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The night pressed in on him like the claws of an angry beast, like the claws of the beast within him. The need to change pulsed in him like an extra heart. His skin was getting hot, and the oil preceding the change created a sheen on his skin. He fought it back. He was too near the town. His beast was too hungry. He needed a woman, preferably a companion who would welcome his needs. Taking any woman would be better than the alternative: the carnage a hungry beast could wreak.
His thoughts drifted, his mind as fevered as his body. Still, he ghosted quietly from tree to tree, instinctively maintaining cover until the wind shifted. He stopped in mid step and raised his nose: a woman. He breathed in again. A young woman.
The potential for release cleared his feverish mind. Her footsteps and her voice as she grumbled to herself teased his senses. He stayed in the darker shadow of the tree, not wanting her to run, to trigger his instinct to hunt.
The aching hunger beat with savage intensity at his body. The affirmation of his beliefs crested in his mind again and again while he waited for her to reach him: I am a Brother Wolf, a brethren, not a raver. I protect the night, and I will not be the cause of fear.
The moon was bright in the late fall sky with only wispy clouds occasionally playing tag with it, yet its light didn't penetrate through to the path in the woods. The night was not her favorite time to travel, but she wanted to get back home, to the comfort of the cottage. She walked, basket gripped in one hand while the other absently rubbed her neck. I should not feel this jumpy; this area is very safe.The border war had not touched it, and no ravers or robbers had been reported in ages.
She moved quietly, but with the speed of familiarity. She was almost home and was bone weary. To stay awake, she muttered to herself, "Bless me, so life's miracles are my business. Sometimes, I'd rather just have a good night's sleep." Her red cape of midwife and healer swirled around her in the night breeze. "And why in all the seven hells do babes choose to come at night? What is wrong with the middle of the day?"
A tall shadow moved onto the path and resolved itself into the shape of a man. Her grumbles stopped, and she froze in alarm.
"Mistress, will you shelter me tonight?"
Her heart jumped into her throat. Her mind barely registered his actual words--just that she didn't know this voice. All she could see was a very tall, wide-shouldered shadow, a stranger. She turned to run when hands grabbed hold of her arms in an unbreakable grip.
"Peace, lady. I am a brethren, a traveler for clan Marcus. The rains and river flooding delayed me from reaching our camp. I mean you no harm. Look." He let go of one of her arms and pushed up the sleeve of his shirt to reveal a mark glowing in the night, a stylized wolf leg, which confirmed his identity as a traveler.
She swallowed her fear, drew a deep breath, forcing herself to a semblance of calm and thought quickly: A brethren. All are obliged to aid the Brother Wolf clans. She hadn't had to deal with any of them before. The Brother Wolves kept the mad ones, the ravers, away from the humans for a price. Part of that price included shelter, food, and reasonable comfort for their members when asked. Other parts of the price were negotiable. The clan members were only guaranteed a chance to "present a request." As far as she knew, their "requests" were filled without comment.
Before the accord between the clan packs and the humans, she could never have walked alone at night, or even so freely during the day, and none that had dealt with them complained. She squared her shoulders and drew another calming breath before offering the formal words, "Traveler, I am the healer, Miranda. I offer you the shelter of my home for the night. Come and be welcome."
"Thank you, Lady. I accept your shelter." His reply was equally formal, but the husky rasp to his soft, deep voice sent a shiver through her. He bent and picked up the basket she didn't realize she had dropped in her panic, quickly putting back the spilled herbs, bandages, and medicines she could barely make out with her only human eyesight.
"We are almost to my home. Please, follow me."
The tall figure stepped aside. She felt his warmth through the air as she passed and caught a whiff of an appealing odor. She stopped and found herself swaying slightly back toward him before she shook herself and moved on.
"So, Traveler, why have you come to this area? Have ravers been seen here? I have not heard of it."
"I have sighted ravers not far from here. The border war hides their presence. You should not be out alone at night, anyway. Your red healer's cloak will not guarantee your safety from the hungers of men, and now, with the war and ravers, it will be especially dangerous. You will need to exercise more caution for any night travel. If you must go out for night trips, you should request a guard."
She tried to bristle at his words--as though she could plan when she would be called--but his voice resonated within her like a teasing whisper of lust. She had heard the brethren sometimes exuded an almost hypnotic scent, but they were generally able to control its release. Does this traveler have no manners? Why does he not wait to see if I am interested in a lover before presuming to entice me his way? She had seen some of the brethren from a distance. They were beautiful. She had heard of the appetites of the brethren ... oh, she was too weary to even let this cross her mind. Quiet, she told her body, I am only going to do my duty to provide this brethren with food, shelter, and a place to sleep. Nothing more.
He followed her in silence. Even knowing he was there, she barely heard his steps behind her. They were almost to her home. She would sleep soon.
She glided ahead of him with soft, swaying hips. He clenched his fists to keep from grabbing her. She was mumbling about sleep. It was a luxury he couldn't let her indulge in yet. His sanity and his life would depend on how she reacted to his request. His beast must be fed one way or another, or he would go mad.
A neat one-story cottage came into view. Without conscious consideration, he approved the solid wooden door and the sturdy shutter that covered the front window. A stone path led through a front lawn clear of large plants that might block the view from the window.
Her key turned smoothly in the lock, and the cottage door opened quietly beneath her hand.
They entered a comfortable room with a faint glow coming from a fireplace on the opposite wall. With his enhanced eyesight, he could make out a table littered with papers and books on one side of the room. A closed door waited behind the table. In front of the fire, a backless wide sofa loomed. On the other side of the fire, a curtained alcove partitioned the room, and beyond that, two more doors. Braided rugs softened the smooth wooden floor.
She paused and cleared her throat. "Be welcome and at ease in my home. Would you like some food? I'm going to eat, so you might as well join me if you're hungry."
The husky, feminine tones of her voice sent a shiver down his body. Now, his body screamed. Now. He licked his dry lips.
"No, but I thirst. Lady, will you give me drink?"
She was just too tired to be polite. "My name is Miranda, remember it." She crouched down and added some wood to the fire, thankful once again for the villagers who ensured she came home to the warmth of a fire after the long work of childbirth. She looked over her shoulder. Finally, she would be able to see what she had brought home.
He was tall. She knew that already. His hair fell in long, dark, curling waves around his bent head. He straightened, shook back his hair, and gave her the first good look at his face. Stunned, she stopped halfway between her crouch and standing. He was unbelievably beautiful. The firelight revealed the lean planes of his face, a richly sensuous mouth, and eyes so dark they appeared black. A simple cape covered his wide shoulders and fell over the top of his knee-high boots. He offered his hand to her, which she took without thought. He pulled her up along his body, his heat radiating through the night chill that had filled her. He cupped her face with a shaky hand and pushed back her thick red-brown hair. Her nose flared as she took in his scent. She studied his face with surprised fascination.
"The full moon is here. Do you understand what that means to me? Will you let me drink from you?"
Her heart raced at his words. She saw something wild in his eyes, the eyes of a starving man just held back from a feast.
"Now." His voice was an urgent rasp that seemed to barely fight its way out of his throat. "I offer myself to you now, this night. Will you take me and give me your passion in return?"
She stood still, within the rigid circle of his arms, surrounded by his warmth and the special beast-aroma-laced scent that reached out to her. In that moment, she forgot to be tired and felt only the ache of need. She was within a whisper of embracing him when he dropped his arms to tug free his cape's tie and pull off the clinging knit shirt. The action revealed a muscled torso that matched his face in beauty.
"I've been away two full moons--this will be three--on a pack mission, unable to go to a companion, and now it's too late. If you will not take me ... I have a special rope you can bind me with, but you will have to do it quickly. I am on the edge of my control. I dare not change this close to the village. My beast is too strong. Too hungry. It would be unsafe for everyone."
Miranda hesitated. To look at him was to want him, yet his urgency frightened her. The faint aroma of his beast scent was building, calling her to surrender to the moment. She felt her body grow wet with longing. He is a brethren. Surely he would not harm me?
His long fingers opened his belt and pulled it free, and then he pushed his pants down, pulling his boots off with them. He stepped back free of them and knelt, knees wide. Looking up, he spoke urgently, "A second time I offer myself to you this night. The moon calls me, and I must find release or you must tie me."
His kneeling forced her to look down over the tendons of his neck, the width of his chest, down to the proud length of his cock already jutting firmly from his body.
"Traveler, I..." She was momentarily lost looking at his beauty, unsure of how to continue. Her fingers flexed without thought, itching to scratch along the expanse of golden skin below her.
The words were softly spoken, but must have reached his sensitive ears.
"If you want me, touch me. Otherwise bind me until the change fever passes, and we will see if my sanity holds."
She wanted to touch him. The firelight danced over his skin, and the flames played in his eyes. Those eyes were on her. Her hand lightly touched his head. The hair was like heated silk beneath her fingers. A rough breath escaped his lips at the touch, and his eyes widened, then narrowed.
He gasped, arms still held rigid at his sides, trying to give her a choice. "You release me? May I take you?"
"Yes." She could barely get the word past the desire that was taking over her mind.