The silver shadows of predawn gave way to glimmers of gold breaking through the canopy of evergreens, slashing across the forest path. Drake’s chest burned with the rush of cold morning air scouring her lungs with every breath. Her heart thundered, shoulders and forelegs pistoning with every stride, paws barely disturbing the soft pine needles and damp soil underfoot as she raced along the narrow trail. Her prey, a small herd of deer that had strayed close to the Compound, bounded out just ahead, an occasional patch of white betraying their location as they tried to outrun her. One trailed behind the others, slowing even more as the chase drew on.
Drake sensed her guards running in the forest, close on either side of her, ready to join in the hunt or protect her from unexpected danger. No matter they were still well within range of the Compound and far from Pack land borders and the risk to her was small—they would not leave her even if ordered. The Alpha had commanded them to guard her, and they would, unto death.
Drake’s senses—scent, sight, hearing—her instincts, everything that made her a dominant wolf and a deadly predator focused on her prey, but the nagging uneasiness coiled in her belly never relented. The persistent drumbeat of wrongness pulsed in her blood. With a low growl and a swift shake of her head, she crested a rocky shoulder overlooking a rock-strewn creek with frothing water overflowing its banks. Spring rains had turned the rivers and streams into seething waterfalls. The herd, a small one with several adult does, one herding two fawns ahead of her, was set to cross the stream. The deep water and swirling currents signaled a dangerous creek crossing. The oldest, and the obvious prey, lagged well behind.
Drake raced along the precipice, her footing sure and swift despite the mossy ground and loose shale, and deliberately turned upwind. The deer had known they were hunted, had sensed her chase just as she had sensed their flight, and now they would catch her scent.
Go, flee. And remember to forage at a safe distance next time.
She hunted, but she did not hunger, and she passed up the kill with just a warning to be wary on trails that crossed Pack land. The mother doe hesitated at the water’s edge and searched the ridge, her ears flicking. Her gaze met Drake’s and held a moment before she nudged her young away from the creek and into the adjacent forest. The rest of the herd followed her and, in an instant, were gone.
Drake settled on her haunches, raised her muzzle to the sky, and howled her joy in the hunt and the fierce, primal claim to all that was hers—this land and the Pack that roamed it. Turning, she trotted back the way she’d come, and at the bottom of the escarpment, three wolves broke from the woods and fell in beside her.
You’re slow, she announced across their Pack link.
Jace, the young female dominant recently appointed captain of her personal guard, rumbled unhappily but did not object.
Drake chuckled to herself at the sleek silver and black wolf’s discomfort at being a few strides behind her on the run. Sylvan had insisted Drake not run unescorted, and as much as she would have liked to run off her agitation alone, she accepted that as Prima, she had an obligation to the Pack to be safe. That morning she’d needed to run, even though she hadn’t needed to hunt. Until Sylvan returned, she could not settle, she could not sleep. Even visiting their young in the nursery had not helped calm her. If she’d stayed in the Compound, her agitation would have spread to every wolf there, and she didn’t need half their young warriors squabbling with each other and mated pairs too anxious to carry out their duties. As it was, even with her calming influence, none of them would be completely comfortable until the Alpha returned.
When she’d caught the deer herd’s scent, she’d let her wolf ascend and gave chase. Jace and her two lieutenants had barely managed to shift and keep pace with her.
You were close enough. Any closer and I would have turned my teeth on you. Drake needed Jace to respect her boundaries while still feeling confident she was carrying out the Alpha’s orders. Jace would find the balance soon enough.
Yes, Prima.The furrow between Jace’s expressive eyes relaxed some, and her tongue lolled out in a happy grin. The other guards, an unmated male and female, raced in easy circles around them, still alert but blissfully carefree at being within sight of the Compound.
Drake’s sex clenched as a surge of pheromones pulsed through her loins. She’d been without her mate for days. Her need would awaken every wolf within range, and no doubt these two would be tangling as soon as Jace released them from duty.
The sky had morphed to clear blue by the time the Compound stockade came into view. Drake cut off the main trail and headed to the den she shared with Sylvan. Jace followed at a distance and settled at the edge of the cleared space around the one-story log cabin. Drake shed pelt as she reached the front porch and emerged after her shower in black pants, a sleeveless white T-shirt, and boots. As she strode down the trail toward the main Compound, she said, “You’re dismissed, Captain. I’ll be at headquarters until the Alpha returns.”
Jace, in skin now, strode beside her. “I’ll be on duty until then, Prima. Please let me know if you have need of me.”
“I will. Go, have something to eat.”
Jace saluted, fist at chest. “As you command.”
Drake had gotten used to the formality at this point and accepted it as part of the necessary discipline required to keep several hundred wolves living in close quarters as free as possible from skirmishes, displays of dominance, and just general irritation. They might appear human when in skin, but they were all wolf Weres, driven by primal instincts to sort themselves into a hierarchy ruled by tooth and claw and blood. The drives to hunt and mate ruled their bodies and their psyches. Without strong leadership and unyielding discipline, their society would deteriorate into chaos. As she strode through the Compound toward the two-story log building at its center which served as their headquarters, wolves dipped their heads, Weres young and old called a greeting, and warriors saluted. All celebrated the Pack leader’s arrival as a wave of calm swept through them.
Suppressing her own distress before it spread to them, Drake bounded up the wooden stairs, entered the vaulted main meeting hall bracketed with huge stone fireplaces, and took the stairs to the second floor two at a time. Her run had helped, but the gnawing in her center persisted. Sylvan’s absence was like a missing limb, a phantom pain that never went away. Their mate bond was strong, unaffected by the miles between them, and that sensation of union—body, mind, and soul—kept her sane. If it were to break, she would as well. Before she’d turned, when she’d been only human, she would’ve rejected the very idea of being so connected to another living being she couldn’t survive without them. Now she couldn’t imagine being without it. Sylvan was more than her love, more than her passion—she was her life.
Niki, Sylvan’s second, stood guard by the door to Sylvan’s office in a sleeveless shirt that hugged her torso and left her rippled abdomen bare and tight leather pants that outlined every cut in her muscled thighs. Drake suspected she’d been there for hours, waiting for Sylvan’s return as was everyone else.
“Everything on schedule, Imperator?” Drake asked.
“Yes, Prima,” Niki replied, her low alto gravelly with edges of her wolf bleeding through. “On-time arrival at Albany. The motorcade is en route.”
Drake let out a long sigh. “Then she should be here soon.”
“Yes. She should.” Niki glowered, her powerful body vibrating with tension. A sheen of pheromones and aggressive hormones gleamed on her bare skin. She hadn’t been happy that Sylvan had insisted she stay behind. Sylvan had taken an honor guard for the meeting with the new head of Urban and Praetern Affairs in Washington, DC, as would have been expected anytime she traveled, but she’d left her general behind to secure the Compound.
Drake hadn’t been happy either. She slid an arm around Niki’s tense shoulders and pulled her against her side. Some of Niki’s tension seeped away, and she rested for an instant against Drake’s body. As dominant as she was, Niki was still a Were, and she needed the strength and support of her Pack leaders just as did every other Were in the Pack. Drake never forgot that part of her responsibility as Sylvan’s mate was to maintain the well-being of all that followed them. She rubbed her cheek against Niki’s lush auburn hair, scenting the unique bond Niki shared with Sophia, and Niki whined softly in her throat. After a moment Niki pulled away, her tremors quieted for the moment.
“How are the pups?” Drake asked, knowing the slightest mention of the two young orphan pups Niki and Sophia had adopted would ease Niki’s unhappiness.
Niki’s forest-green eyes sparkled. “Growing quickly and already challenging the other pups in the nursery.”
Drake laughed. “Why am I not surprised?”
“Sophia is convinced that Fiona is already showing signs of being a maternal, but Brax clearly has the makings of a warrior.”
“I’m sure they’ll let you know in time. How are they adjusting to the nursery?”
Niki shrugged. “Better than we are. It’s necessary, I know, but it’s hard not to have them in the den at night.”
“I know. Our two are growing so quickly…” She pushed one of the paired carved oak doors, and Niki followed her into the office. “It’s time for them to hunt.”
“It’s been a long time since we’ve had this many young,” Niki said. “The Pack rejoices.”
“Yes,” Drake said softly. In the midst of so much uncertainty and danger, the ten young in their nursery held the promise of their future. She dropped into the chair behind the broad desk. “Let’s hope this meeting with the new administration has been a positive one.”
“The humans say one thing and do another,” Niki said, gold ringing the green in her eyes.
“We have been betrayed by our supposed allies, that’s true,” Drake said. “But despite our strengths, our numbers are small, and not all our Pack choose to live in the wild. Many Packmates are at risk while living in close proximity to humans. We owe a responsibility to them too.”
Niki paced, a sheen of faint red pelt covering her arms and etching down the center of her abdomen. Her wolf was uneasy, unhappy, and surging close to the surface. Rather than try to rein her in, Drake let her work off her anger. Niki had good control of her wolf, and she wasn’t worried about her. Not as long as Sylvan returned soon. Niki’s bond to Sylvan was nearly as strong as that to Sophia. Niki and Sylvan had been together since childhood, and if Niki had been less dominant, they might’ve been lovers.
“We can’t trust anyone to take care of ours except another wolf,” Niki said darkly.
“I agree, and that’s why so many of our Pack go into law enforcement, even though most keep their true natures a secret. But still, we need peace with the humans.”
Niki growled. She didn’t necessarily agree, but she would follow Sylvan’s lead, as would they all.
A shimmer of power coursed through Drake’s body, stirring her blood, striking hard at her core. Her heart raced and her sex flushed. Her clitoris tensed and lengthened, her glands filling.
“The Alpha approaches.”
She bounded to her feet, leapt across the desk, and was out the door in two long strides. Niki followed close behind her. Throughout the Compound, wolves howled, Weres shouted, and the air shimmered in celebration.
Sylvan had returned.
The stockade gates, twelve-foot-tall and ten-foot-wide slabs of ten-inch-thick hardwood, swung inward revealing the Compound’s inner courtyard as the first Rover roared out of the forest. Invisible from the air, the approach road was the only vehicular access to the Timberwolf Pack’s home. Guarded around the clock by sentriesstationed at intervals on overlooks, the path snaked through terrain that discouraged even the most intrepid ground forces and prevented any armored assault.
Sylvan, riding in the front seat of the second vehicle, savored the scent of fertile earth and vital creatures and, most of all, her mate. Drake’s scent swamped her senses, torching through blood and flesh to the marrow of her being. Her wolf clawed at her innards, demanding satisfaction.
Too long away.
Sylvan shuddered, bludgeoned by need. Too many restless days away from Pack, away from Drake. Too much worry and somewhere, deep inside, a dark kernel of fear she refused to acknowledge. Could not acknowledge. She was Alpha, and fear was a weakness she could not allow.
Soon. Soon we will be whole again.
The tailored shirt and trousers she’d worn for the flight among humans from DC tightened around her clenched muscles like chains. She could have ordered Max to drive the eight hours home, but the delay would have pushed her wolf into a rage, and a Were in wolf form made a poor chauffeur. Her rage would have forced him to turn, her call too powerful for any save her mate to absorb.
She was nearly mad now, wild for the connection to her mate and her Pack. Her muscles rippled, her wolf strained to ascend, and the sound of tearing fabric filled the vehicle. Sex-sheen burst from her skin, coating her body as silver fur erupted in a shimmering cascade down the center of her abdomen. Beside her, Max growled uneasily, his grip on the wheel tightening.
A chorus of uneasy whines emanated from the rear compartment. Sylvan glanced back. Her guest along with three guards occupied one long bench bolted to the sidewall, Sylvan’s centuriopposite them. The foreign Weres snarled unhappily and her centurigrumbled and showed their teeth, too many dominants drenched in sex pheromones and battle hormones in a small space. Even the most submissive Weres would be likely to challenge a strange Were in the heart of the Compound. The added effect of Sylvan’s absence and her wolf’s near feral heat was a match to a powder keg.
“On your guard, Centuri,” Sylvan warned, “we’re entering the Compound.”
The three saluted and replied in unison, “Yes, Alpha.”
They would hold their urge to fight or tangle and prevent the newcomers from being challenged on sight. That would be long enough for the guests to be escorted to a safe place—for now.
“Just in time,” Max murmured.
“Yes.” Sylvan’s fingertips tingled as a quarter inch of black claw burst through. Her sex throbbed, the ache for release maddening. Grumbling, Max dropped a hand between his thighs and straightened his legs, making room for the erection straining his black BDUs.
“Too long away,” Sylvan murmured. She had no need to hide her urgency, even if she could. Any Were who absorbed her call, dominant and submissive alike, responded with similar need. “First homecoming since you were mated?” Sylvan asked casually.
Max floored the accelerator. “Yes.”
Sylvan grinned. Max’s human mate was in for a surprise. She glanced into the armored rear compartment. “The centuriand myimperatorwill see you to your quarters as soon as we disembark.”
The young Alpha, her pale face, unlined, framed in chestnut waves and her dark eyes rimmed in gold, sat rigid on one side of the compartment flanked by her centuri. Sex-sheen streamed down her face. “Your hospitality is appreciated, Alpha Mir.”
Her voice was cool, steady. Sylvan nodded, silently approving. She’d been a new Alpha once and knew the pain of establishing control when every sinew burned for release.
Max pulled the Rover to a sharp halt behind the first vehicle, and the follow car carrying the rest of the entourage and that of her visitor drew up in the rear. The gates closed.
“Call a war council for an hour.” She pushed open the door and glanced at Max. “That should be enough time for everyone to settle.”
Max grinned. “Possibly.”
Sylvan bounded out, leapt over the Rover’s hood, and landed in the center of the Compound beside one of the great fire pits. A circle of wolves and Weres in skin awaited her. In seconds she was surrounded, wolves in pelt brushing against her legs, Weres drawing closer for a touch, a stroke on the cheek, a hand to a shoulder. She greeted them all as she walked through the throng toward headquarters, toward the one she desperately needed.
Drake waited on the top step, Niki beside her. Even from a distance, Sylvan felt Niki’s tension and Drake’s call overwhelming every other. Sylvan jumped to the porch, wrapped a hand around Drake’s nape, and yanked her into a kiss. Teeth and tongue clashed, hunger unleashed at last.
The icy heat of Drake’s mouth met the burning furnace of her own, and Sylvan growled, the dress trousers she’d worn rending along the seams as her flesh gave way to wolf. Drake’s blunt, claw-tipped fingers scoured her back, shredding her shirt until the remnants dropped away and bared her torso. Drake raked her teeth down Sylvan’s neck, challenging her, teasing her, blooding her. Sylvan’s clitoris swelled and pulsed against the fabric of her pants.
Sylvan kept her grip on Drake’s neck and eased away enough to swing an arm around Niki’s shoulders. “All is well?”
“Yes, Alpha,” Niki gasped, quivering against Sylvan’s side.
“Good.” Sylvan locked eyes with Drake. “We have guests, Niki. See to them.”
Niki glanced past Sylvan into the yard and growled. “Dominants, all of them. Who are they?”
“You’ll know,” Sylvan murmured, tracing the curve of Drake’s breast with a fingertip, “in about an hour. My centurineed time to recover from the trip and cannot stand guard.”
Drake said, “Put Jace in charge of the guests, Imperator.”
“Her control may not—” Niki began, protest in her tone.
“Her control is fine,” Drake said, hooking a claw in the waistband of Sylvan’s pants. “Do it, then go to your mate. She’ll need you.”
“Yes, Prima.” Niki dipped her chin and jumped down.
Sylvan pulled Drake down the steps and through the gate to the wooded path to their den.
“I need you,” Sylvan said.
“I know.” Drake hooked her claws and sliced open Sylvan’s fly, exposing the silver pelt streaming down the center of her abdomen between the tight columns of bulging muscles. “You should not have worn these pants.”
“I didn’t want to frighten the humans.”
“Mm, they would have been lucky to see you in battle form.” She tugged Sylvan to a halt at the foot of the steps to their cabin and kissed her, pushing her hand lower. Her fingers slipped on either side of Sylvan’s clitoris and squeezed.
Sylvan’s mind blazed into heat and fury. Her jaw lengthened, grew bold and heavy. The faint shimmer of silver over her torso thickened. “Drake…careful.”
“Why?” Drake jumped onto the porch a step ahead of Sylvan, pushed open the door, and surged toward the bedroom, challenging Sylvan to keep pace.
Sylvan roared and leapt, catching Drake just as they reached the side of the bed. Tumbling down, Drake in her grasp, she ripped away the last of their clothing.
“Should I wait now?” Drake gasped and Sylvan rolled above her, her hips between Drake’s splayed thighs.
When her sex met Drake’s, a whine of want and need escaped her. She seized Drake’s wrists in one hand and held them above her head, the other raking down Drake’s torso, leaving thin lines of bright red. The mate bite on Drake’s shoulder darkened and swelled, calling her. Her clitoris, extruded for joining, hardened painfully, and she threw back her head with a triumphant snarl.
Her mate. Hers.
Tilting her hips, she notched herself in the cleft below Drake’s clitoris, locked to her, and readied to spill.
Panting, near blind with power, she met Drake’s midnight-gold gaze. “I love you.”
Drake anchored her legs around Sylvan’s hips, bared her teeth. “Then give me what I want.”
“Take it,” Sylvan snarled, her glands burning to explode.
With a growl, Drake sank her teeth into the aching site of the mate bite above Sylvan’s breast. The ecstatic pain and pulse of energy surged through Sylvan’s sex, the glands buried at the base of her clitoris contracted, and her victuserupted. As her essence flooded and joined with her mate’s, Sylvan howled, her very soul ripped from her being. Her hips pumped wildly, and she emptied over and over. Spent, she collapsed, her skin hot, feverish, streaming with sex-sheen.
Drake cradled Sylvan’s head in the crook of her shoulder, her heart pounding beneath Sylvan’s.
“I missed you,” Drake whispered, stroking Sylvan’s back with her free hand. “Just once will not take care of it.”
Sylvan chuckled. “I think you drained me.”
“Really, Alpha,” Drake said dryly. “I seem to remember you were once more potent…”
Sylvan bit her neck and Drake chuckled. Her challenge caused Sylvan’s clitoris to harden against her own again, as she expected. Drake smiled. “But if you need to rest…”
Drake bucked her hips and, although Sylvan was never taken by surprise, she rolled onto her back, nevertheless. Drake knelt between her thighs as Sylvan watched her with wolf-gold eyes.
Sylvan tensed her thighs and lifted her hips, displaying her more than recovered distended clitoris. “Potent enough?”
“Always.” Drake brushed her thumb over her and Sylvan’s back arched. With a claw, Drake marked a thin line down the deep groove between Sylvan’s abdominals, circled her once, twice, a third time until Sylvan gripped her nape again.
“Enough,” Sylvan said, her wolf too hungry to be teased.
Drake leaned on an elbow and gazed up, lightly stroking over Sylvan’s center. She loved nothing more than teasing Sylvan until her wolf nearly exploded. “Are you sure.”
“Suck me, Prima,” Sylvan ordered, her tone a guttural growl.
Smiling, Drake tipped her head and filled her mouth with Sylvan’s flesh. She stroked Sylvan’s chest and belly in time to the strokes of her tongue until the steel bands of Sylvan’s thighs tightened around her. She sucked her to the core, and within seconds, Sylvan’s essence filled her. Drake claimed her mate, giving Sylvan the release only she could provide.
When Sylvan finally emptied, Drake surged above her, pushed her center against Sylvan’s still engorged sex, and rode her until she spent over Sylvan’s abdomen and thighs.
Finally, the fire in Drake’s belly ebbed and she settled in the curve of Sylvan’s body, one hand still possessively cupped between Sylvan’s thighs.
Sylvan kissed her. “Are you well, Prima?”
“I am now.”
“Growing faster than I expected, even knowing Were young mature quickly.” Drake was used to the human cycle of growth. Their pups developed on a far more aggressive schedule, and already their young in skin form were walking and talking. As wolves, they were not yet adolescents, but the boundary was nearing. “It’s time for them to learn who they are.”
“Yes,” Sylvan said. “They’ll need to hunt and understand the responsibility of the kill. I had hoped to begin already, but these political negotiations…”
“There is yet time.” Drake stroked Sylvan’s chest. “What of the meetings? Any progress?”
Sylvan sighed. “Words are not deeds, and I’m not sure who our friends are now. Torren has proved to be an excellent diplomat and, along with Katya, will act as our emissary.”
“So we can expect no help from the humans if our enemies resurface,” Drake said.
“We never could.” Sylvan cupped Drake’s cheek and kissed her again, a slow deep claiming. “We can only rely on Pack.”
“I know.” Drake ran her hand through Sylvan’s golden hair. “You brought visitors. Who are they?”
“Weres who say they seek our aid,” Sylvan said.
“Allies or enemies?” Drake murmured.
“We shall see.”