THE moon shone over the land, illuminating the night-drenched terrain before him as though it were daylight instead of minutes past midnight. Beaux Nelson padded forward on four feet, his nose lifted to sample the winter air. In his wolf form, he tasted all the flavors on the breeze. The snow on the ground possessed a gentle sweetness, winter’s kiss not yet disrupted by the pollution of humans. Undoubtedly, they would soon spoil the purity of the season’s white blanket.
He scented the pine trees, the fir, and the spruce, all tangled together on the wind. Their unique aromas tickled his nose. Nearby, bats flew, whipping their wings on the wind as they left their caverns. His ears picked up the whoosh of their passage as they danced through the night.
Beaux raised his head for a moment to smile at the moon in her fullness. He would need the blessing of his creator to live through the night. More and more warmth flowed through his body the longer he stared. The moon’s blessing coursed in his veins, granting him the strength to do what needed to be done.
He would rescue his mate.
At long last, Lake would be free of her captors, and those who had harmed her would pay. Their blood would flow through the caverns before the morning came.
The irony of the True Believers bringing Lake—finally—to Montana, his home territory, hadn’t escaped him. Beaux had followed her trail everywhere—Maine, where some local lone wolves went above and beyond the call of duty when they spotted her by attempting rescue at considerable personal cost. From there, her captors fled across the country to California, where she’d lost her female-werewolf totem necklace. It had been found by the Napa Valley’s Alpha after an attack by the True Believers. From California, they angled south to the Gulf and the city of New Orleans, where witnesses reported a woman matching her description actually running down the street of Napoleon Avenue before being recaptured by men who got out of a black van, wielding guns. The bold daylight attack had incensed the local human authorities.
All the places they took Lake, Beaux had found them—always one step behind, one day too slow. He growled, baring his teeth at the cavern he would soon enter. If Lake’s brother had told him of her kidnapping one day earlier, everything might have happened differently.
Beaux was a tracker. It had taken him longer to hunt down his mate than it had taken him to catch any other prey. Locating Lake, rescuing her, and bringing her home was the most important challenge of his life. He. Would. Not. Fail. Again.
He cocked his head to the side, the signal to his pack it was time to move forward. He longed to howl, to announce to the moon their battle had begun. But making any noise would tell the humans inside of their arrival as well, and, since he trusted the moon already knew his plans, he saw no reason to give away the imminent battle to his enemies.
Silence remained vital until he entered the cavern. The time for howling would come later, when his mate stood at his side and his enemies lay defeated and destroyed.
He padded forward, glancing at the moon one last time. Mother and Father Moon, she and he who guide us, I ask for your blessings on our battle. I place my life and those of my pack in your hand. It will be a glorious battle to do honor to your name and to reclaim the mate you have gifted to me.
With one last entreaty, he ran forward. His pack would be in place. Normally, on full moon nights his pack embraced the night together, running, hunting, living as the animal residing within them.
Tonight, his people had to stay human in their minds while their bodies remained fur-covered. As Alpha, it was his job to keep the pack from going fully animal. Whatever energy he sent, his followers would behave accordingly.
Beaux trusted every single one of them with him life. They had honored him when they decided to give him the gift of serving them as a leader during his time here on earth.
They were his family and had all gladly volunteered to lay down their lives for Lake, if it came to it. He would do the same for any of them if they needed.
Pack fought for each other. At least, his pack did.
He charged. Lewis and Clark Caverns State Park featured a number of ancient caverns accessible for tours for the public. The True Believers had brought his mate to one of the caves not available for regular viewing. The cavern was remote, hard to get to, and hidden away from all of the trails.
The secret nature of the place worried him. What did they want to do with her here? He didn’t smell lab equipment, which is what the other, more public places she had been held, contained. Were they planning on killing her? Leaving her to die? Why here? Why now? Why on his territory?
Answers would have to wait. He tested the air, bringing her cinnamon and vanilla essence into the forefront of his mind.
Once he caught her scent, he never lost it. For the rest of his existence, he would always be able to find her—especially in his own territory.
He doubted her captors’ motivations included drawing him out. To do so would require awareness of his existence. Lake never claimed him as her true mate. In fact, she’d drugged him to get away before they could discuss it. Anything could happen under torture. She might have told them about him. However, as a target for attack, he didn’t warrant much attention from the True Believers.
Her brother would be, in their view, a high-profile kill.
Beaux growled. Maybe he should let them have Cyrus. It would be fitting payback for the way Cyrus neglected her safety.
Two men stood guard at the entrance. He could smell the rank stink of gunpowder. Their weapons had been recently fired. If Lake were hurt, he would hunt down the perpetrators’ families and eat them alive—sink his canines into their soft human flesh and tear them into unrecognizable shreds.
Maybe he’d do it anyway. Just for fun.
“Shit, Max. It’s one of them.” The rotund sack of shit backed up fast until he hit the wall behind. His unhealthy sweat, spiked with the sour smell of too much indulgence permeated the dark cavern.
Not all of the True Believers were warriors. Some of them were imbeciles who wanted to kill werewolves because it seemed a cool thing to do. Why these particular men were with the True Believers mattered little. They had taken Lake, so he would not forgive them for their sins nor excuse their hatred, as humans might, due to their lack of education or poverty.
Beaux was their judge, jury, and executioner. He jumped forward, ripping the man’s throat out as he did. He rounded on the other moron with the gun.
Guard number two had a gun. Beaux smiled, showing the man his teeth. The Believer’s hand was steady. Beaux had to give him credit for his calm. He’d always been able to respect men who managed themselves in crisis.
Of course, his steady hand was really for naught. Beaux’s right-hand wolf, Joel, who in his wolf form had black and gray fur, leaped forward and took down the guard from behind. Beaux turned away. Joel could handle the business at hand and more guards needed dispatching.
Systematically, Beaux led the pack through the cavern, using his nose to guide him. Blood splattered the walls, and, though his pack would dispose of the bodies, anyone who came into the place would know there had been a massacre inside from the mess alone. Good. If the rest of the True Believers came looking, maybe they would finally understand they couldn’t touch what belonged to him and get away with it.
Blood dripped from his mouth, and, by the time he reached Lake, he had lost track of how many men he had taken down. His pack finished the ones he hadn’t. They would host a celebration after Lake was free.
He followed her cinnamon scent into a room. In a matter of seconds, he found what he sought—his mate—bound by her hands, dangling from the ceiling. Her neck hung to the side like her head had become too heavy to support, and her eyes were closed.
Her heart was still beating, his wolf senses gave him that much information, but it sounded too slow. She was injured and in pain. He should have been here earlier, but it looked like he’d arrived in the nick of time.
No one guarded her, and he took a deep breath to assure himself he was, in fact, alone with Lake.
Why had they left her like this? He ran forward, his bones breaking, muscles pulling and shifting. As Alpha he could change as he saw fit, staying human if he chose on Full Moons when the rest of the pack needed to remain furred until morning. His skin tingled, reminding him the moon hung high in the sky. Just because he could stay human didn’t mean the Full Moon shift into his two-legged human-self didn’t hurt like hell. His whole soul cried out to be a wolf.
No matter, he’d endure much worse for Lake.
She was in her human form, which was wrong. She was a Healer, not an Alpha. Lake should never have been able to stay human under the full moon. Drugged. They had to have drugged her. Reaching out, he touched her skin and found her warm. A good sign. His pack had no healer. They lived ruggedly; it was why they had all chosen to make their home in Montana, as opposed to pretending they were humans in the big cities.
For the first time, he found a reason to regret the choice. He’d have loved some medical help.
Still unconscious, she didn’t open her eyes or acknowledge his voice or touch. Beaux stretched toward her bonds, transforming his hand into a claw as he did so. With one swift move, he cut the ropes binding her, catching her in his other arm when she fell.
“I’ve got you, Lake.”
His mate did not stir. He stared at her face. Life was funny. Here he was laying siege to retrieve her from harm, and he hardly knew her. She had come to his land with her brother. He knew Cyrus from years earlier and hadn’t cared for him much, as the man had been then, and continued to be, a pompous jackass.
Beaux had considered the Manhattan Alpha’s trespassing on his land an affront and attacked him. Later, while he held Cyrus prisoner, they’d all but come to blows again. Until Beaux scented Lake—and he’d known.
One sniff of her cinnamon, vanilla essence and he’d been lost. The universe had gifted him a True Mate and she was, remarkably, Cyrus’ Healer sister. How was it possible he’d soon be related to a male he could barely stand?
So many things happened after he met her, leaving them no time to discuss what they meant to one another. Ultimately, it had all ended abruptly when she’d drugged him and taken off on an airplane. The woman wanted to be chased, as all of her gender did when they encountered their True Mate. He was more than happy to comply. Then, Cyrus once again proved himself to be the most aggravating werewolf ever born by denying Beaux entrance to his territory. With no Alpha Prime left to handle these disputes, things had stagnated and Beaux had been thwarted from giving chase. Beaux couldn’t go rushing into another Alpha’s territory without permission. It would be akin to a declaration of war. His pack was strong, but not strong enough to take on Cyrus’ much larger one in New York. Not yet anyway.
Until Cyrus lost Lake and all had gone to hell.
Yet, he held her in his arms. He would not lose her again, not to the True Believers—not to anyone. Beaux sniffed her carefully. He detected no illness, however, a strange scent he didn’t recognize came off Lake’s skin. She smelled like some kind of herbs he didn’t recognize. Minty, but with a sour aftertaste. Beaux took a deeper breath.
They’d definitely drugged her.
A piece of her blonde hair fell over her closed lids and he brushed it away. If she opened her eyes, they would be a mixture blue and green. He couldn’t know for sure, but he’d lay money on her having lost a great deal of weight during her captivity. Her breasts and hips looked smaller than he remembered them. It didn’t matter. At any size, she’d weigh nothing to his werewolf strength.
“All right, Lake. We’re getting you out of here.”
He carried her out of the cavern as fast as his legs could move. The caves seemed smaller now since he moved through them on two feet instead of four. Still, he managed to make the trip without banging his head or jolting Lake around too much.
The cold night air hit him as he exited into the snow. Beaux glanced up at the moon. I’ve got her. My thanks.
Now he had to keep her alive.
His pack waited for him, each in his or her wolf form. They stood in a semi-circle around the entrance of the cave.
“Was it only me or did the battle seem too easy to you?”
Howls sounded in the night as his wolves echoed their agreement. He nodded.
“I’ve got her. You have my eternal gratitude. She’s drugged. I’m going to bring her back home. You go enjoy what’s left of the full moon.”
His wolves scampered off into the darkness. Lake still hadn’t moved, and her absolute stillness concerned him. The night air should have jarred her a little. His cell phone had been in his pocket when he shifted so it was still there now. The magic of the moon never ceased to amaze him.
He dialed a number and waited until a familiar voice answered.
Gritting his teeth against the words he wanted to spit at the man, he searched for patience. “I’ve got her, Cyrus.”
“I’m on my way. As soon as the full moon is over, I’ll…”
“No.” He hissed in response. “She’s mine now, Cyrus. My mate. She belongs to me. You take one step on my land, and I will tear you to shreds.”
“Beaux, you can’t…”
He disconnected the call and stuck the phone back in his pocket. It hadn’t occurred to him to consider Lake might not be conscious when he rescued her or he would have left a car nearby to bring her home. As it was, if he walked, carrying her the whole way, it was going to take hours. If she needed medical help, he wanted to get it for her sooner rather than later, which meant asking for assistance.
He dialed the phone again, and this time the person on the other end of the line took four rings to answer. When he did, he sounded out of it, like he’d been sleeping.
Beaux said his name a few times to be sure the other man had truly woken up.
“Beaux? Are you okay? The moon is full. Shouldn’t you be, you know, furry?”
As one of the few humans around who knew the truth of Beaux and his pack and didn’t want to kill them, Fred had proven to be a good ally. Beaux valued the older man’s friendship beyond any relationship he’d ever had before with a human.
“I’ve found my mate and I require assistance. If you can give it.”
“Anything, my friend.”
Fred’s sincerity touched Beaux’s frozen heart. Maybe good people did exist in the world, a few souls worth saving in the midst of the filth.
“If I remember correctly, you have a cabin near Lewis and Clark.”
“I do.” Fred’s voice perked up. “Do you need it?”
Luck was on Beaux’s side, for once. “Where do you hide the key?”
* * * *
He had only questions and no answers. Fred’s cabin was small and scarcely decorated. After laying Lake on the bed and covering her with a blanket he found in the linen closet, he started a fire and stared out the window.
A noise caught his attention, and he sniffed the air until he confirmed what he suspected. Deer were outside.
If they got in the way of his pack, they wouldn’t live through the night.
Beaux walked to the back of the cabin and stared at the woman sleeping in the bed. Was she resting? She still breathed, her heart beat, there had to be a way to bring her back from whatever this was.
His phone rang for the tenth time. Cyrus was nothing if not persistent, and he wasn’t good about taking no for an answer. But Beaux would not compromise on this.
“The children.” Lake darted upright on the bed. Her pupils were huge and she gasped for air.
Beaux reached her in seconds, sitting down on the bed and gripping her shoulders to stop her shaking.
She wasn’t really awake or she didn’t see him. Regardless, the way she twitched broke his heart.
“Lake, wake up. Now.”
If she were a member of his pack, she would obey his order. Wolves listened to their Alphas. But Lake had to accept their mating before she would belong to him or his pack. He couldn’t bring her back from wherever her mind had gone by simply ordering it. Still, it had seemed a good idea to try.
He had never been able to tolerate being ineffectual.
“The children. We have to get to the children. Hundreds of them. More each day. Forget me and get to the children.”
He pulled her into his arms, cooing soft words to her. Nonsense, really. He wasn’t sure what he said. Anything to make the pain she was in stop. After a few minutes, her shaking stopped, and, when he looked down, her eyes were closed again, and she breathed easily against his shoulder.
He stroked her blonde hair. Cyrus had told him she’d taken to wearing a black wig in Manhattan in case Beaux showed up to claim her. As if he would be fooled by such childish displays. Lake was stubborn, and, for some unfathomable reason, convinced she didn’t want to be mated. Or maybe she had really wished to be chased for a long time.
He hoped she felt the second way. However, the question plagued him all the time. Did she not want to be mated in general, or just not to Beaux?
Either way, he blamed Cyrus, even if doing so got him nowhere.
He laid her against the pillow, and she stiffened again. Kicking off his shoes, he decided to be done for the night. She needed him close, and he wouldn’t leave her.
Beaux stretched out next to her, spooning her from behind. It had been years since he’d laid next to a woman in such an intimate way. Had he ever bothered to hold any of his sexual partners since Sara had died?
It had seemed pointless. In their world, female werewolves used males for sex when their bodies went into heat. Conception could be prevented, but the need for intercourse couldn’t.
Why hold a woman who used you as much as you did her?
It hadn’t always been this way. Beaux placed his hands on her carefully, as chastely as possible.
“Once upon a time, my mate.”
He spoke as if she could hear him. Maybe she could. Perhaps only the moon would know what he spoke about. It didn’t matter. He needed to say these things to her.
“I was a different man than I am now, a different wolf. I was someone’s husband. Oh, we knew we weren’t True Mates. Let’s face it, finding a True Mate doesn’t happen for most wolves, does it? Sara and I settled for the human equivalent.”
Only he had lost Sara, and now he had found his moon-picked mate to spend the remainder of his days. With this female he hardly knew who remained an enigma to him even while he held her in his arms.
“She died. We were living in Ohio. I worked as a schoolteacher. The humans around us didn’t know what we were, and, though my Alpha knew I could be more dominant than he, I had no interest in pack leadership. Or at least I pretended I didn’t. That all changed when Sara was killed by hunters. Then I realized the ideals of my youth hadn’t been wrong. We needed to return to the old ways. Only by embracing who we really are can we flourish again. So, you and I, we will behave as we were born to, my mate.”
There could be no ifs, ands, or buts about it. Cyrus and his pack followed the letter of the werewolf law and thrived because of their decisions. Lake might object at first. She’d been raised in New York City. She knew how to pretend to be human. She’d grown accustomed to the half-life Cyrus let his pack endure.
She would have to be retrained in the way she considered things. He felt confident the moon wouldn’t have picked her for him if they weren’t compatible. With a little help, his mate would embrace their ways. He’d keep her safe and she’d never again have to fear the True Believers.
Beaux rubbed at his eyes. He’d reminisced too much. Thinking of the past, of the things gone wrong, did nothing to ease his way or his pack’s. The only path was forward.
“You’re going to be okay.”
Because he accepted no other outcome. The moon hadn’t given him Lake to lose her. They’d been born for each other. Sara had been a wonderful partner. He loved her while she lived, mourned her in death, and slowly, over time, let her go. Those days felt further and further away from him now. Things would be different with Lake. There would be no compromise. He closed his eyes, knowing he wouldn’t sleep. Tomorrow he’d figure out what to do.