Even without her glasses, Sarah knew that she was staring at a werewolf. Rather than being afraid, numbness settled over her body, freezing her in place. It was an odd reaction, yet she wasn’t entirely surprised. She had spent the past twenty-four hours in utter terror that she would be killed by a wild creature, and there was a strange comfort in seeing her worst fear standing before her.
The wolf watched her from the other side of the creek. Its posture was lax, but Sarah knew that it could clear the stream in an instant. She would probably be dead before she could scream—not that there was anyone around to hear her.
After regarding her for what was quite possibly the longest moment of her life, the wolf knelt down and began to drink from the stream. The rhythmic sound of its tongue lapping at the water further served to calm her. Each second that it drank was another second that it was seemingly uninterested in eating her.
As the initial shock began to wear off, Sarah’s nerve endings started to prickle with renewed awareness. She remembered the pounding headache, the blistering cold, and the gnawing hunger that had plagued her just moments ago, before she’d seen the werewolf.
Keeping her eyes on the wolf, she took a step back. The sound of snow crunching beneath her feet seemed to echo through the forest, louder than the rush of the stream and louder than the hammering of her heartbeat. The wolf didn’t look up.
She took another step backwards, wondering if it was just playing with her, letting her think she could escape. The instant she turned her back, it would probably maul her from behind.
Abruptly, the wolf thrust its head into the water. The movement was almost too quick to register, and it startled her enough to jump. When its head came back up, it was holding a thrashing fish between its jaws. With an easy shake of its head, the wolf flung the fish into the air. It landed in the snow in front of her, its tail flopping back and forth in agitation.
Sarah looked between the fish and the wolf, and then lowered herself to pick up the flailing creature. The fish was slippery and the large puncture wound in its side did little to dull its resolve. It thrashed wildly in her hands, and it took her several tries to pick it up. Once she had a secure grip on it, victory surged through her veins. She looked back over to the wolf, but it was already walking away, a dark brown blur sauntering off into the forest.
She should have been overjoyed. The wolf was leaving her in peace, and had even given her something to eat. But it dawned on her as she stood there, the fish squirming in her icy hands, that despite both of these facts, she was still royally screwed. Her car was still totaled, her glasses were still lost, and she was still stranded in the wilderness with no means of finding her way home.
The fish gave one final twitch before its life gave out. She frowned down at it, feeling a little guilty, even as she imagined it seared and topped with a lemon-butter sauce. The poor fish had just been swimming along, minding its own business, and then all of a sudden it had become the victim of a cruel fate.
Sarah knew that she would probably be next.
The wolf was just a small smudge on the horizon now. After a brief hesitation, Sarah dashed after it. Water from the stream made its way into her flats as she crossed, but her feet were already too cold to be bothered by it. She slowed as she neared the wolf, not wanting to alarm it.
“Um… Excuse me…” she called out. The wolf continued walking and didn’t look back. “Do you think you could point me in the direction of the nearest town?”
It was far too big to be anything but a werewolf. Despite that, Sarah still felt strange talking to a giant animal. She didn’t know a lot about werewolves, but then again, few humans really did. Like other shifters, they lived in remote areas, far away from human civilization. Every few years there would be rumors about them raiding rural towns, or killing nosey college kids, but other than that, their lives were shrouded in mystery.
“I was in a car accident, yesterday, I think,” she said, finally catching up to the wolf. She walked alongside of it, but kept a few feet of distance between them. “I’m on my way to Vermont, to see my mom.”
Sarah was pretty sure that it didn’t understand a word she was saying, but it made her feel better to talk. She hadn’t realized, until she’d started talking, how horribly lonely she had been. The pain, cold, and hunger had overshadowed her fundamental need for companionship.
“Thanks for the fish. I’m not sure how I’m going to eat it, but it beats eating snow. That’s all I’ve had since the accident.”
She didn’t know how long the wolf was going to let her follow it, but she planned on taking advantage of its apathy for as long as she could. Following the wolf was probably the craziest thing she’d ever done, but to be fair, Sarah wasn’t exactly known for being crazy. She was very cautious, but caution, as she’d recently found out, could be just as dangerous as recklessness in its own right.
The wolf probably could have ditched her at any time, but it didn’t. Despite her exhaustion and the stiffness in her legs, she was able to keep up with its steady pace. It was just after dawn, but the weak winter sunlight wasn’t strong enough to banish the cold from her bones.
The ground sloped as they began trudging up a hill. Her aching muscles protested, but she did her best to ignore them, focusing on placing one foot in front of the other. When they finally reached the top, she hunched over and placed her hands on her knees, breathing heavily. Once she’d caught her breath she looked up, but the wolf was gone. Her eyes followed its paw prints to where they disappeared behind a large rock.
Swallowing audibly, she walked forward and peeked around the rock. Behind it was a small entryway that led into what appeared to be a dark cave. Sarah stepped back, sighing in defeat.
Following the wolf through the forest was one thing. No matter how dire her situation, she didn’t see how it could be improved by following a werewolf into a cave. Her shoulders slumping, she turned to scope out the surrounding area and plan her next move.
Despite her high vantage point, the deciduous forest before her was nothing more than a blur of brown and white. She squinted, trying to bring the forest into focus. The brown blurs immediately in front of her sharpened into trees, but everything beyond that remained as unintelligible as ever.
Her thick, plastic-framed eyeglasses had always been the bane of her existence. A few days ago, and pretty much every day of her life before today, she had fervently wished that she would never have to wear them again. She didn’t know how she’d lost them in the accident. The impact had knocked her unconscious, and when she’d finally come to, she saw that a tree had impaled her windshield, narrowly missing her torso, and her glasses were nowhere to be found.
I’m going to die out here.
It was the first time she’d allowed herself to think what she’d known from the start. The only thing that disturbed her was how little emotion the thought stirred in her. Hunger and exhaustion had weakened her, and she knew that if she was going to have any chance of surviving, she’d have to find somewhere to take shelter and convalesce.
The sound of heavy footsteps drew her attention back to the cave. Sarah took a few steps forward, expecting to see the wolf again, but that was not what emerged from the darkness. She squinted as a tall, broad-shouldered man exited. He wore denim jeans and was in the process of fitting a white t-shirt over his head.
Frozen in place, only her eyes moved, traveling up his torso and past his thick neck to settle on his head. She struggled to make out the fine details of his face, but couldn’t see anything beyond his glinting eyes, eyes that appeared to be centered on her.
“I would not need to lure you into a cave to kill you.” A deep, masculine voice. A voice that commanded obedience. “Go in or go away, just make up your mind quickly. I need to cover our tracks.”
With that, he brushed past her, his booted feet crunching loudly in the snow.
Sarah didn’t hesitate. Refusing to give herself time to think and inevitably talk herself out of what she was about to do, she walked inside.
Without seasoning or sauces, the fish tasted as unpleasant as it smelled. Although she recognized on some level that it was disgusting, Sarah tore into its charred flesh, ripping its meat off indiscriminately.
The werewolf watched her from the other side of the room, too far away for her to gauge his expression. She tried to feign disinterest in him, but as the fire warmed her and the fish sated her hunger, she started to run out of other things to focus on.
He had been gone for only a few minutes, coming back with a few branches for kindling. She’d half expected him to rub sticks together to make a fire, but to her surprise he rummaged through a small, blue duffle bag, extracting a matchbook. Once the fire had been lit, he took the fish from her, speared it with a stick, and rested it over the flames. After that, he’d left again, not coming back until after she’d already begun eating.
When she was nearly finished, it occurred to Sarah that he hadn’t eaten, and she wondered if they were supposed to share the fish. Looking to the werewolf, she held up what was left of the fish.
“Are you hungry?”
“I do not eat fish,” he replied.
She resisted the urge to ask him what he did eat, telling herself she probably didn’t want to know the answer. She went back to picking at the fish, this time stealing covert glances at him from the corners of her eyes. He was large, bigger than any man she’d ever seen. He leaned against the stone wall of the cavern, staring off towards the entrance with his arms crossed over his chest.
When her stomach was full, Sarah put what remained of the fish aside and set to warming her hands over the crackling fire. She stole another glance at him while trying to think of something to say.
“Why are you staring at me like that?” he asked.
“Like what?” She couldn’t gauge his tone, and was still having trouble making out his facial expression.
“You were glaring at me. You still are.”
She held her hands defensively. “No, you have it all wrong. I’m squinting. I lost my glasses in the accident and my eyesight is really bad.” Nervously, she added, “I’m sorry, I’ve just never seen a…a werewolf before.”
He tilted his head, regarding her. After a brief pause, he pushed off of the wall. Clearing the room in three long strides, the werewolf crouched down in front of her. Sarah kept her eyes on him, her jaw slackening as he came into focus.
The firelight highlighted the sharp contours of his face. It was a powerfully masculine appearance. A strong jaw, heavy brow, and slanted cheekbones. His nose looked as if it had been broken in the past, yet somehow fit perfectly with the ruggedness of his façade. Everything about the shape of his face seemed designed to draw its hapless victim up to his eyes—striking eyes of burnished gold that seized her gaze, making her unable to look away.
“Well?” he asked, his voice reverberating from somewhere deep inside his chest. “Is it what you expected of a werewolf?”
“No.” Sarah breathed the word. Her heart was hammering again, but this time for an entirely different reason. She swallowed before saying, “I thought you’d be hairier.”
It must have been the right thing to say, because his lips curved into the barest of grins. The small change in his expression transformed his face, replacing the hardness with a masculine sensuality that had Sarah’s blood flowing towards all the wrong places.
He remained crouched as he spoke to her. “Where is your home, human?”
“I’m not from around here,” she said. Realizing that she hadn’t given him her name, she couldn’t really take offense at the title he’d given her. She held out a hand which, miraculously, didn’t tremble. “My name’s Sarah.”
He took her proffered hand, not to shake, but to examine it. Turning it over, the werewolf’s eyes scrutinized her palm. He brushed the calloused pad of his thumb over each of her soft fingers. His touch, light, yet rough, sent sparks of pleasure through her body.
Not looking up from her hand, he asked, “Why did your family allow you to go so far from home?”
In a throaty voice, she replied, “I don’t need my family’s permission to leave home. I’m a grown woman.”
His golden eyes flicked up to her, dark amusement lurking in their depths. “That is not something you should be telling a werewolf.” He said ‘werewolf’ wryly, and she could tell he didn’t use the term frequently. His eyes moved back down to her hand, which looked small and fragile within his own. “Especially when you are at his mercy.”
Her cheeks colored, but she didn’t miss a beat. “Should I be afraid?”
There was a long silence, and then he placed her hand back onto her lap. He stood, stretching his back. Sarah stared up at him, his face once again blurred into obscurity. She felt a curious sensation of loss, but quickly brushed it away.
“There is a road a few hours south of here,” he said. “I will take you there after I rest.”
“Is it the highway?” she asked hopefully.
“A dirt road,” he clarified. “But humans travel it on occasion. Someone will find you there.”
It wasn’t ideal, but at least it was something. The remote road she’d been driving on had been carved into the top of a steep cliff. Try though she had, there’d been no way to scale the icy wall.
“I can’t thank you enough…” Sarah trailed off, hoping he would give her his name. When he didn’t, something else occurred to her. “Do you have a name?”
He seemed human enough, at least in the way that he spoke. Still, he wasn’t human, and she didn’t know enough about werewolves to assume they followed traditional human conventions.
“Cain,” he replied. Both his dry tone and biblical name told her that it had been a rather ignorant question.
“Sorry,” she said quietly.
Cain picked up the remains of the fish and went outside. She hung her head in silence, hoping that she hadn’t offended him too much. When he came back, he was carrying a handful of snow, which he used to put out the fire.
“How come you’re doing that?” Sarah asked, disappointed. She could already feel the chamber growing cooler.
“The fire attracts bears,” was his offhanded reply.
Sarah’s eyes widened. “There are bears out here?”
She thought she could see him grinning. “It is called Bear Mountain for a reason.”
“Do you think that—what are you doing?”
Her train of thought was derailed as Cain began taking off his shirt right in front of her. With their close proximity, she could just make out the ridges of his muscular torso before she had the grace to avert her eyes.
“I am going to sleep.”
In her peripherals, she saw his shirt fall to the floor, and then heard the sound of his jeans unzipping.
Not sure how to respond, she asked, “Isn’t it a little early to be sleeping?”
“I sleep in the day,” he replied.
She heard his pants fall to the ground, and then a strange popping noise. Sarah hesitated, but her curiosity won out over propriety, and she tilted her head to the side to peek at him.
The man was gone, replaced with the large wolf she’d been following a short while before. He was every bit as intimidating as he had been when she’d stumbled across him at the stream. But rather than being scared, Sarah was amazed at how quick and quiet his transformation had been.
The wolf padded over to Sarah. He moved behind her and then slumped down, his massive body curving to frame hers. She looked to his face, but he just blinked at her before settling his head down on his legs and closing his eyes.
Sarah sat still for a long while, feeling awkward and unsure of herself. Eventually, the cold and her exhaustion won out. She slipped her hands into the sleeves of her parka and then tentatively lowered her head to rest against the side of his body. He was warm and his soft fur smelled like earth and pine needles. Within minutes, the gentle cadence of his breathing had lulled her into a deep and much-needed sleep.
Cain had never liked the smell of fish, and so he tried to focus on the smell of the trout, rather than on the human’s natural and wholly beguiling scent. It was impossible. She smelled like lavender, wet and freshly cut. It was a fragrant reprieve from the barren winter that blanketed the mountain.
His sleep had been heavily fragmented. He never slept well away from his territory, but it had been exceptionally difficult today, thanks to the human. It wasn’t just her alluring scent. Her presence had all of his instincts on high alert, poised to jump into action should any threats approach the cave.
There had been no option but to let her follow him. She was two days and three river crossings away from the nearest human settlement, and that was at his pace. Even if she had taken the direct path and somehow avoided the bears, he doubted she would have survived the cold.
No matter how many times he told himself it was the only choice, he could have just left her. Hell, he could have avoided her in the first place. But he hadn’t, and that was exactly why he needed to get rid of her—the sooner, the better. Nothing good could come from her staying with him, and he was determined to remind himself of this all the way back to the road, where he would leave her.
Tired of lying in restless repose, Cain tried to nudge the human off his side, gently prodding her with his muzzle. She let out a sleepy sound of protest, her fingers curling into his fur in defiance. He liked the sight of her gripping his fur.
He stood, letting her fall onto the floor. She woke with a disoriented cry, sitting up to roam her eyes around the chamber anxiously. When her gaze landed on Cain she looked alarmed for a brief moment, and then her posture drooped in relief. As she rubbed the sleep from her eyes, he shifted from his wolf.
Shifting into his human form had never been a pleasant experience for Cain. As an alpha, his wolf form was very large, and it was painful to compress into the inadequate body of a human male. As his bones and muscles popped into place, he recognized the familiar tightness of his human form. He rolled his shoulders and cracked his neck in an effort to ease the tension in his muscles.
As he was stretching his arms, Cain caught the female gaping up at him. When she noticed him staring at her, she quickly looked away, her face flushing with color. The telltale scent of her arousal reached his nose, and after lying beside her all day, it was harder to ignore this time. He wondered if she was exceptionally attracted to him, or if this was just her standard reaction to all males.
“Have you never seen a naked male?” he asked, reaching for his pants.
“Of course I have,” she replied hastily. “I’ve seen plenty of them.” Cain found that hard to believe. She continued babbling. “Where I come from, it’s not decent for strangers to see each other naked.”
Not particularly caring, he asked, “And where do you come from?”
“Never heard of it,” he replied. She was staring down at her lap now, her face tinged ruby-red. “My pants are on, now.”
She tried to look up at him nonchalantly, but her eyes went straight to his chest. The thinly veiled desire in her gaze amused the man in him, and excited the wolf.
The human was fairly plain. She had brown hair and slightly tanned skin. Her face was soft and feminine, pleasantly arrayed, but nothing that would usually hold his attention. It was her physical response to his human body and her lack of fear towards his wolf that had the beast inside of him pacing in frustration, yearning to have a taste of her.
“Do all wolves look like you?”
She was looking him in the eyes now—or at least trying to. Her gaze centered on the middle of his face, but he could tell that there was too much distance between them for her to discern his features. It was just another reminder of how vulnerable she was.
“And what do I look like?” he asked, picking up his shirt. She tapped her cheek in contemplation as he fitted the shirt over his torso.
Finally, she replied, “Muscular.” She smiled up at him, revealing dimples in the creases of her cheeks and perfectly straight teeth.
“I am an alpha. I am stronger than most wolves.”
He said the words with a dash of arrogance, and recognized that he was posturing, telling her in not so many words that he would be a strong mate that could provide for her.
“So you’re like a wolf leader, right?”
Leader. The word gave him pause, long enough to realize how ridiculous he was being. Cain was a leader with a great many responsibilities, none of which included standing around in a cave, posturing for a human female.
Cain picked up his bag and headed for the cavern’s opening. “Time to go.”
* * * * *
They traveled at a brisk pace, only the crunch of snow and the occasional hooting of owls breaking the silence. The sun was setting, bringing back the crisp air and foreboding darkness of the wood, but tonight Sarah wasn’t afraid. The scariest creature in the forest was walking beside her.
Cain was in his human body, though she wasn’t sure why. Oddly enough, she found him much less intimidating as a wolf than as a man. She had always loved animals, dogs especially. It would be way easier to have a giant wolf as a companion than an attractive man, though ‘attractive’ seemed like a weak word to describe Cain. He was magnificent.
Her mental image of werewolves had always been hulking brutes covered in fur with razor sharp teeth and glowing red eyes. Cain was none of those things, though he was a far cry from human. With his staggering height, powerful muscles, and chiseled features he looked like something that had stepped out of a fantasy, too perfect to be made of flesh and bone. But he was real, and he was walking beside her, at least for now. She felt safe with Cain.
And that was exactly why she needed to get away from him.
Sarah didn’t really consider herself a weak person, but throughout her life, she’d had three major vulnerabilities. When she was a girl, it had been cute boys. In her awkward teenage years, it had been hot guys. Then, as an adult, it had been good-looking men.
Fortunately for Sarah, her thick glasses, metal braces, and not-so-slim waistline had warded off the opposite sex for the most part, but they hadn’t stopped her from making plenty of bad decisions in her tireless pursuit of love. There was just something about big muscles and strong arms that stole all good sense from her, and apparently her proclivities towards these were not species-specific, because Cain hit all of her buttons in the worst way.
A cold wind whipped through the trees, stinging Sarah’s face. She pulled her parka hood over her head and stuffed her hands in her pockets. Looking over at Cain, she was surprised to see that he was unaffected.
“Aren’t you cold?” she asked. He was wearing jeans and a t-shirt, but had nothing to cover his arms and face.
“I am accustomed to the cold.”
“I would think it would be harder for you to get used to the cold, what with you having all that fur usually.” His grin told her she hadn’t offended him. “Or do you usually not…um, look like a wolf?”
He gave her a sideways glance. “I prefer my wolf form, but sometimes this is necessary, especially when I do not want to leave tracks.”
“Because of bears?”
He shook his head. “Because of humans.”
Sarah frowned, but nodded in understanding. There wasn’t a whole lot she knew about werewolves, but she wasn’t ignorant to the fact that they were regularly the target of both the federal military and countryside militias. The attacks rarely made national headlines, and in Tampa you were more likely to hear a news story about a man getting his arm bit off by a shark than a werewolf massacre. People in the cities just didn’t care about shifters.
“Do you run into a lot of humans in this area?”
“Only you,” he replied. “But there are soldiers currently stationed in a nearby territory. I cannot risk them tracking me back to my den.”
“Was that your den that we slept in?”
Amusement returned to his expression. “That was a hole in the ground compared to my den,” he told her, sounding proud. “This is not my territory. I am merely passing through.”
“Where did you go?” Sarah asked. Cain was easy to talk to, and the conversation helped to distract her from the fact that he would soon be gone, leaving her on her own again.
“Where were you going?” he countered, clearly not interested in being candid. She was disappointed, but couldn’t blame him. After all, she was a stranger, and a human.
“My birthday is next week. I thought I’d surprise my mom with a visit. She lives far away, and we haven’t seen each other for a while…” Sarah trailed off, stopping in her tracks as a familiar wall of rock and ice took shape in front of her. They were probably a few miles from where she’d crashed her car, but there was no mistaking the mountainside she’d careened off of. “Is that the road you were talking about?”
Cain nodded. “Come. I will climb up with you.”
Sarah trotted behind him, her gut twisting with apprehension. She’d tried to climb up the wall several times, but only made it a few feet before she slipped on the ice. It wasn’t that she was a bad climber, she just wasn’t exactly dressed for ice-rock climbing.
“I don’t think I can get up there,” she said uneasily. When he looked back, she lifted her foot, wiggling her speckled ballet flats for emphasis. “These don’t have much of a grip to them.”
Cain arched a brow. “What is the purpose of such shoes?”
Sarah didn’t think the alpha werewolf would find “cuteness” an acceptable reason for her fashion choices, so she simply shrugged. Sighing, Cain came over to crouch down in front of her.
She positioned herself behind him, placing tentative hands on his broad shoulders. Cain hooked his arms under her legs and stood, bringing her up with him. She held on tight, trying her best not act as giddy as she felt.