“I’m going mad. That’s the only way to describe what was going on in my head. I keep seeing the women whose lives I took. They’re pleading with me to give them back their souls. I want to, but I know I can’t. I see my mom’s face and hear her voice. She’s telling me to keep fighting. I want to tell her that it would be so much easier to just give in.” ~ Jewel
Jewel hissed as pain ripped through her stomach when she shifted on the floor. She’d lost count of the number of days she and Anna had been in captivity, enduring the torture that the vampire inflicted. The word carved into her stomach stared up at her, red and angry, with dried blood caked around it. She needed a shower in the worst possible way, and most likely a gallon of antibacterial soap.
She’d warned Anna to quit picking at her wound, otherwise the germs on her hand might give her an infection. It had made Anna laugh. She was pretty sure they were both going mad.
“We’re being held captive by a crazy fae, and you’re worried about infection?” Anna had asked.
Jewel had shrugged. “The alternative would be to admit that we will be dead soon anyway, so I might as well not care.”
Anna had conceded her point.
“How’s Gustavo?” she asked her friend who was lying on her side across from Jewel in the small cell.
“He’s trying to hide it from me, but I’m pretty sure he’s close to being rabid,” Anna answered truthfully, though it sounded like she hated to admit it.
“That’s about how Dalton sounded on the phone the last time we talked. I’ve been turning it off in between conversations, attempting to conserve the battery.” Jewel was dreading when the battery finally did die. She would lose the only connection she had with Dalton. His voice alone was keeping her from slipping into the darkness that was practically choking her. In her mind it whispered to her, crooned at her to do Volcan’s bidding. It was like a snake hissing in her ear, and she couldn’t get it to go away. Only when she spoke with Dalton did it subside.
“I don’t know how much more of this I can take,” Anna whispered. “I feel his evil inside of me.”
“I know what you mean,” Jewel said. “It calls like a lover, telling us the pain will be over if we just give in.”
“Yes,” Anna agreed. “But we can’t.”
Jewel shook her head. “No. We cannot. If we do, Anna…” She turned to her friend and looked her in the eyes. “If we do, we will lose those we love and they will lose us. We have to hold on, five minutes longer.”
“Okay,” Anna agreed. “Five minutes longer. And then five more after that.”
“Exactly,” Jewel whispered as she closed her eyes and fought the tears that wanted to fall. Just five minutes longer, she whispered in her mind.
* * *
Dalton stared at his phone and growled, but no matter how much he growled at it, the damn thing didn’t ring. It had been a week since he’d heard from her, and it was driving him crazy. He’d thought about asking Gustavo to ask Anna when he spoke to her through their bond, but he didn’t want to intrude on their time together. The bond was an intimate thing, especially in the beginning. If he didn’t hear from her in another day, then he would suck it up and ask. Until then, he’d keep growling at his phone and sparing with the other wolves. The three mated ones where always up for a fight and, though Dalton enjoyed releasing his pent-up energy through the exercises, it was almost as satisfying to watch them fight Thad. Over and over again, the djinn put them on their backs. But it seemed to be keeping their wolves in check. He’d heard about their fight on the first night the girls had been back. Lucian had threatened them, and they’d each been very careful to keep their distance from one another.
Dalton envied them that their mates were here, where they could see them and know they were safe, but he absolutely didn’t envy their situation. His wolf would have been chomping at the bit to touch their mate. Lucian would have had to tie him up to keep him from repeatedly attempting it. Then again, he’d already touched Jewel and knew how she felt against him. He knew how her lips tasted and how she smelled when he touched her. Maybe that was why it was easier for them. They hadn’t had those connections with their mates yet.
He shrugged off the thoughts because there was nothing he could do to help them. The large man looked back at his phone. He growled again.
“Stop growling at the damn phone and let’s go for a run,” Dillon said as he walked over to where Dalton sat on the edge of Peri’s porch. His Alpha had asked Elle to return him to his mate earlier that day. Dalton could smell the satisfaction coming off the wolf.
“Good visit?” he asked Dillon.
The Alpha grinned like an idiot. “Best. I miss her like crazy, but she’s holding down the fort and understands I need to be here.”
“You’re only here right now because of me,” Dalton pointed out. There was nothing happening at the moment. They didn’t have a clue how to find Volcan or the girls. The world became a large place when there were three people to be found with no clues as to where to start.
“You’re pack, Dalton, and your mate is in danger. Tanya wouldn’t want me at home with her. I would be a piss poor Alpha if I didn’t take care of my own.”
Dalton stood and stretched. He didn’t say anything. There was nothing that would convince Dillon to go home. And that did make him a good Alpha. He started to strip after glancing around to ensure there were no females about. “Let’s go then. I need to kill something.”
* * *
Thirteen days, one hour, and thirty-three minutes, Heather thought after asking Kara the time. That was how long it had been since they’d been back from the pixie realm. In that time period, she’d been stalked like a rabbit by the wolf who was dying to claim her. She could feel it in him. His all-consuming need to mark her and make her his.
Heather shivered. She could smell him. He was close. “I wonder will you be this brave once you can speak to me,” she said, knowing he was listening. They’d had quite a few of these one-sided conversations, and she was pretty sure she’d told him everything under the sun about herself. It was easy to talk when the other person only had one option—to listen.
“I gotta be honest, Kale. Right now, this feels way too much like home. Sitting talking to my Seeing Eye dog trainees. They don’t talk back either. And they’re furry. Though I’ll admit you smell much better.” She grinned as she felt something that she would have classified as an eye roll come through the bond. Gah, she couldn’t wait until he could talk to her. She imagined their verbal sparring would be fun—a form of foreplay. She was still nervous about the fact that she was blind and he probably had never considered that he’d have a blind mate. But, there was nothing she could do about it. He could take her or leave her. But if he left her, she would have to ask Peri to turn him into a turd. The high fae seemed eager to do it to one of the wolves, and he would be a prime candidate if he folded his hand on his own true mate.
She took a deep breath and let it out. Heather didn’t want to let herself go down that rabbit hole. There was no point in thinking about it until she could properly hold a conversation with him.
“Did I tell you about the dog that I trained who farted so much that we debated failing him from the course?” Heather asked.
Kale laid his large wolf head on his paws as he listened to his mate’s voice. He spent much of his time in his wolf form over the past two weeks. It seemed to ease him a bit, and he also was able to get closer to her while he was phased. He assumed this was because they’d made the decision to defy their Alpha while in their human forms. Because of that, perhaps the punishment wasn’t as severe for the wolf.
He laughed, as much as a wolf can laugh, as she told him story after story about her days as a trainer for Seeing Eye dogs. She amazed him. To be able to run her own business, live on her own, and train these amazing animals to help take care of others like herself. It was mind blowing. He hoped she could feel the awe he felt for her through the bond, but he wasn’t sure how much she was getting. He could decipher some of her emotions, but sometimes she’d get a look on her face that he couldn’t understand and knew he wasn’t picking up on whatever she was thinking in that moment.
Though he’d utterly loathed not being able to touch her, or talk back to her, he absolutely loved being in her presence and listening to her. He imagined that, in some twisted way, Lucian had given them each a gift, or perhaps it was more a gift for their mates. Kale wondered if Heather would have been so forthcoming about herself if he could respond. Would she have talked as much if he’d been able to fill part of the conversation? He didn’t know. What he did know was that, for whatever reason, Kale’s inability to speak to her had given Heather the courage to converse freely with him. And he’d soaked in every word.
“Okay, so I’ve been putting this topic off,” she said, drawing his full attention back from his own thoughts. “My past relationships.”
His ears perked up, and he couldn’t help but pull back his lips in a silent snarl as he thought about her with other males.
“I’m getting the distinct impression that you don’t care for this topic, Cabbage Patch.”
The snarl dropped as he huffed and rolled his eyes. She’d given him the stupid nickname because Stella and Kara had kept up the vegetable jokes for so long.
She laughed. “And you care even less for your nickname. Ah, don’t be like that. Getting a nickname in a relationship is a step in the right direction. Like the first time you hold hands or burp in front of each other.”
Kale rolled over onto his side and resigned himself to the fact that she probably wasn’t going to stop calling him Cabbage Patch. Not that he truly cared. She could call him anything she wanted, as long as she agreed to be his.
* * *
Nick inched closer to where Kara sat in the tall grass. The breeze was blowing through her hair, and the moon shown down on her lovely face. He, like the other mated wolves, had taken to being in his wolf form when he was around his mate. Kale had mentioned that they could possibly get closer to their mates that way, and he hadn’t had to tell Nick or Ciro twice before they were disrobing and phasing. Nick could also smell her better in his wolf form, though, at times, this just made him ache for her even more.
“I know you saw my markings,” she said, breaking the easy silence.
Nick closed his wolf eyes and pictured those markings in his mind’s eye. She hadn’t spoken about the whole incident, and he’d been dying to know what she was thinking. The only thing he was getting from the bond was confusion.
“I wish I understood why it made you so angry.”
Her voice was soft and unsure. He wanted to clarify everything for her but he couldn’t, not for another twenty-four hours.
Kara let out a sigh. “I grew up in the foster care system, and it made me tough. You have to be in order to survive some of the homes where you wind up. I’ve always considered myself independent and able to handle things. But…” She paused and pulled at a blade of grass. “But I feel so out of my depth here. I love the girls. I’ve never had friends like this. I’ve never had anyone that would have my back, ya know?” She glanced over at him but quickly looked away.
Nick wanted to growl. He wanted her eyes on him. He wanted her to see in his gaze just what he felt for her.
She gasped and pressed her hand over her heart. “You need to tone that down, Fonzie. It feels like my heart is going to beat out of my chest when you get extremely emotional.”
Did she seriously just make a reference to Happy Days? And how did she even know about that show at her age? He understood the comparison. Fonzie was a biker. So was Nick. It was better than being compared to Lassie or Rover, or—Great Luna forbid—Teen Wolf. Fonzie he could handle.
“I wonder why I can feel some of your emotions, and I have your mark, but we can’t speak to each other through the mental link that we’re supposed to have.”
Nick knew the reason was likely because gypsy healers historically never bonded with their true mates before they turned eighteen. So the fact that anything was happening between them while she was under eighteen was confusing to him as well.
Kara continued to rub the place over her heart and, as she did, it tugged the V in her shirt low enough that Nick caught a glimpse of his markings. His own heart sped up, and his wolf rumbled his approval.
In the next instant, Kara was sitting beside him with her hand on his back. She was touching him. The spell allowed her to initiate contact, and she was choosing to touch him. He closed his eyes, and he and his wolf basked in her attention and affection.
“This makes you happy,” she said, giving his fur a playful tug. “Me touching you. It makes you content. I actually feel your wolf calming. I have that effect on you?” She sounded skeptical.
Nick wanted to roar, “Yes.” He wanted her to be sure of his feelings for her. He wanted her to understand that she would never, ever be on her own again. Regardless of whether they could complete the Blood Rites now or a year from now, he would be beside her, right where he belonged.
“I’ll admit,” she said wryly, “I want what Elle and Sorin have. I want what Sally and Costin have. I want to be looked at that way. I want to be loved with the condition that it’s until death rips us apart. Unconditional love sounds good, but to me, it’s the conditions set out before two people are joined that make it beautiful. In sickness and in health, for richer or poorer. Those are conditions for the love a man and a woman promise each other in my world. For once I would like to see those conditions prevail and two people to actually back up the words they spoke at the altar.” She laughed, but there was no humor in it. “That was probably a lot more than you wanted to know about me. But there it is. I don’t trust easily, Nick. No one has ever given me a reason to trust until I met Peri and her group of crazy supernaturals. I never believed there were men out there like Costin and Lucian. Men who would die for the woman they love, but even more impressive, will live sacrificially for her. Dying is easy. Giving up your own wants and needs for another, that’s the hard stuff. Can you give me that?”
* * *
Ciro laid in his wolf form in front of the bedroom door of the three gypsy healers. Stella claimed she was taking a nap, though she was actually hiding from him. Each day she’d find some reason to slip away. She had to wash her hair, she had a headache, and, his personal favorite, she’d taken up meditation in her search for the meaning of life. It didn’t bother him. He simply followed and stayed as close to her as he could.
The Great Luna had made it very clear that Stella would need a patient mate, a mate with self-control and confidence. The confidence was necessary because she was going to, no doubt, shoot him down a hundred times. Some men, even a true mate, might get a bruised ego over it. Ciro had been living a very long time. He knew what it meant to find his true mate, how precious it was. He also knew that she needed him as much as he needed her. His ego did not play into the matter in any way. They were soul mates and incomplete without one another.
He heard her moving on the other side of the door and then heard her sigh.
“You’re still out there, aren’t you?” she asked, even though he couldn’t answer. She was able to feel how close he was through the bond.
He closed his eyes and let her voice soothe his hungry wolf. He was hungry for her attention, affection, anything. But his wolf was a patient hunter, and listening to her voice would suffice until she was ready to give him more.
“I know you’re not stupid,” she said. “I’ve been avoiding you, or at least attempting to. Your tenacity is impressive.”
Ciro smiled to himself, and he imagined it looked creepy on a wolf’s face.
“I’ve got a lot of baggage, Ciro. It’s heavy and suffocating, and no one should have to take it on just because they have a supernatural bond. And if my baggage wasn’t enough, I’ve got serious hang-ups about men. Doesn’t matter if they become a wolf or not. When it comes to the opposite sex, all I have are negative memories. That probably isn’t what you want to hear, but you need to know.”
Ciro listened as she told him that she didn’t want to or couldn’t be with him because of her past. His heart ached for her. He didn’t have to know the details to understand what she was saying. She’d had very, very few positive encounters with men. Quite possibly the only positive experiences she’d had were after meeting the wolves and fae.
But it pained him she wouldn’t let him help her bear her burdens. That’s what mates did. They took care of each other. She’d more than likely never seen a healthy relationship between a male and a female. She wouldn’t understand the dynamics between two flawed people who chose to love each other despite their flaws. It was something he would have to show her.
As they sat in companionable silence, Ciro considered the things he would need to do in order to claim his mate. He would need to show her through his actions he was not like the men she’d known over the course of her short life. He must teach her a different way to have a relationship than what she’d seen. He would have to move at her pace and pay close attention to her reactions. Ciro could feel Stella’s anxiety, her need to run because she was afraid. Ciro knew he wouldn’t get a second chance with her. He had to get it right the first time.
* * *
Elle frowned at the Alpha as she sat across from him in the living room of Peri’s home. It was late, or early, however you wanted to look at it. Sorin sat next to her, his hand rubbing up and down her back in a soothing gesture.
“Don’t you think you should have some sort of plan in place for when the spell dissipates?” she asked him.
Lucian shrugged. “You’re acting like this is something new, Elle. Our species has been claiming true mates for centuries. It’s in our blood. They’ve all survived it, and those three women up there”—he pointed toward the stairs—“will survive it as well.”
“But…” Elle began, but he cut her off.
“They won’t hurt their mates. You know this. Will they be a little overwhelming? Probably. But the Great Luna doesn’t make mistakes, and she put each of them with the male that was perfect for them. I think they can handle themselves without my interference.”
Elle understood what he was saying, but she still didn’t like it. She stood and headed for the stairs. “Give me a minute,” she told Sorin through their bond.
“I’ll be waiting for you,” he said, pushing the feelings of adoration he had for into her mind.
She should trust the mate bond to protect the girls, but she’d grown to care for them, and she hated that they were just being tossed into something so intense.
When she made it to the hall, she rolled her eyes. Three huge wolves were laying side by side, heads on their paws, staring up at the closed door where their mates slept.
“You do realize that this is bordering on pathetic, right?” she asked them.
They huffed at her but paid her no more mind than that.
Elle grabbed the doorknob of the room and nearly laughed as their three heads came up as if they were attached to the same puppet strings. She shook her head at them and then entered the room, closing the door behind her. She didn’t lock it. There would be no point. A little lock would not keep the big, bad wolves out if they wanted in.
She wasn’t surprised to find the three gypsy healers huddled in a circle on the floor furthest from the door. Stella had a pillow in her lap and was chewing on the inside of her lip. Heather was running her fingers across a book, and, Elle realized when she got closer, that it was written in braille. Kara was laying on her back with her feet pointing toward the door. She had earbuds in place and was bobbing her head up and down to a wild beat.
Elle walked over and sat on the nearest bed. When Kara opened her eyes, she removed her earbuds and sat up. “Hey, Elle.”
“Hey ladies,” Elle said, sounding more tired than she wanted to.
Heather’s head popped up. “You don’t sound like you’re here to give us a pep talk.”
Elle laughed quietly. “No pep talk. But I did want to see how you all were holding up.”
Stella shrugged. “It’s not like they’re going to club us over the head and drag us by our hair to their den, right?”
“No, I don’t believe they will do that. I do, however, want you all to be prepared for the intensity that is a Canis lupus male. They don’t really know how to do things slowly. I’m not saying they’re going to push you into anything you don’t want, by any means. I am saying that if you need space, you can’t hint at it and expect them to catch on.”
“So you’re saying we need to go billboard on their arses?” Heather asked.
“Billboard?” Elle asked.
“Arses?” Kara added.
Heather shrugged. “What can I say? Hearing him say it is rubbing off on me. And yes, billboard, meaning if we need some space we need to smack that up on a billboard with flashing lights.”
“Ahh,” Elle said with understanding. “Yes, you are going to have to be extremely intentional or else they won’t get it.”
“What was it like when you found out Sorin was your mate?” Kara asked.
Elle felt her cheeks heat as she remembered how she’d reacted. “Um, well. I didn’t really handle it very well.”
“Just go ahead and admit you ran like a scared rabbit,” Sorin said through their bond.
“Nobody asked you for your input, mate,” she retorted, though she knew he could feel her amusement.
“I sort of, um, ran.”
“What?” Stella laughed.
“Shut up,” Kara added.
Elle shook her head. “Nope, it’s true. I freaked out. My kind, we don’t necessarily mate for life. And aside from Adam, our males aren’t as possessive and protective as the males of the Canis lupus race. I’ve been around them for a very long time, and frankly, it scared the fairy dust out of me.”
Heather snorted. “Fairy dust, nice. Wait, you don’t really have fairy dust, do you?”
“No, Heather. There is no fairy dust.”
Heather gave a thumbs-up. “Just like to be clear on the supernatural facts.”
“But you guys worked things out,” Stella said, making it a statement and not a question.
“We did. Sorin was very patient with me and still is. He’s very protective, and, yes, possessive.”
“Okay, what does that mean?” Kara asked.
Elle sighed. “Honestly, I think it’s better if they explained it. Communication is huge in any relationship, but with these males, it’s imperative. Don’t let them dictate everything for you, but know if they try, it’s not because they don’t respect you. It’s because their first reaction in any situation is to keep you safe.”
The sun was beginning to rise, and the group grew quiet. After several minutes, Heather finally spoke.
“Does anyone else feel we should have some build-up music playing? Something that says, ‘Things are about to get real up in here.’”
Stella smacked herself on the forehead. “We have got to work on your ghetto, Helen. It’s just embarrassing.”
“You do realize that will only make me want to do it more, right?” Heather said with a grin.
Elle stood as she laughed. “I’m going to head out. If you three need anything, you let me know.” They nodded, and Elle moved to the door.
She turned the knob and pulled it open to find three, very large, very intense males staring at her. Gone were the wolves. and in their place were three men ready to claim their females.
Elle breathed out. “Oh dear.”