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Something big and dark slipped into the shadows at the tree line, disappearing from view among the jagged rocks.
Slade Donovan lowered the throwing star he'd been prepared to let fly if the animal had moved any closer. It'd been too big for a coyote. Maybe a cougar? But it hadn't smelled like one. It had smelled like wolf.
Overhead the crescent moon sliced through dark scudding clouds. Rain was coming in tonight on a cool wind. The scents of ocean and wet fir trees blew in gusts across the Puget Sound through Snoqualmie Pass, rustling Slade's dark hair with invisible fingers.
He pocketed the metal star and crouched into lurk mode. Two more hours and his shift would be over. He glanced back at the waxing moon. They'd already had one full moon this month. And, lucky him, there was another on its way.
The vamp doctors at Cascade Clan headquarters couldn't explain his moon sickness. Shaking sweats. Feeling like his skin was about to split into ribbons. An ache in his fangs so bad Slade had seriously contemplating having the bitches pulled, if growing them back in wouldn't have been just as painful.
Lots of agony, but no explanations.
It didn't help that he had nothing to go on as far as medical records or family history. His first memory had been of waking up in Seattle alone and terrified. For two years he roamed the streets. He'd been eightish they figured. The vampires of the Cascade Clan had taken him in and trained him as a Shyeld, until he was old enough to decide if he wanted to become one of them. He hadn't been too keen on finding out exactly how or why he'd been thrown away in the first place. He was more of a live-in-the-moment kind of guy.
Slade rolled his tight shoulders, the tension the moon brought out in him already coiling there. He forced himself to relax. He needed to think positively. The full moon would come and it would go. The pain and agony would pass, just like it always did.
He scanned the darkness for whatever had been lurking there a few minutes before, and wondered what kind of creature would be out here hunting in the woods. He was fortunate he didn't have the security team day shift. That one sucked. He'd done that a time or two and ended up with the mother of all migraines the next night and a sunburn he doubted he could have prevented even if he'd slathered on SPF one million. Working out in the sunlight wasn't fun when you were a vampire, but it could be done.
He was just grateful he had the night shift, which, hell, had its own problems.
Behind him the wind shifted for a moment. His nose filled with the scent of predator, wet dog, but more feral, and the odd scent of something sweet and feminine, close. A pack of whatever those creatures were was inching toward him from what had been downwind until a second ago.
As the hair on the back of his neck lifted in warning, he slid two fingers into his pocket and pulled out his throwing star.
A shadow darted through the base of the trees, followed quickly by two more. He heard their guttural growls and yips to one another, a language he could somehow understand, although he'd left that little tidbit out when talking to the clan doctors. Moon sickness was enough of an oddity among vampires. No need to be thought of as an even bigger freak.
"Think we can take the bloodsucker?"
A loud sniff. "There's only the one. Easy."
"But what if he's the one Bracken's been searching for?"
"Then all the better. We kill him now, quick and clean, before he can disrupt the pack."
The wind shifted again and the scents disappeared, but Slade readied himself, placing his weight on the balls of his feet so he could more easily spring at them when they got closer. Preparing for their attack, he pinched the throwing star between his fingers.
They vaulted forward through the underbrush, loping toward him with deliberate intent. Slade only had a moment to leap upward into the trees as the wolves rushed in, converging on the spot he'd been hiding moments before.
No ordinary wolves. Larger. Stronger. Smarter. One lunged, capturing Slade's pant leg between razor-sharp teeth, slicing clean through the denim. The wolf gave a vicious yank. Slade's one-handed grip on the tree branch overhead slipped at the unexpected force. He landed hard on his back and found a pair of paws the size of dinner plates on his chest, and a pair of feral brown eyes inches from his own.
The excruciating pain told him the weight of the beast had cracked his ribs. But the pain was the least of his problems as a snarling muzzle loomed over his face. A string of saliva stretched from the sharply pointed canines to the vicious-looking row of bottom teeth.
Slade shot out his hand, closing his fingers around the creature's thick neck and squeezed. The muscles in his arm bulged with the strain, and he felt as well as heard the deep-throated growl vibrating down his arm. He used all his strength to keep the animal from ripping out his throat.
It was a hell of a wolf, but just a wolf. Still no match for a vampire, he told himself mentally, even while his instincts told him differently.
Slade pulled his foot up between him and the beast and, with a grunt, kicked as hard as he could, launching the animal into the trunk of a massive fir tree. The loud crack of impact echoed like a gunshot through the woods. The wolf grunted, falling to the ground, stunned but not dead, then ran off into the trees.
What the hell?
He heard a sharp gasp and turned his gaze toward the sound. In the woods stood a woman, her mouth an open O, her face a pale full moon against the darkness of her hair and the night-shadowed woods around her.
He didn't have time to stare; two more wolves were on him like newborn vampires on a pint of A positive. He chucked the throwing star at one, hitting it in the eye. It yelped and sagged to the ground, its sides heaving. The woman screamed. The other wolf jumped up and over Slade, slapping him hard in the head with a paw that had the force of a baseball bat. As a chaser, the claws dug in, ripping flesh in a white-hot burn.
Ichor, black and thin, poured from the gash on his scalp and ran down his temple. Slade ignored the throbbing pain and wiped away the warm viscous fluid seeping into his left eye. The wolf had landed quickly and spun around, standing his ground, feet spread wide in the damp detritus of brown pine needles and crumbled stone on the ground. A ridge of dark gray fur encircled the large wolf's neck and stood up along its back. Bared teeth gleamed white in the moonlight filtering through the trees. A low, threatening rumble reverberated in the animal's deep chest.
Slade moved into the stance of a defensive linebacker, placing himself between the wolf and the woman, and answered with a low, feral growl of his own. For a second the wolf's flattened ears raised a fraction, then pinned back harder against its head. The wolf eyed him warily, its great brown eyes piercing in the darkness. The growl reformed, slurring and warping into actual words.
"Stay away from our border. Next time there will be no warning."
All the tension in Slade's legs suddenly gave way, making him stumble back a step. These weren't wolves at all. They were damn shape-shiftersWeres. No wonder he could understand them, no wonder they were so huge. If this was a warning, he sure as hell would hate to get a full-out war going with these things without backup.
The gray wolf retreated slowly, gaze locked on Slade's, his hackles still raised until he reached the darkness of the trees. And then, like a nightmare, he was gone.
Slade sank to his knees, his arm wrapping around his broken ribs. They seared and burned as they began to knit back together. Thank the gods he didn't need to breathe. Chances were the ribs had pierced his lungs, but they were functionally useless, so it wouldn't kill him, just hurt like hell. He touched the gash on his head and glanced up to look at the woman.
She was twenty-five feet away, kneeling by the downed Were. Her doelike brown eyes were just a shade too wide and bright over the flushed prominent cheekbones the color of dark honey. Her gaze darted around her surroundings. Like a deer, she was small, lithe, with delicate wrists and shoulders softened by the sunny yellow fleece zip-up jacket she wore. Soft faded denim hugged her legs and the curves of her ass and she wore small muddy hiking books. Slung over her shoulder was a worn backpack.
She smelled of sunshine, wood smoke and strawberries. His preternaturally sharp sense of smell was even more attuned than most vampires. A possible side effect of the moon sickness, he'd been told. In the past twenty-four hours she'd walked past a mossy stream bank, the wet earthy scent of it still clinging to her shoes. She'd pushed past cedar and fir and huckleberry. Traces of it lingered around her like notes of an expensive perfume. Underneath it all was clean female skin.
Delectable smells notwithstanding, she was definitely not his type. Not even close. He preferred his women polished and professional, citified and slick. She had nature girl written all over her. And frankly he'd had enough of the great outdoors for one night. Besides, what the hell was she doing out here in the middle of the night, anyway?
"Are you hurt?" he asked, and took a single step in her direction.
Those big brown eyes turned his way, dark with fierce anger. "You killed him." Accusation gave her softly spoken words the edge of a razor.
"Did they hurt you?"
She shook her head. Her hair, mussed with bits of dried needles and twigs, floated about her head like a dark cloud with the movement. "I was following them."
Slade narrowed his eyes. "Why are you out here?"
She pinned him with a glare and reached for the small of her back, pulling out a 9 mm Glock. "I might ask you the same. Do you always hunt on protected state land?"
Slade put his hands up in self-defense and blinked back the dribble of ichor seeping into the corner of his eye. "Whoa. Hold up there, lady. I just saved your life."
She stood, bracing her feet wide apart in a practiced shooting stance, both hands firmly on her weapon. "No, what you did was kill an incredibly rare wolf. I've been tracking this pack for months. I finally actually get to see them and then you have to go all cowboy on me and kill one and chase the others away. Are you aware killing a wolf is a crime, sir? You are under arrest."
Slade bit back a laugh. Under arrest? She had to be kidding. He was a trained Shyeld, and outweighed her by fifty pounds, all of it muscle. "Who are you?" he asked, scanning the woods behind her for any sign of the pack.
"Game Warden." She reached for her back pocket with one hand and pulled out a plastic zip tie. "You have the right"
She cut off her reading of his rights with a loud scream. Behind her erupted a flare of brilliant light as fire engulfed the fallen wolf's body. Slade yanked her toward him to keep her from getting singed by the blaze. She smacked up against his chest, all soft curves, then twisted back, holding up her hand to shield her face. A cry of shock and anguish escaped her and she turned, gazing up into his face. "What happened? Why did it spontaneously combust? What did you do?"