Shayna Andrews’s paws pounded against the earth as she ran through the forest of the Smokey Mountains. Her heart thumped behind her ribs, and the cool air of early spring blew through her fur. She’d have to stop soon to catch her breath, but she didn’t care. Never in her twenty-five years of life had she felt so free. And she was free.
For the moment.
It’d been about an hour since she’d left home to run off her anger from the heated argument she’d had with her father. When was he ever going realize that she was a grown woman, strong and capable of making decisions for herself? Sadly, she didn’t think he’d ever let her have the independence she desperately craved.
So, with her emotions running high, her anger at his stubborn ‘father knows best’ attitude pushed her to run, even if it was just for an hour or so.
Now that she’d calmed a bit, she did find it odd that neither her brothers nor her father had come searching for her, with their worry and anger leading their way. Could they be allowing her the independence she deserved?
She slowed to a walk and scanned the area. This part of the woods was farther than she’d ever gone before. The forest grew thick with large trees and underbrush, while the smell of melting snow and earth wrapped around her. She inhaled deeply, relishing the natural world around her.
She was still within Ashwood territory, but several miles outside of the town she’d called home since she was two; the home in which she had always felt like a prisoner.
Sure, she was loved whole-heartedly by her adopted family and both Packs that made up Ashwood Falls, but they suffocated her.
Since the rogue attack on Jared, the town’s legal counsel and close friend to her family, a couple of months before, her father—leopard Pack Alpha—had put everyone on alert. The attack itself wasn’t what had scared the shit out of everyone. No, it was the fact that the mutants, half-human, half-animal rogue assassins, had gotten past the wards undetected and ripped out Jared’s throat—something that was almost impossible for such a strong shifter. Jared had challenged Nevan, the leopard Healer’s new mate, to a Hunt. Shay knew it was to test Nevan’s strength, but she also believed Jared challenged him to see if he’d be a good mate to a leopard. Not just any leopard. Their Healer. The most loved and protected Pack member besides the princess.
Until that night, Shay never considered the true dangers of the enemy, and the lengths they would go to weaken the Ashwood Pack.
The Pack members’ sense of safety had started to crumble. No one was to leave the area without an escort. That was nothing new to Shay. She always had an enforcer nearby.
But, not today.
Giddy at her escape, she shifted to her human form, her jeans and light sweater covering her body at the same time thanks to her pinky ring, which had been a gift from her father after her first shift.
The ring was made up of a small, flat, blue opal set in silver. It was enchanted to hold her clothes while she shifted. All she had to do was think a small invocation at the same time she called her tiger and her clothes dissolved inside the stone. Somehow, the magick in the ring was in tune to her aura because the moment she changed back to human form her clothes reappeared.
She inhaled, drawing in the crisp mountain air. It was mid-March, and even though the full effects of spring were another month away, the forest already held the signs of new life. Snow was starting to melt in some places, and the trees were starting to bud. Even the air held notes of new life—the earth, trees, and the hint of floral no longer incased in ice.
A snap of a twig in the distance put her tiger on alert. Her heart thumped wildly in her chest. She sniffed the air and picked up on a musk and rosemary scent that was unfamiliar to her. Fear burned through her veins, and she started to head back to town, wishing for once that her brothers were lurking nearby.
Okay, Shay, you’re being a baby.
Closing her eyes, she calmed herself and recalled all the brutal training Blaine and Alec had put her through over the years. The hand-to-hand training was a precaution in case Ashwood Falls was attacked. Father had scowled at the bruises and cuts on her when they returned home, but her brothers brushed it off. In their defense, they claimed she needed to be trained like a soldier.
Blaine and Alec not only taught her how to fight, they taught her to draw strength from the elements around her because they believed she possessed witch’s blood.
It was true she could perform simple spells and make potions from herbs, but that was the extent of her so-called magickal abilities. However, she’d learned to connect with the earth and air around her. That connection allowed her to sense danger, like now.
Whoever, or whatever, was out there was closing in fast. She felt the eerie caress of danger against her aura. It made her tiger growl. This was so not good.
Please be an animal of some kind and not the rogue mutant kind.
She jogged ahead, not taking any chance in the event rogues had trespassed on Ashwood territory again. They’d ripped a whole through Jared’s throat, and he was a very strong alpha male. She didn’t want to hang out to see what they would do to her, a lone female, who despite all she wished, wasn’t as strong as she wanted to be.
Footfalls edged closer, putting her tiger on full alert. She ran faster. Several yards ahead, a man stepped into her path. She skidded to a halt and realized he wasn’t a man, but a mutant—half-wolf, half-man—and abomination. The rancid smell of spoiled meat lingered behind the vague scent of rosemary and another smell she wasn’t familiar reached out to her thick and oily-like. His long, sharp claws extended from his fingertips, and his fangs elongated until they reached his chin. His eyes were the deepest brown she’d ever seen, almost black, matching his dark fur.
Wolf-man took a step forward, and Shay moved with him, backing up until she hit a solid wall of muscle. Hot fear burned in her belly and spread to her chest as a pair of clawed hands wrapped around her biceps. She sensed others lurking nearby, but she didn’t want to take her gaze from the mutant in front of her. A male in human form stepped into view and stood shoulder-to-shoulder with the mutant in front of her.
Her heart raced as she struggled to push down the bile that rose in her throat. By their dilated pupils, she guessed they were on some kind of drug.
So not good.
She jerked, trying to break the male’s grip. He laughed and tightened his hold, making his claws sink into her skin. She bit back the sharp pain, refusing to show them any weakness. When the male’s lips touched her cheek, she winced and tried not to be sick.
“Look what we have here, boys.”
The rancid smell of his breath intensified her nausea. She jerked side to side again, trying to break his hold, his claws tearing into her skin that much deeper. He didn’t budge. The burning fear turned to ice in her veins as she stared at two males stalking toward her with a lusty hunger in their eyes.
Death wouldn’t come quick enough if she couldn’t get away.
Wolf-man tilted his head to the side and snarled to make his elongated fangs appear longer under the moonlight. “She sure is a pretty kitty. And I bet she’d be fun to play with before we kill her.”
She had to think, outwit them somehow.
When wolf-man stopped inches from her face, her heart rate stuttered then raced as though it were trying to run away. He smiled, showing blood-stained teeth. Her dinner from an hour before threatened to reappear, and her skin moistened from sweat. She tried to kick him, but he caught her leg in his clawed hand.
Stupid, stupid, Shay.
The male holding her yanked her out of the other wolf’s grasp, pulling her hip out of place with an audible snap. She screamed as the pain shot through her, a vile agony that warred with her emotions. Tears stung her eyes. She tried to breathe through the pain, her leg practically useless.
There would be no running. Not anymore.
“You two go back to the den,” the male behind her demanded. “I’ll take care of our guest.”
They didn’t move and the human-like rogue shook his head. “You’re not having her to yourself.”
She started to shake. Adrenaline rushed through her blood, fueling the tiger’s need to fight, to hurt, to kill. Her fangs pushed through her gums, and her fingernails lengthened to claws. She reached around her and gripped the wolf’s balls, sinking her sharp nails into his flesh.
With a howl, the male pushed her away, forcing her to the ground. She managed to scramble to stand on her good leg and hobbled away from them while dragging her useless limb behind her.
But, it was no use.
She was too far from home. She couldn’t mind link with her family or the enforcers at this distance. No one would know anything until it was too late.
The male in human form suddenly tackled her to the ground. He flipped her to her back to straddle over her, putting pressure on her dislocated hip. The scream ripped from her throat and she slashed her claws down his chest. The bastard laughed and bared his teeth. She slapped his face with her lengthened nails, leaving four deep gashes across his cheek.
When he turned back to her, she gasped at the way his eyes glowed in anger. A wolf howled in the distance, freezing her blood. More were coming. She locked gazes with the wolf above her and knew he would finish her. He raised his clawed hand and swiped it across her face, then back-handed her on the other side. The scratches burned as warm blood ran down her cheek. He hit her again, harder, and all sounds and sights around her faded as she drifted into the darkness.
Blaine Andrews scowled at the section of barbwire blocking off a part of Ashwood’s property. It was the same area of the woods the Pack Healer, Danica, had been trapped in several months before. He clenched his teeth together and ground his molars.
Beside him, Cameron fidgeted with the snap on her thigh holster, a nervous gesture she did when she itched to shoot something or someone. Usually he would let it go, let her fume, but today they weren’t going into battle. They were investigating suspicious activity called in by a couple of the adolescents.
He clamped his hand over Cam’s, stilling her endless snap-unsnap of the holster. “Stop or I’ll give you something to fondle.”
She leaned into him, pressing her lips to his ear. “You promise?” she purred. He was nanoseconds away from dragging her into the forest to give her exactly what she taunted him with. Fast and hard, exactly what they both needed right now.
The clearing of a throat made him raise an eyebrow at the newest resident of Ashwood Falls, a human named Nevan Mathews, Danica’s mate and the head shrink in town. “You have problems, empathy?”
Nevan’s mouth twitched. “Nope. Just want to get back to my own mate.”
Blaine laughed then frowned as uneasiness settled in his blood. Cam stiffened beside him and he asked, “You feel that?”
Cam nodded. “Something’s not right.”
He connected telepathically with his brother, who was in town setting up surveillance cameras with Dane—one of the wolf enforcers. “Have you heard from Shay? Is she back from her run?”
“No, I haven’t seen her.”
Fuck. He knew he should have placed someone on her trail and never let her go out alone. But, damn it, she was twenty-five years old, an adult and fully capable of taking care of herself.
“Blaine, she’ll show when she cools down.”
Alec was right. Shayna had to learn to be on her own, even though their father didn’t see it that way. “I know. How are the security cameras coming?”
Alec laughed. “Great. We just caught the Russell twins sneaking around Nevan and Dani’s new place.”
“Those two are always in trouble. Go see what they’re up to.”
“We’re on it.”
Blaine dropped the link with Alec and peered at Nevan. “The twins are sneaking around your new home.” As a mating gift, Keegan was having a house built in town for the happy couple.
Nevan shook his head. “Last week they put mud in the drain pipes.”
“When do you two move in?” Cameron asked.
Blaine slid his gaze toward her at the hint of joy in her statement. Despite her dominance and ability to kick ass along with the rest of the enforcers, she loved her family and friends. And she also loved to drive him to the brink of insanity and need. What frustrated him the most was the fact that she wouldn’t complete the mating. They were mates. There was no denying it, yet she was still waiting for something. Blaine didn’t push because he, too, felt as though something was off, or missing, in their lives.
Nevan checked his watch. Blaine wasn’t sure if it was out of habit or he was meeting Dani somewhere. “In about two days. Construction is finished. Dani wants to paint the inside herself.”
Blaine cast a glance around the forest then back at the barbwire fence. “We’ll have to find a witch or two to strengthen the wards.” He fisted his hands at his sides then turned toward his truck.
He heard Nevan following him. Blaine allowed a smile to spread across his face. The human didn’t like being teleported, so Blaine had offered to drive. Stopping at the driver’s side door, he peered over at Cameron. “Call Dane to help with that.”
She waved her hand at him in a dismissing manner and ripped the fence out of the ground then proceeded to roll it up. Blaine shook his head. Damn stubborn jaguar.
Before climbing into his truck, he tensed. A female scream cut into his thoughts, and a cold sensation went up his spine the same time as a sharp pain stabbed his temple. Staggering back several feet, he swung around to find himself nose-to-nose with Cameron.
Dead fear shown in her dark gaze. “Shay. Something’s happened…”
His heart pounded fiercely behind his ribcage as he reached for Cam and tried to think.
“Blaine, man? What is it?” It didn’t surprise Blaine that Nevan could sense something was wrong. He was an empath after all.
Blaine tossed his keys to him. “Go tell Keegan that Cam and I are searching for Shay and to send backup.”
Cameron was the first to shift. Her clothes dissolved as a soft flash of white light completed the transition from woman to black jaguar. Blaine shifted into his leopard and ran beside her through the forest at supernatural speeds, following their instincts and the faint connection to his adopted sister.
He prayed like hell he found her alive.
*copyright 2013 by Lia Davis*