Are you ready for a sneak peek into the final book of the Moon-Crossed Wolves Trilogy? It probably goes without saying, but the following chapters contain major spoilers for books one and two….
The intercom crackled above our heads. “Alpha! Trouble at the front gate!”
I fumbled with my carry-on while twisting to peer up at the speaker, but Luke didn’t pause. “Ruth will hear it,” he promised, scooping the bag off my shoulder without breaking stride. “Vacation. Drake Bay, remember?”
As if his words had moved my foot off the brake pedal, I followed him down the path toward the parking lot. It wasn’t just the rainforest of Costa Rica that drew us, either, although the photos I’d perused online were stunning. It was the sure knowledge that this pack—Ruth’s pack—needed to accept their true alpha before the Naming Ceremony next month.
Because the Naming Ceremony was the key to lowering our nerve-wracking vigilance. Once we proved that Ruth was our accepted alpha, even the most powerful packs would hesitate to attack.
And, okay, it didn’t hurt that we were so close to turning over the reins that I could smell the salt surf and see the monkeys. There’d be smoothies full of passionfruit and pineapple. Parrots in palm trees. Cuddling up to my mate on a breezy balcony while watching the sun set over the sea.
Best of all, our cell phones wouldn’t work there. If the pack needed someone, they’d have to turn to Ruth. By the time we returned, Luke would be the leader’s brother rather than a third-wheel alpha. No more confusion within the clan. No more danger from the outside world if pack mates’ eyes turned to the wrong leader when push came to shove.
The ordinary sounds of pack life, however, had transformed while I was daydreaming. A sharp bark rose above the rooftops. The wheels of my suitcase caught on a stray pebble and my feet snagged against an invisible mental barrier.
Could Ruth really manage without us? After all, she was eight months pregnant….
“Alright?” Luke asked. His hand was strong against my arm, steadying my balance. We’d passed the gaggle of pack vehicles by this point, heading toward the car we’d purchased for his and my use only. The vehicle had taken us on many adventures already and the pack had been fine each and every time we left them. In fact, bonds between werewolves had vibrated stronger after each absence.
Yes, taking a more extended vacation was the right thing to do. I smiled at Luke as he stepped around me to open the car door. And, okay, I did glance backwards once as I slid into the passenger seat. I wasn’t looking for pack mates, though. I was peering up into the bluest eyes imaginable, a swirl of cinnamon curling around my left shoulder.
The fact I caught a flash of orange out of the corner of one eye was irrelevant. It was hard not to see the gaudily clad teenager sprinting toward us, but I really did try.
Luke’s brow furrowed. “Please tell me you didn’t just meet her eyes.”
I didn’t ask him how he’d known the girl—Carly, turned Blade, turned twenty other names, now Ester—was present. The pack bond had grown sturdier during the time I’d spent with Clan Acosta. Now both Ruth and Luke knew the location and status of every relative without bothering to look.
As Luke’s mate, I caught snippets of secondhand information. Like the fact that Luke’s niece was frantic. Like the fact she was so light-headed from sprinting that she was about to pass out.
Still, she gasped out my name. “Honor.” Two more pounding footsteps, then another verbal exhalation. “Luke. I’m so glad I caught you guys.”
I didn’t even glance at her this time. Instead, I peered up at Luke, watching the war play out across his features. He wanted to stay and see what kind of trouble had appeared on the other side of the compound…and he wanted to flee for the long-term good of the pack.
This was his choice. I couldn’t make it for him. So I clutched the pelt that would shift me to wolf form and I forced myself to wait.
“Luke!” It was his niece’s shriek that decided him. The shriek…plus the pack bond tugging at his gut so hard it overloaded our mate connection and made me queasy.
His niece was level-ten upset. And while Luke had turned over the pack-leader reins to his sister quite willingly, he couldn’t ignore the kid’s desperation. No wonder he spun around even as I fought to pull my sword while leaping out of the passenger seat.
“Ester. What happened?” Luke demanded.
His hands were on her arms before I’d disentangled my weapon from the seat belt. He twisted her this way and that while his eyes scanned visible skin for signs of damage. I half expected him to flip her upside down to peer at her feet.
The girl’s brows slammed down as she shrugged out of his grip. “I’m going by Bruiser now. It’s stronger. Tougher. I thought you’d remember.”
She clearly wasn’t injured. Now that I paid more attention to the pack bond—a tiny thread of light connecting Luke and his niece, barely visible if I squinted and cocked my head sideways—I could feel her bodily wholeness. Her shriek had originated in fury, not pain.
And Bruiser was still irate when she grabbed Luke’s hand and began towing him back in the direction she’d come from. “Are you deaf? Didn’t you hear the intercom?” she demanded. Then, without waiting for an answer: “There’s trouble at the front gate.”
As if reacting to Bruiser’s reminder, the intercom once again flared to life. This time, Ruth was the one speaking, her voice terse with alpha authority.
“Uninvited visitors at the gatehouse. All on-duty wolves report to battle stations. Off-duty wolves, meet me lupine at the front gate.”
Breath caught in my throat. This wasn’t mere trouble. This was an invasion.
A click marked the end of the pack-wide message. A new click suggested that Ruth’s subsequent statement was broadcast less widely than the first. “Luke, get Honor out of here. The pack can’t handle woelfin distractions.”
My mate turned to face the security camera, one of dozens the pack had installed when we returned to Luke’s childhood home six months earlier. “I might be a distraction but Honor isn’t,” he bit out before getting down to business. “How many invaders?”
“None of your business,” his sister countered. “If you don’t leave now, you’ll miss your flight.”
Bruiser’s eyes, which had been raised and bright when she back-talked Luke earlier, fell to the pavement. The fact Luke and his sister were hashing this out aloud rather than silently attested to the cracks in their united public front.
Because while both agreed that Ruth was the pack’s alpha, Luke’s over-protective wolf often rebelled against her dictates…like it did now. “Are you planning on staying inside the fence where you’re safe?” Luke demanded.
The fence, like the security cameras, was new since we’d moved here. Twenty feet tall and lined with razor wire, the enclosure made the pack’s home base look like a sprawling prison rather than the welcoming hamlet it had resembled previously. On the other hand, we all slept better at night with more than the forest shielding us from enemy attack.
Ruth wasn’t one to huddle behind protection however. “An alpha doesn’t send her pack into battle alone.”
As the intercom crackled into silence, howls rose from outside the fence line. Something in my stomach twisted. The pack was in danger and further debate would delay the clan’s defenses.
I met Luke’s eyes then jerked my chin toward the back gate.
Unlike the spot where invaders were attacking, this secondary entrance only opened from the inside. We’d planned to drive our car out, turn left at the fork, then head to the airport.
If we turned right at the fork, though, we’d circle back around and end up at the front gate. Behind the invaders. It was a way to obey Ruth while still helping the pack if the tide of battle turned against them.
Unlike Luke’s bond to his sister, the connection between the two of us glowed with strength and unity. There was no squinting required for me to see the tether, and I also didn’t have to put my thoughts into words to get the point across. Just tagged his attention and opened myself up.
Luke nodded. “Okay,” he told his sister, ignoring the disbelief in the eyes of his niece. “We’re going. Be careful, alpha. Bruiser, do whatever Ruth says.”
Luke drove while I shed clothing in the passenger seat. Usually, my nudity would have attracted my mate’s attention, but this time his eyes remained fixed on the road.
“They won’t be able to get through the fence,” he told me. Or, perhaps, he was reassuring himself. Still, gravel pinged against the fenders as he sped faster than was appropriate given the unevenness of the road.
“Not unless someone grants them access,” I agreed, wriggling out of my panties. “Who’s on gatehouse duty this morning?”
Luke’s honorary uncle—actually some sort of far-removed cousin, but old enough to be in the uncle category—was one of the most stable and loyal members of the pack. “So we’re fine. There’s nothing to worry about.”
Luke must have disagreed because he didn’t slow down. Instead, he swung the wheel into a tight turn as the fork rose before us. Our passenger-side tires splashed through a puddle, creating a damp line in the gravel as seen through the rear-view mirror.
“One set of tracks,” I observed, just in case Luke was too intent upon planning and driving to notice that heartening evidence. “Other than ours. How many werewolves can you fit inside a single vehicle?”
I hadn’t expected an answer, but Luke gave one anyway. “At least two dozen in a panel van….”
His voice petered off and his eyes grew distant as he tuned in to an interior conversation I wasn’t privy to. Not Ruth, since their connection had frayed weeks ago. Not Arthur either since mental conversations with wolves I knew well tended to spill over to me through the mate bond.
Whoever it was and whatever they said, Luke’s face whitened. He swore, slamming on the brakes and leaping out of the car before it came to a complete stop.
This was where we’d planned on waiting, just short of the rise that would have returned the compound to view. Here, we could hover without Ruth noticing that we barely toed the line of obedience.
Still, Luke’s body language suggested the wait-and-see plan had already flown out the window. So I disembarked as rapidly as he had, swirling my pelt around my shoulders and pulling at threads of wolfishness to initiate a shift.
“Plan B,” Luke growled. “Arthur’s not responding. We….”
The hilltop belched smoke as an explosion roared from the direction of the pack compound. Fabric shredded away from Luke’s transforming body as his paws hit the pavement.
“They’re in,” he explained unnecessarily.
The invaders had blown their way through our fence.
Which shouldn’t have been the end of the world. When Luke dug deep into his personal coffers to pay for fence construction, he’d installed a second line of defense at the weakest point. All Arthur had to do was hit a big red button and fifty feet of even heavier fence material would rise out of the ground to create a smaller but nonetheless secure enclosure.
Which, okay, sounds useless since the defenders were outside the perimeter fighting off invaders. But Luke had also added wolf hatches scattered along the entire fence line. The latter were like high-tech doggy doors, keyed to each pack mate’s irises in wolf and human form.
Wolf hatches made it easy to keep the compound locked up tight when we headed off on hunts as a clan unit. They made it simple for skinless to blow off steam without stopping to chat with a nosy gate guard. Now, they would allow pack mates to return to the compound without invaders following…assuming the secondary fence rose before invaders made it inside.
That only worked if the gatekeeper remained conscious and able to erect the backup fence, however. As Luke and I sprinted toward the haze of smoke hiding gatehouse and gate, no signs of life emanated from where Arthur had last been seen.
There was plenty of life around the gatehouse, however. Swirls of movement flickered in and out of focus, heading in the direction of what I guessed to be the fence gap. It was hard to tell through the dense smoke, but invaders seemed to be halfway to the line in the pavement that the secondary fence would rise out of. The big red button wouldn’t do any good if someone didn’t push it fast.
“Don’t wait for me,” I told Luke, knowing his longer legs could traverse the intervening ground faster than mine could. He huffed protest but pushed his muscles harder. I followed suit, fighting not to cough as we dove into the foul-smelling haze.
Inside the smoke, it was impossible to make out our enemies’ progress or the state of Ruth’s defensive forces. Which made our own goal simpler. Ignore the invaders. Head for the gatehouse. Push the button….
Bruiser’s voice struck us via the pack bond just as the wall of the gatehouse loomed dark against the sky. “Aunt Ruth! No!”
A shimmery, distorted image flowed toward us along with the words. Based on the oblique angle and the chain-link diamonds between her and the action, Bruiser had been left behind in the dubious safety of the pack compound while our warriors rushed out to meet the enemy. Ruth, as anyone could have predicted, hadn’t stayed behind the fence.
No, even though she was eight months pregnant, the pack’s alpha was leading the charge. The scarred, potbellied werewolf waddled in front of her relatives, intent upon warding off attacking shifters…
…which would have been comical if battles among skinless didn’t often end in death.
Neither Ruth nor I saw what had prompted Bruiser’s initial cry. Well, not at first. Not until it was too late for Ruth to dodge the huge dark wolf slamming into her hindquarters, spinning legs out from under her. Too late for me or Luke to rush to her assistance as something pale and snarling clamped sharp teeth down on the underside of her neck.
Ruth was an alpha for a reason, though. She didn’t cave. Instead, she twisted her entire body, struggling to protect herself.
Unfortunately, her swollen belly refused to bend. Even as Bruiser’s second cry—“No! Please!”—tolled in my brain, our alpha disappeared beneath a pile of fur.
And…our entire pack hesitated. Didn’t dive in to help their alpha or defend their home. Just stood stock still, waiting to be mown down like so much summer grass.
Which is when Luke stepped into the gap.
Not literally. He and I were both too far away to see the action without Bruiser’s help, let alone impact it. But his mental connection to the pack rivaled Ruth’s.
“Are you wolves or are you field mice?” he bellowed.
His words, I could see, didn’t strike everyone. But pack mates Luke didn’t have a personal connection with possessed connections to one another. No wonder his demand spread through the pack as fast as a ripple. Ruffs rose and lips curled as a tidal wave of strength flowed from Luke through our entire clan.
Which was great…for now. It wouldn’t be great tomorrow, when Ruth tried to wrangle dissent arising from two pack leaders spitting out two different sets of instructions. It wouldn’t be great next month when the neighboring alphas we invited through our gates saw a splintered clan ripe for the picking rather than the united front we intended to present.
Of course, that assumed Ruth was there to host and wrangle next month and tomorrow. And that there was a pack left to be managed at either time.
I blinked and Luke was gone, sprinting toward the spot where his sister had fallen. “The button,” he reminded me.
I turned around to face the building that towered above me in the smoke.
The gatehouse door wouldn’t open. I tried and failed to twist the knob a second time, higher smoke intensity at human face level making my eyes smart and my brain fog.
If Arthur had been knocked out of commission (I refused to consider a more permanent reason for his silence), the door should have swung open. Instead, the knob refused to turn.
Behind me, the panel van pinged as flames heated metal. Somewhere lost in the smoke, wolves yipped and howled. But my mental connection to the pack lay dormant. Everyone was too busy to fill me in on how the tides of battle turned.
Which was fair. They had their job and I had mine. I pressed my pelt up around my neck and flared my nostrils, seeking clues about who might be hiding in the gatehouse with Arthur.
Big mistake. The only scents swirling through the smoke were rubber and gasoline. I choked on the inhale, coughing far too loudly into my fist. Had I been heard?
I paused for a moment, listening. Nothing. Shrugging off the trickle of unease at the base of my neck, I continued pacing around the outside of the building, the crackle of flames covered my footsteps this time.
Despite a locked door, the gatehouse wasn’t impenetrable. The explosion had dented siding and blackened the eaves. More relevantly, a window had broken halfway down the wall, shards of glass sticking out from the frame like pointy monster teeth.
“Arthur?” I called silently. He shouldn’t be too busy to speak with me. It would be nice to know what I was up against before I dove inside.
My only answer was resounding silence. Well, that plus a twist in my gut and the sure knowledge that the fence-raising button wasn’t going to push itself.
Shivering back down to four paws, I leapt directly through the window’s gaping mouth.
Inside, papers danced across the floor, skittering away from the wind of my passing. Something sharp bit into my left rear paw pad. I spun in a tight circle, prepared for enemy attack.
None came. In that first haze of searching, no movement caught my attention either. The nip to my foot had come from a shard of broken glass.
I slowed and padded around at human speed this time, blinking back smoke-prompted tears and peering into the room’s dim recesses. There weren’t many places for an attacker to hide. Two closed doors led to a bathroom and a closet. The mesh rolling chair wouldn’t shield either a living or dead body. The desk, on the other hand….
I padded forward, liquid squelching between my toes as I smelled something other than burnt panel van. Blood. I swallowed. Took another step….
Saw Arthur’s crumpled body.
The fifty-something werewolf lying before me had been the first adult member of Luke’s pack to accept my woelfin identity. He’d learned about my pelt, had spewed profanities for thirty seconds, then had backed me up during a wild sprint through the forest to escape his kin.
And, yes, Arthur’s acceptance had hinged upon my status as Luke’s mate. But during the months I’d spent here at the pack’s home place, our relationship had grown into more than that.
There had been tea invitations while Luke was busy tending the endless tasks of alpha. The hand-drawn family tree that showed up in my mailbox after I complained for the third time about pack mates’ complicated relationships. Notes scrawled in the margins about intertwining pathways of alliance and rivalry that Luke had missed out on during his decade away.
Which could all have been attempts to strengthen a new alpha by educating his partner. But Arthur had dispensed more than mere wisdom. Just last week, when I’d subtly guided two grouchy pack mates into tentative harmony, Arthur had placed his hand on my shoulder just like my father used to do.
“Good job,” he murmured, proving he saw the hard work I strove to keep hidden. In my belly, new connections clicked into place as I fell even deeper into the pack.
No wonder my muscles now refused to carry me closer to the crumpled body that lay in the smoky dimness. Arthur’s chest didn’t appear to be moving. I couldn’t quite talk myself into shifting to human form so I could place a hand in front of his nose.
Instead, I paced past the desk and reared up on my hind legs to depress the big red button. A rumble, more felt than heard, promised the backup fence was rising.
And the invaders? Were they inside or outside that fence?
I itched to pull at clan connections to answer those questions. But anyone I contacted could be thrown off their stride by the intrusion. Better I check Arthur than interrupt pack mates locked in life-or-death struggles….
A voice cut through the silence. “Hello?”
I spun, searching a second time for enemies. Because the greeting was too high-pitched to be Arthur’s. Instead, whoever had spoken was female and healthy. What had I missed when I first surveyed the space?
Nothing I could see. Even the scattered papers were still now.
Yet the voice continued, light and teasing. “I’m sweltering in here. Could you let me out already?”
I padded toward the source of the chatter—the closet door—while wriggling out of my wolf skin. Sometimes, shifting was a struggle. Today, relinquishing my lupine nature felt like taking my finger off the nozzle of an untied balloon.
Wolf gushed out of me. Humanity consumed me. My shed pelt fluttered to the ground.
Ever since the drama with my family, I hated to be parted from my lupine skin. But for once I didn’t take the time to snatch it up and secure it about my person. Instead, my attention was riveted on the closed door three feet from my nose.
There was a woman shut up in that closet. A woman who wasn’t a pack mate—there were few enough females left within Luke’s clan that I could make that identification with certainty.
Closet girl had arrived with the invaders then. A year ago, I would have assumed she was their prisoner, someone to rush and rescue. Now, after finding betrayers hidden deep within families twice in quick succession, I wasn’t so sure of that fact.
I turned to assess the gatehouse yet again. If Arthur was alive, it was my job to protect him from enemies, even chatty female ones. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much available to use as a weapon. A laptop, crushed on the ground. A pen that might or might not manage to pierce someone’s eyeball.
My gaze turned to the window I’d recently leapt through. If I had fabric to shield my hand from sharp edges, one of those glass teeth would make an effective dagger….
The only accessible fabric encircled Arthur’s body. No, not his body. The fabric encircled Arthur.
Gritting my teeth at the mental slip, I stooped and grabbed my pelt rather than ripping Arthur’s shirt. Cuts on the pelt’s leathery surface would turn into cuts on my skin the next time I turned lupine. But I wasn’t ready to steal Arthur’s clothing if it meant risking a glimpse of his sightless eyes.
Instead, I used the fur side of my pelt as a second layer of protection. Then I reached up and wriggled free a triangular shard of glass.
The closet door bore no lock, which meant the woman inside could emerge at any moment. But she didn’t. Instead, she spoke again as I strode toward her hiding place. “Timothy? Look, I’m sorry about what I said earlier.”
This was interesting. I paused, but no further information was forthcoming. So, using my non-dominant hand, I fumbled open the door.
I vaguely noted that the smoke outside must be clearing because sun streamed through the broken window to illuminate the woman who’d spoken. She was pressed up against shelves of cleaning supplies and printer paper, bound hand and foot with zip ties. Long dark hair snaked around her shoulders, some caught on her sweat-streaked brow.
She hadn’t been lying about the heat.
She hadn’t been lying about thinking I was Timothy either. The bridge of her nose crinkled up in confusion. “Who are you?”
“Honor,” I answered, watching for recognition in her eyes and seeing exactly what I expected.
So, a Trojan horse, not an innocent victim. I turned away without completing the introductions, forcing my feet to carry me back to where Arthur lay beneath the desk.
“Hey!” the woman called after me. “I was talking to you!”
She sounded more annoyed than terrified. Yet another data point, and not one in her favor. Settling onto my knees, I leaned forward into the desk cavity, searching Arthur’s face for any sign of life.
His eyes were closed. If he was breathing, it was too shallow to be visible. I stretched my hand toward his nostrils…then banged my head against the top of the desk as my vision flickered from the real world to the view from behind Luke’s eyes.
Wolves wove in and out around us so quickly they might have been waltzing. The pain shooting up our side, however, and the blood in our peripheral vision suggested a more deadly dance.
Despite the throbbing pain, Luke didn’t remark upon the battle. Instead, he must have seen what I was seeing because he asked, “Is Arthur alive?”
“Watch out!” I countered.
I wasn’t sure how Luke managed it while peering through my eyes and carrying on a conversation, but he dodged an oncoming wolf at the last possible second. The wolf skidded in a failed attempt to slow his mad dash forward. Metal clanged as the beast struck the chain-link fence.
They were inside the backup barrier. I hadn’t been fast enough.
“Arthur,” Luke prodded, as if the two of us were engaged in civilized dinner conversation.
As he spoke, he struck the enemy wolf so fast and hard all I saw was a flash of fur followed by blood spurting. Even though I was used to wolf fights after spending so long among the skinless, the sight of such serious injury unsettled my stomach.
And yet, I was grateful to have Luke beside me as I checked Arthur’s vitals. “Hold on,” I told him. Then, stretching another six inches forward, I pressed two fingers into the indentation at the base of our friend’s throat.
“I’m Destiny.” The woman’s voice impinged upon my attempt to determine whether the flutter of pulse beneath my fingertips was wishful thinking. “They hit him over the head. If you cut me loose, I’ll help carry him to safety.”
Ignoring her, I pressed my forefinger just a little deeper into Arthur’s flesh then smiled. “Alive,” I reported. “How’s the battle?”
I’d lost track of what Luke was doing as I focused on Arthur. Now, my mate turned his head so I could see the fight winding down. “We’ve corralled the few who made it in and should be able to force them out the back gate shortly,” my mate reported. “The rest are already heading your way, so keep your eyes open. Who’s Destiny?”
I shrugged, crawling back out from under the desk then grabbing Arthur’s feet to drag him into the light along with me. “A trap, I think. She was tied up in the supply closet.” I pulled up the memory of Destiny’s predicament to send down our mate bond along with the words. Finished with: “She knew my name.”
Luke hummed deep in his throat. Despite everything, the sensation sent a burst of cinnamon spiraling up out of the scar on my shoulder. “Lone wolves are hard on their women.”
“So the attackers were lone wolves?” On the one hand, identifying our attackers as non-pack was good. We’d have a better chance of driving away a loose confederation of lone wolves than we would vanquishing one of our neighbor clans.
On the other hand…did even the dregs of skinless society think the Acosta pack was easy pickings? That was definitely bad news.
“As best we can tell,” Luke confirmed. “Either way, they still have teeth. I’ll send someone along to help you with Arthur. Be careful while you wait.”
Luke’s voice faded as something more pressing required his attention. Which was fine. From the direction of the pack compound, howls reminded me I needed to get a move on also.
Too bad Arthur weighed half again as much as I did. I could either wait for help or I could try to wake him up.
I shook his shoulder. First gently, then harder.
Arthur didn’t even manage to moan.
“You should use your pelt.”
For the first time since dismissing her, I turned back to face Destiny. She was still trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey, but her chin was raised and her eyes were fiery.
She’d known my name, so of course she knew I was a woelfin. Still, I chose my words carefully. “How do you suggest I use it?”
“You don’t know?” She attempted to scratch an itch at her waist, tough when her wrists were bound behind her. “Cut me free and I’ll show you.”
“You will, huh?” Maybe Luke was right. Maybe that was desperation talking.
Still, Destiny didn’t look desperate. Her gaze was tinged with something closer to pity.
And whatever itched was apparently more pressing than talking her way to freedom. Because she twisted her entire torso until one thumb became visible, pushing up her t-shirt to reveal her belly.
No. Not her belly. That was something soft and furry.
Her t-shirt had rucked up to reveal a woelfin’s pelt.