Connell loped through the forest. The shadows grew long in the cool of twilight, and fallen needles concealed his tracks in the dark loam. Winter was near. He smelled it on the breeze, sensed it in the thickening coat on his back, and felt it in the weight of his paws, full-grown at last.
Dex ran parallel, three-hundred paces to his right. The occasional flash of russet the only physical proof that he had company. Connell enjoyed evening patrol. The relative solitude of it provided him time away from the others to think, without their voices clamoring in his mind.
A flock of birds, startled by his passing, ejected into the flushed sky. The heat of their plump bodies was full in his snout, and hunger a tight fist in his gut. Asena was right. Patrolling on an empty stomach motivated you. Kept you focused.
Connell saw Dex in his mind approaching the northern turn of the inner boundary, his shoulders bunched ready to take it without loss of momentum. Connell had a hundred paces still to cover before his own turn. He could see the majestic cedar that marked the line of their territory with that of the Borderlands, a tract of dense forest that both invited and forbade exploration.
He had run this patrol every night since he was deemed grown enough. First with his mother, her voice in his mind teaching him what was normal for this part of the packlands. Sienna nudging his shoulder with her muzzle when he strayed from the line. Thayer had taken over Connell’s training after she died, and every day he’d wished his mother could be there to witness his progress. He doubted he would ever conquer the longing to see his mother’s wolf, muzzle held high as she watched her sons bound out of sight. Sibling rivalry strong in their youthful bodies, and Connell determined to prove himself to the large sandy wolf at his side.
Thay’s scent drifted into his nose. It sat high and proud, with a hint of cedar and something Connell couldn’t name, as it made his every muscle clench tight. He’d skidded to a halt, paws leaving furrows in the soft soil, as he scented the border. Thay’s smell was stronger there. The heat of it flavoring the air Connell panted, his tongue lolling in confusion. Why would his brother be out of bounds?
A groan, too quiet for anything but a wolf’s ears to hear, drifted close.
Connell was bounding toward it before he had decided to move. His hind legs clawed traction against the roots of towering trees. His lithe body weaved an uncharted course through over-crowded trunks and over unfamiliar terrain. Dex was yelling questions in his mind, demanding answers Connell didn’t have. Instinct was all-consuming. It drove him forward, lean athletic body a blur of sand and cream, indistinct beneath the heavy canopy of suspicious scents.
Thay’s groan and subsequent grunts sounded more human the closer Connell got. It must be bad if his brother had shifted to his human form. Dread buried itself deep into Connell’s gut and drove out the hunger that had resided there not a moment before.
He was upon them. Thay’s scent enveloped Connell as he skidded to a halt, rear haunches crouched, front paws buried in dark soil. Connell whuffed in surprise, embarrassment hot on its heels, Thay was not in danger. The groans Connell had picked up on the still air were those of pleasure, dragged from his brother’s slack human mouth, as his naked hips rutted into the female on her knees before him.
He shouldn’t look. He should turn back and meet Dex before the other wolf could intrude on the privacy Connell’s brother had sought. But he couldn’t move. He told himself it was because Thay was vulnerable like this, human senses unable to even register Connell’s own presence, let alone that of danger.
They were amazing together, their rhythm suggesting this was not their first coupling. Thay wrapped an arm around the young female’s waist and pulled her up, thrust deeper as she leaned back into his chest, her milk-white skin a perfect pale contrast to his smooth gold. She flung her head back. Her neck arched on Thay’s shoulder, pleasure pouring from her lush mouth in a torrent of incomprehensible sounds that did things to Connell he’d never ever confess. He watched, hypnotized by the slide of Thay’s huge hand down the female’s belly, fingers sinking into soft flesh hidden by a pelt of black curls.
“Lena, baby, yeah, that’s it,” Thay murmured against her ear, his chin tucked over her shoulder so he could watch. A plea so private Connell felt sick at having heard it with his wolf’s hearing.
The female, Lena, rolled her hips, chased Thay’s touch as she stretched out her flanks. Her long black hair fell aside to reveal pale pink teats, riding high on full round breasts. They bounced with each of Thay’s thrusts, and overflowed his brother’s hands when he squeezed, harder than Connell imagined Lena would permit. But she moaned, circled her curvaceous hips, and sank deeper into Thay’s lap.
Connell had no experience in the pleasure of mating, but even he could tell Thay and Lena neared their crest. They scrabbled at each other, Lena’s nails scratched at Thay’s forearms as if she were one slip from falling down the cliff at North Peak. Thay crushed Lena’s smaller body to him as if he wanted nothing more than the permanence of being merged with her. Connell’s ears burned with their cries, no louder than polite conversation to human senses, but loud enough to bring wolfish onlookers from a mile’s circumference.
As Thay and Lena collapsed in on one another, bodies weak and tangled, Connell caught movement in the undergrowth on the opposite side of the clearing. Yellow eyes bright with a menace that seared into the broad expanse of Thay’s back.
Connell sprang forth, ears flat, and black lips pulled in a snarl of protective fury, paws thud-thudding in a spray of black as he claimed the space between Thay and Lena and the undeclared threat.
“What th—?” Thay growled. His human voice carrying no less anger than his telepathic one would have done. “Conn?”
Connell sensed Thay’s desire to shift, knew there must be a danger his human self couldn’t detect. But his brother’s recent exertions and the dizzying heat of Lena’s scent were making Thay thick-headed. Connell spared his brother a flicker of sympathy, even as he vowed never to find himself in the same predicament. The fleeting pleasure couldn’t outweigh the lasting embarrassment. Of that, Connell was sure.
Yellow eyes crept closer. A muzzle dark and dusky like salted pepper. Wicked ivory fangs bared in a sneer of black gums. Arden.
And, oh shit! Lena. That Lena! Connell shook his head as if a wasp had lodged in his ear. He hadn’t understood before, hadn’t realized when Thay had whispered her name earlier. Arden’s daughter - Lena - prized heiress of the bloody moon zealots! Thay sure knew how to pick ’em.
A vibrating growl filled the clearing as if it was a glass, and sound was water. Connell felt his chest contract and struggled against the weight of submission being forced upon him. But Dex was there, driven from concealment by the threat to his packmates. His russet hackles raised as he covered Connell’s right flank, his body shielding Lena from her father’s view.
Connell kept his gaze trained on Arden, aware of the two lieutenants lingering in the dappled shadows. But it was the furious whispers of the two shifted humans that filled his mind.
“You can’t, he’ll kill you.”
“You’re blind if you can’t see how this will end.”
“As are you, if you believe my father will allow this to continue.”
A series of creaks and a pained whimper signaled Lena’s shift back to her wolf. And Connell sensed smug triumph bleed out from the black wolves across the clearing.
“I will challenge for you,” Thay declared, his voice thick with something Connell had no name for. “You’re mine.”
Connell huffed a breath, embarrassed to bear witness to his brother’s declaration. The seven words carrying more intimacy and personal intensity than Thay and Lena’s joining had done.
With a heartbroken howl that wavered in pitch, a silver wolf with a jet black mantel and delicate limbs shot past Connell’s left flank. Lena, head bowed in hope of appeasing her father, had abandoned her mate, and Connell’s brother, to save all their lives.
Thay’s own anguished howl reverberated throughout the stoic ambivalence of the forest, punctuated the soundless retreat of Lena and her father, and painted the fading sunset with a pain Connell could feel clawing at his own chest. He decided then and there that he would never fall for a female the way Thay had. It was stupidity itself to allow anyone that much power over you.
Dex shouldered him into movement, and took Thay’s right flank when Connell shielded his left.
“Home?” Dex thought.
“No,” Connell said, “finish the patrol.”
Dex yawned a whine and shook out the last of the tension from his shoulders, fur settling. They, Thay most of all, needed the calm a run would bring. It was the right course of action. Besides, Arden would be too busy bringing his daughter to heel to attack before dawn.
This was far from over. The tension radiating from his brother told Connell that. Thay loved Lena, and Connell supposed Lena loved Thay. But only a female truly knew what lay in the depths of another female’s heart.
Asena would know what to do. Their grandmother was so much wiser than any of them, wiser than two young wolves from opposite sides of the border. Or at least that was what Connell hoped as his packmates, one russet and one sandy brown, kept pace along the last stretch to home.