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Eighteen hours later
Fear sat on the tip on Michaela Doucet's tongue, as bitter as an aspirin waiting to be swallowed. It possessed a sharp, acidic flavor that made her mouth water in the way that it does when you're about to be sick, while her eyes burned with a stinging wash of gathering tears. She willed them back with the sheer stubborn force of her will, reminding herself again and again that Doucets weren't ones to cower. Raised in the superstition-rich environment of the Louisiana Bayou, she'd grown up on whispered tales of ghosts and goblins, vampires and werewolves.
Yes, she'd always been a believer, even if she'd never seen proof of the paranormal creatures most humans consigned to the realm of fantasy and fiction. But now the veil between the two worlds had been lifted. Two weeks ago, she and her brother Max had learned the truth about the secret that resided in the eastern mountains just a few hours' drive west of their home in Covington, Maryland. Werewolves did indeed live among us. Some good. Some bad. Some so evil, they were more monsters than men.
And then there were others who were truly heroes. Dark, dangerous and tortured ones, yesbut undoubtedly heroic.
Michaela's best friend, Torrance Watson, had fallen in love with one such hero: Mason Dillinger, a man who was half human–half Lycan. Mason was one of a select breed of hunters known as Bloodrunners who were committed to hunting down and exterminating the rogue Lycans who'd begun murdering humans. Because of their half-human blood-lines, the Runners lived separately from the Silvercrest werewolf pack they protected, in a place named Bloodrunner Alley.
The Doucets had been under Bloodrunner protection ever since a rogue werewolf had made a move on Torrance's life. And while Michaela didn't care for the lack of privacy, Wyatt Pallaton and Carla Reyesthe Bloodrunning team assigned to their protectionhad become friends to both her and Max. She had been thankful for their watchful eye, especially for her brother's sake.
Yes, she could accept the existence of werewolves. She'd even begun to embrace a few of them as part of her family. But tonight, terror consumed her.
Beneath the wraithlike streams of silvery moonlight, the autumn wind whistled past her ears, reminding her of a specter imparting secrets, the cool frost of its voice chilling against her skin. Shivering, she inhaled deeply through her nose, searching for the fresh scents of the surrounding forest, for pinesap and juniper and the moist smell of the soil. Like a frightened child grasping at a frayed security blanket, she needed the familiarity of those things to ground her in a world that had tilted on its axis, knocking her off balancebut all she could find was the acrid stench of aggression. Feral and thick, the heavy scent closed around her like a physical vise, banding her chest, making it difficult to draw enough air into her lungs.
Even as an outsider in this ominous setting, she understood instinctively what the menacing energy permeating the night signified. They were readythe Silvercrest pack's anticipation ripe for the ceremony that would soon begin.
Hold it together, she silently scolded. Do not fall apart.
Willing her backbone to keep her upright, Michaela focused on the towering blaze of a roaring bonfire that rose from the far side of the clearing, its orange flames burning with maniacal zeal against the ink-black curtain of night. Not even the stars shone in the eastern sky. Only the moon burned in the stygian darkness of the heavens, its yellowed mass seeming to reflect the fiery glow of the sinister flames.
The mountains were silent but for the low, nearby noises that filled her ears, more animal-like than human. This was Silvercrest pack land, and the werewolves were tired of waiting. Michaela kept her gaze fixed on the fire, aware that many of the Lycans had already shifted into their preternatural shapes, their fur-covered bodies standing like monstrous shadows at the edges of the forest as they waited with restless expectancy.
If not for her friends, she'd have thought she was in hell. But she wasn't alone, thank God. Mason stood on her left, while Torrance moved in closer to her right side and grabbed her hand, squeezing her icy fingers in support as the wind surged around them, rattling the autumn leaves upon the gnarled branches of the trees, scattering others in the ravaging gusts. It still seemed astonishing that her best friend, who'd always been wary of the supernatural, had married a man who could howl at the moon, but Michaela liked Mason, as well as respected him. And there was no denying that the gorgeous half-breed was head over heels in love with his redheaded wife.
"Everything's going to be okay," Torrance murmured, the tone of her voice soothing, as if gentling a cornered animal. "Mason won't let anything happen to Max, I promise."
Okay? she thought, blinking rapidly as tears threatened to spill once more from her raw, swollen eyes. How was that even possible? Her nineteen-year-old brother had been attacked by a rogue werewolfa Lycan who preyed upon humans for food. Max had been bitten in the attack, which meant he was no longer human, but a breed of creature that existed between the two worlds of man and beast, much like the Bloodrunners themselves.
Last night, it had been Carla Reyes's turn to wait at the hospital while Max worked his shift as a security guard. Michaela had been enjoying a relaxing evening at home after a long day at her store, when Reyes called to let her and Wyatt know that Max had taken his car and disappeared in the middle of making his rounds. Michaela couldn't think of any possible reason that Max would do such a thingunless it had something to do with Sophia Dawson. And she'd been right.
Sophia was an eighteen-year-old Lycan who'd discovered the gruesome murder of a human female the week before. She'd spent a few days at their home, before returning to her parents' house in Shadow Peak, the mountaintop town that was home to the Silvercrest pack. Max and Sophia had become fast friends, despite Michaela's warnings that her brother should be cautious. Sophia was mixed up with a wild party crowd down in Covington, and the last thing Michaela had wanted was to see her brother become involved in an unhealthy relationship. She didn't care that Sophia was a werewolfbut she did care that the teenager was heavily involved in the local drug scene.
In fact, she suspected it was Sophia's troubled lifestyle that had drawn Max to her in the first place. He'd always been a champion of the underdog, willing to take on everyone's worries as his own. Michaela loved that his heart was so generous, but she'd also worried that it would eventually land him in troublewhich was exactly what had happened.
After Carla's call, Wyatt had contacted the other Runners and a search of the city had been immediately set into action. Then Brody Carter had arrived on her doorstep with his heartbreaking news.
"Max is still alive," the Bloodrunner had explained to her and Wyatt in gritty, clipped tones. "Sophia Dawson showed up in Shadow Peak with him about a half hour ago. They're trying to get the story out of her, but she's pretty hysterical. Seems she'd called Max from a concert, scared that she and her girlfriends were being followed. Says Max told her he knew Reyes wouldn't let him into that part of town, so he slipped out a back entrance at the hospital, grabbed his car and met up with them. He talked Sophia into coming back home with him, but before they could make it back to his car, they were attacked. The only thing that saved their lives was an accident that happened up the street. When he heard the approaching sirens, the rogue fled and the girls were able to get Max in his car. Sophia panicked and drove him straight to her parents' house. They notified the Elders and he was taken into custody."
Michaela had stood there feeling dead inside, a great roaring wave of pain ripping through her body, while Wyatt had talked with the scowling Runner. Then Brody had left as quickly as he'd come, leaving Wyatt to explain that Max would be kept in a holding cell in Shadow Peak, where he would be watched by guards until his first shift into a werewolf, which usually came the second night after an attack. Once the signs of impending change were noted, a Novitiates ceremony would be called.
Wyatt had driven her up to Bloodrunner Alley, a picturesque glade that sat several miles south of Shadow Peak on the mountain. The Alley held cabins where the Runners lived, and she'd spent the rest of the night with Torrance and Mason.
The wait for nightfall during the long, torturous day had been a living hellbut the call warning them that the ceremony would soon begin had finally come. They'd immediately set off for the clearing, which sat equidistant between Shadow Peak and the Alley.
And now it was time.
The muscles in her throat quivered, and Michaela wondered if she was about to lose the tea Torrance had forced into her before they'd left. The fear threatened to overtake her, too huge and monstrous to evade, swallowing her like Jonah in his story of the whale. The kind of fear that covered your skin after a nightmare, sticky and cold and wet. She knew they could scent it. From the shadowed edges of the clearing, the Lycans'glowing eyes burned like embers as they watched her through the moonlit darkness.
They're waiting for you to show your weakness, but right now you have to be strong for Max's sake.
At the thought of her brother, a devastating sense of helplessness pierced through her, making her flinchand it was at that moment that Michaela felt his gaze. Her breath caught, and without realizing it, she found herself searching the nightmarish scene for the man, the Bloodrunner, who sparked an uncomfortable awareness in her every time she saw him.
Brody. Her mouth formed the words, though she didn't make a sound.
He watched her from the corner of his eye, as if he didn't want her to know. But there was no way she could have missed him. All he had to do was enter a room, and her senses kicked into high alert, her equilibrium taking a spin that left her reeling, same as it had last night. He had the scarred body of a warrior, but in Michaela's opinion, he was one of the most magnificent men she'd ever known. Not pretty, but so utterly hard and masculine that he all but bled testosterone. Everything about the rugged Bloodrunner screamed dark, intense intrigue, and despite her efforts, she'd been unable to stop thinking about him. The effect was even worse when he was near, like being struck by lightning, her nerves left revving and raw. A total and complete meltdown. Not even Ross Holland had affected her like thatand she'd thought she loved her ex-boyfriend until the day he'd ripped her heart out.
Hah! Shows how much you know. When it comes to love, you're as blind as a hawk beneath its hood.
Sad, but true.
Now Ross was nothing more than a first-class painand one she couldn't get rid of. No matter how many different ways she explained it, he could not get it through his head that she never wanted to see him again.
It was strange, but with Brody near, she could barely recall what Ross even looked like. The Runner stood to her left, no more than a yard away from Mason, and her stare snagged on his powerful form, unable to look away. Though his muscular frame had been wrapped in a stylish tuxedo the first time she'd met him at Torrance and Mason's wedding, tonight he wore his standard dark jeans, black boots and black T-shirt. The soft cotton of the shirt molded itself to the broad width of his shoulders and that beautifully carved chest, his thighs rigid beneath the worn denim of his jeans. His auburn hair burned a deep, dark red before the flames of the fire, lying soft and thick on his shoulders. Against the darkness of his skin, his scars shone like silvery pale rivers of pain, echoing the mysteries of his past as they slashed across his face in three thin diagonal lines.
After the "I can't get out of here fast enough" way that he'd acted the night before, when he'd brought her and Wyatt the news of what had happened to Max, she hadn't thought he'd even show for the ceremony. But here he was. His normally brooding expression burned with a cold, calculating furya charged energy buzzing around him that suggested the rigid control he always held over himself could crack at any moment. Though the calmest, quietest of the Runners, he struggled to master, even hide, an underlying violence. But it was always there, lying in wait of its escape, and she experienced a flutter of relief in her belly that he was on their side.
Brody Carter was not a man you wanted for an enemy.
She ran her tongue over her bottom lip, aware that it quivered, and found herself fighting a physical urge to move closer to him, wanting to soothe that angry burn of pain he carried insidewhen suddenly the restless movements of the pack ceased. Mason lifted his face, sniffing at the cool, brisk air. "The Elders are almost here," he announced in a quiet rasp.
Across the clearing, the eerie, demonic glow of torches could be seen drawing nearer, and Michaela stared unblinkingly at the shadow-thick edge of the forest.
The light grew brighter, burning against her eyes as she watched a dark-haired Lycan with distinctive golden eyes walk forward, bearing one of the torches, his lip curled in a belligerent sneer. Then the first Elder stepped from the shadows, into the clearing, his stature one of blunt, stocky strength; light brown hair shot with silver at his temples; deep-set eyes sharp beneath bushy silver brows.
"That's Graham Fuller," Torrance whispered. "He's the Lead Elder and Mason's father's best friend." Another figure stepped out of the trees, this one considerably younger than Fuller, his rich brown hair and dark eyes familiar. "You know that one," Torrance told her. "You met Dylan at our wedding."
Despite the fact that he was a member of the League, Dylan Riggs had always been a friend, as well as a supporter of the Bloodrunners. In fact, it had been Dylan who walked Torrance down the aisle at her wedding. Though his friendship with the Runners was strong, the past few weeks had put Dylan in a difficult position, as tension between the Bloodrunners and the pack increased.
More Elders entered the clearing, alternately taking their places on either side of Fuller, until the last one emerged. Michaela had yet to meet the notorious Lycan known for his purist views and hatred of humans and Bloodrunners alike, but she recognized him immediately from the description she'd been given. Stefan Drake, the one whom the Runners believed was responsible for the growing number of rogue werewolves and other horrifying crimes, and the reason she and Max had remained under Bloodrunner protection, even after the death of Anthony Simmons, the rogue who had threatened Torrance's life. Mason and the others had believed that if afforded the opportunity, Drake would use the Doucets as a way to strike out against the Runners, and they'd been right.
Drake stood tall and lean, with sharp, aristocratic features made severe by the burning light of the torches and bonfire. Deep grooves of discontent lined the raw-boned features of his face, as if hate itself had worn him down. At one time, he had probably shared the same arresting looks as his children, until years of bitterness had finally left its destructive mark. His sharp, pewter-colored eyes found her and held, staring with a burning contempt that made Michaela recoil, despite her earlier determination to conceal her fear.
In the next moment, the Elders parted, and two hulking shapes emerged from the trees. In their wolf forms, the Lycans stood over seven feet tall, their legs bent at an odd angle as they stalked forward. Each held a thick chain that had been wound around their inside wrist, the twin lengths leading back into the shadows. Michaela's throat constricted the second she realized what was happening.
She swayed. Her vision blurred. "Oh God, they haven't."
"Be strong, Michaela," Mason grunted. "Max is going to need your strength."
Strength! She didn't have any left. Her knees sagged, and both Mason and Torrance caught at her waist as the Lycans walked forward. They had taken no more than a few steps, when they jerked on the chains and her brother appeared, emerging from the thick line of trees.
Bound like an animal.
Fury roared through her, jerking her upright as if she'd been jolted with an electric current, every muscle in her body screaming for movement while she watched Max stumble into the clearing, his long, lanky body dressed in nothing more than tattered boxer shorts, his dark skin smeared with blood and grime. His thick, ebony hair hung over his brow, obscuring his eyes, his battered hands fisted around the two lengths of chain that looped his neck like a collar. His chest and legs were bloodied with deep, raw-looking wounds, which she knew had come from painful claw swipes; his left shoulder was a mangled, bloodied mess from where a rogue werewolf had latched on with its jaws, ripping into the skin and muscles with its lethally sharp fangs.
Oh God, Max. This can't be happening.