Ana Cordona has been a strong leader for the lupine shifters who survived after all the males and most of the females in her pack were mysteriously poisoned. As tough as she is, with no Alpha male, the pack is vulnerable to the devious shifter Sean Taggart, who wants to claim both their ranch and Ana as his own. When Connor Armstrong comes back into her life, promising protection, it’s almost enough to make Ana forget how he walked out on her before—and reluctantly accept his offer to mate.
The minute Connor sees Ana again, it reawakens a raw hunger. He must have her for his bondmate—his wolf cries out for it. But his human side knows he must proceed with caution because of their complicated past. If he is to truly have her body and soul, he must go beyond his burning desire and win back her heart. Whatever it takes, he is determined not to leave her side again. But Taggart and his rival pack are not their only enemies. A human element in town is targeting shifters. Their plan not only threatens Ana and Connor’s future, but the lives of the entire pack...
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Analena Cordona shoved her hands into the pockets of her thick, quilted down jacket. Not because she was cold, but because for the second time in the past ten minutes she was questioning her decision to meet Sean Taggart without an escort. It was likely stupid—scratch that; definitely stupid—but she couldn’t drag one of her sisters or cousins along to meet with him. Taggart was one of the most devious shifters she’d ever met, and she couldn’t risk her pack getting hurt. Despite her effort to appear casual, an unwanted shiver skittered down her spine. If need be, she was ready to run at a moment’s notice.
The wind howled mercilessly through the trees of Fontana Mountain and when it shifted south she caught Taggart’s distinctive, foul scent. He was close. Watching her, no doubt. Pervy bastard.
“I know you’re there, Sean. Come out now so we can get this over with.” She was thankful her voice didn’t shake.
To her surprise, a hulking brown-and-white wolf emerged from a cluster of trees.What the hell? They’d agreed to come in human form. Glancing around, she saw he hadn’t brought anyone else. That tamed her nerves a little but not much. He was still older and stronger and a lot more ruthless. Even though she tried to mask it, he had to smell her fear. “What are you doing?” she snapped, hoping her anger would cover her alarm.
When the animal stood a few feet in front of her, he changed to his human form. Ana looked away but could hear his bones break, shift and realign. Many shifters didn’t mind others watching them change, but to her it was such a private, painful thing, she didn’t do it in front of just anyone.
She turned back to face him and immediately wanted to wipe the smirk off his face. Of course he’d be arrogant enough to stand naked in front of her when they were supposed to be having a serious meeting. She attempted to keep the loathing out of her voice. “I thought we agreed to come in human form.”
He shrugged and had the nerve to grab himself. “I wanted the exercise. Besides, you should get to see what’s going to be yours soon.”
Mine? Gross. Bile rose in her throat, but she pushed it down. Sure, the man had a nice body, but what lay underneath that exterior scared her. She’d seen the way he treated the women of his pack. He was mean just for the sake of being mean. As Alpha, he should set a better example, but no one had stood up to him yet. “Excuse me?”
“That’s why you wanted to meet, isn’t it? To proposition me?”
“Not exactly.” She cleared her throat and looked around. A light layer of snow had fallen over the normally grassy incline. Other than the wind and rustling trees, she was suddenly aware of how alone she really was. She was at least two miles from her family’s ranch. “We’ve had a few attacks over the past couple weeks. Some of our cattle have gone missing and I’ve found a few mutilated cows. And just this morning I found one of my sister’s horses dead.”
The increasing vandalism against her pack’s ranch was a message. Taggart wanted to unite his pack with hers and would stop at nothing to get what he wanted. She was surprised he hadn’t done worse.
“And you think my pack had something to do with it?” His voice was monotone.
She noticed he didn’t deny it. “I didn’t say that. I don’t know many humans who venture into our territory, so I just wanted to let you know about it.”
He crossed his arms over his bare chest and she forced herself to keep her eyes on his face. It pissed her off that he just stood there naked. He must have known it would make her uncomfortable.
“Fine. I’ll keep an eye out, but we haven’t had any problems. If you had better security, I doubt you would either.” His voice was taunting.
“We’re doing fine.” But they weren’t. Not really. Financially they were on solid ground, but with all the males of their pack dead, it was only a matter of time before another pack would think they could move in to their territory and force them to assimilate. They might live peacefully among the humans now, but they still had their own laws to worry about. Their black-and-white laws were a lot more primal. As unguarded, unprotected females, they were more or less fair game. It might be bullshit, but there wasn’t much she could do about it unless she wanted to take on the Northern American Council. They wouldn’t allow a she-wolf to remain Alpha without proving herself. As with males, a true Alpha—regardless of gender—had to prove she was strong enough to protect her pack from anything. If it came down to an actual fight, she couldn’t take on Taggart and she knew it. No doubt he did too. And she hated that. Pack law was so different from human rules, and while her animal side acknowledged and understood it, her human side fought against the archaic rules of the Council. Sometimes she worried the eight council members headquartered in Chicago were too out of touch with the changing needs of their kind.
He took a step forward and traced a finger down her cheekbone. Alarm fluttered through her. On instinct, she slapped his hand away. “Don’t touch me.”
His dark eyes flashed in anger, and instead of moving away he grabbed her by the back of her neck and tugged her against him. She started to fight but contained her rage. Her inner wolf told her he wanted her to struggle. She needed to play this right. Among shifters violence against any females was rare, but Taggart was a bastard and nothing he did would surprise Ana. She didn’t know much about his parents, but she’d heard his father had been absolutely archaic in his rules with his pack, and it was obvious the apple hadn’t fallen far from the tree.
“Soon enough you’ll come crawling on your knees, begging to be my mate,” he growled in her ear.
I’d rather die first. “Let. Me. Go.”
“I think I’m going to have a little fun first.” The menacing note in his voice sent up warning bells.
The Cordona women might be small but they were lightning fast. In her shifted form she knew she could outrun him, but she’d have to get away from him first. He grabbed the zipper on her jacket and snapped it down. Adrenaline pumped through her when she realized what he intended.
She kicked at him. He deflected the blow with his thigh. His grip on her tightened for a split second, and then suddenly she was free. Taking her off guard, he shoved at her chest. She hit the ground with a thud.
Thoughts of survival overtook her. She rolled over and prepared to go through the change when he dove on top of her, pinning her to the ground. Her throat tightened as she struggled against him.
“Get off of her!” A loud, dominating male voice roared through the woods, reverberating off the trees.
Taggart shifted his weight, and she didn’t waste the opportunity. Scrambling away, she put a few yards between them. If he made one wrong move, she was going to shift and take off. Her canines were already extending. They pressed painfully against her gums. Her inner wolf begged to be unleashed.
The need to survive was taking over most of her reasoning, and the only thing keeping her from shifting was sheer willpower.
She wasn’t sure where the voice had come from, but she recognized it as sure as she knew her own name. Unless the wind was playing cruel tricks on her. She hadn’t heard that soothing voice in about fifty years. Her mouth dropped open when two men she knew and eight wolves she didn’t recognize appeared from the thickest part of the trees lining their meeting place. By the large size of the wolves it was obvious they were all part of the warrior class. Where alphas were dominant in disposition, warriors were all that and more. By nature, warriors were born fighters. It was something ingrained deep inside them, and Ana had always thought they were a bit more in touch with their inner animal than other shifters. Warriors could be intimidating, but she’d always respected them. They wanted to protect and take care of alphas and betas alike, not only because it was the pack way, but because the need to protect those weaker was in their blood.
Taggart turned and glared at her. “You think you’re so smart, you little bitch. This isn’t over.” He shifted into wolf form with the speed only an Alpha could manage and darted past her in the direction opposite the newcomers.
As she stared at the two men who’d once been her best friends, she wasn’t sure what was going on or why they were there. She truly didn’t care. All thoughts of running away dissipated.
Connor and Liam Armstrong strode toward her, of course dressed in all black. Some things hadn’t changed.
Before she could contemplate whether it was a good idea or not, she launched herself at Liam, but only because he was closest. She wrapped her arms around his neck in a tight hug. “I can’t believe you’re here.”
He returned her hug in equal measure. “Good to see you too, little wolf.” Chuckling, he finally put her down, and she paused for just a moment before wrapping her arms around Connor.
Once upon a time she’d thought she and Connor might be more than friends. Until the day he’d left her without an explanation. Even though he’d taken a little piece of her heart all those years ago, she was still grateful he was with her now.
At first he stiffened under her hold. She started to pull back when he murmured something foreign in her hair—Gaelic, maybe. She couldn’t understand his words, but that deep voice of his sent a warm ribbon of awareness curling through her. She prayed he couldn’t smell her desire. When he put her on her feet, she was speechless as she stared into his bright green eyes. He still had the ability to take her breath away without even trying.
“Did that bastard hurt you?” His words were almost devoid of emotion, but the flash of anger in his eyes gave him away. His green eyes started to turn almost black as the animal in him prepared to take over.
Though she was tempted to say yes, she shook her head and ran a light hand down his arm. The last thing she wanted was for Connor to go after Taggart. If he did, she’d bring down the wrath of Taggart’s entire pack. Considering the Cordonas had no Alpha or male protectors at the moment, she’d be signing death warrants for all her packmates. No matter how much she hated Taggart, she couldn’t risk the fallout. She didn’t know why Connor was there, but he was a nomad and once he left she’d be stuck defending her pack until she could come to an arrangement with the Council. And that was a headache she didn’t want to dwell on now. “I’m fine . . . thanks to you.”
“I should hunt him down.” This time he didn’t bother hiding the rage in his voice. Connor sounded as if he had gravel in his throat as he took a menacing step past her.
She grabbed him and squeezed. “Please don’t. It’s not worth it.”
His muscles flexed under her touch and his breathing was slightly erratic, but at least he stilled.
Looking behind them, she eyed the foreign wolves, then looked back at Connor and Liam. “What are you doing here? And who are they?”
The two men exchanged a guarded look before Connor spoke. “We heard about your pack.”
Suddenly wary, she took a step back. “What exactly have you heard?”
“That your father and your . . . mate”—he seemed to choke on the word—“were killed two months ago.”
Ana had never officially taken a mate, but she didn’t voice that aloud. There was no reason Connor needed to know. “My father and all the males of our pack were poisoned. And all the pregnant females too. My mother wasn’t pregnant, but she died anyway.” Of a broken heart, Ana was certain. It was as if her mother had just given up the will to live once her mate was gone. Even saying that out loud hurt more than Ana could describe, but she pushed past the pain. As current leader of the Cordona pack, she didn’t have time for self-pity.
“How and by whom?” he demanded.
“I don’t have answers to either of those.” Not that she hadn’t tried her damndest to find out who’d killed them. One day all of the males and the pregnant females in her pack had gotten sick, and days later they’d all been dead. Her father, two uncles and their pregnant mates, seven male cousins and their pregnant mates, and Ana’s own intended mate. And then her mother was gone too. Twenty-one members of their pack gone. Just like that. It had happened so fast. They hadn’t realized what was going on at first and by the time they did, it had been too late.
“What did our Council say?”
She snorted softly. “They’re supposed to send someone down to investigate the poisonings, but we’re apparently not very high on the food chain. Probably because we don’t have a lot of political pull now that we’re just a bunch of females.” She didn’t bother to hide the bitterness in her voice. She’d also been holding off on contacting the Council about Taggart’s vandalism. The Council would just view it as weakness and as proof she couldn’t run her own pack. If they found out he’d tried to attack her tonight they would no doubt swiftly and harshly punish Taggart, but the entire situation was a catch-22. Their help would come at a price that would likely mean immediate assimilation with another pack not of her choosing.
Connor stared at her but didn’t say anything. Silence descended over them, and she wished she’d kept her big mouth shut. She hadn’t seen him in a long time and didn’t need to announce her pack’s issues to him. Not to mention that she had a hundred questions—like why he was on her land—but wasn’t sure where to start.
“You cut your hair,” Connor said, breaking the awkward moment.
Self-consciously she raked her fingers through the shorter tresses. Her dark hair barely touched her shoulders now. The last time she’d seen him her hair had been at least a foot longer. She’d also worn bell-bottoms, tie-dyed shirts and tried to emulate Brigitte Bardot. Times had changed and so had she. She shrugged. “It’s been half a century. What did you expect?”
He reached out and fingered it. “I like it.” When his callused fingers trailed over her cheek, her breath caught in her throat.
Despite her desire to remain immune to him, she could feel her cheeks heat up at the statement. It wasn’t even a compliment. Not really. But her traitorous libido didn’t seem to care. It roared to life at those words. After years of being dormant, that’s all it took for her hormones to wake up. Three stupid words.
His hair was shorter now too. And so was Liam’s. Both of them looked liked they’d stepped off the cover of Soldier of Fortune. They wore black cargo pants and black, long-sleeved shirts and had military-style crops. But she didn’t comment. She didn’t want to stand around talking about how much they’d all changed. She needed to get back to her pack. “You said you heard about my pack, but are you just passing through?”
Again they exchanged a look. “Not exactly.”
She frowned at the nonanswer. “Listen, I need to get back. Do you have a place to stay tonight?”
They both shrugged noncommittally.
She bit back a sigh. She’d forgotten how infuriating they could be. “I’m assuming those wolves are with you and that they’re trustworthy. I’ve got two empty cabins that should be big enough to accommodate all of you. A couple of you will have to share rooms, but it’s a place to sleep.” There were more than enough beds and bathrooms for ten wolves.
Back when she’d known them they’d been lone wolves, so it surprised her they had their own pack now. Connor was definitely an Alpha but he’d never seemed interested in a formal leadership role. And leading a group of shifters was a big responsibility. As she assessed the shifters she realized the smaller wolf hiding behind one of the bigger wolves near the back was female.
“The female can stay at my place unless she’s mated. . . .” Her voice trailed off as the reality sank in that Connor could be mated. Hell, he probably was. What sane, single she-wolf wouldn’t scoop him up? Still, she didn’t scent anyone on him, so maybe not. I hope not. She gritted her teeth at the thought. She didn’tcare. If she kept repeating it, maybe she’d believe it.
This time Liam spoke. “Thank you for the offer. Erin’s unmated, and I think it would do her good to have some female company. She’s had a rough year.”
Ana noticed that both Connor and Liam shifted uncomfortably, so she didn’t pursue the topic. She motioned back toward the riding trail that led to her ranch. “I walked here, so if you’re ready, we can head back now.”
Connor nodded and motioned toward the wolves. They paired up in twos and fell in line behind them. Maybe it shouldn’t have surprised her that Connor was now Alpha of his own pack. He was a natural-born leader. Broad shouldered and standing over six feet tall, he was almost a foot taller than her. Of course, most people were taller than her. She stole peeks at him as they headed down the trail.
Even though it was shorter, his hair was still a dark chocolate brown. He was 110 in human years, but he only looked to be about thirty years old. He wouldn’t have any signs of gray hair for a few hundred years to come. There was a sharper, deadlier edge to him that she didn’t remember, but he was still handsome. In a rugged sort of way. And he still had the ability to make her stomach do flip-flops by simply looking at her.
She might be irrationally pleased to see him, but a part of her was terrified over the reason he’d come. It was silly to think he’d hurt her, but what if he wanted to take over her pack? Her family’s land? Or claim one of her sisters as a mate? That was probably the one thing she didn’t think her heart could handle. The thought of him with someone else—someone close to her—made her ache. Worrying about that wouldn’t do her any good now. Soon enough she’d have her answers.
Connor sat on one of Analena’s couches and tried to contain the sexual energy humming through him. So many years had passed and he thought he’d been ready to see her again. All it had taken was one look into those espresso-colored eyes and he’d felt himself falling. Fast and hard.
“Chill, brother. You’re gonna freak her out if she gets a whiff of that lust.” Liam stood by the fireplace with his arms over his chest. He leaned casually against the mantle but he looked tense.
He knew his brother was right, but it was hard to think around her. Pack Alphas talked among one another, and when he’d heard what had happened to the males of her pack he’d known it was time to come back. He’d stayed away long enough, and he’d be damned if he let some other mutt claim what was his.
The sound of footsteps descending the stairs alerted them. Before she even entered the room, he knew it was Ana. Her scent was so distinctive he’d be able to pick her out of a crowded auditorium. Raspberries and sunshine. That’s what he thought of every time she was near.
He automatically stood when she entered the room. Now that she’d taken off that puffy jacket, he could see what he’d been fantasizing about for decades. She was still petite and fragile-looking, but he knew otherwise. The sleeves of her long T-shirt were pushed back, showing lean arms, and her form-fitting jeans did little to hide those tight, muscular legs. The soft curves of her breasts interested him much more.
Liam loudly cleared his throat, jerking him back to reality. He looked at his brother, then at Ana, who hovered by the love seat opposite the couch he’d been sitting on. Instantly he sat back down, and she did the same.
“How’s Erin?” The she-wolf he’d picked up months ago was skittish as hell and he couldn’t help but worry about her. They all did.
Ana’s expression darkened. “I think she’s okay. We put her in one of the guest rooms upstairs, but I think Carmen is going to stay the night with her. It’s a strange place to her and I don’t think she wants to sleep alone.”
Connor nodded. “Yeah, when we found her, she’d been . . .”
She clasped her hands tightly in her lap. “Do you know who hurt her?”
He shook his head. If he’d known, whoever had hurt her would be dead. He wouldn’t have bothered going to the Council to bring them up on charges. “She won’t talk about it.”
She looked pointedly between him and his brother. “Where are your other . . . friends? I thought you said you wanted to talk.”
“We do, but we thought you’d feel more comfortable discussing some things in private. Did you want to invite Carmen and Noël downstairs?”
She shook her head again. “No. My sisters trust me to make any decisions concerning our pack. I’m tired and a little cranky, so let’s just get down to business. Why are you guys here?”
“You need protection.” He and Liam had discussed things earlier, but now that he was actually sitting in front of her, he wondered how well his proposition would go over.
Her dark eyebrows rose. “Oh, really?”
“There are no males left in your pack and you are not an Alpha.” She might be an alpha in nature but she didn’t have the cutthroat qualities it took to lead a pack. It was one of the things he loved about her. She had a steel backbone but was still soft and empathetic, sometimes letting her heart rule her decisions. Or at least that’s how he remembered her. “And if Taggart’s attempted attack on you tonight was any indication, I’d wager he’s been trying to unite his pack with yours for a while. Am I wrong?”
She shrugged noncommittally.
“It’s only a matter of time before someone else comes sniffing around looking to claim control of the Cordona women.” He paused, hoping she’d say something. She knew the Council’s rules as well as he did, and he didn’t want to spell it out to her. Once a pack was officially formed the Alpha in charge was basically supposed to self-govern and deal with internal problems alone. Now that Ana’s Alpha was dead, they were still considered a pack, but they couldn’t continue much longer without an official leader.
“And you’d like to take on the role of our protectors? Out of the goodness of your heart?” Mistrust crept into those dark eyes, and his gut clenched.
“Over the years Liam and I have . . . done well for ourselves. We’ve formed our own pack—one recognized by the Council—and we’re looking to settle down somewhere. Put down roots. All of our packmates are of the warrior class. We have a lot to bring to the table.” Years ago he’d had nothing to offer her. At least now he was more than a lone mongrel with no pack and no real money, trying to win her heart.
“What do you want in exchange for your protection?”
“A place to live and work peacefully.”
“What about the males of your pack? I don’t know anything about them. Are they trustworthy?”
He understood what she was asking even though she didn’t spell it out. “I respect man’s laws and the Council’s laws. No female will be forced into any union they don’t want.”
She relaxed against the couch and absently tapped her finger against the armrest. “I’ll need time to think about this.”
“There is one more thing. If we do this, you’ll no longer be known as the Cordona pack. We will all unite as the Armstrong pack.”
Her head tipped slightly to the side and her luscious mouth pulled into a thin line. “Like you said, if we do this—and that’s a big if—we’ll be called the Armstrong-Cordona pack.” It wasn’t a question.
He looked at his brother, who grinned slightly and nodded. Connor had known she wouldn’t acquiesce that easily. Something deep inside him had always told him he’d run his own pack one day. Now he understood it was his inner wolf, his Alpha begging to get out. While he might not have liked her old man, the name Cordona was still hers, and linking their names wasn’t exactly a hardship. If it got her to accept his protection, he’d do it. “Fine. I also have another stipulation. If and when we combine, I take the mate of my choosing. Immediately.”
Ana’s dark eyes flashed with something he couldn’t put his finger on, but then it was gone. “I’m surprised you’re not mated by now. No one will be forced, but my sisters and cousins have all grown into beautiful women. I don’t think you’ll have any problem convincing—”
“Ana, I don’t think you understand what I’m saying. You are mine.” He hated thinking that she’d been mated to another wolf, but at least they hadn’t been bondmates. If they had been, she’d still carry his mark and possibly his scent. Sometimes even death couldn’t wipe away a bondmate’s scent. Though her mate was now dead, Connor wanted to bury whoever he was all over again. No one else would ever touch what was his.
Her head snapped back up. He wanted to kick himself at the way he’d spoken to her, but he couldn’t take back the words now. She was his. It was about damn time she figured that out.
“I don’t understand. You want to mate with me?” The question came out breathy and seductive as hell. And laced with shock. He couldn’t ignore the not-so-subtle wave that rolled off her.
Even Liam raised his eyebrows at his bluntness and found a spot on the coffee table to stare at.
Connor ignored his brother. He had to refrain from growling as he stared at Ana. “I want you as my bondmate.”
That got her attention. Her spine went ramrod straight. Plenty of shifters mated but they didn’t all bond. Mated shifters could leave if they wanted to, much like how humans divorced one another. Bonding united their kind for life. Even if one of them wanted to leave, they’d be marked and another wolf wouldn’t touch either one of them. It was a big decision and one he knew she wouldn’t make lightly. But when he took her as his mate he wanted her completely.
“Bondmate?” The word sounded almost angry.
He abruptly stood. “I don’t expect your answer right away. We’ll let ourselves out, but we’ll be back in the morning to introduce everyone.”
Frowning, she nodded.
Once they were outside, Liam punched his arm. And not softly.
He glared at him. “What are you, twelve?” he muttered.
“What the hell was that?” his brother growled.
Connor shrugged and ignored the heated look his brother shot him. “I laid out the stipulations.”
“That was not part of the plan. You were supposed to give her a chance to warm up to the idea of mating with you. Then you were going to ask that she bond. Not demand it. Damn it, Connor. You’re such a fucking Neanderthal.”
He clenched his jaw. It probably wasn’t the best decision he’d ever made, but as far as he was concerned his brother was lucky he’d shown as much control as he had. Ana and her family had rejected him once, but things had finally come full circle. It might be selfish to demand her submission now when she was at her weakest, but he couldn’t walk away from her. Not again. “What’s done is done. Let’s go check on the men.”
His brother muttered something about him being a stubborn asshole, but continued walking with him. The memory of Ana’s sweet scent and the shock in her wide brown eyes rolled over him. He should have eased her into things, but walking away right now was taking all the restraint he possessed. The wolf inside him wanted to take her hard and rough, then soft and gentle. For hours. Until neither of them could walk or think straight.
The houses and cabins surrounding the ranch fanned out in a circle around the main house. They were far enough apart that the pack members had some privacy, but close enough that they could alert one another if there was trouble. It was like a little village.
Liam nudged him and nodded toward one of the distant fields. “Hey, what—”
They both paused as an orange ball lit up the sky. “Fire!”
Excerpted from "Alpha Instinct"
Copyright © 2012 Katie Reus.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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