II. THE STRANGER
When first confronted by something—or someone—she knew nothing about, Isla, historically, was a ‘claw first, ask questions later’ kind of she-wolf. An automatic fight in the fight-or-flight dichotomy. The reaction had both saved her life and gotten her in deep trouble in the past. The latter more so than the former.
That called for training, and with it, she eventually learned to hold off on the snap actions, and instead, use all of her senses first. Quickly and efficiently run down the mental checklist, evaluate the threat, then strike if needed.
She tried to call upon the teachings now, but the only sense that was working was her sight.
And then. . . there was also something deeper.
Isla felt a tug at what felt like the core of her being in a way that she’d never experienced before. Was this it? The day she’d once dreamed of and now dreaded?
No. This wasn’t quite how that mystical, magical Fated attraction felt, at least in the way she imagined it would from the descriptions she’d heard.
“It’s like a light just shines and the heavens open and. . .”
“It’s a. . . ping!”
“Suddenly, the world just made sense.”
“I saw her, and I just knew.”
No. This definitely wasn’t any of that. That sounded romantic and wistful and dreamy. This was just. . . carnal.
It consumed her like a wildfire, spreading quickly through her branches of veins and torching the hills and valleys of her skin. It budded fantasies like roses, each one unique, but the one most intoxicating was the vision of him reaching for her, pressing her against the banister, and lifting her dress to take her right then and there underneath the lunar glow. No words, no time for pleasantries, just. . . sex.
She blinked as she descended back to some form of reality, trying to figure out, by the Goddess, what had just come over her. Had it really been that long since she’d been taken to bed?
She cleared her throat, looking him over. “Excuse me?”
“The moon?” The stranger stepped closer, gesturing upwards. “Beautiful.”
Her spit felt thick as she swallowed, sparing the Goddess a glance. “Yes, it is.”
The stranger moved forward until he was beside her at the railing. “I’m assuming you’re here for the Warrior’s Feast?” He leaned against the stone and turned to face her. “For the Hunt?”
The moonlight reflected well in his eyes, the visions of storm clouds. She didn’t bother pointing out his incorrect labeling of the night’s gathering. “Yes.”
He nodded and faced front again, looking out into the forest. “Are you from Callisto?”
“No. . .” Isla breathed, trying to regain some more of her sense. There was no reason to feel fussed. He was just a very, very attractive man who happened to come upon her on a night where her libido was at a peak. “Io.”
The stranger smiled and snickered. Even though she didn’t know him, the grin seemed out of place on his face.
“What?” she asked, voice pointed, confused and slightly offended.
His features devolved to that of a faint sideways smirk. “That was my original assumption. Immediately ready to fight at the slightest of sound. Probably try to rip my head off with your teeth.” He nodded his head to the side. “But then. . .”
She wasn’t particularly keen on his patronizing tone. “But then?”
He glanced up at her again, thunder meeting ice. “Nothing. Just the whole doe-eyed thing threw me off. My fault, really.” He gazed back up at the cloudless sky. “I mesmerized you.”
Isla’s eyes went wide, and she jerked her head back, aghast. “Mesmerized?”
It was a strong word—the right word—but too powerful for her liking. It felt worse hearing that she lacked control and composure, then just feeling it herself. She hated that she’d been so transparent. And she despised that he didn’t seem flattered or surprised. Like he knew exactly where her mind would fall the second she laid eyes on him.
This party had been riddled with vanity.
“You did not mesmerize me,” she bit, her initial attraction waning to sheer annoyance.
“The pounding of your heart says otherwise.”
She placed a hand over her chest, where the organ was surely thrumming wildly beneath her skin. Narrowing her eyes, she bit down on her tongue, not wanting to say anything that was beneath her. She knew nothing of this man, where he came from, why he was here. A woman of her status—daughter of the Imperial Beta, the Realm’s second-in-command—didn’t need to waste energy battling wits with someone she’d never see again and was as good as nothing to her.
She folded her arms, taking on an intimidating air. “Can I help you with something?”
The stranger wasn’t fazed much at all. “I was out here first, you know.”
He gestured behind him, and Isla took in the actual expanse of the terrace. She’d been so hypnotized by the moon in front of her that she hadn’t noticed how much it extended towards the sides, with grand curved staircases matching those in the Hall down to gardens. She took note of all the spots a predator could’ve surely lurked in the shadows. As most wolves of high enough skill, this man could also disguise his scent.
She glowered, zero for two tonight in terms of awareness. In the Hunt, distracted could mean as good as dead.
Isla turned back and sized him up. Underneath his black, well-tailored long coat, he seemed solidly built, but considering she’d spent the past two years training tirelessly to throw herself into a wood laden with feral beasts, equipped with nothing but her wolf, she probably could’ve taken him if she wanted to. A hard battle without a doubt, but she’d hold her own.
“Why are you out here?” she asked him sharply.
“For the same reason you are, I’m guessing.”
“And that is?”
“Looking for something worthwhile tonight.” He paused before adding, “And I found you.”
The words, said in a low, husky whisper, made Isla’s breath catch, for some reason wooing her into an illusion a bit more innocent than before. Until. . .
“You win some, you lose some, I suppose.”
Back with the patronizing. Isla’s temper flared.
“And there’s that heart again.”
Isla snarled, lumerosi and eyes taking their glow as she clenched her fists.
The stranger was standing in less than a second, facing her not even a foot away. Was it to defend himself, assert some dominance? Isla looked up to meet his eyes. She herself was a decent height, typical for a she-wolf, but he was a considerable amount above her.
Her breathing became difficult, haggard, as that feeling returned. The rush, the attraction, the hunger—all more intense than before. Her eyes didn’t want to leave his, but they did to trace the lines of his face, his neck, along his broad chest and shoulders, down his arms to his hands. She bit down so hard on her cheek she tasted blood.
All she wanted was for him to touch her.
But just as she moved the smallest of centimeters to give in and put her in the path to her desire, the creaky glass door from inside flew open. A spell dimmed, but not dissolved, the two wolves turned in its direction.
And then the intoxication faded to nothing, at least for Isla, because powering towards them was Winslow.
“There you are,” the gangly official called with a waving hand high up in the air. He was donning Io’s classic maroons and golds, his signature notepad—because there was always work that needed to be done to sustain the pristine of the Hierarchy—tucked under his arm.
Isla took a small step back from the stranger, not one to enjoy her family, both by blood and those she considered herself closest to in the Pack, to be involved in any of her personal affairs. “Yes?”
Winslow slowly dropped his hand. “Oh, Isla, what are you doing out here?”
Isla’s eyebrows furrowed. He’s not looking for me?
Winslow, a man of courtesy until you got in the way of his objectives, bumped her out of the way and slid an arm behind the stranger’s back. “Please, Alpha Kai, the meal’s about to begin. We have a seat for you above with the other leaders.”
The stranger, Kai—Alpha Kai—cleared his throat and nodded wordlessly, expression flat. He only spared a glance at the bewildered Isla before the two men headed off. She noted the complete shift in his demeanor. Gone was the cool arrogance, the man who seemingly enjoyed pushing her buttons. Now all he felt was. . . cold.
Isla knew the name of every Pack Alpha. She felt like she had to, but for the life of her, she couldn’t recall where Kai belonged.
Going to her failsafe method, she began reciting the Packs alphabetically, followed by their leaders, to the tune of Will You Find It, a nursery rhyme her mother would coo to her as a child.
In Callisto, you find Alpha Kane.
And in Charon, Alpha Locke.
In Deimos. . . in Deimos.
Isla clenched her teeth, troubled and perplexed.
The Alpha of Deimos is dead.
But then it hit her, sharp and fast, like a punch in the gut. With wild eyes, she looked up just in time to catch their two figures crossing over the threshold to inside and letting the door groan behind them.
The Alpha of Deimos wasn’t dead. . . he’d just been inches away.