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Echoes of Fire (Mercury Pack Book 4) by Suzanne Wright (1)

CHAPTER ONE

Leaning against the tiled wall of the toilet stall, Madisyn Drake pressed her hand to her stomach as she breathed through the pain. Hell, she’d been fine fifteen minutes ago. That was the thing about touch-hunger; there was no buildup. It hit without warning, and it hit hard.

Outside the stall, girls giggled and chatted and sang along to the thumping music that could be heard even through the closed door of the restroom. Enigma was exclusive to shifters, just like the club she’d worked at for more than a year. But the similarities between the two places ended there.

The Velvet Lounge was classy and stylish. The music wasn’t too loud, there were no strobe lights flashing, and the air wasn’t tainted by cigarette smoke. Wildly popular, it was owned by the Mercury Pack. If she weren’t best friends with a she-wolf from a pack they were closely allied to, they probably wouldn’t have hired Madisyn because she was a lone shifter.

She enjoyed working at the Velvet Lounge and preferred it to any other club. But tonight, she didn’t need “classy.” She needed what Enigma provided—the opportunity to indulge in casual sex. Which was why she’d gotten the night off work to come here.

Shifters were tactile creatures and needed touch, social and sexual. There was no set point at which touch-hunger began if those needs weren’t met; it seemed to depend on the individual. For Madisyn, going six months without sex was pushing it—which was why, for the past two weeks, she’d been experiencing sporadic hot flashes, night sweats, abdominal cramps, itchy skin, and a restlessness that made her jittery and irritable. Also, her libido often went into overdrive, which only made her edgier.

She wouldn’t be dealing with it at all if it hadn’t been for a certain rat bastard. Her best friend, Makenna, called her a walking lucky charm, and it was true that luck did seem to favor Madisyn. But when it came to her love life, it let her down big-time. For a while, she’d been happy with short, shallow relationships. But a pang of loneliness had hit her not long ago, and she hadn’t been able to ease it. She’d thought that Lucah might just be able to. Ha, she couldn’t have been more wrong.

Online dating wasn’t Madisyn’s thing, but PlusOne.com not only had successfully united some shifters with their true mates but had led many others to imprint. Up for pretty much anything, she’d decided to give it a try. She and Lucah had communicated daily—sharing their thoughts, pasts, and even some of their secrets. He was her version of the ideal guy. Confident. Protective. Smart. Great sense of humor.

It turned out that he was also a goddamn liar, which seriously negated the whole “ideal” thing and made her want to punch him right in the dick.

He’d repeatedly claimed that he longed to see her in person, but there had always been a reason why “it wasn’t a good time” for him. Not even once had they talked using video chat. He’d told her that he wanted them to be face-to-face when they spoke in person for the first time. At first, it had sounded sweet. But the longer he’d put off meeting, the more uneasy she’d become.

Before responding to his very first message, she’d done her homework on Lucah to be sure his profile wasn’t bullshit. It was true that he was an unmated lion shifter, he was an enforcer within his pride, and his pride was situated in California. Still, she’d been positive that he was hiding something.

She’d suspected that he’d been using fake photos on his dating profile. So after five months of only texts and phone calls, she’d dug deeper into Lucah’s background and managed to find some online photos of him—photos that were dramatically different from his PlusOne.com profile. It wasn’t the only thing she’d discovered. Apparently, his pride had warred with another a couple of years ago. Lucah had been badly hurt . . . and he’d been in a coma ever since. Oh yeah. A coma.

That meant the guy she’d been talking to was not Lucah Finch . . . so who the hell was he? Well, it sure wasn’t the guy in the photos on his profile. A reverse image search had revealed that they were pictures of a Swedish model.

So many questions circulated around her brain . . . Why would he do something like that? And why her? Was anything at all that he’d told her true?

Madisyn had debated whether to ferret out his identity so she could track the asshole down and tumble all over his shit. But she’d decided against it—there was no sense in wasting any more energy on someone so pathetic that he hid behind technology and didn’t even have the balls to face the people he fucked with.

So instead, she’d called him on his bullshit, ignored his “I lied about my name but gave you the real me and I love you” tripe, and hung up the phone. She’d then blocked his number, deleted her PlusOne.com account, and put a hex on the bastard in her head. That had been a month ago. Two weeks later the touch-hunger struck. She’d come to Enigma several times since then hoping to work it off, but her cat was so pissed by the betrayal, she just wanted to sharpen her claws on every guy she met.

Madisyn was equally pissed. It was utterly humiliating to know she’d been nothing more than a bit of entertainment to him. He’d no doubt spent his nights laughing at what an idiot she was. Well, if she ever got ahold of him, he’d spend his nights crying because she’d pounded him in the face with an iron bar.

The door to the restroom creaked open, and heels clicked on the tiled floor. “She’s in here. I can smell her.”

Madisyn’s head snapped up.

“Yo, kitty, kitty! We’d like to talk to you.”

Oh, what the fuck now? She didn’t recognize the voice, but it could be a friend of the hyena who’d stormed over and yelled at the guy Madisyn was dancing with. Quickly realizing they were bed-buddies and having no interest in fighting for him, Madisyn had simply walked away. Maybe that hadn’t been enough for the female.

“Hiding, are you, kitty cat?” the female snickered. “Come on out and play with us.”

God, she so didn’t have the patience for this shit. Not while touch-hunger was riding her so hard. Madisyn left the stall . . . only to find three heavily tattooed females in skimpy leather dresses glaring daggers at her. They also made a point of blocking the exit, and one of them locked the door.

Madisyn snorted. And this was supposed to . . . what? Scare her? She took in their scents. Not hyenas. Bears. Huh. “What can I do for you?” she asked flatly, crossing to the sink to wash her hands.

The skinny redhead smiled. “Oh, I like that you asked that. Because there’s a very big something you can do for us. And you are going to do it.”

Madisyn slowly raised an imperious brow. “Is that a fact?”

“You know, I’ve never liked cats,” said the exit-blocker, flicking her bleached-blonde hair over her shoulder.

Well, Madisyn had never liked neurotic bitches, and the blonde sure had the look of one. Deep inside her, her cat unsheathed her claws and gurgled a dark sound.

The redhead held a hand up to the blonde. “No trash talk, Leanna. It’s beneath us.”

Sighing, Madisyn dried her hands with rough paper towels. “Girls, I’m really not in the mood for whatever this is.”

The sows laughed. The third female glanced at the redhead and said, “Kind of cute, isn’t she, Charity?”

“She is.” Charity lifted her chin, eyes narrowing at Madisyn. “Daisy Wilkins.”

Madisyn forced herself not to tense. “What about her?”

The redhead blinked, as if shocked that Madisyn hadn’t played dumb and pretended not to know the sow in question. “She stayed in the shelter you work at.”

“She did.”

“But she’s gone.”

“She has.”

“Where?”

Facing the mirror, Madisyn very briefly met the redhead’s eyes in the reflection as she asked, “Who wants to know?”

“We’re from the Maverick Clan,” Charity said haughtily, as if they were royalty or something. “She’s one of us.”

“Really?” Madisyn pursed her lips. “That’s weird. She told me she was from the Gunther Clan.” Daisy had also told her a great deal about the Maverick black bears. Posing as a motorcycle club, the Philadelphia clan was involved in many criminal activities, including the production and distribution of illegal drugs.

The Mavericks also reigned above the other North American bear clans. Every time a new Alpha was appointed, they took a young female from each of the other clans to remind everyone who was in charge. When the Maverick Alpha came to Daisy’s territory, intending to take her, she’d fled.

“We tracked Daisy as far as the shelter,” said Charity. “And when I had a nice conversation with a guy in the nearby deli, spinning a tale about how I was on the run but wasn’t sure if the people in charge of the shelter could be trusted, he assured me you were the real deal. Said I shouldn’t worry about my abusive ex, because a girl there named Madisyn would find me a place to hide.”

Damn Charles. He was a sucker for a sob story. Originally, it was Makenna who dealt with finding placements for residents, but Madisyn had taken over the job now that the she-wolf had a pup, and a demanding mate needing much of her attention.

“We arrived at your house just as you were leaving. We followed you, thinking you just might lead us to Daisy, but instead you came here.” Charity’s eyes narrowed. “You put her somewhere, thinking you could hide her from us. You can’t, kitty. My Alpha wants her, and he always gets what he wants. So why don’t we skip the warnings and threats, and you just tell me where I can find her.”

Madisyn turned to fully face the sows. “And just why would I go through the trouble of finding her a safe place only to give her up?”

“Because I’ll carve up your face if you don’t. And then I’ll have to tell my Alpha that you weren’t cooperative. And believe me when I say you really don’t want to deal with him. He’ll rip you apart for keeping what’s his from him.” Her claws sliced out as she stalked forward, and a whiff of her hair spray briefly overrode the restroom scents of bleach and soap. “Last chance, kitty. Where. Is. Daisy?”

Having no intention of telling them shit, Madisyn just stared at them. She wasn’t worried about them shifting into their bear forms to deal with her. Maybe it was because they were so big, but bears were slow at shifting. During the period when a person transitioned from one form to another, they were extremely vulnerable. As such, the sows were unlikely to shift during an up-close encounter.

The door rattled as someone tried opening it, but they quickly gave up when the third female growled at them to hightail it out of there.

Charity smirked at Madisyn. “No one’s going to rescue you. Even if someone managed to pick the lock, Cady wouldn’t let them in. You know, I’m gonna enjoy this. Carving up kitties always lifts my mood. I hope you’re a screamer.”

“Funny. My ex said the same thing. He was disappointed too.”

Leanna cocked her head. “You’re calm for someone who’s about to get the shit kicked out of her. What are you?”

Madisyn got that question a lot. Her breed was extremely rare and didn’t have a great rep among shifters. She’d often heard her kind described as “cute, furry bundles of terror.” Harsh but true. Her kind might not be much bigger than a domestic house cat, but they were vicious. Which was why she truthfully replied, “Something your momma probably warned you not to fuck with.”

“Oh yeah?” Charity snickered. “I doubt you’re a match for three pissed-off sows.”

Madisyn pouted. “Can’t you make it four?”

Cady chuckled. “Such arrogance. You don’t think we can take you?”

Madisyn looked her up and down. “Well, you look in shape. ‘Round’ is a shape, isn’t it?”

Cady growled. “Oh yeah, we’re definitely gonna slice you up real good.”

“You can try,” said Madisyn. “But I wouldn’t recommend it.”

Wriggling her claws, Charity raised her brow. “Oh? Why?”

“Because I could kick your bony ass in my sleep.” Wicked fast, Madisyn struck. She punched the bitch in the throat hard. Shock made the sow’s eyes widen, and she sucked in a choked breath as she cupped her throat. Madisyn slashed her chest with her razor-sharp claws, tearing through cloth and flesh and—just to be a bitch—a nipple. The tangy scent of blood filled the air, and her cat bared her teeth in satisfaction.

Charity’s eyes narrowed with rage and resolve. She took a swipe at Madisyn—she was fast. Madisyn was faster. She jerked back so the sow’s claws only grazed her cheek.

Adrenaline pumping, Madisyn punched her in the tit and then snapped out her leg, ramming her foot into Charity’s knee. The bear staggered backward into a stall and slipped, banging her head on the toilet as her legs gave out.

With a growl, Cady threw her purse at Madisyn and then lunged. Madisyn batted the purse away and slammed her fist into the sow’s jaw. The bitch teetered on ridiculously high heels, while Madisyn fisted her hair and smashed her head down against the counter once, twice, three times. The sow went limp, and Madisyn roughly slung her aside just as Leanna snatched the tampon machine from the wall and hauled it at Madisyn.

She quickly moved aside, cursing as she banged her arm on the hand dryer. Pain sliced through her. Motherfucker.

The machine crashed to the floor and burst open, scattering tampons everywhere, causing the sow to skid on them and land awkwardly on her ass. Grabbing the broken machine, Madisyn rammed it into Leanna’s head again and again and again. The sow blinked rapidly, dazed, blood dripping down her temple. Satisfied, Madisyn dumped the machine on the floor and nodded. “I think we’re done here.”

Just then, Charity came stumbling out of the stall. She spat blood in Madisyn’s face, the bitch. And she was gonna pay for it.

Madisyn shifted, giving her cat freedom. In a blur, the hissing animal leaped out of the puddle of clothes and wrapped herself around the sow’s head, biting her face hard, sinking long razor-sharp fangs through skin and muscle. Loving the bitch’s cries of pain, the feline mercilessly clawed at her, tearing at her eyelids, nose, cheeks, and lips.

The sow grabbed her, but the little feline wriggled out of her hold, climbed onto the back of her head, and bit into the base of her skull. Screeching, the sow made another grab for her. The cat dropped to the ground behind the sow and withdrew as her human half swiftly lunged for the surface.

Just as Charity pivoted to face her, Madisyn stabbed her claws deep into the sow’s gut, making her heave and double over in agony. She didn’t withdraw her claws. No, she curved them a little and thrust them higher. “One wrong move and I’ll fucking disembowel you—no lie.”

Charity grabbed Madisyn’s wrist, but she didn’t retaliate. She couldn’t move without doing major damage to her insides. Eyes fairly glowing with pain, she spat, “Bitch.

“I know. But my kind aren’t known for their mercy.”

Fear glimmered in the sow’s eyes. “They’re right in what they say—pallas cats are crazy motherfuckers.”

“Only when shitheads have the nerve to pollute our presence.” Madisyn sighed sadly. “You should have let me pass. You didn’t. The pain knifing through you is really your own fault. Now, are we done here?”

Charity nodded vigorously.

“Good.” Madisyn withdrew her hand and sheathed her claws, watching as the sow slowly backed against the wall and slid down. As Madisyn quickly pulled on her top and her skirt, Leanna crawled over to Cady, who was still out cold, but she didn’t meet Madisyn’s eyes or try to stand.

Having retrieved her purse from the counter, Madisyn said, “Now, you’re all going to scoop yourselves off the floor, clean up the mess, and walk on out without causing a fuss. Then no one gets barred from the club, and your pride will remain intact. This unnecessary scene will be our little secret.”

After making a beeline for the door, Madisyn turned the lock, pulled it open, and found herself facing one of the security guards. Son of a bitch.

His eyes slid past her and widened. “What the fuck happened here?”

Madisyn licked her front teeth. “They tripped.”

Bracing his elbows on the bar, Bracken Slater took a long swig from his bottle, letting the cold liquid slide down his throat. The Velvet Lounge was always busy on weekends but less so on Sunday nights, which was why he preferred it then. The club had originally been known as the Black Velvet Lounge, but the pack had shortened the name on buying it. The music and atmosphere were as good as the beer. He might have been able to wind down . . . if it weren’t for the accusatory stare being directed his way.

He cast a sideways glance at the enforcer at his side. “You don’t have to babysit me, Jesse. I’m not going to get shitfaced and pick a fight.”

“I’m not moving from this stool until you assure me that my gut is wrong, and you’re not thinking of leaving the pack. You are, aren’t you?”

Bracken sighed. “No. I might go roaming for a while at some point, but I’m not officially leaving the pack.”

“Like roaming is nothing?” Jesse snorted. “Fuck that, Bracken. You’ve been pulling away from everyone. We all gave you space because that was what you needed. We thought you’d make your way back to us, but you haven’t. Leaving the pack for a while wouldn’t be the answer to anything. It would just be you punishing yourself.”

Bracken threw him an exasperated look. “I’m not looking to punish myself.”

“Being surrounded by your pack is the best thing for you right now. Walking away from us would be counterproductive and, as such, a kind of self-inflicted punishment.” The barstool scraped against the wooden floor as Jesse moved closer. “Any guilt you feel is senseless, Brack. It’s a normal part of the grieving process, but it’s senseless. What happened that day is not on you.”

Bracken guzzled down more of his beer. A person wouldn’t think that a family trip to a drive-in movie theater would end in death. They wouldn’t expect to hear the spatter of bullets or the roar of explosions. Wouldn’t expect to watch the people around them drop to the ground, crying out in pain.

He could still hear his family’s screams. Sometimes, he could even swear he smelled their blood. Mostly, he could still feel that moment when a bullet slammed into his back and out of his chest, and the baby cradled against him stopped crying. And Bracken had known the little boy was dead. Known that the sudden warmth on his chest wasn’t just his own blood. Known that when he looked down, he’d see fragments of brain and skull. And he had.

Afterward, he’d watched his mother and sister—the only members of his family who escaped the theater alive—fade away right in front of him. Neither had fought to survive the breaking of their mating bonds, and he couldn’t blame them for that.

Now, they were all gone. His parents, siblings, his sister’s mate, and his nephew were all dead, but Bracken was alive. And fuck if that made any sense to him. Hayden was only three months old. He’d barely lived. What was the point in someone being born if they didn’t even get the chance to live?

Bracken’s sister, Ashley, had trusted him to get her son to safety . . . but he hadn’t. He’d failed Hayden. Failed her. Failed himself.

At first, he’d found it hard to return to day-to-day life—even more, he’d felt that he had no right to. He couldn’t relax. Couldn’t eat. Couldn’t sleep. Hell, he hadn’t even been able to play Call of Duty because the sound of bullets firing took him back to that day. Just the same, he hadn’t been able to smell popcorn without finding himself once more in the middle of a field while the world went to hell around him.

So he’d played COD every day until the flashbacks stopped, and he’d eaten popcorn every day until the smell no longer bothered him. Other times, he’d simply sat there, reliving the attack over and over. Trying to make sense of it. Torturing himself with it. He was an enforcer; protecting people was what he did, but he’d failed to protect his own family.

Bracken had done his best to isolate himself from the rest of the pack. He’d drank. And drank. And drank. Jesse and another pack mate, Zander, had run an intervention. The three of them were as close as brothers, but the two wolves just hadn’t been able to reach Bracken . . . mostly because he hadn’t wanted to be reached.

It was Cain Holt, the foster brother of his Beta female and a player within the Movement—a group of shifters that retaliated against anti-shifter extremists—who’d gotten through to Bracken. He’d said that the Movement was planning to take care of the bastards responsible for the attack, but that Cain would give him their names and leave the matter to him, provided that Bracken agreed to get his head straight.

Cain came back three weeks later. Bracken had his head straight.

Singularly focused on revenge, Bracken had set off alone to track the extremists. And he’d discovered some things about himself. One, he was very, very good at hunting. Two, he could be very creative when it came to torture. Three, he could kill in cold blood and not lose a minute’s sleep over it.

He’d shown no mercy. Had been unmoved by pleas and apologies. Not only had he killed the fuckers, he’d destroyed the compound that housed their entire faction. He’d set it ablaze and watched it burn, listened to cries of pain . . . and felt nothing—not even grim satisfaction.

Other factions of anti-shifter extremists believed that Bracken was the culprit, since he had the perfect motive, but there was no physical evidence linking him to the crimes. Still, he remained a suspect in the eyes of the human authorities.

While he hadn’t expected the extremists’ deaths to bring him some element of peace, he’d still hoped they would. They hadn’t. The nagging sense of restlessness to go hunting had been what had kept Bracken going. Now it was gone. Without the drive to avenge his family, he felt adrift and without purpose. He went through the motions. He ate. Breathed. Slept. But he didn’t live.

His wolf was similarly taunted by restlessness. Finding peace by exploring their territory and being surrounded by their pack mates simply eluded them both.

The position of enforcer used to give Bracken purpose, but he couldn’t feel that same pride in it anymore. He’d tried giving up the position—and, yeah, that was partly because he didn’t feel like he deserved the responsibility of keeping others safe. His Alpha, Nick, had bluntly told him to shove his resignation up his ass, had said to give himself time to “heal.”

What Nick didn’t realize was that Bracken couldn’t heal. Although he didn’t have as many flashbacks now, and he was no longer running on grief and rage, the emotions were still there. They just simmered beneath the surface, always ready to take him down.

He wouldn’t ever be the person he’d been before—not even close. He was harder. Disconnected. Hypervigilant. Couldn’t laugh or relax. And the darker side of his character—the unpredictable and quick-tempered side that skated the edge of rational—often took over.

“What about Shiloh?” Jesse asked, referring to his mate’s cousin.

Bracken’s brow creased. “What about her?”

“Well, you were pursuing her pretty hard before the attack. From what she told Harley, you haven’t contacted her since then. Does that mean you’re not going to pick things up where they left off?”

“There’s nothing to pick up. I was never serious about her.” Plus, she felt like part of a past life. Part of a world he no longer fit in. Part of a path he could no longer take.

“Did you know that Claudia Brookson warned her off?”

Bracken’s head whipped around. “What?”

“She very politely suggested that Shiloh should reject any advances you make. Shiloh just stared at her with a vacant expression, but her twin tried to lunge at Claudia. It seems the she-wolf isn’t giving up on trying to lure you into her pack. She’s been watching you since she got here.”

Bracken had noticed. He’d kept his back to her, not wanting to encourage her. The youngest daughter of a powerful, rich, respected—not to mention, criminal—Alpha wolf, Claudia was quite the pampered princess, but she wasn’t a spoiled, selfish brat. In fact, she sponsored the Movement and did a lot of PR work for shifters. Beautiful and charismatic, she’d effectively become the country’s favorite shifter.

She was often in magazines and featured on daytime TV shows, talking about fashion and other topics that applied to both humans and shifters. She was great at presenting the positive side of their kind and coming across as so relatable that it was easy for people to forget that she wasn’t human. In short, she made shifters seem like people.

She also did an excellent job of discrediting the extremists, which was why she was a big target for them and had a security team comprised of strong, dominant wolves. Two months ago, she’d come to the club, offering Bracken the position of her personal bodyguard. He respected her for sponsoring the Movement, but he had no interest in leaving his pack or becoming anyone’s bodyguard, so he had politely turned down her offer.

Many males would think him crazy to do so, considering she’d also made it clear that sex would be on the table. Even when she’d offered him a larger amount of money, he’d again turned her down. But she wasn’t giving up, apparently.

“I get the feeling she’s not accustomed to being denied anything,” said Jesse.

Probably not, thought Bracken, but he really wasn’t interested. “Are we done now?” He just wanted to have a drink in peace.

“Not unless you’re going to promise me that you won’t go drifting.”

“It’s not such a big deal.”

“It damn well is, especially because I’m not sure you’ll come back.”

Bracken flexed his grip on his bottle. “You mean you’re worried I’ll do something stupid to end my own life.”

“You think I don’t know how much you hated Ally those first few months after the attack?”

He had hated her. If the Seer hadn’t had a vision that he would die, she wouldn’t have turned up at the movie theater and healed him. He would have died with his family, just as he’d then wished he’d done. “I don’t hate her.”

“Not now, no, but you still feel guilty for living. You won’t end your own life, but you’d find death a relief. You can’t blame us all for not wanting you to disappear again. If it was me or Zander, you’d want us home. You’d want us to let you be there for us. That’s all I want, Brack. It’s what we all want.”

Bracken guzzled down the rest of his beer and thumped his empty bottle on the bar. “Go to your mate, Jesse. She’s probably waiting for you in the VIP section, and she’s not a patient person.”

“Harley strongly encouraged me to come talk to you.”

“And we did talk. I’m done now.”

Jesse shook his head. “You’re a pain in my ass, Brack.” But it was said with affection. “Look, we need to—” His phone rang, and he fished it out of his pocket. “It’s Nick.” Jesse swiped his thumb over the screen and answered, “Hey . . . What? Ah, shit . . . I got it.”

Bracken frowned. “What’s wrong?”

Jesse pocketed his phone. “It’s Madisyn.”

His wolf’s ears perked up. “Madisyn?”

“She got caught up in an altercation at Enigma.”

Slicing out his claws, his wolf growled. “What kind of altercation?”

Jesse hopped off the stool. “The guy who owns the place recognized her as one of our barmaids and called Nick, who now wants me to go pick her up.”

Bracken pushed his bottle aside and stood. “I’ll get her.”

Jesse hesitated. “It’s fine. I can—”

“I said I’ll get her.”

“You’ve been drinking.”

“I’ve had one beer, and you know it.” His pack mates had been watching him like a hawk since Bracken walked in the club, and it fucking galled him. “After I’ve taken Madisyn home, I’ll call you and fill you in on what happened.”

Bracken headed straight for the exit, cursing her with every breath he took. Did he want to go and pick her up? No, because he did not need the drama. But his wolf would hound him all night if he didn’t see for himself that she was fine. Bracken didn’t doubt she was. If she’d gotten into a fight, the owner of the club would have said so. It was likely that the altercation had been between two males fighting over her or one of her group—that kind of thing happened a lot in shifter nightclubs.

Outside, Bracken crossed to his SUV and slid inside. In a matter of moments, he was driving out of the parking lot. And he was still cursing her in his head.

Madisyn Drake was a typical feline. Graceful. Solitary. Independent. Marched to the beat of her own drum. And his wolf had grown to be very protective of her.

She wasn’t Bracken’s type, but he had to admit she was striking. Her heavy-lidded, murky-blue eyes made him think of a brewing storm. Her symmetrical face was faintly heart-shaped, with high cheekbones many females would envy. Then there was her full, bow-shaped, bitable mouth that he’d found his eyes drifting to more than once. Any red-blooded male would think of exploring her exceptionally sinful curves or fisting the sleek dark hair that fell in choppy waves around her face and down to her collarbone. The edgy, jagged style gave her a sexy bedhead look.

Moreover, there was something else about her . . . something he couldn’t quite put into words . . . that snared his attention. She never failed to grasp his wolf’s attention either. The beast loved her strong predatory streak and how she often canvassed her surroundings with sharp eyes that missed nothing, much like an Alpha would.

She and Bracken had clashed a little in the beginning, since they were both similar in many ways. Both were slow to trust. Both liked dicking with people. And both backed down for no one.

It had been hard for him to warm up to her for a whole other reason. He and his wolf had always been in perfect sync. They had the same likes and dislikes and always worked as a unit. Madisyn was the only thing he and his wolf had ever been at odds about. His wolf wanted her. Bracken didn’t. And his wolf refused to drop it. That she could make him feel in conflict with his own wolf . . . Initially, Bracken had been unable to help resenting her for it.

But he found it impossible to dislike her, even though she made no effort to be likable. Hell, she even refused to tell people what breed of cat she was just to mess with them. Bracken wouldn’t go so far as to say they were friends, but she was easy to be around. In fact, he found it easier to be around her than he did his own pack mates these days. His pack fussed over him and handled him with kid gloves. Not Madisyn. She never treated him like he needed sympathy and care. Never asked if he was okay, pressured him to talk, or offered consolations he was tired of hearing.

His head was a goddamn mess, and he was far from stable, but Madisyn—as always—refused to take any of his shit. She dished it right back. It was refreshing to be around someone who didn’t treat or look at him like he was broken . . . which helped him forget that he was.

She probably encountered people at the shelter who’d lost their way, so maybe that was where she’d learned that he wouldn’t want to be babied. But Bracken couldn’t help but wonder if she too had suffered a loss. He found himself “wondering” about her far too often, just as he found himself watching her far too much.

He’d noticed that she hadn’t been herself lately. She’d been jittery. Snippy. More impatient than usual. Bracken had asked her what was wrong, but she’d blown him off. It was no surprise. He’d never in his life met a more private person than Madisyn.

Guys constantly hit on her at the Velvet Lounge, but she shot them down so fast their heads spun, which his wolf found endlessly amusing. Bracken had heard her talking to a guy on her cell a few times, and he suspected she was involved with someone. Usually, his wolf would respect that, but he didn’t see Madisyn as off-limits. To his wolf, the other male was insignificant, beneath his notice, and had absolutely no claim on her.

Finally pulling up outside Enigma, Bracken hopped out of the SUV. Ignoring the long line of people waiting to get into the club, he marched right up to the bouncers. Before he’d even opened his mouth, the burliest of the two spoke.

“You’re Bracken Slater.” There was respect in his voice.

Polar bear, Bracken sensed. After the extremist attacks, his picture had been plastered all over the media, so he was easily recognizable. “I am.”

“My boss said one of your pack would come. You here for the cat?”

Bracken nodded.

“She’s in the boss’s office. I’ll escort you up there.” Gesturing for Bracken to follow, he headed inside, crossed the crowded dance floor, and took them through a side door that led to an elevator. As the metal doors slid open and they stepped inside, the polar bear smiled and said, “She’s a pretty thing, ain’t she?”

Bracken’s wolf peeled back his upper lip. “She is.”

“And she sure knows how to handle herself.”

Both Bracken and his wolf stilled. “What the hell does that mean? Why would she have had to handle anything?”

The polar bear’s brow creased. “Mason didn’t tell your Alpha what happened?”

There was a ding, and the elevator doors slid open. Bracken didn’t wait for the bear. He stalked toward the door marked “Office.”

As he got closer, a scent drifted to him . . . peppermint candy, spring rain, and wild strawberries. If there was one thing he and his wolf had always agreed on about Madisyn, it was that she smelled fucking amazing. His wolf always lapped up her scent, loving the combination of sweet and wild. This time, he didn’t. Because there was something mixed in with it. Blood.

His wolf lunged.