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Curse Me Wicked

Curse Me Wicked

Аннотация

    From The Mammoth Book of Scottish Romance.


Elle Jasper Curse Me Wicked

    Village of Dunmorag, North West Highlands, Scotland, October
    “So you think you can handle this one, huh, newbie?”
    I glanced at Paxton Terragon, the arrogant, senior field agent I’d been training with for the past three months. He was in his mid-thirties, wore white spiked hair and looked like Billy Idol. I narrowed my gaze, sick to death of being called newbie. “Hell yeah.”
    Pax laughed, grabbed the keys from the ignition, jumped out and slammed the door. I did the same and Pax peered at me over the top of the car. “Fearless Ginger Slater, WUP’s most notorious risk-taking newbie field agent is ready for a little action, huh?”
    The agency we worked for, WUP – Worldwide Unexplained Phenomena – had partnered me with an idiot. A biting wind whipped across the car park and sank clear to my bones, and I pulled the edges of my leather jacket closer. I frowned at Pax. “I was a shape-shifters/curses specialist for two years prior to joining WUP so lay off and let’s go.” As I rounded the back of the Rover, my eyes searched the grey, bleak village of Dunmorag.
    Pax chuckled. “So you have a couple of years behind you and what?” He cocked his head and stared at me. “Think you’re ready?” He shook his head and popped the hatch. “I’ve been at this for ten years, newbie, and trust me – you’re never ready.”
    I met Pax’s stare for a few seconds, told him to eff-off in my head, grabbed my pack and shouldered it. Then I really took a good look around at the secluded Highland village. Desolate was the first word that came to mind. Half-dozen grey stone and white-washed buildings hugged the pebbled crescent shore of a small lake – rather, loch. Beyond the village were the Rannoch Moors, which were even more desolate than Dunmorag. Tufts of dead grass, brown heather and rock stretched for miles. Far in the distance, dark, craggy mountains threw long shadows and loomed ominously. The skies were grey. The moors were grey. Even the water in the loch was grey. Well, black.
    Foreboding. That was the second word that came to mind.
    “You gonna stand here all day and take in the scenery or what?” Pax asked.
    I gave him a hard look, which he ignored and instead inclined his head to the pub behind us. “I’m ready,” I said, shifted my pack, shrugged my leather jacket collar closer to my neck, and together we crossed the small car park. The wind bit straight through my clothes and I shivered as I stepped on to the single paved walk that ran in front of the stores. I glanced down the row of buildings. A baker. A fishmonger. The post office. A grocer. An inn and a pub. And absolutely no people around. Weird. Very, very weird. Good thing weird was our speciality.
    A black sign with a sliver of a red moon painted on it swung above the pub on rusted hinges, and the creaking noise echoed off the building. In silver letters the sign read The Blood Moon. Pax pushed in through the double red doors – quite befitting, the red – and I followed. Inside, it took my eyes several seconds to adjust to the dimmer light. A hush fell over the handful of people gathered in the single-room dwelling. “Guess we found the villagers,” I whispered to Pax. Everyone stopped what they were doing, or saying, to stare at us. No one uttered a word.
    I glanced at Pax, then all around, until my eyes lighted on the man behind the bar. He had dark, expressionless eyes, reminding me of a shark’s, and they bore straight into me. His head, shaved bald, shone beneath the pub’s overhead light. He said nothing. I walked up to him and met his gaze. “We’re looking for Lucian MacLeod,” I said. “Know where we can find him?”
    The bartender shot a quick glance to someone behind us – I don’t know who – before returning his heavy gaze to me. “He’s no’ here,” he said, his brogue so thick I barely caught all the words. “Best you and your friend just go.” He stared. “Lucian willna be back anytime soon.”
    I smiled. “Could you just point us in the right direction? We came a long way.”
    The bartender looked first at Pax, then back at me. “From America, aye?” he said, regarding both of us. Then he leaned across the bar, his hard gaze settled on me. “You know the moors, do you girl?”
    I shrugged. “Not really but we can find them. Why, is that where he’s at?”
    “Callum, dunna do it,” an older woman said in a hushed voice from a table near the window. She looked at the bartender, but not me. “’Tis wrong.”
    Callum shot the woman a hard look.
    “Look, Callum,” I said. “Lucian contacted us for our services, so,” I leaned forward, “why don’t you just tell us where to find him and we’ll be on our way.”
    The bartender studied me for several seconds before answering. “He’s on the far north of the Rannoch Moors, in a little stone bothy,” he said. “’Tis the only one out there. But I’m givin’ you fair warning, lass,” his voice dropped. “Get your business done and off the moors by nightfall. If you canna find MacLeod, leave.”
    I held his gaze. It took a lot more to frighten me than a moor warning. Besides – ole Callum had no idea what we were used to. “Thanks.” I glanced at Pax and inclined my head towards the door. “Let’s go.”
    Outside, I swear the wind felt ten degrees colder. And it had started to rain. Freaking great.
    “Food.” Pax wasn’t asking, he was telling. His gaze wandered up the walk.
    I glanced first at my watch, then gauged the darkening sky.
    “There’s no time.”
    Pax swore, then headed towards the car, muttering something about fish and chips and beer.
    I followed, and as my stomach growled – yeah, I was hungry too – I looked up the one-track lane of Dunmorag, at the bleak buildings, the grey skies, at The Blood Moon pub. A sharp gust of wind whipped by and I squinted against its harshness. An uneasy feeling crept over me. Something wasn’t right; something about this whole case didn’t sit well with me and I couldn’t put a finger on it. And something about Dunmorag wasn’t right, either. Creepy. It was just so freaking creepy.
    It made me wonder just who Lucian MacLeod truly was. To say he’d been vague when he’d called the agency was an understatement; he’d simply asked a few questions, requested a specialist in curses and paid a hefty fee up-front just to procure that specialist. But it was his final plea that had stuck with me when we’d spoken on the phone; you’re my last hope. I don’t know if it’d been the desperation in his voice, or the words themselves; either way, I found I was fascinated. Even if it meant suffering a trans-Atlantic flight and three hours in the car with Pax Terragon, I was still enthralled and interested to sit down and find out the full scoop on Lucian’s problem – whatever it was.
    We left the dreary Highland village behind, with only four and a half hours left of daylight – if that’s what you called it – and headed for the even drearier moors.
    “Crisp?” Pax asked, shaking his chip bag at me.
    “Let me get this straight,” I said, turning sideways in the seat to look at my partner. “You stick your hand in the bag. You pull out a chip; put it in your mouth. Lick your fingers. Then back in the bag they go.” I shook my head. “I’ll pass.”
    Pax laughed and crammed several more chips into his mouth. “Whatever, newbie.” He jerked a thumb towards the window. “Doesn’t look like we’ll find anywhere out here to eat.”
    I glanced around the barren moors and decided Pax was right. There wasn’t anything in sight, in any direction, except dead heather, grass and rock. Several brown bunnies had shot across the one-track lane but that was it. No other signs of life existed. Heavy grey and black clouds had claimed the waning afternoon light, throwing the moors into a weird sort of eerie, shadowy hue. The rain had continued, a light drizzle, but constant. I pressed my palm to the window’s glass and shivered at its coldness. The temperature outside was dropping. By nightfall, with the rain? Almost unbearable. I preferred the warmth, sunshine, sandy beaches and crystal-clear waters. Neither cold nor gloom ranked as one of my top five faves but both seemed to go hand-in-hand with WUP assignments. Go figure.
    “There it is,” Pax said, pulling me out of my thoughts. I glanced in the direction he pointed, across the moors, to a small, single-storey stone cottage. A mist had drifted in and settled like a sheet of wispy fog over the dead clumps of grass and heather. Smoke puffed out of the chimney. “MacLeod’s here.”
    “Looks like it,” I answered. What the bartender call it? A bothy? It was the only dwelling around, so it had to be it. “Turn there,” I said suddenly, noticing a narrow lane veering off towards the cottage. “Has to be the only way over there.”
    “Right.” Pax followed the dirt and rock lane as it wound across the moors, straight towards the bothy. Several minutes later we pulled in front of the cottage, parked, and jumped out. I reached the door to the cottage first, so I knocked.
    No answer.
    I glanced at Pax, then knocked again – louder. “Mr MacLeod?” I said, close to the door. “It’s Ginger Slater from WUP. We spoke on the phone?” I put my hand on the door knob and Pax stopped me.
    “Never enter a situation without your gear, newbie,” he said, and shoved my pack at me, and I was surprised to see he had his stunner – a ten-inch stainless steel electric probe that packed enough voltage to bring down a horse, or a madman – palmed. Pushing ahead, he opened the door and stepped inside. Feeling like an idiot, I followed. The interior was dim, save the fireplace which had something – not wood – smouldering in the hearth. It smelled earthy. One lamp burned in the corner, next to a recliner and side table; a book lay open, pages face down, spine creased outward. A beer bottle sat beside it.
    “MacLeod?” Pax said, his voice stern, throaty, a little threatening. “You in here?” He glanced at me, pointed across the room, then inclined his head towards a hallway, and I nodded. As I pulled my own stunner from my pack, he disappeared down the hall, and I eased towards the only other room visible. I stopped at the side table and grasped the beer bottle; it was still cool and half-full. My fingers tightly gripped the hilt of the stunner, I held my breath, and pushed open the kitchen door.
    I never saw inside the room.
    A figure lunged at me, knocking me backward several feet where I landed hard on my back. My stunner flew from my hand and skidded somewhere across the floor. I couldn’t scream – the air whooshed from my lungs in one gush, my eyes widened, but I saw nothing but … mass. Bulk. Shadow. Eyes. It hovered over me, blocking my view, crowding my body, my senses. I couldn’t breathe as it was but fear paralyzed me even more. What the hell? Then, in the next instant, the figure leapt and was out the door. Rolling to my stomach, I turned, coughing and sputtering as I tried to call out but the air wouldn’t come. Whoever had just knocked me over was strong as hell – and gone.
    Pax emerged, his stunner raised. He glanced at me. “You okay?”
    I nodded and waved, still a little in shock, and Pax nodded once before he disappeared out the front door.
    It was no more than three minutes before I finally caught my breath enough to stand. Then, I got up, found my stunner against the wall, and ran after Pax.

    As I stood outside the cottage, peering through the now-soupy Highland mist and darkening skies, my mind raced wildly, and I recalled Lucian MacLeod’s phone call. How experienced are you with curses? Creatures? How strong is your stomach, girl? You’re my last hope … It hadn’t made much sense then – I’d had cases with curses before, and a few involving shape-shifting. Both were handled similarly by binding the victim and searching for the correct curse-reversal – or shape-shifter cure. I’d had one victim shift into a hawk right before my eyes—
    A long, deep sound of an animal baying broke through the twilight and mist; it raised the hairs on the back of my neck and quickened my pulse. As my gaze raked slowly over the ground, I fished inside my pack, felt the cool steel beneath my palm, and withdrew my crossbow. I saw nothing out of the ordinary as I assembled the bow and loaded the clip with blades. But a sense of foreboding filled me, choked me, and my insides shook as I eased away from the cottage. I couldn’t see a damn thing through the mist; barely my own hand in front of my face. The constant drizzle and heavy mist weighed my hair down, soaked through my jeans, and although twilight was nearly at its end, I eased on to the moors. No way was I hanging out at the cottage alone.
    “Pax?” I called out, picking my footing carefully, straining my eyes as I tried to make out my partner’s form. “Hey? Where are you?” Dammit, he couldn’t have gone too far. We were in the middle of nowhere.
    Within minutes my slow movements had carried me far enough away into the mist that I could no longer make out the cottage. Thick white surrounded me, and at once I caught the distinct sound of breathing – heavy breathing – not far from me.
    “Pax?” I called again. “Come on, you’re freaking me out.”
    The breathing drew closer.
    And became an angry snarl.
    I was being stalked. My heart leapt, and I turned and changed direction. That noise hadn’t come from my partner – that much I knew. Pax was an ass but he wasn’t stupid. I began to hurry, my pace quickening, and just when I thought I was making some ground, it came again.
    Closer.
    My grip tightened on my bow as I raised it; while I wanted to run like hell, I knew it’d do no good. Something was on the moors, in the mist, with me. I swallowed – hard. It didn’t help. My heart beat so hard and so fast I could hear it out loud. I waited.
    “Gin, run!”
    I whipped around and saw the hazy shape of someone moving towards me; Pax’s voice spilled over the foggy white, commanding me to run, but I couldn’t. I stood frozen in place, confused, scared. I looked up, and only then did I notice the moon above me; it was crescent in shape, and – I blinked my eyes – red. The damn thing looked red.
    “Ginger, goddamit, get the hell outta here!” Pax yelled, panic making his voice shake.
    I watched as he grew closer, his features clearer, and finally, I turned. I had no idea what direction to run in. I glanced back. “Pax, I—”
    Something large, something dark, fast, leapt from below the mist and pulled Pax down. He screamed, so shrill and so terrifying that it made my blood feel cold. An awful crunching sound echoed through the fog.
    One last, horrifying, gurgling sound emerged from my partner before the silence hit. Silence, save the heavy breathing that definitely didn’t belong to Pax.
    Whatever had been shut down in me now flickered to life; I turned and ran. Blindly, as darkness now sifted through the mist and red hue from the moon. My boots scuffed clumps of heather and grass as I hurried, but it didn’t mask the sound of footsteps behind me. Footsteps and that damned breathing. Finally, with my heart in my throat, I stopped, dropped to one knee and lifted my crossbow. I stared down the site and waited.
    I didn’t have to wait long.
    With a deep growl and heavy breath, a massive figure lunged from the mist at me; I didn’t wait to see who or what it was. I fired three rounds before it landed on me, and the pain of two sharp blades piercing straight through my leather jacket and into my shoulder made me cry out. The blades sank clear to the bone, and the intenseness of it made me nearly pass out. Suddenly, the mass was shoved off, another figure appeared above me, and a pair of angry, lethal amber eyes glared down. Then, my vision fogged. Fiery pain ripped through my body just before a wave of suffocating blackness swept me into nothingness.

    Heat. Fire. Skin burning. I sat up with a harsh breath, confusion taking over my brain and making me dizzy. I put a hand to my temple to stop the swirling, but it didn’t help. I opened my eyes but everything looked blurred, fuzzy, out of focus. My skin – Jesus, it felt like it would burst into flames – burned sickly hot. I tried kicking out of whatever covered me and I quickly found I hadn’t a stitch of clothes on. Not even panties. Totally naked and I couldn’t care less. I was smouldering.
    “Lay back.”
    I turned my head towards the voice, but could see nothing more than a hazy figure in shadows. “Where am I?” I asked, struggling to stay up. I dug the heels of both hands hard into the mattress; my arms still shook. “Hot,” I said, trying to move. “Burning up.”
    A firm hand pressed against my chest and with the slightest of pressure, eased me back. “’Tis your DNA altering,” the voice said, deep, raspy, and heavily brogued. “It will get worse.”
    What the hell was he talking about? DNA? I didn’t care – I just wanted relief. “Water,” I said, my throat dry. I wanted my body extinguished. “Bath. Shower. Ice.” My eyes drifted shut.
    Strong fingers pushed the hair from my face. “It willna help.” Agony washed over me, and blessed shadows dragged me back under.

    A crackling and snapping noise awakened me and when I opened my eyes, I instantly noticed the pain had subsided. I blinked several times to clear my vision; foggy and disoriented at first, then slowly, the room came into focus. I stared hard at my surroundings. In the hearth, a low fire glowed, and again I noticed the earthy scent it released. The flames gave the room a tawny hue, and shadows played against the bare stone walls. A single lamp burned in the corner, on a side table next to a leather recliner.
    I sat straight up and gasped, breathless, as recognition and memories assailed me. WUP. Assignment. Scotland. Moors. I glanced around once more.
    I was inside Lucian MacLeod’s cottage.
    Worse memories – recent ones – assaulted me and my body jerked as they crowded my mind. Pax. Baying. Creature. Pain. Bones crunching.
    “Pax!” I shouted, although it came out gravel, hoarse, broken. I struggled to untangle myself from the bed covers, anger and fear causing a sob to escape. “Pax—”
    “You’re partner isna here,” a deep, brogued voice came from the shadows. “’Tis only you.”
    I pulled up the sheet to cover my nakedness. “Who the hell are you?” I asked, scanning the room for the speaker. “Where’s my partner?”
    Then, a slight movement from a darkened corner caught my eye; a figure rose and moved into the firelight. Dark, wavy hair brushed his shoulders; a white, long-sleeved shirt, loosely buttoned, hung casually untucked against a pair of worn jeans. A pair of silvery-blue eyes stared down at me. A small scar, just below his left eye, marred otherwise flawless pale skin.
    “I’m Lucian MacLeod. Your partner is dead,” he said, matter-of-fact and seemingly without remorse. His uncanny gaze bore angrily into mine. “You were no’ to come here.”
    I stared, disbelieving, yet … I knew. Those sounds hadn’t come from a surviving victim. I still questioned it. “Dead?” I asked, and suddenly I was afraid – of Lucian. I wanted to run, get away. Panic gripped my insides. “What do you mean?” I slid slowly to the edge of the bed and swung my legs over. I briefly wondered where my gear bag was and I gave the room a quick scan but didn’t see it.
    “You’re no’ the same, Ms Slater,” he said. He didn’t move. “Not the same person you were when you arrived. And you’re no’ leavin’ here.”
    I leapt from the bed and hit the floor running, sheet pulled tightly around me. I didn’t know where I thought I was going, barefoot and naked, but I was going.
    I was caught and slammed against the wall before I ever got close to the door. Lucian’s large frame towered over me, crowded my body with his and sufficiently trapped me; he placed a hand on either side of my head then lowered his head to look me in the eye. I breathed hard, my heart slammed, and I stared furiously back.
    “You’re no’ listening, Ms Slater,” he began slowly. “You’re no’ leaving.”
    “The hell I am,” I ground out, and pushed against him. It was like trying to move a rock. It only made him draw closer.
    “What do you remember about that eve on the moors?” he asked, his eyes lowering to my mouth. “Tell me.”
    My mind spun and suddenly, the memory returned. I immediately lifted a hand to my shoulder. “We came here looking for you, but you were no where. There was a lot of thick mist, and Pax – he chased someone out of here. He was attacked. By a big dog maybe. I couldn’t tell what it was.” I lifted my chin and met Lucian’s gaze straight-on. “It turned on me and I shot it.”
    Lucian’s hand moved from the side of my head to my bare shoulder. Calluses raked over my skin, and I couldn’t help it – I shivered. “You were bitten.” He grazed the flesh again. “By a wolf.”
    My gaze left Lucian’s and I glanced down, at my shoulder. His fingers brushed over two puncture marks; the skin puckered but healed. I looked back at him. I couldn’t have heard him right. “What?”
    “You’ve been here nearly three weeks,” he said.
    My knees gave out and Lucian caught me. I sagged against his body, felt the warmth – intense warmth – of his arms around me as he lifted me. He carried me to the bed and settled me down. He leaned over me, and his hair brushed my collar bone.
    “You were never supposed to be here,” he said, his raspy voice sounding regretful. “Only Agent Terragon.” He shook his head. “I requested just him. No’ you.”
    I didn’t understand; nothing made sense. A freaking wolf? The flames from the hearth flickered and caused shadows to play against Lucian’s face, making his already-forceful stare even weightier. I was mesmerized by it. His face, I mean. He was … beautiful. It bothered me that I even noticed. I quickly looked away, cleared my throat, and pulled the sheet taut across my breasts.
    “Why?” I asked, needing to know more. Needing to know what was so important that Pax had to die. “Why did you call WUP? And why didn’t you tell us what we were walking into?”
    Lucian turned his face from me and shoved a hand through his hair. “How well versed are you on ancient curses, Ms Slater?” he said, facing the wall.
    I sighed and looked at his back, watched the material pull across his shoulders. “I’m a new agent. I’ve only studied curses for a couple of years, and have been training with Pax for just a few months.”
    He turned then, his face all sharp planes and shadows. All except his eyes. They literally glowed. I gasped.
    “I didna mean for you to get involved,” Lucian said, his voice grave. “We only wanted help.” Grasping his shirt tail, he lifted it, exposing a long, lean abdomen ripped with muscle – and a fresh, healing wound in the shape of a ragged star, just at his ribcage. His head raised, his gaze met mine. “You shot me, Ms Slater.”
    I blinked, stunned. My mind reeled, thoughts pounding the inside of my skull until it ached. “That thing was not you,” I said, almost a whisper.
    “Aye,” Lucian said. “It most certainly was.” He stared down at me. “And within the week, ’twill be you, as well.”
    My body went numb with shock; it was too much to take in and I wasn’t positive I believed any of it. Inside, I began to shake. I’d not been ready to take on an assignment. I was too new – a newbie. Pax had been right all along. I was treading in unfamiliar territory now and doing it totally alone.
    “Here,” Lucian said, tossing a bag onto the bed. “Get dressed. We’ve things to talk about and time’s runnin’ out.”

    We sat at a well-used oak table in the kitchen, across from each other, and I was on my third – yes, third – hamburger steak. No bread, nothing else but the meat. I was ravenous and could have eaten the whole cow, if given it. I felt guilty for eating, yet I couldn’t make myself stop.
    A single bulb hung over the table, leaving the tiny kitchen barely illuminated. Lucian regarded me closely while I ate, watching every move I made. More than once he followed my fork to my mouth and let it linger. It caused my insides to grow uncomfortably hot. Outside, the rain continued, the wind picked up and slashed at the cottage’s window panes. Every so often a lightening bolt would flash and light up a darkened corner. I don’t know why but I kept thinking I’d see something horrifying. I didn’t. Finally, I’d had enough and I pushed my plate away.
    “Thanks,” I said. I looked at Lucian. “Why can’t I remember the past three weeks?”
    “You’ve been transitioning,” he replied, lacing his fingers together on the table. “Your DNA is altering at a high rate. Your core temperature rises and it exhausts your body. You mostly slept.”
    I nodded, liking the way his r’s rolled, then looked at him. Hard. “Did you kill my partner?”
    “No.”
    My gaze never left his. I didn’t believe him. “You tried to kill me.”
    He leaned forward, his voice dropping low. “You dunna know what was behind you when I leapt at you.”
    My blood ran cold; a new memory hit me. “I remember you falling on top of me, and someone else shoved you off.” I thought hard. “I remember angry, amber eyes.”
    “’Twas Tristan. My kinsman,” he answered.
    My eyes stretched. “There are more of you?” I shook my head, scrubbed my eyes, then met his gaze. “Who are you?”
    Lucian sat back and crossed his arms over his chest. “Let’s just say I was born this way,” he said. “A verra long time ago. ’Tis my MacLeod bloodline, no’ a curse. We have honour. A code. Rules we abide by.” He shoved a hand through his hair. “But there are others. Dangerous rogues. Lawless, with no regard to human life. At first, there were very few.” He looked at me. “But they’ve bred. They’ve bitten. And they’re out o’ control.” His eyes smouldered. “They kill for nothin’ more than reckless pleasure.” He shook his head. “I’m sorry I couldna save your partner. But there were more than one and it was either him, or you.” His gaze pinned me. “I chose you.”
    I felt glad, and that made me feel guilty. “What happened to Pax’s body?” I asked. “What about WUP? Didn’t they come looking for us?”
    “Aye,” he answered. He rose and walked to the window and peered out. “Another agent came, after I called. He looked about, asked a few questions, and left.” He glanced at me over his shoulder. “The others – they took your partner.”
    “Took?” I asked incredulously, rose and set my dishes in the sink. I crossed the room and leaned against the wall – a safe distance away from Lucian. “What do you mean?”
    Lucian stepped towards me. “They did no’ kill him. He’ll become one of them.”
    I stared, and then, strange as it sounds, I laughed. “You’re kidding me, right? We have both become monsters?”
    “You’re not a monster,” he said, his voice almost a growl, his brows furrowing into an angry frown. “We come from an ancient noble bloodline of Pict warriors. We’ve vowed to protect humans at all costs – even with our own lives. ’Twas the price our ancestors paid for our lineage.”
    I pinched the bridge of my nose, closed my eyes for a few seconds, then opened them again. I stared hard at Lucian. “You keep saying we. Who’s we?”
    “My clansman. There are six of us. You, despite being a mistake, make the seventh.”
    Once again, shock froze me. “So that’s it? Like it or not I’m a MacLeod wolf by association?”
    He moved so fast my eyes barely kept up. One second Lucian was standing several feet away, in the next less than three inches separated us. He lifted his hand to my shoulder and pressed the pads of his fingers against my wound. “’Tis by much more than association, girl. You’ve got my blood rushing through your veins now and there’s no’ a WUP agent alive who can cast it out of you.”
    I could feel my heart race at his touch; my skin heated several degrees and I tried to move past him. He wouldn’t let me. I felt his eyes on me, studying me with such intensity I had no other choice but to look at him.
    “What do you want from me?” I asked. I found myself breathless in his close proximity. I felt hysterical tears push behind my eyelids. “What am I supposed to do?”
    Lucian’s silvery-blue gaze regarded me for a long time before answering. “For now, you rest. You’re goin’ to need it.” He moved away. “Then, we train.”

    For the longest time that night, my eyes remained wide open. Hours maybe. Lucian had left the bothy, but I knew he was close by – maybe just outside the door, probably waiting for me to go to sleep. I got the sense that he knew me way better than I knew him; almost as though he could read my thoughts, knew my fears, and strangely enough, consider them.
    I stared at the dark wooden beams of the ceiling and let my thoughts ramble. Had Pax known about the ancient rogue curse, and about Lucian’s clan, would things have turned out differently? Would he be now transitioning into the very thing he hunted? I shivered at the thought of Pax’s fate; I hated it. It was weird, though. Part of me felt like WUP had abandoned us. The other part, though, knew they’d done exactly what they had to do. Pax and I had both been well aware of the risks involved in being a WUP agent and part of that risk was maintaining the agency. I suppose I’d never considered being bitten by a wolf.
    “Do you have family?”
    I hadn’t even heard Lucian enter the bothy, but he had; he now stood just in the recesses of the shadows of the room. I’d not noticed the storm that had begun raging outside; it was there, scratching and clawing the windows of the cottage. “No,” I answered, sitting up. “Not really.”
    “What do you mean?” he asked, his voice strangely seductive, raspy, deep.
    I strained to see him. “Foster kid. You know, in the system? A ward of the state. I was shuffled around from one foster home to another until I was eighteen. Then, I was on my own.”
    Lucian was quiet for some time before answering. “It’s better if you’ve no family, no one to miss you,” he said, and moved closer. I could see nothing more of him than an outline; yet I felt his gaze hard on me. “No previous life ties.”
    “What’s it like?” I asked out of nowhere, intensely curious about what my body was going through.
    Again, Lucian was quiet. “As your body changes, your senses will heighten. Your hearing mostly and sense of smell. You’ll gain mortal strength – which you’ll have to learn control over – as well as your wolf self.”
    I considered that; it was hard to take in. A myriad of random thoughts hit me at once. “Where am I supposed to live?” I asked. “How the hell will I earn money? Support myself?” Those along with a million other thoughts crowded my brain. “This is insane,” I muttered under my breath. “Not happening.” I rose and walked to the single window facing the moors; a red hue illuminated the night sky.
    Then, Lucian was there, behind me, not touching but so close I could feel the heat radiating off his skin. “Aye, ’tis happening,” he said, his voice low, and his breath brushed the side of my neck and made me shiver. “You will say goodbye to your old life, Ms Slater, mourn its loss, and get over it.” His hands grasped my shoulders and turned me around. His eyes flashed silver in the filtered light. “This is your life now.”
    The way Lucian’s illuminated gaze bore into mine mesmerized me. I know it sounds crazy, but I felt as though I’d known him my whole life. And, as strange as it sounds, even before then. We stood in the shadows of the bothy – I had no idea what time it was – and stared. I’m not sure if he waited for my acceptance, or a reaction, or if we were simply trapped in a powerful moment. I didn’t care. There was a palpable, physical attraction – so strong it felt feral and unlike anything I’d ever experienced. He hadn’t released my shoulders, but his grip loosened and now, it felt intimate and hesitant at once. I wasn’t sure if my new senses had kicked in, or if it was because we stood so close, but I could hear Lucian’s heart beat. It was a strong, steady sound that reverberated inside my head and overpowered every other sound in the room. His hands slid from my shoulders to the column of my throat, then cradled my face. My heart beat quickened.
    “You weren’t supposed to be here,” he said again, his brogued, raspy voice low and strained. “But once you were, I knew I could never let you leave.”
    “What do you mean?” I asked, my voice barely above a whisper. I wanted to touch him, but I kept my hands balled into fists, hanging at my sides.
    His thumbs grazed my jaw. “MacLeod wolves mate for life,” he said, his head lowering. “We’re marked from birth, as are our mates. Sometimes, the pair never encounters, and they spend eternity at a loss,” he nuzzled my neck with his chin, whispering in my ear. “The mark at your left shoulder blade,” his lips brushed the shell. “I’ve an identical one. Destiny brought you here, Gin, to me, and I’m verra sorry – I couldna let you go.”
    I stared up at him, entranced, excited, completely drawn to him. “You bit me on purpose,” I said softly, and I knew the answer before it came.
    “Aye,” he said against my ear. “I did.” He nuzzled me again, his cheek to mine. “’Twas the only way to make you mine.”
    Timidly, I lifted my hands to rest against his chest, and then slipped them higher, to encircle his neck. Gently I tugged him closer.
    I didn’t have to ask for anything else.
    Lucian’s mouth found mine, settled there and lingered; he breathed deeply, and his heart’s pace quickened. With a gentle nudge, he pushed my lips open with his, our tongues touched, and a low groan escaped his throat as he pulled me hard against him and kissed me. Desperation laced every taste; agonizing, intense sexual attraction raged within him – I could feel it. It raged within me, as well, and I fell against him, dying to be closer, feeling as though we were already one, needing more.
    Lucian, as though he could read my thoughts, walked me backward, our mouths never parting and together we fell to the bed. My clothes burned me, I wanted them off, and Lucian obliged. I felt out of control, and I grasped his shirt and yanked hard; buttons flew, and I pushed the material off. He managed his jeans, and barely fast enough. Finally, nothing separated us and Lucian moved on top of me, his weight pressing into my body; I revelled in the feel of it.
    He looked down at me, his face sharp planes and shadows. Bracing his weight with his elbow, his other hand lifted to my face. With his fingers, he traced my lips, my chin, my throat. “You’re mine, Ginger Slater,” he said. He lowered his head and brushed my lips. “Mine,” he whispered hoarsely against them, and my heart raced, my breath quickened, and I shoved my hands into his hair and kissed him hungrily. Lucian groaned and kissed me back, starving, his touch desperate and everywhere, and I wrapped my legs around his waist and opened for him; he took me, pushed deep inside of me, filled me.
    “Lucian,” I whispered against his mouth. “You’re mine.”
    He sighed, whispered – a language I did not know, words unfamiliar to my ears, then kissed me and began to move; slow at first, then becoming frantic, as though he couldn’t get enough, and I matched his rhythm with my own frenzied moves. The orgasm started deep within my core, slowly built through every sensitive nerve-ending in my body, and then shattered within me; a thousand shafts of light splintering into tiny specks behind my eyes. I held on to Lucian as he followed. I felt his orgasm grow, explode, and he wrapped both arms around my body and held me as our releases calmed, our heartbeats slowed. He rolled on to his back and dragged me atop him, my breasts resting against his chest, our skin melding into one. He lifted a hand to my cheek; his thumb grazed the line of my jaw, then he slid his hand around my neck and pulled my mouth to his and kissed me long, slow, erotic. His other hand slipped over my buttocks, my back, and settled in the lower curve there, holding me firmly in place. Then, he broke the kiss and looked at me for several moments.
    “I couldna just let you go,” he said quietly.
    I traced his full lips with my index finger. “I wouldn’t have wanted you to.”
    We needed no more words; just our bodies melding, our hands exploring, our mouths tasting. We joined again, slower this time, so much slower, seductive, both of us silently claiming the other. Finally, we slept.
    It was the only night I slumbered without nightmares of Pax.
*   *   *
    Over the course of the next week, Lucian slowly introduced me to my new world, my new body, my new senses. I’d not be able to master them all for some time; my hearing was exaggerated and sometimes hurt my ears and insides. My sense of smell was so good, it overwhelmed me and I couldn’t determine one smell from the other – except for Lucian’s scent. His was unique and solely Lucian’s and I could detect it a mile away. My strength and speed was immature but growing fast; almost too fast. I tripped, I fell, I hurled myself to speeds which my old body couldn’t handle yet. I busted my ass more times than I could count. But Lucian was right there to help me up.
    Each night, we made love and fell asleep wrapped in each other’s arms. Each night, I dreamt. Pax pursued me in his human form, always in a heavy mist, always through a dense wood. The white fog slipped through the trees and brush like long reaching fingers, and I ran hard, stumbling and not in control of my new speed and strength. Pax, for some reason, was. His white spiked hair appeared behind every tree, every rock, as though he toyed with me. And every time, he’d catch me, back me against the base of a tree. This is your fault, newbie. I’m here, trapped as an abomination, all because of you. I don’t know whether to thank you or rip your throat out. I’d awaken, shaking violently, breathless, just before Pax shifted into his wolf form and lunged at me, teeth bared. I kept the dreams from Lucian. I thought I could handle them, or that they’d just go away. I was so very wrong.
    It was weird, mine and Lucian’s relationship. I felt completely at ease with him, as though we’d known each other forever. He’d had nearly three weeks to come to terms with the fact that I was his marked mate; I’d had about twenty-four hours. Still, I accepted it readily and willingly. It felt … natural, as though my life was to turn out no other way other than here, in the Highlands of Scotland, with an ancient Pict warrior-wolf. It felt even more natural to become one. I can’t explain it without sounding like a lunatic, but there you go.
    Lucian and I left the bothy the last day of my transition and travelled north and west to the MacLeod stronghold. Situated on a sea loch, the massive grey stone fortress, complete with four imposing towers, dominated the seascape. It literally robbed my breath.
    “You live here?” I asked incredulously. I glanced at him.
    Lucian laughed, and reached over and grasped my hand. “Nay. We live here.”
    My heart swelled at his words. We’d not exchanged the L-word yet; somehow, it just didn’t seem right. But we’d both claimed one another, and the word mine sounded nearly as powerful, if not more so, than the word love. There would be an adjustment period, for both of us. But of one thing I was absolutely positive: we were meant to be together.
    Lucian pulled onto a single-track gravel lane that led to the massive front doors of the castle, and before we had the Rover in park, five big guys emptied the entrance and made their way towards us. All dark-haired, with bodies that looked like they swung axes and swords and kicked ass for a living. They made their way towards us.
    Lucian glanced at me and laughed. “They won’t bite.”
    I looked at him and raised a brow. “Doubt that.”
    I climbed out of the Rover, slammed the door, and faced the MacLeods.
    “Gin, my brothers. Arron, Raife, Christopher, Jacob, and Tristan.”
    Arron walked up and embraced me; the others followed. “Welcome,” Arron said, his eyes flashing quicksilver.
    “About time we had a lass around the place,” Jacob said, and the other laughed.
    The MacLeods welcomed me, and as it was with Lucian, the same held true with his brothers. It felt like I’d known them my entire life.
    The MacLeod fortress entailed no less than 200 acres and the shoreline, and inside the castle, a modernized habitat befitting of an ancient wolf clan of Pict warriors. Primeval mixed perfectly with contemporary. It was mind-numbing to think how long ago Lucian and his brothers were born; how long they’d lived.
    They prepared me for my transition that night; in all honesty, there wasn’t much they could do except stand by and wait; help out if needed. Lucian warned me the first time was painful, and he apologised more times than I could count. He held me in his arms, kissed me, smoothed my hair from my face, and promised to not leave my side until it was over.
    By nightfall, as the moon began to rise, Lucian and his brothers walked me to the shore line, encircled me, and waited. I immediately knew it had begun when my skin began to itch. I felt as though I wanted to crawl right out of it, and I clawed and scratched at my arms, my neck, my abdomen. My temperature rose, higher and higher until I thought I would self-combust. My skin was on fire, and I began to pull at my clothes. No matter that it was October in the Highlands; I was hot. I didn’t have time to yank them off, either. I felt my skeleton give way, the popping and rubbing sounds reverberating inside my head. I cried out in pain, and in my peripheral sight I saw movement and knew it was Lucian. He stopped abruptly, and didn’t advance further.
    My heels and long bones shifted, elongated, contorted, and just when I thought I couldn’t take the pain and heat a second longer, I fell to the ground, let out a low, long, bay, and it was over. I leapt up, shook my body, and met the silver gazes of six other wolves, their shaggy dark coats glistening in the moonlight.
    We ran that night, my new brothers, my mate and I. We ran from the west coast of Scotland clear to the east, along the shores of the North Sea, and it was invigorating, mind-freeing. My new body rocked with sensations and I wanted to keep running. I saw everything through my new eyes, and it was as though I saw the world for the very first time. Lucian ran beside me, his silvery blue gaze watching me closely. We spoke to each other in our minds. He never left my side. At some point, exhaustion overtook me, we made it home, and I fell hard asleep.
    When next I woke, I was in my human form, tucked closely against Lucian’s body. The sun had not yet risen and I felt invigorated. I wanted to explore the shore, so I slipped from our bed, quickly dressed, and headed outside. No one else stirred. I was the only one awake.
    The brisk Highland air greeted me, along with a healthy dose of mist. I found it strange not to be cold, but my core stayed at over 100 degrees, so there was no need for a jacket. I breathed in the air, sweet with clover and something else I couldn’t name, and I took in my surroundings. On the left side of the gravel lane, a meadow and at its edge, a dense copse of wood filled with towering pines and oaks.
    Then, I saw it. Through the slender ribbons of mist I saw something white move into view. I stared, my newly sharpened vision trained on the spot. Before my brain registered what my eyes saw, I knew it. Pax. He waited for me. Without a thought, I took off towards him at a jog and by the time I reached the wood line, I was at a full run. Pax had disappeared.
    I eased through the trees, the canopy above keeping out any light that may have filtered in, and I searched for Pax. Deeper into the wood I moved, determined to settle things with my old partner. Surely, no matter his fate or mine, we could come to terms. We’d been partners. We’d sort of been friends. He’d watched out for me. I knew, despite the awful dreams, he wouldn’t hurt me.
    In the next instant something heavy slammed into my body and I was knocked hard against the base of an aged oak. I was turned abruptly and when I looked, the man who pinned me against the tree was not Pax. I frowned, shoved and cursed. “Get the hell off of me,” I growled and shoved my knee into his balls. “Now!”
    He sucked in a breath but quickly recovered. “Oh, no, love,” he said, his accent thick, his tone full of hatred. He pushed me hard against the tree. “We’ve been waiting at the chance to get at Lucian MacLeod and his brothers and you’re it.” Without warning, he punched me – caught me right in the jaw and my head snapped back and slammed into the hard wood of the tree.
    I glared at him. “He’ll kill you,” I said, my pitch lowering.
    The man laughed. “Right. We’ll see about that.”
    Four other men emerged from the wood. One of them was Pax. He ambled up to me, his eyes laced with disgust. He pushed the guy away from me and leaned close to my ear. “You did this to me, newbie,” he said, just like in my dream. “I can never go home now. I’ll never see my wife again, thanks to you.” His breath brushed my neck. “I’ve half a mind to just rip your throat out now instead of letting these assholes use you to bait your mate.”
    I met Pax’s hard glare. “Do it,” I said. “Stop talking about it and do it.”
    A low growl escaped Pax’s throat, and in the next second he shifted into his wolf form. His fangs, dripping with saliva, hovered close to my ear and my throat. In my head, I imagined myself in my wolf form; nothing happened.
    In the next second, in a flurry of fur and fangs, a pack of nearly-black wolves entered the wood at full speed. The men with Pax shifted and the fight began. I was knocked to a tree where I fell to the ground, crouched and watched.
    I couldn’t make myself change. I was helpless.
    The melee was horrific. Bones crunched. Blood. Cries of pain. No human words met my ears, but I heard them in my head.
    Then, a large wolf with a band of white on his chest charged me. It was Pax. I knew it. And I was no match for him. I rose, my back against the tree, and kept my eyes trained on my old partner.
    Just before he lunged, a large black wolf leapt from out of nowhere and slammed Pax to the ground. They fought; fangs gnashed, massive claws raked, bodies smashed into one another. The black wolf was Lucian – of that I had no doubt. With a final agonizing cry, Pax’s neck was broken, and Lucian – God, it was awful – tore into his throat.
    Then it was over.
    Lucian moved towards me, shifted and stood naked before me. He was covered in Pax’s blood. Anger radiated off of him. Anger and relief.
    “Let’s go,” he said, and grasped my hand in his, threading his fingers through mine. “This is over,” he said, and squeezed my hand. “For now.”
    Together, we walked back to the hall where Lucian bathed and got dressed. One of Lucian’s brothers cleaned up the aftermath while Lucian explained to me what was to come. I can’t say that I was shocked.
    “I’m verra sorry about your partner,” he said, folding me into his embrace. He rubbed my back, a rhythmic motion that calmed me instantly. “He was no longer himself, you understand that?”
    I nodded against his chest. “Yes.”
    He looked at me long, searching my eyes. “There are others from all over the world, no’ just Scotia. We go where we’re needed. We fight to protect innocents. And you are one of us now, Gin. Your skills will grow and you’ll become as fast, as strong as I.” He kissed me then. When he pulled back, his gaze all but worshipped me. “But you’re not there yet, and I’ll no’ take any more chances with your life. You’re mine,” he whispered against my mouth, then brushed his lips across mine. “And I’ll no’ leave your side until you have full control over all of your new powers.” He rested his forehead against mine. “I canna lose you, Gin. You’re mine forever.”
    Lucian MacLeod then completely enveloped me in his arms, pressed his mouth to mine and kissed me long and slow, his tongue brushing mine, causing my heart to race, my breath to catch. I kissed him back. Again, he mouthed the words against my lips that he’d said the first night we’d made love. I pulled back and looked at him.
    “What does that mean?” I asked, nipping at his lower lip.
    The intense longing in his eyes made my knees weak. “It means I’ve found you, my love, at long last.” He smiled, kissed me and nuzzled my neck. “I’ve waited centuries for you, Gin Slater,” he said softly. “My warrior wolf. My mate.”
    As he drew me into another long kiss, I knew my life was forever changed. I didn’t know what it had in store, but I knew that as long as Lucian MacLeod was there with me, I could handle it. Gladly handle it.
    It was the longest, most sensual kiss I’d ever experienced.
    And he was all mine
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