Chapter 1 - Crossing pathways
The small cottage was engulfed by shrouds of white snow that kept on falling from the grey sky. At first the snowflakes melted into the ground, producing a mist that circled around the low bushes and covered the bases of the trees. Then the frozen crystals gently stuck to the ground, scattered and shining as pearls. Later on, the emerging pearls adhered to one another, producing a crisp crust that served as the base of the shrouds that later on surrounded everything that eyes could see.
Beautiful, pure whiteness…
It was as if Avery was transported into a magical setting of one of the books she loved to read. Her fingers nails tapped against the edge of the mug that she was holding. Observing the nature outside only made her wonder how severe would the snowstorm get before it cleared.
The forecast predicted the snowfall would average two feet with areas up to three feet. That was an obscene amount of snow. In her twenty seven years, Avery could not remember even the murmur of such a harsh winter. There was a certain beauty in the drastic weather changes. For once, she was grateful she had not left for the city before hearing the forecast. It would have been a nightmare to have to drive in the blizzard. If she had to be snowed in, she would rather be indoors with food, electricity and logs at hand than out there, stuck in a car and having barely the fuel to go to town. Avery mentally scolded herself for being lazy, and not buying gas when she first passed through the town. Now, it was too late.
Cold was not a problem. As werewolves had higher core temperature, it would take a significant drop in temperature before she had to use the logs to feed the fireplace conveniently built in the inner wall of the cottage, promising warmth for the entire floor plan.
The pantry was stocked and she could survive weeks before having to resolve to good old hunting. By then all animal life would have resumed their pre-storm pattern.
There was nothing she had to worry about in terms of surviving the weather.
The only real problem came from the location of the cottage itself. It was far too close to them for her taste. Avery did not have any doubt in her mind, if they caught her scent, she would be in real trouble. Trouble, which she might not be able to avoid.
The only beautiful thing about the possibility of being snowed in was the snow would not only keep her indoors. It would also prevent them from finding her. The snow would dampen her scent, and even the best tracker would not be able to follow her trail into the city. Her Stan, as she lovingly called her Mustang, was going to carry her into town and escape any detection.
She really did need the peace and quiet. For once in her life, she was really looking forward to being on her own. In a household full of she-wolves and their pups of different ages, personal space and boundaries were a mythical illusion. Werewolves were social, up to the point where their tightly knit community rivaled a big family, and as such your business was everyone’s business. She didn’t necessarily mind having them back her up, but it was dreadful to live in a pack where spending time alone was frowned upon. After all, what would you possibly want to do alone?
Avery had lots of things planned in her mind. Sleeping in late was the number one contender. She literally could not remember the last time she simply opened her eyes, instead of being awaken by someone or by her alarm. Responsibilities were weighing heavy on her shoulders, and often she opted for standing up early before everyone else had started their day to sift through the mountain of paperwork, which usually sat on her desk. Pack business was so exhausting.
A close number two on her bucket list was catching up on her favorite books. It has been a while since there was enough time for Avery to curl in the sofa and to read to heart’s content. Prioritizing others over her own guilty pleasure was beginning to take a toll on her. It was also part of the reason why she had jumped at the opportunity of some field work.
A small smile spread over her plump lips as she closed her eyes and breathed in. Everything was peaceful here. Everything reminded her of the good old days when she could roam the fields free of worries and responsibilities. How naive she had been back then!
She quietly turned around, making her way from the window to the comfortable couch off to the right. She covered her legs with the very same blanket that had buried the uncontrolled fit of giggles and hushed conversations with her sisters. Oh, how much she missed them! She would give anything to get things back to the way they were! She silently prayed the Goddess would watch over them, and for Fate to deal them a better luck in life than Avery had been given.
A deep breath later, Avery was finally ready to resume her book.
It always fascinated her how romantic novels were everything but realistic. That is why when she accidentally came across “Taken”, she was absolutely captivated by the story. The author Raven Devenheart surely knew how to make the reader cry with Violet over her heartbreak, and later on shudder with anticipation once her steamy affair with Landon started. It was a werewolf story that the human society would classify as fiction, but Avery knew the world described on the pages was real as it got, because she was living it.
Avery was captivated by the words on each page and soon time ceased to exit. Avery’s world was focused on what the next sentence would be, what the next page would reveal about her favorite heroine, would the next chapter bring closure to the tormented heart of the rejected she-wolf.
Her heart was already beating faster as her hungry eyes were soaking the information from the pages. It was now or never, would Violet take the leap of faith and trust Landon with her secret or would she go back to the good for nothing bastard that Fate had appointed for her?
And then she heard it.
The piercing howl sent chills down her spine. Her skin pricked. Her poor heart was beating faster than if she had ran a marathon, despite the fact that she was sitting comfortably in her chair.
Had they found her?
Avery quickly closed her eyes, in order to give her enhanced hearing all the accuracy it needed to locate the mysterious sound. Was it really a howl or had she imagined it? If it was real, then it would repeat itself. Avery was breathing lightly, afraid that even her breathing would be too loud and prevent her from detecting the faintest sound. She needed to know.
The moment she started to doubt herself of what she had heard, and was ready to blame her overactive imagination for it, the howl repeated itself. She cringed.
It was real!
Her mind quickly compared the two howls trying to determine if they came from the same source. If they had found her, at least two trackers would have been sent before the head hunting party.
And then it came again – much closer and louder.
Her body stiffened. It was definitely the same howl, but that did little to stop her shaking hands. She reluctantly closed her book, regretting she had not started reading it earlier. Then she would have finished the story! Leaving things half way done irritated her. Plus her own curiosity had intensified and now she wanted to figure out how the story ended. It was very possible now she would never be able to find out.
She quietly crept to the front door and surveyed the front yard. The snow was reflecting the moonlight leaving few shadows where enemies could hide. In a night like this, she counted the snowfall a blessing. The undisturbed surface only told her she was not surrounded yet…
Her hand quickly reached in the closet, and snaked around the shotgun. She didn’t have silver bullets, but even these wooden ones would do significant damage, giving her a fighting chance as there was no point of running anymore. If they had found her, she only had one option left.
Take as many of them down before she died…
She opened the door swiftly and stepped on the porch, scanning the area.
And then she finally recognized the silver smudge that looked unnaturally darker than its surroundings as a lone werewolf.
Avery made a show of loading the gun, hoping that the wolf would think she had silver bullets and would think twice about attacking her. The growl that followed was all the evidence she needed to know her plan was working. The werewolf actually bought her bluff about the silver bullets and circled the house cautiously.
“You alone?” Her voice carried over the quiet night stern and steady, masking her uncertainty. “What do you want?”
As the wolf neared, her eyes managed to recognize patches of dark silver fur. A second later she could clearly distinguish them as blood soaked fur. There was no doubt that something bad had befallen the werewolf as the wounds were still not healing. The size of the wolf was bigger than the average, which only led her to believe, he was a male. Her eyes narrowed, evaluating the injuries he sustained. The closer he got to the house, the more details she could actually distinguish. He looked like he had been through a meat grinder, and it was amazing how he was still standing, much less emitting those menacing growls.
She lowered her shotgun. There was no way he was able to attack her, and even if he did, she could easily handle him in his state.
“What happened to you, bud?” She asked calmly. By now her eyes could clearly evaluate the damage he sustained. Nobody deserved to suffer that much. She took a deep breath and quickly listed the worst possibilities in her head, deciding nothing was worse than risking detection by her true enemies. She surprised even herself when she heard her steady voice, “That must be giving you a killer burn”, she pointed the silver burn on his side. As his snarl died down, she cautiously applied, “I could help clean and patch you up. What do you say?”
He looked conflicted. Patches of his fur were torn out and she had to suppress her initial thought to cringe at the sight as her eyes could finally see him. His piercing blue eyes that were not quite blue and not quite grey, made her welcome him in. She couldn’t read much of his facial expression, but those eyes… those eyes held the hurt and distress his body showed. His eyes focused on her and kept her captivated for what seemed like ages, while it reality it couldn’t have been longer than a minute. It finally registered in his thick scull, she was offering him shelter and that’s when he broke eye contact with her.
He obviously had a stormy past, but with the storm, knocking at their door, she couldn’t brush him off. He needed a person to talk to, even if that was the last thing on his mind right now.
“Listen, make your mind. You can pout later,” Avery sternly snapped instead of encouragement as the male kept on ignoring her attempts to get his attention, and get him in the damn cottage. Having the door open for so long all but guaranteed the warmth would escape. It didn’t help that it was freezing outside, nor that the small fireplace was barely be able to warm up the indoors! She huffed, deciding to make the choice for the big, battered wolf that was sitting on her porch. She firmly commanded, “Get inside before all the warmth goes through the door! Now!”
Frantically looking at the surrounding area, she swung the screen door open, extending her command with the universal invitation to come in. The wolf followed her gaze and with a rumble through his wide chest trotted up the stairs, making a point to shove her out of the way in a rebellious manner. She rolled her eyes at his childish behavior, one that did not suit a clearly grown male shifter. Overgrown male werewolf with the capacity of a five year old, she mentally corrected herself.
Otherwise how could a sane person explain his state of distress and timing? Right as the snow blizzard was threatening to show its true might! Over three feet of snow had already fallen, and the weather advisory was in affect for three more hours! It would definitely exceed the predicted amount. Avery had no doubt in her mind the winds were going to make the path dreadful to travel up or down the mountain slope. If he had stayed outside, he would have been as good as dead.
She scanned the area, feeling her paranoia set in once again. The moment she had heard his growls at the cottage, she had expected they had come for her. Her relief was more than palpable now that instead of an executioner’s squad, she had found out the commotion was the mere doing of this silver-grey wolf. He surely seemed even worse than she initially anticipated.
Since there was no such thing as rabid werewolf, she decided he was not much of a threat. After all, she could handle herself quite well, even if she was a member of the fairer sex. It’s only been such a long time she had put up with the theatrics of a male house-guests. It made her roll her eyes once again at his constant growling as she shut the screen door.
Hopefully the falling snowflakes were going to be enough to mask his scent and trail to her cabin. The last thing she needed was the Royal Guards sniffing around. Attracting too much attention was just as good as death sentence.
Locking the door behind her back, her wolf paced inside her. She didn’t need another lecture from her, so Avery shoved her down. She could imagine the conversation, “Av, why the heck would you get yourself involved with this mutt? He is not our problem.”
But she knew that she would never be able to turn her back, and enjoy the warmness of the cottage fire after she had seen him shivering, under fed and wounded. He wouldn’t last the snowstorm. The last thing she wanted was to spend the weekend feeling guilty about his inevitable demise. She could help him get on his feet, even if it was only to prevent her guilty conscious from eating her peace away.
After all, she couldn’t bear another death to weigh on her shoulders.
The moment that she turned around, she spotted his big frame nestling cozily in front of the fireplace. She decided to let him be, and busied herself in the kitchen fixing a sandwich for him. After all, she had leftovers, and it was easy putting bread and cheese together to prepare the silly sandwich. It was not as if she was going out of her way to accommodate him.
She was just being compassionate.
Yes, that was it. If she could open her house to she-wolves and their pups that she had never met before, it was only fair to do so for him, too. The only difference was that he was a male rogue. He seemed new at that, judging by how unprepared he was for the real life outside of a pack. Somehow she felt responsible of showing the rogue the basic rules to staying alive.
That is why when she saw him sitting miserably in her front yard and trying to pull off a menacing stance, she could not just let him be. She had to get involved. She only hoped he didn’t turn and bite her whole hand off.
Looking at the sandwich, she got irritated. Wasn’t this supposed to be her get-away? Her time alone, before she had to go back to her busy schedule?! She was dreading her mission, but in the same time the need for a trainer for the pups was quickly becoming overwhelming. She could hardly help their own mothers to rein them in. With more incidents happening each day, she had to swallow her own pride and admit it was beyond her abilities. She needed a male for the task. Admitting it had been the hardest thing of her whole ordeal, and surely left a bitter taste in her mouth. But she had to do it for the good of the pups. For the good of the Pack.
How she wished she didn’t have to do this field work! She would rather stay here and do nothing. But she knew her duty, her responsibility! The Pack relied on her. She had a job to do and she had already developed a plan of how to track a proper battle instructor. The only obstacle in her way was the snow-storm that had come crushing down, sealing her in her in the small cottage for the next couple of days. Not that Avery was going to complain. It was after all nature’s own way of postponing Avery’s inevitable mission. Such a marvelous distraction. Even his appearance was a welcoming distraction. One more thing to take her mind away of her own problems.
Maybe that was why when she had seen the male motionless in the snow, she had decided to take him in. You could call it her own twisted sense of empowerment. If she could save a male and have a say over his future, then she was not as useless as she thought.
Oh, well, judging by his reluctance to even express interest in the food she was preparing, she decided that her house-guest was a depressed loner, who apparently couldn’t handle a fight. Depressed because nobody in their right mind would be able to ignore the mouth watering scent of the leftover meat she used for his sandwich. She was after all an exceptional cook. Her irritation was rising by his obvious lack of interest in her food. Therefore, he had to be severely depressed not to be nudged to come and investigate the food.
His matted fur and the previous scarring across his chest and neck at least told her that much. As the minutes tickled by, she decided to check up on him, plate in hand. Didn’t he look skinny enough to be starved to death?
Nah, it couldn’t be, could it? It was not random, why people lined up for miles to praise her cooking in the small restaurant she used to work as a chef, until she got her diploma. Ah, but had it not been a life-time ago.
She shook her head and stormed into her living room. If he hadn’t trotted into the kitchen, it only meant he was out cold or expired. The latter didn’t sit well with her. She had never lost a wolf before and she was not about to do so today. Though, thinking of him as patient was a stretch. He would heal in a couple of days. Of course, that was if he hadn’t suffered an internal damage. Then it might be too late.
That thought alone sprang her into action, sandwich in hand. Her food was the perfect resuscitation tool that could even be enough incentive to rise from the dead. The pups had come up with colorful suggestions how a zombie apocalypse would be successfully resolved by her cooking alone.
Even, if they weren’t her own, she loved those pups to death.
They were her meaning.
Avery discovered him in the exact same position she had left him several minutes ago – outstretched onto the furs in front of her fireplace. Regretfully she realized she had to wash those furs as soon as his pouting majesty decided to take a bath. The reek coming from him was making her cringe and challenging her own belly to turnover in distaste.
She decided to let him sleep it off and to leave the plate with food in front of him. No need for him to go outside to hunt and bring in even more dirt, while she all but wanted to conceal her presence here.
The moment she crouched to leave the plate in front of him, he lunged at her, baring his teeth at her. In all her twenty-seven years of life, Avery had never witnessed the force of a raging wolf. His lean body propelled itself from the floor in a split second, knocked her breath out as soon as her back collided with a harsh thud against the floor. Of course, he landed gracefully on top of her, while his pointy canines snapped in her face. His breath flared across her face, as his growl slowly began to die down, his eyes finally landed on his prey, remotely recognizing her probably like the silly she-wolf who offered him shelter.
“Someone needs to pop a breath mint”, the thought passed in her mind, and Avery all but wanted to strangle her own wolf. Here she was, on the verge of being torn to shreds by the deranged wolf, while all her precious wolf could muster was “breath mint”. Silly she-wolves! They always went meek when a male was around.
There was a clear separation between her own thoughts and those of her bitch, as Avery lovingly chose to call her wolf. Note the sarcasm. While Avery had loved with every fiber of her being the man Fate had chosen for her up to the point when he first laid a hand on her, her wolf had been meek and accused her of the predicament they had found themselves in. Mates were never supposed to show anything but love to each other and her wolf was set in her beliefs the occasional smacks were a show of affection. How delusional could her wolf be?! Avery had felt betrayed by both her mate and wolf. Her resolution was to distance herself from either one of them and she had been successful thus far.
On the rare occasions her wolf had taken over, she had behaved as bitch in heat. Yes, if it was up to her wolf, they would be exchanging bodily fluids with everything that moved. Breathing was not even a requirement in her wolf’s book. It didn’t matter if it was a human or a were, a vampire or a tool, her wolf was bitch with itch. Avery was more than relieved when her wolf reverted back in her own twisted mind once it finally became obnoxiously clear that Avery wasn’t going to jump in the so-proposed life-style wagon her wolf was so vividly promoting.
To say that her relationship with her wolf was strained was an understatement. How else would you describe the constant power struggle between you and your inner self?
Humans had it easy!
There were several ways how a were could handle the loss, rejection or separation from a mate. It all narrowed to the basic – sex, drugs, alcohol, death or life-changing experience. Since she was not ready to be a doormat to her primal desire, sex was taken off the possible list in the mere beginning. Drugs were worthless. She could never fathom how people were gladly spending an increasing amount of money on something so transitional. Not that she hadn’t tried her share of experimental medicine, as she liked to call it. Nothing had worked to dampen the sadness that had drawn her for weeks at a time. Booze was the only option that was remotely effective and affordable as Avery would never spend more than a nice pair of shoes on recreational medicine which her body burned through like wildfire over dry land. Death had seemed a plausible alternative had it not been for the raging bitch inside of her that somehow always managed to take control and avert the inevitable. At least, her wolf had been good for one thing.
That left her only option – life-change experience. Since she didn’t have a child to live for, nor a great cause such as revenge to continue living for, she found herself searching for joy in little every day things. Her life restructured itself from luxury and glamour to the four white walls of the kitchen restaurant which had given her purpose – to feed the endless stream of hungry throats that managed to find their way to the small restaurant that she had worked at. Then one of the patrons that she had later come to know as her friend Dr. Thea Hammington had extended her field of interest into rescuing animals. It did help a lot that she was tough and meaner than the good doctor, so she could handle the hooligans thanks to her werewolf strength.
Damn, if that wasn’t a proper ending of her miserable life as it was, Avery didn’t know what else could be even remotely closer – she could imagine the headlines, “chewed to death by rescued animal”.
She raised her hand and wiped his dripping saliva off her cheek.
“Get off me!”
She frowned. As she finally found the strength to slightly pushed him away, her eyes trailed down to the mess to her right.
The beautiful blue plate was shattered to pieces. It was one of the last remnants of her childhood years, and it was ready to be thrown away, because of the testosterone-filled flea bag in front of her. Avery exclaimed, “Look what you did now!”
She rushed and started picking up the plate pieces until a sharp glass cut into her finger.
Seeing the red liquid from her finger, she cursed under her breath. The wolf beside her kept on watching her with slight irritation, which made her blood boil. Here she was risking her own skin for a homeless mutt, and he had the audacity to fuss up at her own expense.
“That’s it!” Avery anger exploded “You made the mess, and you better fix it before I come out of the bathroom, or else Mister, injured or not, I am going to throw you the hell out of here! I would not even share a minute feeling guilty over your bony ass freezing to a popsicle outside!”
And with that she stood up and pivoted away to the bathroom.