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Abitter mountain breeze wrapped around his long frame, whipping his shaggy hair against the furrowed ridges of his brow as Jeremy Burns hiked through the Maryland forest. Like a wrathful banshee, the relentless autumn winds howled with fury, while his fellow Bloodrunner, Cian Hennessey, quietly kept pace at his side.
They'd been working their way through the woods for a good fifteen minutes now, each step taking Jeremy closer to the last place on earth that he wanted to be. His muscles were hard with tension, biceps bulging against the seams of his shirt, his skin fever-hot despite the chill of the air. Blood pumped through his veins in a powerful, heavy rhythm, his heart hammering like a drum, senses honed to a razor's edge, sharp and precise.
And it was all because of a girl. All because of a woman.
That was the relentless, infuriating thought burning its way through his tired mind as he hiked, the silvery moonlight glinting against the ravaged limbs of the trees, making them look like gnarled monsters in the shadowed darkness. But monsters didn't scare him. Hell, he was one of the monsters, complete with fangs and fur and a deadly appetite that could get him into trouble should he fail to exercise fierce controlwhich was why he always kept a white-knuckled grip on the animal side of his nature. For a Bloodrunner, losing control was never an option, but then neither was fear.And Jeremy had done a damn good job of mastering bothuntil it came to her.
He hated to admit it, but he was terrified by the growing knot of anticipation inside of him. The one that kept sniffing at the nighttime air, eager for a whiff of that lone, perfect fragrance that never failed to drive him out of his mind. Honeyed and womanly warm. Earthy and rich. It'd been woven into the very fabric of his soul, imprinted upon his senses like a tattoo needled into his skin. Just the thought of that mouthwatering scent made him hard and aching, not to mention irritable as hell.
"Do you think she'll be there?" he muttered in a gritty rasp, slanting a look toward the man at his side.
"Who?" Cian pulled a pack of cigarettes from his jacket pocket and flicked a sharp glance toward Jeremy, his pale gray eyes shadowed beneath the thick veil of his lashes. "The Murphy witch?"
"Who else?" he grunted impatiently. Jillian Murphy was the only woman on his mindand the Irishman damn well knew it.
Taking a long drag from his now smoldering cigarette, Cian lifted his right brow in a cynical arch. "What? I'm psychic now, as well as irresistible?"
"Trust me, I have no problem resisting you," Jeremy quietly snarled, narrowing his eyes on the grinning bastard. Normally he enjoyed trading barbs with the Irishman, but not tonight. Tonight he was too tense, too bitter to have a sense of humor.
As if impervious to the thread of warning in his words, Cian barked a rich, husky laugh. "Aw, there it is. I knew your inner smart-ass was hiding in there somewhere, Burns. And to answer your question, yes, I think she'll be there. Why else do you think I decided to tag along?" His white teeth flashed in a taunting smile. "I'm here for moral support, you know."
"Moral support my ass. More like you're here so that you can run back to the Alley with some juicy gossip for the others." Jeremy knew his partner, Mason Dillinger, and the other Bloodrunners would be champing at the bit to hear the details of his first night back. "Face it, Hennessey. I'm on
The soft words trailed off as the mountain winds suddenly surged from a new direction, swelling with power. Jeremy inhaled with a sharp, deep breath, and his head immediately shot back as if he'd been clipped under the chin.
Oh, god. There it was. Like a messenger in the night, the shivering breeze carried the fertile scents of the forest
and something more. Something lush and achingly familiar. Something that goddamn belonged to him.
With no choice but to follow the primal, ruthless dictates of his beastof his wolfJeremy found himself staring up at the starry canopy of the bruise-colored sky. His feet were no longer moving, his entire being focused on taking in more of that decadent, head-spinning scent, so richly spiced that he could actually taste it.
That is so damn good, he thought with a low growl, wanting to roll the evocative flavor around on his tongue, savoring it like some strange, illicit pleasure. All it took was that instant flash of recognition, and the sweetly addictive scent melted into his skin, into his bones and blood and the violent, erratic pounding of his heart.
Jesus, he was so screwed. He had to be stronger than this, dammit.
Shaking his head to clear it, Jeremy silently cursed himself for being so easily seduced. He pushed his shaking hands back through the windblown strands of his hair, then shoved them deep in the pockets of his weathered jeans and forced himself to keep hiking.
It still amazed him that this was actually happening. That he was on his way back to the pack of werewolves who looked on his half-human heritage as a stain, an aberrationsomething that made him less than worthy. Because of his past, he knew it was a mistake to tempt fate by going back to the mountaintop town of Shadow Peak, the place the Silver-crest called home. But he didn't have a choice. He'd drawn the shortest straw among the Runners, making it his mission to catch the traitor who was tempting Lycans to turn rogue, to hunt innocent humans as prey, and teaching them how to dayshift. Rogues were dangerous enough bastards on the best of days, but show them how to take the shape of their beasts beneath the heat of the sun and they became that much more difficult to hunt down
not to mention kill. Jeremy figured he should know, considering his scars were still healing from his last run in with a group of them.
And now he could sense that Jillian was near. The woman who was meant to be his lifemate. The woman who was meant to make him complete.
As if, he silently snarled. Instead, this dark, seething need for her only made him feel hollow and raw, as if a part of him had been peeled away and amputated. He wanted so badly to ignore her existence, to forget, but it was impossible. And god only knew that he'd tried. For a long time, he'd mistakenly thought he could bury his memories and anger and bitterness in a warm, willing body. But no matter how eager or solicitous his bed partners were, he'd never been able to move past the fact that they weren't the one he truly wanted.
Pathetic. And now look at him, practically panting as he tried to breathe Jillian into his system like a drowning man gulping at air.
Maybe he'd have been able to handle it better if he'd had more time to prepare, but the chain of events that set this night in motion had come hard and fast. A mere seven days ago, Mason had defeated the rogue werewolf Anthony Simmons in a challenge to the death. The Bloodrunners had gathered that next evening at Mason's cabin and drawn straws to determine who would return to the pack to track down the traitorthe one who had been controlling Simmons. Like a bad joke, Jeremy's straw had been the shortest, and in a nightmarish daze, he'd found himself going before the Silvercrest's governing body, the League of Elders. He'd submitted his rogue kills, claiming his right to rejoin the pack as a full-fledged member, then served as best man at Mason's wedding. That had been two days agoand here he was, on his way home. He'd barely had time to pack and settle things at his cabin, much less get his head in order.
Rubbing one hand against the back of his neck, Jeremy shuddered as a soft current of air suddenly slithered across his skin, leaving a spray of goose bumps in its wake. The cool eastern breeze snaked its way through the swaying trees, ruffling his hair as the wind caressed his face and arms with another eerie stroke of warning. Go back, it seemed to whisper within his ear. Go back, while you still can.
Pine needles crackled beneath his booted feet as he shook off the unsettling sensation and navigated his way through the last thick fringes of the forest. They were getting close. Up ahead, his keen eyesight allowed him to make out the hazy glow of the torch-lit clearing where the Silvercrest were-wolves conducted business better suited to the wild than the civilized atmosphere of their secluded town, built on private land a few miles up the mountain.
A half minute later, the sounds from the clearing reached their ears. It was obviously a Challenge Night, just as Dylan Riggs, the youngest Silvercrest Elder and unlikely friend to the Runners, had informed them that afternoon.
"We're almost at the clearing," Cian muttered at his side, lighting another cigarette by pressing the end to the glowing orange tip of the first. "I'm not ashamed to say that I always hated this place when I was younger. It gives me the creeps."
"Yeah, I know what you mean." Jeremy lifted his head and sniffed the air. It was thick and heavy with tension, all but cloying against his skin. Tonight's fight must be an unusual one, he thought with a wondering frown. Male agitation rose sharply on the wind, but with the women it was sizzling and swift, like a burning fuse.
It was imperative that he stay alert and concentrate, but Jillian's scent grew more intense the higher they hiked, revealing her explosive emotions at the same time it messed with his head. She was scared tonight, on edge, filled with an overwhelming sense of dread, but Jeremy knew she'd be putting on a brave face for the pack she considered hers, though she was witch, not wolf.
The women of her bloodline had served the Silvercrest werewolves for centuries, gifting them with their powers. When her mother, Constance, stepped down from her place as Spirit Walker, Jillian had assumed the vital role of healer and spiritual leader of the pack. He knew they loved her, respected her and looked up to her, though she was still a young woman of twenty-eight. And why shouldn't they? She'd given her entire life to them. Hell, she'd even turned her back on him for the sake of her precious pack of werewolves.
"That sounds like one hell of a fight," Cian murmured. He grunted in agreement, his sense of foreboding growing stronger, edgier.
Low grumblings from the onlookers now provided a steady background of sound, layered beneath the harsh breaths of the opponents as they battled against one another, the occasional howl belted out by the crowd scraping across the calming sounds of the forest like sharp blasts of a weapon.
"Give up, bitch," a woman's guttural voice sneered, "and I just might let you die easy, instead of ripping you apart, piece by piece."
Jeremy's eyes went wide at the realization that the opponents were female. It wasn't unheard of for one woman to challenge another, but then it wasn't exactly common, either.
"What a delightful-sounding shrew," Cian snickered, his lips twisting into a wry smile as he pretended to shudder. "Reminds me why I've vowed to remain eternally single."
A high-pitched cry rent the air in the next instant, echoing through the forest, and that same voice snarled, "Oh, yeah, you're mine now."
He bit back a curse, thinking that voice sounded suspiciously familiar. "It's Danna Gibson," he stated flatly.
Cian sent him a comical look of disbelief, then chuckled softly under his breath. "Christ, your luck just can't get any worse."
Jeremy had to agree. This night was going to be awkward enough without running in to one of his old girlfriends, especially Danna. Not that he and the Lycan had ever had anything serious. He'd dated her a handful of times when he was younger, before Jillian had come home from school and he'd felt the call of a lifemate for the little witch. After that, Jillian had been the only woman he was interested in. But his reputation as a young man who enjoyed his sexual variety had been hard to shake. The girls he'd had flings with in the past, like Danna, had been jealous of his sudden, possessive interest in Jillian, and her parents had simply hated his guts. Rumors about his so-called continued sexual conquests had kept the gossipmongers busy, but he'd tried to ignore them, focusing all his attention on getting the shy Jillian to give him a chance.
Instead, it'd all blown up in his face, and in the end, it'd been Danna who Jillian had accused him of fooling around with the same day he and the little witch had shared their first and only kiss. The same day Jillian had told him she was finally ready to give a relationship between them a chance, after having fought what was between them for months.
Months that had felt like goddamn years, Jeremy had wanted her so badly.
After he'd left the pack, he'd heard that Danna had gone on to marry a small-brained, chauvinistic jerk, and been miserable ever since. Tonight wasn't the first time she'd challenged another femaleand if her husband's track record was anything to go by, it wouldn't be the last. Magnus Gibson was like a dog in heat, slobbering after anything with a pulse.
Jeremy shook his head in disgust. If it was a true match based on love, the males of his kind were never tempted to stray from the loyalty pledged to their wives
but when couples were married without belonging to one another both in heart and soul, well, the rules of nature changed. Sad, but all too true.
"I wonder what the hell's going on up there." He cut Cian a questioning look from the corner of his eye, but the Irishman lifted one shoulder in a hell-if-I-know gesture, his attention warily focused on the warm glow of light up ahead. "Whatever it is, I've got a bad feeling about it," the Runner grunted, a deep crease seated between his ebony brows.
"Yeah. Me, too."
When a new voice, soft and smoky and lilting, rang out through the night, Jeremy nearly tripped over the gnarled root of a sprawling oak tree. "For the last time, Danna, I did not touch your mate."
Oh, hell. The voice behind those words knocked the air from his lungs like a vicious kick to the chest. Jeremy slammed to a jarring stop, while senses already sharpened to precision revved into overdrive. His mind didn't want to accept it, but his body knew the truth.
It was her.
He was close enough to scent the damning details now, everything narrowing into a concentrated focus that had him pulling in angry gulps of air, greedy for every drop he could take in. The sensory intake was shocking and almost painful in its intensity, the heat of her lush little body, all hot and angry from battle, nearly doubling him over, while panic suddenly had him exploding into action.
He shoved a low-hanging branch out of his way, wondering what the hell she'd gotten herself into this time. Even though Jillian had the blood of a wolf flowing through her veins, the fact she was witch made it impossible for her to shape-shift. Danna was twice Jillian's size and as vicious as a pit bull, not to mention underhandedno doubt the Lycan was cheating like hell.
And what in god's name was Jillian doing fighting one of her own wolves?
Vaguely aware of Cian at his side, Jeremy's booted feet moved faster with the speed of his thoughts, until he finally broke through the last yards of the forest at a full run, erupting onto the edge of the clearing in a blur of movement. Then he nearly staggered to his knees, his legs all but crumpling beneath him as he took in the scene playing out before him like some kind of macabre nightmare.
Jillian Murphy stood in the center of the Challenge Circlebeautiful, brave and bleeding.
And she was about to die.