Nightshade Page 2

With a warning growl I shook my head, ripping a length of fabric from the hiker’s torn shirt to bind up my own wound. His moss-colored eyes followed my every movement.

I scrambled to my feet and was startled when he mimicked the action, faltering only slightly. I frowned and took two steps back. He watched my retreat, then looked down at his ripped clothing. His fingers gingerly picked at the shreds of his shirt. When his eyes lifted to meet mine, I was hit with an unexpected swell of dizziness. His lips parted. I couldn’t stop looking at them. Full, curving with interest, lacking the terror I’d expected. Too many questions flickered in his gaze.

I have to get out of here. “You’ll be fine. Get off the mountain. Don’t come near this place again,” I said, turning away.

A shock sparked through my body when the boy gripped my shoulder. He looked surprised but not at all afraid. That wasn’t good. Heat flared along my skin where his fingers held me fast. I waited a moment too long, watching him, memorizing his features before I snarled and shrugged off his hand.

“Wait—” he said, and took another step toward me.

What if I could wait, putting my life on hold in this moment? What if I stole a little more time and caught a taste of what had been so long forbidden? Would it be so wrong? I would never see this stranger again. What harm could come from lingering here, from holding still and learning whether he would try to touch me the way I wanted to him to?

His scent told me my thoughts weren’t far off the mark, his skin snapping with adrenaline and the musk that belied desire. I’d let this encounter last much too long, stepped well beyond the line of safe conduct. With regret nipping at me, I balled my fist. My eyes moved up and down his body, assessing, remembering the feeling of his lips on my skin. He smiled hesitantly.

Enough.

I caught him across the jaw with a single blow. He dropped to the ground and didn’t move again. I bent down and gathered the boy in my arms, slinging his backpack over my shoulder. The scent of green meadows and dew-kissed tree limbs flowed around me, flooding me with that strange ache that coiled low in my body, a physical reminder of my brush with treachery. Twilight shadows stretched farther up the mountain, but I’d have him at the base by dusk.

A lone, battered pickup was parked near the rippling waterway that marked the boundary of the sacred site. Black signs with bright orange lettering were posted along the creek bank:

NO TRESPASSING. PRIVATE PROPERTY.

The Ford Ranger was unlocked. I flung open the door, almost pulling it from the rust-bitten vehicle. I draped the boy’s limp form across the driver’s seat. His head slumped forward and I caught the stark outline of a tattoo on the back of his neck. A dark, bizarrely inked cross.

A trespasser and trend hound. Thank God I found something not to like about him.

I hurled his pack onto the passenger seat and slammed the door. The truck’s steel frame groaned. Still trembling with frustration, I shifted into wolf form and darted back into the forest. His scent clung to me, blurring my sense of purpose. I sniffed the air and cringed, a new scent bringing my treachery into stark relief.

I know you’re here. A snarl traveled with my thought.

Are you okay? Bryn’s plaintive question only made fear bite harder into my trembling muscles. In the next moment she ran beside me.

I told you to leave. I bared my teeth but couldn’t deny my sudden relief at her presence.

I could never abandon you. Bryn kept pace easily. And you know I’ll never betray you.

I picked up speed, darting through the deepening shadows of the forest. I abandoned my attempt to outrun fear, shifted forms, and stumbled forward until I found the solid pressure of a tree trunk. The scratch of the bark on my skin failed to repel the gnat-like nerves that swarmed in my head.

“Why did you save him?” she asked. “Humans mean nothing to us.”

I kept my arms around the tree but turned my cheek to the side so I could look at Bryn. No longer in her wolf form, the short, wiry girl’s hands rested on her hips. Her eyes narrowed as she waited for an answer.

I blinked, but I couldn’t halt the burning sensation. A pair of tears, hot and unwanted, slid down my cheeks.

Bryn’s eyes widened. I never cried. Not when anyone could witness it.

I turned my face away, but I could sense her watching me silently, without judgment. I had no answers for Bryn. Or for myself.

TWO

WHEN I OPENED THE FRONT DOOR TO MY house, my body went rigid. I could smell the visitors. Aged parchment, fine wine: Lumine Nightshade’s scent exuded an aristocratic elegance. But her guards filled the house with an unbearable odor, boiling pitch and burnt hair.

“Calla?” Lumine’s voice dripped with honey.

I cringed, trying to gather my wits before I walked into the kitchen with my mouth glued shut. I didn’t want to taste the creatures as well as smell them.

Lumine sat at the table across from her pack’s current alpha, my father. She remained impossibly still, posture perfect, chocolate tresses caught in a chignon at the back of her neck. She wore her typical immaculate ebony suit and crisp high-collared white shirt. Two wraiths flanked her, looming shadow-like just over her slim shoulders.

I sucked in my cheeks so I could bite the insides. It was the only thing that kept me from baring my teeth at the bodyguards.

“Have a seat, my dear.” Lumine gestured to a chair.

I pulled the chair close to my father, crouching rather than sitting in it. I couldn’t relax with the wraiths nearby.

Does she already know about the violation? Is she here to order my execution?

“Little more than a month of waiting left, lovely girl,” she murmured. “Are you looking forward to your union?”

I let out the breath I didn’t know I’d been holding.

“Sure,” I said.

Lumine brought the tips of her fingers together in front of her face.

“Is that the only word you have to offer about your auspicious future?”

My father barked a laugh. “Calla’s not the romantic her mother is, Mistress.”

His tone remained confident, but his gaze fell on me. I ran my tongue along my canines, which were sharpening in my mouth.

“I see,” she said, eyes moving up and down my body.

I crossed my arms over my chest.

“Stephen, you might teach her better manners. I expect my alpha females to embody finesse. Naomi has always had the utmost grace in the role.”

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