Excerpt for Bitter (A Wicked Grove Tale) by , available in its entirety at Smashwords



Bitter

A Wicked Grove Tale


Alexia Purdy






Connect with Alexia Purdy:

Sign up for Alexia’s Newsletter HERE

Alexia Purdy’s Website

Twitter

Instagram

Bookbub

You-Tube

Goodreads Author page

Alexia Purdy’s Facebook Fan Page

A Dark Faerie Tale Series Facebook Fan page

Reign of Blood Series Facebook Fan Page




More books by Alexia Purdy:


The ArcKnight Chronicles:

ArcKnight

Sovereignty


The Vampires of Vegas Series

Resonant

Reign of Blood

Disarming

Elijah (The Miel Chronicles):

A Vampires of Vegas Story

Amplified


A Dark Faerie Tale Series

The Withering Palace (A Dark Faerie Tale #0.1)

Evangeline (A Dark Faerie Tale #0.5)

Ever Shade (A Dark Faerie Tale #1)

Ever Fire (A Dark Faerie Tale #2)

Ever Winter (A Dark Faerie Tale #3)

The Cursed (A Dark Faerie Tale #3.5)

Ever Wrath (A Dark Faerie Tale #4)

Without Armor (A Dark Faerie Tale #4.5)

History of Fire (A Dark Faerie Tale #5)

Ever Dead (A Dark Faerie Tale #6)

Legends of Fire (A Dark Faerie Tale #7)

Guardians of Fire (A Dark Faerie Tale #8)


Other Stories

The Fall of Sky

Papercut Doll

Wicked Grove


Poetic Collections

Whispers of Dreams

Five Fathoms

The Dark I Keep


Anthologies

Soul Games

Faery Worlds

Faery Tales

Once Upon a Curse

The Shapeshifter Chronicles

Once Upon a Kiss

It’s a Bird! It’s a Plane! A Superhero Anthology

The Aching Darkness

Once Upon a Quest






Bitter (A Wicked Grove Tale)

Copyright © January 2018 Alexia Purdy

Cover Design by Melancholy Muse Designs

All rights reserved


This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, duplicated, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior written consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser. If you did not buy this e-book, please purchase your own copy.

This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this novel are fictitious and are products of the author’s imagination and any resemblance to actual events, or locales or persons, living or dead are entirely coincidental.


www.alexiapurdybooks.com






Table of Contents



Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

About the Author





Chapter One



“Yo, Hayden! What was your deal today? I can’t believe you almost let the blood snapper best you. It was a one-shot deal, and you froze in your boots like piss on a tree.”

Hayden ignored his partner, Rob, rolling his shoulders while popping his bones back into place. It felt good to stretch after a long evening out in the wintery city of Wicked Grove. The weather stiffened his bones like ice. He stuffed his tactical gear into his locker, ready to hightail it to the nearest bar and set his veins afire with all the alcohol he could ingest before blacking out. The entire room was alive with slamming metal and bursts of laughter; the high after a mission. No one had been killed, injured, or worse—contaminated.

But there had been a near miss. Hayden had barely scraped himself off the pavement. Afterward, he’d spent some time hosing off the vampire ash covering him. The creature had burst into flame, disintegrating right in front of him, his hand still attached to the damn stake, before being sent flying back into a parked car.

It had been close. Too close. Another slipup like that could cost him everything. If the thing had gotten one bloody fang on his skin….

He shook his head as an ice-cold shudder quivered along his spine.

“Hayden, you okay, man?” Rob watched him as he checked his gear and slammed his locker shut. “You know we got another mission, right?”

Hayden frowned and peered around the room. The team was donning their gear again. In their black fatigues, they looked like an army of black ops soldiers. It was already time to suit up for yet another mission? Too bad no one would ever know of this group’s accomplishments. They were ghosts—the ones who did the dirty work of keeping the supernatural under wraps and cleaning up after the rogues. It was their job to keep events like today’s blood-pumped vampire out of the headlines.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.”

“Annika is already rounding us up. Werewolf infestation, I think.”

Hayden’s boozy binge would have to wait. Figures.

“Yeah, all right. No problem, man. Just burning the midnight oil is wearing on me. I’ve got this. Just another regular infestation, right? We’ve dealt with werewolves before, so this should be a piece of cake.”

Rob nodded, but the concern was etched across his features. Hayden was sure his partner did not agree with him that he was fine. There was no way to tell him the truth. He couldn’t tell him about the apprehension boiling up in his chest and the doubt that what they were doing as exterminators of the supernatural was wrong on so many levels. If that came out, Hayden would be kicked out of the Agency so fast he wouldn’t know what hit him.

This life was all he knew. Plus, his brother, Hanley, worked here too and loved it. He’d never abandon him, even if it meant his morals were being compromised.

“All right, bro, I’ll be waiting outside.”

Rob slapped his shoulder and walked away. He knew there was something wrong but didn’t let on. There were just some things best left unsaid. Good friends accepted flaws without questioning, without pushing. Those who weren’t close would poke and prod until things got uncomfortable. They always did. Thank goodness Rob wasn’t that kind of a person. He was quiet, observant, and loyal. He’d been Hayden’s friend for five years, and there was no doubt that it would take an act of God to cause a rift between them.

For now, the secrets between them were pushed from the forefront as they grabbed their white winter gear to pull on over their regular ops wear. The night was a frosty one, and the fresh powder in the forest was already knee deep. Freezing to death was not on the agenda, and Hayden would be relieved when his shift ended and he could return to the cozy apartment he shared with Hanley.

The team gathered outside to ride the Agency’s vehicles up to the surrounding forest and follow the trail of rogue wolves spotted near the northeast edge of Wicked Grove. Exterminating a wolf pack was no easy feat, and his muscles were already aching from the last hunt.

Annika, their operations leader, sat up front with the driver, a new guy Hayden didn’t recognize. Annika was a strict, no-nonsense leader he’d worked with before. Her long blonde hair was pulled taut into a ponytail, making her face look tighter that it normally was. Hayden thought she did that for the lift it gave her. She wasn’t young like most of her team, but she was just as tough. At least he was familiar with the team, which would cause fewer problems in case anything went south. Otherwise, this was all pretty routine.

Except it felt anything but routine, and the churning feeling in his stomach grew as they arrived at their destination. Hunting wolves was always a nocturnal job, but the fuller the moon, the more dangerous it became. Near the full moon was the worst time to be hunting wolves, but it was also when they were the most active. Especially in the dead of winter.

As they jumped from their trucks into the frigid, forest air, he hoped it was all in his head. The moon was as unforgiving as the weather, and in Wicked Grove, anything could happen.





Chapter Two



Fat, fluffy flakes were falling on the forest, landing softly on the already laid blanket of crystals spread out like a soft feather down comforter. It was way too quiet. Hayden could hear his heart beating in his ears, pounding and fluttering with excitement. The winter had taken hold of Wicked Grove and its surrounding areas, threatening to cover every living thing with snow.

“Hayden, take up the rear,” Annika said. “We’re going to move in a single file around the base of the hills up ahead. Our scouts found tracks there. If we don’t find anything else, we’ll set up camp for the night. Just got intel we might face a storm front. Might.”

That wasn’t what Hayden wanted to hear.

Annika was strong, with sharp, oily doe eyes that didn’t match her pale hair. Her skin shone white in the moonlight, with a hint of pale blue from the cold, but her lips were an angry red. A flush of pink graced the tip of her nose and the ridges of her chiseled cheekbones.

Hayden threw her a quick nod then snapped his eyes back to the woods, feeling the chill of the weather creep through his clothes and send a rush of gooseflesh along his skin.

The storm front was coming. They shouldn’t be here.

But aside from the storm, something else wasn’t right. He felt like they were being watched, not by just one pair of eyes but many. The thought sent a vibrating shudder down his spine that he could not shake. He’d been on many missions like this, but none of them had ever given him such a feeling of dread. The scenery was too fresh, too pristine. He didn’t know what he’d expected, but everything about it felt wrong.

Hayden fell back and let the group pass him. Their white and gray winter camo was a far cry from the usual black and green pattern they wore during the non-winter months. It made everything bright, even in the darkness. He pulled his shades down over his eyes to cut out the blinding moonlight reflecting off the snow and irritating his retinas. Good thing his night vision was excellent.

He heard an echo of a scream or howl behind him and turned. No one else appeared to notice the sound, as though the single, long, resonating wail riding the wind was meant just for him. Cocking his head to one side, he listened hard as his group pulled away ahead of him before turning to slip back into formation. He kept his eyes wide open, flicking them from tree to tree to tree but finding nothing. He could barely hear anything above the crunch of snow as the soldiers made their way through the drifts.

Something or someone was out there. Whatever it was, it knew they were here.

They were sitting ducks; did Annika not know this? He had never questioned her authority before and bit his lip to restrain himself. He had to get a grip. She was smart woman and had been through almost as many assignments with the Agency as Hayden. But she looked much too at ease with the environment. Maybe it was just him. Maybe he was starting to lose his nerve after so many missions exterminating rogue bands of faeries, trolls, goblins, and others who had no regard for the human city lying within their midst. He hoped he was just on edge and nothing would come of it.

Or he had already lost his nerve. Fuck.

This time around they were deep in the forest, much farther out than usual. On most occasions, the Agency was just called to minor infractions by the magicals surrounding the city. In the supernatural community, those who were threatening to expose themselves or their kind, or harm the humans in any way, were immediately marked for extermination. No questions asked.

Hayden wiped at his shades then removed them and blinked hard against the relentless snow assaulting his watering eyes. The neck of his jacket clung to him, sweat matting the hairs on his neck and freezing over two seconds later. His ski hat kept his head warm, but his fingers could already feel the bite of the cold seeping through the thick military-issue gloves. This was the part of the job Hayden hated the most: searching for rogue groups of supernaturals in the dead of winter. He knew it was required, but that didn’t mean he had to love it. Luckily this was only the third deep-woods mission he’d had to do in the winter season. Most supernaturals retreated into their habitats to avoid the cold.

“Hayden! Look out!” Annika’s voice was a mere echo, and he didn’t hear it in time.

He never got the chance to turn around, for he was thrown from his position and slammed against a tree trunk. Pain ripped through his body as his vision darkened. He could hear Annika and Rob calling his name as chaos ensued. The sound of guns firing and bullets sailing past his head barely registered in his half-conscious mind as he struggled to regain his grip on the now. The noise was almost unbearably loud, but his body refused to move, and his head lolled to the side as he fought to remain conscious.

Finally, his vision slowly returned, breaking through a foggy haze that made no sense. He was nowhere near his group. Ear-piercing howls bounced off the trees, pulling him back to reality with each brain-twisting sound. A blur of wolf fur flashed past him, moving toward the sounds of his comrades’ yells. The sight should have sent a panic through him, but nothing came. It was eerily calm inside, and his head swam as his eyes refused to cooperate and focus. He must have hit his head harder than he’d thought. Otherwise, he would be more alarmed about why he wasn’t concerned about anything.

A large white and gray spotted wolf approached him, snarling and baring its teeth through a rumble of growls. Hayden could barely get a good look at it as his vision refused to sharpen. He badly wanted to drift off into the beckoning sleep. The enormous wolf stopped snarling and sniffed him with a morbid curiosity, increasingly interested in the blood trickling from the gash on his head. Hayden tried to shift his position slowly, but his body refused to cooperate. He couldn’t move yet. Even so, he could feel his strength returning as his vision cleared up and landed directly on a pair of deep silver eyes.

Crap. This wasn’t good. There was nothing but malice in the wolf’s stare. What should he do? He was sitting at the base of a tree, his legs still splayed out in front of him, his arms weak and numb, feeling like rods of iron. His head wound seeped warm blood that dribbled down his brow and threatened to fall into his eyes. The only thing holding his head up was an indentation in the tree trunk. It was deep enough that he could see what the wolf was doing as it studied him with more interest than he cared for from a wild, magical creature. The wolf snarled as his eyes widened even more, and all the noise surrounding them slammed into him as his entire body screamed with pain.

He could move again, but hesitated to do so with the enormous wolf staring him down.

Shit! he thought to himself. This was far from a good situation. He could reach for the knife strapped on his left thigh, but the wolf would probably clamp his teeth into his arm before he reached it. There was also a gun strapped to his right hip; if only he could unsnap the holster, point, and shoot the damned creature… but there remained the same problem; the wolf was far too close and would probably get a grip on his arm before he was able to get off a round.

Dammit, he thought, his chest hammering harder and the wound on his head throbbing along with it. He was out of options. There was no one around to help him. Not one person from his team could even be heard over the increasingly thick snowfall drenching them with layers of new flakes. They were tapping against his jacket louder than he’d ever heard snowflakes fall before, sounding more like thick, heavy drops of rain. From the looks of it, sitting still was probably the best and only choice he had.

The wolf noticed he was conscious now but did not attack. It backed up and turned to look at the activity of its pack mates with interest. Taking the chance, Hayden used the opportunity to try to grab for his gun, but his right arm was sluggish and uncoordinated, refusing to respond. It ate up enough precious time for the wolf to return its focus on him. Changing his plan, he grabbed for the knife at his left hip, barely able to unbutton the sheath and slash it feebly through the air before the wolf clamped down on his arm. Razor sharp teeth slipped through the fabric of his jacket, down through his sweater, and straight into his flesh. Hayden screamed from the pain as the wolf squeezed harder, shearing his skin and threatening to snap his arm bones into two.

His scream faded into the chaos of howls signaling that the wolves had been victorious in defeating the trespassers. Hayden was now alone. Through the howling, he could hear snarling and jaws snapping as people screamed, grunted, and retreated back the way they had come.

He let go of the knife. It dropped into his lap, and finally able to move his right arm, he scooped it up and aimed it at the wolf’s throat, ramming it home. Unfortunately, he missed, barely slashing the creature on the shoulder. It let him go and snarled again before he managed to bring back his right hand and slam the knife right into the wolf’s upper left leg where it met the mass of its body. A shrill whine erupted from its throat before the snarl returned. Hayden readied for another attack, but the wolf took off running, a trail of blood splattering on the snow behind it. The rest of the wolves took notice and followed him, crunching away in the drifts as he galloped through the forest and disappeared.

Only his breathing and the patter of snow could now be heard. Hayden struggled to move his still stubborn legs and failed to get up. He pulled his left arm to his chest, cradling it and staving off the pain threatening to send him back into unconsciousness as he listened for his teammates.

He could hear nothing. He hoped they’d gotten away with their lives.

The fact remained that he knew he’d never see them again. He’d been bitten by a werewolf shifter. Part human, part wolf. Contaminated with their disease. It was the worst fate of all, for he would never be able to return to the Agency and work alongside his teammates again. He was considered tainted now, and that was exactly how he felt. Marred, discarded, and left for dead. They would certainly not return for him. It wasn’t their way, especially if they believed he’d been killed in action.

A far off call caught his attention. His teammates were retreating but calling out his name and those of a couple of his other team members. He couldn’t make out the other names, but there was no mistaking his. Maybe Annika and Rob had gotten away. They would fight to turn back and find him or even just call his name out into the dead of the forest like they were doing now.

The rage and disgust filled him, and he turned away from the faint voices. He couldn’t answer them even if he wanted to. Pulling himself up, with the tree bracing him, he let his swimming head settle before treading through the deep, thick snow drifts, already fatigued from the head injury and blood loss from his arm. After tying a handkerchief around his wound to keep the blood from leaving a trail, he made his way deeper into the snow-laden woods, following the tracks not of his friends, but of the wolves.

There was only one thing left to do: find the wolf that had bitten him and kill it.





Chapter Three



Staring through the line of trees, a noise from behind made him jump, and he turned slowly to find a woman wearing a thick fur coat, leather pants, and hiking boots. A rifle was in her arms, aimed in his direction. She was sniffing the air as she sized him up, her rich brown eyes taking him in as her warm breath steamed in the air.

“Put your arms up where I can see them.”

He dared not move too fast. If he knew one thing about people carrying weapons like that, it was that moving too fast either gained you an advantage over them or got you killed. The way she held the rifle told him she knew how to use it and wouldn’t hesitate to do so. He raised his arms up and folded them behind his head as slowly as possible. She’d been silent approaching him, and he felt momentarily foolish for letting her get the best of him. He was, after all, a trained assassin. He should have heard her breathing from hundreds of feet away.

“Listen, I’m not looking for trouble,” he said as she gestured for him to turn around and face away from her. It sounded cliché, but he wasn’t looking to fight. Any hope the woman would take his word for it swam in his chest as he waited for her to answer. At least she hadn’t pulled the trigger yet.

She scoffed, apparently finding his statement amusing. “Now, I’d like to say that I believe you, but if I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard that line, I wouldn’t be out here in this godforsaken forest in the middle of winter freezing my ass off, if you get what I mean.”

He began to nod, but she raised her rifle. “Unholster and drop that sidearm, nice and easy.”

Hayden did as he was told. He heard her come up behind him and pick up the gun. He was about to speak again when she poked him in the back with the rifle barrel, forcing him to take a step forward.

“Start moving if you know what’s good for you.” She poked him again, and he took another step forward and kept going until they reached a camp. He’d heard the voices in the distance and had hoped for rescue, but his heart sank as he realized that these were her people. There were a few men and women walking around a great bonfire in the middle of what turned out to be less of a camp and more of a small village. Three rings of cabins were arranged around the fire: large ones, small ones, and one enormous main lodge at one end of the main square of this small settlement. The woman kept poking his back to keep him moving. She marched him right through the middle of the square so everyone in the cabins could take a good long look at him. He was being paraded through the village like a prisoner being led to his hanging. The thought made his already frozen throat harden.

“Is this really necessary?” he asked. He tried to turn, wanting to get a better look at the woman, but all he got was a nice, snappy jab in the back with her rifle. She dug it in further than previously. He almost yelped in pain but clamped his mouth shut before he cursed her out.

“Everything is necessary, but you don’t have to like it,” the woman stated.

Hayden heard her sniff again and wondered if she had a cold, but then he realized the few people standing outside with them were also sniffing the air like they were taking in his scent. The disgusted looks on their faces made them appear as though they smelled something rancid and rotting in their midst. It was odd, amateurish, and awkward behavior, but he ignored it and kept on. He realized there was something strange about the entire group as he peered about, narrowing his eyes at them.

Their eyes reflected the moonlight, causing them to look feral. He could see their retinas reflecting the light in a most unnatural way. There was nothing normal about these people, especially the low, resonating growls coming from their throats as he made his way toward the lodge.

People didn’t growl. Not like that, like they had a fierce beast about to pop out of their mouths. These people were not human, but if they weren’t, what were they? His rational mind pushed back against the obvious answer, but his gut knew the truth. He swallowed the cold hard lump of coal stuck in his throat as best he could without turning his head. The woman would surely give him another sharp jab in the back if he tried anything or spat an insult back at these wild people.

His heart raced. She was taking him to meet their leader, he was sure of it. What would happen then? Would he get his chance for revenge, or would it be the end of him?

As they approached the main lodge, he continued to wonder what the next step would be. The more they sniffed at him, the more he was sure this was some sort of shifter group, but he couldn’t confirm they were the wolves who’d attacked him. They could be any kind of shifter: cat, bird, bear… it didn’t matter. He was in trouble.

There was no back up here, no one to call who’d fight at his side. Nobody would come or even know where to find him. He was all alone in this.

He dropped his eyes to the ground and made out paw prints. They looked like the prints of the wolves who’d attacked his group earlier, and he now knew for certain that he had found the wolf pack he’d been searching for. Now he just had to find the wolf who’d bit him and make him pay. From the looks of this place and the malice each wolf was tossing his way as he approached the main building, it wasn’t going to be an easy task.

Another poke.

“Up the stairs and inside. They are waiting for us.”


***


“He’s been bitten,” the woman at his back announced to the council seated before them. A man and woman sat in the center on throne-like chairs, with others lined up next to them. Hayden had read enough about wolf packs to know that these were the pack leaders. Beside them on each side were their seconds in command and so on, leading down the hierarchy, with a total of eight people. Hayden puffed his chest and jutted out his chin in defiance, digging his eyes into each one, hoping to smoke out the culprit. If this was the how judgement in a werewolf court functioned, he had no choice but to do it their way.

The woman on the highest chair leaned forward, drilling her eyes into Hayden with harsh curiosity. Her gaze was powerful enough to make him shift his weight from one leg to the other. She was a pretty thing, with long blonde hair down to her waist threaded through with small braids looped in an intricate pattern. A classic beauty, with sharp hazel eyes that reflected the light like glass, translucent yet calculating, with unabashed intelligence. “What makes you think any of our wolves turned him, my dear sister Tully?”

Hayden liked her immediately. She was the voice of reason, that much he could already gather.

“I caught scent of him following us from the direction of the recent battle with the human assassins,” Tully said.

Ah, so they’d met the Wicked Grove Supernatural Regulatory Agency before and knew what it was. Great.

“I let him follow to see if he was pursuing our pack and to evaluate the threat. So I circled out behind him for capture, which I did quite easily, and now present him for judgement.”

The Alpha queen leaned back in her chair, her expression largely unchanged but looking slightly amused at Tully’s account. She sniffed his scent as she pondered. Hayden wasn’t going to risk a judgement even from their queen. If he was going to challenge any of them, he had to do it now. Before he could open his mouth, the queen spoke again.

“Has anyone admitted to turning this man? It’s strictly forbidden, and they will be punished.” She stared down at him with amusement, but her mate glared at him like he was a pile of rotting garbage. His eyes shone, telling Hayden everything he needed to know about the ruling Alpha king. This was the wolf who had bitten Hayden. As a bonus, he was also the Alpha.

Just perfect, thought Hayden. He was the last person on this council he wanted to fight, but if that was what was going to have to happen, so be it. He didn’t have to like it, but it had to be done.

“You’re the leader, right?” Hayden asked. The council fidgeted, snarling low, threatening growls at him. “You’re the one who bit me, aren’t you? I challenge you to a duel. I deserve retribution for what you’ve done.”

The entire assembly gasped at the request. Hayden was looking straight at the Alpha without regret. If the guy was too chicken to admit to biting a human, then this was the only way to get the Alpha to fight him.

The Alpha smirked, finding the challenge hilarious. “I don’t know what you speak of. That is not our way.”

His smile rose to his eyes with a genuine, contagious laugh which filtered its way through the court. His chuckle rang out, echoing in the cavernous lodge, and Hayden felt a chill run through his body as cold as the icicles forming outside. He clenched his fists at his sides and prepared to ambush the Alpha even if it meant certain death at the hands of his underlings. The woman who’d captured him slipped her hand over his elbow and squeezed it, turning toward him while leaning in so that he was the only one to hear her whisper.

“Don’t. Not here.”

Those three words were all it took to quell the angry beast inside, clawing to get out. He’d never felt such hatred toward another individual before now and suddenly found himself feeling lost and disoriented. Did Tully have some sort of magic in her voice? How had she done that? A moment before, he was ready to pounce onto the throne, shove the Alpha out of his seat and rip his head from his shoulders. One touch from the woman next to him had calmed the rage storming inside him. He turned and got a better look at Tully, surprised to find her looking almost exactly like the Alpha queen in front of him; they could have been twins.

Maybe they were twins. It would be interesting if they were. But he could see that the blonde hair of the woman next to him was slightly darker than the platinum tresses of the queen. There was a spray of freckles across Tully’s nose and under her eyes, while the queen’s skin was flawless. Tully’s eyes were even a shade darker, more ocean blue in color rather than light hazel, and Tully’s lips were also slightly fuller than the thin, pressed mouth of the queen. They were related all right, but he now doubted that they were twins. Still, they were so close in age and so incredibly similar in appearance they could probably make themselves up to look like one another and fool the entire court.

Tully didn’t seem to care for the king’s mirth. She rolled her eyes while everyone laughed. She was the only one not laughing.

“Take it off,” she demanded, tugging hard at his jacket. “Drop it in front of you.”

He peered at her curiously, but he didn’t wait long to comply. He slipped off his winter jacket and let it drop to the ground. His sweater was still soaked with blood along the left side. Without warning, she grabbed the sleeve and tore it off where the shoulder met his chest, exposing the entire arm and ripping off the handkerchief he’d applied earlier.

He sucked in a sharp breath, waiting for the pain to hit as she ripped off his sleeve but it never came. Instead, he now stared in horror at the dry, crusted blood smudged along the hair of his arm where the wound had been. The deep puncture wounds should have still been seeping blood, but there was nothing there. Nothing but smooth skin, hair and dry blood along his tanned arm. He’d spent a lot of time in the sun during the summer, and the color still lingered. Staring hard at the nonexistent wound, he swallowed. He knew what the rapid healing meant.

He was one of them now. No longer human but a freak.

He turned toward Tully and found her studying him with deep, scrutinizing eyes. She pulled his arm up to her face and gave it a long sniff. Once was all it took to capture the scent of the perpetrator, and her eyes widened as she knowingly looked up at Hayden. The secret between them told of the sins of an Alpha who thought nothing of breaking their sacred rules. It was the last thing she’d expected, and the fear flickering on her face told him this was the start of something terrible.

Tully turned back toward her sister, meeting her eyes as though they were silently speaking to one another. Her sister pressed her lips together and threw her the slightest of nods before leaning back in her chair, looking pensive. The Alpha king stared down at them as their chuckles faded away and took a swig of whatever alcoholic beverage sat in front of him. The others of his council followed suit.

Robots, Hayden thought. All but Tully, her sister and Hayden were brainwashed to follow their leader with blind and pure devotion. They’d disturbed dinner, but neither he nor Tully cared. His stomach didn’t rumble, but his spirit hungered for revenge. He drew in a breath, about to speak, when Tully took his arm and squeezed it once more. He glanced her way again, and her widened eyes told him to be silent as she gave him the slightest shake of head. Whatever Tully feared, he had to take that into consideration, especially when it was obviously not a custom to challenge an Alpha outright. He knew a bit about shifters from his studies, but the specific rules of this pack were unknown to him. He sensed a crash course heading his way.

“What is your name, stranger?” the queen inquired.

“Hayden Night.”

“Welcome to the pack, Hayden. You have much to learn before you can challenge an Alpha of any pack and must wait one full cycle of the moon before doing so. Your captor, Tully, will show you around.”

“I did not agree to this, Talia,” Tully snapped.

Queen Talia narrowed her eyes at her sister. “You must do as you’re told. You know this more than anyone. Hayden will remain with you at all times while in the village; otherwise we cannot guarantee his safety.”

“Oh, she’ll tuck you in tonight, so be sure to obey her,” the Alpha king interjected, snickering at Hayden. “And if you get any bright ideas about sneaking out to kill me, know that she is duty bound to protect her leaders and won’t allow you to attack us in any way. She’ll sacrifice her life to stop you. All the members of my pack would do the same.”

He waved them away without another glance as he turned jovially toward his queen and began chatting. Tully gripped onto his arm even more tightly and gave him a good, swift tug in the direction of the door.

“Come on,” she hissed, already fed up with all the politics and probably annoyed with the fact that she had to babysit him. He complied, knowing from the looks of all those wolves on the council that he’d never ever be able to get through all of them to tackle the Alpha and get the revenge he sought. He was going to have to play this idiotic game their way. It would start with Tully.

So she had to show Hayden the ways of the pack. How convenient. As long as he was patient, he could challenge the Alpha with no interference from anyone else. Besides, he had all the time in the world now that he was banished from the Agency. He was contaminated; they would not welcome him back for being so careless and allowing himself to be converted to a wild thing. A werewolf. A wolf shifter. Whatever you wanted to call them, there was no turning back now.

Fortunately, he was more than likely presumed dead. The Agency would not look for his body. Not in this deep snow and violent weather. The risk was too high, especially in a notoriously dangerous forest after a violent attack on one of their teams. His body would be left to freeze beneath the drifts of snow. Maybe they might search for it come spring. Maybe.

That was fine. Hayden felt at peace with his decision to stay here. There would be no attempt to return. He was dead to the world.

He looked about as they exited the lodge, taking in everything. Tully continued to pull him along, dragging him out into the snow, through the center of town, again parading him past the rest of the pack. It allowed him to get a better look at them as they lined up along the pathway to study the new “pup” and greet him with growls rumbling in their throats. The cold bit into him since he’d lost his jacket and sweater, exposing his skin to the biting frost.

She led him to the outermost ring of the village, and they soon came upon one of the smaller cabins located at the edge of the forest. Hayden was relieved to be far from the center of activity; it was a small comfort. He didn’t want to escape, but if he had to, it would be easy to overpower Tully and run off into the woods.

As though she could hear his thoughts, Tully glanced his way now and then, daring him to act out. Did she know what he was thinking? He had never heard of a clairvoyant person or werewolf before, but anything was possible. Nevertheless, he would have to try to clear his mind so she wouldn’t have anything to be suspicious about. He was here to stay, and he had to accept his fate. Revenge would be so damn sweet when it did come after a long, cold month of waiting.

Patience, Hayden. All in good time.





Chapter Four



Tully watched the whole night pass by without leaving the cabin, staring at the stranger sitting on the bed in the cell across from her. He had balls, the way he had walked into the lodge and challenged their Alpha outright. She could understand why. Who wouldn’t want revenge for unwillingly being turned into a wolf shifter? He would be unable to control the shift come full moon, which was just a few days away. He’d need all the help he could get.

So why was she the one to help him? She wished she’d shot him on sight.

A stranger could uproot the entire pack if he won a challenge. The hunt earlier in the evening wasn’t supposed to come close to the outskirts of the city of Wicked Grove. His coming was the beginning of so much change, it would shake their world. Tully knew it like she knew the lines on the back of her hands. There was no doubt their lifestyle was not ideal, but were they ready for the next step in evolution of their pack? She didn’t think so. He represented that, and she, along with her sister, knew it.

No one else could know. Not even Gregory, their Alpha.

Hayden hadn’t slept much during the night. She’d fed him his meals, sliding the trays through the gap beneath the bars and keeping watch as he ate and kept to himself. He didn’t ask any questions, which made her curiosity burn with a ferocious need to be quenched. Being on guard the whole time was her job. As sister of an Alpha queen, it was her lot in life. The politics were left to the leaders, not the second-born wolves. She was considered more of a guard dog, a messenger, and an executor of orders than anything else. A puppet to be controlled. You did as you were told in a pack or suffered grave consequences, even as the sister of the Alpha’s mate.

So here she was, doing the dirty work for everybody in the pack, as usual. Her ho-hum existence was tasting quite bitter as of late.

“Hey.” Hayden’s voice called out from inside the cell, and Tully turned to see the stranger peering back with two large, brown eyes reflecting the light of the embers glowing in the fireplace. They matched his hair, a dark, rich chocolate which looked like it would melt if he stood too close to the fire. A flutter rose up in her belly, and she frowned to drive it away, not wanting this stranger’s looks to affect her like a smitten schoolgirl. She had to keep her wits about her, especially with an unknown.

It reminded her how much she was itching to go for a run. She hadn’t been on a run for a while, and it was starting to wear on her. Running in the wild was the closest to relaxing that shifters got. Not prison duty. This had to be one of the worst jobs ever. If there was any way she could get out of it to run, she’d do it in an instant.

But it was her duty, and there was no getting out of it. She didn’t respond to the man, flicking her eyes toward the window, even though she wished he would continue. She was starving for some good adult conversation.

“Hey, Tully. That’s your name, right?”

She snapped her eyes back toward him. There something in the way he said her name that caught her attention. It was a good thing they were not like the Fey who could be controlled if someone knew their full names.

“Your leader… he did this to me. You know that, right?”

“It’s against the rules to fight the Alpha if you’ve just joined the pack. There’s no way you’ll get close enough to even give him a scratch. Why did you even come deeper into the forest? Why didn’t you turn around and go back to your people?”

She already knew why, so why was she asking?

“It was your Alpha who bit me and turned me into this creature.”

“I know, but it doesn’t matter now, does it? Besides, we are not ‘creatures.’ We’re humans with magical abilities.” She looked down her nose at him like he was muck. “You really are something, aren’t you? Anybody else would crumbled underneath the stare of our Alpha, but you—you have a death wish or something, don’t you, Holden?”

“It’s Hayden. Hayden Night.”

“Hayden Night.” She let his name roll over her tongue, looking as though the syllables were made of some new, sweet, and marvelous taste.

“That’s my name. Don’t wear it out.” He grinned at his childish joke, but Tully was unamused. “What’s your last name, Tully?”

She resumed glaring at him, her eyes flickering with distrust.

“Hey, don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone. All my friends think I’m dead. Besides, it’s not like we’re faeries or anything like that.”

Her eyes widened. “How do you know about faeries?”

“I know a lot of things about the supernaturals around Wicked Grove. It was part of my job.”

Scoffing, she rolled her eyes. “You’re an agent, aren’t you? You’re one of those killers who take life without regard to what you’re doing.” Her eyes narrowed as she spat out the next words. “Cold-blooded murderers.”

Hayden regarded her, intrigued by the sudden anger he’d stirred up. Had his Agency hurt her pack before? He’d always been on the other side of the fight. He’d been judge, jury, and executioner, but never the defendant. His entire world had been flipped. Fear washed over him, churning and morphing into a steaming anger.

“What you’re doing—this prejudging me—is quite like how my Agency judges you. So, you see, we are both wrong, and both of our groups are blinded by prejudices. You and I are not that different, and we both need to adjust our views of the world. I’m no longer on the other side, but I’ve seen it. I can offer a lot of insight into the Agency… why it does what it does and how your pack could avoid getting into situations with them. You help me, I’ll help you.”

“You may be right, but I don’t trust you. It will be a cold day in hell before that happens. My pack is strict and will not tolerate your insubordination. You have tons to learn if you hope to be allowed to stay. You’re lucky you’re still alive. In the old days, you’d have been butchered on the spot. Humans have no business transforming into wolves. You’re impure. An abomination. To allow half-wolves to live—I don’t agree with it.”

Hayden clenched his fingers around the bars, wishing he could smash them. “So it’s supposed to be illegal to turn a human, yet your Alpha walks away squeaky clean without consequences for his actions? You think I asked for this? And why was I allowed to live? It’s obvious your pack doesn’t want me here.”

“It is our responsibility. No one else’s. Our Alpha is… defiant, yes. Moody. Rebellious. But we can’t just unseat him for being careless. There are rules. Rules you need to learn and abide by.”

“So who’s going to teach me your ways? You?”

It was obvious to Hayden she had been tasked with the unfortunate job of teaching him their ways. Poor girl. It apparently rolled downhill in her direction a lot. Even an outsider could tell who cleaned up the messes around here.

Tully pressed her lips together, failing to disguise her disgust at the situation. She said nothing further and instead stood and headed off to the small adjoining kitchen to make lunch. He watched her walk away, smiling as he enjoyed the view. She wasn’t harsh on the eyes; in fact he admired her tenacity. Paired with her beauty, she was damn near irresistible. If only she would let him in, then he could get to know her better. But the way things stood, it was going to be difficult to insert himself into the pack and gain the trust he needed to achieve his goal of challenging the Alpha.

If only they had met under different circumstances….

He could hear Tully banging around in the kitchen. The sweet smell of bacon and eggs wafted into the room, through the bars, and into his nostrils, smelling divine. His senses had amplified. Everything was sharpened, clarified. If he’d had these super senses when he was but a regular agent, he would have been unstoppable. It made him question whether or not he would be able to defeat an Alpha who’d had a lifetime of experience using those senses. It didn’t matter; he would adjust and be ready to take down the Alpha in a short period. He’d make sure of it. There was no turning back now.

“Tully?” he called out.

She came around the corner, looking slightly annoyed, with a plate of food in her hands. “What is it?”

“Thanks for helping me. I know it’s not your favorite job in the world, and it probably is a bit frustrating taking care of someone like me, but I want you to know that I appreciate it.”

Her mouth dropped open as she stared, gawking. She’d almost forgotten she was holding a plate until she flicked her eyes down to it and remembered.

“Here’s your breakfast. I don’t know if you know the pack is nocturnal. We usually head to bed about this time after being up all night.”

Ah, he knew that. It was obvious she was exhausted, and daylight was rapidly approaching. She probably usually spent the entire night patrolling the surrounding areas. He had barely realized how exhausted he was too. He was a moron to forget that wolves operated during the night.

“Of course, I’m sure you’re exhausted. Thanks for the breakfast. We should probably get some rest after we eat.”

She returned with her own plate, sat cross-legged in a chair by the small table sitting next to the cell, and without another word began to eat, thoughtfully chewing and pretending to ignore his presence. Her small mouth was pink and plump, easily kissable, as was the rest of her. He wondered if he’d ever get close to her. It would take some work, but as he ate, the obvious crossed his mind. He’d get on Tully’s good side however long it took. He could tell it’d be worth it.





Chapter Five



“I’m exhausted.” Hayden slumped down on the ground. After playing out on a patch of new snow, he was staring up at the sky and luxuriating in the late afternoon sun. He was ready for dinner.

“You’re such a lightweight. How do you expect to beat the Alpha if you can’t keep it together? You think this is hard? Training is the easiest part. It’s the fight that’s going to really push you over the edge.” She shook her head at him, crossing her arms and biting her lip distastefully.

Hayden elevated an eyebrow. He didn’t like how she was looking at him like he was a failure. A disappointment. He had a fair chance of taking Gregory out, and he was pretty sure Tully knew that too. So what was the problem? Why was she so invested in this fight, even more so than him, the one desperately seeking revenge? He decided to find out.

“What’s all this to you anyway? Do you want me to lose, or do you want me to win?” He leaned back on the ground, staring hard up at the sky.

Tully tilted her head, looking exasperated. She sat beside him then fell backward and stretching out to create a snow angel in the soft drifts of fresh snow. He turned his head and watched her calmly. Making a snow angel had her smiling, something he found he quite enjoyed. He wasn’t surprised; he liked Tully a lot.

The first full moon had come and gone. When he had shifted, he’d had no control over anything. Tully had kept him safely locked in the cage the first night, and it drove him mad, snapping at her and tearing apart everything in the cell. She’d brought him fresh meat and even controlled her own shift to keep watch over him.

He wondered if it had been painful, but he had never asked. The way he’d morphed involuntarily had been disorientating enough. At least there was hope he could eventually learn to shift at will, and the full moon would no longer bother him.

The fact that he was weak under the full moon frustrated him. It made him wonder how he would ever be strong enough to defeat an Alpha who had years of experience. The only thing going for him was his training as an agent. It would have to be enough. Something told him the fight was coming up sooner than he thought.

Until then, avoiding the pack Alpha, Gregory, was not easy. The guy loved to taunt. He especially liked to tell Hayden he needed more training. Using the training facilities in the camp was impossible if they wanted to be left alone. Gregory always managed to find his way in and throw him every insult in the book.

What was the guy trying to gain from it? Hayden could only speculate Gregory was hoping to coax him into a fight prematurely, before the challenge time. It’d be two weeks until the next full moon; two weeks before he could official challenge him. He had to spend a whole month of living with the pack before he could rightfully challenge the Alpha. Only then would the queen be able to sanction the fight.

Talia, Tully’s sister and Alpha queen would certainly approve it. She had to. Tully had told him so. Talia was all about rules and never let her heart get in the way. She often visited them while Tully was training him, but unlike her mate, she kept quiet and observed. Hayden wondered if she came to watch them so she could report back to Gregory and offer him tips about his fighting style and weaknesses, but Tully assured him it wasn’t why she came by. Talia was much more on the right side of things than anyone else in the pack. If there was one person who would keep the fight fair, it would be Talia, no doubt to the disappointment of her husband.

At least Hayden had a few things going for him if he could manage to make it to the end of the month. Gregory was making it hard to not want to smash his face in beforehand.

“You’ll need to concentrate.”

Hayden turned toward Tully, who was now sitting up with her arms outstretched and her eyes closed, facing forward. “Concentration is key, Hayden. You’ll need to relax. Breathe. When your world is in turmoil and things are not going your way, you’ll need to ground yourself and believe that you are the center of your world and everything pivots around you, no matter what other people say. You might not be able to control anyone else, but you can control how you react to them. If you want to beat Gregory, you have to remember this.”

“Who taught you that?”

Tully opened her eyes to look at him. They shone brightly, more blue-green than ocean blue. Maybe they changed color, but he couldn’t quite tell. Sometimes they looked blue, sometimes hazel, and sometimes almost brown. All he knew was that they always calmed him, giving off a serenity he quite enjoyed.

“My mother taught me that. She was a great Alpha of our pack. I miss her. When Gregory took over after she died, things changed. He shouldn’t have taken over so soon, but my mother died in a terrible accident.”

“What happened to her?”

Tully turned away and stared up at the sky again, prompting Hayden to do the same. The sky was a vibrant blue, with small puffs of clouds. This was the calmest he had felt in ages.

“There was a pack intruding on our territory, and she, my father and their warriors went to discuss things with their Alpha. It didn’t go well, obviously. They often incited conflict, and this time it was no different. Some under her command stepped up to fight for her, but being the Alpha queen, she wanted to fight too. During the struggle, she received a fatal blow.”

“That’s awful. Did her warriors kill the ones who did it?”

She shook her head. “With her death, the fighting dispersed. But… the other pack’s members were not the ones who killed her. My father had accidentally pierced her skin along her throat while fighting their Alpha, and she bled to death.”

Hayden didn’t know what to say, but he felt an overwhelming urge to protect Tully from such saddening news. He scooted closer to her and embraced her in his arms, pulling her to his chest. Surprisingly, she let him and turned to face him, her lips centimeters from his.

“I’m sorry to hear that. Really, I am. I never would have asked about it had I known. It was insensitive.”

“You didn’t know. Shh.” She placed a finger on his lips and smiled, blinking the tears away. It was a kind smile, and he realized something that he hadn’t noticed in the little time he’d been here with her. She was in love with him, and he knew he felt the same way. They had not been apart for weeks, and he could feel the wild animal beneath the surface trying to reach for her, to become one with her. It was a furious desire to take her and make her his forever, and he didn’t want to fight it anymore.

“Kiss me,” she whispered.

She didn’t have to ask twice. The joy her words brought him could not be matched, and he pulled her body closer, turning the freezing air into a smoldering heat as their lips touched. His mouth met hers as he slowly caressed her hair, running his fingers through it. Their kisses sparked fire inside him which made him want to devour her whole and keep her next to him for the rest of his life. How he could feel so much for a woman he’d just met? The question tickled at his mind, but he ignored it. There was no place he’d rather be than right here with her.

Her mouth beckoned him more. Their tongues, warm and soft against the freezing January air, tangled together, causing the air to steam with their breaths.

“Tully,” he whispered, out of air from kissing her.

“Yes, Hayden?”

“How long will I have to wait to choose a mate in this pack?”

She pulled away a few inches and studied him. The look on her face showed that she was wondering if he had an alternative agenda. Her questioning look made him smile. Although she was a strong fighter and a great enforcer, she was still vulnerable and wary of any emotions. Especially from stranger.

“You don’t have to wait to choose a mate. You just ask them. Why? Who would you ask?”

He almost laughed, and her cheeks flushed in anger. She tried to pull away, but he held on firmly, not letting go of her coat as she squirmed and smacked at his arms.

“Let me go!”

“Do you really not know who I’d ask? Tully, it’s only ever been you. I’ve been waiting forever to find you. I promise there is nobody else I would ask but you.”

She stopped struggling, her eyes widening with joy as a smile slowly lifted the corners of her mouth. She fell back into his arms, her lips slamming against his with equal ferocity.

Hayden knew there was no other choice now but to win the upcoming fight, especially if he wanted to stay with Tully. She’d be his Alpha queen. He knew that as surely as blood rushed through his veins. Without another word, he jumped to his feet, pulled her up by the arm, and led her back to their cabin to claim his mate.



Continue reading this ebook at Smashwords.
Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-34 show above.)