A rogue wolf entering pack territory is asking for a death sentence. Packs don’t like us, and we’re not supposed to like them. We separate ourselves from packs because we need to be free and independent.
At least, that’s what I keep telling myself.
A chill races up my back as I stand in the tree line of the State Forest. A cool breeze blows and dead leaves rustle at my feet. I take a deep breath to slow my rapid heartbeat and the scent of fresh pine swirls around me. It won’t be long before the members of this pack pick up the scent of an intruder. Until then, I’ll catch my breath and wait. Leaning against a large boulder nestled between two tall oak trees, I wipe my clammy palms on my jeans and watch the sunrise–it could be my last.
I want to live, but the man tracking me has other plans for my future. I hope the Alpha of this territory will give me a chance to explain my situation. I need time to catch my breath and find Mia. I hope she’s still here. She’ll help me figure out what to do. But, it can only take a couple of days to find her, because that’s all I can afford. Anything longer than that and it wouldn’t be fair to this pack. It could cost them their lives. And I’ve seen enough bloodshed to satisfy an eternal thirst for blood.
The scent of someone approaching tickles my nose and I flinch. Hopefully, the patrol member is in human form and not wolf. The other half of my soul—my wolf—is already on edge. Keeping her in check is exhausting. A human is less threatening, usually. Although Felix, the man I once loved, is terrifying—man or wolf. I would rather die than be bound to him for eternity. Because there isn’t anything in this world worth living for if my fate lies with Felix.
Shit. Today’s not my day. The patrol wolf snarls in my direction and paces back and forth, twitching his rusty brown tail with enough force to kick up a breeze.
“Please, this is a matter of life and death. May I cross through your territory?”
I force my inner wolf to submit to the patrol’s assumed dominance and kneel down on the pine needles that litter the hard ground. After a few minutes, a man steps out from the shadows of a walnut tree and strokes the wolf’s back.
“What’s your name?” he asks.
My shoulders fall. What name do I give him? I have so many.
“Raven,” I whisper. It’s not a total lie. Raven is my family name. Lucinda is my given name, but I only share that with people I trust, and trust is earned.
The hairs on my forearms stand tall as the high-pitched croak of a raven echoes through the woods and I glance over my shoulder. My pulse calms when the narrow two-lane road below me is clear, but it skips a beat when the black wings of a bat soar in and out of the tree line high in the sky.
“Expecting someone?” The man asks.
“Then why do you keep looking over your shoulder?”
I bite my lip and ask, “Please sir, I really need to cross through your territory.”
“Why don’t you go around?”
“That would take too much time.”
“We don’t take in strays, especially not ones bringing trouble.”
“I can’t go back that way. There’s nothing back there for me anymore, nothing but chains and a doomed future.”
He hesitates and crosses his arms across his broad chest.
“May I speak with your Alpha?” I ask.
His jaw muscles clench and his nostrils flare. The wolf circles around me and growls.
Finally, the man says, “Follow me, Miss Raven.”
Glancing over my shoulder one last time, I notice that damn bat circling overhead. It’s the same bat that’s been following me around for years. After a moment of hesitation, I step forward to follow the man, hopefully not to my death.
I wish it hadn’t come to this. I hate asking for help. My late father would be ashamed to know I’ve disgraced our family name by coming to this pack. I wish I were here under different circumstances: as a diplomat, a friend, anything other than a shameful rogue.
When I step from the protection of the forest, I draw in a long breath to relax my racing nerves.
We walk, single-file, along the white line of the two-lane road. My wolf within me stays alert, searching for signs of danger and an escape route in case I need it. The rusty brown wolf keeps pace alongside us, but is careful to stay in the protection of the forest.
We walk in silence for several more miles until we reach the outskirts of a small, quaint town. This must be Floyd. My father always complained the Blood Moone pack claimed to live rurally, but compared to us, they don’t. Though, I’d say the Dark Raven’s were more primitive than rural. I blink back tears at the thought of my old pack. I can’t show weakness here.
He leads me through the crowded streets and people step out of their shops to stare. A group of men loiter in front of the country store and growl as I near. My escort nods to the men as we pass. The light breeze carries whispers from another group standing idle on the street corner.
“Disgusting piece of scum.”
“Why is she still alive?”
My nails dig into the soft flesh of my palm, but I’m able to restrain my wolf and keep walking. And as we weave through the humans and dodge the wolves, my nose twitches when I catch a scent that is all too familiar. Mia. My heart bursts with renewed hope and I smile.
But then another scent tickles my senses. It stirs memories from the past of my childhood best friend, Dylan Sparrow. The memories, both sweet and painful, still haunt me to this day. Damn him. Why is he here? He makes everything complicated. My wolf and human side are in disagreement, and I grab my head to combat a dizzy spell that threatens to knock me off balance. Thinking of our unique relationship and troubled past, a smile plays at the edges of my lips and I blink back tears. Relief washes over my heart knowing he’s still alive, and anger steams from the depths of my soul that I may have to see him again. I grit my teeth and hope I don’t cross paths with him today. That won’t end well for anyone.
I glance to the sky. Lunchtime. As if on cue, my stomach churns. I wish I ate breakfast; my wolf gets uneasy on an empty stomach. And then I startle at movement in the tree line near us. Peering into the thick woods, several more wolves have joined the rusty brown wolf from earlier. Great, an entourage, or a killing party.
As we near what I assume to be the Pack House, the familiar scents from town become stronger. An intoxicating aroma swirls in my nostrils, one composed of scents familiar and foreign. Both are woodsy and masculine, but Dylan’s scent is sweeter. Notes of cumin and freshly cut grass drift through the air, stirring up the most painful memories, and trigger my nose to twitch.
But this new scent tickles my nose with its spicy undertones and something else. I suspect bergamot. Inhaling again, the woodsy, citrusy notes make my stomach twist.
I climb the steps of the porch and wrinkle my nose. Please don’t let Dylan be inside.