The doe treaded on damp earth, stopping to chew at a patch of decaying briars. Caim watched from behind the trees, amber eyes blazing. The doe did not hear the soft rustle of fabric as he began to unbutton his shirt, preparing for the shift that would allow him to release his pent-up anger and frustration into his prey’s flesh.
He could be quick. Tonight, he would not play with his food, would not let it run before recapturing it between his powerful jaws. There was no time for that. He would be quick, and he would be done before anyone noticed he was gone.
He let his shirt fall to the forest floor. He would ambush the wayward prey. He would sink his teeth deep until he felt the satisfying crunch of bone and tasted the delicious gush of blood as it flowed over his tongue and down his throat.
The sound of footsteps made him freeze as he was unfastening his pants. He recognized the smell of Asch. A low growl tore from his chest.
Picking up on the sound, the doe went rigid. Then, she was gone, bounding off into dark foliage. His wolf fought the urge to give chase.
“Put your clothes on,” Asch ordered. “The pack has taken care of the hunting for us tonight.”
Caim turned to face him. Folding muscled arms across his bare chest, he lifted one foot and brought it down on his shirt. He stamped it into the mud, glaring defiantly at the other alpha.
Asch mirrored his pose, though his own eyes held no contempt. It was for that reason that Caim was the first to yield. He looked away, giving a brief incline of his head.
“You can’t meet her half naked. She’ll think you’re some kind of savage.”
Caim scowled. “I am a wolf, and I have no interest in meeting her.”
This was only partially true. He was interested in meeting her, but it was purely a morbid fascination. He was very interested in meeting the human female who sought to tear apart his pack and enslave him with her body. He would make sure she understood that, despite the power her feminine cycle had over him, she would always be below her alpha.
Asch cleared the distance between them, coming to stand in front of Caim. He reached out and placed a hand on the back of Caim’s neck. The other alpha was the only male who had license to touch him in such a vulnerable place. He was asking for Caim’s trust.
“You want to talk about it yet?”
Caim considered this. He liked to think of himself as an uncomplicated wolf. He enjoyed hunting and eating and rutting and sleeping. His position as alpha allowed him to do all of these things gratuitously as no one, not even Asch, interfered with his tireless pursuit of pleasure.
Every now and then, though, the disdainful part of him that was human surfaced, and his mind was flooded with worthless emotions: regret, guilt, sadness, and dread. These were not things that a wolf should concern himself with, and they were certainly not suited for the mind of an alpha.
The very few times in his life when he had felt those disturbing emotions, Caim had turned to Asch. After a decade of training and sparring, the other alpha was quite nearly Caim’s equal in power and in skill, though he believed that Asch’s human upbringing held him back from his full potential. But it was Asch’s deep understanding of human emotion that made him an invaluable ally. The older male had a way of putting things into perspective for Caim, and because of the long-forged bonds of trust between them, there was nothing he could not confide in Asch.
Nothing—except for this.
Caim removed Asch’s hand from his shoulder. “I do not want to wear these clothes, Asch. I do not want to be in this form. I want to shift.”
Asch seemed to deflate. He gave Caim a weary look and nodded before turning to walk away.
“Do what you want, Caim.”
* * * * *
The rain had stopped falling over an hour ago, but Mila’s boots were still heavy with water, squishing with each step she took down the muddy path. The boots were a size too big and had belonged to Cora. Her cousin had given them to her after Mila had broken the heel on one of her plumberry Adela del Olmos. If someone had told her a year ago that she would intentionally ruin a pair of seven-hundred-dollar shoes, she would have laughed until her chai latte came out of her nose.
God, she could use a latte.
When Mila had met up with them on the Tye County border, Cora, Harrison, and the Ramsey brothers had gaped at her as she’d gotten out of her sports car. Her chestnut hair had been curled and glossed and her nails manicured. She was wearing her plumberry pumps and an embroidered cocktail dress that hugged her curves in all the right ways.
At the time, Mila had thought they were speechless because she looked so damn good. In retrospect, they probably thought she was a complete moron, and she couldn’t agree more.
After just three hours of driving, the rusted old pickup truck they’d set out in had broken down. Big surprise. What was supposed to be a half-day trip to the Lazarus pack’s territory had now turned into a two-day journey filled with freezing rain, tar-like mud, poisonous snakes, and no sleep.
The road had disappeared just before dawn, swallowed up by plant overgrowth and roots. Harrison, the wizened town sheriff, assured them that this meant they were almost there. Shotgun in hand, he trailed a few yards behind the women while the Ramsey men, Wayne and Billy, took the lead, whacking at impeding tree limbs with dull machetes. The first rays of sunlight creeping over the tree-lined horizon did little to quell the icy chill that had taken root in Mila’s body the night before.
Cora had been mercifully quiet for a few hours. Damp blonde hair clung to her pale face and there were dark circles under her eyes. At the sheriff’s pronouncement, some of the color returned to her cheeks. She looked over at Mila with reverence in her watery brown eyes.
“I just want you to know, Mila, that I always knew you were a real hero.” Her sweet, twangy voice grated on Mila’s already frayed nerves.
“Thanks, Cor,” she replied dismissively. Since the sun had come up, Mila had tried to distract herself from the cold by preening her fingernails. They were all chipped, and a stubborn layer of dirt lined her cuticles.
“You know,” Cora continued, “when you came to Tye County, everyone thought you were just some good-for-nothing city girl, all brains but no sense.”
Mila gaped up at her. “They did?”
Cora gave an airy wave of her hand. “Oh, yeah, they were all taking bets on how long you’d last out in the fringes.” Eyes narrowing, she said, “But I told them right from the start: my cousin is a Foster, and we Fosters have real gumption and nothin’—not even life in the big city—can take that kind of grit from your bones.”
The moon-faced teenager always looked adorable when she was angry, and Mila felt her initial irritation wane.
She wasn’t sure why she was surprised that the townspeople had initially thought she was a snob. Even after living with them for two months, she sometimes still treated them as if they were beneath her. It was very highhanded of her, considering the only thing that separated Mila from her cousin was the fact that her mother had tested into a New York university while Cora’s mom served drafts at The Fox Barn.
“But you know, Mila, no one’s callin’ you an uppity brat anymore. To all the folks in Tye County, you ain’t nothin’ but a big hero.”
Her words were a blade, twisting in Mila’s gut. She didn’t deserve Cora’s admiration or the people of Tye County’s. If they knew her real reasons for volunteering to join the Lazarus pack, they would probably think she was insane, at best.
Mila scratched the back of her head. “I’m not really a hero.”
“But you are,” Cora asserted. “Volunteering to be a slave to the lusts of a monster, to bear his demon spawns, Mila? That’s gumption.”
Uh oh, I’m losing her.
“It’s really not that big a deal.”
Cora gave her a frantic look.
“You must know about Misty Coffey,” she said, lowering her voice to a whisper. Mila leaned in. “The girl from Massie County. No one knows if she was asking for it or not, but one of them got to her just the same. They said the baby chewed its way out of her stomach and—”
Mila jerked her head back, scowling. She gave her cousin a light whack on the head.
“Haven’t you read Wolves of the Cordilleras yet? Marie du Luponte clearly writes that werewolves don’t shift until the first full moon after they’re born. Geez, you would think you people would know more about weres, considering you share a border with them.”
“Daddy says books like that are for…” She looked both ways to see if the men were listening. “Were-whores.”
Voice grave, Cora said, “You know, women who like the idea of, well, rollin’ in the hay with a wolf.”
Mila averted her eyes and let out a nervous laugh. She never would have considered herself to be a were-whore. In truth, she’d never even met a werewolf in the flesh. So, maybe it was naïve of her, but the idea of being the mate of an alpha werewolf had to be about the hottest thing she could possibly imagine. It was that thought—not bravery or gumption—that had led Mila to volunteer in the place of nineteen-year-old Twyla Wright, whose name had been called at the lottery.
In fringe counties, places on the edge of human society, most towns were plagued by frequent attacks by shifters. With limited financial and military support from the cities, local governments relied on striking deals with nearby shifter clans. The most efficient—but also the most controversial—means of securing a clan’s protection was to provide them with a mate.
According to Marie du Luponte, werewolf females were invariably infertile, which meant that in order to secure their line, alpha males had to take human females as mates. While most people on the fringes assumed that werewolf children were the byproduct of rape, those cases were actually in the minority. Most packs were sustained by a dominant alpha male and a willing human female. Werewolf mates weren’t slaves. They were cherished members of the pack.
Mila had read all of Marie du Luponte’s work. The French scholar had been doing fieldwork in Spain when she vanished without a trace. She resurfaced over two decades later after the alpha she’d loved and served passed away and her pack dissolved. She had channeled her grief into creating positive awareness for a culture that had long since been shrouded in mystery. To Mila, her memoirs were nothing short of awe-inspiring.
If wanting more than a mundane human life with a boring human man made her a were-whore, well then, so be it.
The sound of the sheriff cocking his gun jarred Mila back to reality. She stopped in her tracks, anxiety spiking. In the low, early morning light, she couldn’t see far into the woods without squinting.
“Don’t hear no birds,” Harrison drawled. The Ramsey brothers had stopped as well, searching the autumn wood for signs of life.
A wolf howled in the distance. The sound reverberated through her bones, her tired limbs becoming energized with a mix of excitement and trepidation.
They had come for her.
Mila had always been a bit of a dreamer. Her mother had noticed this trait early on and tried in vain to nip it in the bud.
“Don’t make the same mistake I did,” she would caution. “Focus on your education and being the best. Keep your head out of the clouds and don’t waste your life waiting for a knight on a white horse to come whisk you away. It’s not gonna happen, kid.”
To her credit, her mother had been partially right. The man who had come to whisk her away wasn’t on a white horse; he was on a giant wolf.
They were everywhere, surrounding her. Most were normal-sized wolves with blackish-yellow and grey colorings. They hung back in the forest while the core group advanced on the human party. Most of these wolves were larger than horses and Mila couldn’t fathom how they could possibly transition into human form.
One black wolf towered over the rest, and his amber eyes narrowed on Harrison. He flanked a limber beauty with fur like snow. Astride its back was the man who could only be her alpha.
Mila’s chest constricted at the sight of him, warmth unfurling in her belly. Sunlight framed his silhouette, highlighting wind-tousled copper hair and a strong physique. As he neared them, his piercing hazel eyes moved between the two women.
When they lingered on her, Mila released a breath, relief flooding her veins. A deep, ugly part of her had worried he would be disappointed when he found out it was her, and not the thin, willowy blonde, who was to be his mate.
As the wolves approached, the Ramsey brothers retreated to Cora’s side, their hands white-knuckled on the hilts of their machetes. The alpha ignored them, halting his wolf a few feet from the men and dismounting. He kept his gaze fixed on Mila and offered a slight incline of his head. When he spoke, his powerful voice resonated through the crisp forest air.
“I am Asch, alpha of the Lazarus pack.”
Ah-shh. It was more of a sound than a name, and she couldn’t wait to test it on her tongue.
He was tall and muscular, wearing a beige, loose-fitting cotton outfit that she knew made for easy shredding, should he need to shift abruptly. The thought of him changing into a wolf sent a shiver down her spine.
Harrison spoke before her.
“This here is Mila,” she heard him say from behind her. “She’ll come willing enough, so long as you hold up your end of the deal, wolf.”
Mila’s temper flared, both because the sheriff was speaking for her and because he was addressing the alpha so disrespectfully. She cleared her throat before addressing the alpha.
“Hello,” she said, giving a small wave of her hand. “I’m Mila.”
She felt a little silly with herself and wondered if she was allowed to address him so casually. He didn’t seem to mind, though. His gaze softened on her when he spoke again.
“I trust you have not been coerced into coming here, Mila?”
Warmth blossomed in her chest at his regard. She’d been expecting a hulking brute, which, while having a certain level of appeal, couldn’t compare to the charming creature standing in front of her.
“Yes, absolutely,” she blurted, a little too eagerly.
His lips quirked up at her enthusiasm. He raised his hand, giving his wolves a signal.
Addressing Harrison, he said, “You can have five of my strongest to accompany you back to your county. They’ll set up the agreed-upon borders and clear out any nearby threats.”
She had almost forgotten the reason she was here: the werewolf attacks and the lottery.
Two months ago, Johnstown, a hamlet on the outskirts of the neighboring Carter County, had allegedly been raided by werewolves. Farms were torched and livestock were slaughtered, and upward of forty people had been murdered, breaking the longstanding treaty with the nearby Blackthorn pack. There were really no unbiased details about who broke the treaty, and Mila wondered what the stupid townspeople could have done to arouse such ire among their former allies.
While Carter County tried to appeal to Blackthorn, the denizens of Tye County weren’t about to wait around for their towns to be next. They instituted a lottery whereby all willing women over the age of eighteen could put their names in.
The trouble with this was that most of the “women” were girls in their late teens, pressured into signing up by greedy families who were itching to get their hands on the five thousand dollar check that the mayor would pay out.
Yes, five thousand dollars—the cost of less than two months of rent for her Manhattan flat. That was the going rate for the daughters of Tye County, apparently.
Five of the larger wolves sauntered past the human party, heading down the long road that led back to the county.
Rather than groveling to Blackthorn, the mayor had reached out to the Lazarus pack in a bid for their protection. In exchange for Mila becoming their alpha’s mate, the pack would mark the boundaries of Tye County. The marks would serve as a warning to all nearby shifters that the county was under the protection of the Lazarus pack, and any hostilities would be met with swift retaliation.
“The folks of Tye are good, God-fearin’ people,” Harrison said. “Your wolves will do well to do their business and steer clear of them, ’specially our women.”
Mila rolled her eyes, turning to scowl at the sheriff. “Oh, come on. Can you be anymore ungrateful?”
Harrison met her gaze, his sunken eyes unflinching. “His kind needs to understand that there are boundaries—”
“I think a wolf knows a lot more about boundaries than you do,” she replied, folding her arms across her chest. His lips flattened disapprovingly, but he remained silent.
One of the Ramsey brothers muttered something under his breath. She could tell from Cora’s sharp gasp and flaming cheeks that it had been something crude. She didn’t waste energy on being mad. She was so done with them.
“It’s time to go, Mila.”
Asch echoed her sentiments aloud. She turned back to the alpha, hesitating at the sight of his hardened face. His eyes flickered over her, and he extended a hand, beckoning her forward.
Before she could move an inch, Cora barreled into her, plastering herself to Mila’s side. Taken aback, she awkwardly patted Cora’s shoulder as the younger girl sobbed into her chest.
“I’m gonna miss you so much,” she bawled. “Twyla Wright said she’s gonna name her first baby after you and I’m gonna do the same.”
Mila bit her lip to keep from grinning at the bizarre homage. Her body relaxed, and she wrapped her arms tightly around her cousin.
Voice low, she said, “Please, if you want to honor me, then forget about men and about babies. Focus on your education so you can test out of the fringes.”
The irony of her words was not lost on her, but she said them anyway. Cora was a sweet girl, and she deserved better than Tye County.
Her cousin pulled away, giving her a sullen nod. Releasing her, Mila stepped back and gave her one final smile before turning away. She cleared the distance between herself and Asch and slipped a hand into his much larger one.
“Here’s her stuff.” Wayne moved forward to pass off her small carrier bag. To her relief, he had the decency not to toss it at the alpha.
Asch accepted the bag, frowning. “Where’s the rest of it?” he asked, giving the bag a light shake for emphasis. He stood nearly a foot taller than her five-six, and she had to crane her neck back to look at him.
“Back in town,” she said quietly, a little intimidated by him up close.
“She tried to bring ’bout four suitcases,” Wayne explained. “Sheriff didn’t reckon she’d need all that.”
Asch passed her bag off to one of the wolves, a reddish-brown female whose head came up to Mila’s chest. She took the handle gently between her teeth and turned, heading back toward the thick woods. The other wolves followed suit with only the large black male and the alpha’s snow-white mount lingering.
“Make sure the rest of her things get to my wolves before they leave,” Asch ordered.
He let go of her hand, and without preamble, hoisted her up by the waist. The movement was so effortless that she felt like a sack of feathers and not a grown woman. The black wolf had lowered his body, allowing Asch to position her astride his back. Unsteady, she gripped his fur. It was rich and velvet soft.
“She ain’t gonna need none of that stuff,” Wayne muttered.
Asch cocked his head to the side, eyes narrowing.
“That wasn’t a request.”
The younger Ramsey brother floundered under the weight of the alpha’s ire. Not sparing the human another glance, Asch climbed onto the black wolf, settling behind her. His hard chest was pressed firmly against her back, and his muscled arms came around to embrace her.
Without waiting for a signal from his alpha, the wolf rose and started back toward the heart of the forest. He trotted in agile strides until he caught up with his pack. Once she was confident that Asch wouldn’t let her fall, Mila let go of the wolf’s fur and leaned into the alpha’s chest.
She didn’t look back, knowing the gnawing anxiety she was trying so well to hide would turn into full-blown fear.
This was the path she’d chosen.
Caim kept pace with the other wolves as they scaled the mountainside, his powerful limbs bearing the weight of the pair without difficulty. Asch didn’t bother contemplating what was on his friend’s mind. His own thoughts were consumed by the small, soft woman in his arms.
A woman whose scent was driving him insane.
Beneath the sweat of travel, he could smell her uniquely feminine, honeyed scent. When combined with the lingering fragrance of her floral shampoo and the faint whiff of detergent that clung to her dress, it produced a blend that transported Asch back to his days as a teenager.
Her scent reminded him of pretty girls in cropped shorts and too-tight shirts, leaning over the bed of his truck on hot summer evenings. It reminded him of a desire so visceral that no matter how many were-females he slaked his lusts on, he’d never felt truly satiated.
He pulled her closer against his body in a possessive grip. He wouldn’t have to hold back with her. He could have her in every way he wanted. He could pour himself deep inside of her and not have to feel shame or worry about the repercussions.
She would belong to him.
Mila squirmed fitfully against him, making his cock stiffen further. He had been at half-mast since he had first laid eyes on her curvaceous little body. When he mounted Caim and drew her against him, her soft flesh had molded to his chest. Only the smell of her fear had stopped him from becoming fully aroused.
The pack had fanned out around them. Only Brae trotted alongside the trio. She matched Caim’s brisk pace easily enough, but he could tell that she was tired. They all were.
Tensions had been running high for the past week with everyone preparing for the arrival of the pack’s first human mate and the drastic changes that were to follow. It also hadn’t helped that her arrival was a day late, and none of them had slept in the interim. He could tell she hadn’t slept either.
After only an hour of riding, exhaustion had won out over fear and she’d leaned her head against him, her eyes drooping prettily. He did his best to keep her warm as she dozed, though her stubborn limbs seemed incapable of retaining heat. He suspected that she hadn’t eaten in quite some time, and it pissed him off that her escorts had been so careless.
The wolves halted as they reached the bluff, taking in the sight of the mountain valley. Bordered by two steep mountains and fed by the Tye River, the forty square miles of lowland forest made up just a fraction of the pack’s vast territory. Their hunting grounds extended well beyond the small sanctum.
The land was currently in the final throes of autumn. Cold wind whistled through fields of yellowed grass. Only the pines and spruces held on to their greens, and even these seemed less verdant when paired alongside bare deciduous trees, which had long since cast their leaves into the river in preparation for the long winter to come.
Beyond the river was The Cairn, hidden within a rocky hill that protruded from the earth at the valley’s center. The Cairn was the biggest of the six dens that were strategically positioned within their hunting grounds. Large game was scarce in the region, but it was by far the most defensible of their homes, and therefore, the perfect place to shelter their new mate.
A particularly frigid wind assaulted the bluff, rousing Mila. Asch frowned, wishing he’d had the foresight to bring a pelt to wrap her in. She wore a sheer black slip that dipped low at her cleavage and barely covered her ass. He couldn’t believe the men she’d been travelling with hadn’t offered her their jackets.
She tipped her head back, gazing up at him through thick lashes. Even cold and pallid, she was lovely, and he couldn’t wait to get her back to the den and put some color in her cheeks.
“Almost there?” she asked groggily.
He squeezed her side in reassurance and pointed toward the hill in the distance.
“Welcome to Cairn Valley.”
He placed his lips on the top of her head, watching her face as she surveyed the landscape. Her expression was one of pure wonder.
“Whoa,” she breathed.
Caim let out a loud bark and the wolves sprinted forward, dexterously navigating their way down the steep cliff. Too large to safely take the shortcut, the black wolf set out down the winding trail carved into the mountainside.
“We’re still a good twenty minutes out, even at this pace,” Asch told her.
“How long was I asleep?”
Asch looked at the sky, gauging the position of the sun.
“Maybe three hours, off and on.”
“I’m still exhausted,” she said, shifting to stretch the muscles in her back. His eyes honed in on the graceful curve of her neck.
Unable to resist, he leaned down to nuzzle her neck, indulging in her sweet scent. She tensed but didn’t move away from him. Unexpectedly, she arched her neck to the side, affording him better access. His wolf pranced in his chest at the show of submission. He tightened his grip on her waist, grazing his sharp teeth over her delicate flesh. She let out a barely audible moan.
He pulled back, knowing it would be all too easy to forget himself with her and now was neither the time nor the place. She needed food and rest, needed to feel safe and protected, but most of all, she needed to choose him and not Caim.
* * * * *
The den was a spacious cavern with several smaller passageways that led deeper into the mountainside. Disjointed light filtered down from a jagged gap in the ceiling.
As they filed in, the wolves collapsed on various outcroppings and pallets, yawning and stretching their legs. At a glance, they seemed to be relaxing, but Mila could sense an undercurrent of agitation flowing between them.
Asch dismounted at the mouth of a tunnel, pulling her down in tandem. She was relieved that they were finally at his den, but a little disappointed at the loss of contact.
Mila had grown quite comfortable pressed against the alpha. She had been hiking through the wilderness for days, hungry, tired, and anxious. Maybe it was crazy, but she had never felt safer than when he’d wrapped his arms around her. For a little while, she’d been able to forget about all her worries and doubts, simply entrusting herself to his capable hands.
With her feet firmly on the ground, she reached out to run a hand over the black wolf’s sleek fur.
“Thanks, boy,” she said, giving his coat a little scratch. His head whipped around, and she swore his amber eyes were glaring at her. Face heating, she took a step back and murmured an apology.
Asch gave him a hard smack on the side. The wolf let out a grunt of irritation before stalking off, tail raised high.
“Don’t mind Caim,” he said. He placed a hand on her back to guide her forward, ushering her into the darkened tunnel.
Head hung, she said, “No, I shouldn’t have treated him like a dog. It’s just hard to imagine that he’s a man under all that fur.”
He gave an ironic laugh. “If you ever get to know him well, you’ll realize it’s quite the opposite.”
“Where are we headed?” she asked, folding her arms beneath her breasts. The passage was dark and her nerves were starting to get the better of her again.
“I’m taking you to your room. We will rest there today.”
Right, werewolves are nocturnal.
Their footsteps echoed in the darkness and anxiety made her legs wobbly. She tried to remind herself that this was what she’d wanted. Hell, she’d made it to the scaffolding before the sheriff could pluck the sobbing Twyla Wright from the crowd.
“No, wait, hey, over here! Pick me! I’m the one!”
She’d spent the next three weeks poring over her books on werewolves, fantasizing about the dominant alpha who would make her his mate.
Maybe it was just lack of food and adequate sleep making her feel much less fanciful, but the reality of it was: Asch was a complete stranger to her. While he’d seemed congenial thus far, she had no idea how he felt about her or what his expectations were. She knew that mating was kinda in the job description of being a mate, but wouldn’t he at least court her first—or did he plan to take her now?
She let out a squeak of surprise as strong hands encircled her waist. Without faltering in his stride, Asch lifted her into his arms and pulled her against his broad chest.
“I can smell your fear,” he told her. “Don’t be scared. You’re tired and you need to rest. We won’t be mating tonight.”
She swallowed hard, trying to remember if werewolves could see in the dark. She hoped not, because her face was probably crimson.
“I’m not really scared of that, per se,” she murmured against his chest. He smelled like rain and cedar. “I just sort of realized we’re strangers.”
“I hope that we’ll come to know each other very well,” he replied. She loved the way his chest vibrated with the rumbling timbre of his voice.
The passageway began to brighten, light spilling out from a hole in the wall. When they reached it, Mila realized it was a doorway, the top half of which was covered by stitched animal pelts. Asch used his free hand to draw them back, and they stepped into her room.
A large, frameless cot rested on the floor in the back of the room. It was piled high with pillows and knitted blankets of all different colors. Shelves had been meticulously etched into the limestone walls, their flat surfaces bare. A clean draft floated into the room from the single carved window that was opposite the door.
“Do you like it?” Asch asked, setting her down on the floor.
She kicked off her boots in the doorway and dashed over to the window. The room was situated surprisingly high, giving her a fantastic view of the valley.
Asch was behind her then, arms coming up around her waist. Her knees weakened again, but this time, it was not out of fear. Her belly quivered at his touch, and she resisted the urge to brush her rear against him.
It was just too soon.
“The wolves wanted to put you in a chamber deep inside the den, but somehow I didn’t think you would find that agreeable,” he said with laughter in his voice.
She grinned up at him. “Thanks.”
“If there is ever any danger, you may have to stay back there for a few days,” he explained. “But for the most part, Cairn Valley is very safe. No rival packs have ever encroached this far into our territory.”
Mila listened to him, nodding her acceptance. Everything was still so new to her. She had been so wrapped up in the idea of being a werewolf’s mate that she hadn’t considered all of the elements that would come with it.
She was part of a pack now. She had territory and rivals. Mila wasn’t entirely sure how she felt about that. She had never even owned real estate before, and for the most part, she got along with everyone, or at least, she used to think she did.
Mila heard the tap of footsteps and she turned, tilting her body to look past Asch. The pelts hanging over the doorway drew up, and an auburn-haired female stepped in. She was carrying Mila’s bag and a large tray, but all Mila noticed was the fact that she wasn’t wearing any clothes.
After she got over the initial shock of that, she tried to remind herself that werewolves didn’t typically wear clothes in their den. It was one fact that had always stuck out to her when she’d read Marie du Luponte’s memoirs, and the thought of it used to make her giggle and blush as a girl.
As a grown woman who had filled out a little more than she should have, the she-wolf’s nudity disturbed her. The woman’s muscles were toned, her stomach flat, and her breasts taut and perky. It distressed Mila to think that Asch probably saw this goddess of a woman every day and might be disappointed by Mila’s own curvy body.
“I have brought the human’s things,” the woman announced.
Mila didn’t know what she should take into contention first, being referred to as “the human” or the fact that the woman was openly glaring at her.
Asch turned and captured the woman’s gaze. Her unfriendly expression quickly melted into deferential regard.
“Set them down and take your leave,” Asch ordered. His tone was chilled, and it made Mila’s heartbeat quicken to see the woman shrink beneath his command. She quickly obeyed, setting the bag and tray on the floor and leaving without another word.
It was so strange seeing the level of control he wielded over his pack. He seemed so human when he spoke that it was easy to forget that he was an alpha wolf. She couldn’t help but wonder if the human side of him was just a façade, a role he was playing to lure her into a false sense of security. Would Asch eventually expect her to submit and obey him like his pack did?
“Are you hungry?” he asked.
Letting go of her hips, he moved to the doorway and picked up the tray. She followed him, her mouth salivating when she caught sight of the thick strips of cooked meat. There was also a glass of water, she noticed, as well as a knife and fork. She accepted it graciously.
“No promises on how it tastes,” he said, giving her an apologetic look. “The wolves aren’t really used to cooking their meat.”
“I’m sure it will be fine,” she told him, padding over to the cot.
She sat down, putting the tray in her lap, and quickly began carving the meat. She recognized the tangy smell of venison, something she had never tried before moving out to the fringes. She had woken up one morning to find her Aunt Gina helping her uncle gut a deer carcass on the front porch—not a memory she would soon forget.
The last time she had tried venison, it had tasted gamey. This meat was soft and delicious. It fell apart in her mouth. She closed her eyes as she chewed, letting out an appreciative sound.
She felt the cot dip as Asch sat down beside her.
Mila swallowed to clear her mouth, and then asked, “Can I have this every day?”
“Deer is scarce in the valley. We mostly eat fish from the river when we stay at The Cairn,” he explained. “However, I’ll make sure that you have a cut of any venison we get.”
He was looking at her with such affection in his hazel eyes that she felt momentarily alarmed. She hadn’t done anything to warrant such regard, and it was kind of scary.
Sensing her discomfort, he asked, “What’s wrong?”
Mila set the half-empty tray aside on the floor and laced her fingers together in her lap.
“You kind of scare me,” she confessed.
“Because I’m a wolf?”
She held up her hands. “No!” she said quickly. “It’s not that at all. I like that.” She blushed a little at the admission. She had never been a shy woman, but she found it hard to draw from her well of confidence around such a gorgeous man.
His sensual lips curved. “That’s good,” he said. “But then why?”
“I don’t know. It’s just hard to get an angle on you,” she told him. “I kind of threw myself into this whole thing without really considering the big picture. I liked the idea of being a werewolf’s mate, but I don’t have the first clue as to what you’re going to expect of me.”
His eyes lit up and he reached out, threading his fingers into her hair. Gently, he stroked her, his expression fond.
He told her, “When I heard the town was holding a lottery to decide who would come join our pack, I was worried they would coerce some unwilling girl.”
“They almost did.”
Mila told him how the entries for the lottery had begun before she came to Tye County. They had done a county-wide drawing in Terry Creek, the town she had been staying in with her aunt’s family.
She had been on her way back from the hairdresser when she noticed the crowd gathering in the town square. She had caught sight of Cora’s pale-blond hair in the cluster of townsfolk.
By the time she’d found parking for her car, the lottery had already begun, and they had just called Twyla’s name. Cora had looked embarrassed when Mila approached her, asking what all the fuss was about. Cora had explained that it was a lottery and Twyla’s name had been called.
“Wait, she just won the lottery?” Mila had asked, craning her neck to get a good look at the fuzzy-haired Wright girl. “Those don’t look like tears of joy.”
“Of course not,” Cora had whispered. “I reckon her daddy made her put her name in the bucket. Twyla Wright ain’t never even liked her own dog, now she’s got to go be a werewolf bride.”
As soon as Cora had elaborated on what the lottery was for, Mila’s legs had moved of their own accord in a frantic scramble. She swam through the crowd, pushing aside onlookers as she made her way up to the scaffolding where the mayor stood beside two of the town deputies.
Mila animatedly recounted the story while Asch took advantage of her distraction. He steadily eased her farther onto the bedding, and then he maneuvered her so that they lay side by side, facing one another. His calloused fingers were no longer in her hair but were lightly brushing her face in soft strokes.
“And so, that’s how I ended up here, more or less.” Her voice had grown thick with awareness of the alpha and the intimate position he had drawn her into.
“You were very brave.”
Hesitantly, she replied, “Not really.” A part of her wanted to keep up the pretense, but bravery had nothing at all to do with it. She had reacted entirely on impulse.
“Earlier you said that you were unsure of what I expected of you,” he reminded her.
Had she said that? It was so hard to remember with the sweet way he was petting her. His hands moved lower to skim the curves of her side. Everywhere he touched, her nerves stood at attention for him.
“I will provide for you completely. I’ll do everything I can to ensure you remain happy and healthy for the rest of your life.”
Geez, what’s with the audition? If this was how the handsome alpha planned on treating her every day, for the rest of her life, then she was sold.
“And in return, you’ll want kids, right?”
She still wasn’t sure how she felt about the idea of motherhood. She was a twenty-first century girl in her mid-twenties. She hadn’t really given much thought to being a parent, though she had always anticipated that she would be one someday. Bearing the alpha’s children was another one of those things she figured she’d deal with when it became relevant, which would hopefully not be too soon.
Asch snaked an arm round her waist, pulling her body against his. He pressed a hand in between them, splaying it over her belly. Nervously, she sucked her stomach in, hoping he didn’t realize just how much work her fitted dress was doing for her.
“It is something I have wanted for a very long time.”
His hand moved up to her hip and he tilted her, burying his face in the crook of her neck. She gasped in surprise as he nuzzled her neck, a rich vibration emanating from his chest.
“Why have you waited for so long?” she asked, trying to distract his attentions. Her breasts swelled and her nipples tightened behind the cotton fabric of her bra. Asch had said he wasn’t going to mate with her yet, but if he kept touching her that way, she wasn’t sure she would be able to hold herself to the same pledge.
Thankfully, he pulled back, eyes glowing with warmth as his face hovered over hers. She stared into his hazel orbs, enchanted. None of the men she had dated had ever looked at her that way.
Asch brushed a strand of hair behind her ear.
“My father was a beta male who left his pack to take a mate,” he said, his eyes darkening. “He selfishly believed that he was capable of caring for a mate and children on his own, outside of the confines of a pack.
“I would have sooner not been a father at all, than subjected my children and my mate to a life of hiding among humans and living in fear of being exposed.”
She stared up at him, not sure how to respond to his revelation. It made sense now that he seemed so human.
“It must have been rough, hiding something like that from the world. How long did you live with humans?”
“Until I was seventeen.”
“What made you decide to leave?” she asked. The pull of his wolf must have been very strong for him to discard a lifetime of living as a human in favor of pack life.
Then again, hadn’t she just done the same?
Asch sat up, pulling her with him.
“We can talk later,” he said. “We have plenty of time to get to know one another. Right now, you should rest.”
She nodded. He was right on both counts. She was exhausted, and they would have more than enough time to become acquainted. She only hoped that once he got to know her better, the alpha would still regard her with the same tenderness.
He reached behind her and tugged at the zipper of her dress. Her hands immediately flew up to halt him.
“Wait!” she exclaimed. Then, feeling sheepish, she added, “I thought you said you just wanted to sleep.”
His lips quirked. “I’d like to feel you against me while I rest,” he said. “It’s a wolf thing.”
He pushed past her feeble resistance, unzipping her. She averted her eyes. Everything from her neck to the tips of her ears was on fire, and her throat constricted with her anxiety.
She let him undress her like a ragdoll, keeping her head turned to the side. He lifted her rear from the bed and pulled the dress off. Her eyes snapped back to his when he deftly unfastened her bra, surprised at how comfortable he was with something that befuddled most human men.
The alpha gave her a lazy smile, his eyes drinking her in. He didn’t look like he was disappointed in her. It seemed as if he was admiring her body.
As if driving home her suspicion, he lowered his head to her chest, placing a lingering kiss on each of her full breasts. She stared down at his mass of copper hair and raised a hand to run her fingers through the wavy strands.
He pulled back from her and removed his shirt, revealing a sculpted, golden-bronze chest. She licked her lips at the sight but didn’t have long to admire him. He tossed the piece of clothing to the side of the cot and drew her into his arms before it landed on the floor.
He said nothing. He just wrapped her up against his body and fell into an easy slumber. She was amazed at how quickly he fell asleep even as her own eyes began to droop. No worries clouded her mind as she rested in the alpha’s arms, warmed by the beams of sunlight from her window and the heated flesh of her soon-to-be mate.