Rosa Alban has been obedient her entire life. But when her alpha husband dies, she seizes the opportunity to flee the oppressive Guardians—the rulers of the secret shapeshifter world. Her flight instantly brands her as a pack traitor, and she has no choice but to seek protection from a neighboring tribe by marrying one of their sons.
Known as the Beast of Merin, Luc Black loyally plays the part of unwanted son and devoted brother. He realizes marrying Rosa will strengthen his tribe’s territory, but he has no intention of loving ever again. Still, he’s unprepared for the intense physical need the wild she-wolf awakens in him.
When the Guardians hone in on Rosa, Luc must fight to protect his new bride. And as war descends, the unlikely allies discover their destinies are irrevocably entwined…
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A Documented Prophecy . . .
Their course, their bearing,
Their permitted way,
And their fate I know,
Unto the end.
Oh! what misery,
Through extreme of woe,
Prophecy will show . . .
From The Mabinogion
Lady Charlotte Guest translation
An Undocumented Prophecy, Until Now . . .
This union, I shall not revile,
For their fear I know,
And their gift.
To bear in silence,
Four secrets hidden,
In circles of raindrops,
Alas, false forfeit gains no vantage.
From deadened earth,
Fevers rise, of lust
Thence they plan,
Upon Ceridwen’s last fertile daughter,
Eight forsaken warriors
For barren not,
Under summer’s first moon,
Comes the prophecy
They most seek.
A drunken toast from Math and Rosa’s wedding feast
CASTELL AVON, HIDDEN WITHIN THE WHITE MOUNTAINS
AVON, NEW HAMPSHIRE, USA
Three days after her husband’s execution, Rosa Alban became a traitor to the Guardians of her race.
Oh, she had committed tiny crimes against her late husband—and her keepers before him—throughout the last three hundred years of her life. But none this final or this openly subversive.
If her plan proved fruitful, there would be no explanations needed, or accepted. To openly defy the Guardians, the self-appointed protectors of her dying lineage, was utter madness—and yet necessary for her battered conscience. She would rather live as a traitor than bear witness to one more act of cruelty in silence.
A cool breeze brushed through the muddied courtyard where she stood. Rosa tugged her jacket closed and scanned the area for anyone who might question her morning excursion. Nothing seemed amiss, but she understood more than most that appearances and reality were often quite different.
Regardless, she mustn’t linger.
The shadow of Castell Avon darkened her path, her wedding gift from the Guardians, a sad comfort for a false marriage. As its name implied, her home was indeed a castle surrounded by rivers, built of stone, mortar and iron laced with gold; her gilded prison on a foundation of sorrow. The tallest turret heralded the Guardian banner, marking her husband’s realm like a medieval hound pissing on this modern age.
Math had not adjusted well to forced anonymity among humans, or to their proclivity for procreation. He had considered himself a god, after all, having walked this earth as both man and wolf for more than two thousand years. Obviously, he’d been wrong—given that the separated portions of his body lay rotting in a casket awaiting shipment to their homeland for burial.
Perhaps she was a tad pitiless, but Rosa felt no remorse over her husband’s death; Math had been a vile creature and his execution well deserved. It had, however, expedited her plan to join the very rebels who had so graciously made her a widow.
As Rosa skirted around outer buildings that housed generators, laundry facilities and other modern amenities kept outside the castle walls, she pretended to ignore a female servant hanging bedsheets on a clothesline. Without pause, Tesni pinned three white pillowcases in a row, signaling that all three Guardians who had come to escort Math’s body back to Wales were still abed. Not necessarily sleeping, just otherwise occupied.
A bibbed skirt made of wool purposely concealed Tesni’s feminine curves. She was of mixed blood, human and Guardian, and bore a combination of her father’s soft features and mother’s fair coloring. Sadly, Tesni was too human to call her wolf. She was also the most attractive of all the female servants and therefore the one who suffered most.
Tesni’s gaze flicked to Rosa with a wordless plea to make haste. Her usually straight posture remained hunched, pronouncing stiffness and misuse from the previous night.
Sorrow-ridden, Rosa knew that Cadan must be in a similar state, and was very likely the reason why the Guardians remained distracted. His room had been empty this morning. She knew because she had checked, even though Cadan had told her not to.
And with that thought in mind, Rosa quickened her pace without looking back.
The surrounding forest was quiet and empty of song. No birds or wildlife inhabited her island, as they recognized death and danger, and the musk of unholy wolves in human skin. Tall trees stood as withered sentries in her path, their roots eroded by water, time and secrets too vile to speak of openly.
Yet for the first time in centuries, Rosa felt exhilaration as she marched toward the only bridge that granted access to modern civilization. Winter’s thaw had just ended in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Melting snow had fed the rivers and cleansed the forest. She sensed vitality in the land beyond, of budding trees and the emergence of life; it called to her inner wolf like moonbeams to a night creature’s soul, luring her with promises of power.
On the opposite side of the river, a carriage house secured the entrance to the bridge, constructed of the same stone and iron as Castell Avon, watched at all times by Math’s guards. The heels of her boots echoed over wooden planks as she crossed, announcing her approach, even above the thunderous sound of rushing water below. If the guards did not allow her to pass, she would be forced to go upriver, but prudence had prompted her to attempt this route first.
There were six of them watching as she drew near. Four men and two women, with resentful eyes filled with lust—or hatred; Rosa preferred the latter. All but one were loyal to her late husband, but even Gareth shifted his stance as if uncomfortable in her presence. Normally only two guards tended the carriage house, but having their eldest Guardian beheaded within his own home had made the others in residence somewhat paranoid.
She stopped before the gated door, the barrier to her freedom, and nodded to each of the guards in turn. She must acknowledge them all equally but not with flirtation. Furthermore, she must never snub them, never encourage unwanted advances, and never dally—or the repercussions were quite unpleasant.
“Rosa.” Gareth greeted her with a slight bow, his voice deceivingly calm. As her secret ally against the Guardians, he had been informed of her plan last evening. Gareth had wanted to accompany her. Judging from his current stance, he still wasn’t pleased about her insistence to go alone.
He had yet to realize that her days of submission were over, even toward the precious few she considered her friends.
The morning sun did little to soften Gareth’s deformed features. Scars knotted his face and neck, weaving a tale of torture and unbendable will. Math had destroyed Gareth’s beauty in a fit of rage over an affair with a mortal. Her late husband had believed that mating with humans weakened their race.
Gareth’s favored jeweled patch covered a deadened left eye, burned to blindness with ice and rock salt. He kept his brown hair shorn to his scalp. Math had preferred it long.
“I’m feeling a bit weak,” Rosa announced as rehearsed, adding weariness to her voice that wasn’t altogether feigned. “I need to get off the island for a few hours. I need to go for a run.”
“I’ll escort you,” Gareth informed her, loud enough for the others to hear.
She had expected a different response but hid her surprise. Gareth, it seemed, had elected to veer from her instructions. With a slight shake of her head, she met his single-eyed gaze to warn him not to test her resolve. “I think it’s best if I go alone.” She added for emphasis, “As usual.”
If he challenged her now it might raise suspicion. A scowl turned his misshapen features into a grotesque mask, a rare show of emotion from a man who’d mastered the art of indifference, even under the most dire of circumstances.
Arnallt, one of the more observant of Math’s guards, shot Gareth a curious glance.
Panic tightened her chest. Thankfully, if naught else, her marriage had schooled her on the art of false composure. One must be duplicitous and enduring to survive under Guardian rule, and she was both.
Rosa continued as if oblivious. “I’ve been ordered to go with the Guardians tomorrow morning. We are to accompany Math’s body back to Wales for burial. I am to stay there through Beltane.” A few crude snickers reached her ears, alerting her that they’d been told of the events awaiting her in their homeland. “My wolf is demanding a run before I climb on that plane.”
The Guardians in residence might question her request but Math’s guards were familiar with her routine. Running as a wolf had been the only freedom Math had allowed her without escort, because when she shifted, many of their kind desired her—and that had angered him.
It was a concession he had allowed after the summer of her seventeenth year. They had married the winter before, and Math had hosted a grand feast the following Solstice. When the hour had drawn late, and the hunt had teased their wolves, Math had brought all his guests outside to witness his new wife transform. It had been a treasured feat, for unmated females of their kind were rare, especially ones who could shift. And Math had always enjoyed flaunting his valued possessions. Like a little caged animal, she had performed, for to do otherwise resulted in the punishment of servants in her stead. She was considered too precious to harm. Even Math had feared the consequences, so he had found other ways.
However, the demonstration had not gone as Math had expected, because his guests had been unable to hide their desire for her.
After that night she’d been allowed to run unaccompanied.
It was, perhaps, the single reason why she had stayed sane. Still, she risked it only when her wolf demanded release, and not nearly as often as she would like. Because, unlike her dead husband, she didn’t particularly care for unnecessary physical attention.
Gareth’s one good eye, dark gray and direct, searched her face. For what, she wasn’t sure, but he must have sensed her determination. “How long will you be?”
“No more than three hours.” She kept her tone subdued, her face downcast, masking her relief. “I’m going to White Birch Reserve and will follow the river.”
It was a lie, of course. If all went well, she wouldn’t return until morning—and with reinforcements by her side as she took control of Castell Avon in her first open act of defiance against the Guardians.
Her neighbors to the north owed her a favor and she fully intended to collect on their debt. Moreover, she knew better than to challenge the Guardians alone. Other than Gareth and Cadan, her only allies in this forsaken place were servants, the Hen Was who could not shift.
She needed more wolves.
She needed an alliance the Guardians would fear.
“Fine.” Gareth lifted his arm for her to pass.
Her back tingled as she entered the recently restored carriage house where horses once slept. The guards watched her until the outer door closed to block their view. She was greeted with darkness, a place she knew well. Stalls had been removed to afford more space for vehicles, all neatly lined up in soundless mechanical rows. It disturbed her senses. She hated the smell of gas that lingered in the air. She missed the soft breaths of beasts, when the sweetness of hay had mingled with the pungent scent of manure.
As expected, the whisper of a door and a brief flash of light warned of a visitor, followed by the smooth cadence of familiar footsteps. The man who resembled a monster moved like a shade, silent and creeping. It didn’t take long for Gareth to find her.
“What has come over you?” she hissed quietly as he drew near. “Go back, or you will ruin our only chance of success.”
“I should be with you.” He sounded sullen even while refusing to heed her warning.
“I told Dylan’s mate I would arrive alone, and I will not go back on my promise!” She barely breathed the words, fearful of detection. Even so, her anger bled through.
“Dylan will forgive an escort. You risked much when you helped his woman escape.”
Rosa scoffed. “Guardians under my husband’s command infiltrated Dylan’s territory and imprisoned his mate. And then, during his mate’s capture, had her mother and several others under his protection tortured and killed. And you think Dylan is going to be forgiving toward the widow of the man responsible? Truly?”
Gareth ignored her sarcasm. “Dylan took his revenge on Math. Had he wanted more deaths, he would have claimed them.”
“Perhaps,” Rosa admitted. “But he is not a leader who tolerates dishonor, or deceit. I must stay faithful to my word.”
He gave a reluctant sigh of agreement. “Don’t mistake Dylan as our ally just because our enemies are the same, nor his brother, Luc. They are not to be trusted.”
“You think I don’t know this?” She found it strange that he hadn’t included the sister in his warning. If rumors were to be believed, Elen was more powerful than both brothers combined. “That is why I need you here to protect the others if I fail.”
“You’re too stubborn to fail.” He gave a crude snort. “That’s not my concern.”
Her vision, always keen in the darkness, saw his marred features in clear detail. Striations of green and gold bled into his one good eye, revealing a wolf that had dwelled too long under the surface of human scars.
“Then what is it?” She shook her head, suddenly confused. “What has you so troubled that you would detain me here at this time?”
His voice thickened with an emotion she chose not to acknowledge. “I fear that in my absence you’ll offer them more than what’s already been given.”
“I’ve nothing to offer them other than an alliance with their closest neighbor.”
“You’re not so naïve.” A bitter laugh fell from his withered lips. “And I’m not one of your idiots to be duped by your guile. You’re the last pure-blooded, unmated shifter of our kind. You’re more precious than any alliance, or parcel of land infested with our vile leaders.”
“I’ll be no man’s breeder,” she sneered, “Guardian or otherwise.”
Unless she chose to be—but that was her decision to make and her gift to give.
He began to protest but was silenced when a side door flung open and a shaft of light streamed into the garage, followed by the lewd voice of a curious guard.
“How long does it take to unlock a door, Gareth?” His lanky silhouette identified him as Briog, one of Math’s favored guards, not for sexual sport but for his creativity toward torture. “I wonder if there is another task to be done, one I might be inclined to assist you with.”
“The woman wants to take the Porsche,” Gareth shot back with convincing annoyance. “It’s mud season. She’s bound to get stuck and I’m in no mood to haul her out.”
“Figures,” Briog said.
Gareth grabbed Rosa’s hand. It took some effort for her not to cringe, more from displeasure than true aversion. She simply didn’t care to be touched. It was her bane of existence that most unmated males felt compelled to fondle her in some way, while her reactions to them were altogether opposite.
“Take my truck.” He pressed a key into her palm. “And I expect you to bring her back unharmed.” His voice left little doubt that it was not his vehicle he spoke of. “There’s a winch under the seat if needed.”
“I will do my best.” She wrapped her hand around the key, grateful Gareth had finally conceded without exposing her mission.
She climbed into the truck and quickly started the engine. The sound was not unpleasant because it always preceded a run, and like Pavlov’s dog, she had found her own peculiar bell. The outer carriage door began to open, filtering in natural light; Gareth must have entered the security code and hit the inner remote.
Electricity had been added to the building during its restoration, a convenience the Guardians hadn’t dared bring across the river. Her island held secrets, powerful forces that even the Guardians feared, contained only by a moving circle of water. Connections inland were unsafe, especially one as volatile as lightning in a wire.
Tendrils of doubt skittered across her spine, made worse by Gareth’s final warning. Was she prepared for the aftermath of what she was about to do? Probably not, and before she had further second thoughts, Rosa adjusted the seat and rearview mirror to her smaller frame and pulled onto the cobbled drive.
As miles separated her from Avon, her tension began to ease. She half expected to be followed, but why would the Guardians suspect her of wrongdoing? Over the last three hundred years, she had given them no cause to doubt her. She had assumed a lifetime of obedience for this singular act of defiance.
When she crossed the New Hampshire border into Maine, sunlight hit her windshield and blinded her with warmth. It was a beautiful spring morning. Aught not the weather show some sign when one turned traitor? Or perhaps this was a sign.
A giggle escaped, an absurdly childish sound for a woman who’d lived as long as she had. Is this what hope feels like? she wondered. If so, this emotion could be quite addictive. With each hour that passed, burdens fell from her shoulders like seeds from a dandelion, wishes floating on the wind wrought with possibilities.
I can drive away, straight into Canada and beyond. I can be free, truly free, if I choose . . .
The selfish thought lasted only a moment, chased away by the image of Tesni hanging pillowcases on the line—with her back hunched because Guardians had violated her the night before. And Rosa mustn’t forget Cadan, as if she ever could, who continued to offer himself, even after Math’s death—for this mission.
And there were others who waited for Rosa’s return. More than thirty Hen Was resided in Castell Avon, forced to be servants because of their inability to shift, and more in the woods. They counted on her to succeed.
At the very least, they trusted her to try. Running away was not an option. She had endured too much—kept silent for too long—to abandon the people who needed her protection at this crucial time.
A war had begun between the Guardians and the rebels who refused to follow their demented ideals, and in times of war it was the innocents who suffered most. She would not leave them stranded, regardless of summer’s rapid approach.
Even so, the mental reminder of the upcoming holiday made her stomach churn with dread. For many of their kind, the first of May brought happy celebrations—but never for her. Her husband was gone from this world, and still he had found a way to punish her.
In four weeks hence, the Guardians and their Council were preparing a grand festival. They meant to reenact an old fertility ritual, suggested by Math before his death, to include Rosa and eight unmated Guardians. Contrary to what they assumed, she had no intention of being a willing participant in their desperate plan.
But, if all went well, her neighbors to the north would be a willing participant in hers, bribery notwithstanding.
RHUDDIN VILLAGE, MAINE
240 MILES NORTHEAST OF AVON
Luc Black watched his brother pace around the gathering room of Rhuddin Hall. A fire had been lit to take the dampness from the air, but the added warmth served only to agitate Luc’s inner wolf. He felt the stone walls close in, wanting—no, needing—to get his ass outside and into the forest.
The room was relatively empty, save for five occupants. Sophie and Joshua, Dylan’s wife and teenage son, sat on the nearest sofa, while Taliesin, the subject of their current debate, sulked in the far corner with a withdrawn expression on his deceivingly young face.
Dylan stopped pacing across the floor and shot Luc a frustrated glance. “You’ve been sitting there quiet as a stone, brother. Come on. Speak up. Let us hear your opinion on the matter.”
Luc would rather clean stalls in the guard’s shit house than serve as referee to an argument between a man and his wife, so he stood to leave instead. “My opinion is pointless when you’ve already promised Sophie that Taliesin can stay. I think my time would be better served having the lake house prepared.”
“Bloody hell, you too?” Dylan sighed in defeated frustration. “I didn’t think he would actually take me up on the offer.”
Ignoring her husband, Sophie gave Luc a grateful smile, one that he welcomed so soon after the death of her mother. Shadows lurked within her soft brown eyes but acceptance had begun to settle, along with determination to move on for the sake of her family.
Absently, Luc fingered a tiny gold charm tied to woven twine around his wrist, two circles that formed a Celtic knot, once worn by Koko, his late wife. He had given her the charm on her fifty-fourth birthday, when her woman’s flow had ceased and not returned, and it had become certain that she wouldn’t carry his child. Koko had been gone more than sixty years now; she had been the balm that soothed his darker half. Now he felt much like the battered charm, worn and broken with time.
Luc understood the grieving process well and admired his sister-in-law for not showing the sorrow he knew she carried. Time lessened the pain of loss but it never diminished, not truly; it just became easier to hide.
“I’ll help.” Joshua jumped up, obviously sensing an escape. Gangly and full of youthful energy, he brought much-needed life back to Rhuddin Hall. And, like Luc, he had wolf blood running through his veins. The woods that surrounded their territory flourished with the song of spring, a powerful temptress that beckoned their inner beasts to play. Joshua toppled an antique side table in a hasty retreat to the door. “Er . . . sorry ’bout that,” he said sheepishly, righting the furniture before tromping next to his uncle. “I can come, right?”
Luc bit back a smile. “Of course.”
Taliesin stretched out his legs before him without standing. His wardrobe looked much like Joshua’s, his age hardly much older. He sported ripped jeans, a faded T-shirt, and worn-out sneakers. His fair hair hung to his shoulders, cleaned and combed, because Sophie had requested it. He was more than two thousand years old and could afford a country if it suited him to buy one.
Taliesin was also a Seer, a curse from the goddess Ceridwen, his mother by birth but not much else. Poor bastard had been raised by the Gwarchodwyr Unfed, the Original Guardians, also blessed by the goddess to transform into wolves to protect her son. Over the years, Ceridwen’s gift had been used for darkness, cruelty and prejudice against humans and weaker members of their race, and therefore, like all misused gifts, dwindled with each passing generation.
It was no wonder that the man was touched in the head. He knew things, and usually not good things. It was a harsh burden to bear, and one that never boded well for the families that housed him. Worse, it was obvious that he had a soft spot for Sophie, like an orphan who had found motherly kindness after centuries of abandonment.
Luc understood the appeal more than most. All the same, he felt for his brother.
With disdain in his tone, as if he’d known his history had been under retrospection and didn’t care for it, Taliesin said, “I wouldn’t bother preparing the lake house.”
That made Luc pause. “Why not? Have you changed your mind about staying?”
“Oh, no, I’m staying. Just not at the lake house.” Eyes that belonged on a woman, the color of the sky before twilight, glazed over with what Luc could only assume indicated a premonition. The haze cleared. Taliesin shrugged absently. “You’re about to have a visitor.”
A chill skittered across the back of his neck, sensing danger in what wasn’t said. “What kind of visitor?”
By the look on Taliesin’s face, very few had the balls to ask about his premonitions, but it would be stupid, and a damn shame, not to use his Sight to their advantage.
After all, if the man was going to stay, he might as well be of some use.
“You’ll see.” His expression became guarded, then aloof; two protective shields that didn’t denote great tidings.
“Are we in danger?” Sophie asked.
Taliesin’s features softened to her concern. “No.” Then he amended, “Not at this time.”
Dylan demanded, “Then who—”
“You know how this works,” Taliesin warned, turning stoic. “I can’t tell you any more without risking repercussions. I’m not allowed to hinder free will and personal choices. When I do, it never works out well for those around me.”
Luc winced for his brother, considering the two people that Taliesin hovered around most were Sophie and Joshua. “That sucks,” he said, using one of his nephew’s modern phrases.
“You think?” Dylan strode over to Joshua and placed a hand on his son’s shoulder. “Stay here while your uncle goes to take a look.”
Luc met his brother’s narrowed glare, always black, like their Roman father. Or so he’d been told, never having known the man who’d died before his birth. Dylan had assumed their father’s role, and Luc would honor him with his own life if necessary for doing so. Acting as second-in-command of their territory was a responsibility that he accepted without question.
Regardless of the fact that it wasn’t a position he wanted; Luc kept that opinion to himself. Still, it was becoming increasingly difficult for him to follow orders—even ones given by the man who’d raised him.
As an alpha, Luc was meant to lead his own territory.
And his beast had begun to demand control in physical ways. He had managed, so far, to contain the attacks internally, but . . . bloody hell they hurt like a bastard, and he could tolerate a fair amount of pain. His insides were continually shredded, literally and without respite, and the struggle had grown tiresome.
He wanted his own territory, but leaving his family during this dangerous time stunk like a betrayal. He’d rather tolerate the silent torment of submission than that particular stench.
“I’ll go warn the others.” Luc took the side exit closest to the inner courtyard, and then made his way to the main gatehouse. His scabbard and sword chafed his thigh as he walked. Over the last century there had been no need to carry weapons on his person, but those days of peace had brutally ended less than a week ago—when the Guardians had come for his sister and left a trail of death in their wake.
A mental image of the carnage fully awakened Luc’s inner wolf, primed and ready for retribution. Not that his wolf ever withdrew far below the surface of his humanity. He tightened his belt and forced his beast to recede, gritting his teeth against the discomfort that action caused, as though twenty keen blades slashed him from the inside out, tearing sinew from bone to free his more dominant half.
If he coughed, there would be blood.
Annoyed by the distraction, he paused and inhaled deeply. Letting his breath out slowly, he willed his muscles to ease. It was almost noon; the sun rode high above the peaks of their mountains, nurturing and warming the newly budded plants and rows of kitchen garden beds. Every shade of green blended in the forest beyond, deep like the furs, and pale with recent growth that would darken each day toward summer.
Nature thrived in untainted glory, a treasure in these modern times of overbuilt cities and depleted resources. It was a treasure their enemies would soon demand control of, now that they were aware.
I will die fighting before I let that happen. His vow satisfied his beast into submission.
Moving forward, he tapped the rungs of the wrought iron gate as he passed to the outer door, giving the guards due warning of his approach. They were jumpy and there was no need to test their responses. Too many false alarms muddled reactions when true danger arrived.
Sarah and Teyrnon, his newly appointed second- and third-in-command, had been assigned to the area directly around Sophie and Joshua. They stood as Luc entered the small building that allowed or refused visitors to the inner courtyard. Not surprising, there was an edge to their stances and darkness in their gazes. They were clearly troubled with what had transpired less than a week ago in their woods.
Reading their apprehension, Luc shared, “Taliesin informs us we are about to have a visitor.”
Sarah began to pace inside the small room. Tall and lithe like all shifters, she had the bright red hair of a Celt, shorn above her shoulders for efficiency. She wore studded leather pants, zippered up on both sides for easy removal before a shift. A scabbard hung from her waist, her hands flexing by her sides, ready. To accommodate her build, her sword was longer than Luc’s, thinner and lighter, but she wielded it with deadly competence if needed.
Luc would know. He had trained her to use it.
“Should we sound the alarm?” she asked.
“Not yet,” he said. “Warn the other guards but not the villagers.”
Their main alarm didn’t consist of modern technology, but rang from the steeple of their local church and meeting hall, where many residents of Rhuddin Village gathered and worshiped. Peaceful faiths were allowed without persecution, a reflection of these modern times, the diversity of their human lineage, and the Constitution of their new country.
They had lived too long in complacency, under the protection of his brother, a strong but fair leader. They had forgotten the cruelty of the Guardians who revered the old ways with self-serving fervor.
Recent events had, however, reminded them.
“Our people are weary,” Luc added. “Let’s not cause unnecessary fear when Taliesin didn’t seem overly concerned. Let’s see who it is before we sound a full alarm.”
No sooner had he spoken than a gray truck slowed and pulled up to the gate. The female driver turned off the ignition and held up her hands. The gesture was either naïve, desperate—or incredibly bold; his instincts warned that it may be a combination of all three.
Teyrnon growled low under his breath. “That’s Rosa Alban. Does the woman think she can just enter our territory without an invitation?”
“We’ve been expecting her,” Luc reminded both guards, a warning not to act without due cause. He and Dylan had discussed in great detail what this woman’s motivations might have been for freeing Sophie from Math’s dungeon. “It seems she’s come to collect her reward sooner rather than later.”
“Well, Dylan did execute her husband,” Sarah pointed out. “In her home, I might add.”
A snide chuckle fell from Teyrnon’s mouth. “Wish I’d been there.”
“The Guardians must have swarmed her afterward. I can’t imagine . . .” Sarah’s somber tone suggested that she could, and did, vividly imagine what Math’s wife had endured in the aftermath of her husband’s death. “I wonder how she managed to get away.”
Teyrnon glared at Sarah, his gaze heavy with censure. He had the rugged build of his Norse father, with tawny hair and a perpetual scowl. “What makes you think she’s here without their knowledge?”
The female guard didn’t cower. “Because when she helped Sophie escape, she also provided information on secret passages into Castell Avon, information that our leader used to our advantage. Why would she do that unless she’s trying to break away?”
Luc let their banter play out, interested in both viewpoints. The two guards paired well together, voicing sound yet opposing arguments. Diverse perspectives were necessary to win battles, and Luc had little doubt that Rosa’s arrival heralded a conflict of some sort in their near future, if not an outright declaration of war against the Guardians.
Either way, he was prepared.
Teyrnon widened his stance, turned his head to spit. “Obviously she’d grown tired of being tupped by a rancid husband.”
“I’m sure she has others wanting that role.” Sarah shook her head. “No, something’s off here. It’s not typical behavior. Guardians take. They demand. They don’t send their precious pure-blooded and unmated females into enemy territory filled with half-human males. I think she’s here for our help.”
“Don’t make assumptions,” Teyrnon growled. “They’re batshit crazy. You can’t rationalize their motives. If you try, it’ll get you killed. Guardians have no conscience, especially the ones with tits.”
On that note, Luc decided to intervene. “We’ll assume the worst until Rosa Alban proves otherwise, but we won’t be cruel. That is their way, not ours.”
Teyrnon looked away at the reprimand, a slight tic at his jawline the only indication of his ire. Luc allowed him a moment to calm his wolf, aware the Norseman’s negative viewpoint toward female Guardians was well-founded.
His homestead had been destroyed by the Guardians in the late 1600s. For daring to live outside their rules, they had burned his fields and slaughtered his animals. Briallen, a Guardian’s wife, had been involved. Her name was common knowledge but not what she’d done to earn the full weight of Teyrnon’s hatred. Luc assumed, as did others, that more than a farm had been ruined that day, but only a drunkard or an idiot would venture to ask the full story.
Because on a good day, Teyrnon was an ass. On a bad day, well . . . most knew to keep a wide berth. He had lived in Rhuddin Village for more than a century now, after offering his services in return for being among others of their kind who opposed the Guardians.
Luc had yet to regret granting his request. Regardless of his habitual pissed-off attitude, or mayhap because of it, Teyrnon was a shrewd and loyal guard.
Lifting the iron latch, Luc slid the gate open just enough to walk through. “Sarah, stay with me as my second. Teyrnon, go warn Dylan of our guest, and then the other guards. Check the north and south entrances of our territory first. Rosa’s arrival may be a decoy.”
The Norseman gave a sharp nod. “Understood.”
After the guard had gone, Luc motioned with his hand for Rosa to step out of the truck, while keeping the other on his scabbard that hung from his waist. She complied slowly, but he sensed her cautious approach was for his benefit and not out of fear on her part.
“I am unarmed,” Rosa announced. Her voice was formal but pleasant, like the sound of a soft Victorian wind. And if he were to be completely honest, so too was the rest of her. This held no importance to him, simply an observation, because oftentimes the vilest of creatures hid under a shell of beauty.
“Then you are stupid, Rosa Alban,” Luc said. “Remove your coat.”
“Just call me Rosa.” She shrugged out of her wool jacket, folded it neatly and placed it on the hood of her truck. “And I would only be stupid if death frightens me . . . which it does not. You are free to search.”
Her hair was the color of golden wine, pulled back into a long plait. She wore snug-fitting black trousers underneath, common boots and a plain green sweater that hung loose to midthigh. Her boots were the only items that appeared purchased rather than handmade.
“Lift your arms,” Luc ordered.
She observed him with unblinking regard—not an act of submission, even though she lifted her arms above her head as instructed.
“You are Luc Black, are you not?” she asked with a curious tilt to her head. “Dylan’s brother.”
Her eyes were a notable color of blue edged with purple that bled to burgundy, reminding him of Elen’s garden in bloom, beautiful in nature but peculiar on a woman. The burgundy, he suspected, was a good sign her wolf was close to the surface, rising, as any of their beasts would, in enemy territory.
“My brother has been expecting you.” Luc chose not to deny her accurate assumption, but grinned instead, aware of the stories that must have reached her ears about him. “We have a few questions.”
He patted her down. A faint hint of vanilla clung to her skin that he didn’t find unpleasant. Most Guardians had a stench about them, like corpses with trapped souls, fetid and unholy. He didn’t sense that from her, which was an intriguing discovery. If memory served, her parents had been the last mated Guardians to produce a pure-blooded female heir. She was a rare and precious commodity indeed, and one who should have succumbed to the darkness that surrounded her.
More interesting, he discovered nothing other than soft curves and a lush give of extra flesh beneath her clothing, a telltale sign that Math’s widow didn’t run often. Shifting produced a higher metabolism that left little fat to be stored, no matter what form one assumed, wolf or human.
As Luc stepped back, he wondered at that oddity. Being the youngest female shifter of their kind, she should have flaunted her wolf, but had contained it instead.
Her control, he realized then, must be great. And a wolf with that much control was more dangerous than most. He knew, because it had taken centuries to learn how to suppress his own; it was a constant struggle that never relinquished. And this woman was what? Three hundred years or so?
A baby to their kind.
Though, he had to admit, she did not look like a baby, but rather a woman who had seen too much brutality in her lifetime. A beauty who exuded power and sensuality, despite her demure guise.
She gave a small nod to Sarah, an acknowledgment of respect that surprised Luc, who didn’t much care for surprises.
“I’m sure you have many questions,” Rosa said. “And I’ll answer them as soon as you take me to Dylan.”
Luc felt his spine tighten at the insult, quickly followed by a shaft of pain that ripped through his rib cage. Outwardly, he remained stoic, hiding the inner tantrum of his darker half.
She had asked for his brother because Dylan was the leader of the Katahdin territory; he was also the person she had keenly manipulated into owing her, at the very least, an audience.
Still, it chafed his wolf, who wanted to decide Rosa’s course in its domain. Two dominants in one territory had always been a challenge. Despite the fact that he was younger, Luc was just as powerful as his brother.
More so, actually, though he kept that secret well hidden.
Having been raised by Dylan, he had learned loyalty before dominance. Honor—Dylan’s, not his—had made that possible.
And yet, this woman had managed to trigger his baser instincts. And over a perfectly logical request, blatant proof that his control was slipping down a dangerous path.
Harsher than intended, he growled, “Follow me.”
Taking note of her surroundings, Rosa trailed Luc down a long corridor toward voices, both male and female. The exterior design of Rhuddin Hall resembled a meld of castle and some of America’s earlier defensive forts, with four well-placed turrets surrounded by a catwalk.
Whereas the interior reminded her of a real home, or what little she’d seen of real homes, and even those examples were mostly from books and magazines she kept hidden within her secret cabin.
Wooden floors gleamed with frequent waxes, and cream-colored paint brightened the interior walls, while an assortment of overstuffed furniture invited comfort. It wasn’t a proclamation of wealth, but rather a place for gathering, a place for family and pack.
The scent of something divine wafted from the kitchens to tease her empty stomach; it decided at that moment to grumble, to her utter embarrassment.
Luc turned to stare. His eyes were pale gray ringed with black, an eerie likeness to liquid mercury, poisonous and yet strangely compelling. “When was the last time you’ve eaten?”
If she wasn’t mistaken, his question held a note of concern. How strange?
Oddly flustered under the full weight of his gaze, she said, “I’m fine.” Although she hadn’t eaten since the night before, which was also unusual for her; food was her only enjoyment in this life and she rarely denied herself its comfort.
To be honest, as she often tried to be with self-reflection, Rosa admitted that she felt unsteady in his company. Not frightened—that would have been a more normal response—just off balance.
Conceivably, it might have something to do with the fact that his touch hadn’t bothered her. She chewed her bottom lip while contemplating that anomaly. His hands had run down the length of her sides, under her sweater and over her stomach, then up her inner thighs, efficiently—and without lingering.
Another oddity, at least for her.
And she couldn’t help but acknowledge that perhaps his exploration had been too indifferent, when, for the first time, she had almost enjoyed the sensation.
More disturbing, she sensed his wolf. She felt it, as if his beast lingered just under the surface of his humanity.
Keeping a few paces between them, she stared at the wide expanse of his back and actually shivered. If Luc was as primed in wolf form as he was in human, then he must be something magnificent to behold.
Her own inner wolf rubbed along her spine in complete agreement with that assessment. The reaction surprised her. Her step even faltered until she righted herself, hoping he hadn’t noticed.
What was wrong with her?
She should be afraid.
She should be, at the very least, detached, as she planned to negotiate the future protection of her people. Instead, she wondered what it would be like to run with him, to let their wolves free and just run . . .
Shaking her head, Rosa redirected her thoughts to a more useful purpose. She considered what little she knew of Luc, quite certain that some of her information was untrue given the source.
Math had called this man the Beast of Merin on more than one occasion, a moniker coined by the Guardians upon Luc’s birth. Having been born in wolf form to an Original Guardian, Luc was the youngest son of Merin, one of the more influential, and frightening, members of the Council.
Excerpted from "Summer Moon"
Copyright © 2014 Jan DeLima.
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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Praise for the Celtic Moon
“A haunting tale, a page-turner woven with skill and care. DeLima is a delicious new voice.”—Yasmine Galenorn, New York Times bestselling author of Crimson Veil
“DeLima’s debut is a romantic, suspenseful, and rich story about survival and loyalty to those who matter most.”—Booklist
“Celtic Moon has a great werewolf world…A fun start to a new paranormal series.”—USAToday.com
“A welcome addition to the paranormal romance world arrives with this terrific debut novel from DeLima. Blending Celtic mythology, shapeshifters, and magic, Celtic Moon is not only an absorbing adventure; it is a story of reconciliation and acceptance. DeLima really brings these characters to life.”—RT Book Reviews
“Original and compelling…A shifter story that stands out from the crowd!”—GraveTells