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Morning sunlight glinted through the treetops as Cian Hennessey pulled onto the paved mountain road that led into Bloodrunner Alley. He tried to stay focused on what he was about to face, but his last night in the picturesque glade he'd called home for so many years kept playing through his mind. After his disastrous meeting with Sayre in the woods, he'd known he was done therethat he couldn't stay. He'd waited until everyone had gone to bed, and then he'd packed his Land Rover with as many of his belongings as he could. His plan had been to take off before anyone noticed, but Eli Drake, a badass Lycan mercenary who had recently returned to the Silvercrest werewolf pack after years of banishment, had found him before he could get away.
"You can't run from fate, man," Eli had lectured him. "Take that from someone who knows. Even when you try to convince yourself that leaving is the right thing to do, it's nothing but a goddamn lie. And it all comes back to bite you hard in the ass when it finally catches up to you."
That had been five years ago. If he'd known just how true Eli's words would prove to be, he might have paid more attention to them. But he'd been so sure he knew what needed to be done. That the path he'd been set on taking was not only the right choice, but also his only choice.
In the end, Cian had finally realized that he hadn't known a damn thing. All he'd managed to do was postpone the inevitable. But he'd been around long enough to understand that there wasn't any point in wishing for a do-over. What was done was done, and nothing he could do would ever change that. He just had to chalk it up as another entry on the long list of regrets that he lived with, and focus on how to make the best of the situation at present.
So here he was, returning to the only place he'd ever truly thought of as home. At least since he'd left his childhood behind. The scenery might not be as dramatic as the craggy seaside cliffs near Killian's Mount in Ireland, where he'd been raised as a boy, but the mountains held an undeniable beauty. And the half-human/half-Lycan hunters who lived there were not only his friends, but also his family in the truest sense of the word.
Hell, the Runners were more like family to him than anyone who still walked this earth and shared his blood. And yet, he'd turned his back on them because of her. Because of a little slip of a witch named Sayre Murphy. Until today, he hadn't seen or spoken to them since he'd left that fateful night. Not even an email or a text. So there was no telling what kind of reception he was about to receive from the men and women who protected the Silvercrest pack from its enemies.
He only knew it wasn't likely to be a warm one.
Parking the black Audi he'd arranged to have waiting for him at Dulles in the grass at the side of the road, he turned off the engine and climbed out, his narrowed eyes taking in his surroundings while he shut the car door and slipped the key fob in his front pocket. As he drew in a deep breath of the crisp mountain air, the scent of the surrounding forest was so achingly familiar that, for a moment, he felt as if his chest might crush inward from the force of regret pressing in on him.
But despite the familiarity of that woodsy scent, the Alley hadn't remained unchanged in his absence, the passage of time marked by differences that were both big and small. He hadn't been there to see the picnic tables repainted, or to help with the completion of the impressive cabins that now stood at the far end of the glade. Had missed the paving of the road and the additions that had been built onto many of the original cabins, where his friends and their mates lived. He could have undoubtedly spotted more changes, but the sight of the tall, auburn-haired Bloodrunner headed straight for him diverted his attention.
The welcoming party, it appeared, was on its way. Though there definitely didn't seem to be anything remotely welcoming about it. No, if he were reading the situation correctly, his former Bloodrunning partner, Brody Carter, looked more likely to throw a bone-crushing punch than he did to go in for a bro hug, and something sharp twisted in Cian's chest.
What did you expect? the wolf part of his nature grumbled inside his head. He might have been our best friend, but you destroyed that when you turned your back on him. Asshole.
Knowing damn well how true the beast's snide words were, he hardened his jaw, determined to take whatever Brody felt like dishing out without retaliating. He pushed his hands in his pockets and waited as Brody closed in on him, surprised to see that the guy looked even bigger than he'd been before. Brody had always been muscular, but now he was cut in a way that was truly impressive, his tall body rippling with power as he stalked toward him. The Runner's auburn hair was long again, but pulled back from his scarred face. And there were little laugh lines that crinkled at the edges of his green eyes, attesting to the fact that he was a happily married man who loved his lifeeven if those green eyes were currently narrowed in fury. Not that he could blame him. If Brody had bailed on the Alley the way Cian had, he would have been so angry it'd be hard to hold back.
Behind Brody's broad shoulder, he spotted the guy's human wife, Michaela, as she came down the porch steps of her and Brody's cabin. The Cajun's dark hair was still long and curly, and even from that distance Cian could tell that she remained incredibly beautiful. Marriage obviously suited the two of them, and he found himself remembering back to the obstacles they'd faced when they'd first gotten together.
During the last months that Cian had lived in the Alley, there were times when he'd felt like one hell of a matchmaker. On several occasions, he'd even gone so far as to claim that he wouldn't make the same mistakes he'd watched his friends make when his own woman finally came alongbut in the end, it'd been nothing but talk. Talk he couldn't back up, because happily-ever-after had never been an option for him.
Instead, finding his woman meant he should run as far and as fast as he could in the opposite direction, and never look back. The kindest that fate could have been was to connect him with a female who wasn't a part of the Silvercrest. One he could ignore and keep his distance from, without leaving his friends. But that hadn't happened.
No, he'd been linked with beautiful little Sayre. That right there just proved that the universe had an exceptionally sick sense of humor.
Though he tried not to fixate on her, he kept scanning the Alley beyond Brody, searching for that familiar heart-shaped face and strawberry-blond hair. But she wasn't there. Besides Brody and Mic, the place was unusually empty. He'd texted Brody's old number when he'd landed, warning him that he was coming, and had naturally assumed that Sayre would be waiting for him. She no doubt had a hell of a lot to say to him, after the way he'd left. Not to mention the fact that he hadn't once tried to contact her in the last five years. But there wasn't any sign of her. He told himself not to panic, that she most likely didn't live in the Alley and was probably up in Shadow Peak, the mountaintop town that the Silvercrest Lycans called home, which was only a few miles away. Hell, she could be on her way down to see him at that very moment.
But when he pulled in another deep, searching breath, his heart started to hammer even harder as he realized that Sayre's mouthwatering scent was nowhere to be found. Not even the slightest trace. It made a cold sliver of fear begin to coil through his insides, keeping company with his tension. From the moment her older sister, Jillian, had moved down to the Alley to live with a Bloodrunner named Jeremy Burns, Sayre had been a constant feature at the couple's cabin. So what was keeping her away now?
Looking at Brody, who had just come to a stop no more than five feet in front of him, he cut off whatever the Runner was going to say with a rough, impatient burst of words. "I know you want to tell me to get lost, and after the way I left, you have every right. But I came back for a reason. I need to talk to Sayre. Where is she?"
Brody's green eyes burned with an even brighter surge of anger. "You think she's with the pack?"
Cian scowled. "Where else would she be?"
God, if she'd found someone and moved away with him he was going to completely lose it.
Michaela reached her husband's side, a concerned look on her beautiful face as she said, "Cian, Sayre doesn't live with the Silvercrest anymore."
Thinking this must be some kind of ploy to either screw with him or protect the young witch, he held Mi-chaela's troubled gaze. "I'm not here to make things hard for her, Mic. I just I came back because I need to talk to her."
Though human, Michaela possessed the unique ability to psychically "read" others' emotions, and Cian could only imagine what she was picking up from him at that moment: frustration, fear, guilt, anger, regret and, beneath it all, a seething, neverending need for something he could never have. She slid Brody a quick glance, then delicately cleared her throat as she looked at Cian and said, "We're not lying. As much as I hate to say it, she honestly isn't here."
So many raw, visceral curses suddenly crowded into his throat, he thought he might choke on them. He swallowed a few times, then finally managed to scrape out a single word. "Why?"
His insides twisted when he noticed the way they glanced at each other again, as if neither of them knew how much to tell him. Or what to tell him.
"After you left," Michaela finally murmured, taking a careful breath, "there were well, some things changed."
"What kind of things? What the hell are you talking about?"
He'd kept up on the pack enough through third parties to know that the Silvercrest had flourished in the past five years, thanks to the hard work of the Runners. They might have still been recovering from their war against the neighboring Whiteclaw pack when he'd left, but it'd been clear even then that they'd become a force too powerful for anyone to mess with. Nothing had happened in these mountains that should have necessitated Sayre leaving. Not unless it was something personal, and the secrets he could see burning in his friends' eyes were seriously pissing him off.
"Stop worrying about how I'm going to react," he said, "and just spit it out."
Michaela sighed. "Cian, Sayre isn't the same." At his darkening look, she hurried to explain. "Not long after you took off, Sayre went into a decline and suffered a breakdown. Not only was she wrecked because of the way you abandoned everyone, but she'd also been dealing with some pretty powerful issues in private. Her powers had been increasing at an abnormal rate, but she didn't want to worry anyone and tried to hide it as much as she could. But after the war, it eventually got to be too much for her, and she had to get away and be on her own. She hasn't lived here in over four and a half years."
Four and a half years? Reeling, he tried to suck in a sharp breath, but his lungs had locked down. He was sealed in a goddamn vise of disbelief, the roaring in his head making him flinch. No. No, damn it. This can't be happening. He didn't want to believe, but he could tell by the looks on their faces that they were telling him the truth.
Somehow, he managed to choke out, "Where. Is.
"It's too much of a strain on her system when she's around other people, so she lives by herself just over the border, in a cabin in West Virginia."
His throat was so tight with fear he could barely speak. "And there's no one there to help her? She's completely alone?"
Brody jerked his chin up and scowled. "She doesn't like to be around anyone. Even Jillian and Jeremy. It physically pains her to pick up on others' physical and emotional energy."
Cian paced away from them and lowered his head, staring at the tips of his heavy black leather boots. He shoved his hands into his hair, pushing it away from his face as he squeezed his skull, working everything he'd just learned through his head. Christ, all this time he'd thought she was safe, surrounded by her family and friends, when he couldn't have been more wrong. She was alone, damn it. On her own in the middle of fucking nowhere!
Rage seared its way through his veins in a thick, eviscerating spill, and he lowered his arms and fisted his hands at his sides as he turned back around and took an aggressive step toward Brody. Five years ago, he'd left a single message for his partner that read: Take care of her. But that obviously hadn't happened.
Locking his furious gaze with Brody's green one, he snarled, "I trusted you."
"Yeah, I trusted you, too," the Runner shot back, curling his upper lip. "But that didn't stop you from running like a coward, did it?"
Cian struggled to control his temper and calm his harsh breaths, but the darkness inside him was rising, and he knew it wouldn't be long before he lost the fight against it. Which meant he needed to get the hell out of there. "I need directions to where she is," he growled. "Now."
Brody snorted and shook his head, looking at him with disgust. "It's been five years, Cian. Why the sudden hurry?"
Before he could respond, Michaela reached into the pocket of her long skirt and pulled out a small piece of paper. "You both just need to calm down. This isn't going to help anyone." Offering him the paper, she said, "I already wrote the information down for you after you sent Brody that text."
Her husband shot her a disgruntled look. "What the hell, Mic?"
She slid Brody an apologetic smile. "I'm sorry, honey, but she deserves the chance to deal with this on her own."
Cian didn't speak as he grabbed the tiny slip of paper from Michaela's hand. A quick glance showed that she'd written down a brief set of directions along with several names and phone numbers.
"The others will be sorry they missed you," she told him. "They've taken all the kids down to the beach for two weeks in South Carolina. But we chose to stay home because Jack's still too young for that kind of thing."
He opened his mouth, a hundred different questions on his tongue. Jack? Kids? Exactly how many did his friends have now? What were their names, ages and genders? His curiosity was strongbut his fear for Sayre's safety was stronger.
Snapping his mouth shut, Cian turned and headed back to the sleek sports car he'd left parked in the grass. Just as he opened the driver's-side door, Brody grabbed his shoulder and jerked him around, getting right in his face. "What the hell are you up to, Hennessey?"
"I'm bringing her back where she belongs."
The three thin scars that slashed across Brody's tanned face turned white as he grimaced. "She won't come back with you. We begged her, but she was adamant. You really think you'll be able to change her mind after leaving like you did?"
"The difference is that I don't plan on asking, or begging. I'm not giving her a choice," he ground out, digging the key fob from his pocket. "I'll tie her up and throw her over my shoulder if I have to, but one way or another, she is coming back to where it's safe."
The Runner's green eyes widened with comprehension. "What aren't you telling us?" he demanded, tightening the brutal grip he had on his shoulder.
Looking his former partner right in the eye, Cian said, "I don't have the time to get into this, Brody. But I will explain when I get back."
"Are we in danger?" he asked in a low voice, showing no signs of backing down.