Ann Gimpel has woven a tale of unforgettable love which spans two continents and reveals the shadows where our nightmares live. From the old country to the new world, one woman learns you cannot change who and what you are in a quest for everlasting love.
Relegated to a shadowy existence of half-truths, Gwendolyn lives in fear her wolf side will be discovered. She leaves the Old Country with Hunters nipping at her heels, but things in the Americas aren’t any better. Eighteenth-century society is just not kindly disposed to either shifters or witches.
Mikhail, the love of her life—except the relationship always felt pretty one-sided—has been missing for a hundred years. When he shows up after escaping imprisonment from an abbey in Austria, Gwendolyn is ecstatic to see him. But she’s afraid nothing’s really changed. Victimized by superstition and running for her life, she’s sure she’ll never be able to emerge from the shadows.
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The full moon rode low in the sky, clinging to the horizon far longer than it should have. A blood-red cast made it eerie and threatening somehow. Gwendolyn threw back her head and howled along with all the other wolves in her shifter pack, but something about the moon was so ominous that hackles rose along her back.
High, wailing shrieks, shrill as banshee cries, split the night. Her nostrils flared, scenting the air. Humans. Humans had found them. Not humans, Hunters. Humans wouldn’t interfere with a wolf pack as large as hers. They’d be torn to bits reloading their muskets, and they knew it. Before she was even done thinking, Gwendolyn put her head down and ran, keeping to the shadows of a thick Austrian forest.
Shots rang out, lending her speed she hadn’t realized she was capable of. Howls, growls, and snarls faded as she put distance between herself and the ambush. Her breath left white plumes in the cold night air. She kept running. It was what they were supposed to do. She’Lara, the One Wolf and their leader, had said it often enough. “Do not let yourselves be captured. Hunters will bind you with iron and interrogate you. When they are done, they will kill you. Better to die free.”
She didn’t know how long she ran. Her wolf side wasn’t any good at judging things like that. She stumbled and knew how tired she was. Her flanks heaved as she willed herself to keep going. The scent and sound of rushing water filled her senses. She realized it had been there for a while, but she’d been so focused on possible pursuers she hadn’t been paying attention. Without warning, the earth before her fell away. She stuck out both forelegs to break her fall, skidding on her haunches. It didn’t help. She tumbled down a steep embankment right into the muddy Danube.
Her thick wolf’s coat shielded her from the water’s chill as she let the river carry her downstream. If anyone was looking for escapees from her pack, a few more miles between her and the Hunters wouldn’t hurt.
Gwendolyn clawed at the bank and pulled herself out of the water. The sky was lightening in the east. Shifting in broad daylight was risky. It upped the odds of discovery. Given the surprise attack, staying in wolf form didn’t feel any too safe, either. She shook herself from head to tail tip and then did it again. Clothes would be a problem. She’d left hers near where her shifter pack had gathered—miles from her present location.
She looked at the sky again and made her decision. She did not want to ride out the coming daylight hours as a wolf. Smoke stung her sensitive nostrils. That meant people lived nearby. Melting into the deeper darkness between two gnarled oaks, she gave her body the command to shift. The first thing she noticed was how cold she was. And a sharp thorn under one of her feet. Human bodies were fragile. Because her wolf self had been wet, her human form was too, which meant her long, copper-colored hair clung to her head and shivering body.
Good. Maybe I can tell whoever I find that I fell into the river and nearly drowned.
Yes, but that won’t explain why I’m naked.
Sitting still would be a death sentence. She’d freeze. It was late autumn. Even if the sun did come out around mid-morning, it wouldn’t carry much warmth. Gwendolyn took off at a trot, cursing as rocks and brambles cut into her feet. Nostrils twitching, she scented the air for the smoke she’d smelled as a wolf, but couldn’t find it. She shut her eyes. What direction had it come from? Where there was smoke, there were bound to be people.
“Lady!” A man dressed in tanned deer hide breeches and jacket stepped noiselessly out of a thicket. His dark eyes were wide and shocked. Blond hair hung down his shoulders and an unkempt blond beard obscured the bottom half of his face. “What has happened to you?”
She shielded her body as best she could with her hands. “I fell in the river a long ways upstream. I-I must have hit my head and passed out. When I finally pulled myself from the Danube, it was just back there.” She jerked her head over one shoulder, not wanting to move her hands.
“Where are your clothes?”
She felt color rise from chest to face. “If you must know, my husband took them. He was angry because I did not make supper last night.”
The man’s blond brows drew together. “And did he perchance help you into the river?”
Gwen hung her head and nodded. This was going even better than she’d hoped.
“Here.” He tugged his leather top over his head. “Put this on. It should cover your, ah, woman’s parts.”
“Thank you.” She pulled it on. It smelled of sweat and poor tanning, but at least it was warm.
“I have a place not far from here. My wife will find clothes for you.”
“Thank you again.”
* * * *
Gwendolyn dug in the dirt next to her front door and came up with a key. She shoved it in the lock and let herself inside. Her feet were cut and bruised, but the rest of her seemed none the worse for wear. It had taken her the better part of two days to walk home. She would have made better time if she’d shifted, but didn’t know if she could risk it.
Herbert, the man who’d rescued her, and his wife, Isolde, had been more than kind. She’d stayed with them for a few days, working off the debt she would incur once she left with an item or two from Isolde’s meager wardrobe. Like many country dwellers, Isolde had only a single pair of shoes. She’d offered them, but Gwendolyn had refused. It was bad enough she’d taken one of the woman’s two dresses.
She lit a fire in the stove and then went outside to pump water from the well. She needed to bathe; she could smell herself. As she worked, she realized how lucky she’d been. She hadn’t been raped or set upon by highwaymen. And she was still alive. She wondered how many of her shifter pack had survived.
Nostalgia washed over her. She thought back to when she’d been truly young. Shifters were free to be themselves then. No one persecuted them. They could take their animal form without fear. She’d been born in 1263. It was now the year of our Lord, 1621. “Not my Lord,” she muttered, annoyed with herself for using the phrase even in her thoughts. Gwendolyn wasn’t young anymore, but she expected to live another several hundred years. Shifters had long lives—unless they spent too much time in their animal form.
She poured another kettle of steaming water into her washtub and looked critically at the water level. It would be nice to add another kettle or two, but she didn’t want to wait any longer. What was there would have to do. She stripped off Isolde’s dress and lowered herself into the tub, wincing as the water sluiced over her damaged feet.
Hunters had shown up after the Church got stronger. A combination of clergy and hired thugs, they searched for those like her with Bloodstones. The stones, created with holy water, prayer, and dark magic, turned rosy whenever a shifter was close by or bright red when there were several. They’d made it ever so much more difficult to evade Hunters and their ilk. Before, all she’d had to do was bat her lashes, show a bit of cleavage, and flirt. That didn’t work if someone was holding a stone that gave her away.
She leaned forward to wet her hair before the water got too dirty and reached for a bar of her lye soap. Shifters had fought back, but they hadn’t been organized enough. And bear, wolf, bird, and cat shifters had never gotten along terribly well. They were as likely to kill one another as their Hunter enemies.
Gwendolyn dunked her head and worked the soap out of her hair. Gloom settled in her stomach like a brick. The pack was her family. She needed to find out who was left. Surely She’Lara had survived. The One was immortal. Her heart lurched in her chest as she thought of Mikhail. She’d loved him forever, but he saw her as more of a little sister than a lover. They’d met when she was just thirteen, right after her first shift.
She snorted as she stood and stepped out of the tub. If three hundred and forty-five years wasn’t enough time for him to decide he wanted to court her, she didn’t suppose he ever would. She’d played the seductress, and it had gotten him into her bed. Many times. But he left just as easily with nary a word of love nor commitment. Gwendolyn pulled a length of linen off a wall hook and dried herself.
Getting dressed was easy. Unlike Isolde, she had lots of choices. Picking through her armoire, she pulled out a black wool skirt and blue linen shirtwaist. Since it was chilly, she layered a wool cape over everything. Being the local midwife meant she always had enough to eat and money for cloth to make clothing. She perched on the edge of the bed to inspect her feet. They’d be a problem. She lit a candle and worked on first one and then the other, picking debris out of deep cuts. She cut strips from the bandages she used for her midwifery trade so they’d be ready. Then she gritted her teeth and poured whiskey over the open wounds. They stung like the devil.
Once her feet were bandaged, she looked for shoes. As she’d feared, none of them would fit over the wrappings. “Damn it,” she snapped. She needed to find others from her pack, but if she tried to walk very far on her damaged feet, they might never heal. Foot wounds were dicey, maybe because they were so far from the heart.
She blew out a disappointed breath and settled into a chair. If things went well and they didn’t get infected, her feet would be well enough in a few days for her to leave home. Maybe if she got lucky, one of her kin would find her before then. Gwendolyn eyed the whiskey bottle, snatched it, and took a long drink. The liquor burned all the way to her stomach. She swallowed again, gave in to a bone-deep weariness, and let her eyes close.
* * * *
Mikhail stood shoulder to shoulder with She’Lara. At least ten dead Hunters lay at odd angles around them. Some had died curled in agony. Others had bled out from wolf bites to their necks where it was easy to snuff out a life. A man in russet monk’s robes hovered just out of reach. He was the last one. All his fellow exterminators were dead. The Bloodstone in his hand glowed ruby red. He made the sign against evil and chanted in Latin.
Mikhail growled. He hated the priest. Wanted to tear his throat out. This had to be the leader of those who’d attacked them. The man was a coward. Mikhail could smell his fear.
“Easy.” She’Lara spoke into his mind. “Do not risk yourself unnecessarily.”
His gaze, sharp with a wolf’s night vision, swept the clearing. He counted nine dead wolves. Fury vibrated in his belly. Heedless of anything but killing the one responsible for tonight’s outrage, he gathered himself. Powerful rear legs launched him right at the priest’s chest. His jaws closed over the man’s neck before the two of them hit the ground. Blood, hot and salty, geysered, staining Mikhail’s fur. He reveled in it. He’d kill every last one of the ignorant human churchmen who threatened them if he could.
“Enough. He is dead.” She’Lara knocked him away from the corpse with her front paws. “Follow me. We will not bring our kin back by jeopardizing ourselves.”
The One Wolf led him to her lair tucked into the foothills of the Austrian Alps. The moment she’d turned north, he’d known that was where she was headed. Shielded by shifter magic so ancient it had almost fallen out of memory, her cave was almost the only place they’d be safe from prying eyes and ears. Mikhail stopped at a creek running near She’Lara’s home. He drank deep and then ducked his head and paws in a clear pool to wash off the gore.
He shook water from his coat and padded through the illusion that hid the cave’s entrance. The One was stretched in her usual spot on a raised dais.
“I need your human mind.”
Mikhail inclined his head and instructed his body to shift. He had different abilities as a human. The wolf was more intuitive; the human more rational. Because he needed light in his human form, he sent a tendril of magic toward torches made from tinder-dry vegetation, placed in She’Lara’s cave for just such visits. They blazed merrily, casting golden pools of light.
“How many did we lose tonight?” He squatted, leaning against a wall for balance. “I counted nine, but you will know.”
“Eight. The last one will recover.”
His lips pulled back into a snarl. “Unacceptable. We do not produce enough children to replenish ourselves.” He hesitated. The next question was hard, but he had to know. “Gwendolyn. Does she still live?”
She’Lara nodded and the breath whooshed out of him. Mikhail’s relief was so tangible it almost hurt. “You must let go of this infatuation. You are my Second. You can never wed.”
Mikhail opened his mouth and then closed it again. They’d had a variant of this conversation untold times. Shifter magic had weakened over millennia because so many of them had mated with humans. He was Second because the power still ran strong in him. It wasn’t a responsibility he could sidestep.
He changed the subject. “What are we going to do about the Hunters?”
The One shook her head. “I do not know. We may need to migrate to the Americas. I fear if we remain here, they will hunt us to extinction. Their powers are growing because the priests are dabbling in black magic.”
“Have you tried again to join forces with other shifter packs?”
She’Lara growled. “Yes, and this is what I got for my trouble.” She moved slightly to show him a deep gash in her back leg. “Before their One chased me off, he warned me bears would never parlay with us. Pah! They are so stupid.”
“What about the cats and birds?”
A rolling whuffle that passed for lupine laughter filled the small space. “I thought I’d wait until my wound healed. But I am not hopeful.”
Mikhail shivered. He had some seer ability, but when he’d tried to look into the future at the last full moon, all he saw was blackness. It had frightened him so badly, he hadn’t engaged in what was normally a monthly ritual since.
“You are trembling. Come lie next to me, Second.” She’Lara stretched out on one side. “I will keep you warm.”
1727 – 106 Years Later
“Come on, sweetling.” Burke captured her hand, shoved it between their bodies, and tried to curve it around his cock, which was sticky with their combined fluids. “Won’t be light for hours yet. We got lots of time.” He ran his tongue up her neck before plunging it into her ear.
Gwendolyn pulled away. “I told you. You have to be gone before midnight. Besides,” she said, laughing indulgently, “we’ve had a pretty good time.” Her body still tingled from his mouth and fingers. It wasn’t that she couldn’t have made love all night, but tonight was special in ways he’d never understand. She’Lara would come tonight. It was All Hallows’ Eve. The One Wolf always came then.
“I don’t get why I got to leave?” He sounded sulky. “You got another man on the side?” He cupped her chin in ungentle fingers. “Better not. ’Cause then I’d have to kill the both of you.”
Something running beneath his voice made her shiver; Gwendolyn realized she really didn’t know him all that well. He’d shown up in Salem a few weeks ago. Hadn’t told her much of anything about where he’d come from. But men often didn’t feel they had to explain themselves—at least not to a woman.
She forced herself to keep her voice light. “No other men, silly. You keep me busy enough for three. There’s a baby coming next township over. It’s not her first, so she’ll likely go pretty fast. Anyway, I promised I’d be there.”
“But it’s the middle of the night.”
“Babies have a way of showing up during the dark hours. I’ll take a horse from the stables.” Gwendolyn rolled off the bed, located her flint, and got a gas lamp going, keeping the flame low. She could feel his gaze tracking down her naked body as she moved. It was like something rough scraping against her. Her skin crawled. An ominous light burned deep in his eyes, ratcheting her uneasiness up a few notches.
Was he a Hunter? She glanced at his pile of discarded clothing. She hadn’t felt anything like a Bloodstone’s characteristic vibration, but there was no way to search for it. He’d have to be asleep for that.
She turned away to retrieve her shift and stays, and conceal her discomfiture. She and her kin had been run out of the Old Country by Hunters over a hundred years before. Churchmen and their hired thugs had gleefully taken on the task of clearing what they called Satan’s Spawn from decent society. As the Church had gotten richer, it had been able to buy more elaborate dark magic and more of the damnable Bloodstones.
“Turn around and face me,” Burke’s voice rasped. When she looked, one hand pumped his shaft. The other cradled his balls.
Wanting to hurry things along, she dropped her underclothes on a chair, turned toward him, and filled her hands with her breasts, tweaking her nipples between her fingers. For the briefest of moments, Mikhail’s face shimmered before her, and the ache whenever she thought of him battered her. He doesn’t want me. He’s never wanted me. Dunning herself for being a lovesick fool, she shuttered her longing.
Strands of her coppery hair were in the way, so she bundled them together and shoved them behind her shoulders. Her skin gleamed white in the lamplight. Bronze-tipped breasts graced by taut nipples jiggled as she pushed her chest suggestively toward him.
He gasped, presumably at her wantonness. His hand moved faster; his breathing became ragged. His hips strained upward, and his smoothly muscled body—broad-shouldered and slim-hipped—stood out against the white of the sheets. He really was gorgeous. Silky dark curls splayed over his shoulders. Hazel eyes with green and gold flecks in them gleamed with lust. And he had an amazing cock. It was long and so thick it took both her hands to encircle it. Coming didn’t seem to dampen his enthusiasm at all, which had been a plus when she’d first started fucking him, but her ardor had all but evaporated. Fear clutched at her belly. If she were right and he was a Hunter…
“Frig yourself, woman. I’m close.”
Anything to get him out of here. Obligingly, she stuck two fingers in her mouth and then buried them in her mound. With dread as an added condiment, there was something incredibly sensual about watching him bring himself off. It got her going, too. She’d only intended to feign passion, but found herself rubbing her clitoris almost as hard as he was jacking himself. She knew what she liked. One finger on each side so she could coax her sensitive tissue into an orgasm. Her legs shook.
Burke groaned. His balls snugged against his body, and then he was coming. Long, lazy arcs of white spattered his chest and stomach. Gwendolyn’s hips thrust against her hand. Her other hand tweaked her nipple, twirling the hardened point so it got even stiffer. Just a little more and her own climax took her. It started deep in her belly and turned her insides to molten heat. Fluid gushed down her legs.
She stood there gasping and shaking. Got to get going. Her inner voice was stern. There are penalties for being late.
Gwendolyn retrieved the undergarments that had fallen from the chair to the floor and dropped the shift over her head, following it with the whalebone corset that she laced up the front.
“Ever do this for money?” he sneered.
“What?” Shocked, her fingers stilled, and she stared at Burke. “How could you even ask a thing like that?”
“Well, you seem pretty practiced, is all.”
“Get your clothes.” Her voice was cold. “I have to leave and you can’t stay here. If you don’t think I’m any better than a whore, you can forget about coming back.”
“Didn’t mean nothing by it.” Bedsprings creaked as he moved.
Like hell. First he accused me of having other lovers and then of being a harlot. She slapped a lid on her thoughts. If he were a Hunter, he’d be able to read them. Icicles formed in her blood. Had she thought about She’Lara since he’d arrived earlier in the evening? She bit hard on her lower lip, realizing she had. Only once, but that once might see her bound with iron or burned at the stake. Burke spelled danger with a capital D. Why hadn’t she seen that before?
He didn’t move very fast getting his clothes on and gathering his few things. It was like he was testing her. Trying to push her into making a mistake. She swallowed her fear and honeyed and sweetied him along until finally she stood in the deep shadows of her front porch and turned the skeleton key in her door. Midwifery bag clutched in one hand, she started for the stables. She didn’t need a horse—that and the baby had both been lies—but the last thing she wanted was more delays. Her wolf form pressed against her humanness, wanting out.
Footsteps sounded behind her. “Tomorrow?” His hand grasped her wrist. Hot breath grazed her ear.
“Ah, sure.” She held her breath. Would he fall for it? It would be a cold day in hell before he got back into her bed.
“That’s my girl. Don’t even think about crossing me. Be there around ten.” He patted her ass before loping around the building and disappearing into the night.
She blew out her tightly held breath and walked purposefully toward Salem’s stables. The horsey odor met her long before she could see it. Using her wolf senses, she fanned magic around her to make certain he hadn’t doubled back to follow her. That could spell disaster.
Nope. I’m all alone. Thank the goddess for small favors. She wondered if he could truly be a Hunter. Insofar as she knew, they hadn’t migrated from the Old Country. But anything was possible. Being a lycan in the Americas was almost as difficult as it had been in Europe. Witch Hunters were every bit as lethal as shifter Hunters had been. Gwendolyn wasn’t certain, but they seemed interchangeable. She still had to hide her true nature and move often enough so her long life didn’t attract undue attention.
Shifters and witches were in the same boat: both pariahs. The whole Salem Witch Trial thing had been nerve wracking. And it had given the Bloodstone-carting pious new ideas about how to kill those like her. They’d added burning to binding with iron. Of course, she hadn’t been living in Salem during the trials, but news traveled. Thirty-five years later, witch fever hadn’t abated. Anytime a man got tired of his wife, all he had to do was haul her in front of the local clergyman, accuse her of witchcraft, and voilà! He’d cleared the decks for a brand new—usually much younger—spouse.
She slipped around the stables, buried her midwifery sack between a couple of hay bales, and took off at a fast trot for the nearby woods. Wolf howls rose into the foggy chill of the late autumn night. Yes. I’m coming. I’m coming. Her excitement soared, making it hard to breathe. She loved being a wolf. But if she stayed in wolf form, she’d sacrifice her extraordinarily long lifespan, trading it for ever so much less. The only one among them who was truly immortal was The One. Gwendolyn had no idea where She’Lara went the rest of the year, but she always showed up on All Hallows’.
Someday, she promised herself, I’ll just stay a wolf. If all I do in my human form is wonder who’s out to get me, it’s not worth it.
As soon as she hit the edges of the dense forest bordering the Atlantic seaboard, she ducked between some trees, shimmied out of her clothes, tucking them between branches in a blue fir, and let the change take her. As her trunk lengthened, limbs drawing under it, she welcomed the warm fur sprouting where smooth skin had been. Her first deep breath as a wolf always filled her with amazement. A myriad of scents bombarded her: small rodents, the stink of Salem, marsh grasses. And her hearing, intensified many times over, brought the welcome sounds of prey scurrying. They knew a pack of wolves was about to hunt.
Jaws spread in a wide grin, tongue lolling, she didn’t waste time glorying in her lush black and gray coat. The only things that stayed the same when she shifted were her eyes: a deep, dark blue. Gwendolyn raced eagerly toward her brothers and sisters. They’d welcome her. They always did. For one bittersweet moment, she wondered if Mikhail would be there. She hadn’t seen him since leaving Austria. Pale fur and ice-blue eyes would be hard to miss in a sea of black and gray.
Not long after that horrible night when she’d fallen into the Danube, She’Lara had told all of them it was time to move to America. They’d staggered their leave-takings over several months so they wouldn’t attract undue attention in case any of the Hunters were watching them. She’d only seen Mikhail once during that time, a few days before her ship sailed. He’d seemed as if he wanted to tell her something, but in the end he’d just said he’d find her in New Amsterdam. She’d waited for him for nearly twenty years, haunting the docks, but he’d never arrived. There were limits to how much she could age herself with plant dyes, so she’d finally been forced to move on.
The clean scent of the pack filled her nostrils, and then she was in the midst of maybe fifty of them all jumping and baying and howling. Lycans came from the whole eastern seacoast for All Hallows’. Paws pummeled her. She rolled on the ground, nipping and licking as one after another of her kin closed to greet her.
Joy flooded her. And deep sorrow. Why couldn’t they live openly as what they were—like they had at the beginning? It wasn’t until the Church had risen to ascendency around 1300 that things had turned rotten. At first, only the clergy had hunted them down. As Church coffers had filled from forced tithing, others had joined in the Hunt, glad to accept money in exchange for genocide. Not so different from the witch trials, she thought for the second time that evening.
“Daughter. Why are you late?”
Gwendolyn scrambled to get her paws under her. On her feet, she bowed low, knowing the voice belonged to She’Lara. “Apologies. I could not get away from a human.” She paused. “I think he may be a Hunter.”
A hissing growl filled the air. Gwendolyn raised her gaze to She’Lara. The One Wolf was pure black with golden eyes. Her fur hung almost to the ground. “That is not good news. How long have you known? And why did you not summon me?”
“I just figured it out tonight.” Confusion swirled. “I thought we weren’t supposed to think of you at all. To maintain secrecy and keep you safe.”
“Hunters change everything.” Another snarl. “Others of us have reported them here of late. We will talk more of that later.”
Gwendolyn held herself still, waiting for what would come next. A rustle from thick undergrowth caught her attention. It sounded like another tardy lycan. Even though it was petty, she was grateful she wasn’t the only late one. Her magic wasn’t as strong as some of the others; she’d always tried to make up for that by being dependable and following She’Lara’s edicts.
“Has it been so long you no longer recognize me?” a deep voice sounded in her mind. She leapt into the air, twisted halfway round, and landed facing an enormous white wolf with silvery markings.
“Mikhail.” Beyond words, she rubbed her muzzle against his.
“Gwen. My sweet Gwen.” His mind voice sounded strained, choked with emotion, but maybe it was her imagination.
She wanted arms to hug him, but that part would have to wait. A million questions tumbled through her mind. They would have to wait, too. He nudged her with his snout and, reluctantly, she turned back to She’Lara.
All the other lycans had arranged themselves in a loose semicircle around The One.
The air was thick with tension. Gwendolyn wondered what She’Lara had said before she’d shown up. Everyone seemed to know something she didn’t.
“It is time,” She’Lara said, “for us to claim our destiny. Hiding in the shadows is not working any better here than it did in our homeland. Our numbers were not large to begin with. Three of us were tracked down and killed this last year. By Hunters. We must join forces with other shifters. Mayhap even with the witches—if they’ll have us.”
Gwendolyn raised a paw, but She’Lara shook her head. “Just listen. All shall be revealed in due time.”
She felt the heat of Mikhail’s body as he moved next to her, their flanks touching. Unbelievably grateful to see him again, she leaned into him and tried to convey her love without using words. When she’d tried to tell him how much he meant to her before she left for America, he’d changed the subject. He licked her snout and then turned his attention back to The One.
“…and so each group of shifters has one like me. One who remains primarily in animal form and does not die. I have been in contact with many like me since last we met. They are more receptive than they were in the Old Country. I believe they are ready to strike. I have yet to approach the witches. But they would be natural allies. And their magic blends well with ours.”
Almost as a unit, the wolves threw back their muzzles and howled. The moon was nearly full, half-hidden behind clouds. Gwendolyn howled, too. But she felt frightened. What did She’Lara’s words mean? Surely they weren’t ready to take on the whole of the human race. They’d lose. There were too many—
“After our celebration tonight, you will return to your human lives as if nothing had happened. At the next full moon, we will all meet again, but in Plymouth. Other shifters will join us.”
Gwendolyn recognized the name of the town. It was several days’ journey south of Salem. She wanted to know more. Hadn’t She’Lara said all will be revealed? She’d scarcely said anything.
“Daughter, guard your thoughts. I said all will be revealed in due time. You could be captured by that Hunter you described and tortured. It is best this way. Do you trust me?”
“With my life, Mother.”
“Then join your fellows. The goddess has blessed us with this night. Do not waste it on worry.”
“Come.” Mikhail, who’d stood shoulder to shoulder with her while she talked to The One, bit her playfully. “It’s time to hunt.”
They ran down a buck. And then another. Gwendolyn loved the feel of her incisors closing over still-living meat, of the hot blood that ran down her chin, soaking her fur. Mikhail never left her side. By the time dawn was just starting to lighten the eastern horizon to a dingy gray, she’d gotten up her courage and ginned up a list of things to ask him once they were human again.
“Where are your clothes?” he asked.
“Back that way.” She glanced at the sky. “I’ll be lucky to get to them before it’s daylight. It should be all right, though. So long as no one stumbles by and sees me.”
“Wait once you’re dressed. I will find you.”
She touched his snout briefly with hers. “I will.”
Gwendolyn settled into an effortless lupine lope that could eat up miles. It took her some time to locate the tree where her clothes were. She had to do it by smell since she was well below the level where she’d stuffed her things. It wasn’t as light as she’d feared it would be, and she stood by the tree for a few moments before giving her body the command to transform itself. It always felt better to go from human to wolf than the other way round. She’d never understood why.
The young day was cold. She missed her fur coat immediately and wrapped her arms around herself as she settled in to wait. Time passed. A feeble sun crested the horizon. She didn’t understand why Mikhail didn’t come. A familiar, heavy sadness settled in her chest. He hadn’t come to his senses and decided he loved her. No, he’d probably just wanted to tell her hello properly. But what the hell had happened? Had he run into someone he liked better? She didn’t care much for the jealousy that curled around the base of her spine like a poisonous snake.
Finally, not thinking she could risk waiting any longer, Gwendolyn set off for the stables, unsure if she’d be able to retrieve her midwifery sack without someone noticing. She could always get it after nightfall, but what if someone’s baby came unexpectedly? It would be tough to explain why her bag was wedged between two hay bales.
She tried to think of something besides Mikhail, but it was a losing proposition. She still loved him. And he could care less—
She twirled, heart in her throat. And then Mikhail’s arms were around her, and he crushed her to him. Her arms wound around him with a mind of their own. Her face was wet with sudden tears. She heard the steady beat of his heart beneath her ear where her head lay in the hollow between his shoulder and collarbone.
“I-I had to leave. It was getting light and…”
“Hush. I understand. I’m sorry. She’Lara needed me. The conversation turned into an argument before I could free myself. I told her you were waiting. She said I’d be able to find you in Salem if I missed you here.”
Gwendolyn twined her hands in his white-blond hair. It hung loose halfway down his back; strands slid through her fingers like silk. Had he changed his mind about her? Or was that wishful thinking on her part? She took a deep breath and stepped away. They could talk later. “We need to get moving. You’ll command interest since no one here knows who you are.”
“We will tell them I’m your brother from New York, come for an extended visit. I’m a healer—”
“They’re starting to call them physicians here,” she interrupted.
“Very well.” He rolled his eyes. “You wrote and asked me to help you relocate to Plymouth. Since I am your only remaining blood relative, I raced to your side.”
“Might work. People will wonder why I never mentioned I had a brother, though.” She smiled at him and was gratified when his ice-blue gaze flared warmly. Clean-shaven as always, his cheekbones stood out above a strong jawline. Mikhail’s beauty had an ethereal quality. She’d always wondered if he had Fairie blood mixed in somewhere.
He draped an avuncular arm around her shoulders, squeezed, and propelled her forward. “So, sister of mine, how long have you been in Salem?”
“About five years. I was in the last place for twenty. Needed to fake my death and move on. Told fortunes there. Here, I deliver babies and do sewing for single men.”
“Is that all you do for them?” He tilted his head toward her and quirked a brow.
Heat crept up her face. “What’s that to you? As I recall, you chased after anything wearing skirts.”
He shrugged. “We need to talk. For that we need privacy. Who knows who might overhear us out here?” He gestured expansively with the arm that wasn’t locked around her.
The outskirts of town came into view. Mikhail withdrew his arm, and they walked companionably side by side.
“I have to stop to collect my things if I can.”
He looked as if he wanted to ask a question, but instead said, “Maybe I can help.”
“It’s this way.” She pointed toward the large, wooden building with paddocks behind it.
That garnered an odd look, but she pressed on. Time enough for explanations soon. As she’d feared, the stables were bustling with activity.
“I can create a diversion,” he murmured, stepping forward to where the stable master was overseeing the morning deployment of horses, carriages, and drivers.
Grateful, she spun a small don’t look here spell and jimmied her valise out of its hiding place. Her magic wasn’t strong enough to fool someone with sharp eyes, but no one tested it. Striding around to the front of the building, she linked arms with Mikhail. “Did you get what you needed, brother?”
The stable master smiled at her, an unusual occurrence. A perpetual scowl usually graced his florid complexion and double chins. He shoved greasy, red hair behind his ears. “Fine man, your brother. Sure the two of you don’t want to stay here? We might could use another physiker.”
Gwendolyn flashed him her best smile while trying not to breathe too deeply. Mister Caldwell didn’t believe in baths, and the odors of stale sweat and horses clung to him like a bad hangover. “We’ll be sure to talk about that.” She turned her gaze on Mikhail. “Ready? You must be tired.”
He gave a credible yawn. “Now you mention it, I am. After you.”
As soon as they turned down her street, she noticed something white flapping on her door. Gwendolyn ran ahead to see what it was, fearing someone needed her to help with a baby. The note had Don’t Forget scrawled across it in practically illegible writing.
Damn! She ripped it down and crumpled it. Her hand was shaking.
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