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The wolf was on his feet again, standing by the door. She forgot her resolve not to stare. Magnificent was the only word for him, even as shaky as he was. He lifted one paw and scraped it against the door, turning to look at her in a way that couldn't be misunderstood.
He wanted out. Alex felt a sudden, inexplicable panic.
He wasn't ready. Only moments before she'd been debating what to do with him, and now her decision was being forced.
Once she opened that door he'd be gone, obeying instincts older and more powerful than the ephemeral trust he'd given her on the edge of death. In his weakened state once back in the woods, he'd search out the easiest prey he could find.
Livestock. Man's possessions, lethally guarded by guns and poison.
Alex backed away, toward the hall closet where she kept her seldom-used dart gun. In Canada she and her fellow researchers had used guns like it to capture wolves for collaring and transfer to new homes in the northern United States. She hadn't expected to need it here.
Now she didn't have any choice. Shadow leaned against the wall patiently as she retrieved the gun and loaded it out of his sight. She tucked it into the loose waistband of her jeans, at the small of her back, and started toward the door.
Shadow wagged his tail. Only once, and slowly, but the simple gesture cut her to the heart. It was as if he saw her as another wolf. As if he recognized what she'd tried to do for him. She edged to the opposite side of the door and opened it.
Biting air swirled into the warmth of the cabin. Shadow stepped out, lifting his muzzle to the sky, breathing in a thousand subtle scents Alex couldn't begin to imagine.
She followed him and sat at the edge of the porch as he walked stiffly into the clearing. "What are you?" she murmured. "Were you captive once? Were you cut off from your own kind?"
He heard her, pausing in his business and pricking his ears. Golden eyes held answers she couldn't interpret with mere human senses.
"I know what you aren't, Shadow. You aren't meant to be anyone's pet. Or something to be kept in a cage and stared at. I wish to God I could let you go."
The wolf whuffed softly. He looked toward the forest, and Alex stiffened, reaching for the dart gun. But he turned back and came to her again, lifted his paw and set it very deliberately on her knee.
Needing her. Trusting her. Accepting. His huge paw felt warm and familiar, like a friend's touch.
Once she'd loved being touched. By her mother, by her grandparentsby Peter. She'd fought so hard to get over that need, that weakness.
Alex raised her hand and felt it tremble. She let her fingers brush the wolf's thick ruff, stroke down along his massive shoulder. Shadow sighed and closed his eyes to slits of contentment.
Oh, God. In a minute she'd be flinging her arms around his great shaggy neck. Wrong, wrong. He was a wolf, not a pet dog. She withdrew her hands and clasped them in her lap.
He nudged her hand. His eyes, amber and intelligent, regarded her without deception. Like no human eyes in the world.
"I won't let them kill you, Shadow," she said hoarsely. "No matter what you are, or what happens. I'll help you. I promise." She closed her eyes. "I've made promises I wasn't able to keep, but not this time. Not this time."
Promises. One to a strange, lost boy weeping over the bodies of two murdered wolves. A boy who, like the first Shadow, she'd never found again.
And another promise to her mother, who had died to save her.
The ghost of one had returned to her at last.
The wolf whined and patted her knee, his claws snagging on her jeans. A gentle snow began to fall, thick wet flakes that kissed Alex's cheeks with the sweetness of a lover. She turned her face up to the sky's caress. Shadow leaned against her heavily, his black pelt dusted with snowflakes.
If only I could go back, she thought. Back to the time when happiness had been such a simple thing, when a wolf could be a friend and fairy tales were real. She sank her fingers deeper into Shadow's fur.
If onlyyou were human. A man as loyal, as protective, as fundamentally honest as a wolf with its own. A man who could never exist in the real world. A fairy-tale hero, a prince ensorcelled.
She allowed herself a bitter smile. The exact opposite of Peter, in fact.
And you think you'd deserve such a man if he did exist?
She killed that line of thought before it could take hold, forcing her fingers to unclench from Shadow's fur. "What am I going to do, Shadow?" she said.
The wolf set his forepaws on the porch and heaved his body up, struggling to lift himself to the low platform. Alex watched his efforts with a last grasp at objectivity.
Now. Dart him now, and there will still be time to contact the ADC. She clawed at the dart gun and pulled it from her waistband.
But Shadow looked up at her in that precise moment, and she was lost. "I can't," she whispered. She let her arm go slack. The dart gun fell from her nerveless fingers, landing in the snow. She stared at it blindly.
Teeth that could rend and tear so efficiently closed with utmost gentleness around her empty hand. Shadow tugged until she had no choice but to look at him again.
She knew what he wanted. She hesitated only a moment before opening the door. Shadow padded into the cabin and found the place she had made for him by the stove, stretching out full length on the old braided rug, chin on paws.
"You've made it easy for me, haven't you?" she asked him, closing the door behind her. "You're trapped, and I can keep you here until...until I can figure out what to do with you."
The wolf gazed at her so steadily that she was almost certain that he'd known exactly what he was doing. She wanted to go to him and huddle close, feel the warmth of his great body and the sumptuous texture of his fur. But she had risked too much already. In the morning she'd have to reach a decision about him, and she knew how this would endhow it must endsooner or later.
Shadow would be gone, and she'd be alone.
Feeling decades older than her twenty-seven years, Alex took her journal from the kitchen and retreated into the darkness of her bedroom. She paused at the door, her hand on the knob, and closed it with firm and deliberate pressure.
She stripped off her clothes and hung them neatly in the tiny closet, retrieving a clean pair of long underwear. The journal lay open on the old wooden bed table, waiting for the night's final entry.
It's ironic, Mother. I thought I'd become strong. Objective. I can't even succeed in this.
Her flannel bedsheets were cold; she drew the blankets up high around her chin, an old childhood habit she'd never shaken. Once it had made her feel safe, as if her mother's own hands had tucked her in. Now it only made her remember how false a comfort it truly was.
It was a long time before she slept. The sun was streaming through the curtains when she woke again. She lay very still, cherishing the ephemeral happiness that came to her at the very edge of waking.
She wasn't alone. There was warmth behind her on the bed, a familiar weight at her back that pulled down the mattress. The pressure of another body, masculine and solid.
Peter. She kept her eyes closed. It wasn't often that Peter slept the night through and was still beside her when she woke. And when he was...
His hand brushed her hip, hot through the knit fabric of her long underwear. When Peter was with her in the morning, it was because he wanted to make love. She gasped silently as his palm moved down to the upper edge of her thigh and then back up again, drawing the hem of her top up and up until he found skin.
Alex shuddered. It had been so long. Her belly tightened in anticipation. Peter wanted her. He wanted her. His fingers stroked along her ribs with delicate tenderness. They brushed the lower edge of her breast. Her nipples hardened almost painfully.
The arousal was a release, running hot in her blood. In a moment she would roll over and into his arms. In a moment she'd give herself up to the sex, to the searing intensity of physical closeness, seizing it for as long as it lasted.
But for now Peter was caressing her gently, without his usual impatiencetaking time to make her ready, to feed her excitementand she savored it. She wouldn't ruin the moment with words. Peter wasn't usually so silent. He liked talking before and after making love. About his plans, his ambitions. Their future.
All she could hear of him now was his breathing, sonorous and steady. His palm rested at the curve of her waist, the fingers making small circles on her skin.
His fingers. Callused fingers. She could feel their slight roughness. Blunt at the tips, not tapered. Big hands.
Big hands. Too big.
Wrongness washed through her in a wave of adrenaline. She snapped open her eyes and stared at the cracked face of the old-fashioned alarm clock beside the bed. Granddad's alarm clock. And beyond, the wood plank walls of the cabin.
Not the apartment. Her cabin. Not the king-size bed but her slightly sprung double.
The hand at her waist stilled.
Alex jerked her legs and found them trapped under an implacable weight. A guttural, groaning sigh sounded in her ear.
Very slowly she turned her head.
A man lay beside her, sprawled across the bed with one leg pinning the blankets over hers. A perfectly naked magnificently muscled stranger. His body was curled toward her, head resting on one arm. His other hand was on her skin. Straight, thick black hair shadowed his face.
Alex did no more than tense her body, but that was enough. The man moved; the muscles of his torso and flat belly rippled as he stretched and lifted his head. Yellow eyes met her gaze through the veil of his hair.
Yellow eyes. Clear as sunlight, fathomless as ancient amber. Eyes that almost stopped her heart.
For an instantone wayward, crazy instantAlex knew him. And then that bizarre sensation passed to be replaced with far more pragmatic instincts. She twisted and bucked to free her legs and shoved him violently, knocking his hand from her body. His eyes widened as he rocked backward on the narrow bed, clawed at the sheets and rolled over the far edge.
Alex tore the covers away and leaped from the bed remembering belatedly that she'd left the dart gun outside, and Granddad's old rifle was firmly locked away in the hall closet. She spun for the door just as the man scrambled to his feet, tossing the hair from his eyes. Her hand had barely touched the doorknob when he lunged across the bed and grabbed her wrist in an iron grip.
Treacherous terror surged in her. She lashed out, and he caught her other hand. She stared at the man with his strange, piercing eyes and remembered she was not truly alone.
A wolf slept just beyond her door. A wolf that had trusted and accepted her as if she were a member of his pack. One of his own kind. A wolf that seemed to recognize the name she had given him.
"Shadow," she cried. It came out as a whisper. "Shadow! "
The man twitched. The muscles of his strong jaw stood out in sharp relief beneath tanned skin, and his fingers loosened around her wrists for one vital instant.
Alex didn't think. She ripped her arms free of his grasp, clasped her hands into a single fist and struck him with all her strength.