sole wolf shifter had died and he’d been marked to be the next. It was said that the animal spirit always chose the individual it considered to be the strongest and most honorable among those of the Therian race that still possessed wolf-shifter DNA. So Wulfe had learned to give thanks for the goddess’s painful lesson. He’d been taught a terribly humility, then been rewarded for embracing it.
The lesson had been a steep price to pay, but he’d pay it again a hundred times over if it meant remaining a Feral Warrior, one of only a handful of shape-shifters left in the world. At the moment the Ferals were all that stood between the races of the Earth, both immortal and human, and destruction by the Daemons, if the soulless Mage succeeded in freeing the fiends, as they were determined to do.
Wulfe dug his keys out of the pocket of his jeans and let himself into the cab.
If only he could keep Natalie safely out of this war. But the way she was glowing…
He shook his head, his heart heavy as he started the truck and headed home to Feral House.
Natalie Cash wasn’t safe at all.
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End of Excerpt
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