A Blood Moon Rising companion novella
A DARKNESS THAT HAS SOUGHT HER TOUCH FOR TEN YEARS…
Alpha werewolf Breanna Whiteclaw and her pack are finally safe—or are they?
When a handsome stranger shows up at her mating celebration, she thinks he’s simply another visiting alpha coming to pay his respects. However, no one seems able to see him except for her…
AN ALPHA WHO WILL DO ANYTHING TO PROTECT HIS MATE…
Ex-bounty hunter Marcus—formerly known as Shadow, scourge of the Underworld—is scared to death. Not only is he falling for Breanna fast, he’s suddenly terrified of losing her, having never been this close to anyone before.
Imagine his concern when she confesses a handsome stranger is stalking her—concern not just about the stalking part—though that’s pretty bad—but the handsome part as well.
AN OBSESSION THAT WON’T DIE…
Breanna begins to dream of the stranger. Or are they dreams at all? As surreal fantasy becomes terrifying reality, Breanna learns there’s more to her dark prince than appears. He’s hiding something—not only about his origins but also his motives.
He wants a lot more than Breanna’s love—he wants her soul. And he’s not afraid to kill to get it.
The final book in the Blood Moon Rising series.
Marcus’s mouth was amazing, Breanna decided as he kissed his way up her jawline. With the mating ceremony officially over, the room was now empty, making the moment feel that much more intimate. Shivers rippled over her flushed skin as he ran his rough palms over her stomach and hips, then her thighs and breasts. His touch awoke her inner critic.
You’re too muscular, with no curves to speak of. Do you think anybody could want that?
Feeling self-conscious, she started to cover herself with the satiny bedsheet, when Marcus whispered, “Your body is incredible.”
Her hand froze mid-tug, and her heart skipped a beat. The thought that he found her body desirable and not repulsive was hard to wrap her head around at first. She wasn’t ugly by any means, but she lacked the feminine hourglass shape she so coveted.
Her throat grew tight, and her eyes began to burn. Dammit, she hated crying. She could hear Bear’s voice in her head. “Crying makes you weak. As an Alpha, Breanna, you must never, ever appear weak.”
Marcus’s exploration of her body halted as she tensed. His expression changed from lustful to freaking out in a nanosecond. “Fuck, what did I do?”
She blinked. “What?”
He immediately withdrew his hands and sat up. The moonlight pouring in through the open window highlighted every jagged scar, every rise and dip of muscle on his back. God, he was gorgeous. He wasn’t a pretty boy or even handsome in the traditional sense. There was a hardness to him in the way he carried himself, a brutal beauty that was both faintly terrifying and absolutely mesmerizing. She found she couldn’t take her eyes off him, and could believe even less that he was hers.
He ran a hand through his dark hair. It glistened with sweat. “Shit, I’m sorry. I got carried away.”
“Wait,” she said, sitting up to snag his wrist as he began to stand.
He turned to look at her, a question in his guarded gaze. With that penetrating stare on her, she suddenly didn’t know what to say. Wetting her lips, she said carefully, “It’s fine. You didn’t do anything wrong.”
His brows furrowed.
“If anything, it’s me,” she rambled.
Tense silence stretched as he stood, not moving, waiting for her to elaborate.
Crap. Since when the hell had she ever been tongue-tied? When did she grow to care so much about what this man, whom she used to despise more than any other person on the planet, thought of her?
His towering presence made her feel insignificant and small, something only Bear used to be able to accomplish. Straightening her spine, she forced herself to look him in the eyes and said, “I’m… insecure. About my body, that is.”
He blinked. “You? Insecure?” He snorted. “Now you’re just screwing with me.”
Irritation flared. “I’m serious.” Even as she said it, she subconsciously drew the sheets up to cover herself, not realizing she’d done so until Marcus was eyeing it as though he wanted to set the silk on fire.
Marcus didn’t move. He grew very still, his face softening as she held his gaze. Slowly, he sat down beside her. She scooted over, making room for his large body.
He rested both palms on the edge of the bed. “Why?”
It was her turn to blink in surprise. Was he serious? He was going to make her spell it out for him? Her face heated, and she fumbled with a wad of the bedsheet, twisting and turning it. She stared at it with a ferocity that spoke of borderline obsession, as if it had suddenly become the most fascinating subject in the world. “Well, there was this guy—”
She could practically feel his inner wolf’s hackles raise. “Guy?”
“Who’s long gone,” she added hastily. “We’re not a thing anymore. Not that we ever were. It was more like a one-night fling, if you know what I mean.” She wanted to slap her forehead. Way to go, Breanna. Make yourself sound like a ho. That’ll make him respect you more.
If her word vomit bothered him, he didn’t let on. “Continue.”
The rest of it spilled out of her as if a floodgate had been opened, and she wished her mouth had an off switch. Marcus’s ability to reduce her to a babbling little girl irritated the hell out of her, but she found herself unable to stop jabbering. “It’s just that I’ve been told I’m too skinny. That my muscles are too hard, that I’m not what men are after—”
Marcus shot to his feet. “Who the fuck cares what the hell some imbecile with half a brain and a two-inch cock thinks? I meant what I said—you’re an incredible woman. You know how to fight—Christ, do you know how to fight—and you clearly take care of your body. You care about your physique, and there’s not a damn thing wrong with that.”
Her jaw dropped.
He bent over, cupped her face in the palms of his massive hands. His gaze glowed faintly gold as he said, “I meant every word. You amaze me. Your dedication to your pack, your take-no-shit attitude… all of it blows me away. I’ve never met a woman quite like you. You’re addicting as hell, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to get enough.”
He kissed her hard then, and every drop of fear she’d felt about judgment melted away. Actually, pretty much all thought evaporated as his hot tongue slipped into her mouth, tangling with hers. God, the things he could do with his tongue alone blew her mind. He gently pushed her back onto the bed as he reached up to cup her breasts, kneading each small handful.
“I love these,” he rasped before kissing her hard again. She groaned as he squeezed her breasts together and ran the calloused pads of his thumbs over her tightened nipples. “They’re just enough to fit into each hand perfectly. Makes it feel really good when I do this…” He slightly pressed against her nipples as he played with her breasts, making her back arch and eliciting a satisfied gasp.
“I also love this graceful curve,” he whispered against her neck, smattering it with ghost kisses that sent chills fleeting across her skin. “It’s so damn sexy and mesmerizing. Every time you lift your hair up or tie it back and I glimpse your neck, I start to get hard.”
Already, she could feel him swelling against her thigh. She practically purred, lifting her hips to rub her sex against his as heat flooded her bloodstream. Her nails dug into the considerable muscles of his arms as he leaned forward slightly, pressing the crown of his cock against her dampness. A small moan tore from her throat, along with a tickle of anticipation for the moment he’d make them one again.
She hadn’t easily forgotten the last time—their first time—all that girth filling her up, stretching, prodding, and sliding deep within her. She wanted—needed—him again. Needed him to be inside her now.
“I’m burning for you,” she said in a throaty whisper, all need, want, and lust.
He growled low in his throat, his eyes darkening with something that sent a delicious shiver running through her. He wanted her too, just as badly as she wanted him. She could feel the hum of his lust in her bones, feeling the pulse of their desire through their newfound matebond. She felt a whirlwind of emotions swirl within her mate—fear, excitement, happiness, lust, and adoration.
With her knees still bent over the side of the bed, he reached down to caress her bud. She whimpered as he stroked and petted, slowly slipping his fingers into her. He pressed as far as he could go, until she cried out in pleasure as a white-hot spark met his touch.
“You like it when I touch you there?” he asked.
She nodded. “Yes.”
“Do you want me to do it again?”
More fervent nodding.
He slipped into her again, adding a finger. She spread her legs wider, allowed him deeper access. His hand was big enough that he used his thumb to trace lazy circles around her clit. She whimpered, writhing beneath his hand.
“Does this drive you insane?”
Was that the understatement of the century? Her hips rocked against his hand as he glided his fingers in and out, in and out, whipping her body into a frenzy of sexual need. She was going to come unglued if he didn’t finish what he’d started.
“Baby, you’re so wet,” he said, his voice coming out low and harsh. “I think you might be ready for me.”
She’d been ready an eternity ago, but she didn’t have enough brain function left to voice that.
The hardened tip of his cock bulged against her folds. “I don’t have the self-control to hold back,” he breathed against her neck, which he’d been lavishing in kisses. “I need to be inside you again.”
Lifting his head, he looked into her eyes as he entered her slowly, delicately, with all the care of a collector handling a fragile, priceless work of art. Fear flickered through his eyes as he said, “Let me know if I hurt you.”
True, she was a bit sore from last time. A mark in his favor, in her opinion, considering she hadn’t had that kind of soreness since her first time with a man.
Touched by his concern, she reached up to frame his face between her hands, holding his gaze. “I’m fine,” she breathed.
He thrust a bit farther, filling her up, stretching her inch by delicious inch. She never looked away, not even as he fully sheathed himself, groaning long and deep as he arched his back and closed his eyes. He finally pulled back and slid inside her again, this time picking up a steady, easy rhythm. He bent his head to kiss her as he took her hands, linking his fingers with hers, and pressed them against the bed to either side of her head. He held her there as he made love to her, pinning her to the bed with his body while his hips pumped at a leisurely pace.
“God, you feel so good around me,” he said, breaking the kiss long enough to speak. He kissed her again, a bit rougher this time, as his hips quickened. “So hot and tight. A perfect fit, like a glove.”
She could say the same for him—he was perfect. His size was borderline too big, but her body had seemed to adapt well enough. A delicious ache started to build inside her, pulsing with every thrust.
“Marcus,” she whimpered, frantically grinding her sex against his. There was a thudding sound in the background, but all her other senses were dulled. She was enslaved by his touch, his lips, and his cock. All that mattered right now was Marcus and what he was doing to her body.
He let go of her hands and stood, seized her hips, and yanked her hard onto his cock. His thrusts came harder, faster. Her nails dug into the bed, morphing into claws, shredding the fine sweat-stained silk as he pumped, still clutching her hips. “How’s that, baby? Does that feel good?”
“Yes!” It was more a moan, a demand to keep going, that she needed more, more, more—
It was like a bomb went off inside her. The ferocity of his lovemaking sent her hurtling toward her climax, and she spasmed around him, clenching.
“God!” he growled and came a moment later. His hotness filled her, and he thrust a few more times before his tempo slowed and he collapsed onto the bed beside her. Their chests heaved as they caught their breaths. He reached over to brush a strand of damp hair out of her eyes. “How was that?”
She gave him a breathless, satisfied smile. Feeling mischievous, she gave a carefree shrug. “It was fine.”
A brow raised, he propped himself up on one elbow. “Fine?”
His eyes flashed gold as he started to move over her again. “That sounds like a challenge.” He leaned forward so his lips grazed her ear. “How would you like to orgasm three times in a row?”
Her eyes widened. Was that possible? Usually when she hopped into bed with someone, the deed was over and done in a frenzy of sweat and flesh. Her heart began to race, and she licked her lips. “I’d say your ego is bigger than your cock.”
That got a grin out of him. “Oh, honey, nothing’s bigger than—”
“For the love of all that’s holy, open this damned door!”
Someone began to pound relentlessly on the door, so hard that it rattled on the hinges.
Ah, so there was someone at the door, Breanna thought as they both sat up. Well, Marcus bolted upright and whirled, fangs bared, eyes blazing golden fire. Breanna recognized that look, and warning bells went off inside her head. “Marcus, wait!” she said, diving for him, but he’d already shot out of bed and stalked toward the door. She leapt out of bed, scrambling to cover herself with the bedsheet.
“Insubordinate pup, I’ll rip off his fucking head for daring to be so rude,” Marcus growled under his breath. Grabbing the knob, he yanked open the door. The light from the hallway fell on his very naked body—and illuminated the contours of Breanna’s body through the bedsheet.
Jack stood there, gaze flinty as he stared Marcus down.
Breanna stood about two feet behind Marcus, the bedsheet pulled up, barely covering her breasts and sex… and leaving very little to the imagination.
Jack’s gaze flitted past Marcus and landed on her. His pupils dilated slightly with lust as his eyes paused on her breasts, the nipples of which were peaked against the sheet.
She hastily crossed her arms and cleared her throat at the same time Marcus gave a vicious growl.
“Keep eyefucking my mate, and I’ll rip your eyeballs out and flush them down the toilet—after taking a shit on them.”
Not ruffled in the least, Jack turned back to Marcus. “The guests are here, and the party’s about to start. Everybody’s waiting for you downstairs in the ballroom.”
“Thank you very much, Jack,” Breanna intervened, stepping forward and putting a soothing hand on her mate’s lower back, as if to calm his inner wolf’s protective tendencies. “We’ll be down shortly.”
“Yeah,” Marcus drawled, a satisfied smirk on his face, “we need to bathe first.”
Jack’s answering growl was nearly inaudible. His gaze swept Marcus’s body, landing on his sex. His cock was still wet and a bit hard, jutting out from between his legs, as if proud of its conquests.
Jack looked unimpressed. Breanna already knew what he was going to say. She opened her mouth to speak, to cut him off before he started World War Wolf.
Looking directly at Marcus, Jack flashed a wicked smile.
Breanna couldn’t even suck in a tight breath before all hell broke loose. The fur, fangs, and claws flew as both men abruptly shifted into wolf form. Marcus’s black wolf fought Jack’s golden one in a vicious brawl that rattled the floors and sent sprays of blood onto the walls.
Cursing, Breanna secured the bedsheet around her, knotting it at her breasts, and tore down the hallway after them. Staff and guards yelped and darted out of the way as the blur of fur rushed by, breaking vases, wrecking heirlooms, and turning over furniture. In essence, it looked as though a tornado had moved through the house. Or a wrecking ball, Breanna thought as she leapt over debris and hurtled down the stairs after them.
Growls ripped through the air as the wolves tumbled and fell.
“Stop!” Breanna yelled, but her voice was barely audible above the ruckus. Damn it all. This wasn’t working.
The two wolves landed in the hall, slamming against the wall opposite the stairwell. Drywall cracked and flaked to the floor. The wolves circled one another, neither willing to tuck tail and run—or surrender. But Breanna already knew with those two knuckleheads, there was no chance of that happening.
She stopped at the base of the stairs, hands on hips, a frown on her face. “Seriously, gentlemen? We’re going to have a ‘my dick is bigger than yours’ contest right now?”
He started it, came both wolves’ voices inside her head via their telepathic packlink.
She smacked her forehead. “You realize you two sound like children.”
Well, he’s about to get schooled, Marcus growled and lunged for Jack. The golden wolf deftly dodged his attack. Well, sort of. His tail caught in Marcus’s mouth. Marcus clamped down, making Jack yelp, and spun, sending the other wolf flying. Jack crashed into a table with a fantastic clatter. Everything on it fell to the floor and broke.
Breanna didn’t bother suppressing her warning growl. “Stop. Breaking. My. Shit.”
It was no use. The two danced in a deadly game, lunging, snapping, and clawing at one another’s throats and muzzles. They tackled each other all the way down the hall, Breanna following and quickly losing her temper. She eyed the guards standing nearby, who watched her with questioning gazes.
Damn. She couldn’t tell them to break up the fight, or else her mate—the now Alpha King of this freaking pack—would appear weak. And Jack would be butt-hurt if she had the guards pull him away first.
“Damn werewolves and their territorial, Alpha-male bullshit,” she cursed under her breath as she ran after them.
The hum of multiple conversations grew louder as they neared the ballroom, where all their guests were waiting.
Fantastic, she thought with acidic glee. Time to end this nonsense, before they made a spectacle of themselves. And a mockery of this Alpha-dom.
“Block the ballroom doors!” she ordered, gesturing to the closest guards.
Somewhat startled, they sprang into action, slamming the doors shut and bracing themselves for the wolves locked in a bitter fight.
Breanna started to shift mid-run, shedding her human flesh for a coat of silky smoke-colored fur. Her nails turned to claws, her teeth to fangs. She always relished the change, the magical process of becoming something more. Something stronger. Something tougher. Something badass.
Something… that should’ve been paying more attention to her surroundings.
It was like something out of a cartoon. One minute, she was going all Alpha werewolf. The next, her paw got tangled in that damn bedsheet she’d been sporting as a makeshift dress. She lost her balance, slipping and skidding on the sheet as she tried to regain her footing.
“Your Highness, here! Let me help you!” yelled one of the guards, rushing forward to untangle her. He stepped on the other end of the sheet as he bent to grab it. The knotted part, which had been caught around her paw, snapped free.
So did she—right smack in the middle of Marcus and Jack. The three of them rolled like a freaking werewolf bowling ball, striking a pile of guards and ramming the ballroom doors wide open. Light orchestral music filled the air, along with a chorus of yelps and curses as the three wolves, tangled in one another’s limbs as they all three apparently tried unshifting at the exact same time, skidded across the freshly mopped marble floors. Breanna’s ass smarted as it kissed cold marble, and the three of them at last came to a stop.
Jack groaned, grabbing at his lower back as he arched in all his naked glory. “Fuuuuuucccckkkkk!”
Breanna noticed a gaggle of female wolves eyeing his manhood—and the rest of the package—appreciatively. They began giggling, pointing, and blushing like a bunch of teenage schoolgirls.
In no mood for their shit, Breanna bared her teeth and snapped at them. Startled, the girls scampered off.
Marcus was the first to his feet, though judging by how slowly he’d risen, he was feeling the fight. He offered Breanna a hand, and she took it, standing beside her mate while Jack continued to groan on the floor. A lovely purple bruise was blooming on Jack’s forehead, marring the perfection of his otherwise-gorgeous face.
The music had stopped, and every head was turned their way. Some looked on in amusement, openly surveying the goods on all three of them, while others looked horrified and disgusted.
Breanna could already hear Bear’s voice in her head.
“Number one rule of navigating pack politics… do nothing to embarrass the pack.”
It wasn’t a PR disaster, exactly, but it was pretty damn close to one.
Her guards had quickly dressed her, Marcus, and Jack, though Jack seemed more interested in flirting—naked, might she add—with anything that had a vagina.
After giving some half-assed excuse to the startled guests that “wolves will be wolves,” Breanna all but pulled Marcus from the room so they could get into some appropriate party attire.
She silently fumed as they walked back up the stairs, passing staff busily cleaning the mess Jack, Marcus, and she had made.
“Bre… come on, baby, talk to me.”
She didn’t say a word, striding purposefully toward their room.
He started to grab her hand.
She jerked free and whirled on him. “Not now. Not a word until we’re inside our room.” Before he could answer, she’d done an about-face and finished stomping toward their suite. Once they were inside, Marcus quietly shut the door, as if making too loud a noise might cause her to detonate. Hell, it very well might, as hot as her temper was running. She had Bear to thank for that. He’d had a fearsome temper too, whereas her mother had been all sugar and honey.
“Just what the hell was that?” she asked, rounding on Marcus and slapping his chest.
“What was what?” he answered with an innocent grin. The bruises and claw and bite marks across his body were starting to heal and fade.
“You know what.” Propping her fists up on her hips, she tapped her foot, waiting for an answer.
Seeing she wasn’t going to buckle, he sighed and cracked his neck. “I don’t know. I saw the way he was looking at you, and I just… well, snapped.”
“Cut me a break, would you?” He moved past her, going toward the closet, and started to pull on some clothes that had been brought to him. They would do until he had time to do his own shopping—and until the clothes from his apartment arrived. One of his former packmates had been kind enough to pack them up and ship them to him. “I’m a freshly mated werewolf,” he added over his shoulder, changing out of the T-shirt and sweatpants and into dress slacks and a nice button-down. “I’m going to be a little edgy for a while when it comes to you.”
Part of the fight drained out of her.
Part of it.
Gritting her teeth—dammit, her gums were starting to ache too, from all the teeth-clenching—she stomped toward him. “You can’t just fly off the handle every time some wolf challenges your authority. That’s going to happen a lot now, especially since you’re new.”
His jaw tensed. “Yeah, thanks for reminding me I’m the outsider here.”
“That’s not what I meant, and you know it.” She crossed her arms. Her head dipped as she tried looking him in the eyes, but he avoided her gaze. A stony look had plastered itself to his face.
She pursed her lips, wondering if she had gone too far. Time to back off a little and change tactics. Softening her voice, she said, “Look, Marcus, I know you’re relatively new to the realm of pack politics, but sometimes, an Alpha has to fight his battles with… well, with brains rather than brawn. We have to find diplomatic solutions, even when all we want to do is knock somebody’s block off.”
He turned to face her, the shirt regretfully buttoned. “You’re saying I don’t have what it takes to be an Alpha?”
“What? That’s not what I’m saying at all.”
“It’s exactly what you’re saying. Look, where I come from, there’s one rule to being the Alpha—to stay in charge, to protect what’s yours, you have to be willing to get your claws bloody. I’m not letting anyone walk all over me and mine.”
“No one’s asking you to! All I’m asking is that you show some self-control.”
Giving her one last terse look, he stalked toward the door. Opening it, he gripped the door with a white-knuckled grip and heaved a tight, long sigh. “Look, I’m not going to make any promises. I’m a hothead.”
“That’s an understatement.”
“You’re not perfect yourself there, sweetheart. But I will attempt to be civil. That’s all I can promise.” With that, he slammed the door and was gone.
Breanna sighed and ran her hands through her hair before massaging her neck. God, every muscle in her body felt knotted up, and it had nothing to do with the ass beating and humiliation she’d just endured. It had everything to do with a cocky-ass Alpha who made her blood sing.
Gritting her teeth, she grumbled, “Why does he have to be so difficult?”
Pot, have you met kettle? She told her sub-conscience to shove it and headed toward the bathroom. What she needed to work these kinks out of her body and to wash away her woes was a nice, long, hot shower. That, sleep, and a box of chocolate-covered cherries could just about cure whatever ailed her.
Slipping into the shower, Breanna lingered under the hot water, trying not to think, but without success.
Was she wrong in bringing Marcus here? Did he really feel like an outsider? True, he hadn’t received a very warm welcome. But then again, neither had she. She was still treading on thin ice with several members of her pack—and would be for some time, she imagined, until she proved her worth as Alpha. Thanks to the whole Strider fiasco, she had a long way to go in earning back her pack’s trust. The scene she, Marcus, and Jack had made downstairs, in front of every important royal werewolf in the state of Virginia, hadn’t enhanced her qualifications to run this pack, either.
Sighing, she reluctantly stepped out of the water and toweled off. Lingering in the steam a moment longer, she prepped herself mentally for what she had to do: face all those narcissistic assholes—er, she meant, her esteemed guests—and opened the door.
Icy air blasted her, chilling her to the bone and making gooseflesh pop along her skin. Good grief, even with her warmer werewolf blood, the air was downright arctic.
“Hello?” she called, watching her breath fog in the air.
All the lights were out in the room, save for the silvery moonlight pouring in through the window, which was definitely closed. Not that leaving the window open would’ve made it this cold, considering it was only in the high forties outside.
Shadows danced along the walls and floor as she padded out into the room, her senses wired. There was no paranormal tingle, no hint of another presence there. But still… there was something different about the air. As if it had a magical hum to it that made her bones tingle. Then again, that could be the frostbite setting in.
“Huh,” she said, stumped and shivering. In fact, her teeth might have been starting to rattle. Time for some clothes.
After shrugging on a gauzy dress the color of raspberries, she flicked on the lights and turned on the electric fireplace. She would’ve preferred listening to the crackling of flames merrily lapping at kindling, but her father had preferred the less-messy conveniences of modern technology.
After the room began to heat up, she started toward the door and paused.
“What the…?” She moved toward the bed. She hadn’t noticed it before and marveled at how she could have missed it.
There, nestled among the messy silk sheets, was a single white rose.
Well, “white” wasn’t quite right. It looked almost see-through, as though it were made of crystal. Its petals had a glossy, iridescent sheen to them that shone with rainbow colors when the light hit them, kind of like a bubble. The stem was also crystalline.
Transfixed, she couldn’t help but reach out and touch it. Picking it up, she was surprised to find it felt just like holding a real rose. It wasn’t hard and cold, as she’d expected. The petals were velvety soft to the touch. Twirling it, her thumb rolled over a thorn, and she winced as it pricked her skin.
She squinted. Was that… was that a spark of gold light she’d seen wriggle under her skin as the wound closed up? Nah, must be her imagination. She was tired and stressed, mentally and physically, and her mind was making up things that weren’t there.
Intrigued by the unusual rose, she held it to her nose and sniffed. It was unlike any rose she’d ever smelled, all honey, chocolate cake, and sun-warmed grass. It smelled like happiness and reminded her of happier times long gone.
A warm feeling filled her inside. It turned into something hotter, something that burned and smoldered at her core. Her breasts began to ache, begging to be touched, as lust flooded her veins. Ghost-like touches of invisible rough hands caressed her skin, sliding and exploring. They dipped lower, teasingly close to the place she most needed stroking. The smell of the rose intensified as her eyes fluttered closed, and she threw her head back with a moan.
“Come to me,” commanded a sinful voice, as dark as night and all around her.
She felt a warm presence behind her, as if someone were standing there.
“Beautiful Breanna,” murmured the voice beside her ear.
She almost muttered, “Marcus,” then a thought struck her.
That voice didn’t belong to Marcus.
Her brain snapped out of its bewitchment, and she dropped the rose with a yelp. It shattered on the floor, literally exploded in a poof of glittering fairy dust before evaporating altogether.
She stared in shock for only a second before whirling to find—absolutely no one behind her.
“What?” she panted, heart racing as she spun around. The room was empty.
Chills of a different kind crept up her arms and legs. Hugging herself, she raced out of the room, shutting the door, and scampered down the hall.
The Dark One watched her go, invisible to her senses. His body was still amped up from being in her presence. He’d been so close to being able to touch her this time, he could practically feel the silk of her hair sliding through his fingers. And the way her body had responded to his scent… he couldn’t wait to run his hands all over her delicious curves and drive her wild with pleasure.
He smiled to himself, pleased. The plan couldn’t have gone any better. It had taken every drop of power in him to actually leave the Essence Blossom in her plane of existence, but he’d managed pull it off. And she had pricked her finger. The Binding had begun.
And, very soon, she would at last be his.
Ballrooms weren’t Marcus’s thing, no matter how grand or magnificent. He’d had his fill of them while in service to Drake’s pack.
Not that the current ballroom he stood in wasn’t up to par in any way. It was rather beautiful, he glumly admitted. Golden marble flooring with dark chocolate swirls and red shimmering flecks. Pale-turquoise walls set with ivory-colored sculptures, accented with ruby-red vases of bright-green flora. A big-ass chandelier of curling gold vines with crystal leaves crowned the ceiling. Which some poor sap had painted the entirety of, Marcus noted with a hint of awe, to resemble a night sky alight with the grandeur and beauty of the cosmos. Now, that shit was impressive.
All in all, the ballroom was, in a word, lovely. Not overly ostentatious or showy to the point of being obnoxious, like the rest of the house. Honestly, he’d been glad he and Jack had laid waste to the gaudy flowery wallpaper, with their big-ass flowers and loud colors. Looking at that eyesore had given him a headache, but unfortunately, the entire freaking house seemed to be papered in that garbage.
He wondered how Breanna would feel about redecorating, especially since he and Jack had gotten a head start on it.
He grimaced. If she would talk to him. She’d been pretty pissed, and who could blame her? Up until their earlier argument, she’d treated him like an equal, like an adult, and hadn’t scolded, schooled, or lectured him on the intricacies of pack politics. He knew how delicate some relationships across allied packs could be. Many, he’d figured, were threadbare after Bear had been exposed for the monster he was and the Whiteclaw name was soiled. Marcus knew Breanna was fighting an uphill battle if she wanted to regain equal footing in this world of cutthroats.
And what had he done? He’d let his fists do all the talking just because some reject from a cologne commercial had insulted his package. He had to make it up to her, no matter what. Behave himself and act like a big wolf. That, unfortunately, meant pasting on a smile and playing the part of Alpha.
But after about fifteen minutes with these fake, self-serving pricks, Marcus had decided he’d rather take on a vampire-zombie horde than tolerate this torture for another second. Being all kissy-face with a bunch of royal werewolves was something he’d sworn he would never do after seeing Drake, his former Alpha, have his soul sucked out of him every time he had to interact with a group of back-stabbing assholes. No, thank you. Doctors couldn’t prescribe a high enough dosage of Xanax to get him to mellow out enough to put up with royal weres.
Yet, here he was, making nice to people he didn’t even like and sure as hell didn’t respect. All because of a gorgeous Alpha female who made him hotter—and harder—than hell.
He was still gritting his teeth over their argument. Seriously, where did she get off preaching to him about how to behave? He was an Alpha, damn it. He had been one even before he’d officially “worn” the title. He’d act however he damn well pleased, politics be damned.
Sometimes, he missed his old days as an “invisible” security guard. No one paid attention to the help. And he had been just fine with that. Less headache dealing with other people’s shit. Less having to pretend he actually liked someone he despised, like this clingy little Alpha’s daughter sucking up to him now.
In fact, it had been kind of hard to bat off the women when he’d first entered the ballroom. They’d swarmed him like flies to honey, pawing, simpering, and complimenting his physique. He knew good and well the only thing they were hoping to gain was a midnight shag, and that shit wasn’t going to happen. No way was he ever cheating on his woman. He had too much pride as a man for that. Not to mention none of those girls could hold a candle to Breanna.
The first few girls had given up—or had been dragged off by their daddies, thank God. But one, a scrawny little blonde with too much spray-on tan and pink—freaking pink—highlights just wouldn’t take no for an answer and scram. Plus, she looked about sixteen, with enough makeup piled on to rival a lady of the night. She acted like a teen too, so help him.
“Wow, they really are as hard as they look!” she squealed, gripping his biceps and digging her hot pink nails in.
“Stop that,” he snapped, taking a step back.
She took a step with him. It was like some invisible glue held them together, and he couldn’t figure out how to get away. He felt ridiculous. No true Alpha ever ran from a fight… even if it was a battle of wills alone.
“Oh, come on. You said you’d let me touch if I was a good girl.”
“I said no such thing. Don’t you have an Alpha here to run off to? A nice werewolf boy, perhaps?”
“I don’t want a boy. Why would I when I could have a man?” She made to grab his crotch.
He leaped away so quickly, one would think he’d been electrocuted. “What the fuck do you think you’re doing?”
“Sampling the goods. I want to see if you really are as big as you looked when you first wrecked this lame party.”
A few royals nearby snickered at his predicament. He glared at them and had a brief moment of satisfaction as he watched the blood drain out of their faces when they looked away. Now, why the hell couldn’t the infamous Shadow Death Glare work on blondie here?
“Just leave me alone,” he snarled, turning to stalk away, and smacked right into a wall. Dammit it all, he was getting reckless. Never would he have allowed himself to not pay attention to his surroundings when he was with the Black Moon Pack or working security intel for Drake. This place—and Breanna—made him let his guard down. Made him feel safe.
And if life had taught him anything, it was that “safe” was a dangerous place to be. It made him careless and would get him killed if he wasn’t careful. He made a mental note to shape up as he tried maneuvering around his groupie. She pinned him to the wall with surprising strength. Teen werewolves were usually a bit stronger than normal, thanks to all those paranormal hormones fucking with their system.
She pressed a hand to his chest, her pink sequined gown glittering as she wriggled against him. He went tense all over as she stood on her tiptoes and whispered in his ear, “I’ve never been with a man before.”
“I bet you haven’t, sweetheart.”
She licked his ear. “Do you like virgin?”
“No, but I do, Angel,” said a silky voice laced faintly with venom.
Blondie—Angel—went ramrod straight. Stiffly, she turned around to find a poised Breanna staring at her evenly, hands on her hips, a pleasant smile on her face. And flames in her eyes.
Angel didn’t dare move as Breanna walked up beside her and said in a low voice, “You have ten seconds to get the hell out of my house before I find your dad and tell him you’re here.”
“Whoever said my name is Angel?”
“Please, sweetheart. The wig and all the makeup isn’t fooling anyone.”
Outrage flashed across Angel’s face, and her mouth flopped open, as if to argue.
“Say one word, and I’ll rip your tongue out,” Breanna growled, eyes flashing gold in warning. “Now, get out.”
Angel stumbled over her six-inch heels as she backed away. Wisely, she didn’t speak as she tucked tail and ran through the crowd and out the door.
The gold faded from Breanna’s gaze. Squeezing her eyes closed, she inhaled a deep breath and let it out slowly. Marcus could see the tension literally leaking out of her shoulders as she exhaled. When she opened her eyes again, she looked much calmer—although dead-tired. And stressed. There was a tightness to her features that hinted at unspoken worries. He could take a few guesses as to what those were… including the uncomfortable assumption that he was probably ranking among the top of her list of worries. Suddenly, he felt bad for putting her through so much stress. She was an Alpha. All Alphas had a huge burden to bear in taking care of a pack. Not to mention, her particular pack had suffered some pretty hard blows lately.
His gut clenching with guilt, he said gently, “Hey, you okay?”
“I’m better now that Hormones in Heels is gone.”
“That makes two of us. I didn’t think I was going to get rid of her. She stuck to me like glue.”
“Angel… has a complicated home life. Her father and mother are active social climbers and don’t pay her much attention. She was kind of a chunky, clumsy kid growing up and was picked on a lot, from what I hear. She’s very self-conscious about her weight. I think it’s because guys seem to flock to her since she lost all those pounds, though she only seems interested in the men she can’t have. But she craves the attention all her would-be suitors give her because it validates her self-worth.”
“Damn. You have a PhD in psychology?”
“No, but I know some of what she’s going through. I recognize the symptoms of low self-esteem.”
Marcus gazed at her with quiet sympathy. Bear hadn’t struck him as the doting-father type. It must have been hard for her to grow up with him, always wondering if she was loved as a person or valued only as a pawn in pack politics.
“Well, that earlier spectacle was quite a way to start a party.”
Marcus started to growl, feeling his inner wolf’s hackles raise, but Breanna put a hand on his arm to calm him. Smiling pleasantly, with a hint of steel to her eyes, she turned to face their company. “Lyra. Bron. So good of you to come.”
The couple facing them could only be described as severe. The haughty posture, the way they seemed to naturally look down at Breanna and Marcus—well, mostly Marcus—and the lines creasing their faces—probably made worse from a lifetime of frowning, was Marcus’s guess—all screamed, “We take ourselves way too seriously.” Their clothing was immaculate—not a wrinkle to be found—in bold colors of crimson, black, and silver. Not to mention that said clothing—a crimson skirt suit for Lyra and a black suit with a silver tie for Bron—was expensive. Marcus recognized tailor-made when he saw it, having spent plenty of time around royals in his previous position as a body guard. The man, Bron, had his hands folded over the top of an ebony cane with a gold snarling wolf head at its top.
Marcus resisted the urge to sneer. He’d seen their type plenty of times: the old-blood werewolves who thought just because their family names had been around a long time, they were somehow better than the no-name werewolves, the ones who had been made and not born a werewolf. These old blood types had somehow forgotten that once upon a time, their bloodlines had also been human.
Breanna, playing the part of gracious hostess with practiced poise and elegance, gestured to her mate. “Marcus, this is Bron Frost, Alpha of the Frost Mountain Pack, and his mate, Lyra.”
Neither of them smiled or nodded. They continued staring at Marcus as if he were an insect. And Marcus was all too happy to give them a glare right back.
A muscle in Breanna’s jaw twitched, but that was the only indication she was bothered by the slight. She gestured to Marcus. “Bron, Lyra, this is—”
“We know who he is,” Bron said, surveying Marcus with glittering malice in his eyes. “Who he really is.”
Now, Breanna looked pissed. She glowered at Bron as he went on, “You’re the Shadow. The legendary bounty hunter of the enigmatic Black Moon Pack.”
Marcus’s mouth pinched into a tight, white line. “I don’t go by that name anymore.”
“Names like that, histories like yours, are like a stain—they never quite wash out.”
Breanna’s eyes flashed gold in warning as she stepped forward. Lyra snagged her by the arm, halting her. “Let’s let the men speak alone, shall we?” she said, her voice all cool elegance.
Breanna’s eyes flicked to Marcus’s. He gave her a quick nod. I can handle this, he told her through their matebond. He’s not the first overbearing prick I’ve had to deal with. I doubt he’ll be the last. Might as well use him to make a statement that I can’t be pushed around.
She looked again at Bron. At last, she said, Be on your guard, and let Lyra pull her away through the crowd, toward a table set with bubbling champagne flutes.
Marcus’s eyes trailed his mate, admiring the view of her lovely ass, before returning to the wolf in front of him. Time to show him, and every asshole in this room with similar thoughts, who the biggest, baddest wolf in the room was. He crossed his arms, straightening his back. “You have something to say, so let’s hear it.”
Bron grinned, looking very much like a villain from a fairy tale. “You’re a man who likes to cut to the chase, so to speak. I appreciate that, being a businessman myself.” He lowered his voice, casting an anxious glance over either shoulder. “Speaking of business, I have a proposition for you.”
“Not interested,” Marcus said and began walking away.
The cane snapped up, halting Marcus’s retreat. He raised a brow, half-tempted to snap the cane like a toothpick. Which probably wouldn’t be the wisest move, considering it was most likely a family heirloom since it had the pack’s motto, “The Howl of Fury on the Wind,” carved into the shiny wood. The silver letters, hand-carved he’d bet, looked worn from use, almost to the point of illegibility. Almost.
“Hear me out,” Bron said tightly, seemingly affronted Marcus had dismissed him so easily.
Marcus looked at him, then back at his stick. “Before or after I break your cane?”
After a moment’s pause, the cane came back down. Bron propped both hands atop it, leaning on it as he sized Marcus up with a pinched look on his face. “You’re in the business of tracking people down. I’m in the business of making money.”
“I don’t do that anymore.”
“Name your price.”
“Sorry, pal; I can’t be bought.” He glanced at Breanna, who was walking toward the gardens alongside Lyra and looking none too happy about it.
In another lifetime, sure, he might be tempted. But now… now he had more to consider than his own selfish wants and needs. The needs of his mate—his pack—had to come first. And if he gave in to this son of a bitch now, scratched his itch for the familiar and the brutal, he might not be able to come back from it. Word would spread, and people would start testing him to see how far they could exploit his skills. He would make more enemies—and the list was pretty damn long as it was. That was the last thing his pack needed. They needed security, a leader they could look up to and depend on. Getting dragged back into the dirty, dark underbelly of the Underworld was no longer an option.
Bron’s dark, calculating gaze flicked to Breanna and back to Marcus. He wetted his lips, as if piecing together what he wanted to say. “I know what it’s like to find yourself suddenly in a position of power without wanting it.”
Marcus said nothing, pressed his lips together, and turned his hardened gaze back to Bron. He wouldn’t give him the satisfaction of an answer, implied by expression or otherwise. That would be far too dangerous, and already, Marcus was toeing a very sensitive line just by conversing with this snake. Bron was a man used to reading people, skilled in the art of detecting their deepest desires and darkest secrets with merely a glance. Most career politicians Marcus had met held a similar skillset. Though he didn’t know Bron’s official backstory, he could tell by the way he carried himself, the way he spoke to his colleagues, and the way he glanced at the staff as if they were beneath him that this man came from money. Most likely from a very long line of Alphas.
Bron’s jaw flexed when Marcus didn’t answer or react in any way. Marcus had to fight the urge to smile. Bron leaned in. “I can help you get rid of some enemies, people who seek to hurt you and your pack.”
“You don’t know shit about my enemies or what my pack needs.”
“On the contrary, I’m very intimately acquainted with some powerful people who would love nothing more than to see you and your pack fail.”
Anger simmered deep in Marcus’s gut. “Are you threatening me? My pack?”
Bron had enough sense to know he’d crossed a line. There was a flash of fear in his eyes as he scrambled to throw together a response. “I don’t mean that as a direct threat, but more as a warning. You’ve pissed off some very powerful people—”
“Tell me something I don’t know and stop wasting my time.”
“And I’m saying I’m willing to pay you to get rid of them. For mutual benefit to both our packs, of course.”
“‘The enemy of my enemy is my friend’ and all that, right? You expect me to believe that?”
Bron drummed his fingers along the crest of the wolf’s head pommel, regarding Marcus with that shrewd, glittering gaze. “Would you risk the safety of your pack, your mate?”
Marcus’s eyes turned flinty. “What do you know?”
“Merely that you may not be as safe as you think. You’re going to need allies. I’m offering a helping paw.”
“For a price. And don’t pretend for a second that there isn’t one, because we both know that’s bullshit.”
“Think about it.” He pulled a business card from within his coat pocket and offered it. “You may find there’s a time when you change your mind and need a friend.”
Marcus stared at the card so hard, one would think he’d be trying to set it on fire with his gaze. Warring with himself inside, he, at last, snatched the card and crumpled it in his fist. “This isn’t a yes.”
“It’s not a no, either. Anytime, anyplace, don’t hesitate to call should you require assistance.”
“Don’t hold your breath.”
Bron chuckled. “Well, at the least, no one can say you lack spirit.”
“But they can say I lack patience, especially with snotty royal asshats trying to bribe me during my first official day in office.”
All the mirth dropped from Bron’s face, snapping a cold, hard mask down in its place. “This snotty asshat has a lot of friends in high places. People who have been itching to bury the Whiteclaw name for years. Don’t forget that.”
Marcus drew himself up to his full height and took a step forward so he towered over Bron, who flinched and glanced over his shoulder in either direction, as if searching for a safe place to run. To his credit, he didn’t. No Alpha worth his title would.
It brought Marcus’s darker side fleeting joy to see Bron cowed by his presence. “Let me remind you of who I am. I am the Shadow, the closest thing the Underworld has to the boogeyman. People have pissed their pants and prayed to whatever deity they believed in when they saw me. It didn’t stop me from getting what I wanted. There wasn’t a job I took where I failed to collect. I was very good at what I did, and I can’t say I’ve grown much of a conscience or a soul since my retirement. You’re not the first to threaten me, and you certainly won’t be the last.” He leaned in closer, lowering his voice to a dark whisper. “If you so much as look at my mate, or any member of my pack, the wrong way, I will find you. And I’ll come to collect. And when I do, heaven or hell won’t be able to stop me. I always get my bounty.”
By the time he leaned back, all the blood had left Bron’s face, leaving him whitewashed and wide-eyed.
Marcus flung him a dark smirk. “Have a good evening, Mr. Frost. And thanks for the clue on how to find you, should I need to come calling.” Waggling the card in the air like a trophy, Marcus watched the realization of Bron’s stupidity strike him. Bron’s mouth went slack-jawed, his silver-tongue parched for words as Marcus turned on his heel, tucked the card in his back pant pocket, and whistled “A-hunting We Will Go” as he sauntered away.
Breanna’s eyes kept shifting to her mate as Lyra snagged them two glasses of champagne from the drink table.
“I don’t know what you’re so worried for,” Lyra said in her elegant voice, taking a sip of her bubbly. “My mate only wants to talk business.”
“No offense, but doing business with a Frost is always something to be concerned over.” Breanna dragged her eyes to Lyra and held her gaze steel-to-steel. “I dare you to tell me I’m wrong.”
“No one ever said business wasn’t risky,” Lyra said with a wicked glint in her eyes and a sly smile.
“Especially when dealing with snakes.”
“I prefer to think of us as sharks.” She lifted her chin. “Think, girl. You’ve been around long enough to know Alphas need allies to stay in power.”
“Not when said allies come at a price.”
“There’s always a price,” Lyra said harshly, “whether it’s implicitly stated or implied. Don’t be so naive, child.”
“Call me a child again, and I’ll show you just how similar I am to Bear.” Breanna blinked rapidly several times as a wave of dizziness washed through her. It was gone as quick as it came. Odd.
“Ah, the proud only child of the infamous Bear Whiteclaw. From what I heard of how you dealt with Strider, I’d say there is more of your father in you than I realized. Though you lack his cunning and ruthlessness.”
Breanna took a step closer, dropping her voice to subzero temperatures. “If anyone tries to hurt my mate or my pack, you’ll find out exactly how cunning and ruthless I can be.”
“Whoever said we were out to hurt you?”
“Spare me the theatrics, Lyra. I know bullshit when I smell it. And a bad business deal when I see one.”
“You don’t even know what my mate is talking to him about.”
“I don’t give a damn what he’s trying to coerce him into. He won’t go for it.” She said that with more conviction than she felt. And felt lousy for it. “Bron is wasting his breath.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that,” purred Lyra, waltzing around Breanna and peering over the crowd at their mates. “It’s my experience that people in general rarely change who they are at their core. They might change their appearance and pick up some new traits. But when it boils down to our base emotions, we don’t deviate from how we were programmed.”
Breanna remained silent. Watching. Listening. She measured her breathing, breath by breath and rubbed her finger along the glass stem of the flute. Something shimmered blue, pink, and purple from the corner of her eye, and a dull throb started to bloom in her fingertip—right where she’d pricked her finger.
“Come to me,” whispered a dark, seductive voice.
Her eyes fluttered, and her breath caught. She twirled, eyes searching.
Spooked, Breanna turned back around. Lyra watched her like a hawk, thin red lips pursed. Breanna cursed her stupidity at letting her mask slip. “Nothing. I felt a draft.”
“Hmmm.” Lyra didn’t look convinced.
“How’s Angel?” Breanna said, swiftly changing the topic before Lyra could pry. And pry she would. That viper didn’t miss a thing, not if she could wheedle a secret out of someone to later use to her advantage.
Lyra’s lips curled into a smile. “My, your concern for my daughter is touching,” she said dryly, as if deciding to let the topic of Breanna’s slipup go—for now, at least. But Breanna could work with for now. Lyra turned her attention away. She leaned against the table, crossed her arms, and took a leisurely sip as she observed the crowd. “She’s fine, I suppose. As well as can be expected, given her age and track record.”
She’s acting out because she wants your attention and love, Breanna wanted to say but kept her lips sealed.
Lyra turned her sharp gaze on Breanna and smiled slightly. “And how’s your pack? They’ve had quite the intense year.”
“Recovering as well as can be expected,” Breanna said with a fake smile, throwing back Lyra’s vague words. “Your concern for my pack is touching.”
Lyra’s grip tightened around the stem of her glass, her knuckles flashing white against her porcelain skin. “You may not take it as seriously, but I happen to deeply respect the Whiteclaw name. I care about protecting Bear’s legacy. And believe you me, he would be rolling in his grave knowing you mated his murderer.”
Breanna barely contained her anger. “I’d watch your tongue, Lady Frost.”
“Is it not the truth? You can’t tell me you haven’t considered the implications. Think about it, Breanna. Not only have you lost respect of Bear’s precious few allies by mating Shadow, you have brought a wolf into your house—into the heart of your pack—who is not only capable of literally anything, but also comes with an extensive list of enemies. Don’t look at me that way. Yes, yes, I know he goes by Marcus now, that he’s supposedly changed and all that. But mark my words—names can change, but vendettas never die. Someone will come after him, and you and your pack will be caught in the crossfire.”
Breanna’s breath had quickened, her anger simmering. Her gut twisted.
God, Lyra was right. Breanna knew it deep in her gut. But a small, naive part of her—the girl who’d lain in the arms of the man who made her feel like she the most amazing person in the world—wanted to believe Marcus had truly changed. That together, they could conquer any odds, no matter how insurmountable.
“Think, Breanna.” Lyra positioned herself between Breanna and the crowd, forcing Breanna to give her full attention. “You’re not using your head, and you’re too smart for that. No good comes from following your heart, not when you’re an Alpha.”
Breanna’s eyes snapped to Lyra’s. “Is that what you tell yourself at night, lying next to a man you don’t love? A man you wish was Bear?”
“I never said—”
“You didn’t have to. I saw the way you two looked at each other at pack summits. Watched how you’d both disappear, only to come back later covered in each other’s scents. It broke my mother’s heart when she found out about the affair. And she was already sick by then. She had enough stress as it was. I’ll never forgive you for doing that to her.”
Lyra had the backbone to not deny it. She instead stared at Breanna, white-faced and thin lipped.
“I don’t know what you thought you had with Bear,” Breanna went on, “but it wasn’t love. It was desire. Both of you craved power. You came from the Firecrests, one of the wealthiest packs from the West Coast. A very desirable female, indeed.”
“You know nothing about what went on between us.”
“I knew my father, and that is enough. He never made a move unless it could strengthen his pack. He might have been a lot of things—done a lot of terrible things—but the one thing he excelled at was putting his pack before everyone and everything else, including his family. I paid the price in my childhood by accepting the fact I would never have a father. My mother paid the price in her marriage by accepting she would never have a husband who put her first. But she understood that. I understood that. The only one who seems to be delusional about anything is you.”
Lyra’s face turned from white to red. “You’re still a childish pup in many ways, Breanna.”
“And you’re fighting for a lost cause. My decision is final. I will never do business with a Frost. Our pack wants nothing to do with you. So take your opportunistic mate and hightail it back to the mansion you crawled from. This conversation is over.” Downing the rest of her champagne in one gulp, Breanna slammed the glass down against the drink table and walked away.
As she walked toward the balcony, Breanna could feel Lyra’s stare. She could feel her wrath and outrage. Anger simmered beneath her own skin. Steam practically hissed from her pores as she walked outside, closed the doors, and deeply inhaled the cool night air. The moon hung high overhead, dazzling against a backdrop of stars. Wisps of clouds slashed across the midnight blue, and the air smelled of the approaching winter.
Breanna hugged herself, more out of comfort and an attempt to calm herself down rather than to stay warm. She hated winter. Hated being cooped up inside with nothing but her thoughts. Sure, she loved her pack. But sometimes, being an Alpha felt a lot like babysitting. She could only take so much of them before she felt like throwing herself from a window.
She loosed her breath, inhaled again, and felt her shoulders ease lower. There. Fresh air and the open sky always did wonders for her soul.
The Mark glittered on the back of her hand, and she thought about what Lyra had said. It was a well-known fact Lyra and Bron were not true mates. No Mark had been made. No proclamations of love eternal. Theirs had been a mating of convenience, for political gain. Such matings were common in her world. While they weren’t rare, wolves lucky enough to find their true mates weren’t that common, either. Breanna was lucky, she knew. Far luckier than she’d ever thought she would be. The mating hadn’t been to whom she thought. She’d always figured if the Mark were ever to form, it would be between her and Jack. They had so much in common and had grown up together. But it wasn’t meant to be, and she was fine with that.
Part of her felt sorry for Lyra, for never knowing love. Breanna wasn’t sure she believed in the rumor that wolves who didn’t find their true mates were doomed never to fall in love. She’d witnessed plenty of long-mated couples who’d chosen each other without the Mark’s bidding and seemed plenty in love. But she’d seen just as many couples who’d never Marked who were no more than business partners, as was the case with Lyra and Bron. To each their own, she supposed. It just seemed like a miserable, lonely existence.
Sighing, she leaned against the granite balustrade and let the wind ruffle her hair. She worried her lip, tried not to, and bit it again. She watched the shadows from the trees shift and shimmy against the lawn.
Could what Lyra said be true? Was Marcus really dead, the Shadow who he was in his bones? Was there truly no coming back from that kind of a life?
She’d sensed his unease upon setting foot in the house, and had seen the way his shoulders tensed and the way his whole mountain of a body tended to go still every time anything even remotely Alpha-related was brought up. If he had doubts, he’d remained silent up to now. But she wondered in the back of her mind how much longer that silence was going to last.
“Beautiful night, is it not?”
Yelping, Breanna jumped and clamped a hand over her mouth to keep from outright screaming. Heart hammering, she whirled to find a tall, lean shadow resting against the wall, arms crossed.
A reprimand was on her tongue, but she swiftly bit it down. Now was not the time to bite the head off any guests. Not with her pack’s precarious position within the ever-shifting political circles of the Underworld’s werewolf community. She needed allies, not more enemies. Those, she had plenty of. More so now, thanks to Marcus.
Guilt punched her in the gut. She shouldn’t, couldn’t, think that way. Not if she wanted to make her relationship with him work. She needed his strength, his cunning, and his ruthlessness. And he needed and deserved a mate who backed him and believed in him one hundred percent.
“Sorry,” said the deep, magnetic voice. The shadow moved, stepped toward the moonlight. “I didn’t mean to startle you. I thought you heard me breathing, at least. But when I realized you did not sense me, I decided to make you aware of my presence to assuage my own conscience.”
“For feeling guilty staring at such a beautiful woman for so long.”
He stepped into the moonlight, and she forgot how to breathe for a second.
He was dazzling. He had dark skin the color of toast and long ebony hair that shined like ink. It had been halfway pulled back into several long, thin braids that hung over his broad shoulders. Tattoos, strange swirling shapes she did not recognize, curled like ivy down his bare arms. The artwork was so thick, it left little trace of bare skin. Her eyes followed the contour of his muscles. The billowy white shirt, black leather pants, and tall boots he had on made him look more like a pirate. A goatee rested beneath fine lips. Though he was muscular and tall—not so much of a tank as her Marcus—she could tell this man was a warrior. The scars flecking his otherworldly perfection also gave testimony to that assumption. Dark brows slashed above deep-set eyes of pure gold. They glittered as he watched her, lips slightly parted as if in wonder.
Realizing she was gawking, she blinked, cleared her throat, crossed her arms, and fully turned to face him. “I’m sorry, I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure, Mister…?”
“Call me Varen.” He smiled and shook her hand.
“That’s an unusual name.”
“I had unusual parents. And an even odder upbringing.”
“Well, I’m sure nothing you say would surprise me. My own upbringing wasn’t what anybody would call conventional.”
He nodded, not arguing. “Mind if I join you?” He gestured to the balcony.
“Please,” she said, waving a hand.
He stepped up beside her, rested both fine hands against the balustrade. A complicated ring of twining silver rested on his right middle finger.
“That’s very beautiful,” she remarked, searching for polite conversation, as her etiquette tutors had taught her.
He spared the ring a cursory glance. “Family heirloom.”
Was that a touch of bitterness she heard? Deciding not to broach the topic further, she changed subjects. “Are you with Miguel’s pack?” She was fishing for a lead with a very thin line, but she needed to know more about him. Needed to learn whatever she could about this stranger who’d seemingly showed up out of nowhere. Pretty though he may have been, he could still be a threat. And she wouldn’t be worthy of calling herself an Alpha if she didn’t obey the cardinal rule: always protect the pack.
“No. I’m from the Darkfire clan.”
Darkfire? “I’m sorry—‘clan’?”
His signature shifted, morphed into something she couldn’t place. A delicious perfume scented the air, hitting her nostrils and making every nerve ending in her body come alive with shock. She’d smelled that before and had felt that sensation.
The flower she’d found on their bed flashed through her mind in a flickering of memory. Her throat grew tight as she sucked in a breath. “The rose—you—”
He was before her in a blink, blurring out of existence in a cloud of indigo smoke, only to take corporeal form an inch in front of her.
She gasped, trying to back away. Her back hit the cold marble of the balcony as he reached up to stroke her face.
“I’ve waited an eternity to find someone like you, have fought for ten years to have this moment.” He leaned forward, the sweetness of his breath—the scent of that damnable rose—caressing her face and making her dizzy. His lips hovered over hers, but she couldn’t move. Her body had turned to stone. Her thoughts spun as her panic turned to terror.
“You will, at last, be mine,” he whispered before closing his mouth over hers.
The kiss was sensual, intruding. His tongue pried apart her lips and teeth, the hotness of it foreign and wrong in her mouth. She needed Marcus. Her kisses were meant only for Marcus.
Screaming his name in her mind, she called out to him through their mate-bond, praying he would hear. But it was muted. Her plea slammed against an invisible barrier, and she growled in fury.
Varen clasped her hand, the one with the pricked finger, and her digit began to shine. Gold glittered under her skin where the thorn had taken its drop of blood. The glitter spread, widening until it swirled around them both as the light brightened. All the while, her mind screamed, Stop, stop, stop! You’re not Marcus! Get off me!
“You said she went out here?”
Voices at the door—Marcus’s voice.
Her eyes, the only part of her that didn’t seem frozen, flicked to the door as it began to open. She moaned in desperation.
Silence! commanded Varen’s severe voice inside her head. The spell is almost complete.
Spell? What was he talking about? How could he be inside her head? What was he?
Light spilled onto the balcony in a long yellow rectangle, and Marcus’s broad-shouldered silhouette appeared in the doorway. He frowned upon seeing her. Confusion spread on his face. “Breanna?”
Mar… cus… she thought weakly as her knees gave out and darkness flooded her vision.
She thought she heard Marcus roar her name and saw the blur of him bolt from the door toward her, but she couldn’t be sure. She wasn’t sure of anything anymore.