Are you ready for the grand finale of Kira’s series? If so, keep reading for a sneak peak. If you need to catch up first, Full Moon Saloon is free on all retailers for a limited time.
It all started with fox pee in Italian leather shoes. Fox pee and a very pleasant kiss…
Thom’s broad hand cupped my cheek, fingertips stroking circles of pleasure beneath my hairline. I was half turned away because noses. Every bodily protrusion risked crossing the boundary between Gate City territory and the land belonging to the endlessly unpleasant Chief Reed, the land Thom couldn’t enter but that I had to stay on as Reed heir.
“Neck,” Thom growled and I arched the requested body part out to meet him. Heat, lips, the scrape of teeth against sensitive skin. I hummed my pleasure, reciprocating with fingers sliding down the hard line of side toward his hip…
And my cell phone erupted into jangly music.
Reluctantly, I pried my eyes open, blinking against the brightness of late April sun filtering through tiny, unfolding leaves in the canopy above us. My phone lay at my feet because Thom and I had both run here in fur form, which meant no pockets.
It also meant nothing to cover the magnificence of Thom’s lean, muscular body. Lifting one foot, I daintily tapped the end-call button with my big toe. Then I smiled at my mate. “Face me,” I demanded.
We both knew this stance had major technical difficulties. Still, wordlessly, he obeyed.
Full frontal, one part of Thom jutted out further than all others. Which meant I couldn’t touch skin without crossing that dratted dividing line between two pack territories. Well, I couldn’t touch skin save one square inch of rounded, luscious tip.
I touched. And the phone blared a second time. “Answer it,” Thom suggested, his voice slightly choked, “or he’ll dream up another sadistic punishment.”
“I don’t care.”
“Well, I do.”
So I accepted the call with the same toe I’d used previously. Headed off Chief Reed’s complaint with the honest truth. “We did not cross the line.”
I knew this because I’d learned the hard way over the last few months that putting so much as a fraction of a toenail over the boundary line caused a jolting shock to my system. Thom wasn’t oath-bound the way I was, so he could cross without physical pain. But Chief Reed was glad to use any intrusion as an excuse for inter-pack aggressions. It was a good thing my mate had an instinct for the boundary coordinates the same way he did for the locations of members of his pack.
Unfortunately, the other pack leader in my life, the one who I was oath-bound to obey but whose rules I wiggled out from under on a regular basis, didn’t bother responding to my parry. Instead, his voice went just as deep and growly as Thom’s had been but for a very different reason. “You peed in my Ermenegildo Zegna last night.”
“Your ermine zelda?” I twirled my spare hand around in a demanding circle, halting Thom once I’d gained a few more inches of skin to play with. And while my honorary uncle griped, I played.
“Don’t pretend not to know what I’m talking about,” Chief Reed ended. “The scent is vile.”
“Doesn’t wash out either,” I commiserated. “Such a shame. But that’s what happens when you coop up a fox.”
Rather than arguing the point, Chief Reed’s voice turned darker. “A pack hunt is beginning as we speak.”
“I expect you to join us.” This wasn’t a request. It was a demand from my alpha. Since I wasn’t a werewolf, though, the words didn’t wrap around my gut and yank me into line.
“You know what they say,” I answered, allowing the pleasure I felt at being here with Thom to warm cold words. “Expectations are premeditated resentments.”
Thom swayed slightly, and I don’t think it was because of my verbal cleverness. One of his hands reached out in my direction, stuttering to a halt at the boundary line we couldn’t cross without risking repercussions from my pack leader. The other hand clenched itself into a fist.
Over the months, Thom and I had found ways of sating our frustrations. We could separate, lie on either side of the line and watch the other bring him or herself to completion. Gaze never wavering, it was possible for me to imagine the hands roving across my body were my mate’s.
But today we didn’t go there. Because the faintest slurp emerged from the cell-phone speaker. And this time when Chief Reed spoke, his words compelled me as easily as if I was a puppet. “Join the pack hunt. Now.”
I was barely able to delay long enough to strap the cell phone to my suddenly furry back with a tendril of star-ball magic. Then I was four-legged and sprinting toward werewolves I neither liked nor trusted as they hunted prey for status rather than food.
Chief Reed had compelled me to join the hunt, but by the time I made it back to the villa I’d lived in for the last four months, the premises were vacant. Lungs billowing and pads throbbing, my body didn’t let me pause long enough to catch my breath or soothe my throat with a sip of water. Instead, I set my nose to the ground and followed the trail of wolf back down a different side of the same mountain I’d just run up.
Only, the pack had doubled back over and over, crossing their own footsteps and setting me a chase as if they were the prey and I was the hunter. At this rate, I’d be trailing behind snickering werewolves all afternoon. But there was no alternative. Not when Chief Reed had frittered away a sip of my freely given blood to force me into an endless hunt.
Frittering was good though. Frittering meant sore paws and a parched throat instead of…
Blood on marble. Pain in my fingers a tactile reminder that I’d recently hacked through the neck of a living being. Vomit lingered on my lips from where I’d tried and failed to repeal the past…
I squeezed shut the faucet gush of memory, my breath now wheezing in and out for a reason other than exertion. Yes, it was a good thing that Chief Reed was using up my blood one sip at a time. Maybe soon he wouldn’t have enough left to make me do something I’d regret for the rest of my life.
Something else I’d regret for the rest of my life.
The sip this time must have been infinitesimal, however. Because, soon thereafter, the blood compulsion lifted sufficiently to let my brain work the problem rather than my feet merely stumbling mindlessly forward. I still had to find the pack, but I didn’t have to follow Chief Reed’s tortuous route back and forth through the same patch of forest to get there. Instead, I tapped into my sole pack bond, the one I’d built between myself and Willow, the mate of the man I’d killed.
Killed without remorse or warning. Killed because he stood in my way, not because he was about to harm another…
I choked down the past, focusing on cutting across country the short way. The sooner I got this over with, the sooner I could return to Thom, who was likely waiting impatiently in the same sunlit patch of forest where we always met.
That was a much more palatable image to focus on. My naked mate, his blue eyes lighting up when he saw me running toward him between broad-trunked tulip-trees. He always hummed when I shifted upward into humanity. Even the memory of his rumbling “Hello” warmed my bones.
I was so intent upon replacing bad memories with good ones that I wasn’t paying attention when I stumbled into real, present-day carnage. Blood, blood, blood… I teetered on the brink of awfulness, about to fall fully into the pit of the past.
Then I swallowed hard and forced myself to see what was actually there rather than what my horrified brain was trying to turn this into. Yes, something had been slaughtered in this wooded hollow, but the deceased hadn’t been human. Instead, deer parts were strewn across the ground, red streaks painting tree trunks with lewd words and imagery. The typical end of a Reed hunt, where the pack played out the sadism inside their alpha’s head.
The culprits were largely absent, however. Only one underling—Willow—lay in wolf form at her fully clothed alpha’s feet.
Like the tree trunks, Chief Reed was painted red from his fingers to his three-piece suit and watch fob. But he must have licked his teeth bare because they glinted white when he greeted me. “You were slow.”
I shifted upward and waited to speak until I was sure my voice wouldn’t quaver. “You don’t appear to have been bored.”
“Never.” My nemesis stalked toward me, Willow trailing behind like a well-trained lap dog. “I called you here to discuss the Moon Trials.”
Not fancy Italian shoes? I cocked my head, unsure what he was referring to.
When I failed to answer, Chief Reed sighed. “You really know very little about our world. Good thing you have me to educate you. The Moon Trials are a long-lived tradition. Once a decade, pack heirs from across the United States converge to fight for status. Admission to the Trials is an honor I have worked hard to achieve for you.”
“No?” He lashed out with one bare foot and struck Willow hard in the softness of her belly. Pain ricocheted down our pack bond, but she didn’t cringe away or yelp. Chief Reed, who would have felt the same thing through the bond he also shared with her, smiled then continued. “Maybe if you’re lucky, your Thom will meet you there. Wouldn’t that be nice—a honeymoon bathed in blood?”
The verbal imagery forced me to rise to bait I knew I shouldn’t have. “I doubt our host will allow another pack leader to enter his territory uninvited.”
“It’s true that each heir is allowed only a single plus-one. Willow will be yours. But I hear Thom is quite resourceful.”
Chief Reed waggled his eyebrows but I ignored the subtext this time. Kept my words simple. “Same answer. Should I spell it out for you? N. O.”
Willow and I both tensed, waiting for another physical outpouring of displeasure. Instead, Chief Reed lowered his voice. “I will reward you for your wholehearted participation.”
I wasn’t so sure I wanted any reward Chief Reed was offering, but I didn’t want him to kick Willow again either. So—“I’m listening,” I said.
His scent sweetened. He thought he had me with whatever he was about to offer. And he was almost right.
“Win three battles at the Moon Trials,” Chief Reed murmured, “and you will be granted one day per week to spend with your mate.”
“In Gate City?”
“Wherever you choose.”
I wanted that. I wanted it so badly. Not just to see all of Thom rather than the inches that brushed up against the boundary, but to hang out with friends new and old at the bar my mate managed. The warmth, the life, the camaraderie… Gate City was nothing like the cold, hard marble within which I now lived.
But I could read between the lines. The Moon Trials wouldn’t consist of gentlemanly fencing matches. Heirs would fight tooth and claw, lacking face guards and armor. There would be pain and blood and possibly even death.
It wasn’t my own death I was afraid of. I swallowed down memories before they could latch on with pointy teeth, fighting back the haze of red that threatened to cloud my vision. “Not interested,” I repeated, mentally apologizing to Willow.
But Chief Reed didn’t attack physically this time either. Instead, he offered the stick to go with the carrot. “No? Then you won’t mind slaying this useless wolf at my feet.”
He reached into his vest pocket and removed that awful little bottle, still half full of my freely given blood preserved in alcohol. If he downed the whole thing, he could force me to do anything.
I closed my eyes, opened them again. “I’ll go,” I promised.
Chief Reed smiled so wide I could see blood resting on his tongue. “Of course you will.”
One week later, the descending airplane left my stomach behind as it carried me toward violence, mayhem, and hopefully some long-delayed hanky-panky with my mate. Because Thom had promised to be here waiting for me, and I’d chosen to ignore everything else that might possibly go wrong.
Now, I unsnapped my seat belt and surged up onto my knees, craning around the man on my left for a view of our destination. Beneath us, water butted up against city, the crazy-quilt pattern of reds and oranges in the San Francisco Bay salt ponds sunlit except for one tiny shadow that matched the shape of our plane.
That was what I’d be soon—a speck in an overcrowded field. A single not-so-interested Moon Trials participant facing down dozens of cutthroat fighters willing to battle to the death for a decade of bragging rights. Unlike them, I intended to use every asset at my disposal to fly under the radar, win Chief Reed’s mandated three contests, then return to Virginia a much happier fox.
“Looking forward to a second murder?” Willow didn’t even glance up from her in-flight magazine while raising memories like ghosts in a graveyard. Spilled blood, unseeing eyes, a too-wide mouth frozen in a leer of endless surprise…
I shook my head to cast off mental images while Willow flipped to another page and continued taking me to task. “The flight attendant will be here momentarily to remind you, again, to fasten your seatbelt.”
“You don’t sound happy to be along for the ride,” I countered, obediently sinking back down and clipping the restraint around my middle. “I thought you were itching to get out from under Chief Reed’s thumb.”
And, sure, as best I could tell, Willow’s purpose as plus-one was mere window dressing. An alpha is nothing without a pack, so an heir must travel with some sort of entourage. I supposed that was why her lips pursed up even tighter as she offered five clipped words by way of reply.
“I’m not. And I was.”
That was all Willow gave me while our plane dipped lower, the view suggesting we were about to crash into water until the instant our wheels touched down on tarmac. In silence, Willow and I cooled our heels through several interminable deplaning minutes. In silence, we stepped out into an airport that stank of barely repressed fur and claws, catching fleeting glimpses of other Moon Trials contestants as they stalked through crowds of innocent humans while considering each other with murder in their eyes.
And when Willow finally broke the silence, she didn’t acknowledge the fact that this was a dangerous place for a kitsune and a pack princess to linger. Instead, she addressed the elephant in the room…or, rather, stabbed that elephant with a cattle prod. “Today would have been my mate’s birthday, you know.”
“I didn’t know.” All I knew was the way my stolen sword had sliced through Quentin’s neck four months earlier. The blade hadn’t bit in easily the way swords do in movies. Instead, I’d had to brute force my way through flesh and bone.
But cinematic blood had indeed spurted through the air as the previous Reed heir fell, dead on contact. It didn’t matter to either me or Willow that Chief Reed had forced my hand, drinking blood to make that death happen. I’d become a murderer last winter and now I was protecting my victim’s mate by willingly walking into a situation that might force me to repeat that awfulness. Did that make me a better person than I’d been four months ago or worse?
A sharp pain in my side brought me back to the clatter of the airport. Willow’s hand retreated, the indentations of her fingernails in my skin the only proof that she’d dealt a particularly vicious pinch.
Right. This wasn’t the time to lose myself in memory. The scent of aggressive wolves was stronger here in the baggage claim, as if we’d caught up with more heirs in the moments I’d lost to nightmare. Willow and I needed to collect our luggage, find Thom, and get the heck out of Dodge.
Only, the aggressive alpha scent stuffing up my nostrils didn’t emerge from distant shifters this time. Instead, my path was blocked by a man who I’d hoped never to see again. A man whose name I didn’t even know.
“Executioner,” I greeted him. He seemed to be playing up his title today, dressed in a stark black suit that blended with the ebony of his close-cropped hair and the charcoal of his eyes. The only color on his person was a bright red pocket square. The shade of a freshly picked rose, or of newly spilled blood.
Because, like me, this man was a murderer. In fact, he killed for a living. He wasn’t, as far as I knew, heir to any pack however. What he was doing in San Francisco was beyond me.
As such, the Executioner was irrelevant to this week’s drama. I pushed Willow into the shelter of my body as I started to step around him. “Excuse us,” I murmured.
The low-key evasion didn’t work. The Executioner’s arm flashed out faster than it really should have among people who weren’t privy to the paranormal. Hard fingers closed around my sleeve-covered upper arm.
And while I could have magicked up a sword and fought back, this was neither the time nor the place. So, instead, I summoned up my most contagious smile. “Are you here to kill me or protect me?” I asked, ignoring Willow’s gasp as she tried even harder to sink into the floor.
To both of our surprise, my boldness worked. The Executioner’s eyes twinkled just the tiniest bit as he relinquished his hold on me.
Or maybe I’d only imagined that flash of humor. Maybe the scent of Thom finally wafting toward me out of the crowd just made me see dewdrops and flowers in an arid desert.
Because the Executioner’s answer wasn’t heartening. Or explanatory. In fact, he offered me one word only: “Yes.”
“Okay. Whatever.” I turned my back on the hulking shadow of danger. Willow and I couldn’t bull our way past the scary shifter but we could retreat into the crowd of humans, give the Executioner a wide berth, then get back on track on the other side.
Could and planned to, because my mate bond tightened and sang like a plucked guitar string. I knew even before picking Thom out of the crowd that the man I’d been yearning for had finished tugging our luggage off the carousel. His blue eyes were even now lifting to find mine, sending a wave of pure heat through my body. And while other alphas were busy jostling for position, space opened in front of Thom the instant he took a step forward. I aimed for an intersecting trajectory and…
The shriek of a sub-audible dog whistle pierced the room. Humans failed to notice, but every shifter winced, most dropping whatever they were holding so they could press their palms over their ears.
Willow’s lips formed words I’d never imagined she knew the meaning of. Thom’s cheek twitched as he barely managed to cling to our luggage. Meanwhile Rupert—my former co-worker and Thom’s current pack mate, best known for his unerringly grumpy life outlook and surprisingly accurate moral compass—stepped out from behind my mate and proved himself to be the only shifter properly prepared.
“Noise-canceling headphones,” Rupert mouthed smugly while tapping what appeared to be black earmuffs cupping his angular head. “Never leave home without them.”
As if on cue, the whistling ceased. From behind my back, the Executioner’s words descended like an icy chill over every shifter in the crowded baggage area. “You are here on a very limited invitation from the San Francisco alpha,” he began, speaking at a normal volume despite the distance yawning between himself and the furthest werewolf. The humans around us hadn’t stopped talking, but we all caught the gist well enough.
“Fail a fight and your invitation is rescinded, effective immediately,” the Executioner’s saw-rasp voice continued. “Losers and their plus-ones will be ferried back to the airport, at which point their immunity from trespassing becomes null and void.”
I winced, relinquishing any hope that Thom and I would get to spend at least a little time together. I’d have to focus on the bigger picture instead. On Chief Reed’s promise that if I won three matches I could enjoy one day a week in Gate City.
That plus the real reason I was here—the promise that Willow’s death sentence would be lifted upon my third triumph.
Meanwhile, the Executioner was cracking his metaphorical whip. “Moon Trial participants will be on the vans out front in three minutes,” he concluded. “Too slow and you will forfeit your spot.”
A stampede of werewolves erupted in the indicated direction even as I tried to turn backwards against the tide. Willow’s fingers on my sleeve halted my backward momentum this time. “Your mate can afford to dally,” she groused, tugging me toward the exit along with everyone else. “We can’t.”
Then we were outside the airport, in a busy loading zone. There, a clipboard-bearing woman considered the two of us for a moment before opting to ignore Willow while demanding of me: “Name?”
“Fairwood?” The other woman’s brows drew together. “I don’t see you here.”
From behind me, the ice of a predator’s presence prickled hairs on the back of my neck. Before I could decide whether it was better to turn and face the danger or maintain the illusion of toughness, the Executioner’s rough voice cut through Clipboard Lady’s confusion. “Reed heir. She’s been vetted.”
“Reed heir,” the woman agreed, checking the surname I hated off her list. “Van four.”
“We’ll be on van four also.” Somehow, Thom had caught up to us, despite pulling far too many suitcases behind him. Somehow, his deep rumble melted away the ice shards that the Executioner’s predatory intensity had sent shivering down my spine.
Some of that heat must have warmed Clipboard Lady also because she dimpled. “Yes, of course. And you are?”
The woman flipped the page over, frowning. “Are you sure?”
My mate’s cheeks crinkled into a half-smile that drew the woman’s upper body subtly toward him. “Of my name?” he rumbled. “Positive.”
“Ahem.” I’d failed to notice Rupert’s reappearance until his theatrical throat-clearing, but none of us could miss the way he drew himself up to his full height of approximately five feet zero inches while intoning: “I am the participant. Rupert Rumfelt.”
Clipboard Woman appeared even more dubious about Rupert than she’d been about me. “Which pack?”
“Rumfelt, of course.” Before the woman could ask for additional information, Rupert popped open his briefcase—the only item he carried—and drew out what appeared to be a certified deed. “I recently purchased an island.”
“Oh, well, that’s not exactly…”
“Eh, eh, eh.” He held up a finger in the universal demand to wait while flipping through further paperwork. “According to the Treaty of 1914, alphas are considered heirs during the period between claiming their property and the moment they physically set foot on said property.”
“Sir, I’m afraid the Moon Trials are for…”
Unlike Rupert, the Executioner didn’t have to clear his throat to gain everyone’s attention. “Write him in.”
Clipboard Lady’s polite refusal stuttered into silence. She averted her eyes from the Executioner while scribbling something on her paper and grimacing what was likely intended to be a smile in Rupert’s general direction. “My apologies. Van three.”
Thom and I rode in separate vehicles to a gymnasium that was nothing special. Just a big echoing arena with paired names sharpied onto posters spaced evenly along its length. The fighters had been set up in alphabetical order, so I zeroed in on the Fs, hunting first Fairwood then Faris before realizing I should have been looking for Reed.
Reed…one down from Rumfelt. Just outside the taped square where he’d be fighting, Rupert dribbled a big red ball that created painful non-harmonics no human would be able to hear. His headphones meant he either didn’t know or didn’t care that everyone around him was wincing and growling each time the ball and floor made contact. Willow muttered a complaint, but all I cared about was Thom.
Because my mate was waiting for me beside Rupert, no boundary separating us. We did have an audience, but I didn’t particularly care about that. I strode forward…
Then—“Rules.” The Executioner’s voice cut across the room, stilling chatter and leaving nothing but the sound of Rupert’s reverberating ball to fill the silence. A single dark eyebrow rose and four shifters dove forward to snatch the offending object before Rupert could slap his hand down yet again.
“You could have said something,” Rupert complained, slipping his headphones down to hang around his neck. “No need to get physical.”
As if the Moon Trials weren’t going to become far more physical than that.
Physical in more ways than one. I’d finally reached Thom’s side and his right arm rose to enfold me. The side-hug was simple, but it was more than we’d been able to do for months now. I half-listened as the Executioner continued speaking but mostly just reveled in contact with my mate.
“Thirty-two contestants,” the Executioner rasped. “Elimination contests.”
Beside us, Rupert pulled a calculator out of baggy cargo-pants pockets, typed in a few digits, then reported: “That would be five matches, assuming each involves exactly two parties. Alternatively, we could make this more efficient by…”
“Winner of the final duel,” the Executioner said, speaking over Rupert, “organizes the next Moon Trials. Loser dies.”
And Rupert’s chatter faded to silence. Thom’s body tensed against mine as he growled, “You didn’t mention a fight to the death when explaining the setup.”
“I didn’t mention it because it’s irrelevant,” I countered, keeping my voice low. Public displays of affection were one thing, public displays of discontent another thing entirely.
Sure enough, scents of interest sparked to life around us. I could feel hungry eyes on the back of my neck as I murmured further explanation into my mate’s ear. “Chief Reed only requires me to win three battles,” I told him. “If necessary, I’ll purposefully toss the fourth.”
My mate didn’t quite relax in the face of my promise, but his voice did turn less gritty. “I’ll watch your back through four battles then.”
“And Willow’s back. And Rupert’s.” We weren’t just side-hugging any longer. Thom had enfolded me in a full-body embrace that felt like nothing so much as coming home.
“Of course,” he agreed with both words and body.
“Rules for today,” the Executioner continued, his saw-toothed rasp no longer causing goose bumps now that Thom’s arms encircled me. I nestled deeper as the Executioner laid down the law. “To win, you will cause the other party to surrender or to step outside the taped area. At that point, victors and their plus-ones will be transferred to a hotel to prepare for tonight’s entertainment.”
I should have been assessing the competition, plotting out strategy. But all that mattered was Thom’s hot breath on my forehead. All that mattered was…
The absurd shortness of the Executioner’s speech. He ended with a single word.